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Distant Shores

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CHAPTER III

 

July, 1982

"What's goin' on?" Starsky's eyes took in the sight of the suitcase by the chair, of Hutch slipping on an old leather jacket. "You think you're goin' somewhere?"

Hutch looked up, his expression sheepish. "I didn't expect you to be stopping by." He drew a shaky breath, then his voice hardened. "Guess I should have. It would be typical of you."

Starsky knew he had to say something before something irrevocable happened. But he didn't know where to begin, how to stop Hutch from drawing away. "Sorry. I don't mean to act like a mother-hen or something. Never did..." His voice trailed off. He was so tired, so sick of feeling ill-equipped to handle Hutch.

Hutch shrugged, as if nothing mattered. "I know. Listen... I'm sorry, buddy." He glanced up, meeting Starsky's eyes for an instant, then pulling away again. "I was going to leave you a note."

"A note?"

"Yeah." He glanced at his watch with a strange mixture of eagerness and reluctance. "I - uh... I'm in a hurry. I have to be at the airport in twenty minutes."

Starsky took a step toward him, his voice steady, but he knew the dread could be heard. "Where you goin', Hutch?"

"Duluth. For a while, anyway."

Starsky latched on to the destination. "I told you, I'd take you to see your relatives as soon as I could get some more time off."

"No. That's not necessary. I... I'm capable of going by myself." A defensive tone.

"You shouldn't have to. It will be too hard on you." Starsky took in the drooping shoulders, the lined face, the still-too-thin frame. He knew that to remind Hutch of his physical condition now though would be a grave error. "Emotionally, I mean."

"I can handle it, Starsk. I... think I have to."

"But..." Starsky sputtered a minute, at a loss, feeling suddenly desperate. For the last month he'd felt Hutch pulling away, making plans of his own without consulting him, sheltering his true feelings from the man with whom he'd once shared everything. Starsky had known this break might be coming, had in fact imagined it over and over again. Now he was powerless to stop it. "But you need..."

"I know. That's the problem. It's always been what I need." Hutch's voice had gone soft again, with the exquisite tenderness in it that Starsky had never forgotten in all the long months without him. It hurt to hear it now, layered over as it was with infinite weariness and regret.

Overwhelmed with compassion, Starsky stepped forward, wanting to close the distance between them, wanting to hold on.

"No, Starsk." Hutch moved back, the tenderness dissipating, replaced with a kind of brutal honesty. "You see, it's not what you need."

"Hutch -- "

"Hear me out. Please?" Again, Hutch tried to meet Starsky's eyes, and failed. "You don't need me. There's nothing wrong with that, Starsk. Nothing to feel bad about. I'm glad. Really. You survived. You went on with your life. You're a police lieutenant, for God's sake. I've seen you working, Starsky. You've still got it, and even more, now. You don't know it yet, but you really don't need... whatever it is you think you need." The voice faltered at last. "I can't come back and be what I used to be. I can only be what I have left." He sighed, as if facing the hurt, the waste. "I have to get going."

Starsky found his voice. "You're running away."

"Maybe. I kind of hope I'll be getting my head together. Please, let me go."

'Please let me not need you so much.' Starsky heard the desperate plea as plainly as if Hutch had said the words aloud. "You're comin' back, aren't you?"

Hutch's eyes met his at last, cloudy blue, full of shadows. "I'll try to call."

Starsky didn't repeat his question, couldn't stand to hear a negative answer. "Let me drive you to the airport."

A horn honked outside. Hutch started in guilty embarrassment. "Cab."

So. You don't need me anymore. At least you're tryin' to prove it, all the way. The hurt crowded in, making him afraid and angry. He wasn't even sure if his anger was directed at Hutch or at himself. Now all he could do was let go. Two... three empty years now of holding on, and now the letting go...

He didn't say anything as Hutch collected keys and checked in his pocket for the plane ticket, didn't offer to help when he hefted the weight of the suitcase. He knew he'd be refused, anyway. I guess you need to do this, babe. I don't want to let you. And I don't have to pretend I like it. You almost don't look like you should be out of bed, much less like taking a plane all the way to Minnesota. But if I made you stay, you'd pull away sometime, some way. You stand there, telling me I don't need you when you're all I ever needed, damn it. Damn you, Hutch! Starsky swallowed, unable to say a word, not of entreaty or recrimination. He didn't dare make demands or plead. He could only watch and cry inside.

He followed Hutch out of the apartment, stood by while the door was locked, followed him down the stairs to the cab. Hutch opened the door and slid his suitcase in. He turned to face Starsky.

"I will call." The voice was firm with resolution. "I'll... let you know -- "

"What? That you've decided to stay away? That you've found what you're lookin' for?" Starsky's throat hurt so badly now that the angry words came out soft. He doubted the cab driver had heard, but he didn't care if he had.

Hutch shrugged. "Something like that. But... maybe to let you know..."

"Don't!" Starsky held up a hand. "Don't make promises you can't keep. Look. I'll keep an eye on the place for you. Maybe you don't want me to do even that, but who else will? And if, someday, you wanta put it up for sale, just let me know."

Hutch's eyes were raw torment. "Starsk, I didn't mean to... you don't need..."

"Don't tell me again what I don't need! I know what I need, man. You're the one who's messing up."

Hutch stood facing him a moment, then, resolved, got into the cab.

Starsky grasped the door handle. Hutch turned, the metal and glass between them.

"You know what I need?" Starsky finally had to say it. "I need us. The way we used to be. And so do you, babe."

Hutch's eyes closed, his face looking more weary than ever. His voice was a whisper, rough, like back in the hospital in Australia. "I'm sorry, Starsk. If I stay now, it'd just ruin what we were then. You'll see that if you think about it."

Starsky let go of the cab door. Hutch pulled it closed. His lips moved, telling the driver his destination. He did not look back in Starsky's direction.

Starsky stood staring down the street long after the yellow cab had disappeared from view.

********

Bags checked. Ticket in hand. Hutch stood outside the departure gate, his eyes on the portion of the runway he could see from the huge windows. He felt... he cast about in his mind for the perfect word, and finally found it. He felt strong. Just like anyone else, here he was, traveling somewhere on his own. He felt good, anxious about the trip to come, but not worried. The only thing that felt wrong was the tender spot in his heart occupied by Starsky. He'd looked so hurt as he followed Hutch out to the cab. Hutch hurt, too. It had to be, Starsk. You'll see that in time.

The plane pulled up to the gate, a stewardess called the flight. Hutch was first in line to board. As he walked along the ramp, he remembered his fear at getting on another plane, not so long ago. He'd been wheelchair-bound then, and only the man at his side had made boarding bearable. His heart twinged, but he walked forward, into whatever this flight would bring him.

It was exciting, the taxi down the runway and take-off. There was a young woman, who looked about eighteen years old, seated next to Hutch, and she gasped with a combination of nervousness and delight as the plane lifted from the ground. She turned, meeting his gaze and the two shared a smile. Hutch sighed, settled back, and watched the earth recede as the plane rose. He hadn't been coherent enough to notice these things going on the last time he'd flown. Now, he wanted to savor each bit of the experience. The jet emerged from the flossy clouds into the upper atmosphere, where it was clear, clean and blue. Hutch relaxed in his seat, adjusting it so he could lie back a little, and closed his eyes in relaxation.

 

He'd thought he might drift off to sleep. But his mind was wide awake and he couldn't turn it off. His thoughts lingered over Starsky, so strongly that he felt his presence with him. At first, the idea made him uncomfortable, as if he were being followed. Then he took comfort at the image. I can't get rid of you. Maybe you can't get rid of me, either. At peace, he let his thoughts drift, pictures of Starsky keeping him company.

We made love. I remember... lying there in your hospital bed, holding you, closer than I'd ever dared... the touch of your mouth, like a sweet reunion with something I'd constantly imagined, but never met. You were so beautiful... warm... full of life... why did the memory take so long to come back to me? Why didn't I know it really happened? Why did I remember all the pain and fear I felt from when I was kidnapped, but not the sensations of your loving me?

Maybe you didn't want me to remember. It must have made you uncomfortable... thinking about it all those months when I was unconscious. I'd become... a scarecrow... a mannequin -- put me in one position and I stayed there all day... Couldn't talk, couldn't think... couldn't do anything for you, with you. Even when I woke up... I wasn't the same... even now, my head remembers, but my body doesn't... I might as well still be in the coma, from the waist down.

Ah, Starsk... I wish I could somehow make it all up to you... You seem so lonely, so in need of comfort. I used to know how to help you when you felt like that. I wish I could put my arms around you and shelter you, be strong for you, make you feel love instead of always pain... It was good, that one time, wasn't it? I didn't want it to end... but I was overruled, wasn't I? They took me away from you, and I had no choice. I'm gonna be murdered, I thought, and he'll never know what happened -- damn, stop thinking about it! Hutch shook his head fiercely, causing his seat companion to look toward him in concern. He gripped the armrests and turned to peer out the window, unwilling to close his eyes and let the images torment him anymore. But they returned anyway, playing out over the cloudless blue through which he was flying.

Wish I could make it up to you... if I could, I'd hold you forever, kiss you, take away the tears, both our tears... I miss your laughter, your smile, your teasing. I've done this to you, turned you into something empty, forcing you to take care of me long after I should be able to take care of myself. I wanted to care for you. Now that dream is gone. Forgive me...

His eyes burned with the pain of holding back his tears. Furious with himself, Hutch fought the painful images, but only one thing could take them away. Sighing again, he gave in to memory.

You and I wound tight together... the bed's narrow, but we have all the space we need... let me touch... you're so warm, so hard... you're trembling. Let me make you tremble, writhe... Feels so good, like burning up, dying, being born together... love you...

********

Stepping out of the shower, Sally Hagan reached for a towel and began drying her hair. Midway through the process, she thought she heard her doorbell. Someone was practically leaning on it, she realized, as the buzzing continued. Sally bent over to wind the towel around her still wet head, and pulled on her robe. Tying it hurriedly, she headed for the door.

Pausing to peer out the peephole, Sally gasped in surprise. She hadn't expected a visit from her boss, or anyone, at this late hour. Quickly, she undid the lock and opened the door for him.

"Dave -- what's the matter?"

Finally taking his hand off the buzzer, he leaned back, catching himself with a grab to the doorjamb. "Hi, Sally. You home?"

Sally had to smile, taking in his disheveled appearance and bleary expression. "Yes, I'm here. What can I do for you?"

He looked surprised when she asked, his brows drawing together over sad, blood-shot eyes. "I don't..." he hesitated, as if he couldn't figure out what to say.

"It's okay. I was just getting out of the shower," she told him reassuringly. "You want to come in?"

"Okay." But he made no move to comply.

Sally reached out and took hold of his arm, urging him inside. He grinned down at her and his new proximity confirmed her suspicion that he had been drinking.

"Come on in the living room and sit down, Dave. I'll just take a minute to go and change." She hurried out of the room and went to throw on some clothes, wondering all the while what on earth he was doing there. Starsky stopping by was unusual in itself -- she hadn't thought he remembered her address -- but his being drunk completely mystified her. Still, she thought as she returned to the living room and found him sitting morosely on the couch, she could make a guess at the reason. "Is it Hutch? What happened, Dave?"

"Hutch." He murmured the name as if it weighed heavily on his heart. Then he looked up, eyes full of naked pain. "He's gone, Sally."

She sat beside him, aghast. "What do you mean -- gone?"

"He left town," Starsky answered, looking away. "Went to Minnesota." There was a heavy pause. "I don't know..."

"Don't know what?" Sally urged softly when he didn't continue.

"Don't know if he's ever coming back."

"What?" Sally couldn't keep the incredulity out of her voice.

Starsky was shaking his head, reaching up to rub at his temples. "He's gone. Made all the arrangements himself, plane tickets, cab to get him to the airport... never told me anything... 'til I walked in there tonight..."

Sally didn't know what to say. She registered surprise that Hutch had made plans without Starsky's help; that was essentially a sign of improvement. Yet there was far more significance to his actions than that. Why -- how could he leave Starsky?

"Didn't he tell you anything?" she began cautiously, laying a hand on his arm.

Starsky shook his head again. "I been feelin' him pulling away. This has been comin' on for weeks now. He says... I don't need him, and he doesn't need me. So -- he left." The arm under Sally's hand went rigid with tension, tendons standing out on the back of his hand.

"Can I get you anything?" she offered. "Some coffee?"

Starsky raked the curls back from his forehead. "You got anything stronger?"

She raised an eyebrow, then stood. "I don't know. I don't do much drinking." She went to a cabinet in the dining area and opened it. Inside was half a bottle of scotch left over from Christmas. She picked it up, turning back to her unexpected guest. "How's this?"

"It'll do." Starsky glanced away as if embarrassed.

Sally collected a glass and brought it over. She watched as Starsky poured a shot and gulped it immediately. He winced as the strong drink went down.

"Dave, this isn't like you..." she ventured.

"I won't... try to drive home, if that's what you're worried about." He met her eyes. "Wouldn't do for a police lieutenant to get pulled over for drunk driving, would it?" He gave a bitter laugh. "Maybe I should blow this town, too. Get out and start over."

"Start over?"

"Yeah. I'm wastin' my time. Got no reason to stay, after all." He poured another drink but sipped it more slowly. "Sometimes... I wish he'd never come to..."

Sally swallowed hard. "Why? How can you say that?"

Starsky's eyes focused on a point far away. "When he was like that, I still felt I had him with me. All that he was -- it still existed 'cause I remembered so well. Then, he started wakin' up... and it hurt so bad to see how weak he was. But, you know?" He turned to her and his eyes held a glistening of tears. "It really was him. He was still my partner, my friend..." The words died away and he continued in the driest of whispers, "My Hutch."

Sally couldn't answer, sensing that any comment from her would be an intrusion on her friend's private misery. She'd never heard him talk about his own feelings about Hutch's condition. She wondered if he'd done so with anyone until now. Starsky leaned forward, staring for a long moment at the bottle and glass on the table. Sally reached out and poured him another drink, then picked it up and handed it to him.

He closed his eyes as he sipped, then spoke again, in a dead voice that made Sally's throat ache in sympathy at the sound. "And then, he found out how long it had been. And all the shit that went down while he'd been away. I... I couldn't make it up to him. I couldn't give enough of what he lost back to him."

"Dave, he doesn't blame you."

He didn't seem to hear. His voice went on, a faint elegy for what once had been. "He doesn't know what he's doing. I don't know him anymore -- hell, I don't even know myself anymore. And we've just been torturing ourselves these last few months." A sigh. "You know we fight all the time."

"You always did bicker." Sally tried to make him smile.

"No. Not like that. It's like we're two different people." He leaned back to drain the glass of whiskey, then let his head rest on the back of the couch. "Sometimes I think... I want... but there's no way. I don't know how... It's too late. The one thing you can't do is turn back time."

The anguished eyes closed tight, his face twisted and Sally heard a choked sob.

Starsky made a move as if to get up from the couch, but she reached out to catch his arm. He shook his head, tears seeping from beneath the closed lids, his expression and body fighting against the release of emotion. For a moment, he struggled, but Sally wound an arm around his trembling shoulders and pulled him close, and he sank into her arms. The sobs broke free, yet she sensed he was still holding the worst of it back. His hands tightened on her arms, and Sally sat still, patting his back.

She didn't know what to say, how to help him. She liked Dave Starsky, cared for him the way one cop cared about another, the way one person felt about another who'd once saved their life. These last few months, she'd watched an undefined pain eating away at him. Every time she'd offered friendship, he'd shied away, as if he didn't need or didn't want anyone to care. It had bothered her for months now, but she'd had no idea how to get through his protective shell, or why it had formed around this guy who'd always been so outgoing and warm-hearted. He'd locked himself away from everyone, probably ever since Hutch had disappeared. And even with Hutch back, he still had the barriers up. Hutch couldn't or wouldn't break them down, and now Sally could see the damage they were doing. Starsky was locked away, his imprisoned, solitary heart crying for love, for one touch of caring, though he'd nearly forgotten how to ask for it.

And now here he was, turning to her, finally, as a friend. Sally saw his need and her heart opened wide to him. If he could just broaden that crack in the wall he'd built, maybe he could find some peace.

"It's all right, Dave," she soothed, stroking the long back. He was fighting the pain, but the tears wouldn't shut off. Sally couldn't help wondering how long it had been since he'd cried. The tightly choked-off sobs reminded her of the sound of her own father's tears the night of her mother's death. Sally had never seen her father cry, and it sounded odd to her, pinched off, bitterly hard for him, as if he didn't really know how. That was the way Starsky sounded now.

"Let it out, Dave. I'm here," she whispered, fingers gentle on the nape of his neck. The curls under her fingers were soft and fine, the tendons in his neck taut. She stroked his head and it settled more firmly against her shoulder. "That's it. Let it out," she urged, her heart aching with sympathy. Not knowing how else to comfort him, she pressed her cheek close to his, lightly kissing his wet face.

Starsky groaned as if the touch inflicted pain, and tried to pull out of her embrace. "Dave?" Sally didn't know what she'd done.

"I can't. I can't," he repeated, voice beleaguered by guilt. "I can't let anyone..." The words faded out and a fresh sob cut Sally's heart. "All this time, I was faithful to him," the hopeless, tear-drenched voice cried out. "I was faithful to him... and now he's left me..."

Sally was shocked into stillness. She didn't know what Dave meant, and the one obvious explanation seemed impossible. He had to be speaking figuratively, of the faithfulness of friendship. But what if he wasn't? Wouldn't that explain how desperate he'd been to do everything he could for Hutch? Wouldn't that explain why he'd locked himself away from help these last years?

He'd never said, never hinted. Sally had never suspected and she was certain that no one else did, either. She didn't know how close they'd been, how much they'd shared, but now she did know the secret that had been tormenting Starsky. And one other thing. He wouldn't want her to acknowledge what he'd let slip.

"Shhh. It's all right. It'll all work out." Sally gentled the arms she held wrapped around him, soothing with voice and peaceful rocking motions. She patted his back slowly, and gradually his crying ceased. He wasn't cried out, she could tell, but he'd won the battle to make himself stop. His body grew heavy in her clasp and Sally sensed his nearness to sleep. She moved cautiously, careful not to disturb him as she got up and settled him full length on the couch.

She picked up her afghan and draped it over him, taking a moment to brush tangled curls back from his brow. She knew of no similarly simple gesture -- or for that matter, of any more complicated one -- that would truly help him.

When morning came, he looked sheepish but had no real difficulty meeting her eyes, so Sally supposed he didn't remember what he'd said. She fed him breakfast, which he consumed gratefully, and they parted company at her front door, each driving their own car to Metro. Once the workday officially began, Lieutenant Starsky was himself again, efficient, yet quiet and remote as ever. The only sign of his night of whiskey and tears was a slight redness around his eyes. It seemed to Sally that no one else noticed.

********

The plane taxied down the runway, Hutch watching out the window all the while. Landing was exciting to him this time. He had no reason to fear, only to anticipate. When the plane was finally stopped, Hutch unbuckled his seatbelt and made his way off with the other passengers. He realized he was grinning widely when his young seatmate smiled back at him, offering a friendly goodbye. Hutch hefted his carry-on bag and headed down the aisle.

There was a little physical tiredness nudging him around the edges, though he was determined to ignore it. His right leg wanted to drag a little as he walked down the concourse, but he refused to stop and dig the collapsible cane out of his bag. No, he wanted to meet with his family without any outward signs of his ordeal.

As he emerged into the terminal, Hutch paused to look around for someone he could recognize. He didn't really expect a big welcoming party -- Hutchinsons didn't usually go in for noisy reunions in airports -- but he had told Aunt Priscilla when he was due to arrive. He didn't see her, though, and wondered if he should try to get a cab to take him to her house, worrying that a drive that long would be expensive.

"Ken!"

At the sound of his name, Hutch turned, scanning the crowd. A tall man with dark blond hair was coming toward him, hand outstretched. For a moment, though Hutch realized he was a relative, he couldn't recall the name.

"There you are!" the fellow enthused, taking Hutch's hand in his own for a brisk shake. He stood looking him up and down, as if gauging his appearance for signs of illness. When Hutch didn't answer, he grinned encouragingly. "It's Stan, Ken. Your Aunt Priscilla's son, remember? We're cousins." The statement was made without malice or judgment.

Hutch relaxed, remembering his cousin Stanley Hutchinson now. About two years older, Stan had been a favorite playmate of his when he was little. Hutch also remembered riding bikes with him in the summers of their high school years, discussing baseball and girls.

"Hi, Stan. Thanks for coming to meet me. How's your mother?"

"She's fine. Getting on in years, you know. Her arthritis acts up a lot. That's why she sent me out here to get you." Stanley picked up Hutch's suitcase and glanced around. "You have any other bags?"

Hutch nodded, trying to recall where he'd stashed his claim ticket. He was feeling a little overwhelmed, seeing the cousin he hadn't communicated with in years -- more years than he'd been out of touch due to the coma. Unable to remember, he finally pulled out his notebook and thumbed through its pages. There it was, written down. Hutch looked in the zippered pocket on his carry-on bag.

"Here's my claim check. I guess they'll be unloading this one soon."

"Sure." Stan took the stub and nodded in the direction of the baggage area. "Come on, Ken."

In a few minutes, they had collected Hutch's bag and found Stan's car in the parking lot. Hutch's ankle and leg were growing tired, but he tried not to let it show, blaming a stumble on his well-remembered clumsiness. Stan, if he realized at all that Hutch was trying to cover up his true condition, was too polite to mention it.

There wasn't much conversation during the drive to Aunt Priscilla's. Hutch found there wasn't much to talk about. He had expected a lot of questions about what had happened to him, but Stan didn't pry. Instead, he pointed out changes in Duluth as they passed and Hutch made non-committal comments. He really hadn't remembered much about his hometown until the drive began. Instead of a feeling of homecoming and nostalgia, however, he began to feel more out of place than he had in L.A.

The awkwardness increased when they arrived at Aunt Priscilla's house. Hutch suddenly remembered he'd never felt comfortable there; it was too perfect, too proper -- Aunt Priscilla was an even fussier housekeeper than his own mother had been. Hutch suddenly remembered that even Stan's room had had that decorator, no-real-boy-lives-here kind of look. Back at his parent's house, Hutch's room at least was his own domain.

"Ken. Here you are at last."

His aunt came forward regally to greet him. She held out her hand and he took it, not quite knowing whether he was expected to shake it or kiss it. He tried to remember how the woman had looked the last time he'd been to see her. It must have been at least ten years ago, he realized, noting she now seemed more stooped with age, more grey-haired and wizened, but the large jewelry and painted nails still remained. Something else about her seemed incongruous. Hutch stared until he figured it out. Aunt Priscilla must be nearly eighty by now, but her clothes looked like those of a much younger woman. They were dressy, too, like women who worked.

As he stood there clasping her hand something clicked in his mind, pieces of family history snapping into place, aided by remarks Stan had made in the car, and Hutch relaxed a little as he met his aunt's eyes. She still acted the matriarch of the Hutchinson family, even though she'd been an Adams by birth. She had married Hutch's father's brother and had set out to rule the family, arbitrating disputes, monitoring behavior, hovering over everyone. Yet he had never felt any emotion coming his way from her; and he supposed everyone in the family noticed that omission, too. There was no warmth, no sense of bonding, only that all of them were her property.

Her husband, Hutch's Uncle Harry, had been more down to earth, funny, warm-hearted and kind. As a boy, Hutch had often wondered how his chilly aunt had ever gotten together with his jovial uncle. His own father, Harvey, had seemed more like Aunt Priscilla's type. Hutch abruptly remembered that not only was Uncle Harry gone now -- he'd died ten years ago -- but that his own parents were gone, too.

"Dear, you look so tired from your trip. Won't you have a seat?" Priscilla gravely waved him toward the living room. "We can talk while Stanley takes your things upstairs."

"Oh, that's okay," Hutch spoke up, turning as he saw Stan gathering his bags. "I don't want to put you out. I thought I'd stay at a hotel."

"Certainly not!" Priscilla huffed. "The very idea. We're your family, Ken. Your only family now. And we won't have you off on your own in some lonely hotel. We want you where we can be with you, where we can get to know you again. You remember, Stanley's house is just down the block. So even if I have to go out, someone will be with you all the time."

"Okay," Hutch accepted, flushing. You want me where you can keep an eye on me, I guess. He didn't mind acquiescing, however. He felt he was equal to the task of demonstrating how well he had recovered.

"You were in the hospital for a long time," his aunt observed, jumping into the most important subject she could find. "Actually, dear, we don't know the whole story even now. Your partner, Mr. Starsky, didn't see fit to call us to say that he had found you until he brought you back from Australia. The details he gave us were rather sketchy. Can you tell us a little more about what happened?"

With her bright brown eyes boring into him, Hutch felt a little out of his conversational league. He leaned back in the brocade chair and rubbed a hand through his hair. "I don't remember much about being in Australia. I was in the coma for a long time before Starsky found me. And I didn't wake up for quite a while even then. When we left to come home," a slight ache built under his breastbone as he said the words, "I really didn't understand everything that was going on. I couldn't walk. I could only talk a little. I couldn't... keep track of what was going on." He cleared his throat, looking first at Stan and then his aunt. "But I've been out of the hospital since before Christmas, as you know. I go to therapy, but I'm taking care of myself."

Aunt Priscilla gave one of her practiced, brittle smiles. "I see. And can you do everything that you used to do?"

"Mother." The protest Stan offered sounded a little weak.

"I mean," she went on, not even looking toward her son, "will you ever be able to be a policeman again? I understand you're not working yet. What are you going to do with yourself, Kenneth?"

A measure of anguish, never quite healed, pricked at his heart. "I... haven't decided yet. I admit, I'm not ready to go back to being a cop. Things have changed for me. I became a cop because I felt I was needed." Saying the words, the feelings came back clearly to him. "I was good at my job. I helped people." His words trailed off and he realized he'd forgotten the point of what he'd been trying to say. "I don't know if I'm as needed now as I once was. I've changed. I'm not as strong. Not as quick..."

"Physically?" she dove right to the heart of the matter. "Or mentally?"

Hutch couldn't believe how quickly and deftly she had maneuvered him into admitting his deficits. And I was gonna cover so well. They were never going to realize how much I have to compensate for. He tried to retain his composure. "I'm no idiot. I remember mostly everything from the past. I can still think..."

"Yes, I know, Ken. But it's obvious that after so long an... illness, no one is ever quite the same."

"I said that already. What do you want me to say? That I need some guardian to take care of me? That's certainly not the case. I... I made the plans to come out here all by myself. No one had to help me -- " He broke off, realizing that his petulant tone was doing his image more harm than good. Now I remember why I left here. No matter what you do, it isn't good enough.

"There's no need to get upset," Priscilla was instructing him calmly. "We just have your best interests at heart."

Hutch was about to make an acerbic reply when a slender form rushed headlong through the door and into the living room.

"He's here!" The young girl came to a stop in front of his chair, and impulsively threw her arms around his shoulders, tightening the hug for a long moment. Despite the fact that Hutch had no idea who she was, the warm greeting felt good to him. She finally let go and stood back to look at him at arm's length. "Dad, Grandma -- he looks great! See, I told you Ken would be fine!"

Stan was chuckling a little self-consciously. "Yes, you did. But don't you think you're overwhelming him a little?"

Hutch tried to recover his own composure. "Hi," he said weakly. "I don't remember..."

"Ken, this is Chelsea," Stan filled him in. "My oldest daughter. The last time you saw her must've been at dad's funeral... that was over ten years ago. She's sixteen now."

"Just got my license," the teenager stated proudly. "Any time you need to go anywhere, just let me know."

Hutch smiled at her enthusiasm, trying to equate the sunny blonde with the tiny, pigtailed child he vaguely remembered as his cousin's little girl. "Do you remember me?" he asked finally.

"Sure." She dropped into a cross-legged position at his feet, smiling up at him rapturously. "I sat on your lap and you read me Charlotte's Web. I thought you were wonderful."

Hutch felt himself blushing. He couldn't remember any little girl ever having a crush on him before.

"Just like all the Hutchinsons," Stan was saying with a laugh. "She speaks her mind."

Aunt Priscilla was heard from again. "Hutchinsons are supposed to have tact."

Hutch realized that Chelsea and he were both ignoring her.

 

********

The day was turning out to be better than Hutch thought. He had found a compatriot in Chelsea, someone who wasn't intimidated by the starched-perfect order of Aunt Priscilla's house and ways, someone who cared more about his feelings than his abilities. Looking at him, as Priscilla outlined the schedule she thought they should observe during his visit, her wide blue eyes held laughter and a hint of rebellion. Hutch felt himself being drawn into a circle of instant friendship with his younger second cousin. The girl's gregarious nature left him a bit dizzied, but he gamely tried to keep up with her conversation and ideas.

When Aunt Priscilla informed him that he had been lax in contacting the family up to now, Chelsea defended him, saying that it was obvious he'd been very involved with matters of his own health. When Priscilla seemed about to force him into visiting the cemetery to see his parents' graves that very afternoon, despite the fact that Hutch said he wasn't yet ready to go there, Chelsea stepped in on his behalf. And when he asked to go to the house where his parents had lived and the elder Hutchinsons did not want to go, Chelsea offered to accompany him.

"I get away with murder," the girl laughed as she gunned the engine on her father's car.

Hutch sat back in the passenger seat and relaxed. "How do you manage it? Even your father never acted that way with her."

"It's easy. She knows I'm a genius. I'm going to do more for this family and the family business than anyone yet, so she puts up with me. She chalks it all up to my youthful spirits, but I hear her grinding her teeth sometimes."

Hutch laughed, remembering how he'd heard that sound years ago when he and Stan would get into arguments in Stan's mother's presence.

"And she dotes on me. She can't help it. For some reason," she grinned, flipping the long fall of blonde hair back over her shoulder, "I'm her pet. I'm the smartest. I'm special. None of my cousins or my sister and brothers can get away with half the stuff I say to her. Besides, she knows I respect her deep down. That's why she respects me."

Hutch marveled at the wisdom she spoke. He'd been feeling distinctly at a disadvantage talking to his aunt. She seemed able to remember every word a person said, not just during the current conversation, but also from years ago. Hutch felt like he was floundering around. It seemed certain that Aunt Priscilla, who'd always found him flawed anyway, had no remaining respect for him at all.

"What do they want from me?" he asked her suddenly. "Do they want to take the money my parents left? Is that it?"

Chelsea sighed. "It's not just the money, though they always seem to want more of that. It's partly that they don't think you 'deserve' it. They keep talking about how you deserted your parents, went all the way to L.A. to fight bad guys and take care of total strangers instead of staying here and taking care of them. If you had been a better son, you'd never gone out there in the first place, and you'd never been kidnapped and hurt and spent all this time in the hospital. You'd have been here when they died."

Hutch closed his eyes, shutting out the sight of the passing Duluth scenery. "I can't change what's already happened." He turned back to his young cousin. "And that wouldn't have prevented their deaths, anyway. From what I understand, they died almost instantly in the accident."

Chelsea shrugged. "You know how my grandmother is. She doesn't care if it's logical. If it's her way, that should be enough. You have to understand that everyone back here thought you were dead." She looked at him quickly. "That's what they told me, that you were dead." Her eyes returned to the road. "When your partner called and told us you were found again, it threw everybody into a tailspin."

"Because they thought if I was dead they could get everything that I would have inherited?"

"Guess so. Nothing had been done about your folks' will up to that time, because a person isn't legally dead until they've been missing seven years or something. My grandmother and all the other relatives, and even the lawyers, have been getting antsy ever since. They wanted to find out what kind of shape you're in so the will can finally get through probate. And I think they've been worried that someday you'd show up on their doorstep looking for a home."

Hutch tried to feel anger and wondered why he didn't. He wasn't even very hurt by their attitudes, and was very close to saying he didn't care about the money one way or another.

"Here we are," Chelsea announced, shutting off the car. They found themselves in the wide driveway of his parents' home. Hutch drew a deep preparatory breath as he climbed out of the car.

He stood still for a moment, looking up at the impressive facade. The white Georgian columns of the house rose above him, the many-paneled windows beckoning. He remembered the view from inside and anxiously waited for Chelsea to open the front door.

Standing in the foyer, Hutch began to soak up the feeling of the house. He felt as if he could just catch the sound of his father's footsteps on the polished marble floor, or hear his mother's soft laughter wafting down the stairs. But the house was empty, quiet, unlived-in. The furniture was covered in white draping, stairs and banister hidden by a layer of dust. No one lived here anymore, and that seemed a shame.

This was not the house he'd grown up in. His parents had sold the home he'd known in his childhood when he'd left for college, trading it for this huge domicile that was more upscale, more prestigious. He remembered there were at least five bedrooms. Me, an only child, and after Van and I broke up it was obvious there'd be no grandchildren to come and stay... why did they have to get such a big house? Nevertheless, he had enjoyed staying here the few times he'd come on visits from L.A. Starsky had been with him once. Hutch smiled, remembering that his mother hadn't quite known what to do with his irrepressible partner. Two days with Starsky under her roof must have seemed like an eternity.

"My grandmother loves this place," Chelsea said quietly, coming up behind him. "It's killing her to let it sit like this. Nothing's been touched. I can swear to that. Oh, everything was catalogued and appraised when your parents died, but they've left everything intact; I guess one of the things you'll have to do is sort out what you want to take and what you want to let others have."

Hutch shrugged; he hadn't thought about that duty left to the living. He stepped into the living room and wandered over to the mantle, fingers touching some of the porcelain Hummel figures his mother had collected. Maybe I'll pick out one or two... Aunt Priscilla and the others are welcome to the rest.

"Did you know my mother and father very well?" he asked suddenly, almost painfully anxious to hear something about the parents who now seemed so very far from him.

"We ate Sunday dinner with them all the time, but mostly the adults talked to each other. We kids got up from the table as quick as we could." Chelsea giggled. "I always thought your dad was the handsomest thing -- for a man his age, I mean. My dad was never as good looking." Her eyes slid up to his face. "You take after your father, you know."

Hutch was amused to realize he was blushing again. "I... don't know how to take you, Chelsea," he said honestly. "Not many people talk to me like that anymore."

The girl blushed, too. "Grandma always says I'm too forward." A shrug lifted the slender shoulders. "I'm not flirting with a cousin, though. Just being truthful. I always remembered Daddy's cousin Ken."

Hutch didn't know how to respond. A little girl had liked him, looked up to him, and he could barely remember her or why she had even noticed him. Is there anything in me now that she'll want to look up to?

"Do you want to see the upstairs?" Chelsea changed the subject quickly. Hutch was glad to follow her out of the room.

********

For the next two days, he had to listen to his Aunt Priscilla's condemning his behavior, the way the hospital had organized his therapy -- all with the statement that the advice and commentary was being doled out for his own good -- and, of course, the fact that he still had not gone to the cemetery. Finally, tired of the negativism, he agreed to go. He'd hoped that Chelsea could take him on this trip as well, but Stan was to be his escort this time, and Aunt Priscilla was coming along.

The drive seemed unusually long -- or perhaps Hutch's anticipation and dread made it seem that way. By the time they arrived, he found he was nervously wringing his hands, and that when he tried to talk, he stuttered. If she keeps her mouth shut, he thought, looking at Aunt Priscilla, I can get through this. Stan wound along the narrow drive through the cemetery, finally coming to a stop overlooking a low-lying section of the property, and the three family members got out of the car.

"It's over there," Stan said quietly, pointing out a red granite marker for Hutch.

It was time, no putting the inevitable off any longer. Hutch wished he'd brought his cane with him, but he'd been trying to use it as little as possible around his relatives. Here, though, the ground was somewhat rough and it would have helped him to keep his balance. For one of the first times, he was glad to be wearing the brace on his leg; he didn't want to fall in front of Priscilla.

He stopped in front of the red marker which bore his parents' names. It was simple, lettered in Roman, carrying their dates of birth and death. Hutch stood still, just staring for a moment, feeling an incredible sadness come over him, as if now, for the first time, he truly believed they were gone. It hadn't been real to him before. Now, they both lay here, under the ground that was cold and hard in the wintertime, buried in a dark forbidding vault away from the world of the living.

He closed his eyes, and the accident played out in his imagination. 'It was terrible,' Aunt Priscilla had told him. 'The car was almost completely crushed by the tractor-trailer. You wouldn't even have recognized them. We had to have closed caskets...'

He'd hated her for telling him all those details. He'd preferred to remain sheltered from the worst facts, and he realized that had mostly been Starsky's doing before. His friend wasn't here to protect him now, to run interference. I had to come and do this on my own, Hutch remembered wryly. But he knew he had to face these things if he were to finally emerge from his cocoon into the real world. I'm strong enough to face it all. I have to be.

His feeling of grief grew stronger, and Hutch's tears ran down his cheeks. He tried to hold them back, imagining his aunt would tell him such behavior was unbecoming. He decided he didn't care. She wants to know that I felt something about their deaths. This is the proof she was lacking before. He tried to draw a steadying breath, but it escaped as a sob. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Stan look abruptly away, as if to leave him his privacy, or because he couldn't deal with his cousin's tears. Hutch sensed Aunt Priscilla standing next to him, a white embroidered hanky in her hand. She was daubing at tears of her own.

Hutch felt very alone in the world at that moment. His parents, for all their faults, had cared about him. Where was his family now? He didn't feel close to Priscilla or even Stan. None of these people had come to visit him when he was in the hospital, none had offered help or consolation. They'd left the burden to Starsky, apparently unworried about Hutch and his health problems. It was as though when his parents died, his ties with the family had been effectively severed.

His tears became bitter, born of the loneliness he had suffered since coming out of the coma. No one truly understood, not even Starsky. To everyone, it was a small matter beside the important fact that he was at least alive. But those people had never been taken out of the world they knew and returned two years later, confused and weakened by the ordeal. They can't imagine what I'm feeling now. And they won't even try.

"Ken, dear," Aunt Priscilla spoke up, tucking her hanky back in her purse. "You must compose yourself. Tears won't bring them back, you know."

It seemed the cruelest remark he'd ever heard. Hutch reached into his back pocket for a handkerchief and wiped his face. A deep-seated part of him wanted to know what his parents' reaction to his disappearance had been, but he kept the questions to himself, fearing to learn how they had taken that news. They couldn't have been glad, could they? Maybe disappointed to realize I'd never come home and be the son they wanted me to be again... He wished desperately for a comforting touch. But Priscilla and Stan were already heading back to the car. Starsky would know how to help. Just laying a hand on my shoulder would make it easier to bear this. Incredibly alone, Hutch made his way back to the car and climbed in.

********

When Stan's car pulled into the driveway at Aunt Priscilla's house, Chelsea, who must have been watching for them from her own front porch down the street, came bounding up to the car. Hutch saw her eager, welcoming face fall when she caught sight of him. He tried to pull himself together for her sake.

"There you are, Chelsea," Priscilla said as she climbed out of the car. "Good. I need you to run down to the store to pick up a few things for dinner." The older woman dug into her purse and came up with a list she handed to the teenager.

"Okay," Chelsea responded without taking her eyes from Hutch. "You want to come along with me?" she asked him softly.

His first impulse was to decline the invitation, but the warmth in her soft eyes was impossible to resist. What else did he have to do anyway, he thought in resignation, sit in his room upstairs and brood?

"Sure," he answered, and was rewarded by a blinding smile.

He followed the young girl across the street to get her own car. The blue TransAm made him think of Starsky for some reason.

"You wanta drive?" Chelsea's voice startled him. She was holding up the keys.

Hutch chuckled despite himself. "No. I haven't got a license anymore."

"Oh." Chelsea looked momentarily abashed, and busily went around to unlock the passenger door for him. When they were both settled in the car and had their seatbelts fastened she started the engine. She stole a look at Hutch. "I'm sorry, Ken. I didn't think." A nervous giggle. "It seems weird to be driving an adult around."

"It didn't seem weird to you the last time."

"I know. I didn't realize you didn't have your license then, though." She put the car in gear and backed out of the driveway. "How come you don't? I mean, if you don't mind me asking."

Hutch shrugged. "It expired while I was in the hospital. And I've just never thought about doing anything to get it back."

"Is there any reason you couldn't drive?" The question arose from the girl's natural curiosity.

"I never really thought about it," Hutch mused. "At first, I was pretty weak and... I couldn't concentrate too well... and I couldn't read, either." It didn't seem as painful to admit those things to his new friend as he would have imagined.

"But you've got your strength back pretty much, don't you? And I know you can read again."

"Yeah." Hutch was silent a moment, considering. "My -- uh, my right leg gets kind of weak sometimes." It was the first time he'd said anything about that handicap thus far.

"I noticed. But you don't limp all the time. I bet if you had cruise control on your car it wouldn't matter so much. You could just rest your leg if it got tired."

For the young, it seemed, there was always a logical answer for everything. "I don't know, Chelsea," Hutch sighed. "I don't even know if I remember how to drive."

"That's crazy! Nobody could forget that. It just comes naturally once you know how, doesn't it? Hey, if you'd like, I'd be glad to let you practice in my car." She smiled over at him, obviously trying to make up for the hurts he had suffered.

"Well -- I'll think about it, honey." Hutch felt himself relaxing under the sweet attention she paid him.

********

Hutch sat staring at the telephone in his bedroom. He was trying to decide if he should call Starsky. It had been days since their painful goodbye and he hadn't called to tell him he had arrived safely at his destination. He does deserve to hear from me -- if he still wants anything to do with me at all, that is. Hutch felt a prickle of guilt at the way he'd treated Starsky. He'd been selfish, thinking more about his own problems than what his friend might have been going through. Couldn't help it, I guess. What's been going on with me has pretty much taken up all my attention... But it was time he reached out to the one person who'd been there for him.

The phone was in his hand without further thought. It took Hutch a couple of tries before he dialed correctly -- he had to think a moment to remember the area code -- but finally the phone at the other end of the line began ringing.

"Starsky," a sleep-fogged voice answered on the third ring.

"Did I wake you?"

"Hm? Who is this?"

"Me." Hutch found he was clutching the receiver in both hands, as though it were a fragile hope.

"Hutch?" The grogginess was fast departing the distant voice, replaced with a measure of surprise and eagerness. "How are you?"

"I'm okay. I've been... pretty busy since I got here."

"I'll bet." The gladness faded from the voice; now Starsky's tone was flat and defeated, the way it had been when the two of them had said goodbye.

It was hard to interpret his friend's mood over the long-distance connection. Hutch wanted to make things up to him, tell him not to sound so hurt, but he didn't know where to start.

"Yeah," he said finally. "I don't know how much longer I'll be here."

"Stay as long as you like. It is your home." The comment contained audible bitterness.

"We have an appointment with the family lawyers tomorrow."

"About the will?"

"Yeah." Why can't I reach you anymore? "Are... are you okay?"

A silence. "Sure. Why wouldn't I be?"

Okay. I won't pry. I won't try to discuss the pain we've been feeling, the pain we've caused each other. "Just checking."

"Look. I overslept this morning. I gotta get ready to go to work."

"Oh. All right. I'll... call again..."

"Don't put yourself out." Though Starsky didn't hang up, there was a tone of finality to his words.

"Goodbye, then."

"Goodbye." The line went silent.

Hutch put the receiver back in its cradle. What, after all, was there left to say?