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Vital Signs

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Vital Signs

July, 1982:

Hutch stood in front of the bathroom mirror, adjusting his new white shirt, memories from the last couple years playing on continuous loop in his head. He felt nauseated and ecstatic, in equal measure. This wasn’t simply a new chapter in his life, this was a whole different playbook.

He rubbed his neck, inhaling, taking control of his own future.

July, 1979:

It was final; no second opinions. Starsky could not be a cop with only half a right lung. He’d listened bleakly to the doctor explaining his physical limitations and turned over in the hospital bed, closing his eyes.

Hutch couldn’t even mount a comforting word at that point. He watched the doctor walk out of the room with such a sense of emptiness. Starsky had been in the hospital for exactly two months since the devastating shooting on May fifteenth. Two months of grueling pain, multiple surgeries, IVs insertions, infections, antibiotics, blood transfusions, setbacks, respiratory treatments, physical therapy and a host of other regimes that Hutch could barely keep track of. He was beginning to feel like he’d gone to medical school by osmosis.

He leaned both elbows on his knees, overwhelmed, listening to Starsky’s uneven breathing. Starsky no longer needed an oxygen cannula, but he’d never have the lung power of a sprinter as he once had. It was so easy to picture him dashing down the street after a suspect, his blue and white Adidas sneakers slamming on the sidewalk.

What was next? What would they do? There was no way Hutch would go back to detective work without Starsky by his side. He’d gone along with Dobey’s scheme to have him teach newer cops the routine in the last month, but his heart wasn’t in it. He wanted to turn his back on the police force, strike out somewhere with Starsky and never look back.

But what?

“Excuse me?” A young man with early male pattern baldness poked his head in the door. “I’m Mike, your nurse for this evening.”

Hutch looked up in surprise. “Haven’t had a male nurse since he was in the ICU…” And only once then. “Never seen you around here.”

“I’m new,” Mike said, unwinding the stethoscope from around his neck as he walked in. “I started today.”

“Oh, really new.” Hutch sat up straighter, putting a hand on Starsky’s arm. “Starsk, got a rookie here for you to grill.”

Starsky rolled over wearing his interrogate-the-prisoner face, but Hutch could tell it was a mask. He looked brittle and forced, but at least was making an effort, which was important. “What school’d you go to?” he growled, taking a deep breath when Mike put the stethoscope on his scarred chest.

“College of Bay City,” Mike said after a minute, writing Starsky’s heart rate on the paper chart. “It’s a great school, only takes two years.” He efficiently checked Starsky’s temperature, blood pressure and breathing.

The signs of life. Hutch knew the routine by heart. Could have done it himself. In fact, he’d gone as far as buy a stethoscope to use at home. Always be prepared was his motto. He was so busy watching Mike for any signs of incompetence or mistakes, he barely noticed Starsky sitting up straighter with a hard glint in his eye.

“Just graduated?” Starsky peered at what Mike was writing. “You take the test yet?”

He nodded, slinging the stethoscope around his collar. “Graduated in May. I knew BC Gen was hiring, the nurse administrator came to our class and talked to us. We’d worked here as students.” He added a last notation to his paperwork. “And no, haven’t taken the test yet—it’s next week. I have an interim permit to work as a nurse until then.”

“What if you don’t pass?” Starsky asked, snarly.

“Our school has a perfect pass rate.” Mike grinned. “I will.”

“Two years?” Hutch echoed, surprised. He’d assumed it was longer, like a doctor.

“Yeah, one of our teachers told us the history. The nursing program there was started in World War Two to get nurses overseas more quickly.” Mike tucked the chart back into its slot at the end of the bed. “You have to have pre-regs, of course, and the some of the science classes were brutal, but after that, two years and an associate of science degree.”

Starsky glanced over at Hutch with such an enigmatic expression, Hutch was dumbfounded. He could often read Starsky easily, but not then.

“Ring if you need anything.” Mike waved goodbye. “You’ve been here long enough to know the drill.” He went out the door with a determined air.

“What?” Hutch demanded, mostly elated that Starsky had regained a spark.

“Thought nurses had to go to school for years.” Starsky poured himself a cup of water from the bedside pitcher, glancing at the clock. “PT will be here in ten, then I’ll have my daily hour of torture.”

“I thought so, too,” Hutch agreed. “He seemed really competent for a rookie.” Actually better prepared than the flatfoots Hutch had been mentoring, and they’d already had a year or two of street cop duty before coming to plainclothes.

A nascent idea was forming. But it was insane. Right?

He’d always been interested in the medical field. Studying to be a doctor had seemed daunting when he was younger. Eight years of school before he could practice independently, with realms of facts to learn and memorize. Then there was the frightening concept of holding someone’s life in his hands, and diagnosing a potentially deadly condition was too awful to contemplate. He’d had enough of pointing a loaded gun and pulling the trigger: bang, you’re dead. The tendency to play God with a person’s life, the way Starsky’s doctor had--

“Your mother was a nurse,” Starsky stated, which he knew full well.

“Yep.” Hutch rubbed his chest absently, looking up at his partner. Damn, he wanted Starsky at home, where they could be together and… That was for next week, God willing. Then they’d have all the time in the world to hash out what came next. What to do with the rest of their lives. He would turn thirty-four in a matter of weeks—starting over was a big hurdle. Was it possible?

“Never seen a nurse who’s a guy.” Starsky stood in his careful way, slipping on sneakers to be ready when Charlie, the PT, arrived. “Thought it was a girls’ thing.”

“There was a guy in the ER, when you were brought in,” Hutch said, watching Starsky for any sign of weakness or danger. In point of fact, Starsky looked remarkably fit—slender but starting to regain muscle with his daily physical therapy. “And in the ICU, but you were—“ he couldn’t quite bring himself to say “in a coma” yet. “Out of it,” he finished lamely.

Starsky grinned sweetly at him, stroking Hutch’s bottom lip with the flat of his thumb as if wiping away a crumb Hutch knew wasn’t there. The slight contact was as much as they’d ever allowed themselves while in the hospital. Their relationship had only blossomed into something new and amazing the night before Starsky was shot. They’d made love for one glorious night. It was all Hutch could think about during sleepless hours alone in his bed. Which was why he had practically camped out in Starsky’s room in the early weeks of his recovery. Once Starsky was moved to the rehab floor, he wasn’t allowed any longer. They did have much more private time together when he was around because the nurses didn’t check Starsky’s vitals as often as when he was in ICU and on med/surg.

Hutch clasped Starsky’s hand with a silent I love you, decisions crowding his brain. He had to act while the impetus was there or he’d chicken out. “I’ll be back later. Pick up burritos for you.”

Starsky didn’t let go, suddenly serious. “You’re going over to the College of BC?”

Their ability to think along the same lines, so frayed since the shooting, slammed in place full force. Hutch shrugged, elated that Starsky could read him so easily. “Doesn’t hurt to check it out, get a school schedule.” Nursing was different than being a doctor. It jibed more with his desire to help people, nurture them back to health.

“We gotta have something to fall back on since the force is kicking me to the curb,” Starsky said, looking him straight in the eye.

He’d said ‘we.’ No concept of going their separate ways. Was this madness or exactly the right door opening at the right time?

Hutch kissed Starsky, well aware that Charlie could walk in at any minute. He didn’t care in the least. Felt like something blossomed inside him.

~~**~~

In retrospect, it was ridiculously easy to segue into college mode. Hutch had done three years at University of Minnesota before moving west with his then bride Vanessa, and most of his fourteen-year-old credits transferred over. He pored over the course catalogue, making check marks on the ones necessary for nursing school.

“Seemed like such opportunity when I was in the hospital,” Starsky said forlornly, sipping a root beer. “Now that I’m home, it was just a pipe dream. I never went to college. You did. Get a degree. I’ll find my own…”

Hutch scowled at him, miming playing a violin. “Throwing yourself a pity party isn’t your style, Starsk. You are king of finding a solution,”

Starsky set down the bottle with a thump. “Fuck off, Hutch—“

“Read it and weep.” Hutch shoved the catalogue across the table at him, and tapped his finger on the top of a page. “But don’t throw in the towel before you even got on the playing field.”

“Military veterans may convert time spent in the armed forces…” Starsky began reading slowly and picked up speed with a kind of giddiness. “Numbers may vary with military experience but could equal six semester hours in English and three semester hours in math.” He stared up at Hutch, hope rising in his eyes. “Hutch! I got college credit!”

“You got it, babe.” Hutch pulled him into a tight hug. “You’ll still need to finish more general ed requirements than I do, but Starsk, we could pull this off in a few years.”

“What can I take this semester?” Starsky flipped the pages of the catalogue so excitedly he nearly knocked over the soda.

Hutch made a wild grab for the bottle and helped himself to a sweet bubbly drink. “You’re still recovering. One class only. You’ll go slower, but—“

“Don’t ever refer to me as a tortoise again.” Starsky elbowed him in the side. “Maybe Sociology?”

“Good choice—it’s required for nursing, too. We could take that one together.” Hutch added it to the list of science classes he’d take the first semester.

~~**~~

July 1980

“Look what I found in the mail, blintz!” Starsky called out, bursting into the house.

Startled, Hutch jerked out of an unintended nap, so befuddled he nearly tumbled off the couch. His microbiology text did hit the floor with a loud thump. “What the hell?”

“You got an envelope from the college,” Starsky sing-songed, holding up the important looking letter.

“From the nursing department?” Hutch swallowed. He wasn’t nervous about it. Of course not. He had an excellent grade point average. Been working his tail off, dividing his time between science classes and his job as a security guard in a mall during the night. Hell on the days when he had to dash from the job to an early class, but doable. Getting into the program was a piece of cake. Right? “Read it,” he said, butterflies tap dancing in his stomach.

Starsky cleared his throat importantly. “Kenneth Hutchinson has been accepted into the College of Bay City nursing program for the fall of 1980.” Laughing, Starsky thrust the letter into Hutch’s hands, bussing him soundly on the mouth.

“I got in,” Hutch said dazedly between kisses.

“This calls for a celebration!” Starsky declared, straddling Hutch’s lap. “We already had a holiday cause both of us are off work on the same day.”

Hutch was proud that Starsky had taken a job clerking at BC Gen in the records department. Any worry that he couldn’t handle a regular job had long passed when he’d aced the spring semester with a full load of classes. At the hospital, he was already training as a per diem ward clerk, or secretary, for the exact med/surg floor where he’d had lived for a month.

“That’s only because the charge nurse saw you nodding off over your anatomy book and gave you the evening off.” Hutch chuckled. “If we study together for an hour, I’ll treat you to…”

“Steak?” Starsky suggested hopefully.

“Huggy’s.” Hutch poked a finger at Starsky’s nose. “Put that into the anatomy book while I finish out the chapter on the effects of pathogens and viruses on living organisms.”

“Party pooper,” Starsky grumped, scrambling around on the couch with his back to the armrest and feet up against Hutch’s legs. His favorite studying position. “And I thought remembering the bones and muscles were hard. That’s insane.”

“If I can get through this, you can.” Hutch smacked the tops of Starsky’s sneakers. “Shoes off on the couch.”

He retrieved his textbook, smoothing the crumpled pages. Going to school with Starsky had been a revelation. He’d always known Starsky was intelligent, but his ability to memorize was something of a surprise. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been: Starsky had always squirreled away trivia and odd factoids. He’d simply found a specific use for his amazing recall.

While Hutch had the book smarts and ability to outline, prioritize his study habits, Starsky’s hyperactive tendencies were a challenge to knuckling under and getting the learning done. But he persevered, and they were both doing well in their classes. Their learning styles differed wildly, but complemented each other. Hutch helped Starsky to organize his written reports, checking his spelling and grammar. Starsky quizzed Hutch before his exams, and tended to retain the complicated words and systems as well, and sometimes faster, than Hutch did.

The initial hard work had paid off! He’d gotten into nursing school. It almost took his breath away. The next two years would be sink or swim time. Starsky was a year behind. He couldn’t apply until spring of ‘81.

After toeing off his sneakers, Starsky propped the anatomy book Hutch had used the semester before. “Cracks me up that you wrote notes in the margins of your books.” Starsky pointed to a scrawled notation in the text. “Always took you for a…”

“What,” Hutch asked, barring his teeth. He peered at the page under Starsky’s hand. “Gotta keep those wrist bones straight, in alphabetical order, or who knows what chaos could ensue.”

“You’re weird, you know that?” Starsky laughed, smacking Hutch on the head with a rolled up tube of his class syllabus papers. “Okay, smartass, give ‘em in alphabetical order.“

Hutch grinned triumphantly. He had this in the bag. “Capitate—“

“Backwards,” Starsky challenged with a savage grin.

“You’re fiendish.” Hutch tapped his forehead. “Triquetrum, trapezoid,…” Damn, this was more difficult than he remembered. Not like the words tripped lightly off the tongue. “Scaphoid? Prisiform, hamate, Capitate…” Fuck, that was only six. There were eight.

Starsky blew a harsh noise through his fist. “You forgot trapezium and Lunate.” He kissed Hutch full on the mouth. “For losing, you buy me a Huggy special.”

“I figured you’d order that anyway,” Hutch said after several more kisses. “Study! I am delving into viruses.”

“Then wash your hands before you eat,” Starsky warned.

~~**~~

July 1981

Hutch turned the car into the driveway at eight thirty am after his shift at the mall. With all luck, he’d get the Pell grant he applied for the fall semester and quit the security guard gig. College of BC was inexpensive and the grant wasn’t large, but it would help. He was ready to drop on his feet.

The mail lady was just about to push a handful of letters in the box when he climbed out of the car. Instead, she pushed them into his hand.

“Thanks,” Hutch called, recognizing the letterhead for the college on three envelopes. Leaning against the hot car, he ripped open the one with his name on it, a frisson of anxiety flitting through his chest. They weren’t kicking him out of the program half way through, were they? After he’d made it through the most difficult classes he’d ever had to endure: Pharmacology one and two. Not to mention required public speaking, and meg/surg nursing, which involved two days of clinicals. Working as a nurse in a real hospital, taking vitals, giving baths, wiping butts, and priming IV tubing.

The more he immersed himself in the world of a nurse, the more he regretted all the innuendo he’d ever perpetuated while eyeing a pretty leg in a white stocking. Nurses were not sexy doctor helpmates, simply following orders and catering to patients. They had to think on their feet, analyse and prioritize their patients’ needs, often juggling multiple tasks at once. Not that he’d seen a nurse wear white hose lately, either. Scrub dresses were the norm.

The school uniform was pale green pinstripes—a shapeless dress for the women, white slacks and a green striped tunic for himself and the one other male student, Mandip.

Sure of doom, Hutch’s hand was shaking by the time he extracted the note. He whooped with glee, running into the house.

Starsky was pouring coffee into a mug. It slopped on the table when Hutch raced inside yelling excitedly.

“What the hell?” Starsky groused, setting down the pot to grab a sponge for the spill.

“I got on the Dean’s list.” Hutch held up the notification, refraining from admitting to the fears he’d had. “You must have, too. There are two for you.” He waited until Starsky had finished wiping to give him the letter.

“How would I be on the Dean’s list? I’m no scholar. Must be a mistake.” Starsky rolled his eyes, taking the knife he’d used to spread butter on his toast to slit the top of the envelope. “Huh,” he said softly, an awed smile spreading across on his face. “I got in.”

“Great. You can be my date to the dinner.” Hutch nodded, snatching a slice of toast from his place. “It’s in three weeks.”

“No.” Starsky held up the single sheet of paper. “I mean, yeah. I got into the nursing program.”

“That’s fantastic!” Hutch grabbed him, twirling them both around the room. “You can wear my old green tunic.”

“Buyin’ my own ugly ass tunic.” Starsky chuckled, dropping into a chair to stare at the letter, obviously awestruck. “I did it.” He looked up at Hutch. “I didn’t…” He shook his head, leaning one hand on his cheek with sweet amazement. “I thought it wouldn’t happen. I didn’t have those kinda smarts. Got swept up in your wake and went along with it cause you were…you wanted it.”

“Starsk.” Hutch sat down beside him, stunned he’d never admitted so much.

“I went to the academy cause all I knew how to do was drive a cab and shoot a gun, courtesy of the Army.” Starsky held up two fingers. “Figured those two things would be useful as a street cop. And I really liked it—getting out there, fighting crime. Arresting the bad guys. Being with you.” He latched onto the hand Hutch curled around his. “What did I know about being a nurse?”

“Plenty.” With a year of nursing school under his belt, Hutch had been astonished how much knowledge he’d acquired simply by being in the hospital numerous times and particularly helping Starsky recover this last time. “How to take a pulse, how to bandage a wound. Tying a tourniquet.” CPR and basic life support courtesy of the BCPD annual reviews.

“Lactated Ringers bolus, stat.” Starsky nodded. “Although, to be truthful, I learned that off the old series Emergency!.” He pointed at Hutch. “The symptoms of Botulism. Hey, you once dug a bullet out of a guy’s leg.”

“I did,” Hutch agreed, floored. There was so much of his former life that could be connected to this new version. “Bein’ a cop was one long foreplay for being a nurse.”
He took a drink from Starsky’s coffee and commandeered the other slice of toast, munching quietly. Nursing was so different than he’d expected, in so many ways.

“You’re eating my toast,” Starsky said wryly, popping more bread into the toaster. He retrieved the other mail from the kitchen counter. “One more for me and one more for you.”

“Totally forgot.” Hutch opened the other envelope, relief flushing through him. “Mom sent us something.” He flourished a check for their rent. “Says she is really proud of both of us.”

“We’ll have to call her up, tell her I could be a nurse, soon,” Starsky said, buttering his toast when it was done. “Ma, too.”

“Somehow, this is all really sinking in.” Hutch shook his head. “The reality.”

“We rushed headlong away from the fact that I couldn’t be a cop anymore,” Starsky said, licking butter off his thumb. “Grabbing hold of the first opportunity that presented itself without a second thought.”

“I’d always wanted to go into the medical field, so it seemed perfect,” Hutch said, remembering that stab of fear that Starsky would never be a cop again. That he’d wanted to quit shortly before the shooting and only stayed because he could be with Starsky. “You just followed where I was going? What about now?”

“I like it—so far,” Starsky said, eating toast. “Being a ward clerk is…” He shrugged. “I’m sort of part of their world. I field calls from doctors, other hospitals, deal with orders, and just everything. It’s exciting. Learning lots more than I expected even before I officially start the nursing program.” He puttered around, putting away the bread and butter. “Discovered something I never realized about myself.”

“Which is?” Hutch prompted.

“I like going to college. Didn’t expect that. Think I might want more… maybe a Batchelor’s degree.” Starsky looked thoughtful, finally unsealing the last envelope. His mouth dropped open in surprise when he pulled out the letter from the college. “Don’t have to be your date, I got my own invite.”

“You’re on the Dean’s list, too!” Hutch clapped has hands before hugging Starsky tightly. Their kisses turned quite passionate. “When d’you have to leave for summer school?” Hutch asked breathlessly a few minutes later.

Wrapped in Hutch’s embrace, Starsky had to wiggle around to check his watch which gave Hutch’s groin some wonderful stimulation.

“Five minutes,” Starsky said reluctantly, extricating himself with a quick kiss on Hutch’s neck, right over the carotid. “Your pulse is racing,” he teased.

Hutch put his finger on the spot, feeling evidence of his increased heart rate. All because of Starsky. “I’ll wash the dishes, before I get some sleep. Have a class at three pm and one tonight at seven.”

“The joys of working and cramming school in between,” Starsky sighed, collecting his notebooks, textbooks, and a brown bag that presumably contained his lunch. “Meet you at the cafeteria tonight at five thirty? I got math to get through college at seven.” He paused, grabbing a can of soda for the drive. “What about you? Now that you’re halfway to that AS degree, is nursing everything you expected?”

“Not at all. Even though my mom is a nurse and I knew some of what she did. All those preconceived ideas about doctors’ assistants are out the window.” He was surprised to feel the weight of emotion gripping his chest, and swallowed coffee to hide it.

Starsky picked up his discomfort instantly. “What is it? I know you ain’t upset that our old friend Mike can chew up and spit out the first year interns, tellin’ ‘em how to write their orders correctly, and when a fresh post-op needs morphine.”

“No, Mike is an inspiration.” Like many of the nurses Hutch had met recently, Mike was smart and protective of his patients. “This happened months ago, really, but it keeps hitting me at the oddest moments. Don’t you have to leave?”

“Talk to me.” Starsky waggled his fingers. “I can finesse a couple minutes here or there.”

“This was at St. Catherine’s, where we did a clinical rotation. All older patients, a few on ventilators. Every student had one shift where we cared for Mrs. P, so we could experience suctioning her endotracheal tube with the help of the respiratory therapist.” He grit his teeth. Because of being intubated twice in his life due to respiratory infections, not to mention seeing Starsky’s tube suctioned several times when he was in a coma in May of 1979, he’d mastered the technique in a snap. That wasn’t the problem. “After I left that day, Mrs. P died, not an hour later.”

“Damn,” Starsky whispered, gathering Hutch into his arms. “You know very well that wasn’t your fault.”

“Yes. It’s stupid.” Hutch rubbed the back of Starsky’s neck, coiling the long curls around his fingers. Starsky was going to need the new fashion of a ponytail soon. “And then I dreamed about it, only I was suctioning you. You opened your eyes, looked at me—“

“I didn’t die.” Starsky gave him a little shake. “I am right here, and plan to be here a long, long time.”

Hutch chuckled, caught between the painful memory and reality. “For a couple of seconds, so you aren’t late for your morning class.”

“Love you,” Starsky said, kissing him again.

“I know,” Hutch said with a slight smile, echoing Han Solo.

~~**~~

July 1982

“You look like a real nurse, Hutchinson,” Starsky said with mock formality, leaning against the bathroom door to watch Hutch fuss with his white shirt collar. “Really proud of you.”

“Hey, Mr. Top of his Class.” Hutch turned to grin at Starsky. “Feels like one minute ago we were in your room at the Gen, and Mike walked in.”

“Opened a door we were too blind to have seen,” Starsky agreed, holding out Hutch’s stethoscope.

“More naive that our options were limited.” Hutch touched Starsky’s t-shirt over the largest of the scars. “How’s your chest? That damned virus last week was bad.”

“It was a cold,” Starsky said with a little heat, stifling a cough in his fist.

He tended to get testy when asked about his health. Three years after the shooting, Starsky was surprisingly strong, but his lungs would never be one hundred percent and Hutch worried with every respiratory illness. It was one of those cases where now he knew far too much about what damage there could be. Starsky caught everything, but recovered just as quickly, with the occasional lingering cough. His stamina was good, and so far, Starsky could handle the two days a week required for students, but it was becoming clear he probably didn’t have a future as a floor nurse. The daily grind of running around answering call bells and lifting patients would tax his compromised breathing. Luckily, there were dozens of options for a nurse other than that.

“Take your Echinacea and vitamin C,” Hutch pronounced vitamin with a British accent because it made Starsky laugh.

“Yes, sir.” Starsky saluted smartly. “I’ll wait up until you get home at midnight. Want t’hear every detail of your firstday.”

“Starsk, you have class tomorrow and a whole pm shift yourself as ward clerk. Get some sleep while you can, ” Hutch said, going over what he’d need for his first official day in the neonatal intensive care ward. He had flash cards, a mini notebook, and a major case of first day jitters.

Choosing were he wanted to be work hadn’t been half as difficult as he’d expected. As a student, he’d done clinicals in a variety of settings and quickly winnowed out what didn’t suit his temperament. No to the dying old people, no to cancer ward, and no to surgical nursing.

Babies, especially tiny, sick newborns, had been a revelation. He’d assumed he would be devastated by their helplessness and fragility. Instead, he’d discovered tiny fighters, born too early or with congenital anomalies who grew and thrived with amazing spirit. And that was just what he’d witnessed in two days of observational status in the unit. This preceptorship would be the test, whether he could handle the rigors of the job or find another home in the hospital. He had a week of working with a more experienced nurse, then the national clinical exam for his license next week, and ten more weeks of working with his preceptor afterwards. If he passed the NCLEX—he was a real nurse, right before his thirty-seventh birthday.

“I was kinda thinking of picking up a shift today, if they need me,” Starsky said. “The car could use a tune-up, and I need the money.”

“Long as you don’t overdo.” Hutch leveled his forefinger at his lover.

“I answer the telephone and remind family members to wash their hands,” Starsky scoffed. “Which reminds me—I talked to the staff coordinator at St. Catherine’s, and guess what?”

Hutch hustled into the kitchen to find his bag lunch. His internal clock said he had to arrive at two thirty to mentally prepare for the three o’clock shift. It was only one o’clock now, but if there was traffic on the 405 or—he cut himself off before going off on a tangent of worries. “What did she say?”

“You ever heard of telephone nursing?” Starsky grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl and tossed it to Hutch.

“Not sure.”

“Basically, you sit at a phone, fielding calls from worried family members or sick people.” Starsky took up three more apples, juggling them like a circus performer. “It’s like being a ward clerk, only with an RN cause you offer some basic diagnoses and meds. Talk to the person, family, whatever, advise on what to do, whether to take Tylenol or come into ER…sounds perfect.”

“It does.” Hutch stared at his juggling act, impressed, until Starsky dropped two apples in the sink. “Be careful you don’t end up with applesauce all over the counter.” He poured himself a cup of coffee from the coffee machine, inhaling the aroma. “You could do that straight out of school?”

“Nah, you need a year or two on the floor.” Starsky shrugged. “I could manage that, just probably not for the long term. Looking for options.”

“Smart guy.” Hutch kissed him as the phone rang. “You’re the professional, answer it.”

He picked up the receiver. “Third floor medical—“ Starsky said automatically before stopping himself with a bright grin. “Hey, Louise, you need a fill in clerk? Which floor?” He listened, pouring himself a cup of coffee. “ER? I’m your man.”

“Got your wish,” Hutch said, downing the coffee in his mug and craving another shot of caffeine. ”Want to grab a bite for dinner together? I’ll give you half of my sprouts on a bagel with cream cheese.”

“You’re on. Say seven thirty?” Starsky bounced on his toes. “’Cept I’m bringing the leftover fried chicken Edith made for us.” He pointed to a photo framed on the wall: Hutch in his graduation white uniform, surrounded by his classmates. “Dobey sure looked like a proud Dad at your pinning ceremony last month. Wish your own dad coulda been there.”

“My sister’s baby looks so much like him, he was, in a way.” Hutch glanced up at the sky through the window, wondering not for the first time, what his father would have thought of this new phase of his life. “My mom is still over the moon, calling all her old co-workers Her son, the nurse.”

“Nursing—as long as we don’t get needlesticks, communicable diseases, or back strain, is way safer than bein’ a cop, that’s for sure.” Starsky leaned against the counter, tucking himself into the curve of Hutch’s long side.

“Do you miss it?” Hutch asked.

“There are days—“ Starsky put his hands at nine and three, as if driving the long gone Torino. “I can feel us cruising the streets, rousting a couple of con artists, shooing off the hookers…”

“Stake out on some pusher’s hideout,” Hutch said. “Running down a purse thief—“

“Getting shot at,” Starsky concluded. “Do not miss that. Nursing is new, powerful in its own way. Can’t wait to finish school, join you on the job.”

“You will.” Hutch imagined his next eight hours. Would he hold a newborn? Feed it? He knew he wouldn’t be assigned the tiny preemies for a while, and his first day couldn’t be much different than doing student work in the unit. He couldn’t wait to dig in and learn all about neonates. Those babies held the future in their tiny hands and he was excited to help them grow up to see the world.

“L’chaim,” Starsky raised his mug, clinking it on Hutch’s.

FIN