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Heart of a Hero

Written by Valerie Wells

 

Hutch watched the apartment door with part of his attention and Starsky with the rest. His partner was crouched behind a van, perspiring in the spring sunshine, and he looked a little green around the gills.

Hutch caught his eye and raised an eyebrow in a question. Starsky shook his head. No. Not yet. They knew the guy was in the apartment. There was only one door, and they had it covered. No point in risking their safety to flush him out until the backups got here. He wasn't going anywhere.

But then they heard a shot from inside the apartment. They stared at each other in dismay, and without a word exchanged, both ran for the door. Starsky drew back to kick the door in and swayed a little. Hutch threw him a concerned glance, steadied him, and kicked the door himself. It gave way easily enough; these new apartment buildings weren't very sturdy.

Inside, as they'd feared, they found their prey, dead, with a bullet in his brain.

"Shit," Hutch said in a low voice, feeling for a pulse just to be sure.

Starsky, crouching next to him, sank wearily into a sitting position. "I don't get it," he said plaintively. "It was only a possession charge until he shot at us and ran."

Hutch glanced around the disheveled room. "Crack makes a guy crazy, Starsk," he said. "You know that. Goddamned stuff."

"Think it was simpler when our druggies were on PCP?" Starsky asked sourly, using his shirtsleeve to wipe his forehead. "At least the crackheads don't think their eyes are melting or they've got worms growing out of their ears."

Hutch grinned, a little reluctantly, and patted his partner's shoulder before using it as a lever to brace himself against to stand up.

"Ow," Starsky complained, rubbing it. "That's the bad one."

"I thought the left one was the bad one," Hutch said mildly, holstering his gun.

"Actually, both of 'em are, these days," Starsky answered, holding out a hand for Hutch to help him up. Hutch did, and reached for the phone to call a coroner's wagon.

The backups arrived just in time to miss the whole thing. They were a couple of fresh-faced uniforms, and Starsky remarked to Hutch that he doubted they'd been shaving more than a year.

Hutch laughed and tossed an arm around him. "You're beginning to sound like a cranky old man, buddy."

"I am a cranky old man," Starsky retorted. "Tell me again why we didn't take nice, safe, boring desk jobs years ago."

"Because," Hutch said patiently, "we'd have both died of boredom in a month. You know it and I know it. Better we stay on the street and go out in a blaze of glory."

"Just keep reminding me," Starsky said, wiping his forehead again as they approached the car. He pulled the keys out of his pocket and tossed them at Hutch. "Drive a while, will ya? It's hotter than the fires of hell out here today and I need a break."

Hutch glanced at him with concern, stronger this time. "You okay, Starsk? It's not that hot. Comin' down with something?"

Starsky shrugged. "Maybe so. I'm a little queasy and breathless."

Hutch stopped and felt his forehead. "You're not feverish, but you are pale. Want to call it a day? I'll do the paperwork."

"No way," Starsky said, pulling away. "But thanks, Mom," he added wickedly, sliding into the passenger side. "It's probably just a bug."

"Okay, okay." Hutch started the car and turned on the air conditioner, though it was a mild day. As he drove, he glanced sideways at his partner several times, trying not to be obvious about it. But he had noticed in the last few weeks that Starsky tired more easily than he used to, complained of the heat when there was no heat to speak of, and in general just seemed less the vigorous, healthy man he had been. But Starsky insisted there was nothing wrong with him and often pointed out that they were getting older -- and they were, Hutch had to admit, as much as he hated to. They'd be eligible to retire in five more years and were among the few cops who'd stayed on the streets their whole careers. Hutch was kind of proud of that, and wanted to keep it that way, so he let Starsky believe he'd convinced him that nothing was wrong.

But Hutch was afraid something was.

"I'll go this way," Hutch called to Starsky, drawing his gun and diving around the corner of the house.

Starsky nodded but didn't answer, turning to run the other way. They were trying to corner a two-bit punk who had mugged a woman a few minutes before, right in front of them, not realizing the innocuous blue sedan passing by contained two cops.

Hutch came around the corner of the house at full speed, just in time to see the punk scramble over the fence and keep going. Hutch started to follow him, until it dawned on him that Starsky wasn't with him. He should have been. Hutch paused uncertainly, glanced over his shoulder toward the house, and made his decision. They had a good description of the punk. The woman hadn't been hurt, only frightened. They'd catch him later. Hutch turned and trotted back around the side of the house.

And found Starsky passed out in the driveway.

~*~*~*~

Pacing back and forth in the waiting room at the hospital, Hutch asked himself how many times he'd been in this same position. Waiting to hear how bad his buddy was hurt. Waiting to hear if he'd live or die. Waiting.

"Mr. Hutchinson?"

Hutch whirled. The doctor smiled reassuringly. "David is resting now," she said. "You can see him in a few minutes, if you like. Your quick action in getting him here probably saved his life."

"What's the matter with him?" Hutch demanded.

She drew closer and gestured at the sofa. "Why don't we sit down and I'll explain. You're listed as 'next of kin.' Isn't there any family?"

Hutch shook his head. Why did they want Starsk's next of kin? "His parents are dead and he isn't married. Doctor, what's wrong with him?"

"He had a heart attack," she said gently.

"Oh, my God." Hutch sank back into the couch, stunned. "Is he...will he be okay?"

The doctor paused long enough to make Hutch's own heart speed up with fear and finally said, "The heart attack isn't the problem. It's a symptom of the problem."

"Then what is the problem?" Hutch asked, dreading the answer.

She laid her hand over his and met his eyes gravely. "When David was shot in 1979 and suffered cardiac arrest, his heart was damaged. He was young and healthy and fit, and appeared to recover. But now," she paused again and looked at the open file in her lap, "now it's caught up with him."

"Doctor, please, quit trying to break it gently," Hutch said impatiently.

She nodded. "Okay. I'll get to the bottom line. His heart is failing. It can't last much longer. I've called in a cardiologist, but I feel sure he'll agree with me. David will be put on the waiting list for a transplant. If he doesn't get a new heart, he'll die."

It was as if someone had stabbed him. Hutch felt an actual physical pain in his gut at her words. He stared at her, trying to take it in. "I...I don't understand," he managed after a few moments. "How can it be that he seemed fine for so long?"

"I think his otherwise good health masked the problem," she said. "If he got tired more easily or was able to do less than he had been before, he probably never blamed his heart. But as he has gotten older, the strain of his job has been harder for his heart to take, and has damaged it even more."

Hutch listened in horror to the quiet, calm voice.

"It is dangerously enlarged now," she went on. "He must be very careful while we wait for a heart. He can't run, or even walk very far. I've prescribed some medication which will make him more comfortable, but other than that, all we can do is wait."

"If he doesn't..." Hutch paused and steadied his voice, "if he doesn't get a heart, how long does he have?"

The doctor pursed her lips and considered. "It's hard to say. If he's very careful and follows orders, he'll probably last quite a while. Another attack, however, could kill him."

"Does he know?" Hutch asked.

She shook her head. "I wanted to ask you how to tell him, frankly. Is he the type to want it straight from the shoulder, or --"

"I'll tell him," Hutch said.

She stared at him. "I think --"

"I'll tell him," Hutch repeated, more forcefully.

She considered him for a few moments, finally nodding. "All right. I'll be nearby, if he has any questions."

Starsky was sleeping when Hutch entered his room, and not wanting to wake him, Hutch just sank into the visitor's chair and watched him. He was still far too pale and his chest rose and fell too quickly. There were dark circles under his eyes, and for the first time, Hutch noticed gray in the curls at his temples.

His heart. His loving, generous heart was the thing that was going to kill him, unless...

No. A donor had to be found. Somehow. Hutch refused to consider any other possibility. He also refused to think about the fact that, in order for Starsky to get a new heart and live, someone else's friend or brother or son had to die. Starsky was all that mattered.

Hutch covered his eyes.

"Hutch."

He looked up. Starsky was awake, his eyes fixed steadily on Hutch's face.

"Tell me the truth," Starsky said, his voice thready and weak but determined.

Hutch scooted the chair closer until he was right next to the bed. He took Starsky's hand in both of his own and looked down into the face of the man who had stood by him for so many years. The only person who had ever stuck around and loved him in and out of every mood, every disaster...everything. He had to blink back tears before he could speak.

"It's your heart, buddy."

Starsky kept his eyes trained on Hutch's face.

Hutch wet his lips. "It's enlarged, they say. Gunther...the cardiac arrest after Gunther...it did some damage. You got along all these years anyway, but now...now you need a new one."

"A new one?" Starsky's voice stayed steady, but Hutch could see the realization dawning in them.

"A transplant."

"And if I don't get one?"

"You'll get one. You're on the list. You just gotta be careful until then." Hutch tried to smile, but he was afraid it didn't look very convincing. "See what you get for worrying about me all these years, babe? A broken heart."

Starsky's eyes softened. "Ain't broken," he said. "Ain't even bruised. And worth every minute of it." He searched Hutch's face for a moment before adding, "It's gonna be okay, Hutch."

"Shouldn't I be the one telling you that?"

Starsky was silent for several minutes, but he never took his eyes off Hutch's face. It was as though he were trying to memorize it. Hutch waited, gently stroking the hand he still held and feeling how cold it was.

"You're going to stare holes in me," Hutch finally said.

Starsky smiled. "Nah. Listen, Hutch, you gotta promise me something."

"What?"

"That you're going to be all right. If I don't make it."

"Starsk --"

"Promise."

Hutch's eyes stung again. He tried holding the tears at bay, but one fell in spite of him, and Starsky reached over with his free hand to wipe it away.

"Don't, Hutch, please," and now Starsky's voice did break for the first time. "Not yet. Hell," he tried to laugh, "I'm pretty tough. I'll probably be just fine. But I want you to promise anyway. You'll hang in there if I gotta go first. And I'll wait for ya, and be there to meet you when you catch up. Huh? Will ya promise me that?"

Hutch couldn't speak, so he nodded. And Starsky squeezed his hand again and wearily closed his eyes.

~*~*~*~

Hutch knocked, and waited for the captain's "Come in." He closed the door behind him and took a seat in front of the captain's desk.

James Parker, who had been a young detective alongside Starsky and Hutch in their youth, had already heard about Starsky. Hutch had called him at home the night before, so he'd know not to expect either of them at work today. But now Hutch had something even more difficult to tell him.

"Starsky can't..." Hutch had to pause to collect himself. "He can't come back, Captain."

"How bad is it, Hutch?"

"He needs a transplant," Hutch said bleakly. "He can't work any more. He can't even...they said he has to take it easy. Can't climb stairs. Can't run. They don't even want him to drive."

Parker shook his head. "Dammit."

"He's eligible for disability," Hutch said. "But I'm not. And I'm all he's got, Jim. So I'm going to ask for early retirement. Beginning immediately."

"Of course," Parker said. "I expected as much, actually. I've already got the papers here for you to fill out. But you know, your pension won't be much if you take it now."

"I know," Hutch said. "I don't care. Starsky's more important and he needs me."

Parker nodded. "Okay." He reached into his desk and handed a folder to Hutch. "There's your paperwork. I've already put the paperwork through for Starsky." He paused. "You know," he went on at last, "we're going to miss you guys. A lot. Dobey always said you were his best men. He was right."

Hutch smiled weakly. "Thanks." He rose and tucked the folder under his arm. "See ya, Captain."

Parker rose, too, and held out his hand. "Good luck, Hutch. To both of you. Godspeed."

Hutch nodded; he didn't trust his voice.

~*~*~*~

For the first time, Hutch was glad he'd had rich parents. They'd left him and his sister both substantial trust funds, and Hutch had basically ignored its existence until now. He'd been determined to make it on his own ever since he was 21, and he'd done it, too. He'd only drawn on it once; to pay for Gillian's funeral. She'd had no family. He'd loved her, and it was the only thing he could do for her.

But now he was going to need it. He was well aware that a cop's pension wasn't much to start with, and taking early retirement was going to strain it to the maximum. With Starsky on disability, needing medicine and care -- and eventually, expensive surgery -- Hutch was damned glad he had that trust fund. It would keep them both comfortable for...as long as necessary.

"Well, buddy, we're unemployed," he said to Starsky, trying to sound cheerful, as he came into his room.

"Huh?" Starsky tore his attention away from the TV, loudly playing the Jerry Springer show. Hutch rolled his eyes and snapped the set off.

"How you can watch that crap," he said, shaking his head. "I said, we're unemployed. We are out of work. Men of leisure. Officially, as of today."

Starsky blinked at him, not understanding.

"You can't go back to work, Starsk," Hutch said gently. "Ever. And you need somebody to take care of you. Who always takes care of you?"

"But, Hutch," Starsky struggled to sit up. "You can't quit 'cause of me."

"I didn't quit. I retired."

"You ain't old enough to retire."

"Sure I am," Hutch said. "And now we can quit getting shot at and start enjoying ourselves." He grinned.

Starsky didn't return it. He stared at Hutch, a frown puckering his brows, for several minutes. "You're gonna 'take care of me'? You mean you're giving up your job -- and your income -- to play nurse to a worn-out cop with a worn-out heart?"

"Starsk," Hutch sat on the edge of the bed and laid a hand on Starsky's leg. "The job means nothing to me without you as my partner. You're all I got, buddy. And you're gonna need somebody. I want to be the somebody. I want to do this. It's important to me. Okay?"

"Aw, Hutch." Starsky shook his head. "That's not fair to you. You aren't the one who's sick. Why should you give up everything --"

"I'm not giving up anything," Hutch interrupted. "We've always talked about what we'd do if we weren't cops. Now we're gonna find out. I've been looking at houses today."

Starsky's eyebrows shot up. "Huh?"

Hutch grinned. He was actually quite proud of himself. "Remember Joe Haymes?"

Starsky nodded.

"He's got a house on the beach. Nice place, too. Not very big, but big enough for us. Joanna's married and living in San Francisco and since his wife died, he never uses it. I got it for a song. I'll get us all moved in, so by the time you're out of here, I can take you right home and plop you down in that ratty old recliner of yours."

Starsky's eyes dimmed, but he blinked hard. "Aw, Hutch--"

"Don't 'aw, Hutch' me," Hutch said with forced cheer. "It's a done deal. And unless you hate the idea of living on the beach and sleeping late and having your partner taking care of you, we'll be living there next week. Together. Is that okay?"

"Yeah," Starsky said softly. "It's okay."

~*~*~*~

Huggy called a couple of his cousins who owned a moving company and between the four of them, they got both apartments emptied and everything moved that weekend. In spite of the years they'd been friends and had keys to each other's apartments, Hutch felt a little bit like an intruder as he went through Starsky's things and packed them up for the move. He was working in the bedroom as Andre and Cecil, Huggy's cousins, were carrying boxes out to the van. Huggy had been in the kitchen, but Hutch felt eyes on his back and turned around to see Huggy lounging against the doorway of the bedroom.

"What's wrong, Goldilocks?" Huggy asked, his brown eyes twinkling, but understanding.

"It feels funny, poking through his stuff," Hutch answered honestly.

"I know, my friend, but you know he can't do it himself."

"I know."

"So get with it, will you?" Huggy pretended to be very impatient. "I do have a business to run, and I can't take all day about this."

"Okay, Hug." Hutch grinned at Huggy's retreating back and went back to work. He opened a drawer of the nightstand and started packing the items up. At the bottom of the drawer was a wooden box, and it was wedged so tightly in the drawer that when Hutch pulled it out, it came open and the contents spilled all over the place. He started picking them up and replacing them, feeling more like an intruder than ever.

A few baseball cards. A couple of photos of his mom and dad, of Nick, of Terry, several of Starsky and Hutch together.

And a silver chain with a moon-and-star pendant hanging from it. His .

Hutch picked it up and studied it. He'd forgotten about this. He'd worn it constantly for a couple of years, but now he remembered that the chain had broken one day at Starsky's and he'd laid it on the coffee table. What had he said?

"I guess it's time to move on."

And instead of throwing it away, Starsky had kept it, all this time. That had been -- what? -- at least 15 years ago. Maybe more.

You old softie. And you say you hate soapy scenes

"Hutch! Are you done in there yet?" Huggy's voice floated in from the living area, startling Hutch out of his reverie.

"Yeah, Hug. Just finishing up," he called back. He closed and taped the cardboard box and took it into the living room for Andre and Cecil to carry out to the van. That had been the last of it. Starsky's apartment was bare to the walls now, and it felt so forlorn and abandoned that Hutch again had to blink back tears. It felt as if Starsky had died --

But Hutch scolded himself. He was fine. He was getting out of the hospital on Sunday, and if they didn't get busy, he would have no comfortable home to come home to. The beach house was full of boxes and disarranged furniture, and Hutch had to get this last load over there and start arranging things. Now.

~*~*~*~

He didn't finish until it was almost time to pick Starsky up. It wasn't easy, fitting the accumulation of two lifetimes into one small two-bedroom house without tossing some stuff. But Hutch hadn't felt he had a right to decide which of Starsky's things should go, so he'd brought everything.

Starsky's favorite worn-out La-Z-Boy chair was parked so that he could see the television easily, with a reading lamp next to it and some of his favorite magazines and books piled on the end table within reach. His stereo was on top of the television -- it was nicer than Hutch's -- while Hutch had given his to the Goodwill store. A second TV was in Starsky's bedroom, angled for easy viewing from the bed, for those days (and Hutch devoutly hoped there wouldn't be many of those) when he didn't feel well enough to get up. Hutch had checked with the doctor to find out how much of Starsky's favorite junk food he'd still be allowed to eat, and had stocked the kitchen. Everything was ready. It was time.

Starsky was already dressed and waiting, none too patiently, when Hutch arrived.

"About time you got here," Starsky groused. "I'm goin' stir crazy."

"I know, buddy," Hutch said. "But I had to finish up at home first. It's all waiting for you."

Starsky flushed slightly. He hadn't wanted to talk about moving since Hutch had first told him what he planned. And every time Hutch had mentioned it since, Starsky had clammed up to the point that Hutch quit bringing it up. And now, he didn't say a word as Hutch found a nurse, loaded him into the wheelchair and checked him out.

Hutch helped him out of the chair at the entrance to the hospital and put an arm around him to steady him as they walked to the car. But Starsky didn't really seem to need the help. Still, it made Hutch feel better to touch him and help him.

He loaded Starsky into the car and went around to get in his own side. Starsky was still unnaturally silent, and Hutch reached over and squeezed his shoulder before starting the car. He knew this was hard for him. To have his job and his apartment and his health all taken from him seemingly overnight had to hurt. If he'd talk about it, cuss, fume, he'd feel better. And Hutch was willing to listen as long as it took. But instead, Starsky had withdrawn.

Hutch drove to the beach house, chattering amiably about the view and the things they'd do when Starsky got his strength back a little, but getting almost no response. He pulled into the driveway and Starsky finally looked up at the house. His face relaxed marginally.

"Hey, this is kinda nice," he said, his eyes going over the rustic deck and the two comfortable patio chairs placed there.

"You're gonna love it, I promise," Hutch said. "And if you hate the way I arranged it, tell me, and I'll fix it."

"Nah, I'm sure it's fine," Starsky said, getting out of the car and leaning his elbows on it to look out over the small back yard. "Hey, Blondie, tell me you didn't plant those petunias."

Hutch laughed. "I didn't. I think Edith did. They weren't here when I made the deal with Joe, but they were after I told Dobey about the place. I also found geraniums in the window boxes yesterday."

Starsky grinned a little and started up the walk to the house. Hutch badly wanted to take his arm again, but refrained. However, he stayed close in case Starsky needed him. But Starsky kept on by himself, walking around the house at a slow but steady pace. He grinned again when he saw the geraniums in question, stood for several long moments looking out at the beach, then turned and went inside.

Hutch hovered by the door and waited. Starsky wandered around the room, touching things now and then, pausing several moments before the menorah Hutch had placed on a shelf. He didn't touch it; just looked at it. Finally, he moved on, looking over the books on another shelf, his and Hutch's side by side. When he got to Hutch's Bible, next to his Torah, he laid a hand on each and his eyes moved back to the menorah. But still he said nothing, moving on down the hall to the first bedroom -- his. Hutch had done his best to re-create the set-up of Starsky's bedroom in his apartment. The different layout of this room had made it difficult, but when he was finished, it was almost exact. Starsky stood in the doorway looking at it for a moment, then smiled over his shoulder at Hutch. He'd noticed.

He walked on down the hallway, and Hutch followed. Starsky stopped at the doorway to Hutch's room -- both bedrooms connected with the bathroom and thus each other, something that Hutch had been grateful to notice. They could leave the connecting doors with the bathroom open at night, and if Starsky needed him, Hutch would hear.

Starsky actually went into Hutch's bedroom and sat on the bed. Hutch sat beside him.

"You sure did a lot of work on the place," Starsky said at last. "All by yourself?"

"Huggy helped some."

He nodded and looked around. Hutch had not bothered to try to re-create his old bedroom. He'd been a lot less interested in working on this room than Starsky's and hadn't even quite finished unpacking his own things.

Starsky was very quiet for several minutes, and Hutch waited for him to speak first, keeping a hand on his shoulder.

Finally, Starsky sighed and said, "God, Hutch. I don't know if I can handle this."

"You don't have to handle it alone, buddy."

"It isn't fair. You're giving up your whole life --"

"Whoa," Hutch interrupted, turning to face him and putting both hands on his shoulders. "Stop right there. Starsk, don't you know by now?"

Starsky met his eyes and his own were full of misery. "Know what?"

"You are my whole life. This -- " Hutch gestured at the house in general, " -- is the only place I want to be, doing the only thing I want to do. Me and thee, Starsk. Like always."

Up to now, Starsky had kept his composure, at least in Hutch's presence. Though Hutch had known how much all this hurt him, hurt his pride and his spirit, he had been outwardly pretty calm. But now that they were alone together, Starsky's eyes filled with tears, and Hutch pulled him tight against his body and held on for dear life.

"We're gonna make it, you and me," Hutch whispered. "I promise."

The trip home had tired Starsky, and he soon fell asleep, lying across his bed. He refused to get undressed and get under the covers.

"I've spent enough time laid up for a while," he said stubbornly when Hutch suggested it, so Hutch let it go and went outside to sit on the deck and watch the waves break against the shore. He was afraid this was going to be a difficult time for both of them, a test of their friendship worse than any they'd faced so far. Always before, they'd had an enemy they could hunt down and bring to justice. But how could they fight this?

~*~*~*~

Gradually, some of Starsky's strength returned, and though he couldn't be as active as he liked, he did get so he could take short walks along the beach, sit outside and enjoy the sun, and wasn't an invalid. His spirits rose with his improved health, and Hutch even felt as if he could leave him alone occasionally to run errands.

They'd run out of groceries and Hutch had no choice but to go buy some. He didn't want to be gone that long.

"Oh, for cripes' sake, Hutch," Starsky said impatiently, sitting in his recliner watching a ball game. "I'm a big boy. I even eat with a fork these days."

Hutch grinned. "Do ya now, laddie?" he inquired in his best Irish accent. "Sure and ya coulda fooled me."

Starsky threw the TV guide at him. "Get outta here, Blintz. Bring back some cookies or somethin', huh? Those health food brownies tasted like old shoes."

"Okay, okay." Hutch shrugged into his jacket. "When was the last time you ate old shoes, anyway?" He left with Starsky's laughter still ringing in his ears.

The store was crowded and it took longer than he'd intended. He stopped by the video rental store on his way home, too, and rented "Rocky." It was one of Starsky's favorite movies.

When he got home, the house was quiet. He poked his head into Starsky's room but it was empty. So were the deck, the kitchen and the living room. Starsky must be on the beach.

  Hutch carried groceries in, set them on the counter, but didn't put anything away. He couldn't quiet the nagging feeling of worry, even though he knew Starsky would get mad at him if he went looking for him. He'd probably grumble about being baby-sat.

Hutch stood uncertainly in the living room, staring at Starsky's empty chair, for about two minutes before he gave in. He went outside. The little yard was empty, too.

"Where the hell are you, partner?" Hutch muttered, starting around the corner of the house. If that curly-headed lout was weeding Edith Dobey's petunias, after all the doctor had said about strenuous exercise -- "Starsky!"

Then he spotted him. Starsky was walking along the beach, barefoot, watching a couple of kids who were playing with a beach ball in the water. Hutch heaved a sigh of relief and turned to go back into the house before Starsky caught him looking for him.

But one of the children lost her balance and fell into the water. Starsky reacted instantly, dashing in after her, though the water wasn't deep. He pulled the child out, hoisted her into his arms and carried her back to the beach. She was crying and spluttering but otherwise unhurt. Hutch had run the moment he saw Starsky move, and he skidded to a halt in the sand beside them.

"Sssh, honey, you're okay. You're okay," Starsky was crooning, pushing the little girl's hair out of her eyes. "Just got a little wet is all. You're not hurt."

She sniffled and managed to smile at him. "Thanks, mister." She scrambled to her feet and ran off, with a wave.

Starsky grinned after her. "Cute kid. Wonder where her parents are?"

"That's probably them, down there," Hutch said, pointing at a couple lying under a beach umbrella about a hundred yards away.

"They oughta take better care of their kids," Starsky said, frowning at them

"Why should they, when they've got you to do their babysitting for them?" Hutch teased. "Come on back to the house. I bought two different kinds of cookies to satisfy that sweet tooth of yours."

"All right," Starsky said, brightening. "Lead me to 'em."

Starsky took a big handful of both kinds of cookies and a tall glass of milk and went back out on the deck while Hutch put the groceries away. Every so often, Hutch glanced out the glass door, but Starsky just sat there, munching cookies and staring out at the water. Hutch finally turned away and began trying to find something quick to cook for supper, but a sound from outside made him look through the door again.

Starsky had dropped the milk glass and was bent double. Hutch ran.

"Starsk! What's wrong? Tell me, quick!"

Starsky was holding his left arm against his body, and the leaders stood out in his neck. He couldn't speak, but his eyes mutely pleaded for help...then he slid out of the chair and into Hutch's arms, unconscious.

Hutch felt frantically for a pulse and found none. And Starsky wasn't breathing. There was no time to call for help. Hutch ripped Starsky's shirt open to the waist and began CPR. His own heart was skittering madly in his chest with fear and adrenaline.

Please, Starsk. Please, babe. Breathe. Breathe. Come on.

Between breaths, he pumped Starsky's chest, terrified he would hurt something or break something -- he'd never had to actually do this to a person, only on the manikin in the class he and Starsky had both taken when it became compulsory for police officers to be certified in CPR a few years ago. He never thought that class might save his best friend's life.

Panting, he stopped for a few moments, like he'd been taught, although he still hadn't heard Starsky take a breath.

"Starsk, come on. Come on!" He bent down and listened to Starsky's chest. Still nothing. He went back to work.

When he thought he couldn't keep it up another second, Starsky gasped and a little color came back into his face. Hutch grabbed his wrist and felt. There was the pulse. Not strong, but there. He grabbed the cordless telephone and called 911, and in a few minutes, Starsky blinked and opened his eyes.

"Hutch?"

"Sssh. Don't try to talk. Ambulance is on the way."

"What happened?"

"You had another attack, babe," Hutch said, wiping sweat from his brow and thanking God for that CPR class.

Starsky looked up at him for several moments. "Whatsa...matter with...you?"

"I said, be quiet," Hutch said, softening the words with smile. "I did CPR. Glad they made us learn how. Don't talk any more. The ambulance'll be here in a couple of minutes."

"Hutch..." Starsky's eyes began to go hazy and Hutch grabbed hand to check his pulse again. A little stronger.

"Quit talking, will you? I don't know if I've got enough air left for another go," Hutch said, worriedly watching the color ebb and flow in Starsky's face.

Starsky squeezed his hand and nodded. And a few minutes later they heard the siren coming.

~*~*~*~

Hutch stood at the window of Starsky's room in ICU, looking through the glass at him lying there so still and pale, with wires all over him. He leaned his forehead against the glass and tried to stop shaking. That had been too close. The doctor had told him that if he hadn't started CPR so quickly and done it so thoroughly, Starsky would be dead now. As it was, he was still in a lot of danger.

"You saved him, Ken," she said, patting his arm.

But what about next time?

Hutch didn't know if he could bear it.

~*~*~*~

Huggy found Hutch sleeping in a corner of the couch in the ICU waiting room. He stood in the doorway watching him for a few minutes, reluctant to awaken him. He looked so exhausted and worn out. But Hutch sensed his presence and came awake with a jolt.

"Starsky?"

"No, my blond friend, just me," Huggy said gently, sitting next to him. "How's he doin'?"

Hutch shook his head. "He's not conscious. Doc says that's not a problem and not to worry, but..."

"But you worry anyway," Huggy finished. "Have you eaten anything? You're gonna wind up in there next to him, if you don't take care of yourself."

Hutch sighed and threw his head back against the couch. "Hug, I can't think of anything except him right now. And if he...if he goes...I might as well go, too."

"Now, Hutch, you can't say stuff like that, man," Huggy said, patting his arm. "We need you. He needs you."

Hutch nodded, but his eyes burned and he didn't want to cry in front of Huggy. Starsky was the only person he'd ever been able to cry in front of without feeling ashamed, and Starsky was...Starsky wasn't here.

"Hutch," Huggy said, his voice very soft, "you don't have to carry this all alone. You think I don't love Starsky, too? Lean on me, brother. That's what I'm here for."

Hutch lifted his eyes to Huggy's and all at once, he couldn't be strong any more. He let the tears come, and for the first time in years, arms other than Starsky's went around him and supported him.

~*~*~*~

This time it was close to two weeks before they let Starsky go home. But when they did, Hutch had made up his mind he was never, never going to leave him alone again. Every minute Starsky was out of his sight, even while he was in the hospital under the watchful eye of doctors and nurses, Hutch could see again in his mind's eye Starsky's pallor and the pleading look in his eyes as he slid out of the chair that day.

"What do you want to eat, Starsk?" Hutch asked after he'd settled him into his chair and handed him the remote.

"As long as it ain't mystery meat, I don't care," Starsky said. "I've had enough of that shit to last me the rest of my life."

Hutch grinned. "Okay. How about lasagna?"

Starsky stared at him. "You gonna make that vegetarian crap?"

Hutch shook his head. "Nope. Real lasagna. Doc said it's okay, as long as you don't have it very often."

"That would be terrific," Starsky said gratefully.

After dinner, Hutch put the dishes to soak and sat down with a book he'd been trying to read. Starsky was silent and didn't even turn the television on. That was unusual enough that Hutch finally put the book aside. "Wanna talk about it?"

Starsky sighed and propped his chin on his hand. "Yeah. Do you mind?"

"Nope. What I'm here for."

Starsky gave a sad little twisted grin. "I want you to promise me something."

Hutch felt that cold fear start in his gut again. "What?"

"You gotta promise me you'll be okay," Starsky said, his eyes a little too bright. "I worry about ya, babe. I know how I'd feel if our positions were reversed. I may not make it. Hell, at the rate I'm goin', I probably won't make it. But you got to. You got to be okay. For both of us."

"Starsky -- " Hutch's eyes did fill and he couldn't finish.

"No, hear me out, Hutch. I got some things to say and I'm gonna say 'em now, while I can, in case I don't get another chance." Starsky leaned forward and took Hutch's hands in his and held them, looking down at their entwined hands for several moments before going on. Finally he looked up, met Hutch's eyes squarely, and gave one of his crooked grins. "How many years we been best friends, huh? Twenty? Twenty-five?"

"Twenty-seven," Hutch said around the thickness in his throat.

"Twenty-seven years. Hell, most marriages don't even make it anywhere near that long. And no matter what's happened, we've been there for each other. We haven't let each other down."

"I have --" Hutch began, but Starsky cut him off.

"No. You haven't. We've both made mistakes, but we forgave each other and they're in the past. They don't matter. Never happened. Forgotten. Okay?"

Hutch nodded.

"The important thing is here," Starsky raised their joined hands. "We're here, together. You stuck by me. I don't say it enough, but I love you, Hutch. You are, and you've always been, the best friend, best buddy, best brother a man could ask for. I've been blessed to know you and I want you to know how grateful I am to have had you at my back all these years."

"Starsk -- " But he couldn't go on.

"Hey," Starsky said softly. "I ain't tryin' to make you cry, babe. I ain't even sayin' goodbye. There's still some life left in me yet. Don't give up. But when I was lyin' there in that hospital these last coupla weeks, I had lots of time to think, and I realized I hadn't ever told ya how much you mean to me."

"I know," Hutch said. "You don't have to say it. You know how much I love you, too, don't you?"

"Yeah," Starsky said, his eyes going soft. "If I'd ever been dumb enough to wonder, I wouldn't be wondering now. Look at all this," he let go with one hand long enough to gesture at the room in general, "there's my proof, if I ever needed any. But I don't, buddy. I know. I just wanted to say it, right out, in so many words, so you'd have that to remember if you ever needed it."

Hutch couldn't bear any more. He slid out of his chair and wrapped both arms around Starsky and held him tight, feeling their hearts beat together, and he didn't make any attempt to stop the tears that rolled down his cheeks.

~*~*~*~

Ever since Starsky had been put on the transplant list, both he and Hutch had carried pagers so that if a heart became available at any hour of the day or night, they'd be notified. Hutch never let his leave his side. He wore it during the day, and at night it lay on his bedside table right next to his ear.

Starsky was less inclined to worry about his. He took it off and left it in his room when he took a bath or went out on the beach and sometimes forgot to put it back on. Hutch found it lying on the floor next to his recliner one day and scolded him for forgetting to keep it close.

"I don't need to, as long as you got yours," Starsky said reasonably.

"What if I lose mine?"

Starsky laughed. "No way, Blintz. The thing's grown to your hip."

But as the days and weeks went by, both pagers remained silent. Sometimes Hutch would lie awake at night, staring at it, willing it to go off. He stubbornly refused to believe that they wouldn't call in time.

But as the days and weeks went by, and Starsky lost a little each day, got a little weaker, lost more weight and strength and health, even Hutch began to wonder if the heart wouldn't come too late.

~*~*~*~

Hutch woke up after a late-afternoon nap one day and found the house empty. His heart froze in his chest. The last time Starsky had vanished...

He dashed through each room and couldn't find him. He ran outside and looked up and down the beach but there was still no sign of him. Barefoot, wearing only jeans, he jogged up and down the beach and finally found Starsky sitting alone at the edge of the water, his back against some rocks. He sank to his knees next to him, breathless, unable to speak. Starsky lifted a hand and laid it on his knee, but didn't speak for a long, long time.

When Hutch caught his breath, he said, "Starsk, you scared me to death. Leave a note or something next time, will ya?"

Starsky didn't look at him, keeping his eyes on the sunset over the water. Very, very quietly, he said, "I don't think there's gonna be a next time, Hutch."

"What?"

He finally turned his head, and the pallor of his face was ghostly. "See the sun goin' down, babe?"

Hutch nodded, his blood running cold in his veins.

"I'm goin' with it, Hutch. I can feel it. I didn't want you..." He had to stop for a moment. Hutch could see him fighting for air and he noticed the rapid, shallow beat of the pulse in his throat. "I didn't want you havin' to see this," Starsky finally finished.

"See what?" Hutch put his arms around him and pulled him against his chest.

Starsky leaned against him and closed his eyes. "I ain't gonna make it, Hutch. I didn't want you to see..." He paused again and burrowed his face into Hutch's chest and Hutch could feel dampness against his skin. "I'm sorry, buddy. I tried to hang on..."

"Starsky, no!" Hutch held on desperately. "Not now. Not yet. Let me call an ambulance."

"Won't...won't get here in time," Starsky said, his voice so weak Hutch could hardly hear him. "Love ya, Hutch...glad you're here after all...hold on tight, buddy..."

Tears streaming down his face, Hutch tipped Starsky's face up. His skin was going gray and Hutch had seen that look on other faces. "Starsk...Starsky! Please!"

Starsky opened his eyes and tried to focus on Hutch's face. Softly, whispering, he said, "Love ya...don't feel no more pain...only...love..."

Hutch clutched him close and buried his face in Starsky's curly hair. "No, the pain's all mine now, babe."

Starsky closed his eyes again. His arms around Hutch's waist went limp.

~*~*~*~

Hutch woke with a start when the pager went off. He blinked in the darkness, not knowing where he was for a moment, but the lighted screen on the pager brought him back to the present and his heart started thumping wildly in his chest. They had a heart. They had a heart!

But...he was confused until he realized he’d been dreaming. To reassure himself, he tiptoed through the bathroom and peeked in on Starsky, who was lying on his back, mouth open.  Snoring loud enough to rattle the window panes, Hutch thought with a smile. But they didn’t have much time. He went back to his own room to use the telephone to call the hospital and tell them they were on their way. Then he went back into Starsky’s room and gently nudged him awake.

”Starsk. Come on, buddy. They called.”

It took several tries, but finally Starsky blinked up at him. “Huh?”

”We gotta go, Gordo. They have a heart.”

Starsky was so weakened by this time that Hutch had to help him get up and dressed and help him out to the car. They’d kept an overnight bag packed and stashed in the hall closet just for this occasion, so they wouldn’t have to waste time if and when the call came. Hutch snagged it on the way out the door, hurrying Starsky as much as he dared.

Hutch broke every traffic law on his way to the hospital, praying that he wouldn't get stopped. He no longer had a siren or mars light or badge to convince fellow officers he was driving like a demon with good reason. Miraculously, he made it in one piece and without getting stopped, and moments after they arrived, the transplant team had Starsky in the OR.

The nurse at the desk couldn't tell him anything except that Starsky was in surgery. Hutch was worried that he was too weak to withstand the operation, but she couldn't answer that question, either, and neither the transplant surgeon nor the cardiologist had left any information.

So Hutch paced and swore and drank coffee and called Huggy and Dobey and their other friends...and waited.

Huggy arrived at last. He took one look at Hutch's wild eyes and took the coffee away from him. "You don't need that, my friend. You're wound up tighter than the high E on a fiddle already. Sit down."

"I can't..." Hutch reached for the coffee, but Huggy held it out of reach.

"Come on, Hutch. Sit."

Hutch sat, but he fidgeted and squirmed until Huggy sighed and took his arm.

"Look, Hutch, this isn't helping. Try to calm down, for crying out loud."

"Huggy, he damn near died in my arms once before! I thought he was dead! He barely even made it here, and he could still die!" And Hutch finally broke down and buried his face in his hands. Huggy silently put an arm around him and squeezed his shoulder and kept his mouth shut.

It was many hours before anyone came to tell them any news. But finally a doctor, still wearing a bloodstained gown, stopped in the doorway and said, "Mr. Hutchinson?"

Hutch shot out of his chair.

"He made it through surgery. Now we have to wait and see if he rejects it or not. It's still touch and go."

"When will we know something?" Huggy asked. Hutch seemed to have lost the power of speech.

"The next 24 hours are very important," the surgeon said. "But I've known transplant patients to reject organs even months later. I'm sorry I can't tell you more right now."

”What happens now?” Hutch said, his voice trembling.

”He’ll have to be in the ICU for at least a couple of days,” the surgeon said. ”We’ve already begun anti-rejection medication, which he’ll have to take for the rest of his life. If everything goes well, he’ll be moved to a regular room in a few days, and we can release him in a week or two, depending on how he’s doing. He won’t be able to tell if he’s having a heart attack now because we have to sever the nerves during surgery. But we’ll give you both instructions for what symptoms to watch for in the case of rejection or an attack, and we’ll do frequent check-ups to monitor his progress.”

Hutch and Huggy listened to this in silence. The doctor must have seen the terror in both pairs of eyes, because he smiled. “We have high hopes that he’ll come through this just fine,” he said. “I don’t want you to worry unnecessarily. He was a good candidate for surgery, and he’s always been in otherwise good health. There’s every chance that he’ll recover fully.”

”But what does that mean?” Hutch asked. “How much of a normal life can he have?”

”Very normal,” the doctor said reassuringly. “He’ll gradually regain his strength and stamina. Most transplant patients can return to an active lifestyle. He should be able to swim, run, do almost anything he wants to do, after he’s recovered. There are risks, of course. He’ll be more susceptible to illness because the anti-rejection drugs suppress his immune system. He’ll have a higher risk for cancer. But overall, he’s probably going to feel better and healthier than he has for a long time.”

”Unless he rejects it,” Hutch said.

The doctor nodded. “It was a good match,” he said. “Try not to worry. You’ll be able to see him in a little while. He’s going to look pretty bad, but that’s normal. He’s on a ventilator, so he won’t be able to talk. Don’t let his appearance scare you. We know what we’re doing.”

Hutch nodded, and after the doctor left, sank down on the couch in the waiting area, pale and trembling. Huggy sat next to him and put a hand on his arm. “Hey, come on,” Huggy said softly. “The man said it should be all right.”

”I know,” Hutch said. “I know, but until I see him, until he’s home, I won’t relax. And even then, Hug -- what if he rejects it? What if it happens in the middle of the night and I don’t know until it’s too late? What if --”

”Hey, just hang on, brother,” Huggy said. “Don’t borrow trouble. And if you hover too much, you’ll make him and yourself crazy. Ease up. For his sake.”

Several hours later, the two of them went into Starsky’s ICU room. Starsky was groggy, but already his color was better than it had been for a long time, and when Hutch squeezed his hand, he squeezed back and tried to smile.

One year later....

”Blintz!”

Hutch had been trying to get dinner together for the last half hour and everything that could have gone wrong had. The milk was sour that he’d planned to use for the mashed potatoes. There weren’t enough carrots. The oven hadn’t wanted to light and he’d had to re-ignite the pilot light. His temper was frayed almost beyond repair. He dropped the knife he was using to cut up vegetables and stalked to the patio door. “What?” he hollered back impatiently.

Starsky was trudging up the beach with an armload of parcels wrapped in brown paper and an ear-to-ear grin. “Look what I got!” he yelled, still too far away for normal conversation. He broke into a trot and bounced up the steps to the door. “Y’know those girls we met the other day down the road who have the legs?”

”Most people have legs, moron.”

”Not like these girls,” Starsky said. “Anyway, they went to some fish market today and they bought about a ton of the stuff and they gave me some and here it is. I told ‘em we’d have ‘em over for supper tomorrow and cook for ‘ em to pay ‘em back.”

 

”David Starsky,” Hutch said, losing patience again, “WE will not be cooking for them and you know it. I will be cooking for them. And who says I want to cook for two extra people in order to save them the horrors of your cooking? Do you think, just once, you could consult me before you invite people over? Just once?”

Starsky cocked his curly head to one side and, though it hadn’t seemed possible, his grin widened and he started to chuckle.

”What’s so goddamn funny?” Hutch whirled and went back to the kitchen. Starsky followed, still snickering, and put the fish into the refrigerator.

”You,” he said in answer to Hutch’s question. “You’re yellin’ at me.”

”So what?” Hutch turned to look at him, still holding the knife.

Starsky put his hands up and backed away, eyes dancing. “No need for violence,” he said. “Do you know how long it’s been since you yelled at me?”

Hutch’s impatience faded like mist. It had been about a year and a half, in fact. Since before Starsky had had his first heart attack.

He took a good long look at him. His eyes were bright and clear, his cheeks were still pink from his trip outside, and his curls were in complete disarray from the brisk breeze off the water. He was, in fact, the picture of health, and someone who didn’t know -- and hadn’t seen him with his shirt off -- would never know that the heart beating inside his chest was not his own. He hadn’t rejected the transplant. He’d had a long, slow, agonizing recovery, but he had recovered, and his chances were good, the doctor said, of living many more years. And Starsky, who had never been interested in healthy food or regular exercise, had taken up jogging, ate more vegetables than Hutch did, and faithfully took his medication without a murmur. It had been too close, he’d told Hutch, and he was going to do whatever was in his power to make the most of this second -- or in Starsky’s case, third -- chance.

”Obviously, I don’t yell at you enough,” Hutch said, turning back to finish his work. “Not if you can’t remember the last time. You gonna stand there or are you going to help? You could at least get out of my way.”

Starsky snickered again and reached around Hutch to snag a celery stalk. “I’ll just get out of the way,” he said. “It’s safer. You have that big knife.” He gave Hutch a playful punch in the arm and left the room, whistling. In a moment, Hutch could hear “Wheel of Fortune” blaring from the living room.

Hutch smiled, shook his head, and sent up a quiet prayer of thanks.

The End

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