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Itís Always Darkest

Written by Valerie Wells

It wasn't the kind of call Starsky and Hutch usually answered -- an overturned semi. That was one for uniforms and the fire department, not plainclothes detectives. But they were on their way back from investigating a lead on another case, and they were the closest unit, so Hutch picked up the mike and told Central they'd go hold the fort until the uniforms got there.

"Roger, Zebra Three. Shouldn't take more than a few minutes," the dispatcher said.

Starsky stopped the Torino a safe distance away and the detectives got out to approach the truck. The driver had gotten out on his own and waved them over to the side of the road.

"Are you hurt?" Starsky asked him.

The man shook his head. "No, nothin' that won't keep. It's my truck I'm worried about." He glanced around the area; it was mostly warehouses and offices but there were people working in them.

"Help is on the way," Hutch said. "They'll figure something out."

"No, you don't understand," the trucker said, with another glance around. "I'm carryin' flammable chemicals, man. And I went down pretty hard."

Starsky and Hutch looked at each other. "I'll make the call," Starsky said, and turned away to go back to the Torino and use the radio. He leaned in the window and picked up the mike. "Dispatch, this is Zebra Three. Looks like the truck wreck could be touchy. Driver says he's carrying flammable chemicals."

"Is the area secure, Zebra Three?"

Starsky looked around. "I'd say we'd better evacuate," he said.

"Roger, Zebra Three. Get started. Your backup should be there any second. I'll send a couple extra units."

Starsky dropped the mike on the seat and cupped his hands around his mouth. "Hutch! We're going to evacuate the area!"

Hutch raised a hand in acknowledgement and reached toward the truck driver just as the truck exploded with enough impact to knock Starsky off his feet, though he was far enough away to avoid any injury. Dazed, he sat up and rubbed his elbow where it had hit the pavement and watched in awe as the flames from the truck reached 40 or 50 feet into the air.

He looked around and realized that with the black, rolling smoke, he couldn't see his partner.

"Hutch!" He scrambled to his feet and ran toward the truck, but the heat and flames kept him from getting close. He tried running around the other side, but that was no better. Coughing, he yanked a wrinkled bandanna out of his jeans pocket and held it over his mouth and nose, squinting in the smoke. He dashed forward to the spot where he'd last seen Hutch, yelling his partner's name through the bandanna.

Behind him, he heard the sirens of the other officers and at least one fire truck, but he didn't wait for help.

Yanking the bandanna away so he could yell louder, he filled his lungs with the acrid black smoke and screamed with all his strength, "HUTCH!"

There was no answer, but some instinct caused him to drop to the ground and crawl -- the smoke was slightly thinner there -- feeling frantically around himself on every side, until his hand touched a leg to his right. He dragged the bandanna across his streaming eyes to clear them briefly and recognized Hutch's jacket.

Getting his hands under his partner's arms, Starsky staggered to his feet and, not trusting his eyes or sense of direction, followed the sounds of the still-running sirens out of the smoke.

The firemen were working briskly and efficiently to deal with the chemical fire, but one of them saw Starsky emerge from the cloud of smoke and grabbed another and ran toward them.

Coughing and wheezing, barely able to draw breath into his tortured lungs, Starsky managed only to get out of the smoke before he stumbled and fell, still holding onto Hutch. One fireman helped him to his feet, while the other lifted Hutch in his arms and carried him to safety.

"Ambulances on the way," the fireman who had Starsky said shortly. "Anyone else in there?"

Starsky tried, but couldn't force his voice past his throat. Instead he just nodded and held up one finger. The fireman nodded and sprinted away.

Coughing and wiping his still-streaming eyes, Starsky looked around for Hutch and saw him lying next to the Torino. The fireman had removed the tan leather jacket and folded it for a makeshift pillow under Hutch's head, while another firefighter knelt next to him, holding an oxygen mask over his face. Forgetting his own discomfort, Starsky leapt to his feet and ran the 50 yards separating him from his partner.

"Oh, my God," he whispered in dismay when he got a good look at Hutch's face.

"Stay back," the firefighter holding the oxygen mask ordered him.

"He's my partner," Starsky said, his voice so hoarse he wouldn't have recognized it if he'd had enough attention left for himself to care.

The firefighters glanced at each other, then the first one indicated Hutch's head. "Over here, out of the way."

Starsky threw himself down at Hutch's head and exchanged the jacket for his own lap, stroking the hair away from his partner's face and whispering, "Hold on, buddy. Help's coming. Just hold on." He no longer knew if the tears in his eyes were from the smoke or not.

Hutch's eyes were closed and he lay like a lead weight in Starsky's lap. There was no response.

Starsky raised his eyes to the firefighter. "How bad is it?"

The man shook his head. "I've seen worse. I don't know. The human body's an amazing thing. He might make it. Is he pretty tough?"

"I hope so," Starsky said.

The ambulance arrived and paramedics pushed Starsky away so they could work on Hutch. Helplessly, Starsky stood by and watched as they gently lifted his partner onto a stretcher, secured his head and neck, and exchanged the firefighters' oxygen for their own. As they prepared to carry him back to the ambulance, one of them said to Starsky, "Burn center."

Starsky nodded, swallowing hard, finally remembering the truck driver. He turned to ask the firemen when he saw them zipping up a body bag. He swallowed again and reached for the mike still lying in the seat of his car.

~*~*~*~

Dobey told him to stay with Hutch -- as though he'd have done anything else -- and Starsky slapped the light on top of the Torino and screamed the siren all the way to the university burn center.

"Kenneth Hutchinson," he said urgently to the nurse on the desk.

She checked her computer. "They're still working on him, sir. Are you a member of the family?"

Starsky already had his ID in his hand and he slapped it onto the counter with more force than necessary. "I'm his partner," he snapped, immediately going into a coughing fit as a result. Later, when he could afford the time, he might have to do something about that. It wasn't important now.

"I'm sorry, Officer," she said, "but you'll have to wait. There's a family room down the hall. We'll let you know as soon as we know anything."

Waiting had never been Starsky's strong suit. He paced, he cursed under his breath, he tried praying, and finally had to just sit until Captain Harold Dobey arrived, puffing.

"Where is he?" Dobey thundered as he came into the room. Dobey always thundered when he was upset, angry or especially pleased.

"They're still working on him," Starsky said, finally able to talk without coughing.

"You look like hell, Starsky," Dobey said gruffly. "Go have them check you out, too."

"No, Cap, I can't. Not till I know how Hutch is."

Dobey opened his mouth, then shut it again. He knew there was no point in forcing the issue. Starsky could be stubborness itself when he wanted to, and Dobey knew him well enough to know this was one of those times.

"What happened?" Dobey asked, sitting in the next chair.

Starsky told him. "There was no warning, Cap'n," he said. "Just...boom. And Hutch...he wasn't more than a few feet away."

"How bad hurt is he?" Dobey asked.

Starsky shrugged, fighting back a lump in his throat. "I don't know. The fireman said...he'd seen worse."

"Starsky..." Dobey began, but just then a doctor in green scrubs entered the room.

"Which of you is Starsky?" he asked.

Starsky had shot to his feet when he saw the doctor. "Me. I'm Starsky. How is he?"

"We've got him stabilized. He's under sedation for the pain. He hasn't yet regained consciousness, and we don't want him to just yet because of the burns. You can see him, but he won't respond to you."

"Will he live?" Dobey asked the question Starsky hadn't been able to.

The doctor nodded. "I think so. But he has a long road ahead of him. Is there anyone we should call?"

"I'll take care of it," Starsky said. "I wanna see him."

"Third floor," the doctor said. "Room 357. Don't disturb him."

Dobey followed, but couldn't keep up with Starsky's urgency and younger physique. Starsky arrived in room 357 several minutes ahead of his older, heavier captain and skidded to a stop when he saw Hutch.

Hutch's face was swathed in bandages and a respirator pumped a steady rhythm into his lungs. Even if he had been awake, he wouldn't have been able to speak past that...that PIPE that jutted out of his mouth. A bottle of some clear liquid on an IV stand dripped steadily into his arm through a tube and other machines -- machines that Starsky thought he'd seen enough of in friends' hospital rooms to last a lifetime -- beeped around him.

Approaching the bed, Starsky gently took Hutch's free hand in both of his.

"I'm here, buddy," he said softly. "You're gonna be okay. You just rest and get better."

Dobey stopped in the doorway and stood silently watching. He waited, still not speaking, as Starsky reached behind him with one foot and hooked the leg of the visitor's chair, pulling it close enough to sit in without his having to let go of his friend's hand. Then he sat down and closed his eyes, dropping his forehead onto his hands, which still held Hutch's.

Dobey cleared his throat, and Starsky raised his head, blinking rapidly.

"Why is his face bandaged?"

Starsky's jaw clenched and Dobey saw him swallow before he answered. "It was burned, Cap'n," he said.

"Burned?" Dobey said, appalled. "How badly?"

Starsky shook his head. "I'm..not sure. It looked pretty bad to me," he turned and looked at Hutch, "but I don't know anything about it."

"Is he hurt anywhere else?" Dobey asked after taking a moment to absorb that and wondering if he wanted to hear any more.

Starsky said, "Looked like he hit his head when he fell..."

The doctor appeared in the doorway. "He doesn't have a concussion," the doctor said, coming closer to the bed and feeling Hutch's pulse, though a heart monitor beeped steadily on the wall. "It's his face that worries me. And his eyes."

His eyes? Starsky exchanged a fearful glance with his captain, then looked back at the doctor. "What about his eyes?"

"They were affected by the fire," the doctor said carefully, unwilling to commit to more than that at this early stage. "He might have some, well, some lasting effects."

"What kind of 'lasting effects'?" Starsky demanded in that level voice that Dobey -- and Hutch -- knew meant he was through fooling around.

"His vision might be impaired," the doctor said. "It's too soon to tell. He has some rather severe burns around his eyes, and the fire was extremely hot. We won't know anything for sure for several days."

Dobey rubbed a hand over his face and Starsky turned and looked down at his partner. His eyes...

~*~*~*~

Dobey finally left, after assuring Starsky the department could do without him for a couple of days to allow him to stay with Hutch. The truck driver was the only casualty of the explosion, he'd told Starsky. Though there had been some property damage to a couple of nearby buildings, no one else had been seriously hurt.

Starsky sat next to Hutch's bed, holding the limp hand in silence, for hours. The hospital changed shifts. The sun went down. It got quiet as the patients nearby went to sleep one by one and the activity slowed down for the overnight shift. But Starsky never moved, except to get more cups of vending-machine coffee and to visit the bathroom in Hutch's room. On one of those visits, he happened to look in the mirror at his own smoke-blackened face and bleak eyes, but he couldn't spare any time to do anything about it.

And through it all, Hutch never moved or seemed to wake.

The doctor checked his patient every couple of hours until about 11, when he told Starsky he was leaving for the night, but the nurses would continue to check on him regularly.

"I suggest you go home and get some sleep, Officer," he said. "Officer Hutchinson won't wake up until tomorrow sometime at the earliest. We'll take good care of him, I promise."

Starsky just shook his head. "I won't leave him. He might wake up -- you can't be positive he won't -- and I don't want him to be alone with his eyes covered up when he does."

The doctor -- his nametag said "Dr. Kendall," though he'd never introduced himself -- pursed his lips thoughtfully. "All right," he said finally. "But if he does wake up, have them page me. Immediately."

Starsky nodded, and the doctor left the room.

Why did his throat hurt so much? was Hutch's first thought. He couldn't breathe freely...there was something choking him. He couldn't move his arm. He couldn't open his eyes. He heard a beeping sound somewhere nearby that he couldn't identify.

Where's Starsky? What happened? I have to find him...I have to get up...!

At some point, Starsky must have dozed off, because the next thing he knew, there was a thrashing in the bed. He jerked to alertness in a moment, though his eyes and throat felt gritty and raw. He grabbed for the groping hand and said urgently, "Hutch! Hutch, it's me, lay still!"

Starsky's voice...strong, nearby...why can't I SEE...?

The thrashing stopped, though the chest went up and down too quickly for a man who'd breathed as much smoke as Hutch had.

"Calm down, buddy," Starsky went on soothingly. "You're in the hospital. You're gonna be okay. They've got a tube in your throat because of all the smoke from the fire. Remember the explosion?"

Explosion? What explo...the truck. The semi...

There was a hesitation, then the head feebly moved in the affirmative and Hutch gripped his hand weakly.

A nurse, having noticed the change in the heart monitor back at the nurse's station, dashed into the room.

"Dr. Kendall said to page him if Hutch woke up," Starsky told her. "He's awake."

She nodded and left the room again.

"Your face is burned," Starsky said, even more gently. "It's probably gonna hurt. That's why your eyes are covered up."

Covered? With what?

Hutch's left hand was strapped to the bed to keep the IV in. He pulled his right away from Starsky and groped toward his face, but Starsky captured the hand again and kept him from doing it.

"No, you can't mess with the bandages," he said, giving the hand a reassuring squeeze. "You'll mess everything up. The doctor'll be here in a minute, and he'll explain everything. Okay?"

Starsk wouldn't lie to me...God, everything HURT.

Hutch nodded again, just once, but Starsky was comforted by the trust in that gesture. It meant that Hutch accepted Starsky's word for it that everything would work out. Starsky just hoped he wasn't misleading him.

Dr. Kendall arrived about 20 minutes later and put on a big smile, though Hutch couldn't see him. "Well, Ken, you're awake. Are you in pain?"

Hutch shook his head, but Starsky knew better.

"I think he is, doc, but he's too bullheaded to admit it," he said.

"We can take care of that," Kendall said. "We can also take that respirator out now, I think."

Starsky was left to wait impatiently again while Kendall gave the order to take Hutch off the respirator.

Hutch had seldom spent a more uncomfortable 10 minutes. Without Starsky's reassuring presence and hand to hold onto, he actually thought he might pass out from the pain.

It was finally over. Then Hutch felt a nurse push up the sleeve on his arm and swab it with something cold that stung...then he felt a needle. He braced himself, fighting the memories of another time when someone had injected him without his consent. This was a hospital. Starsky had said so. Hospitals didn't string you out...

~*~*~*~

They finally let Starsky come back and he came into the room just in time to see a nurse administering a shot of painkiller.

"That shot will knock you out again in a few minutes," the doctor said, "but you'll thank me for that later. You're going to be in quite a bit of pain for the next few days."

Starsky looked at the syringe with a sudden sense of foreboding. "We'll be right back, Hutch," he said toward the bed, then grabbed the doctor's arm and hauled him out into the hallway. "Is that an opium derivative?" he demanded, softly but angrily.

"Why, Officer?" the doctor asked, calmly but with ice in his voice.

Starsky hated to tell the secret that until now had been known only by the two of them, Dobey and Huggy Bear, but there was no help for it. As quickly as he could, he explained Hutch's kidnapping and forced heroin addiction by Ben Forrest.

The doctor's eyebrows rose. "I see. We'll find an alternative pain medication. Is that all, Officer?"

Starsky narrowed his eyes. "Yes, it is, Doctor. For now." He let go of the doctor's arm and went back to Hutch's bedside. "You okay, buddy?" he asked.

Hutch groped toward the voice and Starsky immediately gripped his hand. He wanted to speak. He remembered other times when only the sound of Starsky's voice would convince him his best friend wasn't dying. He had to speak...he licked his lips, swallowed, and tried, but the respirator had rubbed his throat raw and he could barely whisper. "Can't...see."

"Nothin' to see but my mug, anyway," Starsky said cheerfully. "And you already know what that looks like. The doctor knows what he's doing. Don't bug him about the bandages, okay?"

"O...okay," Hutch said. "You...are you...?"

"I'm fine," Starsky said. "I need a shower, though. Got kind of messy out there."

Thank God. "Did you...pull me...out?"

"Yeah."

Hutch squeezed his hand. "Thanks."

Starsky swallowed past the lump in his throat that wouldn't go away. "Anytime, buddy."

It was only a few minutes after that that the pain medication kicked in and Hutch went to sleep. Starsky propped his head on his hands and watched his friend's chest move up and down in natural rhythm for awhile before he slipped out quietly to go home and clean up.

He made a point of getting back before Hutch woke up and was sitting there ready to grab Hutch's hand the moment he stirred.

Hutch groaned and tried to turn over onto his side, but the strapped-down arm wouldn't let him. What was wrong? He couldn't remember...

"Hey, easy, buddy," Starsky said gently, getting a grip on the free hand again. "Better not move around."

"My face...hurts like...hell."

"I'll bet it does," Starsky said. "Next time we find a wrecked semi, we're keeping about a block away from it. Want me to call a nurse?"

"No...no morphine." He'd recognized the feeling now, much less severe than the heroin, but he could also feel the faintest stirring of that desperate need for the next fix. He never, ever wanted to go there again.

Starsky winced at the bleakness in Hutch's raspy voice. He desperately hoped that the couple of doses of morphine Hutch had already received were not enough to reawaken the beast he'd beaten. "No morphine," Starsky promised. "There's other stuff they can give you."

"No...don't want it."

"Come on, Hutch, don't try to be a hero," Starsky said. "That's gotta hurt."

"Not that...bad."

"Hutch -- "

"No."

Starsky sighed. "Okay, okay. You want anything else?"

"Water...?"

"I better ask." Starsky went to the nurse's station to ask if it was all right for Hutch to have a drink of water.

The nurse checked his chart. "Only a little," she said.

Starsky went back and poured some water out of the pitcher on the bedside table. Carefully slipping one hand behind his partner's head, he held him up enough to sip a little from the paper cup.

"Thanks," Hutch said gratefully, as Starsky gently laid his head back down. "What happened to...the truck...driver?"

Starsky didn't want to answer that question. After a moment of silence, Hutch turned his head toward his partner, even though he couldn't see him. "Starsk?"

"He died," Starsky said reluctantly.

"Damn it," Hutch said too forcefully, then started coughing. Starsky leaped out of his chair to prop him up halfway and gently pat his back, afraid there might be injuries there, too. But Hutch recovered after a moment, and Starsky let him back down.

"Does your back hurt?"

Hutch slowly moved his head back and forth. "No. Just my face." His voice was a little stronger now, but Starsky, who knew him so well, could hear the note of pain in it. Hutch was bearing just about as much as he could stand.

"You sure you don't want something?"

"No."

Starsky sighed.

The doctor came in to check on him around 10 a.m. and Starsky took the opportunity to get even more coffee. He hadn't eaten -- not even a candy bar -- since the previous day, and the caffeine was doing a number on him, but he couldn't leave Hutch alone long enough to eat. He came back to find the doctor remonstrating with Hutch about pain medication.

"Officer Hutchinson, we do have quite an array to choose from. We can ease your discomfort. And if your body is busy fighting pain, it won't have much energy left over for healing!"

"Doc," Starsky said, with that no-nonsense note in his voice, "if he don't want painkillers, he don't have to have painkillers."

The doctor sighed and rolled his eyes. "Fine. Have it your way," he said, addressing Hutch. "If you change your mind, let the nurse know."

"I will," Hutch said. "But I won't...change my mind."

Hutch managed to sleep a little after that, and Starsky gratefully went down to the cafeteria for a few bites. When he came back, he propped his feet on the edge of Hutch's bed and tried to get comfortable for a while.

When Hutch woke up this time, he remembered where he was immediately. His head had cleared completely from the morphine -- and there was no lingering itch for another dose. His head was clear enough for him to have the courage to ask a question. Hearing Starsky's even breathing nearby, Hutch took a deep and painful breath and said, "Starsk."

Starsky had been dozing in his chair, but he came awake in a hurry. "Yeah, right here, Hutch."

"Tell me the truth."

A cold fist of fear closed around Starsky's heart, but he managed to say, cheerfully, "About what?"

"My eyes. Why are they covered up?"

"I told ya. You got a little scorched, pal. They had to bandage your face..."

But Hutch was shaking his head. He'd heard the tell-tale fear in his parnter's voice. "They didn't have to bandage my eyes."

"Yeah, they did. Doc says you've got some burns right around your eyes."

"Starsk."

Starsky wet his lips, blinked, and swallowed hard. He'd never lied to Hutch. He couldn't start now. He leaned forward and took Hutch's hand in both of his again and held it tight. "There was some damage, buddy," he said gently. "They don't know how much yet. They won't know for a coupla days."

"Will I be..." Hutch couldn't say the word.

"They didn't say that," Starsky said.

"Starsk..." Hutch couldn't go on, but Starsky saw his throat move convulsively. After a moment, he turned his head away.

~*~*~*~

The third day after the explosion dawned bleak and cloudy. Starsky stood at the window in Hutch's room thinking the weather was more cheerful than his mood. Dobey'd been by to visit the evening before, blustering in his gruff way that Hutch should take it easy and get well, don't worry about a thing, he had plenty of sick time coming, and Starsky could stand a little time off, too, but when Dobey's eyes had met those of Starsky, both knew that Hutch's "sick time" could last a very long while if the doctor's preliminary diagnosis were correct. A very long while...

Hutch moaned and turned in his sleep, but didn't awaken. Starsky rubbed his gritty eyes and faced the bed, wondering how much longer before the doctor would be able to tell them something conclusive. Even if it was bad news, it had to beat this limbo they were in.

Dr. Kendall came in at his usual time to check his patient. By then Hutch was awake and had even had some breakfast. Kendall had agreed to let him eat real food, IF he promised not to complain about a bland diet.

"We're going to change those dressings today," the doctor remarked quietly, after checking Hutch's pulse and reading the chart.

Hutch didn't speak, but he went very still.

"We should know how those eyes are coming along after that," Kendall continued. He gestured to the waiting nurse, who pulled a cart forward which contained the supplies he would need. "Are you sure you don't want a shot before we begin?" Kendall asked. "This is going to be quite painful, I'm afraid."

Hutch shook his head.

Kendall looked at Starsky. "It might be best if you waited outside."

"What do you want me to do, Hutch?" Starsky asked.

"Stay."

Starsky promptly plopped down in the chair next to the bed and took hold of Hutch's hand. "Squeeze as hard as you need to, buddy," he said. "I'll be right here."

Hutch gave his hand a brief squeeze of acknowledgement, then said, "I'm ready, doc."

Very, very gently, the doctor unpinned and unwound the top layer of bandages. Starsky could see Hutch set his teeth as Kendall went deeper and deeper, until there was only the last layer of bandage, next to the skin.

"Keep your eyes closed, Ken," the doctor said.

Hutch nodded.

The doctor, with infinite care, removed the last layer of gauze, while Hutch squeezed Starsky's hand so tight it hurt, but Starsky simply returned the pressure lightly and set his own teeth in sympathy.

"It's not as bad as I'd feared," the doctor remarked, gently touching Hutch's burned face with a rubber-gloved hand. "You have superficial second-degree burns here," he touched a couple of places on Hutch's cheeks, "and more serious ones around your eyes. How much does it hurt? And I want the truth, Officer. No heroic stoicism."

"Hurts like...hell," Hutch said through gritted teeth.

Kendall gave a grim smile. "Any spots numb?"

"No. Wish they were."

This time Kendall actually laughed. "Good. You're healing nicely, Ken. I'm not sure there'll even be much scarring. It looked much worse than it really was, I'd say. Probably feels worse, too."

Hutch made a sound in his throat that Starsky took for agreement. Starsky had never seen any burn worse than the kind you got from touching a hot pan without a potholder, but the skin around Hutch's eyes sure looked painful to him. That's where the burns were the worst, and Starsky grimaced at the sight of the raw, red skin and singed eyebrows.

Kendall gently bathed the skin with saline, then even more gently applied antibiotic cream to the burns. Hutch never made a sound, but Starsky could see the clenching of his jaw and knew his hand would be sore for a long while from the pressure his partner was putting on it.

"Now for the eyes. Keep them closed until I tell you." Kendall told the nurse to draw the shade and dim the lights. As soon as the room was shrouded in semi-darkness, the doctor removed the gauze pads over Hutch's eyes.Kendall produced a small flashlight and shone it over Hutch's closed eyelids, then turned it away.

"Very gently open your eyes, Ken," he said, "not too quickly, and don't force it."

Gripping Starsky's hand with renewed force, Hutch slowly opened his eyes. They were red and bloodshot and unfocused.

"What do you see?" Kendall asked.

Hutch swallowed two or three times before he could force the words out. Because all he could see was a dim, blurry mass. He blinked several times, in spite of the pain, but it didn't help. "Not much," he finally said thickly.

"Light? Shadow? Anything?"

"Just a big blur," Hutch answered, while Starsky used his free hand to stroke the white-knuckled one he held.

"How about this?" And the doctor used the flashlight to shine on his own face. "See a light?"

"A little...it's pretty fuzzy."

"Can you make out David's face?"

Hutch turned his head toward his partner and squinted, blinking rapidly. Starsky was nothing but a slightly darker blur against a light blur. "No."

The doctor squeezed some drops into Hutch's eyes and asked the nurse to raise the lights a little bit. As soon as the drops hit, Hutch's eyes began to sting and water until the tears ran. Starsky reached for a tissue reflexively, but the doctor stopped him.

"No, let them water. It's good for them."

After the tearing subsided a bit, the doctor asked Hutch again if he could see anything more.

"No, dammit! Still nothing but a blur."

"Hutch, it's not his fault," Starsky said soothingly, recognizing frustration and fear behind the anger.

"Sorry," Hutch mumbled, while the doctor looked at Starsky speculatively, as if he'd just noticed him.

"Okay, here's what we're going to do," the doctor said briskly after a moment's silence. "I'm going to put this medicine in your eyes and cover them again. The rest of your face I'll leave uncovered. I think it'll heal faster that way, and it's not that badly injured, anyway. We'll put the drops in every six hours for a couple of days and see how it goes. It's possible your eyes were just temporarily damaged by the blast. It happens sometimes. I won't bore you with the medical terminology, but treatment usually consists of complete rest to allow the body to heal itself."

"But I closed my eyes," Hutch said.

"What?" The doctor leaned forward and frowned.

"When the truck exploded...I closed my eyes."

"Hmmm."

Starsky hated it when doctors said "Hmmm." To him, it meant they didn't know what to say but hated to admit they might not have all the answers. He glared briefly at the doctor until the man raised a placating hand.

"You might not have closed them fast enough," he said. "Some debris probably got into them and injured your corneas. Let's keep them covered at least another day or so and see how we're doing. Okay?"

"Do I have a choice?" Hutch grumbled, but Starsky was encouraged by the grumble. It no longer sounded so angry.

After the doctor left, Starsky and Hutch sat in silence for a long time. Starsky thought Hutch had gone to sleep, but finally Hutch said, "Starsk?"

"Yeah, buddy?"

"How...how bad is it? The truth."

"Your face?"

At Hutch's nod, Starsky said, "Not as bad as it looked at first. I don't think it'll scare the girls off."

Hutch grimaced, the best approximation of a smile he could manage at the moment. Trust Starsky to think immediately of "girls." He lay in silence for another several minutes, contemplating the possibilities. Some of them weren't very pretty.

"Starsk?"

"Yeah?"

"What if...what if I can't..."

"Whoa," Starsky said, making a rapid movement to grab at Hutch's shoulders. "Don't even think that, Hutch. Wait and see. Don't freak out just yet."

"But, Starsk, if I can't...if I can't see..." It was almost a wail.

"Hutch." When Hutch subsided, Starsky wet his lips and wondered what the hell to say that would comfort him. Finally, he said, "Let's cross that bridge only if we come to it, okay, buddy? We'll think of something."

Hutch nodded again. The force of that small word -- "we" -- comforted him more than anything else Starsky could have said. No comforting lie, no platitudes, would have calmed him. But that one word, "we," told him that whatever happened, he wouldn't have to face it alone.

~*~*~*~

Kendall appeared late in the afternoon to find both men asleep. Starsky had curled up into a ball in the chair and looked extremely uncomfortable. Kendall approached and lightly touched the detective's shoulder. Starsky woke up with a jerk. "David, I'd like to see you in the hall, please," Kendall said softly.

Starsky's heart leapt with fear, but after a look at Hutch to make sure he was still sleeping, he followed the doctor out.

"What is it? Is it bad?" Starsky asked fearfully.

Kendall shook his head. "I don't have any news. I have a question. You and Ken seem pretty close."

Starsky nodded. "We've been partners for seven years."

"And you seem to be able to calm him and, well, cope with him pretty well."

Starsky shrugged. "We've been through some pretty bad sh...bad times together, doc."

Kendall allowed himself a brief grin. "We're going to want to send him home in a couple of days," he said. "But he won't be able to take care of himself. His chart doesn't list any family in the area...and we can't be certain what's going to transpire with his vision for a while yet. He'll have to keep his eyes covered and I don't want him rattling around and getting excited. Can you...well, take care of him?"

"Yes," Starsky said.

"You'll have to change the dressing and apply the antibiotic. Will he let you?" Kendall asked.

Starsky grinned suddenly, remembering other times when one or the other of them had had to "take care" of the other. "Yeah. I'll make him let me."

Kendall returned the smile. "Good. That's the attitude we'll need, I'm afraid. He's a stubborn man, Sergeant."

"He is that, doctor," Starsky said, wondering why he'd suddenly become "Sergeant" again after having been "David" just a few minutes before.

True to his word, a couple of days later, after having checked Hutch's eyes with much the same result as before, the doctor released him, with strict orders to keep his eyes covered except to put drops in them every six hours around the clock.

Huggy arrived to help, and between them they managed to get Hutch into the Torino and home. Hutch was absolutely silent as Starsky steered him to his own couch and helped him find a seat.

"I brought some food over," Huggy offered. "There's stuff in the freezer, Starsk, you can just heat it up in the oven."

"Thanks, Huggy."

"And if you need errands run or anything, give me a call."

"I will."

Huggy stood by the door a moment, looking and feeling uncomfortable with Hutch's continued silence. He exchanged glances with Starsky, who held his hands up in an "I surrender" movement and shrugged.

"I'll give you a call later, Hutch," Huggy said. "Be cool, Starsk."

"You bet, Hug. See ya."

With another glance at Hutch, Huggy left, shaking his head. If he'd ever seen defeat, he was seeing it now in Hutch's whole attitude.

"Hungry, buddy?" Starsky asked cheerfully when Huggy'd gone.

Hutch shook his head.

"Thirsty?"

Another shake.

"You want anything at all?"

"No."

Rubbing his eyes, Starsky sat down next to Hutch and put a hand on his shoulder. Hutch pulled away. Starsky sighed. "Want to talk about it?"

"No."

Starsky had no choice but to leave it at that. Around seven he heated up one of the prepared meals Huggy'd left in the freezer, and Hutch ate, but not enough to satisfy Starsky. It didn't help that Hutch had such a difficult time feeding himself without being able to see the food. And he absolutely refused to let Starsky help him.

Then, while Starsky did the dishes, Hutch went back to his silent brooding. He hated himself for it, but he was so terrified at the thought of spending the rest of his life imprisoned in darkness, being led around and tended to like a helpless cripple...even Starsky's determined cheer and relentless, affectionate presence wasn't enough to pull him out of this.

Now what? Starsky asked himself. Hutch had retreated into some deep part of himself and wouldn't talk, even to him, about his fears. He just sat on the couch.

Starsky was putting the clean dishes away when he heard something crash in the other room. He took off at a run and found Hutch half sprawled across an end table, a broken lamp at his feet. He ran to his partner and took his arm. "Easy, buddy. You hurt?"

"No."

Is that the only word you can say? Starsky asked silently. "What do you need? I'll get it for you. The doctor said not to move around."

Through gritted teeth, Hutch said, "I need to use the bathroom. Buddy."

What venom Hutch could inject into that one word when he wanted to, Starsky marveled. "Okay. No sweat. Come on, I'll help you get there."

"I can do it!"

Wow, he said more than "No", Starsky thought with a grin. "I'll just steer you in there, buddy," he said calmly. "You can do the rest."

Putting his arm around Hutch's shoulders and feeling the tension there, Starsky gently steered him toward the bathroom, opened the door, and took Hutch's hand, laying it on the toilet tank. "There it is. Holler when you're done."

He left and shut the door just as the phone rang. "Hello?"

It was Dobey. "How is he?"

Starsky sighed. "Angry. Stubborn."

"You do your best, Starsky. I'm counting on you."

"Yeah. You know I will, Cap." He hung up.

The bathroom door opened and Hutch emerged. Starsky felt an actual pain in his heart as he watched his partner groping, trying to find his way in the imposed darkness...in his own apartment. He jumped to his feet and hurried toward him.

"Easy. Go straight out and turn a little right..."

"I want to go to bed."

"Okay. But we gotta do the eyedrops first."

Starsky helped Hutch get to his bedroom and get undressed, though Hutch resisted the help as much as he could. When Hutch was lying down, Starsky, following Kendall's directions to the letter, gently unwound the bandage after dimming the lights, then removed the gauze pads and dropped three drops into each eye. Hutch's usually-clear blue eyes were still red and bloodshot, the tender skin around them swollen and angry-looking. And they were blank.

After putting in the drops, Starsky replaced the gauze and the bandage.

"Call me if you need me," Starsky said. "I'll be on the couch."

Hutch didn't respond, and after a long look, Starsky went away and turned the TV on, with the sound down low so it wouldn't keep Hutch awake.

What a long day, he thought, rubbing at his aching temples. And it probably wouldn't be the last. Hutch could really lacerate the people he loved the most when he was frightened or in pain, and he was both of those right now. He'd completely shut Starsky out...and Starsky didn't know how to reach him.

He dozed off into an uneasy sleep, alert for the slightest sound from Hutch. Late into the night, he woke suddenly at Hutch's voice, mumbling incoherently. He kicked off the light blanket and ran toward Hutch's bed.

Hutch was thrashing around, moaning and mumbling, flailing his arms. He was blindfolded...voices around him...something sharp sticking him in the arm...no, God, no, don't do that...!

Starsky dropped to his knees next to the bed and grabbed Hutch's hands, which had just reached for his eyes. "Hutch! Hutch, it's me."

"Starsk?" Hutch fastened onto that voice.

"Yeah. It was just a dream. You're okay. You're home."

"I can't see."

Starsky swallowed a lump in his throat. "I know. Your eyes are bandaged. Remember?"

Hutch went still, then jerked his hands away from Starsky. He flopped over on his side, back to Starsky, with finality.

Starsky sighed, rubbed his own eyes, and laid a hand on Hutch's back. "Hutch..."

"Leave me alone."

"No!" Starsky snapped, finally losing his own temper. "I will not leave you alone, dammit. You're acting like a spoiled brat."

Hutch flipped back over and sat up. "I am, huh? Then why don't you go home and let me take care of myself?"

"You can't take care of yourself, Hutch," Starsky said angrily. "You gotta have somebody here."

"I'm sick to death of being taken care of," Hutch shouted. "Fed like a baby, led around like a helpless cripple, people whispering like I can't overhear anything that might upset me, everybody tiptoeing around the poor BLIND man!"

Starsky's temper evaporated in an instant. It was the first time Hutch had used the word "blind." And immediately after using it, he broke off, covering his face with his hands, and then slowly laid back down and put his arms over his head. "Hutch..." Starsky reached out and gently rubbed his hand over his partner's back. "Hutch, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you feel helpless. It's me who feels helpless. I'm just trying to do what I can for you..."

He could feel Hutch trembling and he continued to slowly rub his hand back and forth soothingly.

Finally, after a long silence, Hutch said softly, "You can't know what it's like."

"You're right. I don't. That doesn't mean it doesn't hurt to see you like this, buddy. I want to help. What can I do?"

Hutch shook his head in silence and the trembling got worse. He couldn't speak...he didn't want anyone, especially Starsky, to know just how terrified he was. But the hand kept moving slowly back and forth reassuringly, and after several minutes, he said, "You're doing it."

Starsky smiled through wet eyes and moved his hand to Hutch's head. Stroking the tumbled blond hair gently, he said, "Want to talk yet?"

Hutch rolled over, sat up, and reached for his face before remembering and very carefully folding his hands on his lap. Starsky could see the wetness of the bandages and spared a moment to wonder if tears would do more harm than good to Hutch's injured eyes. After another minute of silence, during which Starsky kept his hand on Hutch's to remind him of his presence, Hutch said, "Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why do you put up with this?" Hutch shook his head and swallowed. "The department...would've hired a nurse."

"A nurse wouldn't put up with you for a minute," Starsky teased gently, and was rewarded with a faint smile.

But Hutch wasn't finished. "I'm not...sure I can...handle this. You're gonna have to do almost everything for me until...I can't let you."

"You don't have a choice, partner," Starsky said. "I'm here, and I ain't going anywhere."

"Starsk, I..." Hutch stopped, swallowed, and tried again. "It's too much to ask."

"Look," Starsky said, deciding the time for gentleness was past, "the word 'friend' MEANS something to me. It's NOT too much to ask. Me and thee. Like always."

It was the wrong -- or right, depending on how one looked at it -- thing to say. Hutch broke down completely, and Starsky moved to sit on the edge of the bed and put his arms around his partner, letting him get it all out and shedding a few tears of his own.

It took awhile, but Hutch finally pulled himself together and away from Starsky.

I'm not being fair to him, Hutch thought. Maybe I'm scared...hell, I AM scared...but he is, too. He's practically empathic with me. He understands more than I give him credit for. And here I am, dumping all my anger and pain in his lap and expecting him to help me carry it...like always.

"Starsk, I...I'm sorry. I've been a pain in the ass." Then, with a feeble attempt at humor, he added, "You oughtta beat the hell out of me while you've got the chance. I can't see to fight back."

Starsky laughed gently. "Nah. Not that I haven't been tempted."

Hutch grinned, a real grin, the first one Starsky had seen for days, and it encouraged him immensely. "Go to bed. I'll be good now. I promise."

"That'll be the day," Starsky muttered in mock anger. With a final pat of his partner's shoulder, Starsky returned to the couch and slept soundly the rest of the night.

Hutch, however, did not. He lay awake for a long time, listening to Starsky's not-so-gentle snoring in the next room, alternately wondering at Starsky's undying, stubborn loyalty, and asking himself two things: What would he do without Starsky...and what he would do if the blindness turned out to be permanent.

~*~*~*~

Starsky woke with a jerk when he started to slide off the couch. Bright sunlight poured through the windows and he leapt up, afraid he'd be late for work, until he remembered that he didn't have to go in. All he had to do was cope with a stubborn, blindfolded partner. Starsky devoutly hoped that last night's scene had cleared the air and broken some barriers. It would certainly be easier to watch over his partner if he wasn't so damned difficult.

Peering over the top of the couch, Starsky saw that Hutch was lying on his back on the bed, covers kicked off and arms behind his head. With that damned bandage on it was hard to be sure whether he was awake, but Starsky thought he probably was. "Hutch?"

"Yeah."

"You okay?"

"Yeah."

"Need anything? It's about time for the drops again."

Hutch heaved a sigh all the way up from his toes. "A guide to the bathroom, I guess."

Starsky grinned a little in relief at the meek tone in Hutch's voice, but he hated seeing his partner so helpless. He went in and touched Hutch's arm. "I ain't carryin' ya, buddy."

Hutch grinned a little himself and stood up, holding onto Starsky's arm and allowing himself to be led to the bathroom. Then Starsky went into the kitchen to start some coffee. He didn't hear the door open or notice that Hutch, determinedly, made his way back into the living room on his own, desperately picturing his own apartment in his mind and trying to steer around the familiar furniture in the dark.

Starsky turned around and froze when he saw Hutch feeling behind him for the chair, then sitting down in it.

Hutch's hearing had already begun to try to make up for the sensory deprivation caused by the bandage, and he sensed Starsky was in the kitchen area a few feet away. "Thought I ought to try learning to navigate on my own," he said casually, turning his head that way.

"Not a bad idea, I guess," Starsky said. He came in and sat down on the couch. Hutch had that look on his face that he got when he wanted to bring up a difficult subject, and Starsky recognized the look even though he couldn't see his partner's eyes. He decided to put him out of his misery. "Something on your mind?"

Hutch gave a little laugh and shook his blond head. "How do you do that? Are you psychic or something?"

"Only with you."

Hutch was silent for moment, framing his thoughts. He didn't want to upset Starsky -- who, after all, was being far more patient with him than he deserved -- but he had to know. "Does this...this whole thing...bother you at all, Starsk?"

"Bother me? What d'ya mean?"

"Because of Emily," Hutch said quietly.

Now it was Starsky's turn to be silent. They hadn't spoken of Emily for a long time...Emily Harrison, the girl who'd taken a bullet from Starsky's gun, a bullet meant for a fleeing criminal. At the time, Starsky had thought she was an innocent bystander and had almost eaten himself alive with guilt because that bullet blinded her. He'd made friends with her, taken care of her, been her constant companion...and eventually found out that she'd been on the scene because she'd been the lookout for the heist and the gunman had been her boyfriend.

He'd loved her, a little. Mostly he'd felt pity and guilt for her, though. And he couldn't stay angry with her for not telling him she'd been the lookout, because when he and Hutch had tracked down the gunman and his brother, just as they were preparing to flee and take Emily -- unwillingly -- with them, her sight had come back enough for her to warn Starsky that the man had a gun. She'd saved his life, and maybe Hutch's, too, by that action. And her sight had come back completely in the end.

But the guilt had remained. He'd never completely forgotten it, and still never drew his gun without remembering, with a pang, watching Emily fall and knowing that it had been his hand that had injured her.

Starsky heaved a deep sigh and came back to the present. He looked long and hard at Hutch. "Yeah, I s'pose. A little."

"It wasn't your fault, partner."

Somehow, Starsky knew Hutch wasn't referring to Emily. How does he know? Starsky asked himself. How in the world did Hutch know -- without sight -- that Starsky had been blaming himself, however unreasonably, that he was hurt? It was part of the job to cover each other's backs, to keep each other out of danger as much as possible. And Starsky had been too far away to do that when the truck blew up...

"Now you're the psychic," Starsky said with a wry grin, but it didn't hide the rush of guilt he felt at admitting it aloud.

Hutch reached out, but couldn't tell exactly where Starsky was. Starsky reached out, too, and met him halfway. Hutch took Starsky's hand in both of his. "You DID cover my back, Starsk. You pulled me out. You got help for me. You did everything right."

"But you're..."

"I got a little singed," Hutch said urgently, giving Starsky's arm a little shake. "Nobody's fault, buddy. Definitely not yours. Not yours!"

After another moment's silence, Starsky gave Hutch's hand a pat...and let the guilt go, at least for now. "Okay." He stood up, picked up the bottle of eyedrops and laid a hand on Hutch's shoulder. "We can't do the drops in here, Hutch. It's too bright."

"Okay." Recognizing that Starsky didn't want to talk about the subject any longer, Hutch allowed himself to be led, but not much, into the bedroom, where Starsky drew the drapes to shut out as much of the sunlight as possible.

"Your face looks better," Starsky commented as he took off the bandages. "Still hurt much?"

"Yes," Hutch said shortly, wincing as the air hit the skin around his eyes.

"Gotta open 'em, babe," Starsky said gently, waiting with the medicinal drops.

Gingerly, Hutch opened his eyes but immediately closed them again at the pain caused by the little light in the room.

"I know it hurts," Starsky said even more gently. "Gotta do it, though."

Hutch opened his eyes again, and Starsky quickly squeezed the drops into each eye. He could see the tearing start, and Hutch blinked rapidly.

"Don't do that," Starsky warned. "Doc said to let 'em water."

"It burns," Hutch complained.

"It's supposed to."

Hutch only sighed, but Starsky saw the white-knuckled grip he had on the blanket. He was still in a lot of pain, Starsky knew, and steadfastly refused to take so much as an aspirin for it.

"Can you see anything?"

"Just a big pushy blur sitting on my bed," Hutch said, aiming a playful whack in Starsky's direction, but missing.

Starsky wished he'd connected. The fact that he missed told him more than he wanted to know about how much Hutch could see.

~*~*~*~

"How am I supposed to shave?" Hutch inquired after Starsky had provided him with a cup of coffee and read the front page to him.

"I figured I'd do it for you," Starsky said matter-of-factly, then braced himself for the explosion.

Sure enough, he got one.

"No!" Hutch spluttered, though there was a tell-tale trembling in his voice. "You'd probably cut my throat. I am not that helpless."

But you are, babe, Starsky thought miserably.

Hutch shot out of his chair, but was suddenly confused about direction and just stood there.

Starsky waited, watching the frustrated gesture as Hutch ran his hand through his still-tumbled hair and muttered a word under his breath that Starsky had seldom heard him say.

"Which way is the damn bathroom?" Hutch said finally.

"Left," Starsky said.

Hutch turned to his left and slowly and laboriously made his way to the bathroom. He left the door open, however, and Starsky silently followed.

Once Hutch was in there, he didn't know how to proceed. He leaned his hands on the edges of the sink wearily and fought back tears of anger and frustration.

"Let me," Starsky said from the doorway.

Hutch felt for the toilet and closed the lid, then sat down on it. "Starsk, I can't...stand this."

"Hey," Starsky said softly. "This is me, remember? Let me help, buddy. Please."

After another several moments, during which Starsky could see how hard Hutch was struggling with himself, Hutch finally said, "Okay." He braced himself as if for a blow, and Starsky took a moment to squeeze his shoulder briefly before hunting through the medicine cabinet for the shaving cream and razor.

It didn't take long -- Starsky did the job as quickly as he could without cutting him, knowing how difficult this was for him. It was no picnic for Starsky, either, but he didn't say so. Then he rooted around until he found Hutch's hairbrush, picking up his friend's hand and laying it in it.

"Can you do that?"

Hutch lifted the brush and did a clumsy job with it. Starsky watched, then gently took the brush away.

"Your part's crooked," he said, casually fixing it. Then he laid the brush down on the sink. "You hungry?"

"No." Hutch stood up and, putting his hands out, squeezed around Starsky and went to his room, bumping into a couple of things along the way, but desperately needing to be alone for a few minutes.

Understanding, Starsky let him go and pretended he couldn't see the shuddering of Hutch's shoulders as his partner walked away.

"I'm going stir crazy in this place," Hutch said around noon, determined to be more cheerful -- and give Starsky a break. "Let's go to Huggy's for lunch."

Starsky looked up from the book he'd been reading, surprised. "Ain't gonna be easy," he warned, meaning the trip there, but Hutch frowned, in spite of the discomfort it caused him.

"I won't be able to see the stares," he said shortly.

"That's not what I meant..." Starsky began.

Hutch said that word under his breath again, then threw his head back against the couch. "I know. I'm sorry. But I mean it. I gotta get out of here for a while. Please?"

Starsky winced at that plaintive word. Hutch was a proud and independent man. He hated showing weakness, even to his best friend. Dammit, Starsky thought, I'll get him to Huggy's for lunch if it kills us both.

"Okay. Sure. You hungry now?"

Hutch nodded.

Starsky hunted around for Hutch's sunglasses and handed them to him. "Put these on. Won't fit very easy over that shit on your eyes, but you can't go out in that bright sunlight without 'em, got it, kemosabe?"

Hutch grinned. "Yes, sir, Sergeant, sir." He jammed them on somehow, though the nosepiece irritated the tender skin.

Starsky also plopped a ball cap over his partner's blond hair to further shade his eyes, then took Hutch's hand and poked it through the crook of his own arm. "I read that it's easier for you to walk if you hang on to me than if I hang on to you," he said.

"Where'd you read that?" Hutch asked.

In a book about Helen Keller, but Starsky wasn't about to tell him so. "I guess maybe Emily told me. I don't remember. You ready to try this?"

Hutch couldn't walk freely. He kept wanting to put his hands out to feel around himself, but Starsky talked him through it.

"Okay, here's the door. Turn right. Down the hall. Nothing to trip over. Okay, here's the steps. Reach out with your toe and feel the top one. Grab the railing with your other hand. Okay, you got it? Let's go, one at a time..."

Outside, Hutch threw his head back to feel the sunlight on his face, but Starsky put a hand on top of his head and pushed it back down.

"Huh-uh. You behave or I'll take you back inside and tie you to the bed."

"Kinky," Hutch said and grinned, not seeing the pitying looks of a couple of passers-by.

"You're a pervert, you know that?" Starsky said, laughing, though he shot a chilling look at the spectators. "I'm saving myself for marriage. Okay, here's the car. Door's open. Reach out for the seat...sit down, watch your head." Once Hutch was in, Starsky got in on his own side, then reached across Hutch and started to fasten the seat belt.

"You mind telling me what you're doing?" Hutch demanded, but mildly.

"You can't see to catch yourself if I have to slam on the brakes," Starsky explained. "Don't argue with me."

Hutch allowed it, but he didn't like the helpless feeling it gave him to be strapped in like a kid in a car seat. He kept that to himself, though.

Huggy's wasn't as difficult to navigate as Starsky had feared. He managed to snag a parking space right in front, and there was only one step up. He led Hutch in, and as soon as Huggy saw them come in, he dashed out from behind the bar and moved a couple of chairs out of Hutch's path.

"Well, as I live and breathe, my two favorite cops," Huggy said with a big ear-to-ear grin. "To what do I owe the pleasure, gentlemen?"

"I had cabin fever," Hutch explained. "I bullied Starsk into bringing me here for lunch."

"You want to sit at the bar or a table?" Starsky asked him.

"The bar," Hutch said promptly. Huggy reached out to take his other arm, but Starsky shook his head at him. He wanted Hutch to feel as independent as possible.

Understanding, Huggy stepped back and let Starsky handle it. When they were seated, Huggy went back behind the bar and waited expectantly for their order.

"Steak," Hutch said. "And a beer. Starsk won't let me have any."

"Only because of the antiobiotics," Starsky said mildly.

"One won't kill me, Starsk."

Starsky rolled his eyes eloquently at Huggy. "OK. One. Just one. Got it?"

"Yes, sir," Hutch executed a salute in Starsky's general direction.

When the steaks came, Starsky leaned over and took hold of Hutch's right hand. Using it to point, he said, "The steak's here, the potato's right above it, and the veggies are to the left."

Hutch endured this patiently on the outside, but he could feel the stares of the other customers, even if he couldn't see them.

Starsky sensed that and lowered his voice. "Can you manage?"

Hutch nodded grimly.

By the end of the meal Huggy had Hutch laughing with almost his old spirit, and Starsky leaned his head on his hand and enjoyed watching it. Getting home was a more comfortable trip than getting to Huggy's had been, and Starsky almost relaxed his vigilance.

They spent a quiet afternoon, with Hutch sleeping most of it away -- the excursion had tired him, though he hated to admit it.

By evening, Starsky thought the worst was over. Until Hutch came stumbling out of his bedroom and started for the bathroom. Starsky wouldn't have paid any attention -- Hutch had been getting there and back by himself all day -- except he noticed the robe hanging over his arm.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm going to take a shower," Hutch said, halting mid-step.

"Huh-uh. You might slip and fall. Take a bath."

Hutch frowned. "I hate baths."

By then, Starsky had reached his side. "Besides," he said, as though Hutch hadn't spoken, "you can't get the bandages wet."

"How in the hell am I supposed to take a bath of any kind without getting the damn bandages wet?" Hutch demanded, that note of frustration back in his voice.

Oh, terrific, Starsky thought. Right back where we started. "I'll help you," he offered.

"No way," Hutch said immediately. "Nobody's going to help me take a bath. I am not completely helpless, Starsky."

"Nobody said you were," Starsky said, too soothingly. It just made Hutch more angry.

"That's what you meant," he snapped. "You think I can't even bathe myself."

Starsky reached out to lay a hand on his arm, but Hutch jerked it away. "Hutch..."

"I'll take my own bath," Hutch said evenly and turned toward the bathroom. He shut the door behind himself and felt for the nail behind the door to hang his robe on. It took a couple of tries, but he found it. Then he felt for the tub and grudgingly decided Starsky was probably right about the shower. He put the plug in, felt for the faucets, and ran a bath. Very deliberately, he took the bandages off and rolled them into a ball, leaving them on the sink, but keeping his eyes closed. He almost slipped as he got into the tub, but assuming Starsky was listening for any sound of falling, he managed to catch himself quietly and lower himself into the water.

He hadn't quite latched the door, so he didn't hear Starsky very gently open it and peek in at him. But he almost jumped out of his skin when Starsky said, "You need any help?"

"No!"

"Okay, sorry," Starsky said and started to withdraw, but Hutch felt ashamed of himself.

"Starsk, wait. I'm sorry. Actually, I could use a hand shampooing my hair. I don't want to risk getting soap in my eyes."

Knowing how hard that had been to ask, Starsky shook his head in pity, glad Hutch couldn't see him.

He gave Hutch a towel to hold tightly over his eyes to keep the soap and water out, and told his partner to tip his head all the way back. Starsky did the job quickly and efficiently, with a minimum of talking.

With the towel covering it, Starsky couldn't see Hutch's face, but he could imagine the humiliation Hutch was feeling.

I know how I'd feel if it was me, Starsky thought, then left to let Hutch finish by himself.

When Hutch emerged, he said as cheerfully as he could manage, "That feels better."

"Can I help you put the bandages back on?" Starsky asked.

"Yeah. Thanks."

"Did you open your eyes?"

Hutch shook his head. "I could tell there was too much light..." but he stopped when he sensed Starsky's reaction to that. "What?"

"How could you tell?"

"Well, I could see it through my eyelids. You know. Even with your eyes closed, you can still tell when the light's on..."

"Hold on." Starsky jumped off the couch and turned off all the lights except the one in the bathroom. Then he came back. "Open your eyes."

Hutch obeyed.

"What do you see?"

"A blur," Hutch began, but then he stopped again. "Wait a minute."

"What?"

It was hard to explain, but Hutch tried. "It's still a blur, but it's not as blurry as it was," he said, reaching out one hand to lay it on Starsky's shoulder...and connecting, without any groping. "I can...almost...see you."

Starsky didn't try to control the grin that burst onto his face at that.

"You're smiling," Hutch said, trying in vain to control the leap his heart made at that realization. "I can tell. You're smiling!"

Unable to control himself, Starsky threw his arms around Hutch and squeezed him tight. "Thank God, buddy. You're getting better!"

Hutch returned the hug, grinning all over his own face. "Damn, I feel like celebrating."

"Me, too," Starsky said. "What do you want to do?"

"I don't know," Hutch said helplessly.

"Well, I feel like singing and dancing," Starsky said.

"I can't dance, even when I can see," Hutch said, laughing. "But we could sing. Where's my guitar?"

"I'll get it for you." Starsky jumped up and found the instrument in its case, leaning against the wall in Hutch's bedroom. He unpacked it and brought it back, laying it in his partner's lap.

Hutch picked it up -- at least he didn't need to see to play -- and tuned it. He cocked his head to one side and thought for a minute, then started strumming.

Starsky smiled again as he recognized the Jim Croce song before Hutch even began singing:

"I know it's kinda late; I hope I didn't wake you...but there's something I just gotta say, I know you'll understand...

Every time I try to tell you the words just come out wrong, so I'll have to say I love you in a song..."

Instead of singing along, Starsky just leaned back on the couch and listened, watching Hutch's face, with the bright blue eyes that weren't nearly as bloodshot as they had been...eyes that were really smiling for the first time in too long.

~*~*~*~

Out of habit, Starsky woke up in the wee hours to peek in at Hutch and make sure he was okay. Hutch had let him replace the bandages to keep the eyedrops in, but he was lying on his back with his hands behind his head again, and Starsky knew he wasn't asleep.

"Hutch?"

"Yeah."

"Something wrong?"

Hutch shook his head. "Just thinking."

"'Bout what?"

"You."

Starsky came closer and sat down on the edge of the bed. "Me?"

Hutch reached toward the voice and squeezed Starsky's shoulder. "Yeah, buddy. You. I want to say something, and it won't be easy, so don't interrupt until I'm finished, okay?"

Starsky nodded, then realized anew that Hutch couldn't see him. "Okay."

Hutch wet his lips, but didn't speak immediately. Finally, he drew a deep breath. "This isn't the first time -- and it probably won't be the last -- that one of us has had to be strong for the other one."

Starsky opened his mouth, but remembered his promise and shut it again.

"Most of the time, the one that has to be strong is you," Hutch said. "I'd prefer to think it's me -- but it's not, buddy. You really do stick closer than a brother. I love you for it. And I don't often tell you..."

Starsky waited.

Hutch smiled a little, but it was a sad smile. "In fact, Starsk, I usually belitte you, but I'm only teasing. I'm not sure why I'm so hard on you...maybe it's because I don't want to admit how much I depend on that stubborn loyalty of yours."

Starsky smiled, but his eyes were beginning to sting.

Hutch sighed, sat up, and ran his hands through his hair. "I guess...oh, shit, I can't do it after all."

"Do what?" Starsky asked, interrupting in spite of himself.

Right about now, Hutch devoutly wished it was Starsky who couldn't see, just for a few minutes, just long enough for him to get this out. He knew if he didn't say it quickly, he'd never be able to, and it was long past time his partner knew how important he was to him, before Hutch found himself glibly saying something else "teasing" to him, something that he knew probably hurt a little, but something he couldn't help saying.

"Nobody here but me and thee," Starsky said gently. "It won't go beyond this room."

Hutch bent his head to hide his face. He knew, even without sight, that Starsky was leaning a little forward, intent on him, like he always did when they were talking seriously.

"Don't take it to heart when I say things, Starsk," he said at last. "I don't mean them. I don't even know why I say them, because...you mean the world to me, buddy."

Touched, Starsky said, "Me, too, Hutch. Like always."

Hutch's eyes continued to improve, and by the end of the second week, when Starsky took him back to the hospital for Dr. Kendall to examine him, he could see well enough to stand electric lights, though sunlight still made him wince and made his eyes water.

"Well, I think we can dispense with this now," Kendall said, rolling up the used bandage and tossing in unceremoniously into a nearby wastebasket. "I suspected this, but I didn't want to get your hopes up until I was more sure."

"Suspected what?" Hutch asked.

"The chemicals in that truck burned your eyes, not the fire," Kendall said. "It set up quite a serious irritation. The temporary blindness was your body's way of forcing your eyes to retreat until they had time to heal. If you'll promise me not to go outside without VERY dark sunglasses for another couple of weeks, and continue to use the eyedrops faithfully, I'll let you leave the bandage off and you can start trying to acclimate your eyes to being used again. Promise?"

"Yes," Hutch said promptly.

"I'll make him behave, doc," Starsky said.

Kendall smiled at him. "I knew you would," he said. He produced his little pocket flashlight and examined the burned area around Hutch's eyes. Though it was still red and bruised-looking, the worst of it had healed and it didn't hurt nearly as much as it had before. Touching first one spot and then another, Kendall asked each time, "Can you feel that? Does it hurt?"

"It's mostly just tender," Hutch said, trying to focus on the doctor's face and almost succeeding. It was fuzzy, but more like he was looking through scratched glasses than the indistinguishable blur everything had been just a few days before. "Will I have scars?"

Kendall sat back and looked him over thoughtfully. "There's one place," he touched a spot under Hutch's left eyebrow, "that might not heal without a scar, but Ken," and he smiled, "you're about the fastest healer I've ever seen."

"What did I tell you, Starsk?" Hutch said, turning toward his partner with a grin, and SEEING -- actually SEEING, thank God -- Starsky raise his eyebrows, ready for the remark he knew was coming, "Eating healthy foods really does make a difference."

Starsky rolled his eyes, overdoing it so Hutch could see him doing it. "I don't think a steady diet of boiled squid and pickled bean sprouts had anything at all to do with it, pal."

"Then how do you explain it?" Hutch said, appealing to the doctor, but Starsky was quicker.

"It's because I'm such a terrific nurse," Starksy said.

By now the doctor was laughing, and he held up his hands. "Why don't we just say it was a combination of the two things?"

Two pairs of blue eyes met, both smiling, and Hutch said, "I can accept that. Starsk?"

Pretending to take it under deep consideration, Starsky propped his head on his hand and frowned for at least three seconds before he said, "Okay. Sure. I'll accept that."

As they were leaving, out of habit, Starsky stopped Hutch at the door and pulled his sunglasses out of his shirt pocket for him, picking up one of his hands and placing them in it. Hutch let him, suppressing a grin, then put the glasses on and pulled the ball cap -- God, how he hated that ball cap by now! -- over his hair. "Are we ready now, Mom?" Hutch asked wickedly.

"Oh, shut up, you big blond blintz," Starsky said, laughing himself as he realized Hutch didn't need quite so much babysitting anymore. "Get your ass through the door."

They approached the Torino, and Starsky opened the door with a flourish on the passenger's side, waving Hutch toward it, but Hutch stopped. "Aren't you gonna let me drive?"

Starsky snorted. "In your dreams, babycakes. Get in."

Hutch got in, but before he let Starsky shut the door, he reached out and took hold of his arm. "Starsk?"

"Yeah?" Starsky crouched down so his eyes were on a level with Hutch's, though the glasses were too dark for him to really see them.

"Thanks," was all Hutch said, but Starsky also heard the things he didn't say.

He smiled. "Anytime, buddy."

The end

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