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Take me back to Part III

 

The One Left Behind

By Sue David and Valerie Wells

 

Part IV of IV

 

Three hours after he fell asleep, Dr. Bradford woke Hutch as gently as he could. Hutch sat up with a start, not knowing where he was for a minute. Dr. Bradford helped him up and then walked over to turn on the light. Hutch rubbed his eyes. He felt like he'd been on a non-stop stakeout for days.

 

"Here," Dr. Bradford said, "at least drink this juice before you leave. I wish you'd sleep a little longer."

 

"Thanks. No, I'm okay now. I'm used to going without a lot of sleep. I appreciate you letting me crash here. I'll hit the road in a few minutes."

 

Dr. Bradford sighed in resignation. He thought the blond looked a little better than he had a few hours ago. "Drive carefully then. Try to sleep some more. You need rest yourself if you're going to finish healing." Beyond the obvious broken leg, the man had been a doctor too long not to recognize the signs of someone healing from recent injuries or illness.

 

Hutch stopped at a bank of pay phones before he left the hospital. He felt terrible that he had forgotten to report back to Captain Dobey. Knowing he would get an earful, he decided to call Huggy instead.

 

When his friend answered he said, "Huggy, Hutch."

 

"Are you in Springfield? Dobey called me hoppin' mad that you hadn't checked in again."

 

"Yeah, I know. I was so tired I forgot to call him. Frankly, I can't take anyone yelling at me today. I feel bad enough."

 

"No news, I take it." Huggy sounded as disappointed as Hutch had been.

 

"He was here. They let him go though. Had to, I guess. Doc says he's still in bad shape. I hadn't slept in two days so I crashed here for a few hours. I'm hittin' it now, though."

 

"Where you headed?"

 

"The doc said he was maybe on his way to Chicago. God, Hug, I'm so tired and I just keep missing him. He's hurt and he's sick enough now to where the doc gave him antibiotics. What if I don't find him in time? I'd never forgive myself."

 

Huggy could hear the heartbreak in his friend's voice. This was certainly the biggest mess his two mess-prone friends had ever been in together. He made a decision. "I'm coming to Chicago to meet you."

 

"Thanks, but no thanks, Hug. I need you there." Hutch appreciated the offer, but he knew Huggy would be more valuable working his contacts in Bay City and sticking around in case Starsky decided to call.

 

"Hutch, my leads have all dried up here. There ain't nobody else I can hit up. You need help and someone to lean on out there. I'm comin' and that's it." Huggy sounded adamant.

 

"Huggy, I appreciate it, really. If you come out here, though, what happens if he calls? He might break down and call you and if you aren't there, he'd just hang up and keep moving. I can't take that chance. We can't. Please." Hutch hated to refuse the offer. He would have been grateful for the company.

 

Huggy had to concede defeat. "Okay. I guess you have a point. I don't like you out there doin' this all by your lonesome. You takin' care of you at all?" He already knew the answer to that.

 

"I'm staying off the leg, Hug. I'm trying." Hutch hoped his words would reassure Huggy a little.

 

"I'll call the captain and let him know. You change your mind, call the Bear."

 

"Thanks, I will. I'll call again from Chicago anyway." Hutch hung up and went back out to restart his search. The weather had turned colder and a little wet. He wished to himself that if Starsky was planning on doing a walkabout, he had done it in warmer, dryer weather.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Starsky woke up the next morning, sicker, stiffer, and feeling the need to get on the move. Adding to his already miserable condition, now he had a hangover. He walked down the streets until he spotted a Laundromat. Although he had finally resorted to sleeping on the street, he at least thought he could clean his clothes. Digging around in his knapsack, he found he had just enough money left to wash his things, and buy a cup of terrible coffee from the machine on the wall. Maybe his head would feel better by the time the clothes were done. After he bought the coffee he discovered he had two dollars and thirty-three cents left. He decided to worry about that later. When the clothes were done, he cleaned up as best he could in the Laundromat bathroom and headed out again.

 

He still didn't know where he would stop for good. In his heart, he hoped he could just keep going until he dropped. He hitched another ride over to Interstate 55, the highway leading to Chicago. Starsky didn't know anyone in Chicago and he really wanted to see the water. He missed it. Even though this waterfront wouldn't have the waves he and Hutch both loved, he hoped it might make him feel a little better to be near it. Maybe he'd even stay in Chicago for a while. He'd think about it. So far, he thought no one was looking for him at least not successfully. Maybe he could risk staying in one place for a while. Surely Huggy and Dobey would give up eventually.

 

When he reached the Windy City, the trucker who had given him a lift dropped him off at a park near a marina. Starsky was really feeling bad again. He was coughing, his fever was climbing, and he hadn't eaten anything for two days. Walking along the waterfront, he realized he would have to rest awhile. He spotted a park bench. Lying down on the bench, he dozed in the morning sun.

 

"Excuse me, mister?" A young female voice was speaking to him. He opened one eye, blinking at the sun and found a young lady standing next to his bench. He sat up and took a better look at her. She was about nineteen, had long, blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail and she was dressed a little like a flower child.

 

He changed his mind about the harsh thing he had planned to say to the person who had disturbed him. She just looked too nice, too innocent. "Can I help you with something?" He really wasn't in the mood to help anyone.

 

"Have you heard the word of God today?" She smiled at him. That's when he noticed the Bible in her hand.

 

Deciding that now would be a good time to get moving, he stood up a little too quickly. The fever and exhaustion took over, darkness crowding into his vision. Starsky passed out at her feet.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Hutch's vision was playing tricks on him again by the time he reached the outskirts of St. Louis and he was afraid to try to keep driving. He saw a motel sign at the next exit and took it. He hated to stop, but he sure wouldn't find Starsky if he wrecked the car and himself somewhere along the way.

 

The room smelled musty and he saw a cockroach in the bathroom when he went in there to use it, but he was past caring. All he needed was a place to sleep for a while. He dropped his bag on a chair and flopped onto the bed, reaching for the phone. He didn't even know what day it was anymore.

 

"Cap'n? Hutch."

 

If Dobey had intended to roar and rage, he thought better of it when he heard the weariness in Hutch's voice. Instead, he simply said, "Got any news?"

 

"No. I'm in St. Louis. Had to stop for a little sleep."

 

"We've alerted the Illinois State Police and the Chicago police to be on the lookout for him," Dobey said. "Hitchhiking's illegal in Illinois, so they might pick him up for that. If they do we gave them a description and the name 'David Banner' they're supposed to call us. I just hope they do. If he sticks to the interstates, it's the state police who would find him."

 

Hutch nodded. His eyes had grown so heavy he didn't have the strength to answer.

 

"Hutch, take care of yourself, okay? Hutch?"

 

"Yeah. Thanks." He replaced the receiver without saying "good-bye" and turned over. In moments, he was asleep.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Starsky awoke to the sounds of a guitar and several voices singing softly together. It was a pretty song, and Starsky hadn't heard a pretty song for a while, so he lay there and listened.

 

"It only takes a spark to get a fire going

And soon all those around can warm up in its glowing

That's how it is with God's love

Once you've experienced it

You spread his love to everyone

You want to pass it on...."

 

He looked around the room. Spartan in its simplicity, it was nevertheless clean and bright. White-painted walls, a plain wooden cross above a four-drawer dresser, a desk and chair, and another cot on the other side of the room, made up in military style. Where on earth was he? The last thing he remembered was the girl who'd wanted him to "hear the word of God."

 

The door was open to the hallway and a teenage boy passed by and glanced in. When he saw Starsky was awake, he stopped and smiled. "Hi."

 

"Hi," Starsky said. "Where am I?"

 

"Chicago."

 

Terrific. I knew that. "I mean, where in Chicago?"

 

"This is the headquarters for the Jesus People," the boy said, coming in and sitting down on the other cot. "I'm Matt."

 

"David." Starsky started to sit up, but Matt held up a hand.

 

"No, you stay there. Jenny said you collapsed downtown. It's a good thing some of the others were nearby. They came back for the van and brought you back here. Are you hungry or thirsty? I can get you something from the kitchen."

 

"I guess I could use something to drink."

 

Matt nodded. "Be right back." When he returned with a tray, it contained orange juice, a couple of sandwiches, and a chocolate cupcake. "Supper's not for a couple of hours yet," Matt said apologetically, "so this is all I could find. Will it hold you till then?"

 

"Yeah, this is terrific. Thanks." Starsky sat up and took the tray. Matt sat silently, chin in hands, while he ate, and when he had finished, he took the tray away. Starsky still heard the music and he asked Matt what it was.

 

"Oh, someone's always singing around here," Matt said with a smile.

 

Starsky lay back and looked around the room. There was a disturbing quality about it, in spite of its cleanliness, that he couldn't put his finger on. Who were the Jesus People, anyway? Sounded like no, not another bunch like Marcus' crowd. Please, God, no.

 

The girl from the park poked her head in the room and smiled at both of them. "I see you're feeling better," she said. "Is Matt keeping you company?"

 

"Yeah. What am I doing here? What happened?"

 

"A group of us were witnessing down by the lake," she said with no appearance of guile, "and I came over to talk to you. You looked lonely and in need of a friend. But then you stood up and just collapsed. So I called Peter and Kevin and the others over, and someone came back here and got the van, and we brought you home with us. You've been out for " she leaned over to glance at his watch, " almost a whole day."

 

Terrific. Starsky sagged back onto the cot.

 

"We were very worried," she said, and she sounded sincere. "We've had a group praying for you ever since we brought you here. How do you feel now?"

 

"Better," he said, and coughed.

 

"Matt, go get some cough syrup from Deena," Jenny told the boy, who nodded and left the room. She turned back to Starsky and smiled. "Will you tell me your name?"

 

"David."

 

"I like that name. It was my brother's name," she said.

 

"Was?"

 

"He died. In the war. I was very angry at God about that for a long time, but then I met the Jesus People and found peace," she said.

 

A little chill ran down Starsky's back. There it was again. That uncanny, too-complacent acceptance that Starsky associated with Marcus' freaks. But he was not a prisoner here. They'd brought him here, cleaned him up, he just realized, and fed him and taken care of him. Maybe he had nothing to fear.

 

"Do you know Jesus?" she asked next, in the same tone she might have asked about a possible mutual friend.

 

Starsky considered his answer. It was quite possible these people were just a harmless commune and not a crazy cult. Finally, he said, "I'm Jewish. I know of him."

 

She smiled, delighted. "Jewish! You're one of the chosen people. We've been studying Judaism in our Bible class and it fascinates me. May I ask you some questions? Are you up to it?"

 

Matt returned with an over-the-counter bottle of cough syrup and Jenny accepted it from him with a smile and a "thank you," then poured a little into a spoon and offered it to Starsky. He accepted it and the glass of water she gave him. It did soothe his cough somewhat.

 

"I may not know the answers," he answered her question, "but you can ask, if you want."

 

For about half an hour, she asked him to explain Yom Kippur and Passover and the rituals associated with them, and he found himself liking her. But he'd also liked Gail. He didn't want to go there again. Matt listened in silence, occasionally asking a question of his own. Several young adults and some teenagers passed by in the hallway while they were talking, and all of them smiled and greeted him. A couple of them paused in the doorway and listened for a few minutes. The soft guitar music and singing continued to float down the hallway from wherever the musicians were practicing, and Starsky felt a sense of peace and acceptance he hadn't had for weeks.

 

At last, Jenny seemed satisfied. "Now, you need to rest," she said. "You haven't had a good rest for quite a while, I think. We'll bring your supper when it's ready. Sleep now. You're safe here." She patted his arm and rose to go, but turned back at the door. "Oh, dear," she said, distressed. "You're Jewish and we're having ham for supper."

 

Starsky grinned. "It's okay. I don't keep kosher usually. Only when my mom's visiting."

 

Jenny returned the grin and giggled. "We could make you a hamburger or something."

 

"No, honest. I don't mind."

 

"Okay, if you're sure." She lifted a hand in farewell and left, taking the boy with her.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Hutch slept for almost ten hours, and when he awoke, although he was distressed at how much time he'd lost, he felt much better. He cautiously tried to stand on the walking cast and though it hurt, he thought it would be easier to move around if he could use that leg a little. He washed up, grimacing at the filthy bathroom, and went to the desk to pay his bill. While he was waiting for the clerk to tally it up, he let his eyes wander and saw the flyer on the bulletin board by the door.

 

"Missing" it said in bold letters at the top and below was a photograph of Starsky. He was stunned. Dobey had said they'd been in touch with the Missouri state cops. They must have done this. If Starsky saw one of these, he'd run so far they'd never find him.

 

"How long has this been here?" he asked the clerk.

 

She looked up and frowned at the poster. "I don't know. A day or two, I guess. Why?"

 

"I know him," Hutch said. "I'm looking for him."

 

"I haven't seen him," she said, and Hutch believed her. This was the kind of motel where it didn't pay for the clerks to notice very much.

 

He paid the bill and used the pay phone to call Dobey again. He told him about the flyer. "You know what'll happen if Starsky sees one of those?" he demanded.

 

Dobey sighed. "Hutch, you're not Superman. We need the help. Maybe somebody'll call and give us a direction to look in." He was silent for a moment. "Huggy said you wouldn't let him come out and join you."

 

"No. I need him to stay there. If Starsk decides to call, that's who he'll contact. Huggy's gotta be there to take that call, Captain."

 

"Okay, okay. How about one of the other detectives? Sean or Jack "

 

"No. I'll find him." Or die trying, he added silently.

 

In a rest stop in Rolla, Missouri, Bud Reid was rolling himself a joint at a picnic table when he noticed the flyer on a nearby bulletin board. Something about the photo caught his eye, and he abandoned his task to walk over there and look at it. He was used to "missing child" flyers posted at such places, but he'd never seen one for an adult before. He studied the photo. Without the beard and with about 20 more pounds, that could be no, it WAS David, the man he'd dropped off at the hospital in Springfield. Should he call? Bud considered it. The man hadn't seemed to be running from the law. He didn't have that kind of desperation about him. It was more as if he was running from himself.

 

Bud made up his mind.

 

Hutch hadn't noticed he needed to stop for gas when he crossed the Mississippi River, but something made him glance down some time later and he saw a warning light on the dash. Uh-oh. The highway was pretty lonesome here, and he couldn't see a town across the corn and soybean fields for a long way. All he could do was keep driving and hope something popped up.

 

The flatness of the landscape was deceiving, and he realized the land rolled so gently that it only seemed flat when he crested a slight hill and saw a town. The exit sign said "Litchfield" and promised gas, food and motels. Hutch gave a sigh of relief. He pulled up at the Marathon there and filled up the tank. He looked at his wristwatch. It was late afternoon, time to check in with Dobey again.

 

"Anything?" he asked wearily.

 

"A trucker called the Missouri state cops and said he gave Starsky a ride from just north of Oklahoma City to Springfield, Missouri," Dobey said. "He's the guy who dropped Starsky off at that hospital, and he apparently told the state cops that he had to argue with him to get him to agree to that."

 

"That was Starsky," Hutch said with a ghost of a smile.

 

"He said Starsky had a beard and had lost weight since the photo on the flyer, but he's carrying a knapsack and wearing your jacket," Dobey went on. "Other than the injuries we already know about, he didn't seem to be hurt."

 

"That's good news," Hutch said, devoutly hoping that nothing more had happened since then.

 

"But he didn't know where Starsky could be headed. He said he told him he didn't care where he went." Dobey added this last very gently.

 

Hutch winced. That was what he was afraid of. Starsky wandering aimlessly, with no destination, running out of money, not caring what happened to him.

 

"Hutch?"

 

"I'm here," he said. "I'm in a town called Litchfield in Illinois, off I-55. I'm going to go ahead and head for Chicago. I don't know what else to do."

 

"We've alerted the Illinois State Police," Dobey said. "They have a post in Springfield, less than 100 miles north of you. It's right off I-55. Stop there and check in. That's an order. I want them to know you're there. They've agreed to extend professional courtesy to you."

 

"In other words, I won't get tossed in jail for carrying a concealed weapon?" Hutch inquired dryly.

 

"That's right, Hutchinson. Don't get cute. Check in with them."

 

"Okay, Cap'n. I will."

 

The state police district headquarters was, indeed, right off the interstate, with its own exit, and Hutch pulled into the parking lot an hour later. He got out and went in, pulling his badge out of his pocket and identifying himself to the officer at the front desk. In a few moments, a plainclothes officer appeared.

 

"Jerry Duncan," the man said, offering his hand. Hutch shook it. "We're doing everything we can to find your partner," Duncan went on. "I'm afraid we don't have anything to report right now, but all the patrol officers on the roads have been alerted."

 

There was something oddly comforting to Hutch being in a police headquarters with other officers who really understood what it was like for your partner to be missing. Duncan got some bad coffee for Hutch, offered him a sandwich, and let him use the phone to check in with Dobey.

 

Dobey had nothing new to tell him and Hutch hung up with a heavy heart. "I don't even know if I'm on the right track now," he said to Duncan, who was still nearby. "The last place I was sure of was Springfield, Missouri."

 

"I think we can be sure of more than that," Duncan said. "I don't know it for sure, but a hooker got picked up on Laclede's Landing in St. Louis last night and when they booked her, she saw one of those flyers they've been putting up. She said she saw him, too, in a bar on the riverfront. A hooker's word ain't much to go on, but she said she'd propositioned him and he damn near took her head off. They called this morning and told us."

 

That sounded like Starsky, too. Hutch usually had a soft spot for hookers at least, he felt sorry for them but Starsky didn't.

 

"I don't understand," Hutch said tiredly, taking another sip of the rancid coffee. "We've had cops in four states looking for him and we still can't find him!"

 

"It's pretty easy to disappear," Duncan said. "He hasn't done nothin' wrong, and a man with a knapsack on the interstate is a pretty common sight."

 

"My captain said hitchhiking's illegal here."

 

"It is," Duncan said with a shrug, "but we don't usually make an issue of it. Got better things to do. I-55's a major route for drug dealers bringing stuff in from down south to Chicago. That keeps us pretty busy."

 

~*~*~*~

 

Starsky ate and actually enjoyed his supper, brought on a tray by yet another smiling and cheerful young woman. He slept well for the first time in weeks and woke rested and feeling much better. Matt returned in the morning with a towel and soap and directed him to a bathroom where he could take a shower. It felt good, and someone washed his clothes for him while he was in there. He joined the community for breakfast in the common area and was taken aback by the number of people that were there. There were at least 100 people in the room.

 

"Do all these people live here?" he asked of Matt, who had sat beside him.

 

"No," Matt said. "Only about, oh, 50 or 60 people live here. The rest are homeless people who come here to eat, or people who are thinking of joining us. Jesus loves them all."

 

Before breakfast, a man about Starsky's age led the group in grace, and after breakfast, the room emptied quickly as the members of the community scattered to their daily tasks. Matt's was apparently to keep Starsky company, because he made no move to leave when everyone else did. Instead, he talked earnestly to Starsky about the beliefs of the Jesus People, and how they made their living, and how they all shared everything with the community. Starsky listened politely, but inwardly he was thinking that while the group might not be a cult in the strictest sense of the word, it was still not a place he would want to be tangled up with. The money the members made went into a common fund, Matt said, and if you needed new clothes or medical attention, you had to fill out paperwork to request money for the transaction. The head of the group made the rules, including who could marry whom and when. Kids were educated according to the group's beliefs. And if you chose to leave at least, there was a choice there, Starsky thought you were shunned by the rest, who could no longer associate with you, even if you were a member of their biological family.

 

"That sounds kind of harsh," Starsky said carefully.

 

Matt shrugged. "I know. But no one has to join if they don't want to. And everyone knows the rules before they join. I grew up here."

 

"Your parents are members?" Starsky was surprised. He hadn't seen anyone old enough to have a son Matt's age.

 

"Not anymore. They left when I was ten. But I stayed."

 

"You stayed? Without them?"

 

Matt nodded. "I had been baptized by then, and I was considered old enough to choose for myself. And I wanted to stay. I haven't seen them since then. I don't know where they are."

 

He didn't sound at all upset by that fact, and that, more than anything else, convinced Starsky that he didn't want to be here. He was grateful for the care and the food, but he had to get out of here. When he told the leader that, the man nodded.

 

"It's not for everyone," he said quite calmly. "We realize that. But if you should change your mind, you'd be welcome to return."

 

"Thanks," Starsky said, with no intention of ever coming back. He shouldered his knapsack and turned away, but the man stopped him with a hand on his arm.

 

"Can we give you a ride somewhere? Downtown Chicago is no place for hitchhiking."

 

Starsky considered. It would make things a little easier, he supposed. Though he felt better than he had, he knew he still had a fever and he was grateful they were willing to get him started in the right direction. That would save a little energy and he might not be able to get a ride in the rough part of town. "Yeah, that'd be terrific."

 

"Where would you like us to drop you?"

 

"I've never been in this state before," Starsky said. "An old Army buddy of mine is buried in some town called Decatur. Do you know where that is?"

 

"Certainly. It's about a three-hour drive south of here. You could catch a train as far as Champaign and then you'd have to find a way to Decatur from there. It's about an hour's drive west of Champaign."

 

Starsky very much doubted his two dollars and change would be enough to buy a train ticket to Champaign, so he simply said, "Could somebody take me to the station, then?"

 

The man studied him soberly. "You don't have any money, do you, David?"

 

Starsky opened his mouth to lie, but finally just shrugged. "No. Not much, anyway."

 

"Wait here." The man left the room and in a few minutes returned. He placed some cash in Starsky's hand, though Starsky tried to refuse it. "No, please. Take it. That's what we're here for, to help people. Jesus would want us to do this for you. Please."

 

If he hadn't needed it so badly, Starsky would have refused, but as it was, he accepted. "Thanks. I'll pay you back someday."

 

The man waved him off. "No, no need for that. Help someone else instead. Pass it on, as the song says."

 

Starsky smiled, shook the man's hand, and followed Jenny out to the van. It must have been the same one they'd brought him here in, but he didn't remember it. She drove him to the train station downtown.

 

Starsky went in and looked at the schedules and the prices. A train ticket to Champaign didn't cost much, but he didn't know how long this money was going to have to last him. He finally decided he'd be better off hitching, dangerous or not. He left the train station and walked through the city streets, looking for the way back to the highway.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Hutch drove north on I-55 from Springfield, with no idea where he was going to look or what he was going to do when he got to Chicago. It was a big city, with a lot of homeless people, missions, shelters, and crime. He was worried sick about what could happen to Starsky there, especially in his current mood. He knew his partner well, and he knew how he'd feel if their positions were reversed.

 

But when he came upon the exit for I-72 to Decatur, on impulse he took it. He remembered Starsky telling him about his closest friend in 'Nam who had been killed only a few weeks before he was due to go home. That friend was from Decatur and had been buried in his hometown. Starsky had said if he ever made it to Illinois, he was going to make a point of visiting his friend's grave. Starsky never forgot a promise, even promises he made to himself. Hutch thought it was worth a try.

 

He was passing a sign that said Decatur was 18 more miles when he saw someone walking the same way he was going, but on the other side of the highway. Someone wearing a black and white varsity jacket. Dark hair, knapsack recognition came with a sudden rush of adrenaline.

 

Scanning ahead with his eyes, Hutch spotted a turnabout for emergency vehicles. He crossed into the fast lane and floored it, his heart nearly stopping from the thought that he might have just lucked into finding his best friend. His mind was racing with the irrational fear that someone else would pick him up before he could reach him. He was also thinking what a huge shock seeing him was going to be for Starsky and he decided he'd better just pull over like anyone else would to give him a ride.

 

He passed Starsky and pulled over on the shoulder. Looking over his shoulder he watched his friend pick up the pace to catch up to the car. Guess there's no way to do this gently.

 

The passenger door opened and Starsky put his head in saying, "Hey, thanks, mister, I...."

 

He stopped in mid sentence. His face drained of what little color it had and he dropped his knapsack.

 

"Starsk," Hutch started, putting a hand out to him. How do you reassure someone who thinks he has just seen a ghost?

 

"Hu-Hutch?" Starsky couldn't believe his eyes. He was sure he had finally lost it. Blinking his eyes a few times and trying to shake off the hallucination of his partner, he still found him sitting there in the driver's seat. Hutch could do nothing but watch helplessly as Starsky lost focus and he collapsed from the shock. His system was at its breaking point.

 

"Damn!" Hutch exclaimed. That went well.

 

He scrambled out of the seat as fast as he could, using the car to lean on as he hobbled around the back of it to reach Starsky. As quickly as he could in a cast, he knelt next to him and felt his pulse, mentally kicking himself for not finding a better way to spring his "alive" self on the poor man lying on the ground.

 

"Starsky? Hey, it's me, buddy. Wake up." He tried to revive Starsky, unsuccessfully. His pulse rate was fast and his skin felt hot from fever. Hutch talked to him gently. "Come on, now's no time for a nap, Gordo." Hutch was concerned about Starsky's shocky condition.

 

Hutch checked his friend over and was appalled by his appearance. He was seriously underweight, bruised and pale, and his hands were in terrible shape. The burns were infected and the scars left by the wrist slashing were fresh. He pulled the brace off Starsky's right hand and massaged the cold fingers gently. Even with a fever, the hand was too cool and the color wasn't good. Hutch carefully replaced the brace and started struggling to pick Starsky up to put him in the car. That's when he heard an unexpected voice behind him.

 

"What's going on here?"

 

Hutch hadn't heard the sound of the State Trooper's cruiser as it pulled up in front of the car. He looked up to see a serious looking uniformed officer with one hand resting almost casually on his gun. He knew this must look bad.

 

Sighing in relief he said, "God, am I glad to see you. Please help me. My friend here is sick."

 

The officer still looked wary. "Looks more like a hitchhiker to me. What's your name?"

 

Though he understood the man's cautious attitude, Hutch was too worried about Starsky to tolerate it. "I'm sorry, I know this looks suspicious. I'm Detective Sergeant Ken Hutchinson, Bay City Police Department. This man is my partner and he's been missing. I need to get him to the hospital."

 

The trooper remembered the APB for the missing police officer and his attitude changed immediately. "I'm Trooper Cal Reynolds. We can put him in my cruiser."

 

"No. Just help me put him in the car. You can escort. I don't want him waking up in the back of a cruiser. He's in enough shock." Hutch was relieved when Reynolds agreed.

 

"Follow me to St. Mary's in Decatur. That's the closest hospital."

 

Reynolds put the front passenger seat down and tossed the knapsack into the back. They picked Starsky up and loaded him into the front seat. Trooper Reynolds closed the passenger door and jogged back to his cruiser while Hutch hobbled back around the car. He slid into the driver's seat and peeled out after the cruiser, pushing the Chevy as hard as he could. They tore across the emergency vehicle turnaround and headed for Decatur.

 

As they screamed down the Interstate toward the hospital, Hutch stole repeated glances at his partner. He had broken out in a sweat and didn't look good at all. Hutch put a hand on Starsky's chest every few minutes to be sure he was breathing. This was about as scared as he had been since he almost lost Starsky in a hail of bullets in the police garage two years ago.

 

The cruiser finally took an exit and Hutch followed him through the streets of the town. He got confused by all the twists and turns, worried they were wasting valuable time going to a hospital that was too far from the highway. They wove in and out of traffic and finally Hutch saw the hospital ahead. Reynolds pulled into the emergency entrance with Hutch right on his tail. When they reached the emergency vehicle bay, Hutch saw him get out and rush inside, giving him enough time to get out of the car and around to the passenger door while the emergency personnel responded and came out with a gurney. Starsky was still passed out cold. Hutch stood back while they extricated Starsky and put him on the gurney. Taking one look at his partner's pale face, the team whisked him away from Hutch almost before he knew what was happening.

 

He tossed his car key to Reynolds and asked him to park the Chevy somewhere. Then he hobbled into the hospital. His first instinct was to rush into wherever they had taken Starsky, but he knew he had to call the captain and Huggy first. He spotted the pay phones and placed the call to Dobey collect. His hands were shaking too badly to put coins in the phone.

 

"Yes, operator, I'll accept the charges." Dobey was praying this was good news.

 

"Cap, I've found him." Hutch's voice was nearly breathless.

 

"Thank God! Is he all right? Where are you?" Dobey stopped himself to give Hutch a chance to respond.

 

"I don't know yet. He collapsed when he saw me. I think he's in shock. He looks bad, Cap." Hutch didn't want to admit how scared he was.

 

"Where are you?" Dobey repeated the ignored question a little louder.

 

"Sorry. I'm in Decatur, Illinois. St. Mary's Hospital."

 

"I'll call off the search. You want me to come there?"

 

"Why don't you wait 'til I hear something? I've gotta call Huggy, too. I'll call you later, okay?" All he wanted to do was get off the phone so he could force the staff to take him to Starsky.

 

"Okay, Hutch. I'll call Huggy. You go be with your partner."

 

"Thanks, Cap'n." Hutch hung up the phone and went to the reception desk. By the time he reached it, Reynolds was returning through the Emergency Room doors. Hutch pulled out his identification to show the receptionist.

 

"I'm Detective Ken Hutchinson. The man just brought in is my partner, Detective David Starsky. I need to go back there with him." He tried to put on his best "don't argue with me, I'm a cop" face. Somehow, that never seemed to work well with Emergency Room personnel.

 

"I'm sorry, Detective Hutchinson, you'll have to wait." She pointed to the typical waiting area.

 

Hutch tried his next tactic. "Look, I'm exhausted and worried and in no mood to argue. My partner has been missing and I just found him. I really need to be there for him when he regains consciousness."

 

She started to object again, but Reynolds came to Hutch's rescue. "Let him back there. I'll vouch for him." At least she recognized Reynolds as a local officer. She didn't know what to think of the blond cop standing in front of her. She thought he looked like he might need Emergency Room services just as badly as his friend.

 

"Okay, take him back there," she said to Reynolds.

 

The state trooper nodded his thanks. He handed Hutch back his key and told him where he parked the car as he led him through the ominous double doors to where they were frantically working on his partner. He left Hutch in the treatment room and returned to call his own captain and tell him that the missing officer had been found.

 

Starsky had already been given oxygen and he was on an IV. They were drawing blood when Hutch and Reynolds entered the room. They had taken off his jacket and shoes, tossing them into a corner. One of the nurses was cutting off Starsky's clothes. The doctor motioned another nurse to go talk to Hutch.

 

"You with the patient?" she asked him.

 

"Yes. His name is David Starsky. He's a police officer. My partner," Hutch replied, swaying on his feet. He was tired and his leg was pounding with pain.

 

She wrote that on a medical history form and motioned for Hutch to sit down in a nearby chair. "You look like you're going to fall down any second. Sit." She gently pushed him into the chair. "Now, what's going on with your friend?"

 

Hutch put his head down for a minute and the nurse watched with concern as he gathered enough energy to answer her questions. His hands were shaking. While his head was down, the doctor walked over to join them.

 

"Go and get him some juice, please," he said to the nurse. Then he pulled a chair up beside Hutch.

 

"I'm Doctor Larson. Your name?" He asked.

 

Hutch looked up at him and the doctor couldn't remember when he had last seen such raw panic in someone's eyes who wasn't a screaming Emergency Room patient.

 

Hutch repeated the information he had already given. "I'm Detective Ken Hutchinson from the Bay City Police Department in California. Your patient is my partner. His name is Starsky. David Starsky."

 

"I see. Can you tell me what's happened to him?" he asked kindly.

 

Hutch nodded. "Who's with him?" He looked around the doctor to see what was happening. A nurse in a white uniform with what looked like a nun's veil instead of a traditional nurse's cap was attending to him. Administering some injections into the IV line.

 

"Don't worry, Sister Ann is with him. Now, what can you tell me?" The doctor needed some information to help him treat Starsky.

 

"Starsky has been missing. I've been looking for him."

 

"How long's he been missing?"

 

Hutch thought hard about it. "I don't know, Doc. Weeks." He thanked the other nurse when she put a cup of juice in his hands. He tried to drink it while answering the doctor's questions.

 

"I got a look at him when we got his clothes off. You sure your buddy is a cop, not a rodeo cowboy? He sure has a lot of scars."

 

Hutch smiled. "He's had a lot of trauma. He nearly died two years ago from an assassination attempt. That's what those scars are from."

 

The doctor nodded and made some notes on the clipboard. "What about his wrists. Should I be worried about him being a danger to himself?"

 

"No. That was done to him. Look, Doc, this is a long story. I'm really tired and I want to be with him, so I'm gonna give you the condensed version, okay?" He waited for the doctor's nod before continuing. "Starsky was attacked weeks ago by some goons who thought they'd kill him by slashing his wrists. They left him for dead and they grabbed me. I was missing for a while and they convinced everyone I was dead, including Starsky. We're not just partners, we're best friends. Let's just say he blamed himself for my supposed death. He hit the road before they found me. All this time he's thought I was dead and he was to blame. I've been following him all over the country." Hutch continued to steal looks over the doctor's shoulder, watching the nurse gently remove Starsky's brace and start to treat his burned hands.

 

"I know he's been hurt along the way. I almost caught up to him in Springfield, Missouri where he had been taken to the Memorial Hospital. You can call them to find out what they did for him, ask for Dr. Bradford. I know he was suffering from smoke inhalation and his hands were burned rescuing a child from a car fire outside of Oklahoma City. The doc in Springfield said he was sick. They gave him some medication to take, but in his state of mind, I'll bet he didn't take any."

 

The doctor looked up at Hutch and was about to ask another question when they heard Starsky's panicked voice. He had woken up and found what looked like a nun in all white standing over him. His first thought was that another religious group had found him.

 

"No, get away from me!" he screamed, trying to fight with Sister Ann. She held his hands down and called for the doctor as he continued to scream, though the sound of his weak voice didn't carry very far. Starsky was sick and hurting and in his foggy state he didn't want to deal with the pain anymore. He pleaded with Sister Ann, "No, no. Just let me die."

 

By the time Hutch reached him, Starsky's eyes were frantic. He quickly moved to where Starsky could see him and he took over holding his hands so the nurse could go for the sedative Dr. Larson was ordering.

 

"Starsk, it's me, Hutch. You're safe." He tried to make his voice sound even and calming.

 

Starsky looked like he didn't recognize him. "Hutch is dead. Get away from me! Just let me go." He closed his eyes and tears leaked out from under his tightly shut lids.

 

"Starsky, stop it. Buddy, I'm not dead. I know you thought I was, but I'm okay." He was starting to cry too. Starsky's eyes remained closed as he shook his head weakly from side to side, softly mumbling, "No, no."

 

The nurse added the sedative to his IV and Starsky went limp. Hutch wheeled on the doctor, "What's wrong with him? Why doesn't he recognize me?"

 

"Calm down. He's had a terrible shock and his temperature is over 104. He's delirious. Now go back over there and sit down. I'll be right there."

 

Hutch touched Starsky on the shoulder and leaned over him. "I'm right here, Gordo. I'm not dead. Everything is gonna be okay." He prayed it would be. Then he obeyed Dr. Larson and went back to his chair. A few minutes later the doctor returned to the chair next to Hutch.

 

"What do you think, doctor?" Hutch asked him, his heart hopeful, but his head telling him how seriously ill Starsky was.

 

"Your friend is in critical condition. It's a lucky thing you found him when you did. I'm not sure how much longer he could have gone on in his current state. Do you know how much he usually weighs?"

 

"Yeah, around 165," Hutch answered.

 

"Well, I'd bet he doesn't weigh more than 145 or 150 today. He's dehydrated and he looks like he hasn't eaten much in quite a while. I'd say he's had some exposure to the elements too, maybe he's even been sleeping on the street."

 

Hutch's heart was breaking for Starsky. "I couldn't find him. I tried."

 

The doctor put a hand on Hutch's shoulder. "This isn't your fault. Your friend is lucky you were looking for him. He would have died out on the street like this. His hands are badly infected and he has fluid in his lungs. I'm sending him up for some X-Rays and I've already started a broad-spectrum antibiotic. I don't like the color in his right hand so I'm calling for an orthopedic surgeon to take a look at it. We have a good man here in Decatur, he specializes in hand surgery. The scars look good. I'm sure the doctors who treated him did an excellent job, but he hasn't taken care of himself and he may have caused a setback in his recovery or even re-injured his hands. I know this is a lot to take in, but we'll take good care of him. Try not to worry."

 

Hutch was afraid to ask, but he had to know. "Is he going to make it?" He didn't know what he would do if Starsky died now.

 

"I hope so. I'm not going to promise you, though. We're going to get him stabilized and move him to the ICU. If we can get his fever down and get the infection under control, he'll probably be all right."

 

"I want to be with him," Hutch said.

 

"Of course, but first I'm going to take a look at you."

 

"What? Me? No, I'm okay." Hutch was not interested in being a patient again.

 

"I think you'd better let me be the judge of that." Behind the doctor, Starsky was being pushed out of the Emergency Room on the way to X-Ray. When Hutch started to stand, the room refused to cooperate and started to spin a little. He put a hand out to steady himself and found himself being led to a gurney.

 

"Look, we can do this the easy way, or the hard way," Dr. Larson said. "I could just wait for you to pass out, too, but I'd rather not if it's all right with you."

 

Hutch acquiesced and lay back on the gurney. "You let me know if there's any change, okay?"

 

"Your friend will be out from that sedative for a few hours. We'll be done by then. Relax. I'm just going to call for that orthopedic consult. I'll be back in a few minutes."

 

Lying there, finally able to rest assured that Starsky was in good hands, Hutch fell asleep waiting for the doctor's return. When he came back and woke Hutch up, they talked about how he had been feeling, the tension and stress he'd been under, his recent illness, and his healing injuries. The doctor drew some blood and found Hutch to be anemic and that his blood sugar was too low. An X-ray of Hutch's leg revealed it to be healing nicely. Larson ordered an IV and a meal for the blond. Hutch rested for three hours while they did their tests and forced him to eat. When he felt comfortable that Hutch would not pass out, he got him a cane to replace the crutches and released him to go sit with Starsky. He gave him a list of aftercare instructions including taking some iron supplements and getting more rest.

 

Hutch stopped at the pay phones again. This time he felt confident putting the coins in so he didn't call collect. Captain Dobey was relieved to hear from him.

 

"How's he doing?" he asked.

 

"Not so good, Cap. He has a high fever and an infection. They're worried about his right hand too. They called in an orthopedic guy to look at it," Hutch answered.

 

"You sound a little better. How are you doing?"

 

"They made me let them look me over. I'm okay. Just a little anemic."

 

Knowing how Hutch always downplayed his own injuries when Starsky was in jeopardy, Dobey persisted. "What about the leg, Hutch?"

 

"Leg's doing fine. I graduated to a cane. I'm going up to see Starsky now." Hutch was done talking about Hutch.

 

"Huggy's already on his way out there. I have a few things to wrap up here, but I could be there in the morning."

 

"If Huggy's coming, why don't you just stay out there, Cap? I'd love to have your company, but we might need you on that end to make arrangements for bringing him home. Okay?" Hutch was hoping the captain would agree. He didn't want him to have to come all the way to Illinois when they might be able to transfer Starsky back home in a couple of days. He had a feeling that Captain Dobey wanted to stay in Bay City. His instincts were telling him the captain had things he wanted to do there.

 

"All right, Hutch. I do have some things I'm working on here that should be taken care of before you bring him home."

 

"Great. I'll be in touch. Thanks for everything, Cap."

 

"Take good care of yourself. I know you'll take care of him." Dobey chuckled.

 

"That's what Huggy's for, Cap. I hope to see you in a couple of days." Hutch hung up the phone and walked to the elevator. The cane was helping and his leg felt a little better since he had rested.

 

When he walked into the ICU, he was relieved to see Starsky still sleeping. They had packed him in ice for a while, but they were clearing that away as he entered the room.

 

"He's doing a little better," the nurse told him. "His fever's down to 102.6." She exited the room, leaving Hutch alone with his friend.

 

He took up his usual seat next to Starsky's bedside, turned, so he could watch him sleeping. They had replaced the bandages on his hands and Hutch looked at them carefully. When the nurse returned with a blanket for him, he thanked her and asked, "What happened to the brace he was wearing? Doesn't he need it?" Starsky's right hand was now wrapped in an elastic bandage with a piece of hard plastic under his palm.

 

"He's lost a lot of weight and it's so big on him now, the thing was probably doing more harm than good. The orthopod, uh, orthopedic surgeon will take care of that when he gets here. He said he'd be here," she paused and looked at the wall clock, "in about an hour. Relax."

 

"Sorry." Hutch dropped his eyes a little. "I'm just worried about him."

 

"I know. My name is Karen. What's yours?" She shook his hand as he told her to call him Ken. "Don't worry, Ken. We've got it under control. You just be here for him."

 

"That's the easiest thing I've had to do for weeks." Hutch couldn't help but laugh a little. Relief was beginning to seep into his soul, but he wouldn't feel relaxed until he knew Starsky was out of the woods. Having him wake up and recognize him would help, too.

 

He gently took Starsky's left hand in his and talked to him softly. "I know you're mixed up right now, buddy. Must've been a pretty big shock to see my ugly mug. I'm gonna be right here when you wake up, though. It's gonna be okay. You just get well." Hutch settled in to wait for Starsky to wake up and for Huggy to arrive.

 

He dozed off again while he was sitting there, and when the nurse came back to check on Starsky, she reached down to pick up the blanket that had fallen to the floor and tucked it around the blond man. He looked absolutely exhausted, almost as bad as his friend. She shook her head and turned to take Starsky's pulse and found his eyes open. He wasn't looking at her, however, but at the man in the chair. No, not looking. Staring. With wonder.

 

"How do you feel?" she asked softly, not wanting to awaken his friend.

 

Starsky turned his eyes to her briefly, almost as if he hadn't known she was there. "Huh?"

 

"How do you feel?" she repeated, but Starsky was looking at the other man again.

 

"Hutch?" he said quietly, the way one would speak to a frightened animal. "My God, is that really you?"

 

The blond man's eyes opened at the sound of Starsky's voice and when their eyes met, Karen realized she had no business witnessing this moment. She didn't know why she felt that way, but she quickly and quietly left the room.

 

Hutch sat up and let the blanket fall to the floor again. He and Starsky simply stared at each other for several moments neither knew how long and Hutch finally reached out with his other hand and laid it against Starsky's hair. "Hi, buddy."

 

Starsky seemed to have lost the power of speech. His hand, still lying in Hutch's, gave one spasmodic squeeze, but other than that he simply lay there and stared until Hutch gave a nervous laugh.

 

"You okay? I'm not a ghost and you aren't dreaming."

 

"But..." Starsky closed his eyes for a moment and opened them again, "I thought...I mean...."

 

"The reports of my death were greatly exaggerated," Hutch said, trying to be funny. "So were yours, I might add."

 

Starsky wet his lips and, with obvious effort, tore his eyes away and glanced around the room. "Where am I?"

 

"In a hospital in Decatur, Illinois. You're in bad shape, partner. And you aren't leaving here until you're better. Those aren't the doctor's orders. They're mine."

 

Starsky's eyes crinkled a little at the corners. "What happened? How'd you find me? Where have you been? You're hurt!" Starsky had just noticed the cast.

 

"Whoa, take it easy." Hutch smiled at him. "Plenty of time for all that. We got a lot to talk about."

 

They talked long into the night and though Hutch often tried to stop and make Starsky go to sleep, Starsky wouldn't hear of it. At one point, his eyes filled with tears and he said, "God, buddy, I've been goin' around thinkin' you're dead for weeks and you want me to shut my eyes just when I've got ya back? What if I open 'em and you're gone again?"

 

"Aw, Starsk. That's not gonna happen," Hutch said, his own eyes filling. He stroked his hand carefully up and down Starsky's arm. "I'm not going anywhere."

 

"I can't believe you followed me halfway across the country," Starsky said. "How'd you know where to look?"

 

"I told you how we traced you to El Paso."

 

Starsky nodded.

 

"And then I saw you on the news, saving that kid from the wreck in Oklahoma City."

 

Starsky nodded again.

 

"From there it was mostly instinct, until you called home to get money for the hospital in Springfield," Hutch said. "I didn't know which way you'd gone. I just " He shrugged. "Guessed."

 

Starsky smiled, but it wasn't the ear-to-ear Starsky special. This was a slow, gentle smile that softened his eyes and made his face almost glow. "You done good, partner."

 

~*~*~*~

 

Huggy arrived in the middle of the afternoon. He'd had to catch a connecting flight from St. Louis and he wasn't happy about the small plane that had brought him the rest of the way. Hutch picked him up at the little airport and Huggy complained all the way to the hospital. But Hutch didn't mind. It was good to see Huggy so good he'd almost thrown his arms around him and hugged him, but Huggy was less demonstrative than Starsky and it would have embarrassed him, so he didn't. But he'd shaken his hand hard and clapped him on the shoulder.

 

Now, as they rode upstairs in the elevator, Huggy finally stopped moaning about "small towns" and "beans and corn and corn and beans" and asked about Starsky.

 

"He's gonna be okay," Hutch said. "Thank God. He's lost a lot of weight. The doctor still isn't sure if his right hand's ever going to be the same again. But his fever's down and " He stopped. He had to.

 

Huggy nodded understandingly. "He wants to be okay now. That'll make all the difference. I know."

 

Starsky was sleeping when they walked in the room he'd already been moved to a regular room but he woke up, sensing their presence. Huggy strode right over to the bed and grinned down. Starsky grinned up. "It is good to see you, friend," Huggy said.

 

"Good to see you, too, Hug."

 

"I'm only gonna say this once," Huggy said, "so you best pay attention, flatfoot. You ever do somethin' like this to me again, I'll be the one who comes lookin' for your white behind, and when I find it, I'm gonna kick it. Kapish?"

 

Starsky laughed out loud.

 

Starsky improved rapidly with the combination of both Hutch and Huggy to nag him into eating and keep his spirits high. Hutch also felt like a new man. Huggy had found a barbecue joint in the downtown area operating out of a converted gas station. He smuggled in ribs and chicken and various other delicacies and Hutch could almost watch Starsky gain weight and health.

 

"Huggy," Starsky said through a mouthful of ribs two nights later, "I don't know how you do it."

 

"Do what?" Huggy asked innocently.

 

"You ain't never been here before. I know you haven't. How'd you find the best rib joint in the state inside o' two days?"

 

"My cousin runs it."

 

"Oh, come on," Starsky said, clearly not buying it.

 

"No, man, I'm bein' straight with ya. Well, okay, he ain't my cousin, but he used to live next door to my cousin's third wife when they were kids "

 

Starsky held up his free hand, laughing. "I give. Uncle, already. It don't matter. You tell him I said these are the best ribs I ever ate."

 

Huggy exchanged a grin with Hutch.

 

The doctor promised Starsky could leave the hospital by the weekend, though he wanted him to rest another two or three days before traveling. Starsky agreed to that, and when the time came for Huggy to head back to Bay City, Starsky and Hutch took him back to the airport. When the 30-seat plane touched down, Huggy sighed theatrically and turned to the detectives. "I hate flyin'. 'Specially in one o' them little puddle-jumpers."

 

Starsky grinned and patted him on the back. "You'll be okay, Hug. I promise. We'll see ya in a few days, okay?"

 

After the plane took off, Hutch pulled the key to the rental car out of his pocket. "Let's go get a motel room, buddy. We got a couple of days to kill."

 

"Hutch."

 

"Yeah?"

 

"There's somethin' I gotta do first."

 

Hutch turned back to him. He'd seldom seen quite that look in Starsky's eyes. "What?"

 

"I wanna go to Mark's grave. That's why I was comin' here to begin with, y'know."

 

Hutch nodded. He'd guessed as much, but he hadn't asked because they'd had so much else to talk about. "Okay. Want me to come or not?"

 

"Of course I want you to come!" Starsky said.

 

"All right. Where's he buried?"

 

The ticket clerk gave them directions and Hutch drove while Starsky stared out the window in utter silence. Not wanting to disturb whatever memories Starsky was reliving, Hutch also held his peace until they had pulled into the cemetery. It was a fairly large cemetery and Hutch cringed at the thought of trying to walk around in a cast out here looking for one grave among so many. But Starsky anticipated the thought.

 

"You wait here," he said. "I'll find it and signal you."

 

Hutch nodded and watched as Starsky walked up and down through the various markers. He knew the instant Starsky found the right one. His friend froze mid-step and something in the set of his shoulders told Hutch he'd found it. Hutch drove the car as close as he could and got out. Leaning heavily on the cane, he walked over to Starsky and gently laid a hand on his back. He could tell by the tension in the muscles that Starsky was controlling his emotions with an effort.

 

The stone was very plain. Across the top was the name "McLaughlin" and underneath, "Mark, beloved son, 1948-1969." Only twenty-one years old.

 

"He only had three weeks before his discharge," Starsky said softly after many minutes had passed. "He'd been wounded once, but not bad. We went out on patrol and we weren't even worried about it, 'cause there hadn't been no action in that area for a couple of months. We were walkin' along, talkin', and Mark was tellin' me all the stuff he was gonna do when he got home. Hug his mom and eat some of her chocolate cake. Take his dog for a walk. Look up his high school buddies the ones who weren't in the Army and go out and get drunk. We didn't hear nothin' or see nothin' until the shots. I hit the dirt and so did he. I fired in the direction the shots came from and I saw the sniper runnin' off and then I turned my head to tell Mark it was safe to get up. And he didn't move. So I reached out to him " He paused and put his good hand up to his eyes for a moment. Hutch slowly stroked his back and waited. After a moment, he went on, "I turned him over and there was a bullet wound right through his heart. He'd died almost instantly. Hutch," Starsky looked up, "he was my best friend."

 

Hutch nodded without speaking.

 

Starsky turned back to the grave and knelt so he could pull a couple of non-existent weeds from the base of it. He laid one hand on the stone for a moment and stood up. He looked to the west and his eyes widened a little.

 

"Hutch."

 

"Yeah, buddy?"

 

"See that park over there?" He pointed.

 

It looked like a fairly large park. There was the roof of a pavilion peeking over the tops of the trees and a large wrought-iron arch over the entrance. "I see it."

 

"That was where Mark liked to take his dog for walks," Starsky said. "He used to tell me about the pool and the duck pond and how the kids would cruise Eldorado Street on Saturday nights and drive through the park and stop and make out until the cops came along and rousted 'em."

 

"Want to drive through it?"

 

"D'you mind?"

 

"Not a bit. Come on."

 

Hutch drove through the beautiful park. The archway declared its name to be "Fairview" and Hutch approved of the name choice. He knew Starsky was going to enjoy this. They passed the large pavilion they had seen from the cemetery. Lots of picnic tables looked welcoming and Hutch imagined them full of people enjoying a pleasant weekend afternoon together. When they came to the duck pond, Starsky asked him to stop. He exited the car and walked to the water's edge to watch the birds. Hutch smiled, he knew Starsky loved ducks. He wished it were the right time of year for ducklings, but it was still too early and the weather was too cold yet.

 

After giving Starsky some time to think he joined him. "Hey, partner. You okay?" he asked.

 

Starsky nodded. "Mark said it was pretty here. He liked the ducks."

 

"He was right. Anything you want to talk about, buddy?" Hutch knew there was something on Starsky's mind and he hoped he would share it.

 

Starsky slowly shook his head, but he also spoke. "I just don't get it sometimes. Mark and me were both there when that sniper opened fire. Why him and not me?"

 

That thought gave Hutch a momentary chill. "I don't know, but I'm glad you made it. I would never have known you otherwise and from what you've told me, Mark never would have fit into my jacket."

 

Starsky smiled at him. He loved the way Hutch could make him smile when he was feeling blue. He had left the jacket in the car and now, standing by the water, he had the chills. Hutch noticed.

 

"Hey, you're shivering. We'd better get you back in the car. Why aren't you wearing the jacket?" He touched Starsky's elbow and started to steer him back toward the Chevy.

 

Starsky shrugged. "Guess I figured it's not mine to wear anymore. Its rightful owner is back."

 

"You can hang onto it for me, Gordo." He knew the jacket had been important to Starsky on his journey.

 

"Nah, 's yours. You take it."

 

"How about we share it, huh? At least till I get you home and you have your leather one back, okay?"

 

Starsky appreciated it. He really didn't want to give it up so soon. The jacket was his link to Hutch during his darkest time. Suddenly, he remembered the pocket watch he still had in his knapsack. When they reached the car, he crawled into the back to get it.

 

"What are you after?" Hutch asked, "Let me help you." He didn't want Starsky pushing his still healing hands.

 

"Wait a minute." Starsky was determined. He finally found in it in the small hard case he had kept it in, down in the bottom of the bag. Hutch had searched the knapsack for clues to the details of Starsky's adventures, but he had missed the small case.

 

Starsky was beaming when he put it in Hutch's hand. The blond opened the box and was stunned to see his pocket watch there.

 

"Wh-where did you get it?" he stammered, suddenly nervous without knowing why.

 

"Paco got it off that fisherman. Lying sack of...." Starsky stopped himself as he felt his anger rising.

 

"Easy, buddy." Hutch understood how he felt. Starsky hadn't told him much about his time in Mexico, just that the fisherman had lied about them tossing his body into the waters off the coast of Ensenda. He knew exactly how he would have felt.

 

Hutch didn't want Starsky getting upset. He tried to change the subject. "Thanks for keeping my watch safe, Gordo."

 

"Dammit!" Starsky said, closing his eyes and taking in a deep breath that ended in a cough. When Hutch called him "Gordo", Starsky thought about what he had seen in Mexico, written on the wall in Hutch's blood.

 

"Hey, don't let it get to you, Starsk. Everything's okay now." Hutch reached out and put his hand on Starsky's shoulder.

 

Blue eyes dark with pain looked up at him. "Is it okay, Hutch? You coulda died down there for real. That guy made the difference. He pushed me over the top to believe you were dead. Even with the way that shack looked, if it hadn't been for him, I would've kept looking. I might've found you." He instantly regretted what he just said. Starsky had no intention of telling Hutch about that part. Hutch obviously didn't remember much about that shack, his blood loss, or what he had written on the wall. He didn't want his friend to dwell on the pain all of it had caused him. Although he had held together admirably, Starsky was afraid his best friend was squelching a serious bout of guilt and anger. That was the way Hutch operated. He would never allow himself to face his own pain as long as he thought Starsky was in any danger. With Starsky on the mend, a storm was imminent.

 

Hutch asked, "What about the shack?"

 

Starsky shook his head. "No, 's okay, Hutch. You're right, doesn't matter now."

 

"Obviously it does matter. What has you so upset?" Hutch was concerned. He didn't want anything to happen that would set Starsky back for any reason.

 

Starsky sighed and looked down at the ground. He was starting to shiver in earnest now and Hutch made him sit in the front seat. Though it wasn't the easiest maneuver in a cast, Hutch knelt beside the open car door and put a hand on Starsky's leg looking up at him with pleading eyes. "Please tell me. I want you to tell me everything that happened, in Mexico and on the road. I know you're leaving stuff out, Gordo. You can't fool me."

 

Knowing he couldn't escape his partner's inquisition for long, Starsky started slowly, "Buddy, the shack had your blood all over it. The place was a mess. I couldn't imagine you could still be alive with that much of your blood lost. Don't ask me how I knew it was yours, but I did." He hoped that would do, but Hutch could tell there was more.

 

"What else?"

 

"You don't miss much, do you?" Starsky sighed.

 

"Not from you, pal. Now, come on, what else?" Hutch's gaze was intense, but Starsky held it.

 

"I found your necklace. The one I gave you on your birthday. That's in my knapsack too, in the box of bullets for Dad's gun. Then I saw what you wrote on the wall."

 

"What? I didn't write anything, buddy." Hutch was puzzled. He had been completely out of it when Terrel and his thugs took him out of that shack. "I wasn't even conscious when they took me outta there. What did it say?"

 

"I don't understand. What it said, only you could've written that." Starsky was confused. No one in Mexico would have known about Hutch's nickname for him. "You've just forgotten."

 

"No, I'm telling you I remember that shack. I just didn't talk about it much because I didn't want to upset you. What did it say?" Hutch insisted.

 

Starsky swallowed, "I tried, Gordo." He fought back his emotions, remembering how much it hurt when he read that. Closing his eyes, he put his head back on the seat. "Hey, I'm beat. Let's find that hotel room, 'kay?"

 

Hutch was trembling with anger. He had no idea how Terrel had known what to write to achieve the most painful reaction. Then he realized he had been delirious with fever. He must have been calling for Starsky. Intent on keeping the tide of his anger down and his feelings about what this did to Starsky to himself, he nodded and quietly shut the door.

 

When he was back in the driver's seat and heading out of the park, Starsky said, "Hutch? You okay?"

 

"Yeah. You're tired, buddy. Why don't you just relax? We'll be there in a few minutes." He desperately wanted Starsky to drop it before he exploded. Hutch struggled for control of his feelings, but they were starting to crowd past his carefully established barriers.

 

Starsky wanted to pursue it, but he really was exhausted and he could tell Hutch was not in any frame of mind to talk about it. Not yet. He'd give his friend some time and then try again.

 

They headed toward the Holiday Inn Starsky's nurse had recommended. She laughingly had told them that even small towns have No-Tell Motels and Decatur was no exception. He elected to pass on both the Intown and the Soy City motels. They checked into a double room and headed up so that Starsky could get some needed rest. Hutch thought he was looking a little pale and he didn't like it that he had gotten so chilled.

 

When they reached the room, Starsky threw his knapsack onto one of the beds and announced that he needed a hot bath to take the chill out first. Then he would rest a while and they would go out for something to eat later. Before he could get into the bathroom, Starsky heard Hutch asking him a question.

 

"Hey, Starsk, those guys who got your wallet in El Paso. Did they hurt you?" Starsky stopped in his tracks, wondering why that was important at that moment.

 

"What difference does it make, I'm okay." He tried to walk away, but Hutch determinedly said his name again.

 

"Starsk."

 

He knew he would have to answer, but he could at least downplay it. "No major damage, buddy. Father Dolan was there, remember?" Again he tried to walk into the bathroom. This time he had his hand on the doorknob when his partner's quiet voice said his name again.

 

"Starsky."

 

"All right, Blintz. Yes, they hurt me a little. They caught me when I wasn't looking their way and they threw me into the wall. They didn't really hurt me, just stunned me for a few minutes. Now can I take my bath?" Hutch nodded at him without speaking. Starsky went into the bathroom and closed the door, knowing he was going to have to deal with Hutch's mounting anger soon.

 

Hutch sat in the chair by the window, pulling out the pocket watch. He turned it over in his hands, opened it, set the time, wound it. He had believed it was lost forever and finding out it had been safe with Starsky all along was a pleasant surprise. He was glad the thieves in El Paso hadn't gotten it. Starsky would have felt terrible.

 

Remembering what Starsky said about the box of bullets, he hobbled over to the bed and opened the knapsack. He pulled the box out and retrieved his necklace. Starsky had been so proud of it when he gave it to him for his birthday. The chain would need repair, but he could put it in his wallet for now. He wanted it back and close to him. Just as he was about to put the knapsack back on Starsky's bed, on an impulse, he pulled out the old revolver and looked to see if it was loaded. The gun had one bullet in it in the firing position. Hutch felt himself turning white as the blood rushed toward his feet. He had a sudden revelation. If the gun had just one bullet in it, Starsky was either playing Russian Roulette or he had seriously contemplated eating that bullet. Hutch doubted his friend was playing Russian Roulette.

 

Hutch's knees gave out and he plopped down on the floor between their beds. The gun was still in his hand when he leaned back against his bed, putting his head down and closing his eyes tightly. He felt weak and was trying not to lose control. Hutch believed he had to remain strong for Starsky. His partner needed him and he couldn't afford this useless wallow in his own fears and pain over what had happened to them.

 

Those fears and that pain were palpable to Hutch. Try as he might he couldn't control them and he soon found himself crying with his head still down and the gun still in his hand. He couldn't stop. All of the tension and heartache he had felt from the minute he saw that Terrel's gorilla had slashed Starsky's wrists, to when he found his dazed and ill partner walking along the highway, rushed at him. His heart twisted at the memory of the wait for the doctors to say Starsky was stabilized and would recover. He went from being his usual, in control self to being a man quickly drowning in denied feelings in a frightening few minutes. He knew back in the park that his hold was slipping; now he seemed to be going down for the third time. Hutch sat, quietly crying, for long minutes and he never heard the bathroom door open, or his whistling, cheerful partner coming back into the room.

 

Starsky had pulled on a pair of sweats Hutch had bought him because he thought they'd be easier for him to maneuver with his injured hands. "Hey, Hutch," Starsky was saying as he toweled his hair dry with his left hand, "I was thinking later we could...." He stopped suddenly when he moved the towel away from his face and saw Hutch. His friend was sitting on the floor between their beds with his head down and Michael Starsky's service revolver in his hand, lying limply in his lap. Starsky's heart nearly stopped and he rushed to kneel beside Hutch.

 

Starsky's head knew Hutch couldn't have pulled the trigger of that gun without him hearing the blast, but he was running on pure fear for a few horrifying seconds. Reaching an unsteady hand out to touch his friend, terrifying thoughts crowding in on him, Starsky said, "Babe? You all right?"

 

Starsky put his hand on Hutch's shoulder, feeling the trembling underneath it. Hutch looked up at him with red eyes and tears on his face. He held the gun up for Starsky to take and said, "Gordo, you wouldn't have...."

 

Taking the revolver from him gently, Starsky popped it open and let the bullet fall onto the floor. He realized in one regret-filled instant that he had never unloaded the gun after he had dismissed the idea of killing himself with it and Hutch knew that. Smooth move, idiot.

 

"Hutch, I'm sorry." He hung his head, sitting down next to Hutch. How could he explain away what he had almost done? He knew there was no way to do it without hurting his partner. He regretted his stupid oversight in not unloading the gun much more than he regretted the fact that he had almost killed himself. Causing pain to Hutch hurt more than that regret, and though he had believed his friend was dead at the time, he knew that was not an excuse that would ease Hutch's pain.

"Why, Starsk? Because of me?" Hutch looked pitiful and Starsky's heart was breaking.

 

"I didn't do it," Starsky said plaintively.

 

"You almost did, buddy. Not because of me, please." Hutch couldn't bear the thought that Starsky would take his own life in his grief. Hot tears poured down his cheeks.

 

Starsky threw the gun on the bed and moved over, pulling Hutch toward him. He put his arm around Hutch's shoulder, using the other hand to take one of his partner's hands. "I'm sorry. I never wanted you to know that. I'm so sorry." Hutch was shaking and quietly crying. Starsky tried to soothe away the pain. "It's okay, buddy. We made it. Please don't cry." He couldn't stand to see his friend this way.

 

"God, Starsk. What if you did it? How would I have felt?" Hutch started to lean heavily on him and he allowed Starsky to ease him down to lie on the floor, his head in Starsky's lap.

 

"Hutch, I should've been faster. I should've kept them from taking you. I'm sorry, partner, but I failed you. You were hurt because I failed you." Voicing his shame at losing Hutch to Terrel was painful. He needed to assure Hutch that it wasn't his fault.

 

"No, no," Hutch quietly said it repeatedly as he clutched Starsky's leg. "You almost died, more than once, and it was all because of me."

 

"Don't say that, Hutch. That ain't right. 'S my job to protect you, watch your back. I screwed up. I shoulda known you were in trouble. If I'd figured it out sooner, I could've stopped them. I'm sorry."

 

Both men sat crying and trying to apologize for their own imagined failings. Starsky believed he should have been quicker to figure out what was going down in Hutch's apartment that day and Hutch thought he should have found some better excuse to keep Starsky from returning and walking into the hell they had both endured. Slowly, Hutch calmed down enough to have a quiet, heartfelt talk with his partner.

 

"Starsk, how'd you figure out I was in trouble?" Hutch asked when they had exhausted another round of my-fault-no-my-fault.

 

"Your empty holster. Why would you take your gun out and wear the empty holster around in your own apartment?"

 

Hutch laughed in spite of his sorrow. "Partner, you're the smartest person I know. You thought fast that day, faster than anyone else would've and it's not your fault it didn't stop them."

 

Starsky absorbed that thought. Admitting to himself that he had done his best was not easy when his partner had been hurt because his best was not enough.

 

"I'm sorry about what that freak wrote on the wall. God, in my blood! You thought I wrote it. That's my fault. I musta said your name when I was sick with the fever. Terrel used it against you. I'm sorry."

 

Starsky sniffed and laughed softly. "Ain't we a pair?"

 

"Don't joke about this Starsky, you could have killed yourself. I suspect you nearly did."

 

"You're right, I almost pulled that trigger. Know what stopped me?"

 

Hutch was hoping he was wrong about how close it had been and his stomach rolled at Starsky's admission. "What?"

 

"You did." Starsky started speaking in a rush to get out his thoughts before Hutch could object or interrupt him. "I got to thinkin' about you and what your face would look like if I got to Heaven and had to admit to you that I'd blown my own head off and I stopped." He paused to take a breath and Hutch opened his eyes again, looking up at Starsky. "I couldn't stand the thought that you'd be disappointed in me." He dropped his eyes, ashamed that he had to admit all of this to Hutch.

 

Hutch reached up and touched Starsky's cheek. "Don't ever even think about suicide again. My heart can't take it, buddy. I hate to think of you staring down the barrel of this gun and how close you came to pulling the trigger."

 

Starsky nodded. "I ain't gonna lie to you, Hutch. I wanted to die real bad."

 

Hutch thought about the words he had heard Starsky say in the ER the morning he'd found him, "let me die." He also vaguely remembered saying those words himself when he thought Starsky was gone and he had done nothing to save him. He dropped his hand tiredly. He owed it to Starsky to admit his own feelings. "I know. I felt the same way when I thought you were dead and I hadn't helped you. Get this straight, Starsk, I don't care what happens to me, you'd better never...." Hutch stopped talking, his gaze so intense Starsky thought he could see right into his soul. Then, deciding a little levity would be okay, Hutch added, "I sure would hate to have to kick your butt in Heaven, buddy. Might damage my wings."

 

Starsky laughed. "I really am sorry, Hutch. You shoulda never known about that. I know it hurts and I never want to be responsible for that."

 

Hutch wasn't done with his partner. He turned over on his back, looking up at Starsky. Starsky looked down at his friend's bright eyes and knew he could refuse him no information. A Hutchinson interrogation could be steely, determined, or "I'm your friend, but watch out for him" in its style with common criminals. He only had to give the right look to his best friend to get any answers he wanted. Hutch thought about what a serious responsibility that kind of trust was.

 

"Buddy, Father Dolan said something to me that scared me. He said there were all kinds of ways to destroy yourself. Were you trying to die slowly out there?" The dark-haired man considered his answer for a little too long. Hutch reached for his hand and gently held it against his chest. "Truth time."

 

"Yeah. I just didn't care anymore."

 

Hutch nodded his gratitude for Starsky's candor. Knowing what he needed to know, he eased up on the interrogation. "I'm sorry for melting down on you like this, buddy."

 

"Hutch, you've been strong for so long. I don't know how you do it, man. Having to watch out for me must take all of your energy. Thank you for saving me. A few more nights sleeping on the streets and I might've just slipped over, buddy." Once again he had allowed his partner's disarming manner to trick him into saying more than he should. Damn.

 

Hutch's eyes narrowed and took on that Viking interrogator look again. "You slept on the streets? The doc said you might have, but are you telling me you really slept on the streets?"

 

"Um, I, well," Starsky stammered, desperate to think of something that would explain that away. He soon gave up, though. "I'm sorry."

 

Hutch put his finger up in the air, returning to his protective mode. Starsky winced at his buddy's use of the "Hutchinson warning finger." That was one of the most powerful weapons in the blond's arsenal.

 

Starsky decided to save him the trouble. "Yeah, yeah, if I ever do anything like this again. Well, buddy, you're gonna have to stand in line behind a certain scrawny barkeep who already laid claim to that duty."

 

Hutch laughed. "Hey, whatdya say we make a promise that neither one of us believes the other one is dead if we don't personally identify the body." Starsky snorted a laugh at that. Then, playfully, Hutch put on his best English accent and quoted a line from one of Starsky's favorite movies, "Uh, I'm-I'm not quite dead, sir."

 

Starsky was stunned. "You're accent's improving, Blondie. But do you know the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?"

 

Hutch furrowed his brow a little. Starsky was really much better at quoting from his beloved, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." He almost gave up, but looking at the anticipation in Starsky's face finally prodded him to remember the appropriate response. "African, or European?"

 

Starsky started to giggle so hard, he began to cough and Hutch had to go get him a glass of water from the bathroom to help him recover. Then they sat on the floor together, leaning on each other, laughing, and feeling safe again for the first time in weeks. Starsky was relieved to see the Hutchinson storm he had anticipated had washed onto their shore and had retreated, leaving both of them feeling better.

 

Finally, Starsky remembered what he had planned to say when he walked out of the bathroom and had his momentary freak out that maybe Hutch had killed himself with Michael Starsky's gun. "When we were driving to the cemetery this afternoon, I saw this cool drive-in called Elam's. The signs said they actually make their own root beer. They had carhops and everything just like in the 50's. How 'bout taking me over there for a Black Cow?"

 

Hutch looked at him incredulously, "A black what?"

 

"A Black Cow, dummy, don't you know what that is?"

 

Hutch knew, but it was much more fun to feign ignorance. "Why would you want to eat a black cow? That sounds like a lot of food to me."

 

Starsky couldn't believe it. How could Hutch not know what a Black Cow was? He opened his mouth and started to explain when he caught the unmistakable glint of humor in Hutch's eyes. He stopped and smiled at his partner.

 

"Starsk, I was a teenager once. I know a Black Cow is a root beer float. Now who's the dummy?"

 

"I don't care, 's long as you take me over there. How 'bout it, please?" Hutch could not resist that tone. He never could.

 

"Okay, but you go finish drying your hair. I'm not about to have you catch pneumonia while you're still recovering. Then you're going to bed early and for the night." He scooted away so that his friend could get up off of the floor, but Starsky put a hand out and touched Hutch's hair for just a moment first. Relapsing into one more moment of seriousness he said, "Thanks for not dyin' on me, buddy. I need ya."

 

Hutch responded with, "Same here, pal. Thanks for sticking around long enough for me to find you." Satisfied that they had said all they needed to on the subject, Starsky got up and went to the bathroom to finish getting ready. Hutch looked up heavenward and said, "Thanks for listening. I owe you another one."

 

~*~*~*~

 

Elam's was all Starsky could have hoped for, with real live carhops and all the greasy food his heart desired. Hutch didn't have the heart to refuse him whatever he wanted, though inside he recoiled at what his partner ordered. Fried shrimp. Onion rings AND French fries. A jumbo-sized Black Cow and a half-gallon of root beer to go. Hutch shuddered at the thought of what all that grease must be doing to his partner's arteries, but Starsky downed it all like a starving man and looked like he was seriously considering ordering round two. Hutch confined himself to a hamburger plain and some of Starsky's French fries.

 

Finally, Starsky crumpled up the paper and handed it all back to Hutch to put back on the tray. "Man, that was terrific," he said blissfully. "Felt like I hadn't eaten in a month."

 

"You probably haven't," Hutch said, knowing it was closer to the truth than he wanted to think about.

 

"Not much, I guess." Starsky noisily slurped up the rest of his Black Cow and handed Hutch the empty Styrofoam cup. "I just lose my appetite when...." He stopped.

 

"I know," Hutch said, putting the cup back and hoping the carhop would come and get the tray before Starsky decided to order more grease. She finally did, and Hutch started the car. He backed out and turned toward Eldorado Street.

 

"Hey, let's cruise, huh?" Starsky said. "I haven't done that since I was a kid."

 

"Are you nuts?" Hutch inquired. "Cruise? Aren't we just a little old for that?"

 

"Aw, come on, Hutch. Mark said everybody did it when he was in high school."

 

"That was years ago."

 

"Well..." Starsky gave a one-shouldered shrug. "They still seem to be doin' it."

 

Hutch had to admit he was right. There was a steady stream of cars going back and forth and at this time on a Saturday night, it should've been nearly deserted. "All right," he said, "but you ain't pickin' up no jailbait, pal, you got that?"

 

Starsky grinned, his eyes dancing with mischief, and put his hand over his heart. "On my honor, I won't. I promise."

 

Hutch turned left instead of right and followed the crowd down to the other end of the street, where they all drove through McDonald's and back out again, heading the other way. He stuck with them until they started into the park, then he veered off toward the Holiday Inn. Starsky didn't protest; in fact, he'd started yawning before they even made it to McDonald's. "Tired, buddy?"

 

"Beat," Starsky said, vainly trying to suppress another yawn.

 

"I'm taking you to bed," Hutch said, not realizing how that sounded until Starsky dissolved into helpless laughter. "You know what I mean," he said, pretending to be annoyed, though it felt good to hear Starsky laugh like that.

 

"I don't think I'd be much fun for ya tonight, anyway," Starsky said when he could speak again. "I'll have to take a rain check."

 

Hutch grinned at him, and by the time they got back to the hotel, he was yawning, too. He let Starsky have the bathroom first, and after he'd finished, Hutch made quick work of brushing his own teeth. When he came out, Starsky was sprawled on his back in one of the beds, already sound asleep. Hutch tiptoed over and pulled the covers over him, turned out the light, and got into bed. But he must not have been as quiet as he thought.

 

"Hutch?"

 

"Yeah?"

 

A long silence, then, so softly he almost missed it, "I love ya. 'Night."

 

"I love you back, Gordo. Now go to sleep."

 

Starsky chuckled. "Mush pot."

 

They spent a quiet day Sunday, mostly resting and watching old movies on television. Rather than take one of the small planes Huggy called "puddle jumpers" to St. Louis to catch a connecting flight for California the next day, they were going to drive to St. Louis so Hutch could return the rental car to the agency's office at the airport there. And Hutch wasn't too wild about the idea of flying on one of those planes, anyway. Too much like the one that had crashed en route to Guatemala. He didn't tell Starsky that was the reason, but he could tell Starsky knew, anyway.

 

He'd already called Huggy earlier in the day to give him their flight number and arrival time, and he thought Huggy had sounded odd when he said he'd meet their plane. He'd been puzzling about it ever since.

 

He looked over at Starsky, half asleep and watching "60 Minutes."

 

"Hey, you awake?"

 

"Kinda," Starsky mumbled. "Whatcha want?"

 

Hutch grinned. "Huggy sounded very weird when I called to ask him to pick us up tomorrow."

 

"So? What's new about that?" Starsky kept his eyes on the screen.

 

Hutch sat up straighter and examined Starsky. "Okay. Spill it. What is it you don't want me to know?"

 

Starsky shrugged. "Lotsa stuff I don't want you to know. My high school algebra grade, what my first girlfriend's tattoo looked like "

 

Hutch rolled his eyes. "Don't bullshit me, partner."

 

Starsky sighed and struggled into a sitting position. "I'm guessin' Huggy's wondering where you're gonna stay."

 

His apartment. It was gone. Hutch had known that, of course. His parents had told him. But he hadn't had time to think about it or worry about what he was going to do about clothes and things since then.

 

"You tryin' to tell me I can't crash on your couch until I find a new apartment?" Hutch inquired.

 

"No, of course not. You know better'n that. 'Cept I don't have an apartment, either."

 

"Why not?"

 

"I told Huggy to get rid of it all 'cause I wasn't coming back. In the letter I left him."

 

The letter. Hutch remembered the letter, though he tried not to think about it. "You don't think he really did, do you?"

 

"I assumed he did...." Starsky frowned. "Maybe he didn't."

 

"Everybody was looking for you and determined to find you, buddy," Hutch said. "I doubt Huggy followed instructions."

 

"Then we can both stay at my place," Starsky said. "Problem solved."

 

Hutch devoutly hoped so.

 

Starsky was unnaturally quiet as they pulled into Lambert Airport the next day. He had sunk down in his seat and it was as if he was trying to disappear. Hutch noticed and considered saying something, then decided he'd be better off to let Starsky talk when he was ready. He turned in the car and the keys, signed the credit card receipt, and stuck it in his pocket. "Our terminal's that way," he said to Starsky, pointing. Thankfully, it wasn't too far. Hutch's leg had been hurting a lot all weekend, and he wasn't up to a long walk.

 

"'Kay," Starsky said, hoisting the ever-present knapsack onto his shoulder and picking Hutch's bag up with the other hand.

 

"I can get that," Hutch protested, but Starsky shook his head.

 

"No way, partner. You got enough to do getting around on that bad leg. Why'n't you got crutches, anyway? Whatcha doin' hobbling around with a cane, Hopalong?"

 

Hutch chuckled. "I abandoned them at that hospital in Decatur. I think that's where I abandoned them. Easier without them."

 

"Sure it is. That's why your face is pale and you're sweatin' on a day like this," Starsky said. "Shut up and let me carry the bag, all right? You can be a White Knight tomorrow. Today it's my turn."

 

Damn. How does he always know? Hutch shook his head and led the way and Starsky followed, letting him set the pace. But as they approached the security check, Starsky's steps slowed until he was almost stopped. Hutch paused and looked back. "What's wrong?"

 

Starsky was the pale one now, and he caught up and hissed, "My dad's gun. They won't let me take it on."

 

"Sure they will. You're a cop."

 

Starsky shook his head. "I resigned. Left my badge with Dobey." He looked around to be sure they weren't overheard. "Here. You take my bag through. You got your badge, don't ya?"

 

Hutch had intended to save this moment for when they got back to Bay City, but he'd forgotten about Michael Starsky's gun. He reached into an inside pocket of his jacket and produced a worn leather case. "You might've resigned, partner, but you're still a cop."

 

Starsky took the badge and opened it, his eyes wide with wonder. "How'd you do that?"

 

Hutch shrugged. "Dobey didn't turn in the paperwork. He gave that to me to keep for you. Like you kept my watch for me."

 

Starsky looked up at Hutch and for a moment, Hutch was afraid they were going to have a "soapy scene" right here in this big, busy airport. But Starsky grinned instead and quietly said, "Thanks, buddy."

 

It was a relief to sit down. Their plane wasn't due to take off for a while, and that would give him a chance to rest his leg. Starsky set Hutch's bag down in front of him, wordlessly picked Hutch's cast up and set it on the bag to elevate it, then plopped down beside him. "Ready to talk yet, buddy?" Hutch said softly once they were settled.

 

"Huh?"

 

"Something's eating you. Besides the gun," Hutch said, pitching his voice even lower as a harried mother with a toddler and a baby sat down on Starsky's other side.

 

Starsky shook his head and rubbed his eyes. He was still favoring his right hand, Hutch noticed. "I didn't have a good time last time I was in St. Louis," he said, striving for a joking tone. It didn't work.

 

"Is this where you slept on the street, Starsky?" Hutch demanded, softly but in a tone that Starsky wouldn't be able to ignore.

 

Starsky sighed. "Yeah. Down by the riverfront."

 

"Good God, Starsky, don't you know how dangerous that was?" Hutch's voice went up a notch in volume and the mother turned to look at them. Hutch manufactured a reassuring smile and she turned back to her kids.

 

"Yes," Starsky hissed back. "But I didn't have much of a choice, you know."

 

Oh, God. Hutch closed his eyes, picturing that. Starsky so broke and down-and-out that he had no other choice.

 

"Hey," Starsky said, putting a hand on Hutch's shoulder. "It's over. Forget it, huh?"

 

"I can't forget it," Hutch said. "I had nightmares about it last night. I keep thinking what could have happened "

 

"Hutch," Starsky slid his arm around his shoulders and the mother gave them an odd look, picked up her baby and grabbed her toddler's hand and moved away. Starsky looked after them with a puzzled expression, then turned back to Hutch. "You think too much," he said, picking up right where he'd left off. "It's okay now. You found me God knows how and we're goin' home. This," he laid a hand on the cast, "will heal and so will this," he shook his right hand under Hutch's nose. "We made it. Again."

 

"How many more times will we 'make it,' Starsk?" Hutch asked. "How long until our luck runs out and we don't 'make it'?"

 

"You can drive yourself crazy asking questions like that," Starsky said. "Just be glad we made it this time."

 

Hutch knew his partner was right. Wallowing in what ifs and self doubt never made the job easier. All it did was create questions and hesitation where either of them could be deadly. Closing his eyes, he tried his best to let go of his apprehension. Dwelling on his friend's slide into despair and all of its potential consequences was only bringing Hutch more pain. Knowing his partner had been on a self-destruct mission brought on by a feeling of ultimate loss weighed heavily on his heart. The best thing he could do to protect Starsky from ever going through something like this again would be to stay alive. Hutch smiled almost imperceptibly at the irony. Starsky noticed it. He also noticed that it was accompanied by a visible relaxation of tension in Hutch. That pleased him.

 

Starsky had been dealing with his own feelings of guilt quietly concerned that his brush with disaster would cause Hutch to worry about him more than ever. Now that he was on the mend, he knew it was time for him to gently switch the focus of attention to Hutch and helping him heal. He promised himself he was going to take over and make sure Hutch had everything he needed to rebuild his life when they got back to Bay City.

 

While they waited for their flight, Hutch dozed and Starsky maintained a watchful eye on him. He knew Hutch had pushed his leg too hard and the pain was showing on his face, even in his sleep. He was feeling sorry for Hutch that he was about to have to force himself into an airplane seat with inadequate legroom for anyone who wasn't a member of the Lollypop Guild. Starsky looked at their tickets and was unhappy to see that their seat numbers were so high they were going to have to walk to the back of the plane. He looked toward the gate and noticed a gate attendant trying to get his attention. The pretty brunette was motioning for him to come to the desk. He pointed at himself and mouthed, "Me?" She nodded and smiled brightly.

 

Starsky looked over at Hutch and quietly stole away from him making sure not to wake the sleeping man. He walked over to the desk and smiled at the woman behind it. Resting his arms on the counter, he said, "You need to talk to me?"

 

"So what's the story with you and your blond friend over there?" she asked. Starsky was puzzled and his eyebrows went up inquisitively as he responded, "Huh?"

 

She tapped his wrist brace with her pen and said, "You look like the walking wounded."

 

Starsky laughed at that. "Oh, that. We're Bay City cops. We've just had a little too much adventure lately."

 

"Your friend there looks kind of uncomfortable."

 

Starsky wondered how long she had been watching them. "Yeah. He's been pushing it trying to take care of me. Uh, I've been sick."

 

She saw that he still had their tickets in his hand. "Give me those tickets." Starsky was surprised at her order, but he did it. She made some changes and gave them back to him. "This flight is nowhere near full. I upgraded you both to First Class. He'll be a lot more comfortable there. The seats even have footrests."

 

Starsky was stunned by her kindness. When she handed him the tickets he took her hand and pulled it toward him so he could kiss it. "Thanks, angel." She blushed several shades of pink and scarlet as she watched the handsome man walk back to his friend. Some days, she loved her job.

 

When they called First Class over the loud speaker, Starsky patted Hutch on the arm and said, "Come on, Blondie, they're playing our song."

 

"What?" Hutch blinked at him and heard the flight announcement calling for First Class again. Starsky was already on his feet gathering their things. Hutch said, "Wait up, Starsk, they're not gonna call us for a little while yet."

 

"Guess again, buddy." Starsky held out the tickets so Hutch could read that they were now flying First Class.

 

Hutch's eyes grew bigger and he said, "How'd you do that?" He knew Starsky didn't have any money to upgrade their tickets.

 

Starsky pointed at the gate attendant, busy with another passenger, and said, "We have an angel today. Don't ask why, just get on and fly." He playfully punched Hutch in the arm. As they passed the gate desk, the brunette waved at them and smiled.

 

The flight was completely uneventful. Hutch was able to stretch out and rest and Starsky thoroughly enjoyed the attention paid to them by the flight attendants. He even managed to collect some phone numbers for them to use when they were feeling better. One of the flight attendants was obviously smitten with his golden-haired partner. Starsky chuckled to himself, wondering how Hutch could have that effect on a lady when all he did was nap. He mused that it must be that little boy look he got when he slept. The fact that he made that slight pain face every now and then was probably icing on the cake.

 

~*~*~*~

 

They walked off the plane to find not only Huggy waiting for them, but Captain Dobey and his wife, Edith. Huggy shook hands with both men, beaming at the joy of having them back safe.

 

Dobey gave each of his boys a hug. "Glad to have you both back home where you belong."

 

That's when Edith Dobey moved in on both of them. First, she hugged Hutch and said, "Ken, you're looking pretty tired and you probably shouldn't be walking on that leg yet. I made you an appointment with your orthopedic doctor for tomorrow. See to it that you go." She smiled at him and patted his cheek gently.

 

Then Edith turned toward Starsky. He was embarrassed to face her, knowing the worry he had caused all of his friends. She gathered him in her arms and kissed his cheek, tears filling her eyes. "Dave, I'm so happy you're safe. You scared us half to death and you'd better never do anything like that again."

 

Starsky hung his head and softly said, "No, ma'am. I won't."

 

She put a finger under his chin and tipped his face up so she could look into his eyes. Edith smiled at him and gave him another kiss on the cheek. "Welcome home, David."

 

They all got into Captain Dobey's car and both Starsky and Hutch were curious to see where they would go. Both men were surprised when Dobey turned the car toward Venice and eventually parked on the street below Venice Place.

 

Dobey turned toward the back seat and held up a key saying, "Welcome home, Hutch."

 

"Wait a minute. Starsky said my parents let my place go."

 

Edith smiled back at him. "Come on up, Ken, I'll explain."

 

While Hutch was in Illinois, his mother had returned from Europe and returned to Bay City. Together, she, Huggy, and the Dobeys had worked hard to ensure that Hutch had a home to return to when the time came. Venice Place was still being painted and hadn't been rented yet. The landlady was delighted to hear that her favorite tenant was not dead and would be returning. Many of Hutch's furnishings and household items were still at the charity shop and they were able to retrieve them. Mrs. Hutchinson had restocked the pantry and bought all new plants for the greenhouse. They picked up a few items of clothing for Hutch. Huggy was even able to get some of his old clothes from Starsky's place. Hutch couldn't believe it and he stood in the greenhouse turning around and smiling. The shy smile turned into a full grin when he spotted his guitar sitting on a chair in the greenhouse with a card slipped under the strings. Opening the card, Hutch read a note from Kiko that said he was glad Hutch was back and he had taken good care of his guitar for him.

 

"I-I don't know how to thank you all." Hutch said. "Where's Mom?"

 

Edith answered, "Oh, she had to rush back to Minnesota. Your sister had the baby."

 

Hutch turned white and said in a rush, "Oh, my God, my sister! Is she okay? I completely forgot. What did she have?"

 

Edith chuckled. "She's fine. She understands and sends her love. The baby is a girl and they named her Laura Elizabeth. Steve called and said to give them a call when you can. They already brought the baby home."

 

Hutch smiled. "That's great. I'll call them tonight." Starsky congratulated him.

 

Hutch hugged Edith again and thanked her for her kindness. He was overwhelmed.

 

Huggy handed him a set of keys. "We didn't get you a car yet. Thought you'd want to do that yourself. You can borrow the Caddy 'til you take care of that and the Torino is down at Merle's. He's putting a new battery in it for Starsk and making sure everything's running."

 

Both men said, "Thanks, Hug."

 

Captain Dobey looked at Starsky. "You're looking pretty tired yourself. We'll take you home. The ladies made sure your place was ready for you, too. They were busy."

 

Starsky shook his head. "Thanks, Cap'n. Thanks to all of you for everything, but I'm gonna stay here with Hutch until he loses that cast."

 

Huggy smiled at him. "Thought you might feel that way. I brought some of your clothes over here just in case. They're in the closet."

 

Knowing how tired they both were, Huggy and the Dobeys left them to rest. They would all get together for dinner the next night to celebrate their safe return. As they were leaving, Edith turned around and said, "Oh, yes, I almost forgot. Dave, you have a doctor's appointment tomorrow, too, with your hand surgeon. You're both supposed to be down there for your appointments at two. Don't be late."

 

When the door was closed behind her, Starsky and Hutch looked at each other and laughed. They were both amazed at the trouble their friends had gone to for them. Starsky said, "I'm glad to be home, Hutch."

 

They were just about to sit down for some rest and to drink a couple of the beers their friends had stocked for them when the phone rang. Hutch jumped, not expecting it.

 

"Hello?" He stared at Starsky tentatively, then his eyes grew wide and he started to look a little nervous. Starsky paid close attention for a moment to make sure everything was all right. When he realized it was Hutch's sister, he retreated to the bathroom to take a shower and give Hutch some private phone time with her. He could hear what sounded like a dressing down coming from the Minnesota end of the conversation as he walked past Hutch who was attempting to stammer answers in occasionally. Starsky shut the bathroom door behind him with a chuckle.

 

"K-Karen?" Hutch said. She kept talking over him.

 

"What's the idea, big brother? You don't know what a phone is?" She sounded so angry, Hutch cringed, feeling guilty he had forgotten to call.

 

"Karen? I, I, um...." he tried, but was getting nowhere.

 

"I was worried sick about you. Bad enough I thought you were dead and it nearly killed me, then to hear you were back but out running around the country, sick and hurt."

 

"Honey, I'm sorry," Hutch said.

 

"YOU'RE SORRY?!" She yelled at him. "Steve finally admitted to me what was happening with David. Wait 'til I get my hands on the two of you. You are both so gonna get it. I was frightened for both of you." Karen was starting to wind down from her tirade.

 

Hutch tried again, speaking soothingly. "Karen, I really am sorry. Please listen to me. Forgive me for being such a bad brother, huh? I should have called."

 

She started to cry. "Oh, I'm sorry, big brother. I was just so worried. You really should have called to tell me you were all right. We called Captain Dobey and he said you were fine, but I didn't believe him."

 

"How's the baby?" he asked.

 

"Don't change the subject, and she's perfect. I can't wait for you to see her."

 

"Karen, you know I can't talk to Mom and Dad about any of this. You have to promise me you won't tell them anything."

 

"You know I won't. Always best to keep it gray with the folks, Kenny."

 

They had a nice talk. Hutch told her enough about his ordeal in Mexico and what happened with Starsky to make her understand how important his absence had been. Starsky had turned off the shower in favor of a soak in the tub. Now that the water was off, Starsky couldn't help but overhear Hutch's half of the conversation through the bathroom door.

 

"Yeah, he's looking a lot better. Still way too thin though."

 

"Do you think he'll be all right, Ken?" Karen had always loved Starsky. She appreciated the way he looked out for her brother and Hutch loved him so much that made her feel the same way.

 

"I think so. He's tough stuff. I was pretty scared, Karen. I really am sorry I didn't call. I was just running on fumes out there. You know, at the end of my rope."

 

Starsky cringed at some of the things he heard. Knowing he had brought so much worry to his partner hurt him. He promised himself he'd do whatever he had to do to make Hutch feel better again.

 

"I came really close to losing him, sis." Hutch's voice was thick with emotion. "He was hurt and grieving and just not thinking straight. I'm so glad he's okay. What if he had died out there?"

 

"Ken, you did fine. I'm sorry I yelled at you. You gonna be okay?" She was still worried about her brother.

 

"I'll be fine. I just want him to get back to normal, you know?" Hutch laughed at his own comment. "Well, as normal as my crazy partner gets anyway."

 

Karen laughed, enjoying hearing a touch of lightness creep back into her brother's voice. "You sound tired. I'll let you go. Tell that partner of yours I've got some words for him. I expect you to both come out for the christening next month. We're holding it off so you can come when you're all better. I already took care of you. I'll wait till then to read him the riot act."

 

"Oh, I'm sure he'll be looking forward to that. Good night, sis. Give the folks my love and kiss the baby for me, huh?"

 

"I will. Take care of yourself and David too. I'll see you next month. I love you, Kenny."

 

"I love you, too, Karen." Hutch felt a little lonely when he hung up the phone. He missed talking to his sister and decided he'd try to call more often. He hobbled into the kitchen to make some coffee.

 

Standing in the bathroom, Starsky stared at himself in the steamy mirror. Hutch was right. He was still too thin. Hutch didn't have a scale, but he guessed he still had ten or fifteen pounds to regain. That would take time. He grimaced at how tired he looked and decided it was time to shave off the beard and mustache he had grown on his journey. Maybe Hutch would start feeling a little better if he looked more like his old self.

 

When he was finished shaving and he pulled the towel down from his face, he was shocked at how thin his face looked without the extra fur on it. Thinking maybe it was a bad idea after all, but having no way to undo it, he pulled on the robe he found hanging on the back of the door and walked out of the bathroom to face Hutch.

 

Hearing the door open, Hutch called to him from the kitchen. "Hey, buddy, I made us some coffee. Come on in here and get a cup."

 

Starsky walked in and said, "Thanks."

 

Hutch looked up at Starsky and noted two things at once. The first was that the beard was gone, the second, how thin he really was. His face changed from a pleasantly surprised smile at Starsky's smoothly shaven face to a look of worry in a heartbeat. Starsky noticed.

 

"I know, maybe my ugly mug looked better with a winter coat on it." He tried to make a joke of it, reaching for his coffee. Hutch put a hand on Starsky's and stopped his progress. He stared at Starsky for a moment and then tried to cover his dismay by announcing he hadn't put in the sugar yet.

 

Starsky smiled and tried to put Hutch at ease. "Well, throw some in there and let's get you back off your feet." He turned toward the refrigerator. "Bet Edith left us something for dinner. I'm starving. I'm so hungry, I could eat the south bound end of a north bound gorilla."

 

Hutch laughed in spite of his worry. "That sounds pretty hungry. What's in there?"

 

Edith had left them a pot of soup they just needed to heat. Starsky was glad to see she hadn't left a casserole. He wasn't sure he would ever eat casserole or tuna again.

 

Starsky felt uncomfortable under Hutch's watchful gaze. He was supposed to be taking care of Hutch now. "Uh, Blondie, maybe you should take a picture. It'd last longer."

 

Hutch blushed. "I'm sorry. Guess I was just shocked to see you shaved off the beard."

 

"I know I look thin, buddy. I'm workin' on it, okay? Don't worry so much. Now go get off your leg and I'll bring you some soup."

 

The phone rang again after they'd finished eating and were settling down to see if there was anything worth watching on the tube. Hutch leaned over and picked it up. Starsky had found a creature feature on the late show and was too absorbed to notice his partner's expression change. He looked up, however, when he heard Hutch say, "Sure, Rachel, he's right here."

 

Starsky's eyebrows went up and he wildly shook his head, but Hutch hadn't held out the phone and wasn't looking at him.

 

"He's gonna be fine, honest. I'm taking care of him."

 

Who's taking care of whom? Starsky thought, frowning fiercely at his blond partner, who still hadn't looked at him.

 

"It's a long, long story that's probably best saved for an in-person visit," Hutch said. A moment later, he laughed. "I know. They don't make 'em much more stubborn, do they?" He laughed again. "Well, I'll take that as a compliment." Another pause, longer this time. "I know how to make matzo balls," Hutch said. "You taught me last Passover, remember? In fact, mine are better than Starsky's...I will. I promise. Okay, Rachel. Thanks. Here he is." Hutch looked up at last and held out the phone, and when Starsky shook his head and made "no, no" motions with his hands, Hutch covered the mouthpiece and said, "If I can take a tongue-lashing from my baby sister, partner, you can damn well talk to your mom. Take the damn phone."

 

Starsky sighed and took the phone. "Hi, Ma."

 

"Don't you 'Hi, Ma' me, young man. If I was there, you'd be across my knee right now!"

 

Starsky raised his eyes to Hutch, who was trying hard not to laugh. And not succeeding very well, at that. "Ma, come on. I'm okay. Hutch is okay. Everything's fine."

 

"No thanks to you, David Michael," she said tartly. "What on God's green earth were you thinking?"

 

"I wasn't thinking," Starsky said honestly. "I was just "

 

"Just like your father," she interrupted. "He always crawled off to lick his wounds alone, too. Now you listen to me."

 

Starsky took a sip of his beer and settled in for a long one. "Listen to me" always preceded a long lecture.

 

"You have no idea how many people were frantic with worry while you were gone," she said. "Me, your brother, your captain, your friend Huggy, and not least of all, your partner, who had no business running halfway across the country looking for you!"

 

Hutch leaned back and took a drink of his beer, too. His eyes were dancing. Starsky stuck his tongue out at him.

 

"You'd just better remember one thing," she said.

 

When she didn't continue, Starsky was intrigued enough to ask, "What?" His mother never, ever gave him a chance to say anything when she was on a jag.

 

"A lot of people love you dearly," she said, her voice softening. "Not just Ken, although God knows he loves you more than his own life. But he's not the only one. And I want you to remember that in the future. If you need anything, you have a lot of people to turn to. Do you understand that, David?"

 

"Yeah," Starsky said. "I know that. I knew it before, but I understand it now."

 

"Good. Now, I know you're tired, so I'll let you go. You rest and you eat, understand me?"

 

"I understand."

 

"Good night, hon."

 

"Night, Ma." Starsky hung up the phone and tossed a sofa pillow at Hutch, who had given up trying to suppress his laughter. "Okay, now we've both been chewed out by our families. Anyone else planning to call and rag on us?"

 

"I think we're done. At least, I hope so," Hutch said.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Both of them slept very, very late the next morning, and it was almost noon before Starsky even stirred and managed to start coffee. Hutch was still sacked out cold in his bed. Starsky peeked in at him and tiptoed away again, knowing if he was still that sound asleep, he needed the rest. He quietly took the newspaper out of the hallway and took it and his coffee out to the greenhouse.

 

There was a story on page three announcing that the "missing officer" had been found in Illinois, without going into much detail. Starsky figured that was Dobey's work. The story didn't say that he'd been hitchhiking or running away, for which Starsky was grateful. It had been written by Jim Clark, a young reporter they'd encountered before. Without actually saying so, the article suggested that Starsky had only gone off on an extended leave in order to deal with his grief when he thought his partner dead, but when Hutch turned up safe, he'd been located and informed of that fact and had come back to Bay City, safe and sound.

 

The phone rang, and Starsky dropped the newspaper and bounded out to the living room to grab it before it woke Hutch.

 

"Dave, is that you?"

 

"Yeah," Starsky said cautiously. He didn't immediately recognize the voice.

 

"Joe Haymes," the man said. "How're you two boys doing?"

 

"We're gonna be fine," Starsky said.

 

"Good. Glad to hear it. I'll bet you need a rest, though, don't you?"

 

"I suppose," Starsky said. He looked up to find Hutch standing in the opening between the living room and his bedroom alcove, very rumpled, but awake. He covered the receiver. "It's Joe Haymes," he said with a questioning rise of his eyebrows. Hutch frowned, puzzled.

 

"I want to offer you boys my beach house for a long weekend," Haymes went on. "We won't be using it, and I'd like you to stay there for a few days. Dobey okayed it."

 

"Mr. Haymes, we can't "

 

"Yes, you can. I've always felt I owed you boys a big favor, and it would ease my mind and your captain's to know you were really relaxing and getting your strength back."

 

"Lemme check with Hutch."

 

"Sure. I'm at my office."

 

Starsky hung up and said, "He wants us to stay at his beach house for a few days. He said Dobey okayed it."

 

"That sounds good," Hutch said, and there was a note of longing in his voice that he didn't realize was there, but Starsky heard it. He felt more than a little guilty, thinking of what he'd put Hutch through after what Hutch had already been through. Starsky wanted nothing more than for the two of them to hole up here, in familiar surroundings, and hide out from everyone for a while. Still, he thought he owed it to Hutch to take him to the beach, if that's where he wanted to go.

 

"I'll call him and say yes, then," Starsky said.

 

By the next day, they had moved to Haymes' beach house in Malibu. It was a beautiful place, with a deck that ran all the way around the house, three light, airy bedrooms, windows opening out onto every side, and a stretch of private beach. The kitchen and bar were both well stocked, and they had nothing to do but enjoy themselves. Hutch couldn't swim because of the cast, but he spent a great deal of time lounging on the deck and reading, while Starsky walked on the beach or took short swims as he regained his color and his strength. The two of them also spent a lot of time just talking, catching each other up on everything that had happened while they were apart. Finally, after holding so much back in order to spare the other one worry, they shared all the details, shed some tears, laughed sometimes, and in the end, both felt at peace.

 

Both of them had received good news from their doctors. Hutch's leg was healing well, despite the stress he had put on it while searching for his partner. His doctor said he could get the cast off in two weeks and would be ready to return to active duty after some physical therapy. His other injuries were healed or healing.

 

Starsky's prognosis was also excellent although more complicated. His dominant left hand was in good shape. All it needed was some physical therapy. The doctor in Decatur had told him he might need additional surgery on the right wrist, but his Bay City doctor was less concerned about that. Another few weeks in a wrist brace and significant physical therapy should be enough to repair the damage. While Hutch would be ready for active duty in a few weeks, Starsky would require another six to eight weeks. Captain Dobey had agreed to let them both return to desk duty when Hutch was ready until the doctor cleared Starsky for active duty. He was planning to return to the firing range for practice in another week. That physical therapy concerned Starsky the most. Being able to do his job and protect his partner was uppermost in his mind. The events of the past couple of months had been their biggest test of "who do we trust time." Me and Thee, buddy. Just like always.

 

The last day they were at Joe's house, they sat together on the back deck watching the sun set on the horizon. The ocean was calm that evening, small breakers softly lapping onto the sand. The fog was just starting to roll in and a damp chill settled on the two friends.

 

"Hey," Starsky said quietly.

 

"Hey."

 

"Nice of Haymes to let us stay here, huh?"

 

"Yep."

 

They sat in silence for long minutes until the sun had slipped away completely. "Red sky at night...." Hutch said, letting his voice trail off softly.

 

"Huh?"

 

"Gonna be a pretty day tomorrow," Hutch replied.

 

"Oh yeah? How'dya figure?"

 

"Red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sky a mornin', sailors take warning. Just an old saying."

 

Starsky smiled. He loved it when Hutch was introspective like that. Usually, when his partner started quoting lines of poetry it was a sign he had regained his center. Balance was important to Hutch.

 

Realizing he was being stared at, Hutch asked "What?"

 

"Nothin', buddy."

 

Hutch turned around on his deck chair to face Starsky. "Oh, no you don't. What's on your mind?"

 

"I was just thinking how nice it is to see you lookin' so relaxed. You ready to go back home tomorrow?"

 

"Yeah. Sure has been great out here, but I'm looking forward to it. I want to work in the greenhouse, get to know my new jungle. God, I can't believe Mom and Edith did that for me."

 

"Really. Hey, when you want to go look for a new car?" Starsky asked with a smile.

 

"Guess I do have to take care of that. I don't want to keep Huggy's Caddy for too long."

 

"Now that I know you can afford a better car, how 'bout you get somethin' new that won't break down on you all the time?"

 

Hutch felt uncomfortable having anyone know he had money. He wasn't into material things and he preferred a low-key lifestyle. "I don't know, Starsk. That just wouldn't be me. I like my beater cars. They have character."

 

"Yeah, I remember. Inner flash." They both laughed, remembering Hutch telling Merle the Earl he needed a car with some inner flash, right before his battered LTD nearly flew apart in the alley outside Merle's.

 

"Okay, you got me on that. How 'bout we go out after your physical therapy tomorrow?"

 

"Great! We can start at Merle's if you don't want something new." Starsky looked excited.

 

"I'm not gonna let you talk me into anything that glows in the dark, mush brain, so you might as well get used to that idea right now."

 

Starsky laughed. "I don't know, partner. I was imagining a midnight blue metal flake low-rider with flame paint and lights in the wheel wells. That, or something tasteful in a late model sedan gray, white, or that sexy California tan."

 

"Hold on to that last thought. You might have something there."

 

Hutch noticed Starsky starting to shiver. He knew his buddy would stay outside with him as long as he wanted to be out there. "You're freezing. Let's go in and I'll fix us something to eat."

 

As they walked into the house, Hutch said, "You're right, buddy. Sure is good to be home. I don't plan on taking any more around the country tours. Make sure you stay where I can keep an eye on you, huh? Might have to kick your butt if you do anything like that again."

 

"I hear ya. You stay alive and I won't need to go anywhere. Deal?"

 

"Deal."

 

The End

 

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