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Line of Fire

Written by Valerie Wells

 

Hutch waited impatiently while Starsky fumbled with his keys. He never locks the damn car, he thought, when we're parked outside Huggy's or some sleazy hotel. But he locks it in the police garage, safest place in town.

His eyes were drawn to a squad car down the row that was pulling out of its parking place. Something bugged him about it. He didn't know the officers in the car, but that wasn't unusual; it was a big precinct. Still...

Then the car scraped the one next to it – badly – and the officers inside didn't bat an eye. Instead they were staring toward him and Starsky...

"Starsky! Get down!" Hutch yelled, gripped by a sudden sense of foreboding. Starsky turned to look over his shoulder, excruciatingly slowly, and reached for his gun. But Hutch, moving faster than he knew he could, scrambled over the hood of the Torino and tackled his partner, knocking him flat just in time, just as the sounds of automatic gunfire tore through the air and echoed off the concrete walls, just as he felt the searing pain of bullet after bullet tearing into his body...

As Hutch rolled onto his side, the front of his white jacket soaked in blood, Starsky raised up on his elbows and fired, desperately, at the fleeing squad car, only managing to hit the back quarter-panel in his hurry and his grief. There was no opportunity to get a description or a license plate number. He dropped his gun and turned, afraid of what he would see.

Hutch lay, half on his side, half on his back, breathing in short, shallow gasps, his blue eyes wide and staring at the sky.

"Oh, my God." Starsky eased his partner up onto his lap, cradling his head, and ordered the nearest uniformed officer, "Call an ambulance! Now!"

The young officer whirled and ran, while other cops, drawn by the noise and gunfire, gathered around anxiously.

"Is he...is he...." one asked, shaken.

"NO!" Starsky exploded, then gentled his voice and gripped Hutch's hand. "Can you hear me, Hutch? We're gettin' help for ya, buddy. You're gonna be okay. Just hang on."

Hutch blinked once, but he couldn't speak. When he tried, a little blood trickled out of his mouth.

"Oh, God. Don't die, Hutch. Please, don't die. Why the hell did you do that, Hutch? Why'd you have to do that?" Starsky said, his voice steady but his eyes filled with tears – and he didn't care how many of the other cops saw those tears, either. "Just hang on, babe. Ambulance is comin'."

Dobey came running, followed by the officer who had gone to call for help. He shoved his way between the gawking cops and knelt next to Starsky. "They'll be here in a minute," he said tersely. "How bad is it?"

Starsky didn't answer in words, partly because he didn't want Hutch to know how bad it was. But he raised his wet eyes to his captain's and the two men exchanged a sober, frightened look.

~*~*~*~

When the ambulance came, the attendants hurriedly stabilized Hutch as much as they could and lifted him onto a stretcher. But Hutch wouldn't let go of Starsky's hand, even when the paramedics tried to load the stretcher into the back of the ambulance.

"I'm riding with you," Starsky said, in a tone that brooked no argument. Keeping hold of Hutch's hand, he watched his partner's face all the way to the hospital, willing the blue eyes to stay open, willing the heart to keep beating, in spite of the blood that had quickly soaked through the makeshift dressings and the coldness of the hand he still held. "Stay with me, Hutch," he said hoarsely, when Hutch's eyes began to drift shut. "Hang on, dammit. Hang on."

But Hutch was unconscious by the time they reached the emergency room and past answering Starsky's desperate pleas. Starsky could do nothing more than watch, helplessly, as doctors and nurses took over and pushed the gurney into a treatment room, leaving him standing in the hallway, Hutch's blood on his jeans, his hands, his shirt...

Dobey arrived minutes later, breathless. Starsky had sunk into a seat and was staring blankly at the opposite wall. Dobey sat down beside him. There was nothing to say.

It was hours before anyone came to give them any news. And in all that time, though Dobey tried to question Starsky, get some information they could use to track down the assailants, Starsky had not spoken. He only shook his head, when he responded at all.

But finally a doctor came, dressed in green operating room scrubs, and stopped in front of them. "He's alive," he said. "But he's suffered major damage to his lungs, with internal hemorrhaging. One bullet nicked his heart. One lodged in his right kidney. One barely missed his spinal cord, and there's the possibility of paralysis. He's in a coma. But he is alive."

"Is he going to make it, Doctor?" Dobey asked.

The doctor sighed. "I don't know. We did the best we could. We got all the bullets out and repaired the damage to the best of our ability. Now...I wish I could give you more hope, gentlemen. I can't."

"I want to see him," Starsky said.

"He's in intensive care," the doctor said. "He's unconscious."

"I want to see him."

The doctor studied Starsky for a moment. Then he nodded. "Sixth floor."

~*~*~*~

The harsh lighting of the intensive care unit hurt Starsky's eyes, but the sight of Hutch, lying on his back, swathed in bandages, surrounded by machines and tubes and wires, hurt more. Barely aware of Captain Dobey at his left shoulder, Starsky leaned against the wall with one hand and stared through the glass.

Dear God. Look at him. What'd they do to you, Hutch? Why?

Dobey made a sound in his throat and Starsky tore his eyes away from Hutch's still form to look at his captain. For the first time Starsky could remember – and there had been a lot of times when one or the other of them had been hurt and hurt badly – he saw tears in his captain's eyes. If he hadn't already known how much danger Hutch's life was in, that would have convinced him.

"What the hell happened, Starsky?" Dobey asked finally.

Starsky laid his forehead against the glass and watched the machines keeping Hutch alive. "We were just getting into the car, Cap. Suddenly Hutch hollered at me to get down, and the next thing I knew he was knocking me to the ground and a squad car was speeding by us, and somebody in it was shooting....” he paused when his voice broke, swallowed and went on, "...they were shooting Hutch. But they wanted me, Cap. It should be me in there. If he hadn't knocked me down...the car would've been between him and the bullets. He saved my life."

Dobey also looked through the glass. Hutch's face was colorless, the lips almost blue against his pallor. "Did you get any look at the perps? Any at all?"

Starsky shook his head. "No. My back was to them. I was unlocking the Torino. Hutch might've seen something..." his voice shook again. "But he can't tell us."

"They weren't really officers," Dobey said. It wasn't a question.

But Starsky answered it anyway. "I doubt it. I don't know. It was a paid hit, though. I'd lay odds on that."

"But who? Why?"

Starsky shook his head. "Honestly, Cap'n, I don't give a shit right now. That," he indicated the silent room beyond, "is all I care about right now. He's gotta make it. He's gotta."

The duty nurse gave permission for Starsky to go into Hutch's room and he went in, stepping softly, as though he was afraid to wake him up. There was only one chair, a hard plastic affair designed to keep grieving family members from staying too long. But Starsky never noticed how uncomfortable it was. He sat in it, staring at the man who had taken, not one, not even two, but three bullets for him. Three bullets had ripped holes in this man's flesh and could, still, kill him. While Starsky sat, whole and healthy and well, with no injuries but a slight scrape on his hand from where he'd landed on the concrete when Hutch tackled him...to save him.

The respirator softly whooshed in and out. The heart monitor beeped regularly and reassuringly. But Hutch was inert, eyes closed, unaware.

Outside, in the hall, Dobey glanced into the room occasionally. Starsky was as still as Hutch was, head propped on his hands, bent forward, watching. Other cops came and went, held whispered consultations with Dobey, peered in at Hutch – and at Starsky – while still others took turns guarding the room. A paid hit on two cops warranted armed guards, and Dobey didn't hesitate to order them.

And Starsky stayed by Hutch's side.

Eventually, Huggy came, and stood looking into the room. The slender man's eyes were bright, his face, too, drawn with pain. But he waited, respecting the bond between the two men inside that room, not disturbing either of them with his presence.

Finally Starsky stood, reached out with one hand and lay it on Hutch's head, gently, before turning and coming back out into the hall.

"How's he doin', Starsk?" Huggy asked quietly.

Starsky shook his head. "It ain't good, Hug," he answered tightly. "He's..." he stopped. He raised indigo eyes, dark now with anguish, and forced the last word out. "Dying."

"Come on, Starsk," Huggy said, reaching out to put a hand on Starsky's arm, but something kept him from actually doing it. "He'll make it. He'll be okay."

"Not this time," Starsky said, turning his head to look through the glass. "He's hurt bad, Huggy."

That made Huggy reach out again, and this time he did take Starsky by the arm. "Come with me, my friend. I'm taking you home. You need to get cleaned up and you need some sleep."

"I can't leave him."

"I'll stay," Dobey said from his seat in a row of chairs against the wall. "Let Huggy take you home for a while, Starsky. I'll call if...anything changes."

 Starsky rubbed his eyes, took another look through the glass, and reluctantly allowed Huggy to lead him away. Once they were in the elevator, Huggy said hesitantly, "Uh, Starsk, I know you don't wanna deal with any more than you got already, but I got a call from Joe Collandra this morning, and he wants to talk to you. He said it's important."

"Collandra?" Starsky shook his head. "Come on, Hug. I can't...Why don't you just ask him what it's about and if it's that important, tell me. If it's not – dammit, Hutch may be dyin' back there!"

"I know, man, I know," Huggy said soothingly. "But Collandra wouldn't have called me if it wasn't pretty important. You know how he hates tellin' anybody those visions he has –"

"He had a vision?" Starsky turned and stared at Huggy. "And he wants to talk to me?"

"Actually, he wanted to talk to both of you," Huggy said uncomfortably. "I was callin' the station to tell you when Minnie told me about...about Hutch."

The elevator stopped in the parking garage, and both men walked out. Starsky grabbed Huggy's arm. "Take me over there. Now."

"Starsk, you need –"

"I need to talk to Collandra," Starsky interrupted him. "I want to know what that vision was."

"I thought you didn't even believe in his visions," Huggy said.

"I don't...I didn't. Shit, I don't know whether I do or not," Starsky said impatiently. "I just got a feelin' I need to hear what the man has to say."

"Okay, okay. Come on."

~*~*~*~

Collandra was just closing up when Starsky and Huggy barged into his diner. "I'm closed," he said wearily, his back to them, but when he turned around, he went pale so suddenly that he gripped the countertop to steady himself. "Starsky," he said blankly. "What the hell...are you all right?"

Starsky's eyes narrowed, and he leaned over the counter. "Why? Shouldn't I be?"

Collandra's face worked and he closed his eyes, rubbing his forehead. "I..I don't know. I called Huggy to tell him to warn you...you need to be careful, Starsky. Somebody's out to get you."

"What do you mean?" Starsky said evenly.

"Tell him about your vision, man," Huggy said.

Collandra rubbed his forehead again. "It was fuzzy, weird. Like they all are. There was just a moment...a police car passed you and I heard shots and saw you fall, but it was so quick...And I saw you in a hospital...the emergency room, I think...covered in blood, doctors and nurses working over you. And I heard Hutch saying, 'He's dying. He suffered massive damage. The body can only take so much.'" He paused, and looked at Starsky, who had sunk onto a bar stool with an ashen face. "Wait a minute. Where'd all that blood on you come from? Where's Hutch?"

Starsky couldn't answer. He dropped his head into his hands and fought to keep his composure. Mercifully, Huggy answered for him. "In the hospital. Whoever it was, they shot Hutch. Not Starsky."

"Hutch?" Collandra repeated, stunned.

"He...he shielded me," Starsky said, not looking up. "He knocked me down to protect me. They got him instead of me. They shoulda got me!"

"Starsk....” Huggy began.

"Don't 'Starsk' me!" Starsky looked up at last and his eyes were so filled with pain and anguish that Huggy had to look away for a moment. Starsky grabbed Huggy by both arms. "He was on the other side of the car. He yelled at me to get down. Then – I don't know how – he got to me before they did and he knocked me down and they shot him but they were aimin' for me. Dammit, Hug, he's in the hospital dyin' cause he was protecting me!"

Huggy, helpless in the face of what was undoubtedly the truth, glanced at Collandra for help but Collandra's eyes had gone blank and faraway, as they did when he was seeing one of his visions. Starsky followed Huggy's look and went still.

"What do you see, Joe?"

Collandra shook his head, blinked a couple of times, and finally said, gently, "Go back to the hospital, Starsky. Now."

Starsky lunged for the door, Huggy right behind him, and dove for Huggy's car. They broke every speed law getting there, but there wasn't much traffic at that hour.

Both men ran through the hospital halls, neither one questioning the need for speed or Collandra's vision. And as they skidded to a stop in front of Hutch's sixth-floor room, and saw the flat line on the heart monitor and the controlled but desperate actions of the Code Blue team working over Hutch, both knew that their panic hadn't been in vain.

"Oh, my God," Starsky whispered. No one else spoke. Dobey, Starsky, Huggy and the three or four other cops present simply stood and stared through the glass as moment after moment passed. They watched a doctor apply chest compression. They watched as another used the defibrillator – once, twice, three times.

No, Hutch. No! Come on, buddy, fight! Come back. Don't leave...

Finally, the line on the heart monitor came back. The nurses and doctors relaxed. At last, the doctor in charge came out of Hutch's room and stood looking at the frightened faces surrounding him. "He's alive. He's tough, too. I don't think there's any damage." He nodded at them and left, and Starsky, without a word, went into Hutch's room and sat down in the hard plastic chair.

The others dispersed, the cops back to their posts, Huggy and Dobey back to the waiting room where Dobey had set up a temporary office so he could stay near his wounded officer. No one saw what happened in Hutch's room, but it wouldn't have mattered to Starsky if they had. No one else existed for him right then except the still, quiet form of his partner.

"Oh, God, Hutch," he said, finally letting the tears fall. He scooted the chair closer and reached out to touch the limp hand lying on the bed. "Why, buddy? Why'd you have to go and do that? Don't you know I'd a thousand times rather be the one laying there? Even if they'd a'killed me. I'd rather it was me than you.

"Dammit!" He shook his head and rubbed his eyes with his other hand. "Hutch, please...Shit, I don't know if you can even hear me. What the hell makes you think you're the only one that's expendable, anyway? You're not, okay? You're not expendable. And if you can hear me, listen to this: You can't die. You're not allowed to die. Not like this. Not on my account.

"I'm gonna get 'em, Hutch. I'm gonna find out who did this, and I'm gonna get 'em. Even if they wind up killin' me after all. And if they do, buddy, I want you to know why I went after 'em. Not for me. I don't give a shit if they want me. But they can't have you. They can't have you."

There was still no movement, not even a flutter of the eyelids. Hutch might have been a mannequin, he lay so still. Only the quiet sound of the respirator gave any indication that he was alive. Starsky looked up at the heart monitor, at the green line that was, again, snaking up and down.

It hurt to breathe. His left arm had lost all feeling. In the restaurant outside the office, two hit men waited for Vic Monte. And when he arrived, they'd kill him, and they'd kill everybody else in the place, too. But Hutch would come up with something. Even through his pain, Starsky knew Hutch would think of something. He always did. He could faintly hear Hutch consulting with Teresa...then a spasm of pain hit again. "Hutch....” he said, groping  blindly.

"Yeah, babe, right here," said the calm, reassuring voice, while a hand took hold of his with a strong grip.

Hutch would know what to do. Starsky only wished he could help him do it.

"Dammit!" Starsky said again. His throat was so tight with pain that even breathing was a chore. He'd give anything...anything at all...to trade places with Hutch. It should've been him. It was supposed to be him. Not Hutch. Never Hutch.

His arms felt like they were coming out of the sockets. He was surrounded by wild-eyed men in black robes and hoods, and they kept chanting "Simon. Simon. Simon." Gail stood in front of him, holding a damned sharp knife. She was to make the first cut. Then the others would attack in a killing frenzy...slashing at him, while he was helpless to fight back. All for that sonofabitch Simon Marcos.

But when Gail raised the knife, she cut the rope instead, freeing him, and before he even had time to think about how much it hurt as the blood rushed back into his hands, Hutch was there, swinging left and right, knocking the cult members away from Starsky. Starsky didn't have time to wonder how Hutch had found him.

And then it was over, and Starsky's knees folded, and Hutch knelt with his arms around him. During the battle, Hutch had been focused, outwardly calm and deadly. But as he pulled Starsky close to him and laid his cheek against the top of his head, Starsky could feel him trembling.

"What took you so long?" Starsky asked weakly, a vain attempt at humor because he was so damned glad to see him and so relieved. So relieved, in fact, that he felt tears come to his eyes.

Starsky closed his eyes. He didn't want to think about all those times. Those times Hutch had pulled his ass out of one fire or another. There had always been something Hutch could do. And now, there was nothing Starsky could do. Even if he found the men responsible for this, it wouldn't save Hutch. It wouldn't help Hutch.

Sweat poured into his eyes. His knees wouldn't hold him up. He had to lean against the doorway. His head spun and his vision blurred. But he could see clearly enough to know that Vic Bellamy was creeping up on Hutch, gun drawn, and Hutch was looking in the other direction. No time to shout a warning. Starsky raised his gun and emptied it into Bellamy.

After checking the body and finding Bellamy dead, Hutch came over to him. "Thanks, buddy. Why'd you have to go and do that?" he said, trying to use a light tone, but the trembling in his voice gave him away.

Bellamy had been their only lead. Those shots Starsky fired might have sealed his own fate.

But, somehow, Hutch had tracked down the real culprit. He'd got hold of the antidote. He'd got it back to the doctor in time. And both of them lived to fight another day.

"You've never once let me down, buddy," Starsky said quietly. "And I won't let you down now."

He came out of the hospital room and went into the temporary command center, where Dobey was barking orders into the phone while Huggy vainly tried to get the normally ravenous captain to eat something. But Dobey waved Huggy away, stopping short when he got a good look at Starsky.

"Go home," he ordered him shortly. "Get cleaned up. Get some sleep. Dammit. Didn't I already order you to do that once tonight?"

Starsky leaned against the doorway wearily, too tired in body and spirit to rise to the bait. "Yeah, Cap, you did. Huggy? Care to give a guy a ride?"

"Sure, Starsk," Huggy said, abandoning his picnic basket of food and reaching into his pocket for his keys. As they passed the restroom, Starsky slowed and reached out to touch Huggy's arm.

"Hang on," he said. "I'll be right back."

He dodged an orderly who was coming out of the men's room and went in to splash cold water on his face, noticing only when he looked up to find the paper towels that his shirt front was still spattered with Hutch's blood. He quickly looked away from his reflection...and he saw feet sticking out from one of the stalls.

He burst through the men's room door and pursued the imposter down the hall, just getting a grip on the man's shirt as he tried to dodge into the stairwell. Starsky yanked the man back with the strength born of the adrenaline pumping through his body and slammed him against the nearest wall.

Breathing hard, but with his eyes flashing that deadly light that never failed to put the fear of God into a criminal's heart, he said in a fierce, low voice, "Talk to me, you son of a bitch."

Two of the uniformed cops – and Huggy – had caught up by now, but none interfered. Starsky had the situation in hand.

The "orderly," his eyes wide and frightened, stammered, "I...I don't know...what you mean."

"The hell you don't!" Starsky gave the man a shake, whacking his head against the wall again as he did so. "My partner's layin' in a room back there fightin' for his life. You know why and you know who and you better start talking or I swear to God I'll kill you right here and now and let these two cops watch me doin' it, you bastard!"

"Okay, okay!" The man was shaking like a leaf and didn't doubt for moment that Starsky meant what he said. And the two uniformed cops had folded their arms and were standing back with twin looks of contempt on their faces. He'd get no help from them. "It was paid hit. It was meant for you. But they were comin' after your partner later, after they got you outta the way."

"Who?" Starsky demanded.

"I don't know," the man whimpered. "I really don't. I only know who paid for the hit. But she was just a go-between. They didn't want anybody to be able to trace it to them."

"Who, goddammit?"

"Jenny Brown. She paid for it."

Starsky froze and stared at the man. He knew that name. Most people did. He narrowed his eyes, but he'd interrogated enough perps to know the ring of truth when he heard it. And he was hearing it now. He let go of the "orderly" and stepped back. "I want an address."

"Sure, sure," the man said eagerly. After he'd written it down, Starsky stepped even further away and gestured to the two uniformed cops.

"Get this pond scum out of my sight," he ordered gruffly. Then he stalked toward the elevator, with Huggy behind him.

"Starsky," Huggy said, ducking into the elevator just in time, "you can't go after her tonight. You're a crispy critter, m'man. You need to rest first. You wanna be in here, too?"

Starsky slumped against the elevator wall. Though he still felt the rush of the adrenaline, behind it he could feel the bone-deep weariness that threatened to fold his knees and drop him in a heap on the floor any minute. But he couldn't afford to give in to it, not with Hutch clinging to life above him. He shook his head.

"No. It's gotta be tonight. Before anybody has a chance to warn Jenny Brown."

"Who could warn her?" Huggy asked. "Your friend the orderly's on his way to jail."

"He gets one phone call, don't he?" Starsky said shortly. "Who the hell do you think he's gonna call? Somebody who's got the money and clout to get his ass out of stir. And that person can make as many goddamn phone calls as he wants to. I'm goin' to Jenny Brown's."

Huggy knew there was no point in arguing. Without further ado, he drove Starsky to Brown's high-priced high-rise apartment building, but waited outside when Starsky ordered him to.

"If I ain't back in half an hour, call Dobey," Starsky said just before he went in, checking his gun to be sure it was fully loaded.

Huggy nodded, and Starsky headed for the nearest elevator. When he got to Brown's door, he didn't waste time knocking. He kicked it in and threw himself through, landing in a crouch with gun drawn and facing Brown, whose wide, terrified eyes were almost the only thing he could see in the dark apartment.

"I'm Starsky," he said, standing slowly, but keeping the gun aimed at Brown as he did. "You paid for a hit on me. But they missed and got my partner Hutchinson instead. He's dyin'. But he ain't dead. And you're gonna tell me who the hell ordered it."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Brown began, but Starsky had reached her by now, and he grabbed her arm, yanking it up behind her, and put the gun to her side.

"Nobody knows I'm here but you and me," he said in a deadly low tone. "If I pull this trigger, nobody'll know who to arrest. My partner's in the hospital. I'm gonna find the bastards who ordered the hit. And you're gonna tell me."

Starsky didn't really have any intention of hurting her, and in fact had deliberately not done so when he pinned her arm. He only wanted to intimidate her. But it wasn't working for some reason.

"Okay, Starsky," she said, voice shaking, but outwardly calm. "You take me downtown and you book me. But I don't have to tell you anything. I know my rights."

She wouldn't be that calm if she didn't know she had big muscle behind her, Starsky thought suddenly, with a cold chill. Maybe this was bigger than he thought.

~*~*~*~

After booking Brown, which took a couple of hours, Starsky was so exhausted he stumbled when he walked. Huggy, who had faithfully stuck with him, took his arm and led him to the car, and took him home, and helped him to bed. Starsky was out before his head even hit the pillow.

Starsky didn't sleep long, though, or soundly, and he was up and back at the hospital at an obscenely early hour in the morning. Dobey looked up as he came into the makeshift command post.

"You look like hell," Dobey said roughly, though he was glad to note that Starsky had at least showered and changed. The sight of all that blood on his clothes, all day and all night the day before, had unnerved Dobey more than he had cared to admit.

"How is he?" Starsky asked, poised to go to Hutch's room.

"Holding his own," Dobey said. "Still unconscious."

Starsky turned to go, but Dobey cleared his throat, and he stopped and turned back.

"Jenny Brown was released this morning," Dobey said unhappily.

"What??" Starsky demanded. "She paid for a hit on a police officer! The bail must've been....”

"Bail was $1 million," Dobey said. "Somebody paid it. She's out."

Starsky sank into a chair. He rubbed his gritty eyes and tried to calm himself, but it was a losing battle. "Who? Who paid it?"

"Starsky, let somebody else handle this," Dobey said. "You're too close, and you want to be here with Hutch anyway. I've got half the department on it already and the other half is snooping around unauthorized."

Starsky leaned forward, eyes blazing. "Captain," he said deliberately, "that's my partner in there. That hit was meant for me. But it wouldn't matter who it was meant for. Hutch is my partner. I ain't backing off. Even if you give me a direct order."

Dobey knew he wasn't hearing insubordination as much as he was hearing pain, so he let that remark pass unchallenged. Instead, he sighed and scratched his head. "Her lawyer. Jonathan Wells."

Starsky shot out of his chair and left the room before Dobey could say another word. He first went by Hutch's room, and Dobey was right. Hutch lay as still as the day before, his face just as pale, deep in some place where Starsky couldn't reach him.

But he went in anyway, for a few minutes, and sat next to the bed talking, in case Hutch could hear.

"I'm gettin' closer, buddy," he said softly. "I'm gonna bust this one, even without your help, but I sure wish you were out there with me, Hutch. I sure am feelin' alone without you." He laughed a little. "Huggy's tryin' to help. He mostly just scolds me. And of course, he ain't authorized to carry a gun or anything. Hell, he shouldn't even be there. But I kinda think..." he paused and looked at Hutch again, and swallowed, "...he sort of feels responsible for makin' sure I'm okay. He doesn't want to face you if somethin' happens to me. But nothin' will, Hutch. I promise. I don't want to put you through what I'm goin' through. It hurts too much." He stopped again, and patted Hutch's arm, gently. "I'll come back later, buddy, okay? Got some work to do."

~*~*~*~

This time Starsky went alone, without Huggy. He knew what he was about to do was highly illegal and also could be suicidally dangerous, and he didn't want to risk Huggy's safety. He borrowed a car from the motor pool at the precinct and drove to Jonathan Wells' office – another pricey high-rise. His eyes blazed with such a fierce light that even the doorman was too intimidated to question him as he strode through the front doors and to the elevator. When it disgorged him onto the eleventh floor, he went straight to Wells' office.

"Can I help you, sir?" the receptionist asked, but Starsky ignored her and barged straight into Wells' inner office, kicking the door shut behind him and stopping in front of the man. He pulled his jacket open with his right hand and reached for his badge with his left.

Wells was on the phone, but he mumbled an apology and hung up quickly.

"My name is Starsky," Starsky said levelly. He slapped his badge, wallet open, down in front of Wells. "Jenny Brown. Who paid for her bail?"

"Mr...uh, Detective Starsky," Wells said, glancing at the badge and beginning to perspire ever so slightly, "that's privileged information. As an officer of the law, I'm sure you know....”

"You see that badge, Wells?" Starsky demanded. "It don't mean a goddamn thing to me. Somebody hurt my partner and I want to know who! I'm tired of asking questions and gettin' no answers. Start talkin'."

"I can't," Wells said. "I don't know. I got a phone call from someone who said he would pay for her bail. He said he'd send a cashier's check by messenger. I don't know who it was. I assumed....”

"I don't care what you assumed, asshole," Starsky said, his eyes beginning to glitter dangerously. "I want to know who it was. You know the charges. You know the amount of bail. We're talking heavy muscle and you know it. Who?"

The phone rang, and Wells picked it up. After a pause, he said, "No, Tina, it's all right. It's a police officer. No need for security."

Starsky sensed that, contrary to what Wells had actually said, security was going to be showing up any second. In spite of what he'd told Wells, he didn't want to risk his badge. Not yet. Not until he used it to bust the sorry sons of bitches who had put Hutch in that intensive care ward.

"You better start trying to remember who sent you that money," he said. "I'll be back." He turned on his heel and left. When he went back into the outer office, the receptionist's desk was empty. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the telephone log lying open on her desk. Without really thinking it through, he grabbed it and stuck it under his jacket and hurried out.

His instincts had proved correct. As he walked down the hall, consciously forcing his demeanor to be calm, two uniformed security guards dashed past him toward Wells' office. Starsky ducked into the stairwell and went down three flights before coming out into the eighth floor and taking an elevator the rest of the way.

He drove to Huggy's. Huggy was just opening the bar for the lunch crowd as Starsky came in. "Starsky? How's Hutch?"

"The same," Starsky said shortly. He slapped the book onto the counter. "That's Jonathan Wells' phone log. I swiped it just now. We're gonna figure out who paid Brown's bail."

Huggy's eyebrows went up. But he said nothing, merely turned the book around so he could read it and started going through the pages. Starsky did, too, looking at the book upside down.

"Wait, Starsk. Look here," said Huggy, pointing at several entries only a few hours apart. "There's a lot of calls to and from this same number, and they started early this morning. About the time you were leaving the precinct. Doesn't this guy ever go home to sleep?"

Starsky flipped the book around and looked at the number Huggy had indicated. "That's about the same time Brown would've been getting her one phone call," he said. He dug into his pocket for change and turned toward the pay phone.

"Use this one," Huggy suggested, pointing at the bar phone, but Starsky shook his head.

"They might have a tracer. Don't wanta get you in trouble. I have a bad feeling."

Huggy subsided, his brow wrinkling worriedly.

Starsky dropped the money in and dialed. Huggy came around the bar to stand beside him and listen in. But a moment later, Starsky's face went pale and he dropped the phone back into the cradle.

"What was it?" Huggy asked.

Starsky swallowed a couple of times before he could answer. Finally, shakily, he said, "Gunther Industries."

Huggy whistled. "Shit."

"Yeah." Starsky stared at the phone a few moments more, then turned away. "I still gotta go after 'em, Huggy."

"Are you crazy, man?" Huggy demanded. "That guy is one heavy dude. He could squash you flatter than a cockroach without breakin' a sweat."

"I'll go well-armed," Starsky said. "He didn't get to be 'one heavy dude' without leavin' a few unburied bodies. He's gotta have slipped somehow, sometime. I'll dig until I find it. And when I do, I'll have him. Cold. He ain't gettin' away with this, Huggy."

~*~*~*~

Starsky went back to the hospital. He needed to see Hutch, even if Hutch couldn't see or hear him. He was going to need all the courage and resourcefulness he could command for this. Gunther was as big as it got in terms of power and muscle. Nobody had ever been able to touch him. Those who tried – and Starsky certainly wouldn't be the first – wound up dead. With nothing to tie their deaths to Gunther in any way.

Starsky slipped into Hutch's room and sat in the plastic chair. He simply stared at the unconscious form for long minutes. The fake orderly had said the contract was to kill both Starsky and Hutch. They'd hit the wrong one first. But they would still be after the other one...him.

He'd promised Hutch he wouldn't let himself get hurt, and even if Hutch hadn't heard or understood, it was still a binding promise. The only way he could see out of this mess was to deliberately set himself up as a target to draw Gunther's fire and maybe, just maybe, get something concrete to use against the man. But if he did that, and if he miscalculated by even the smallest bit – he'd get hurt, all right. Permanently.

Shit. What the hell do I do, Hutch? I need you to talk to me. I need you to help me plan what to do. I just need you.

Nothing. Hutch lay like a statue. Starsky dropped his head into his hands and fought the despair silently.

I can't take much more of this. God, please...

Something made him raise his head. And as he watched, Hutch's eyelids twitched, ever so slightly. Then his hand moved. And, at last, his eyes opened. They were blank and bleary, but at Starsky's sudden intake of breath, they moved to rest on him. And there was recognition there.

"Hutch?" Starsky whispered, hardly daring to believe.

Hutch blinked, then, weakly, his hand opened and moved toward Starsky. Starsky grasped it with both of his, and Hutch returned the pressure, just barely, but enough to make Starsky's heart leap with thankfulness and his eyes run over with relief.

Hutch's eyes got a little moist, too, and he struggled to speak. Sometime during the day, the staff had exchanged the bulky respirator for a simple oxygen tube, and after a moment, Hutch's hoarse whisper came, "Don't. Starsk...don't."

"Don't what?" Starsky said. He'd have done or stopped doing anything Hutch asked at that moment.

"Cry...."

Starsky hadn't known he was crying until then. Without letting go of Hutch's hand, he bent his head to rub his eyes against his sleeve. "I'll stop if you will," he said, grinning.

Hutch was too weak to laugh, but his eyes crinkled a little at the corners, and that was good enough for Starsky. And belatedly, Starsky realized he should notify someone that Hutch was awake. With another reassuring squeeze of his buddy's hand, Starsky said, "I gotta get a nurse. Don't go away."

Hutch's eyes crinkled a little again, and Starsky disentangled his hands, running for the door, yelling at the top of his lungs, "He's awake! Nurse! Doctor! Cap'n! Hutch is awake!"

Several people came running at the commotion, while a nurse severely hushed Starsky for making so much noise. But he didn't care who he disturbed. He felt 20 years younger and like he could fly if he just jumped high enough.

~*~*~*~

Hutch didn't stay awake long. But this time when the blue eyes closed it was in sleep, and Starsky stood looking through the window of the ICU with a glad and peaceful heart. Now he could go after Gunther. Though he hadn't talked it over with Hutch, he knew what to do. And he left to do it.

Nobody heard what he said to Jenny Brown when he visited her at her apartment, but when he left he knew what to look for. A long and eye-torturing session in the computer records room at the precinct yielded the information he needed and he returned to the hospital clutching the printouts with enough evidence to put Gunther away. He bumped into Dobey in the hallway.

"What are you up to, Starsky?" Dobey demanded. "And where have you been for the last 24 hours? Hutch has been awake twice asking for you."

"I'm goin' in there right now, Cap," Starsky said, sidling past, but his captain knew him too well.

"Hold on just a minute, Starsky. What have you got?"

"I'll tell you in a while, Cap. Gotta see Hutch first."

Dobey started to bluster, but Starsky had escaped. He had to show it to Hutch first.

Hutch was dozing, but not really asleep, when Starsky burst into his room. Dodging the nurse, who tried to hush him, Starsky gleefully tossed one end of the printout away so it unfurled in a long stream and sang out, "I got the bastard, Hutch. I got him cold. Ain't no way he's gonna slip away this time."

Hutch couldn't help smiling at Starsky's enthusiasm, but he also didn't have a clue what his partner was talking about.

"Oh, shit," Starsky said, suddenly coming to a halt and realizing Hutch wouldn't know anything about what had been going on. "The guy that ordered the hit. It's –" he stopped and looked at the nurse. Not knowing who to trust, he didn't want to say the name aloud in front of a stranger. Instead, he bent over the bed to show the printout to Hutch.

"Mr. Starsky," the nurse said sternly, hands on hips but a twinkle in her eye, "you are disturbing my patient!"

"Yes, ma'am, I am," Starsky said unrepentantly. "I'll leave in a second. Promise. Could you leave us alone, please?"

"No, I cannot," she said, even more sternly. "I'm supposed to stay here and monitor Mr. Hutchinson."

"I can do that," Starsky said. "Really. If he sneezes or yawns or anything, I promise, I'll call ya. Okay? Just for a second? Please?"

She glared at him for a few more moments, but finally shook her head and left the room. But before she did, she said, "You have five minutes. That's all. Understand?"

"Yes, ma'am. Five minutes."

"You old charmer," Hutch said, suppressing his laughter because even breathing hurt. But his eyes danced.

Starsky grinned. "Yeah, I'm a heartbreaker, all right. Look, Hutch. Gunther. I got him. I got him cold."

The light faded out of the blue eyes and Hutch said, slowly, "Gunther? As in, 'Gunther Industries' Gunther? He ordered the hit? Why?"

"You and I have stepped on his toes dozens of times, buddy, without even knowing it. I just spent a whole day goin' through files and records and dust to get this thing," Starsky waved the printout, "and I found some very ugly skeletons in his closet."

"But how....” Hutch paused, winced a little, but shook his head at Starsky's immediate concern. "I'm okay. How'd you do that? The department's been trying for years –"

"I have my sources," Starsky said. "Better not ask me right now how I did it. It wasn't pretty. I'll tell ya later, after you're well."

"Starsk, you didn't...um....”

"I didn't break the law," Starsky said. "Bent it a little. Didn't break it. Didn't kill anybody. Didn't hit anybody. Didn't even trash anybody's apartment."

Hutch couldn't help grinning, and he relaxed.

Wow. He must be hurtin'. Misdirection never worked on him before. But Starsky tried not to let his thoughts show on his face.  "Hey, I gotta go put this in to a judge to get a warrant. You gonna be okay for a while? Might be a few hours before I can get back."

"Yeah, sure," Hutch said, but his eyes had gone a little fuzzy and Starsky could tell how weary he was.

"Okay, pal. See ya in a while."

As Starsky stood to go, Hutch said, "Starsk? Be careful."

"Yeah," Starsky forced a smile, but he knew he wasn't fooling Hutch. He was deep down terrified at the thought of what he was getting ready to do, but he was going to do it anyway. And he was coming back.

Starsky checked in with Dobey, showed him the printout, and told him where he'd hidden a second copy in case...in case something went wrong. Dobey didn't like what he was hearing at all.

"Starsky, you're not going over there alone. I'm sending backup units with you and you're not going to argue with me!"

"No, I'm not going to argue," Starsky said calmly. "But I'm goin' into that bastard's office alone, Captain, and I'm making the bust alone. This is my fight, for Hutch. The backups can damned well stand back and let me do this."

~*~*~*~

Starsky took the elevator down to the hospital's parking garage, where he'd left the motor pool car, and met the two officers who would accompany him to Gunther's office. He quickly briefed them on what was going on, and watched the look they exchanged before they agreed with his orders to stay back out of sight and let him make the arrest. They followed him to the courthouse while he explained the situation to a judge and waited for a warrant.

As Starsky came out of the courts building, he waved at the officers in the car to signal them that all was well and turned toward his temporary car. As he did, he caught sight of a car almost exactly like Hutch's bomb rolling down the street, and he froze, staring at it.

Just as it got even with him, he saw the gun and in his mind he heard Hutch's warning shout from the police garage: "Starsky! Get down!"

Reflexively, he dove to the sidewalk as the shots rang out, all but one thudding into the motor pool car. The last grazed the sidewalk right beside him, scattering bits of concrete like shrapnel into his face and arm.

The two uniformed officers were out of their car and firing shots after the old Ford as it sped away, and Starsky leapt to his feet to follow suit, but the car was out of range.

"Sergeant? Are you hurt?" one of the officers asked, running up to him.

"No, I'm okay," Starsky answered, breathing hard and more scared at the near miss than he wanted to admit.

"You're bleeding, sir," the officer said.

Starsky's face stung and he reached up to touch it, his hand coming away bloody. But he knew he hadn't been hit. "Must've been the fallout," he said, indicating the chewed-up spot on the sidewalk. "It's not serious. Let's go." He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and mopped at his face, taking a look in the rear-view mirror of the motor pool car before climbing in. His face looked like it had the time he'd fallen off his bicycle as a boy and skidded along the street a few feet on his side, but it was superficial. He had more important things to worry about just now.

Starsky, followed by the two officers, drove to Gunther Industries. He parked at the curb in front of the building and got out, gazing up toward the penthouse offices he knew Gunther inhabited. His heart was beating hard, and a trickle of sweat ran down his temple and stung his scraped cheek.

Shit. This guy would ice me without batting an eye. Or, more likely, he'd order somebody else to do it. And already has. He ain't gonna like this...

The three men rode up in the elevator in silence and when they stopped at the penthouse, walked out in silence. The outer office was empty – it was after five already – but the door to the inner office was ajar, and Starsky edged toward it, waving at the other two to follow, but stay back. When he got to the door he could see through it, just a crack, but enough to see James Gunther sitting at his desk, contemplating a cup of coffee he held in both hands. Starsky nodded at the two officers, shoved the door wide open with a foot, and strode in alone.

Gunther looked up, startled, and suddenly was holding a gun in his hand. "Don't take another step," he ordered Starsky, aiming. But his hand shook a little.

Starsky was already holding the warrant in one hand, his other behind him, holding his gun. "James Gunther," he said evenly, "you are under arrest for attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, assaulting two police officers, and a whole lot of other things I won't bother to mention at the moment. Put the gun down."

Gunther coolly cocked the gun instead. "One more step," he said, "and I shoot."

"You have the right to remain silent," Starsky said, still advancing and watching Gunther's eyes, "anything you say can be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney –"

"Don't bother," Gunther said. "I know my rights. But I won't need them, Starsky. I'm not going anywhere."

"Oh, but you are," Starsky said. "I have a warrant. And enough proof of your activities over the last several years to put you away for life."

And then Starsky saw the change in Gunther's eyes, the subtle shift he had seen in countless other pairs of eyes. He dropped, just as the gun went off, and came up with his gun in both hands, pointed at Gunther's forehead. The other two officers plunged through the office door, their guns aimed at Gunther, too.

Faced with all three, Gunther's bravado failed and it was only a few moments before he was cuffed and on his way to jail with the uniformed officers.

"Where was all his security?" one of those officers asked Starsky as they were leading Gunther away.

"Good question." Starsky turned to look, and saw what he had missed before because he was concentrating on Gunther. A pair of feet, sticking out behind a chair. He went to look, and there was Gunther's right-hand man, clutching a broken coffee cup, dead. Starsky went cold all over at the sight. "Call the coroner," he said, when he could speak. "Looks like this guy pissed Gunther off."

If I made even one mistake in this case, my life is over. If Gunther can get out on bail, if he can make a move before we can get him nailed down....

No. He hadn't made a mistake. He knew he hadn't. He wouldn't have risked Hutch's life and his own on Gunther's eventual revenge.

The next few hours were a blur – booking Gunther, convincing a judge and the D.A. that Gunther posed too much of a risk to allow him out on bail, swearing out a deposition and promising the D.A. that someone could come and take Hutch's statement the next day. It wasn't until all that was over and Starsky was on his way back to the hospital that it occurred to him to wonder how those men in the beat-up Ford at the courts building had known where he'd be...

He burst into the command center and found it empty. The equipment was gone and there was no sign of Dobey.

Of course. Hutch is pretty much out of danger. Dobey doesn't have an excuse not to go into the office now.

Starsky went on to Hutch's room. He'd use the telephone in there rather than the public one in the hall. He didn't want to risk being overheard by any hospital personnel.

Hutch was awake and visibly relaxed when Starsky walked in. "Hi, buddy," he greeted him. "Dobey told me where you went and what the hell you were doing. Are you crazy?"

Starsky grinned. Hutch was feeling better if he was back to scolding. "Yeah, I suppose I am. But Gunther's cooling his heels in his very own jail cell right now, and Judge Morton agreed to refuse bail because," Starsky deepened his voice in an attempt to mimic the Judge's bass, "'The defendant poses too high a risk of flight and/or retribution against the arresting officer.'

"And," Starsky added gleefully, returning to his own voice, "we added a nice little Murder One rap to the already-lengthy list of charges, because Gunther iced his own right-hand goon right before we arrived. We found the goon dead in Gunther's office and Gunther's own fingerprints were on the coffee cup he poisoned. And the bottle of poison he used was still in his vest pocket. How's that for an added bonus?"

But Hutch was studying his partner with narrowed eyes. "Something's wrong. What is it?"

"What could be wrong?" Starsky demanded. "I just came back from booking one of the biggest crooks in California, maybe in the United States, with a case J. Edgar Hoover couldn't break, and you want to know what's wrong? You could at least say, 'Good job, Starsk.'"

"Good job, Starsk," Hutch repeated obediently, his eyes twinkling a little. But they turned serious again almost immediately. "There is something else. I can tell. And what happened to your face?"

Starsky had hoped that, in the dim light of Hutch's hospital room, his partner wouldn't notice his scraped cheek. "Oh, that. It's nothin'. I'm okay."

"How'd it happen, Starsk?" Hutch demanded.

Starsky sighed. He should've known he couldn't keep anything from Hutch. He'd never been able to fool him. "Coupla goons – must've been Gunther's – shot at me in front of the courts building. From a car that looked so much like yours I thought it was yours."

If Hutch had had the strength, he'd have sat up in bed. As it was, he couldn't even rise up on his elbows. But the outrage in his voice was pretty strong, all the same. "What? Did they follow you? How'd they know where you were?"

Starsky shrugged. "I think we have a worm in our apple, partner."

"Shit....” Hutch's eyes widened. "Who? Any ideas?"

Starsky shook his head. "No. I think it's somebody here at the hospital, though. Maybe a nurse. An orderly. A janitor. Hell, I don't know, Hutch. But I ain't takin' no chances. I'm gonna tell Dobey to keep the armed guards outside your room."

"What about you?" Hutch demanded.

Starsky opened his jacket and unbuttoned his shirt a few buttons to show Hutch the flak vest he had on underneath. "I'm takin' no chances, partner."

Hutch went even paler. He'd never known Starsky to wear a flak vest without an argument before. That told him just exactly how scared Starsky really was. "Hold on a second, there, Starsk. You're in too much danger. Let somebody else deal with this. Somebody they don't know. They're gunning for you. What if...what if....”

"I'll be okay, Hutch," Starsky said. "It's all over now but the shouting."

Hutch opened his mouth to argue some more, but the doctor came in and both detectives shut up at once.

"Good evening, Mr. Hutchinson," the doctor said cheerfully. "How are you feeling?"

"I can't sit up," Hutch said morosely. "How soon will I get some starch back in my backbone?"

The doctor smiled. "These things take time. Don't try to rush your recovery. You're lucky to even be alive, you know."

He produced a pin which Hutch – and Starsky – eyed doubtfully.

"We're going to check the feeling in your extremities," the doctor explained, intercepting the look. "One of the bullets hit rather close to your spine."

Hutch looked toward Starsky, who winced at that. "Okay, doc," Hutch said. "What should I do?"

"Yell if this hurts," the doctor said with a grin. He pulled the blanket back away from Hutch's feet, and very gently poked at the bottom of  his foot with the pin. Hutch couldn't see what he was doing, and never flinched nor made a sound. Starsky went a little pale, but said nothing.

The doctor glanced at his patient. "Didn't hurt?"

Hutch shook his head, unaware of what had just happened.

The doctor tried a spot on Hutch's calf. Same result. Starsky went a little paler, and turned his head to try to keep Hutch from seeing his face.

"Didn't hurt?" the doctor asked again.

"No," Hutch answered, beginning to worry. Obviously, it was supposed to hurt.

Hutch also didn't react when the doctor pricked his thigh. But this time the blond detective could see what was going on and went a little pale himself.

The other leg was the same.

Finally the doctor touched Hutch's side – in a place where he was very ticklish. And Hutch cringed away from the touch.

"Okay," the doctor said calmly. "Now we know." He straightened and turned to face Hutch. "You have some paralysis, but," and he held up a hand, "it is most likely only temporary, your body's reaction to the amount of trauma you suffered. No need to worry."

"Are you sure it's temporary?" Starsky asked before Hutch could.

"Well," the doctor glanced at Starsky, but his eyes returned to Hutch, "we can't be positive, no. It seems to be limited to below the waist, which is understandable considering where that particular bullet struck you. Give it a few days. If I'm right, you should begin to feel a tingling in your legs by then, if not full feeling. If not, we'll discuss your options then."

"My options?" Hutch started to splutter, but he noticed Starsky's anguished eyes and stopped himself. "Okay, doctor," he finished instead. "I'll trust your judgment."

The doctor patted Hutch's arm, nodded at Starsky, and left the room. As soon as the door shut behind him, Starsky said, his eyes already beginning to get too bright, "Oh, my God, Hutch....”

"Starsk, calm down, will ya?" Hutch struggled to scoot up, but couldn't manage without help, so Starsky leaned down and helped him get to a half-sitting position. "He said it was temporary."

"He said he thought it was temporary." Starsky struggled, too, to get himself under control. "What if it ain't? My God, Hutch, it's my fault."

"Huh?" Hutch stared at him. "Your fault? How do you figure that?"

"Those bullets were meant for me," Starsky said, his voice none too steady. "The hit was meant for me. You got shot – because of me."

"Aw, come on, Starsk," Hutch said gently. "You told me yourself they were coming after both of us. Don't blame yourself. It was that low life scum Gunther –"

But Starsky was shaking his head. His face was turned away from Hutch, but Hutch could still see his Adam's apple move convulsively as he swallowed and fought for control. "Why'd you do it, Hutch? Why?"

"Do what?" Hutch asked, mostly to give himself time. He knew what was coming. And nothing he could say was going to assuage Starsky's guilt or pain.

"Why'd you tackle me?" Starsky turned to look at Hutch at last, and though his eyes were full, he was in control for the moment. "You'd yelled at me to get down. Why didn't you?"

Hutch considered before answering. He didn't want to make Starsky feel worse than he already did, and Lord knew that was bad enough. He finally settled for a shrug. "Something just told me to, buddy. It was instinct. I didn't really think about it. I just did it. If I hadn't –" he stopped. No need to go there.

But Starsky finished for him. "You'd be where I am and I'd be where you are. Where I belong."

"Starsk....”

"Don't 'Starsk' me!" Starsky couldn't sit still and he began to pace, but in the confines of the small room, it only made him – and Hutch – more tense. "You coulda been killed! You almost were! Your legs....” Starsky's voice broke and he turned his back.

"And you think it would have been better if you'd got shot? Is that it?" Hutch sounded angry, but he wasn't really.

"Yeah. I do."

"For God's sake, why?"

Starsky just shook his head. He couldn't answer.

"Tell me why," Hutch demanded.

Starsky kept his back to Hutch, but he took a deep breath, steadied his voice as best he could, and finally said, "I'd rather die than watch you die."

Hutch was silent for a long moment, long enough to cause Starsky to turn around. Hutch's eyes were full now, and he finally looked up and met Starsky's eyes. "That's why, buddy. That's why I tackled you. I've watched you almost die. I never want to go through that again."

~*~*~*~

Starsky finally went home to bed, leaving Hutch alone to face what he had forced himself to push aside for Starsky's sake. Alone, with the hospital quieted down for the night and the light dimmed, Hutch lay and tried to move even a toe. Nothing. He reached down and slapped his thigh. And felt nothing. It might have been someone else's leg. It wasn't the numbness such as the dentist's Novocain shot that still left him aware of the existence of the numb parts. His legs, according to his brain, simply were not there.

Hutch swallowed hard and pulled himself to a sitting position using the rails of his bed. The activity, after so long on his back, left him breathless and sweating and spots danced before his eyes. But he waited until the dizziness passed and his heartbeat slowed to normal, then turned himself and pushed his legs over the side of the bed. They dangled there uselessly. He tried massaging them, fighting down the panic that threatened to overwhelm him. He tried swinging them back and forth, one at a time, moving them with his hands because they sure as hell weren't going to move at the command of his brain. Not so much as a tingle. And finally, the panic, the fear that he had fought down for hours rose up in him. It was true. It was really true.

"Oh, God...!"

~*~*~*~

Starsky went home, puttered around his apartment for a while to wind down, then tried to go to sleep. He was tired enough – exhausted, in fact – but his mind was still whirling and he couldn’t relax. Every time he closed his eyes, he kept seeing the look in Hutch's eyes when the doctor had uttered that word "paralyzed." And remembering the way Hutch had glanced at him and carefully smoothed his face and calmed his voice.

I know when he's lyin'. Even when he lies without saying a word. He didn't want me to know how that made him feel. Like I don't know without bein' told.

After trying unsuccessfully to sleep for a while, Starsky gave up and got out of bed, dressed, and drove back to the hospital. If he was going to be awake anyway, he was going to be near Hutch.

As he neared Hutch's room, tiptoeing past the nurses who knew him by now and smiled understandingly without trying to tell him visiting hours were over, he thought he heard gasping. Frightened, Starsky burst through Hutch's door and skidded to a stop at what he saw there.

Hutch was lying on his stomach, half in and half out of his bed, his legs helplessly drooping off the side of the mattress, with his head buried in his arms – shoulders shaking, gasping for air.

"Hutch!" Starsky dashed to the bed and grabbed his partner by the shoulders to turn him over so he could breathe.

But it wasn't trouble breathing that had made Hutch's shoulders shake. One look at the red, overflowing eyes, and Starsky's own heart broke. He sat down and pulled Hutch against his shoulder the way he had when Gillian died, wrapped his arms tightly around him, and held on for dear life.

"Ssssh, buddy," Starsky said in a husky whisper past the lump in his own throat. "It's gonna be okay. I'm here now. Take it easy, boy. It's gonna be all right."

If Hutch heard, he made no sign other than to cling to Starsky for several minutes until he could calm himself. Pulling back at last, he used the sleeve of his hospital gown to wipe his eyes and gave a shaky laugh. "Hi, Starsk."

Starsky frowned and took a tighter grip on Hutch's shoulders. "Don't do that, Hutch. Don't pretend with me. We're way past that now."

When Hutch started to shake his head, Starsky gave an exasperated grunt.

"Dammit, Hutch! I know it hurts. I love ya, buddy, let me help you!"

"I can't," Hutch said, forcing the words out. "If I talk about it, it'll make it real."

I gotta be strong for him. How many times has he been strong for me? "Hutch," Starsky said, choosing his words carefully, "if it is – if it's real and not just a reaction – we'll figure something out. Me and thee. You got that? Don't be a White Knight, for cryin' out loud. I'll stick by ya. We'll figure something out."

Hutch raised his eyes, and the pain there was palpable. Starsky felt an echo of that pain slice through his own heart. He reached out and laid his hand on Hutch's hair.

"Don't give up, buddy," he said softly. "God, whatever else you do, don't give up."

~*~*~*~

Starsky helped Hutch get back into bed, then tucked the covers around him and sat himself down in the visitor's chair. Hutch finally fell into an uneasy sleep, but Starsky was no more able to doze than he had been earlier at home. Finally, with a sigh, he got up and went in search of a candy bar and a cup of coffee. He found both in one of the waiting rooms that had vending machines, and sat down on an orange vinyl couch to shore himself up for the next couple of hours – or weeks, or months.

Why couldn't it be me lyin' in there? It should've been. He's in there paralyzed because he threw himself between those bullets and me. And never once considered his own safety. I could handle bein' paralyzed myself a lot better than I'm gonna be able to handle watchin' him struggle with it, knowin' it's because he...

Starsky took a deep gulp of his coffee. Hutch, the health nut – Starsky smiled in spite of himself because how many times had he called his partner that? – stuck in a wheelchair. Unable to walk. Unable to run. Unable to...

Hutch was so damned independent, and so proud of it. And, as soft as his heart was, he hid it behind a tough exterior most of the time. Most people didn't get a chance to see that soft heart. He didn't ask for help. He didn't let on when he needed to talk.

Except Starsky was one of the few people – maybe the only person – who ever got to see that guard all the way down. And even then, it took a crisis like this one to get it down.

But if this was the way it was going to be, Hutch was going to need help for awhile, until he learned to compensate for what he could no longer do. He'd need to move to a place with no stairs. He'd need a specially equipped car. He'd need a friend who would put up with his outbursts of frustration.

"Oh, come on, Starsk," he could hear Hutch's voice now. The eternal optimist, outwardly anyway. "The doctor said it was probably temporary."

Starsky finished his coffee and candy bar, threw his trash away, and squared his shoulders. It was high time he headed back to Hutch's room. He hadn't like the way his partner was tossing and turning and mumbling in his sleep. He wasn't going to get the rest he needed like that.

Quietly, Starsky eased open the door and slid into the room stealthily, backward. Then he turned around. "Hutch!"

Hutch was in a heap on the floor, tangled in his blankets, trying to pull himself up by the bed rail. Starsky got his hands under Hutch's arms and heaved him up onto the bed, almost losing his balance in the process. "What the hell happened? Didja fall out of bed? You okay?"

Hutch's blue eyes were wide with wonder and he looked up at Starsky. "I woke up with a cramp in my leg. I jumped out of bed to stand on it and lost my balance."

"Well, for cryin' out loud, you ain't got the strength to go leaping out of bed yet, Hutch, you've been lyin' around for three weeks and you're weak as a kitt...." Starsky stopped. "You had a cramp in your leg? Hutch!" He dropped to his knees and grabbed hold of Hutch's calf. "Can ya feel that?" At Hutch's nod, he touched the other leg. "That?" Hutch nodded again, eyes shining and a grin beginning to light up his whole face.

"Can you stand up?" Starsk offered an arm and helped Hutch to a standing position, supporting him almost completely. Hutch swayed, and his legs were like jelly, but he was standing on them. He grinned at Starsky, and Starsky beamed at him, and they simultaneously threw their arms around each other. Starsky would have danced Hutch around the room, he was so happy, but he was afraid his partner wasn't quite up to that yet, so he settled for slapping him on the back. And then he helped him sit down on the edge of the bed.

It was going to be okay.

The End

 

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