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Only When I Laugh

Written by Valerie Wells

Hutch hung on tight to the dash as Starsky took another turn at a suicidally fast speed, barely missing a semi as he wrenched the wheel hard to the right. The car they were pursuing screamed around another turn and Starsky stayed right on his tail, his face a study in concentration. Hutch glanced at him and saw the characteristic twist of his lips as he swung the wheel left and right, missing cars and pickups and once, a bicycle, by inches. Hutch remained silent, knowing he didn't want to distract his partner at a time like this.

The creep they were chasing had just shot a woman dead, right in front of her children, in a grocery store. The oldest girl, only 14 years old, had told Hutch the man had dated her divorced mother for a couple of months, but he'd become abusive and she'd broken up with him.

"Then," the girl said, tears rolling down her cheeks as she watched the ambulance take her mother's body away, "he started calling and hanging around and threatening to...to kill her...if she ever went out with another man."

Hutch had listened quietly, his arm around the girl's shoulders, as they waited for the children's father to come and pick them up. When the man arrived, pale and shaken, all three children had run to him and clung to him while Hutch watched with a lump in his own throat.

But there was no time for sentiment. A call had come over the radio.

"All units. Murder suspect Daniel Barry spotted in the vicinity of Marshall and 15th streets, driving a tan Ford Maverick, license plates TLZ 22. Armed and considered dangerous."

Starsky and Hutch had dived for the Torino and sped off. And they'd caught up with him, but as soon as he saw the red light behind him, Barry had squealed away.

Starsky was grim and determined, clutching the wheel with both hands.

"Holy shit, I didn't know those Mavericks could go that fast," Starsky muttered, unwilling admiration in his tone, as the small car jumped ahead of them again. Starsky was hard pressed, even with the Torino's souped-up motor, to keep the Maverick in sight.

"Stick with him, buddy," Hutch said.

Starsky grunted in reply.

They squealed around another turn, and were out of the city limits. Hutch picked up the mike.

"Zebra Three, control. In pursuit of murder suspect Daniel Barry. We have entered the county, headed west on," he glanced at Starsky, who knew the whole area like the back of his hand.

"County Highway 52," Starsky said.

"Westbound on county 52," Hutch said. "Notify the sheriff we are out of jurisdiction."

"Roger, Zebra Three. Will do. Calling for back up."

The Maverick spun around another corner onto a dirt road and Hutch reached for the mike again to transmit their location, but the Torino hit a chuckhole and he had to grab for the dash to keep from being flung into Starsky's lap.

"Sorry," Starsky said, but he didn't slow down. The Maverick had disappeared from sight, but as they came over a hill, they saw a cloud of dust and Starsky bore down on the accelerator again.

"Shit, Starsk, look!"

The Maverick was overturned in the deep ditch beside the road, wheels still spinning.

"Musta lost control," Starsky said, slowing at last and pulling over. Both men got out of the car, squinting in the setting sun and drawing their guns. They approached cautiously, but when Starsky squatted to peer into the car, he shook his head. "Not there." He stood up and looked around. "Maybe he was thrown free?"

"He's got to be hurt," Hutch said, puzzled. They walked up and down the road, looking for Barry or his body but he was nowhere to be seen.

A gunshot sent them both diving for the ground.

"In the woods," Starsky hissed, crawling on his belly toward the shelter of the Maverick in the ditch. Hutch followed, and from behind the car, they peered toward the stand of trees. It was too gloomy to see very far. Starsky poked his head up over the car, and another shot rang out. Starsky yanked his head back down in a hurry. "That way," he said, pointing.

The two of them split up, hoping to flank the man. Hutch ducked under a low-hanging branch, listening with all his might for any sound that would help him pinpoint the man's location. He could just see Starsky through the trees and wouldn't have been able to see that much if not for Starsky's white jacket. But no sign of their suspect.

The Starsky disappeared in the gloom, too, and Hutch strained his eyes to see. The stand of trees wasn't that big, but apparently it was big enough to hide Daniel Barry. It was so dark now that Hutch knew he'd have to rely on his sense of direction to get back to the road; he could hardly even see where he was walking.

Then he heard a shot. A snapping of dry twigs under someone's feet. A movement only a few feet away. He raised his gun. And heard another shot.

A burning pain went through his side and his knees buckled.

~*~*~*~

Starsky tiptoed through the dry leaves and twigs under his feet, trying not to make any noise. He knew Barry was here somewhere. And he was going to find him. A movement to his right caught his eye and he twirled. Barry was crouched on the lowest branch of a nearby tree, pointing a gun at him. Starsky threw himself behind another tree just as Barry squeezed off a shot, dropped from the branch and ran. Starsky ran after him, lost him briefly, then spotted him again, dropped to one knee, and aimed. Just as he squeezed the trigger, Barry dived and, too late, Starsky saw Hutch beyond, the blond hair catching a last ray of light slanting through the trees.

Hutch went down and Barry, with only a glance at the fallen officer, ran away through the trees.

"Hutch," Starsky whispered, stricken. "Oh, my God." He ran toward the shadowy form of his partner, and dropped to his knees beside him, staring with horror at the growing stain seeping through Hutch's shirt. "Hutch!" His hands shook as he unbuttoned Hutch's shirt and pulled it away to see the wound. The entrance wound was just above Hutch's belt on the left. Gently, Starsky felt under his partner and his hand came away bloody. The bullet had gone through. The exit wound was much larger and blood was soaking into the ground under Hutch.

Hutch moaned and tried to open his eyes.

"No, buddy, don't move," Starsky said urgently. "I gotta call an ambulance for ya."

"Starsk." Hutch's voice was barely audible. "How...how bad?"

"I don't know, buddy. It's too dark to see," Starsky lied. "Can you sit up at all? I gotta get ya back to the car."

Hutch tried, and with Starsky's help, finally sat up partway, his upper body in Starsky's lap.

And then they heard the unmistakable sound of the Torino's motor starting and the car driving away.

"Oh, shit," Starsky breathed. "Motherfucker stole the car."

Hutch shifted uncomfortably. "No car. No radio. No ambulance," he said softly.

They stared at each other in dismay.

~*~*~*~

Starsky yanked off his jacket and shirt, and used the shirt for a makeshift pressure bandage to try to stop the bleeding. Hutch, still conscious but fading fast, tried to tell him what to do. Starsky didn't have the first aid training his partner did, and his fright and shame at being the one to wound Hutch upset him even more, making him forget what he did know.

"Easy, buddy," Hutch said, watching the beads of sweat trickle down Starsky's sideburns and the panicked look in his eyes. "Stay calm."

"Hutch, I'm sorry. God, I'm so sorry," Starsky said, his voice shaking. "I was aimin' at him, buddy, I didn't know you were behind him "

"I know, I know," Hutch said, blinking and trying to keep his head clear. "I don't blame you. I'm not mad at you. Now take it easy, huh?"

"Does it hurt much, babe? What can I do for ya?" Starsky finished with the bandaging and cradled Hutch against him, stroking his cheek and looking down into his eyes.

"We gotta have some help, Starsk," Hutch said. "You're going to have to go for help."

"I can't leave you!"

"You have to..." Hutch shook his head as things started to go dark in front of his eyes again.

"Stay with me, Hutch!" Starsky gently patted his face. "Come on, now. Don't fade out, buddy. Oh, God, don't!"

"Hey," Hutch took a deep breath and immediately regretted it, because it made the pain in his side shoot all the way through his body. He gritted his teeth until it passed and covered Starsky's hand with his own. "Did you see a house before it got dark? Anything?"

Starsky bit his lower lip and tried to remember. "I don't think so. But I was so focused on the car. Did you?"

"No."

"Shit." Starsky peered through the gloom, hoping to see lights through the trees, but they were too thick and it was too dark. "I'm just gonna go to the edge of the trees there, buddy, just to see if I can spot anything, okay? Will ya be okay, just for a few minutes?"

"Sure," Hutch said, willing his voice to be steady and strong. He didn't fool Starsky, who looked down at him uncertainly for a moment, then very gently lowered him to the ground, wadding his jacket up for a pillow, and scrambled away. The gloom hid him before he was more than a hundred yards away, and Hutch lay with his eyes closed, trying to follow his partner by the sounds he made.

Starsky ran as fast as he dared through the trees to the edge of the road. He strained his eyes in every direction, but failed to see so much as car headlights. No houses unless they had their lights off. He turned to go back, and as he did, he saw the Maverick out of the corner of his eye. Maybe there was something in the car they could use. He squirmed through the passenger window and hastily searched the car. He found a flashlight in the glove box and stuffed it into his hip pocket. There was an old sweatshirt in the back seat that would help keep Hutch warm now that the sun was down. Nothing else. No food or water.

Starsky shivered a little as he hurried back through the trees to Hutch. All he was wearing was the T-shirt he'd had on under his shirt and jacket, and it was getting cold. He knelt next to Hutch, turning on the flashlight so he could examine him.

The shirt he'd used for a bandage was soaked through with blood. Starsky caught his breath and tried not to let Hutch see his reaction. But they'd been partners too long for that.

"How bad, buddy?" Hutch asked weakly.

"Not too bad," Starsky said, trying to sound cheerful.

"Bullshit, Starsk," Hutch said, reaching out for his arm. "The truth. I gotta know."

Starsky sighed. "It's still bleeding. A lot."

Hutch was silent for a moment. "Okay," he said, vainly trying to suppress a shiver. Starsky draped the sweatshirt over him and tucked it around him, then helped him back up onto his lap and wrapped his arms around him to try to keep him warm. "The damage must be internal, Starsk," he said quietly. "That means you...can't stop the bleeding. You have to go get help. Didn't...see anything out there?"

Starsky was alarmed. Hutch's voice had faded to a whisper. "Hutch. Buddy! Hey, come on. Stay with me, dammit! Hutch!"

"It's...okay, don't...worry," Hutch said, tangling his hand in the front of Starsky's T-shirt. "I'm all right. Ain't goin' ...anywhere yet. Go on, Starsk."

"They're gonna come lookin' for us when we don't report back in," Starsky said. "Dispatch had already called for backup."

"They won't know...we're in...here."

"No, but the guy took my car, Hutch. He ain't gonna get far in that till he's spotted."

"Sticks out like a sore thumb," Hutch mumbled.

Starsky grinned unwillingly. "That's right. He'll have to ditch it, and somebody'll find it. Maybe they've already caught him. What we need to do is get out to the road. 'S there any way you can walk? Even a little?"

"I don' know..."

Starsky seriously doubted he could carry him. But if Hutch couldn't walk, he was going to have to try. Very, very gently, he sat Hutch up. Getting his own feet under him, he stood, pulling Hutch with him and to his feet. Hutch was all but limp in his arms, a dead weight. Gritting his teeth, Starsky wrapped one of Hutch's arms over his shoulder and put his own around Hutch's waist. Inch by torturous inch, he moved toward the edge of the trees. Hutch tried to help, but he was so weak from loss of blood that he could barely put one foot in front of the other.

"Come on, buddy. You can do it. Ain't much further," Starsky said breathlessly. He had been watching the path in front of them, trying to aim the flashlight with the hand around Hutch's waist, but now he glanced at his partner and was alarmed at how ghostly white his face was, even in the gloom. He froze. "Hutch? Hutch, you okay?"

Hutch nodded, but Starsky could see how he'd set his teeth and was trying hard not to cry out.

"Let's take a break, huh?" Starsky lowered him to the ground and used a corner of the sweatshirt to wipe the sweat off Hutch's forehead. "I shouldn't've tried movin' ya," he said, more to himself than to Hutch.

"We...we gotta...get out of...here, Starsk," Hutch said, his breath coming in short gasps. "Never find us in these...woods."

Starsky waited until Hutch's breathing was more normal, then he stood up again, and being even more careful this time, he stood Hutch up and started walking again. Little by little, his own guts twisting in sympathy ever time he felt Hutch wince or heard him choke back a groan, Starsky got him to the edge of the woods and gently laid him down on the grass next to the Maverick. He checked the bandage. Some of the blood had dried around the edges, but the middle was still wet...and Hutch was still bleeding.

Starsky sat down with his legs on either side of his partner and held Hutch against him. Both were shivering, but Starsky was afraid Hutch's shivering was due to shock rather than the cold, because there was still a fine sheen of sweat on his forehead and face.

"How ya doin', Hutch? You gonna hang in there with me, buddy?"

"S..sure," Hutch said.

It was full dark now. Starsky wrapped his arms more tightly around Hutch and strained his eyes to see anything, a house, a car, anything.

Hutch was fading in and out now, fighting to stay awake, but Starsky could tell he was losing the battle. Against his leg, he felt dampness and realized with a sinking heart that the bleeding was worse, probably due to the exertion of getting Hutch out here by the road. He'd never felt so helpless, so useless, in his life. And then Hutch gave a little moan and curled into Starsky's arms.

Oh, Hutch. I'm sorry. God, I'm sorry...it's my fault. It's all my fault...

Starsky squeezed his eyes shut and tried to stop the tears, but he couldn't do it. He bit his lip and managed not to make any noise to disturb Hutch, but Hutch knew somehow. He always knew...

"Starsky?" Hutch shifted, blinked, and looked up into Starsky's face. "Starsk, don't. They're going to find us..." He paused, swallowed and wet his lips. "Come on, buddy. Please."

Starsky nodded, took a deep breath, and composed himself. He had to be strong for Hutch. "I'm okay, Hutch. Just..."

"I know." Hutch patted his leg and blinked hard to stay conscious.

"You cold? Anything I can do?"

Hutch shook his head once, wearily. "No."

Starsky shifted his weight a little to let Hutch recline a little more, smoothed the blond hair, and rested his cheek against it. "We're gonna make it, buddy," he said softly. "I'm sorry, Hutch, I"

"Sssh," Hutch said. "Quit apologizing, will you? I know you..." He stopped.

"Hutch?" Starsky tipped Hutch's face up, terrified.

"Listen," Hutch said. "I hear a car."

Starsky didn't hear it, but he listened. Nothing. Only crickets and tree frogs

No. Wait. There was a faint sound of a motor, idling as if the car were parked or moving very slowly.

"Go see..." Hutch said, clutching at Starsky's leg. "Go on...I'll be all right..."

Starsky squirmed out from under him, laid him gently down, and ran. He had to go all the way to the paved road before he spotted them: A deputy sheriff's car.

"Hey! Over here! Over here!"

The car stopped and a spotlight shone in his eyes, blinding him.

Keeping his hands in sight, Starsky yelled, "Detective Starsky! Metro! I can show ya my badge!"

He heard the door of the car open and close and finally, the spotlight turned away. He still couldn't see; his eyes were dazzled, but he heard the footsteps of the deputy approaching him.

"Okay, sir, nice and easy. Let's see that badge."

Starsky pulled it out of his jeans and opened it. "My partner's hurt," he said rapidly. "Back there. Shot. We gotta get him to a hospital."

The deputy turned and called to his partner, "Call an ambulance! Officer down!" Turning back to Starsky he said, "We've been combing the county for you guys. What the hell happened?"

"Barry wrecked his car and ran and we were chasin' him and then he stole mine," Starsky said, still quickly. "Look, I gotta get back to Hutch. He's bleedin'."

"I'll come with you," the deputy said, following as Starsky ran down the dirt road. "How bad's he hurt?"

Starsky went to his knees beside Hutch, who tried to focus on him and on the deputy beyond. "Help's here, buddy. Ambulance comin'. You hang on, okay? You hang on."

"S..sure. It's gonna be...all..." Hutch's voice faded and he passed out.

"Hutch! Hutch!"

The deputy knelt beside him and felt the bandage, then opened one of Hutch's eyes and looked into it. "Easy, Detective," he said. "It's not as bad as it looks. He'll make it to the hospital."

"How d'you know?" Starsky asked, panicked.

"Used to be a paramedic," the deputy said with a smile. "Comes in handy sometimes. Don't worry."

Starsky picked up one of Hutch's limp hands and felt his pulse. It was strong enough to calm him a little.

It took a long time, or it seemed like a long time, but finally the ambulance showed up and two paramedics loaded Hutch onto a stretcher. Starsky clambered in beside him.

A couple of hours later, a doctor came to Starsky in the waiting room. "He's going to be fine," the doctor said. "The bullet went through, and it did some damage to the muscles which will take a while to heal and probably be painful for a while but we've started transfusions and the main thing now is for him to stay quiet and regain his strength."

"Thank God," Starsky said fervently.

"You can see him in a little while. He's still out right now." The doctor patted Starsky's shoulder and left the room.

And when Starsky did go in, Hutch was awake and a little woozy from pain pills, but not so woozy that he couldn't reach out a hand to his partner.

"Told you it'd be all right," Hutch said, his voice hoarse but strong.

"Ah, Hutch, I'm so "

"Don't start apologizing again," Hutch said with a faint grin. "They catch Barry?"

"Yeah." Starsky sat down and held onto Hutch's hand. "Sure did. He ditched my car just inside the city limits and was going to steal another one, but he got caught. Car alarm. I guess he just about shit his pants when it went off."

Hutch snickered, but winced. "Oops. Don't make me laugh. And then what?"

"He ran, but some of our guys happened to be eatin' at a McDonald's a block away and they got him. He's coolin' his heels in county right now with charges of a couple of grand theft auto, murder one and attempted murder of a police officer hanging over his head."

"Attempted murder of a police officer?"

"He shot at me. That's why I shot at him and..." Starsky couldn't finish. Instead, he touched Hutch's cheek.

"Oh." Hutch squeezed his hand. "Look, Starsk, once and for all, it wasn't your fault, you hear me? I know you didn't do it on purpose. It was an accident. That's all. Don't go tearing your guts out about it."

"I can't help it," Starsky began miserably, but Hutch stopped him.

"You gonna make me get out of this bed and kick your ass?"

Starsky laughed in spite of himself. "No way. That nurse out there would kick it again after you were done."

"Then let it go, buddy. I forgive you, all right?"

"All right."

The End

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