"Sergeant Hutchinson. Sergeant Hutchinson?"
Slowly, Hutch turned to regard the speaker.
"Your partner is doing fine, resting comfortably. All our tests show that with rest and medication he will recover completely."
The words barely penetrated the dull exhaustion of Hutch's mind. All he heard was that Starsky would be all right.
"Can I see him?"
The doctor pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose. "We've taken him back upstairs. He'll probably sleep for at least eight hours. You should go home yourself now."
"Come on, Hutch. Time to get home." A tugging at his arm caused Hutch to look to his right. He had almost forgotten Captain Dobey's presence.
The senior officer urged him to his feet. Raking a hand over his face, Hutch forced his mind to function. Starsky's all right, Starsky's all right.... "I'm okay," he found himself saying as he realized two pairs of concerned eyes were watching him. "Thanks for staying, Captain."
"You want me to drive you home, Hutchinson?"
"No. I've got the Torino. Starsky wouldn't want it left in the parking lot here."
Dobey grinned, his eyes looking relieved that Starsky would be around to worry about his car tomorrow. "Okay. If you're sure you're all right to drive."
The detective drew a deep breath, reaching to rub at the back of his neck. "Yeah, I'm fine. I've driven when I'm more tired than this."
Dobey gave him a look filled with fatherly dubiousness. "Just take it slow."
"Right, Captain." Hutch turned to leave, then glanced back. "Thanks, Doc." There were no other words.
"You did the leg work, Detective."
"Yeah...." Hutch let the syllable hang. Before the overwhelming emotions of the last twenty-four hours could catch up with him, he turned to leave the hospital.
His legs felt heavy as he stood scanning the lot for Starsky's car. At five-thirty a.m., the place was already crowded. It was strange that he couldn't recall where he had parked. Hutch finally spotted the wide, white stripe a couple of aisles down, realizing that he had been thinking of only one thing as he pulled back into the hospital lot at three-thirty: get the hypo upstairs so the poison can be analyzed. Even though he had finally put it all together, figured out that Bellamy had been working with Cheryl's father, had at last persuaded the professor to give up the hypo that held the key to Starsky's salvation and had raced back to the hospital with half an hour left on the twenty-four hour timetable, he had still been in fear for Starsky's life. There had been so little time remaining; Starsky could already have succumbed to the deadly effects of the poison. Or, the insidious drug might have done so much damage to his nervous system that even getting the antidote into him might not be enough to reverse the process.
As Hutch had stood watching in the treatment room, listening to the hushed orders and comments of the doctors and nurses, watching the injection of yet another substance into his partner's vein, he had been afraid to think, afraid to hang on to his remaining shreds of hope. When the doctor had told him Starsky was going to make it, Hutch had gone weak with relief. He hadn't questioned, didn't want details. All he could do was thank God.
It had required more waiting on his part for the medical profession to determine that Starsky would not only survive, he would recover. The hours had blurred into one long period of waiting, marked by flashes of fear, moments of love.
Hutch unlocked the Torino and slid into the driver's seat. It seemed odd, driving Starsky's car without Starsky being there. Usually, on the few occasions Hutch took the wheel, his partner had been curled up on the passenger side, his feet on the dash, making cracks about his driving.
If only you could have seen me tearing up the streets between the university and here, babe. Hutch couldn't help smiling at the thought of Starsky praising his fishtailing flight down the deserted L.A. streets. Hutch knew he had learned those moves from Starsky. He had learned so much from the man....
Before starting the engine, Hutch rubbed at his burning eyes. He had been awake now for nearly twenty-six hours. Now was the time to rest, not to think. He started the car. The great rumble of the Torino coming to life felt good.
It seemed like no time before he was parking the car, switching off the key. He glanced up at the building through the windshield, then laughed at himself. He had automatically driven back to Starsky's place, not his own cottage. He reached to start the car again, then decided he had gone as far as he could go. He might as well stay right here. If he couldn't even remember driving this far, he was in no shape to turn around and head for Venice.
Hutch unlocked the door and stood for a moment gazing around the apartment. It was quiet here, comforting, though the decor was as colorful and as hectic looking as Starsky himself. Hutch sighed, so tired. He took off his jacket and gun.
He strode to the bedroom and sat on the rumpled patchwork coverlet to pull off his shoes and yank his turtleneck over his head. Every motion seemed to require more energy than he had left. He unhooked his belt and lifted his rear to pull his cords down. As they dropped to the floor, he lay back, feeling the cool sheets caress his naked skin.
Hutch pulled a pillow close. The scent of Starsky lingered on it. Starsky's presence seemed so close to him, here in the cluttered bedroom. Hutch had been in this room twice in the last twenty-four hours. The first time, he had rushed in to find Starsky unconscious on the floor. That had been the beginning of the nightmare. The second time had been maybe twelve hours ago, in the middle of the horrible day. He had brought Starsky back here to rest after Cheryl had given him an injection at the station. It had only helped his pain a little. Cheryl had recommended that Starsky get some sleep if possible.
Hutch had seen the look in his partner's eyes when she had said that. Starsky was afraid to sleep, afraid to let any of the time left to him slip away. He wanted to spend his hours on the streets, searching for the too-elusive answers. He wanted to spend his last precious moments living.
Hutch hadn't wanted to waste any time, either, but his own nerves were strained to the breaking point. He had managed to convince Starsky that resting a little would be beneficial. They needed time to let the medicine take effect, to gather their thoughts and figure something out. Starsky, looking exhausted, had turned trusting eyes to Hutch and acquiesced.
And for the second time in the twenty-four hour period, then, Hutch had entered this bedroom. Starsky was walking under his own power, the shot having brought the pain down to a temporarily tolerable level, but Hutch had stayed close, keeping a hand on his partner's arm. He maintained the touch as much to reassure himself of Starsky's presence as to steady the staggering man.
He had helped Starsky out of his jacket and sneakers, unhooked and put away the ever-present holster. Simple things, little things, that's all I can do for him now, Hutch had thought as he eased off the tan shirt and tattered jeans Starsky was wearing. Starsky had roused a little to remove the blue t-shirt by himself. Hutch had watched him as he lay back against the sheets, struck by the physical beauty of his partner. Who would guess that under the scruffy, ill-fitting clothes was a body so trim, so strong, so alive?
But maybe he won't be alive, half a day from now. For the thousandth time, Hutch had checked his watch. Over thirteen hours gone already. The bottle's half empty.... Feeling very much the pessimist, Hutch had sensed his spirits beginning to plummet.
He couldn't let them, though. He had to hang on, be there for Starsky. He had to be everything for him. Who do we trust time. For the remaining hours, he had to be partner, doctor, best friend, confidant, spirit booster and, if possible, miracle worker.
Starsky had curled into a ball of misery in the middle of the bed. More than anything else, Hutch had to be the one who never let go. That was the easy part.
He had dropped his own jacket and hardware, kicked off his shoes and lay down in the double bed beside Starsky. Reaching out, he had drawn the pain-tensed body into his arms. Starsky had snuggled close, his hands moving to hold on to Hutch, clinging.
Alone, Hutch clung to Starsky's pillow now. What had happened between him and Starsky here in this room would never happen again, but he wasn't sorry. It had seemed so natural, so perfect. The memory of it, he had thought at the time, might be all of Starsky left to him. Now he planned on saving it to cherish as he would his living partner every day for the rest of their lives. Hutch let the memory spin out, finding his comfort in the unfolding images.
Starsky lay trembling in his embrace as Hutch stroked his back, trying to get him to relax. "What, Starsk?"
The man in his arms gave a sigh. "I keep trying to tell myself we'll find the answer in time. I don't want to think about not making it But, Hutch, it hurts so bad I can't help getting scared. I don't want to die like this."
Hutch held him closer, murmuring indistinct words of comfort. Yet Starsky would not be soothed.
"Don't you see, Hutch. If some guy had come in here and shot me, it wouldn't even be as bad. If I'd bought it on the street or in some accident or had a disease, I think I could accept it. But this slow torture... I'm goin' outta my mind. This may be my last day on earth and all I can think about is dyin'. I want to live, Hutch, but even if I found out I couldn't, I'd rather go out fighting."
"You are fighting." Hutch's heart constricted, feeling Starsky's pain, his own a resonance as deep. "We're doing everything we can."
"And somebody's laughing at us." Starsky swallowed, took a breath. "Now, what I mean by fighting, I guess, is living every minute I've got left. Not letting the fear take over. Not denying the worst can happen, but not knuckling under to it, either."
Hutch sensed the agitation growing in Starsky's body, the fear-and-drug-induced perspiration breaking out on his skin, the tension causing renewed cramping of his muscles. His hands rubbed his friend's shoulders in a soothing pattern. "I won't let you, Starsk. I won't let it go down that way."
Eyes of deepest sapphire blue looked up at him searchingly. "You mean that? Cause I need you, Hutch."
"Of course I mean it. Whatever I can do, I will. Whatever I can give, it's yours."
Starsky managed a sweet, sad smile. "I know how rough this is on you, too. I'm sorry."
"Don't apologize. We're... hanging on to each other, I guess."
"No regrets, huh? I want to go out that way, Hutch. Not wishing I had said something or done something I always wanted to do."
"No regrets." Hutch made it a promise, the words sighing into Starsky's ear.
They stayed close and quiet for long moments. Finally, Hutch asked a soft question. "What do you wish, Starsk? What can I do for you?"
Starsky did not answer right away, but his arms pulled tighter. At last, in a wistful voice, he murmured, "There's nobody close, 'cept you, Hutch. The others, Ma and Aunt Rosie, you can call 'em... tomorrow, if you have to."
"I won't have to." Hutch's answer was swift and short. Starsky gave a slight shrug. "You didn't say what you'd wish for," Hutch reminded him.
Starsky leaned his head back to meet Hutch's eyes. "I just... wish I could feel something other than the pain for awhile."
Their eyes held, rapport building. Never more than now, it seemed, they had the ability to communicate without words. Hutch felt his spirit swept by an overwhelming sense of loneliness. He could not face thoughts of tomorrow alone. He wanted only to hang on to the living essence that he held so close. There had to be something, some way to take away both the loneliness and the pain.... Starsky's eyes drew him, beseeching. His mouth, so vulnerable, attracted him.
Hutch bent his head and Starsky raised his. The first contact of their lips was a tentative brushing born of the need to express feelings for which there were no words. Suddenly, never-clarified fantasies took shape in Hutch's mind. To hold Starsky in more than friendship, to share love... just once. The thought was staggering. Yet Hutch realized that he wanted it. If there was to be no tomorrow, he wanted it now.
Starsky's firm, moist lips moving against his told him his partner felt the same. Hadn't they always taken chances, dared convention? A wave of happiness took away the fear, the loneliness. As Starsky's arms stole around Hutch's neck, his last conscious idea was the realization that the feelings taking over were temporary; they would only keep the pain submerged for a little while. Yet for both of them, any respite was welcome.
Hutch explored his partner's mouth, his lips parting, Starsky's opening in response. They broke away slightly, returned, tasted again. Hutch's kiss captured Starsky's bottom lip. A sigh from that open mouth came to his ears as he moved to claim the upper lip next. Starsky's mouth was warm, fascinating tasting in some indefinable way of masculinity.
The pressure of their lips together increased, the feelings they were experiencing intensified. Hutch's hands cradled Starsky's head, his fingers sinking into deep curls. The arms around him tightened, hands clenching at his shoulders.
Their lips separated by scant millimeters, Hutch reached with his tongue, outlining the shape of Starsky's mouth. The bottom lip trembled under the delicate touch. Crossing the upper, Hutch's tongue met Starsky's. They collided in a wet exploration, sliding back and forth against each other. Feeling desperate, sensing equal hunger in his partner, Hutch ground their mouths together. Starsky was open, seeking, anything but passive. They met in a masculine duel of matched strength, reciprocal need, the man-to-man contact unlike anything Hutch had ever known.
And yet, somehow, he had always known. It was as if a deep part of him, never introduced to his conscious mind, had realized and understood... and wanted... this kind of experience. Whether it had been buried in him forever or conjured only by his feelings for Starsky, Hutch did not know. Something had made him able to reach out to his friend this way, though -- and something in Starsky had responded.
The kisses were deepening. Their tongues swirled around and over each other, each one eager to chart the newly discovered territory of the other's mouth. When Hutch's tongue invaded Starsky's warmth, it was greeted with forceful sucking that pulled him deep, sweeping his mind with sensation that echoed throughout his body.
The broke apart for air, Hutch gasping as much from the onslaught of emotion as the need to breathe. With some amazement, he saw that Starsky's mouth looked red and swollen. It was wet, still open for him. "Don't stop," it whispered. He answered by returning to it, tasting its sweetness, feasting on the offered tongue that he drew into himself to savor.
The moments lengthened, the kisses lingered. Hutch had not spent so much time making love with just his mouth in ages. That was what he was doing, though, making love... to Starsky.
His partner's hands were moving restlessly down his back, slipping under his black sweater, seeking. Starsky's body trembled, Hutch sensed how he ached, what he craved. The room's temperature seemed suddenly to have increased. Hutch's hand encountered perspiration all along Starsky's side and his own chest, covered with the fabric of his turtleneck, felt damp with Starsky's sweat. He pulled away a moment, rising up to his knees, and Starsky's hands assisted his in tugging off his sweater. There was a slight moment of hesitation, then. Hutch's eyes dropped to Starsky's blue briefs, seeing that he was hard inside them. His eyes locking with those of his partner, his fingers moved to his own belt. As he skimmed out of his trousers, Starsky wriggled to remove his underwear.
Starsky looked beautiful, all masculine perfection, hard readiness, aching need. Hutch tried to memorize him with one swift, sweeping look. He wanted to go slow, take forever learning every plane, every texture, but he knew time's demands. They were too eager and there were too few moments left to them.
Hutch rejected the anguish of remembering the nightmare of this day. He shifted position to kneel over Starsky, let the caress of warmth all along his body rekindle the flames his fear had stolen from him. As he settled over Starsky's hardness, he felt how right they were together, how honest was the matching of their flesh, the touching of their bodies.
He leaned close, his lips finding a burnished shoulder, traveling up to plant kisses on the dewed throat and stubbled jaw. He brushed his lips along Starsky's damp forehead, touched lightly between his eyes and nuzzled the tangled brows. The lids closed over those deep blue eyes and he caressed them, his kiss tender and loving.
His lips returned to the familiarity of Starsky's mouth. His tongue was welcomed, devoured. Hands that had grasped his shoulders moved to his head, holding him close for a moment, then, restless, greedy, shifted again to clasp his back, reaching lower and lower until they found his hips.
The sensations bombarded Hutch from all sides, under him, over him, through him. Bellies and thighs pressed, hard erections brushed each other, hands clamped on straining muscles. They began to move in rhythm, the pace increasing with their yearning. With each collision of satiny, warm flesh, Hutch was thrown to a higher plane of reality, feeling more and more alive, made stronger and stronger by this expression of love.
It was going to happen very fast. Starsky's mouth broke from his, gasping for breath. Hutch pressed his cheek against the damp neck. Deep in his chest, he felt Starsky's labored heartbeats. What they sought was coming nearer, nearer. His hips flexed, Starsky's lifted. They held together, frozen motionless for the space of a breath, all feeling centered. Under him, Starsky's whole body trembled, surged impossibly closer. Hutch held him tight as he could, heard his sharp cry.
Precious warmth from Starsky surrounded him, his eyes sank closed. His hips bucked against Starsky's waning strength. He ached to hold the moment, capture their future, make them eternal. A man tried to live forever, spent his seed to affirm his existence. Yet life was transient. Only love could last...
The world turned inside out and Hutch went with it. Reality blazed with the light of a million stars and he held the brightest of them in his arms. He was space and time and knowledge; together they were the endless spinning universe.
One word escaped his awestruck lips. Breathless, he whispered it over and over, an incantation, a benediction.
"David. David, David, David...."
He came to earth at last still held in a tangle of arms and legs. He raised his head, opening his eyes. His languor dissipated at the sight of his partner's face, lax from exhaustion. Hutch's fingers swept over Starsky's throat, found reassurance in the steady pulse. Starsky's eyes were closed, his black lashes wet with many tears. Precious, precious. Then Starsky trembled as if chilled and Hutch saw his stomach muscles spasm as another cramp took hold. He needed taking care of, needing to be warm, kept safe... Hutch took a deep breath, reassembled his strength, headed for the bathroom.
He returned with a towel and a damp cloth. Starsky hardly stirred as Hutch washed him. Hutch dried Starsky's sweat-drenched back and chest, trying to tell himself that the moisture had been caused by the strenuousness of their activity. Yet he knew it was the same uncontrolled perspiration Starsky had been exhibiting all afternoon, the symptom described by Cheryl Jennings. Hutch sat for a moment, the fear returning. He clamped down hard on it, refusing to think of the possibility of failure. He had to be the one who never let go, he reminded himself. He would get Starsky through this day one moment at a time. He would spare not a second to worry about himself, examine his own feelings. Not today. Whatever happened, he would be left with tomorrow.
Hutch returned to the bathroom, rinsing the wash cloth. His belly was still damp, still held traces of Starsky. Precious, like his tears. Hutch's hand rubbed them into his skin.
He came back to the bedside, found his clothes, pulled them on. Silence hung around him like a veil. A sense of distance from the world and time enveloped him. He eased himself down on the bed, leaning his back against the tall, padded headboard. His eyes watched Starsky's sleeping face. His fingers brushed damp curls back from the unlined forehead.
He checked his watch. Quarter after six. Fifteen minutes later, the phone rang.
The sense of peace and silence had been shattered. Hutch hung up, turned to meet Starsky's eyes. "That was Dobey. They've got a few more places we can check out." He swung his legs off the bed. A hand on his arm stopped him.
The blue eyes were intense, their beauty tugging at his heart. "Hutch," the whisper was shy, intimate. "The hurt did stop for awhile."
Hutch squeezed his eyes shut. He didn't think he could handle talking about it. The control he exerted over his fear must extend to all his feelings. He felt slim fingers caress his cheek and had to open his eyes.
"You called me 'David.'" Never more than at this moment did Starsky's innocent candor have the power to break his heart. Hutch looked away, his face burning.
He heard the smile in Starsky's voice. "Aw, quit yer blushin'. What'd you say to Dobey? 'The things some people won't do to get on a first name basis....'"
Hutch chuckled in spite of himself. The teasing returned them to a state of normalcy. Starsky understood him, he understood Starsky. All they had ever needed to say was 'me and thee'. Those words had been commitment and pledge; they were the force that melded their future and past into one certain present.
They had gone together, back on the streets. Anyone watching them work might never have noticed that anything was wrong, unless they sensed an underlying desperation. They clung to their banter, steadfastly refusing to discuss the situation in anything other than clinical terms. They drove their streets, questioned their informants, went through the paces of doing police work and found nothing. There had been rough days on the job before, disillusionments, dead ends, but never worse than those they faced now. Starsky managed to keep going, his spirit amazing even Hutch, but by nine o'clock both the medication and leads had all run out.
Back at the police lab, waiting for Cheryl to prepare a shot, Hutch had nearly broken, his fear of the ticking clock venting itself in a burst of temper. He had just managed to pull himself together when Dobey gave them the news that their third prime had been dead for days.
Too late to start over; time was spinning out, the world lurching out from under them. Despondent, they had found themselves back at their desks. Hutch watched as Starsky made a half-hearted move to sort through his belongings. Then, the reaching hand, the sad, silly comment about cowboy boots. You've already given me everything, Hutch had thought, unable to speak. He had clung to Starsky's fingers, wishing there was a way to never have to let go.
Hutch tossed and turned on Starsky's bed, the remembered anguish making him restless. The hours had begun to slip away so fast. Vic Bellamy lay dead and all Hutch could do was take an empty gun from his partner's hand, hold him while the certainty of his empty tomorrow reverberated on a windy rooftop.
All that had been left then was saying good-bye. They couldn't even find words; Hutch was too scared, Starsky too weak. Yet his brief smile had said everything. They had not spoken about what had happened between them back at the apartment. Starsky's mouth now curved just enough to let Hutch know it had been right. They had reached out to each other to hang on to life as best they could in the face of death. No regrets, nothing left undone.... Starsky had received his wish. His pain had been taken away for a little while. The memory, Hutch decided, would help to ease his own torment in the days ahead.
They had been introduced to their own mortality many times as cops, but now even in the face of almost absolute failure, Hutch had not been able to quit. Starsky's life was too precious. Somehow, he had found the answers, fitted all the pieces together in time. He had fought and yelled, raged and begged. And he had won -- for Starsky.
The doctor had said that Starsky would have to be hospitalized for a couple of days. Hutch wanted to go over there and see him when visiting hours started. He cracked one eye to peer at the clock. It was only six thirty a.m. -- two in the afternoon seemed so long from now. He burrowed deeper into Starsky's pillow, drew the covers up around his shoulders, seeking sleep. He was so exhausted, it should have been easy to drift off.
Twelve hours ago, he had lain at Starsky's side, right here. They had shared moments of love amid the flashes of fear. Hutch had told himself it was something that would never happen again, even when he had come back here knowing Starsky would live. Now, for the first time, he wondered if that was really the way it would be. Starsky was still on this earth, who could say how their lives would change?
He yawned, cuddling into a comfortably sprawled position, comforted by the lingering presence of Starsky he sensed in the room, in the bed. Now was not the time to think, he told himself again.
Now was the time for sleep.