Agony was a constant: background noise of the universe, sometime almost not there, other times the whole reality. Between the awful heat outside and the worse cold inside and the sharp stabbing in his ribs and lulls of duller throbbings elsewhere, were only black waves of nonexistence, stealing his breath, smothering his mind. He fought the black-outs, fearing those preview of advancing death, but they always won. And then he would slowly come back to the world of flaring sun and white-blue sky and grey-streaked clouds and sand and Starsky. One more reprieve. A few more careful breaths. Another draught of suffering vaguely sweetened by· having someone there to care. At least there was that.

Sometimes he was even lucid. Sometimes he could follow the maddening one-sided conversation that his partner had kept up for what seemed like weeks, but could only be hours. Sometimes he could even contribute something -- at least a wisecrack or a little laugh -- though it cost him. It took mostly all his strength and breath to keep on top of the stabbing in his chest and the encroaching blackness. But Starsky didn't seem to mind. He would heap another handful of sand onto Hutch's body somewhere, screening out the sun, and talk on and on.

" -- guess she's a good halfway to the nearest swimming pool by now, huh? I'll tell ya, I've had my fill of sand and beaches. I don't care if I never see one again. Wait'll Huggy sees this sunburn. By the time we get outta here, we'll be scorched enough to join the Black Panthers. Hey -- maybe now Huggy'll introduce us to some of his ladies. Maybe we'll even rate bein' called ''brother,' huh? Don't know about eatin' things like greens and chitlins, though. I don't think they'd taste much like pizza -- "

" -- shut up -- "

Starsky sat up, trailing cascades of sand, and leaned into Hutch's point of view.

"You say something, partner?"

Hutch caught another shallow breath. This was ridiculous. Ludicrous. Wonderful.

" -- shut up -- " he repeated, not meaning it.

"Okay," Starsky said cheerfully. "Hey, want another sip of water?"

Water. Oh God, yes, water.

"Yeah," he managed.

Patting the sand behind him, Starsky found the canteen. By its sloshing, it was still half-full.

"Here we go," Starsky said, and slipped a hand under Hutch's head, lifting slightly. The motion sent a piercing pain through Hutch's chest, but it was gone almost immediately. Starsky tilted the canteen and offered the spout. "Just a little, now."

Hutch gulped the water -- delicious, hot, sweet water -- and Starsky tipped the canteen back, shutting off the flow.

" -- more -- "

"Sorry, Hutch. Not just now."

Letting Hutch down very gradually, Starsky closed the canteen and set it aside, then dug Hutch's arm up out of the sand and put his fingers around the wrist, sitting quietly. Hutch squinted up at him in the brilliance. The sun went behind a cloud and things came into better detail.

The joking cheerfulness was a facade. Starsky looked unmistakably ill. He'd tied a new strip of cloth over his eyes, but the rest of his face was ghastly. His sunburned cheeks were striped with dried rivulets of blood.

Thunder rumbled in the distance. Lucid for the moment, Hutch realized that the storm they'd worried about that morning was fast approaching. There was a stiff wind, but it wasn't cooling anything, being more like a moving blast furnace than anything else. At least the sun wasn't beating on them like it had. The clouds overhead were nearly solid, horizon to horizon.

Starsky released his wrist, but made no comment. Thunder rolled across the valley again. Starsky's head went up, as though he could actually see the sky.

"Christ," he said. "I can't remember whether I closed the living room windows in my apartment. If it rains in, my stereo will be fritzed. A six hundred dollar stereo, and my window coulda been open for a week by now! Hell, I'll be lucky if the damn thing's still there at all, or anything else in the place, by the time we get back..."

" -- tough -- "

"What kind of talk is that! I built that whole stereo with my bare hands."

" -- and my soldering iron --" he tried to put a little voice in it " -- which you -- still have -- "

"Bitch, bitch, bitch. You know where it is anytime you want -- "

But blades drove into Hutch again, garbling Starsky's voice, washing the sky out in scarlet explosions. Somewhere, far away. gentleness was wrapped around his hand, soothing, frightened.

"Hutch, hey Hutch," the voice was pleading. "What is it, huh? You okay?"

No, not okay. Maybe never okay again.

The cramps eased slightly, so that he could at least think. Some kind of spasms in his abdomen. Knew he'd been hit, but it was his ribs that had caught fire, not his gut. Must have gone deeper. Maybe he was torn inside somewhere. Didn't know. It was hard to reason. The stab hit again, then, deeper, washing through him in a hot-cold wave, and he arched against it helplessly. The movement doubled the agony.

"Lie still, partner, be still," Starsky was telling him. "You'll hurt yourself worse."

Can't help it. Can't.

Arms enfolded him, then, taking care not to jar him and add to the pain. Warmth pressed close, a comfort against the onslaught, but the universe trembled, and he and Starsky with it.

Please make it stop. Please... make it stop...

"Try to relax, now, you'll be okay, you're okay now, I'm here, go it easy, partner, take it easy. I'm right here with you, you'll be okay," came again and again, as though from an echo chamber, and the attack did ease, and Starsky was holding onto him, mechanically stroking his head over and over while reciting his litany against despair. "You'll be okay. You'll be okay..."

Gradually, the pain receded. If he stayed very still, if he took only tiny, hurried breaths, it was bearable. The dry air was parching his nose and mouth.

" -- water -- " he asked.

"You can't."

" -- please -- "

"You can't, Hutch. No more water. I'm really sorry."

There was plenty of water left. But Hutch realized all at once why he could have no more. The pain attack. It could have been from spasming muscles, or from leaking water somewhere inside of him. He had no idea which. The implications terrified him.

" -- Starsk -- "

"Shhhh. Shhhh." Starsky still clung to him, his lungs heaving in time to Hutch's.

Deja vu. Huggy's room, doubled up in the bedspread, hurting inside then, not so different from now, with Starsky's strong arms around him, the only touch-point with what was real and free of drugged horror. He'd come through that, he'd made it then. They would make it now. They had to. Had to hold on. Only this time, the arms around him were shaking, too, and it wasn't just a matter of gritting teeth and sweating it through.

Hutch truly had no strength to spare, but he spent what he had and slid his free arm around his friend, enduring the torture the movement cost him.

" -- you okay? -- " he murmured.

"Yeah, sure. I'm right here," Starsky said. "Shush, now."

A spatter of wetness pelted Hutch's ear. Rain? He turned his head slowly to the sky. Gloom spread over them, looming. The thunder had become a low, almost continuous growl. Another huge drop splashed his chin.

"Guess you're gonna get your water," Starsky sighed. He reached across Hutch and pulled another handful of sand over them. "Not the way you had in mind, though."

Then the clouds let go, and the warm droplets came down in earnest.

You must login () to review.