"Whoa! Your arm's not even hurt. How much you have to bribe the nurses for the fake sling?" Starsky gaped at his partner's freely moving arm--wildly swinging, in fact, and damn, if he got any closer, he might suffer an accidental uppercut to the chin--unable to believe his own eyes for the umpteenth time since the nurses had wheeled in some Twilight Zone version of Hutch.
Hutch stilled, but his icy glare just as effectively froze Starsky in place. "You're so interested in this sling, come a little closer, and your ass will be in it."
Starsky did the opposite, backing away toward his bed and then around to the other side, letting the three feet of hospital mattress serve as a buffer. "Last thing you want is me coming closer, Hutchinson. If you didn't have a brace on, I'd wring your neck for what you put me through."
"Put you through? What I put you through? That's a knee-slapper, friend. We wouldn't be here at all if some lunatic hadn't tried to rewrite the laws of vehicular physics."
Starsky had to get out. No one with more compassion than a piranha could blame him. Hunched over on the bedside closest to the tempting door, he kept his chin firmly tucked into the hollow of his throat, his gaze downward. He stared until the thin blue pinstripes in his robe started a psychedelic wiggle. Better that than a glimpse of his roommate. The unnecessary arm sling Starsky could ignore, but if he caught a glimpse of Hutch's head bandaging, he just might topple off his moral high ground and bruise something besides his ego.
He needed out. Maybe he had some kind of claustrophobia where sharing a room with a fakery artist made him feel trapped inside submarine torpedo tube. Well, liberation was just a call button push away. Hah! Some kind of liberation: a different set of walls, the same crummy hospital furniture, possibly a new roommate who might thrash around and moan and groan or smell like week-old vegetable soup…and no silent, stubbornly unapologetic Hutch.
So what? Hutch wouldn't forget him again if the nurse put them in separate rooms. Starsky wasn't such a dope that he thought Hutch's memory depended on three-foot proximity. That wasn't what kept his thumb off the call button. He heard a hitched breath, a choked off sound he recognized too easily as Hutch trying to hide discomfort, if not outright pain. That was.
Damn it. He pushed off the bed and stomped over to shout all of his rage and hurt right into Hutch's bruised, scraped face. "What I was trying to do was my job-- our job whether you like it or not, and hey, now I got an idea which one it is -- and our job is to nab suspects. They run, we chase. Simple as that."
"Maybe you never read our job description all these years, but guess what, Starsky, I did, and that job description didn't say we should endanger our partners and as many innocent civilians as humanly possible in the course of performing our duties."
"Yeah?" Starsky grasped at thin air like he could just squeeze the tension in the room until it gave a satisfying pop. "I guess when the going gets rough we should let wanted felons go their merry way. That it? Let them go pull a job somewhere else they might shoot some of those innocent civilians you think I'm endangering? We're street cops, Hutch, not security guards in civvie drag."
"They were 2-11 suspects, Starsky, not the trigger men in a municipal assassination. And did we catch them? No. You had to live up to your front-page billing in the manual on moving violations, and now we're stuck here on what should have been our days off."
Starsky stuck out his chin, tempted to sniff the air and confirm the whiff of bullshit he’d caught. "Is that what you're really sore about? You were in a crummy mood when you got in the car yesterday. Your weekend plans didn't--"
"Plans?" Hutch broke eye contact. There it was: bullshit confirmed! "What plans? I didn't have a chance to make plans. All I wanted was a weekend off somewhere to appreciate springtime. You were the one acting like someone had pissed in your morning coffee, so hung up on that hunk-of-junk car you couldn't give me the time of day."
"You want springtime? Huh? You like how it smells so much? Well, go plant your nose in those flowers Dobey brought, that's all the springtime you're getting from me, pally."
"No-o, thank you. I don't plan on going near anything red and white for the next decade."
"Good! I don't want a weasel messin' up the upholstery."
"That's funny. For someone who wanted to stay home this weekend and work out your precious car's kinks, you didn't give a damn about the upholstery, or the body work for that matter--mine or the Torino's--when you were weaving through traffic at ninety miles an hour!"
Starsky knew only two people who could stretch throat-clearing into a four-syllable reprimand, and unless Dobey had sucked down half a tank of helium, he wasn't responsible for this one. Hutch slouched back against his pillows, looking resigned to some fate worse than a mandatory sponge bath. Starsky knew not to anticipate a friendly face when he turned around. No angel of mercy like the day nurses, this woman in white had a bedside manner that made the department's SWAT commander seem a social worker in comparison.
"I don't know how your captain runs his precinct station," the night nurse said with a snarl that made Starsky homesick for that precinct station, "but on my unit, I don't allow shouting matches in the middle of the night. This is a hospital, not a hangout for hooligans."
Hooligan? He hadn't heard that in reference to himself since he was thirteen and Principal Morris caught him smearing carburetor grease in Miss "Pop Quiz" Weester's chair before Algebra class. Well, no law said he had to stay in this room now letting some nurse play principal with him.
"Just where do you think you're going?" the nurse demanded when he edged past her.
"I need some fresh air."
"Do you know what time it is, Mr. Starsky?"
"What's it matter? I thought time stood still in these places. Anyway, I'm kinda dissatisfied with the accommodations right now. I need some space or I'll snap something in here--" he tapped his temple-- "that you can't slap a bandage on."
"Mr. Starsky, you're a patient, not a tourist. You should be in bed resting."
"Why? Look, I'm just under observation. What's it gonna hurt for me to go down to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee maybe?" She eyed his thin robe and pajamas. He used the last of his patience to muster a cocky smile. "Lady, when I'm this stir crazy, I got no shame. Right now I'd be happy to go down there in just my birthday suit and plastic bracelet."
"It wouldn't do you any good. The cafeteria is closed, and--" She let out an exclamation and rushed over to the other bed. "Mr. Hutchinson, why is your arm out of the sling?"
Jaw clenched, Starsky stayed put at the foot of the bed and plucked tissues out of the Kleenex box on his bed table, wadding them into balls that he tossed against the wall behind his pillow. He watched them bounce down on his pillow, to the floor, or land on top of the water pitcher on the nightstand, all to avoid looking over at the fink he'd known for a decade as his best friend in the world. He wouldn't look. He didn't care how alarmed Snarly Nurse sounded.
Hutch lay awkwardly propped against pillows. The mulish set to his lips dared the nurse to come any closer. Oh, man. Starsky knew that look. With Hutch in that frame of mind, nurses were well advised to save their pillow fluffing for somebody else…in a different county.
He told himself to let Snarly Nurse harass the lousy phony all she wanted, but his stronger, stick-up-for-his-partner instinct overruled him. "What's the big deal? He doesn't really need it."
The nurse ignored him, adjusting Hutch's sling and repositioning his arm in its cloth cradle. Starsky had seen freaked-out rookie bombs quad guys handle live explosives with less caution. He couldn't hold in a scoffing snort.
Snarly Nurse wheeled on him. "Mr. Starsky, I'll be sure to change your personal information in the chart. You should have let us know you're an orthopedist, not a police officer."
He narrowed his eyes at her. "Yeah, very funny. You know, it doesn't take a bone doctor to see his arm's not broken if he can move it around like he did a few minutes ago."
Hutch had trained his eyes on the bed table's floral arrangement, his lips pursed tighter than ever.
"That's where you're mistaken," the nurse said. She turned on her other patient. "Mr. Hutchinson, I'm familiar with tough guys. If you think you can fool your body by pretending you don't need that sling, you're likely to pay for it with a cast. You have a hairline radial fracture. The doctor's orders are for the arm to stay supported until the soft tissue swelling goes down and you have new x-rays to determine whether casting is necessary. Do you understand?"
Hutch nodded without a glance at his lecturer or Starsky.
"And that goes double for your neck," she continued. "When I came in here just now you were about to launch yourself out of that bed. Do I need to explain what 'still' and 'calm' mean?"
"Neck?" Starsky blared, forgetting the nurse's ix-nay on shouting. "What about his neck?" He felt shrunken to the size of a cereal box toy. Hutch's arm--his gun arm--was broken after all, and even worse, even scarier, did he have something going on with his neck that went beyond a bad strain? Starsky watched, angrier than ever, while the nurse finished primping the sling with a noise of appreciation for her handiwork.
"Mr. Starsky, I see no reason you can't walk quietly in the halls for a few minutes before you try to sleep."
"Huh?" He blinked out of his stare at Hutch's neck brace. "Why would I wanna do that?"
She gave him a wide-eyed stare. "You just said you needed some fresh air."
"Oh. Yeah. Uh, thanks."
With a stern suggestion that they turn out the bed lights and try to get some rest, Snarly Nurse left the room, employing her usual stealth. Starsky heard only a snick, creak, and soft click of door closing again. Hutch had lost interest in the flowers, his gaze now downturned on the blanket spread across his lap. Starsky had to look away or risk cracking his teeth in two. Needing something blank to focus on, he padded over to their bathroom and stared at the door, letting his eyes glaze over, his jaw loosen, until he could force out speech.
"What's the real deal about your neck?" The question came out in the same whispery, higher-pitched fury he'd used on Hutch moments ago.
"It's nothing. That nurse has a thing for dramatization, that's all."
Hutch's anger had changed from rude and sniping to avenging. Starsky could hear the difference in tone and knew instinctively that this new anger had everything to do with their night nurse. Too angry to be grateful for the return to familiarity, Starsky spun around. "Damn it, Hutch, I'm fed to here," he drew his hand under his hairline, "with lies!"
Hutch reared forward, sitting upright. Pain showed in his grimace and tightly shut eyes; he splayed his hand against the small of his back. "Okay! The doc saw what might be a tiny fracture on my first x-rays. It wasn't unstable, or in a dangerous place, apparently, and it didn't show up on this morning's x-rays. I'm supposed to have more films done tomorrow. I have to wear this damn brace anyway for the neck strain. It's just added protection in case there's a little something else going on."
"A little something else? You hear yourself? And I just got through makin' that lousy crack about wringing your neck. Hell, I already did that, huh?"
He had a fuzzy memory, oddly distant, of Hutch half-spread across the Torino's dashboard. He wasn't completely sure the memory hadn't materialized from his imagination, aided by a collection of mental snapshots from numerous accidents he'd responded to as a cop, and he wanted more than anything to believe that memory had no basis in reality. No dice. What the doctor said about Hutch getting a blow to the head dovetailed too neatly for coincidence…and now this bombshell about Hutch's neck! The words fracture and neck should never share the same sentence with the name Ken Hutchinson, certainly not through some fault of Starsky's.
Starsky had a sudden urge to take a sledgehammer to the Torino.
"I could've killed you." He heard a rewind of himself just minutes ago saying I could kill you and felt his stomach flip-flop with a thud landing.
He remembered vividly the gut-squeezing terror of realizing those lovely flirtatious nurses had left him in a room with an empty bed where Hutch should be, and the clammy press of queasiness in his throat until he knew Hutch wasn't permanently gone from his world. At least, not physically. Yeah, think about that, Starsky ordered his traitorous mind: think about what a jerk Hutch was to let you think he was gone in every other way that counted.
Instead, the traitor currently in charge of Starsky's memory showed him another hospital room with a sweat-soaked bed shrouded by oxygen tent, then the blankness on Hutch's face where recognition belonged. A chill raised the tiniest hairs on Starsky's neck before tickling its cold fingers down his back. Nothing cooled the hot air of a good raging sulk like…relief. Hutch was here, he was alive, he….
He knows me, he still knows me, Starsky's brain chattered.
"I said you could've killed yourself. You were the one in the driver's seat, and I mean literally. We've both seen it happen: somebody takes a steering wheel to the chest at the moment of impact, looks okay at the scene, and then winds up dead from internal bleeding later at the hospital. When all the fog cleared and I knew who the hell I was, I damn near had a heart attack because I didn't see you anywhere nearby in the ER."
One phrase penetrated Starsky's own fog. "Wait a second, whatcha mean, when you knew who you were? I thought you said you never lost your memory."
Hutch grimaced. "I didn't lose my memory, Starsky. Yeah, when I first woke up in the ER with the nurses hovering over me, I didn't have the first clue who I was, where I was, or why. I was confused. You know, head injuries can do that. Only lasted for a few minutes or so. That's not amnesia, but when I realized the doc thought I had the genuine article, I--"
"Saw a chance to teach me a lesson."
"Jesus, Hutch, you could've just come in here and bawled me out for breaking your neck. That would've done the trick, but good. Why come in here pretending some shit like that when the truth would've worked better?"
"You didn't break my neck; will you stop saying that," Hutch growled. "That's why, damn it. I wanted to teach you a lesson, not kick you in the balls with a steel-toed boot, for God's sake. The x-rays will clear me. If that nurse hadn't come in here, you wouldn't have had to worry about it at all. You've been so busy trying to jog my memory you weren't paying any attention to my neck."
"Is that why you--"
"No, that isn't why I started, but it's why I kept up the charade this long. I'd planned to keep it running until after the x-rays tomorrow." Hutch's shrug was awkward, hitched.
Aw, Hutch. "So why," Starsky said out loud. "None'a this makes any sense. How could you let me think you'd forgotten you ever knew me--"
"Oh, come on, Starsky, how is this really any different than after you were poisoned?"
"What're you talking about?"
Hutch flapped his sling-cradled elbow in a gesture of frustration. "You know damn well. I'm talking about when you had me worried that the post-antidote treatments weren't working like expected because you came in the station that day with sunglasses on, weak and hang dog, hardly able to hold your medicine bottle, and it was an act to wheedle more sick leave out of Dobey!"
"It's… Nah. This, it's different," Starsky said lamely.
"You weren't the one who poisoned me! I'm the one who drove us into that construction shack."
"True, but I was the one who took too long to figure out that Bellamy didn't have enough brain cells to balance his checkbook, much less design an ingenious serum. All I could think when you showed up at the station that day looking so sick was that, man, you were left with some lasting damage and it was my fault because I couldn't pull my head out of my ass sooner."
"Bullshit. You saved my life and you know it. You saying this amnesia was partly payback for that sick leave stunt I pulled?"
"Then why, Hutch? Why now? We've been in high speed chases before, sometimes with you driving, and not just in a dune buggy in the middle of the Mexican desert. Why did you pick this time for an object lesson?"
Hutch turned his face, his shoulders tensing. "You ready for another trip down Memory Lane?"
"Not really, but if it'll make sense'a this, I'm game." Starsky rounded his bed and reclaimed his perch close to the headboard so he could prop his slippered feet against the shared nightstand.
Hutch still didn't look at him. "You remember Sergeant Russell?"
Starsky couldn't take his eyes off the raw, angry scrapes on the side of Hutch's face still visible to him, and the stray hair he wanted to brush away from the wounds. Nothing could make a man lose his religion faster than an itch somewhere that already hurt like hell. He had to jog his memory. "Russell. Wait, you mean your first training ride-along when you were at West Side?"
"That's the guy. You remember what happened three months into my training stint?"
"Oh, Christ," said Starsky fervently, everything suddenly clearer than the finest crystal. He tumbled back in time to the winter of 1969… "Tell me about it," Starsky said now. He had moved sometime without noticing, crossing the no man's land to sit on the end of Hutch's bed.
"Starsky, there's no--"
"Don't tell me there's no need in it. Tell me. I wanna hear it again, what it was like for you."
He closed his eyes and listened. At first he heard Hutch's voice, Hutch's words. He listened until he was the one in that patrol unit passenger seat next to a training sergeant in break down. He imagined the West Side neighborhoods, narrow streets thick with curb parked cars and other obstacles, pedestrians unused to police cars travelling at freeway speeds. He felt that younger Hutch's helplessness as the car scraped its fenders, taking out one side mirror after another, and tailgated innocent motorists until they risked collision pulling over to get out of the way.
Words were useless. He was strapped in for the ride. He couldn't knock the guy out, because if he missed grabbing the wheel by seconds they could spin out of control and slam into oncoming cars, or a storefront, or a cluster of people on the sidewalk.
He had no control.
Here was someone he trusted to have not only the public welfare but also his safety as a top priority, and suddenly that counted for nothing.
No control. That was it!
Nothing panicked Hutch like loss of control in a situation that might prove deadly for other people--double that if Starsky was one of those people--and that chill of fear always warmed to fiery anger in the aftermath.
Starsky opened his eyes. Breathing hard, remembering Hutch's pleas during the 2-11 chase, he pushed off the edge of the bed, turned this way and that, and finally found refuge in front of the window. The hospital lighting and street lights sent stars into hiding and cast the dark city in an apricot glow, transforming familiar territory into a foreign, otherworldly landscape. Starsky watched the street below, pickups, sports cars, a cab or two, and even a classic Studebaker in the flow of traffic. He followed the vintage car until it disappeared from view.
"I should've figured it. All that anger you had busting out, even around Huggy and Dobey."
Behind him, Hutch let out a grunt of discomfort, whether triggered by his aches or the reminder of his actions, Starsky couldn't tell. "Yeah. All through the initial poking and prodding in the ER, I kept thinking about what happened, but the memories of yesterday and almost a decade ago were all mixed up. I decided I had to do something to make sure this never happened again." He gave a quiet, nervous laugh. "Not the best time for decision making--laid up in an ER with my head all swimmy, and feeling like I'd been tackled by the entire Turbos' defensive line."
Fury with himself balled Starsky's fist at his side. He kept quiet.
"Starsk," Hutch said softly. "It's not the same. I can see that now. You weren't having some kind of break with reality. You were in legal pursuit of escaping suspects. It's just the way you went about it, I--damn. You and I've always been able to put the brakes on each other, and it's a good thing, because God knows no one else can. Yesterday, for the first time I can remember, I really had no influence over you, and that threw me."
"Might not have been the same thing, but I'm not so hung up on being in the right I can't admit I got a little carried away." Starsky glanced over his shoulder. Hutch's expression had softened with his voice, encouraging him. "That wheelman wasn't just a criminal I wanted to catch: he challenged my superiority behind the wheel. All I had running through my head was, I'll be damned if he gets away 'cause he can outdrive me."
"Yes, and you're competitive, and in the middle of competition, you tend to tune out anything that won't help your cause. I know that."
Starsky turned his attention back to the window. "Would've been a helluva lot easier if you just came in here right off and told me."
"You don't have room to talk, Starsky." Hutch's tone sharpened again.
"Don't huh me. Try telling me why this amnesia thing rattled you more than I ever expected."
"Maybe I got memories of my own I don't like reliving." Starsky expected tension to tighten his neck, stiffen his back, but instead the opposite took him by pleasant surprise: just the thought of getting closer to a few truths with Hutch sent wave after wave of peace rolling through him, loosening his taut muscles. "That Callendar virus. For a whole day after they got the serum treatments started you were still outta your head with fever. The docs let me visit off and on, but you didn't know who I was, and it wasn't just 'cause I had on a mask."
"Oh, man. Starsky."
"You didn't recognize me, Hutch. I could've been a stranger. Docs kept telling me it wasn't permanent. Not likely, anyway. You know, medical talk, no straight answers. I had no proof it wouldn't last. Maybe you were gone for good. Gone that way, I mean. I tried to imagine what kinda life you could have, and that made me wanna kick holes in the wall and bust that observation window with my bare fists."
"Knocked me for one, Hutch, tellya that much."
"And this amnesia bullshit brought it all back. Starsky, you never told me about this. No one told me. I remember the oxygen tent, and how it got harder and harder to breathe. Next thing I knew I was in a different room, a regular room. No observation window or oxygen tent."
"Yeah. You woke up before then; you just weren't all there."
"Starsky, hey, turn around and look at me. Why didn't you tell me back then?"
Truth time. Starsky slowly turned. "I wasn't ready to talk about what that day made me realize, that's why. Without you knowing me, the whole world turned into a place I didn't belong. No one else, anywhere, knows me like you, no one ever will. Best part'a me, the part I understand, is the way you see me."
The neck brace made Hutch's headshake jerky. "Shit. Thought I was sparing you a kick in the balls."
"Hey. My actions yesterday took you to a bad place, too. Way I see it, we both screwed up."
"Starsky, I get what you're saying. About knowing you. It goes both ways. You usually know me better than I know myself. That truth is one of the best things in my world, but--"
"Mine, too, but if it's so great, why we gotta dance around it? Hm? You know me; I know you. Why couldn't you come in here yesterday and tell me I scared the shit out of you?"
"Maybe it's even scarier to face the fact that everything I feel when it comes to you is so damned intense. Did you ever think about that? Playing the amnesia game was easier. That's the cold, hard truth, Starsky, take it or leave it."
Starsky glanced over his shoulder at the window behind him and the city lights twinkling like stars in that otherworldly apricot-tinged sky. "What you're saying is we decide right now to forgive and forget…and go back to where we were before that maniac in the Plymouth cut us off in front of the cement truck?"
"Or we could go forward," Hutch said. "Wouldn't it be nice if we could deal with the intensity some way other than with games?"
Anger, nearly dead and buried, grasped at life one last time in Starsky. "You were the one playing a game." He risked a look at his hospital roommate.
Hutch's face stiffened, reminding Starsky of his amnesiac alter ego. "Really? You expect me to believe the Torino would have slit its brake lines if you hadn't promised it our weekend off? I've got news for you, buddy. If you were trying to make me jealous of your car, you succeeded."
"I toldya before: don't make me choose." A grin tugged his lips. "Want me to choose?"
For the first time in several days he heard a genuine Hutchinson laugh. "Now that the Torino's front end probably resembles a candy apple red accordion? Some choice."
"I'd show you what kinda choice it is, but it might not go over well with that foam necklace."
"Meaning, you're worried about my neck."
"Meanin' exactly that!"
"Well, stop worrying. Starsky, come on. You must have me confused with the fragile whiny ass I played during the amnesia charade. I'll meet you halfway, how's that?" Hutch punched his left fist into the mattress at his side, turning his healthy arm into a lever, and eased forward.
"Oh no, you don't." Starsky bolted for the bed, just in time to brace Hutch by the shoulders and push him gently but firmly back against the pillows. "You're not setting foot outta this bed without my help--and then only to the john, hear me--until they clear you with those x-rays in the morning. You got that?"
Nodding, solemn-faced, Hutch hooked his fingers under Starsky's robe lapel. Starsky felt the rub of knuckles against his chest and regretted his t-shirt, but the almost tangible weight of Hutch's gaze on his face made up for the cloth barrier to Hutch's knuckles stroking his chest. For who knew how long Hutch had toned the fire in his stare much like tinted glass filtered the sun's power. Filtered no more, Hutch's stare was a scorcher. Starsky had to look away before the heat rush across his forehead and down his cheeks could burn him down to his toes.
What the hell was happening to him?
Well, if the rest of his body had decided to go haywire, at least his arms were good for more than keeping Hutch in the nurse-approved position against the pillows. Starsky had long ago lost count of how many times he and Hutch used good hard hugs to convey truths too powerful, too sacred for words. For a second Hutch's sling and pile of pillows complicated matters, but Starsky didn't let either get in the way of having his arms around Hutch. He flung his arm safely over Hutch's shoulder and slid his other around to press against the ties holding Hutch's gown together in the back, unsatisfied until he snaked his fingers into the gown's slit and found warm flesh to knead.
He found no safety in familiarity. Hell, he hadn't found familiarity. This hug was different, and the difference had nothing to do with cradling the back of Hutch's head, tenderly flicking his thumbnail against the head bandage, or the way they both turned their heads so the moist heat of Hutch's breath hit Starsky's jaw while Starsky's ruffled strands of blond caught in bandage tape.
Going forward, hell! Starsky had the weird sensation that the blood flow in his body had reached the top speed of a smuggler's cigarette boat. Or maybe this room really was the launch tube in a submarine, and he was the freshly launched torpedo. He half-coughed, chuckling, a little unnerved. "Hey, at least that amnesia stunt proved one thing."
"Your undercover skills don't need polishing. Last night you didn't give one hint you were glad to see me safe and sound when you got to the room. Went right into your cover and nailed it."
He heard a sharp intake of breath; Hutch's slow exhalation warmed his cheek. "Starsky, you think-- Do you really think I could've--? I harassed the nurses into finding out if anyone else had been hurt in the accident. I played the frightened, disoriented amnesiac to the limit. You'd be surprised how accommodating nurses are when they need to calm a patient with a neck injury. I knew before I got to the room that you were okay except for scrapes, bruises, and soreness."
Starsky took another look at Hutch's face. The potent emotion staring back at him kicked his heart rate into high gear. "Oh."
Hutch blinked before giving way to a smirk. "It's no secret I taught you everything you know about cover work, but even I'm not that good."
Starsky didn't want to let him go for the few seconds required to flip him off. Instead he took advantage of his right hand's proximity to a vulnerable spot, walked his fingers down on to softer fleshiness over firm muscle, and pinched…hard.
Hutch yelped. "Congratulations, Starsky. The one place on my body that didn't get dinged up is now sore." Starsky watched a faint flush spread over Hutch's cheek bones. Any darker, the healthy skin would match the scrapes left over from the accident. Hutch glanced away.
"Chalk it up to head-injury weirdness if you want, but the way you're looking at me now…" Hutch's eye-roll showed the same affection as his smile. "Makes me think I need shades."
Starsky had no words. He couldn't find one single, everlovin' word in the whole English language, but he shook his head as if he could jar one or two loose. Ridiculous, that's what it was, Starsky sniped at himself; wasn’t like he'd been the one to smash his melon against the Torino's windshield and end up with a concussion. Chris'sakes, where were his words? But then he caught a glimpse of Hutch's eyes and the complicated mix of dare and permission in them, and the same instinct that usually served Starsky well behind the wheel took over, blotting out doubts or what-ifs. Suddenly he knew the feel of Hutch's upper lip between his, the warm gust of shared breath, and the slow, tentative drag of their mouths together, catching, pressing, until he and Hutch jerked apart, astonishment practically sparking around them.
Something knowing flickered in Hutch's gaze.
Starsky stared at him, heart slamming against his chest wall. "Lemme take a wild stab here: that's what you wanted to work on during our time off?"
Hutch licked his lips, just the briefest swipe of tongue tip, but Starsky felt desire clutch him low in the belly. His face must have shown all the words he couldn't find, because Hutch leaned forward this time, and tentative flew out the window while they proved that a neck brace couldn't mess with a damned-and-determined, gasping, open-mouthed kiss.
Drawing back first, Hutch rubbed his thumb across Starsky's bottom lip. "Thought we might get closer to going down this road, yeah. Hoped, anyway."
A muted tap on the door gave Starsky only seconds to spring away from Hutch and back to a neutral spot on the edge of his own bed. He casually glanced over his shoulder at the door as if his heart weren't imitating a bongo drum played by a mad musician jazzed on reds.
Snarly Nurse peeked in the room. "A truce? I'm impressed. Can I get you anything?"
"Try a padlock," muttered Starsky, with a sidelong wink at Hutch.
"What was that?"
"Nothing, thanks," Hutch told her.
She ducked out again with her trademark quiet. Starsky took up a new staring contest with his pajama robe, ticking off the seconds in his head to see how many passed before the pinstripes began their acid-rock wiggling.
"You never really spelled it out."
"Spelled what out?"
"Your choice. What'll it be, hotshot? Me or the Tomato?"
The hell I didn't, Starsky almost said. He caught himself. Hutch was teasing him. He conceded the staring contest to the pinstripes and blinked away the blurriness in his vision. Hutch's smile was the next clear sight he focused on. A nervous smile. Starsky wanted to laugh in relief. He wasn't the only one with jitters. "You…all the way."
"Really? What do you plan to do for wheels?"
"Well, I dunno. I thought I might track down an old Mustang that needs some expert attention. Something in a '68 vintage. Get Merle to slap a dark Highlander green paintjob on it."
"Not so fast, Bullitt. You don't need the car to prove you're Steve McQueen behind the wheel."
"All right, if that doesn't grab you, maybe it's time for me to leave the Ford family altogether. Huh? What you think about a Pontiac? Maybe a Firebird. Gold metallic exterior, tinted windows. Make a nice change, wouldn't it?"
"Oh, sure. Sure. If you don't mind being mistaken for Jim Rockford everywhere you go."
"Hey, it's a good show."
The neck brace hampered Hutch's ability to nod. "He's not bad as television detectives go, but you're the real deal, and so much better looking."
Starsky had to grin at that. "No kidding?"
"No kidding." Hutch flourished a gesture at his hospital headdress and matching gown, and said in his uppity voice from the amnesiac persona, "Of course, I put you both to shame."
The snotty tone, even as a joke, no longer disguised the real Hutch. Knowing that true Hutch as well as he did, Starsky heard the insecurity hiding neatly under the boast. Faced with Hutch's self-doubt, Starsky forgot his own, drawn to his partner's side.
Hutch tilted his head by the fraction the neck brace allowed, looking up with wariness in his glittering eyes while Starsky touched the angriest scrape high on his cheek. "Think you'll get an argument outta me on that?" Starsky asked. "Think again. Lately, no matter where I look, no matter who I'm with, you put everybody to shame."