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Care and Maintenance

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The girl was alive; that was the important thing. Even though it was no thanks to him and the shot he had fired, the elephant gun kicking his shoulder like a mule on steroids, and the roar of sound almost deafening him in spite of the bike helmet. She was alive, and home, safe, and the bad guys were toast.

And Hutch was alive too, incidentally.

From his sprawl on the couch, Starsky looked over at his partner, who was just hanging up the phone, and asked a question with raised eyebrows.

"Mr. Haymes again," Hutch said, his face tilted downward. "Seems he wanted to give us a reward for finding Joanna. I told him we already got our reward."

"Yeah," Starsky said, expressing agreement, though he felt none. He didn't deserve the man's gratitude. He'd nearly blown it—literally—by turning the two perps into fricassee before they could be forced to reveal the girl's location.

"Stop it," Hutch said softly, and Starsky shrugged.

"I mean it." Hutch went to the fridge and yanked out a bottle. He opened it and handed it to Starsky, who reached up to take it even though he wasn't really in the mood. It wasn't until he took the first sip that he realized it wasn't beer, but a cream soda. Starsky grinned. He heard Hutch give a small whuff of laughter, but looked up too late to catch the smile.

Hutch dropped down onto the floor next to the couch and leaned against Starsky's leg. He almost seemed to anticipate the hand that dropped into his hair, and tilted his head against Starsky's fingers. Starsky let them roam through the strands softly as he sipped his soda, enjoying the novel sensation and the living warmth beneath his hand. He carefully avoided a still-bloody scab near Hutch's hairline.

"Hey, what ever happened to that dirt bike?" Hutch asked, stirring Starsky from his dark thoughts.

"I dropped it off at the police garage."

"Darn. I was hoping I could take it out for a spin."

"You ride?" Starsky asked, surprised, and even more so that he hadn't known.

"Of course," Hutch said. He turned his head back so he could meet Starsky's eyes. "Used to ride all the time back in Minnesota. We'd go out to that fallow field behind old man McCullough's farm and do the craziest stunts." Hutch laughed briefly. "I was in charge of maintenance. It's really important, you know?" He gave a quick smile.

"Kept the chains tight? Checked the gas?" Starsky smiled back, but was disturbed by the reminder of that afternoon. They'd been bantering about the bike while Starsky rigged a holster for the elephant gun, and it was only when Hutch touched his arm, just before he ran off, that Starsky had finally let himself understand just what his partner was running into. And by then it was too late.

Which was better, anyway, because Starsky hated getting soapy, and if he'd had another two seconds, he probably would've broken down and said something stupid. Something like, 'Don't go. I don't want to lose you.'

Or maybe something even stupider.

But Hutch had won the toss, so Hutch went jogging off as living bait, the money in a duffle bag in one hand, his hair glinting oddly in the dusty light of the alleyway before he disappeared around the corner. And Starsky was left with the words stuck on his tongue. He started up the bike, smelling the gas fumes rising from the faulty gas cap, the ring-da-ding-ding of the two-stroke keening in his ears as he sped down the streets as Hutch's back-up. Then came terse instructions over the wire, and Hutch's labored panting as he desperately sprinted to meet the kidnappers' demands.

And then they shot him. The motherfuckers shot him, just as Starsky had feared, and his words were useless then, lost in the echo of fire, in the shattering glass of the door Hutch went crashing through, and in the endless roaring in his head.

Time doesn't really stop. But sometimes it takes a fucking detour—back around the alleyway, down the highways, past old man McCullough's farm and beyond, to the streets of Brookyln where a dark-haired man lay bleeding his life out on the pavement while his son knelt beside him, trying to hold back the flood. And even as Starsky growled after the blue car, everything moving in slow-motion, his mind was fixed on the scene that he knew awaited him at the other side of time's bubble.

"Stop it," Hutch said again, his voice a little stern, but this time it didn't help, because Starsky wasn't thinking about the girl. He was thinking about Hutch, and blood, and the thousands of future moments that had been callously chopped off like so many weeds.

It had been the end of everything, so Starsky had ended them.

"I wanna see," Starsky said, the words sounding rough.

"See?" Hutch was looking at him, Starsky realized, and he let his eyes refocus.

"Where they got you."

Hutch shook his head, but Starsky's hand moved from where it still rested in Hutch's hair to drop to his shoulder, and he tugged insistently until Hutch finally sighed and knelt up, his hands rising to his shirt.

"This is stupid, you know? You're wallowing or something."

"Wallowing," Starsky agreed, since Hutch was giving in, unbuttoning slowly, looking at him with that puzzled frown of his. Starsky didn't try to explain why he needed this, needed it like peering over the edge of a drop to see just how far below the ground lay. So he waited until Hutch spread his shirt open, and then Starsky's eyes dropped to his chest.

There. Almost dead center, radiating out from his sternum. The slug would have smashed through it like a sledgehammer through balsa wood, tearing him open to the heart—if not for the vest. Instead, an angry purple bruise spread across the pale skin, deep deep blue in the center, still raised and inflamed. It must hurt like a mother. But Hutch hadn't complained, and he usually did about the stupid, small stuff. Apparently this went too deep.

Starsky found himself raising his arm to touch. He rested his palm at the center of the bruise, trying to cover it with his hand, but it was too large. He noted Hutch's wince, but didn't remove his hand. Maybe if he could just leave it there for a little while, the memory would ache less. Something had to make it, because Starsky realized he wasn't just wallowing, he was in quicksand.

"Hutch." The broken pieces of his voice resolved into a recognizable syllable.

Sinking.

Then Hutch's hand covered his. "'Kay," he said, softly. "Okay?"

Starsky shook his head, and Hutch let him sit there, his hand over Hutch's heart, a dumb wetness in his eyes and a choking gratitude in his throat. To whatever God, maybe, or to Dobey, for insisting on the vest, or to Hutch, for living, and for letting him just touch him for a moment. Just until the sharp angles of his relief dulled a little, and he could breathe around it again.

"Air pressure okay?" came Hutch's voice, still soft, and the hand on his gave a little pat, and Starsky realized his chest was burning, locked tight. He took a deep breath and something eased. Then he processed the words.

"No," Starsky said, feeling his face relax into an almost-smile.

"How about the oil, you check the oil?" Hutch asked, sounding relieved.

"Nope." Starsky took away his hand at last and met Hutch's eyes.

They regarded him for a long moment, and then the lids crinkled around the blue. "What about the plugs? Checked the gaps?"

"Nuh uh." Starsky said, and Hutch dropped back down to the floor to lean against him again.

"Well, don't come crying to me when your points get fouled," Hutch said, smug.

Starsky let his hand drift back to the silky hair, touching.

"Never happen, Blintz. I promise."

Finis.

November 2005
San Francisco, CA