The ground is far, far away from Hutch’s feet. There’s a part of him that thinks he should be worried about this, that a person’s feet aren’t intended to be far, far away from the ground because that means he’s either falling really far down or he’s flying really high up and didn’t Starsky once tell him that he wanted to fly somewhere far, far away? Just the two of them?
Nobody else, Hutch. Just me and thee. Somewhere beautiful and calm and sunny where there’s nobody else but us.
Starsky had been smiling at him then, that gorgeous, broad grin that’s all pearly teeth and innocent joy and life.
Whaddaya say, Blondie?
Hutch wants to lift his head to the starless night sky and scream his praise of Starsky’s wonderful, unbelievable proposal at gods he’s never believed in. He wants to, but he still doesn’t believe in them. He won’t. He fucking won’t, not when they were the ones who made sure Starsky’s proposal will never come to pass, not when they were the ones who robbed him of –
Hutch? Are ya listening to me?
Somebody is beside him, somebody with the most profuse, dark and curly hair he’s ever caressed and the brightest, most endearing blue eyes he’s ever gazed into and Jesus, it’s Starsky. Starsky in Prussian blue with a leather jacket around hunched shoulders, wind ruffling those curls and sweeping past pale cheeks he dreams about mapping out with his fingertips and kissing with lips moist from Starsky’s tongue. Starsky is clinging onto the jacket’s lapels with both hands, as if it’s going to fly away and him along with it if he doesn’t. Starsky’s gazing up at the night sky, as if pleading to the same gods Hutch doesn’t and won’t ever believe in for something that may be already too late.
Are they falling? Or are they flying?
And how can Starsky be here, when he’s now there instead?
“The ground’s so far away, Starsk.”
Hutch points downwards with his right forefinger at tiny, rectangular ants crawling in straight lines to the left or right, at the even tinier ants amassing so distantly below his feet. In the center of the mass, there’s a light blue and stretched, circular object. Like a round pool, except he’s sure it isn’t water because water swirls around in waves and that circular thing is shiny like plastic and he’s sure he’s seen it before –
“I know, Hutch. I don’t like being way up here.”
Starsky sounds so real, so close. Starsky sounds scared. Scared and all husky and soft, like Starsky’s going to break inside too, break inside again despite the surgeons having excised Gunther’s lethal bullets and sewn Starsky back up like a rag doll with some of its cotton stuffing missing for good.
Maybe Starsky’s come back here to take him there.
“Are you going to take me there?”
Starsky is gazing at him now, those thick eyebrows furrowed with bewilderment.
“I dunno what you mean,” Starsky murmurs, shaking his head once. “Take you where?”
The affection of Starsky’s voice stabs him straight in the heart like a dagger. Starsky’s voice had sounded that way the last time they spoke to each other. The last time Starsky had given him that smile that rivaled the radiance of the sun itself.
“To that beautiful and calm and sunny place.”
Gradually, Starsky’s lower lip starts to tremble. Hutch has seen that occur only a few times, the first time when they’d investigated the brutal murder of a four-year-old child and Starsky stared at the bloody remnants of the defenseless, little girl whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time with nobody to protect her. The second time was when Terry, the compassionate angel of a lady whom Starsky almost married, had been assassinated by insane George Prudolm with a bullet to the head. And the third time … the third time was when he’d trudged out of Kira’s bedroom after having sex with her and came face to face with a stunned Starsky. A betrayed Starsky.
A Starsky who chose him in the end, anyway, before leaving here and flying away to there.
Leaving him behind.
“Take me there, buddy? To that beautiful, calm, sunny place?”
He watches Starsky swallow visibly, the way the Adam’s apple in Starsky’s throat bobs like Starsky’s big, generous heart has lodged itself there and is threatening to spill at any given moment. Even in nightfall, he can see the glistening of Starsky’s wide eyes, and oh, Starsky is smiling at him, a wavering though no less breathtaking smile.
“Sure, babe. We’ll go there. Go anywhere you want. Anywhere,” Starsky whispers.
Hutch senses something brush his forearm and he takes a step or two back. They must have been wobbly, for the earth abruptly tilts at an angle for a minute and Starsky gasps sharply and reaches out in desperation for him with both arms and yet … isn’t coming any nearer to him or touching him.
Ah, how silly of him to forget.
A hallucination is just an illusion with no corporeal form, isn’t it?
“Okay … it’s okay, Hutch. I - I promise I won’t touch you again if ya don’t want me to. Just – just stay with me, okay?”
Hutch stares at Starsky, at his best friend in the whole world, at the man whom he’s been in love with for what seems like forever. He wants Starsky to touch him. Of course he does … but how can Starsky do that if Starsky isn’t here anymore?
“We can go anywhere I want?”
Starsky lowers his arms and then nods, his jacket billowing in the chilly breeze.
“You promise?” Hutch rasps, and Starsky smiles that quivering smile again, as if he’s torn between flickering hope and vast despair.
“I promise, Hutch. I promise.”
And suddenly, Hutch is hearing the same words said in another place and another time, in Starsky’s hospital room, in Starsky’s bed and they’re alone now. Just the two of them, as it’s always meant to be. The bottle of Chateau Martin Huggy had sneaked in earlier in the evening for their botched private party is sitting atop a bedside cabinet, half full and corked. Hutch can still taste the white wine on his tongue, its earthy and citrus flavor vying with his imagination of the taste of the man reclined in the bed under the covers next to him. He can tell the painkillers Starsky ingested before the party are wearing off from the pallidness of Starsky’s face and Starsky’s creased brows and lips a thin line of pain endured in stoic silence.
He runs his fingers through Starsky’s luxuriant curls, over the crown of that hard, stubborn head, and Starsky sighs and gazes up at him through heavy-lidded, sated eyes and smiles tenderly at him. Starsky doesn’t look away as he draws his forefinger down the bridge of that prominent nose so attractive with character. Neither does Starsky say anything as he runs the tip of the same forefinger across a full lower lip, from one end to the other, tracing the outline of a fantasy he’s never dared utter aloud outside of his slumber.
Starsky’s left arm has wrapped itself around his shoulders and just for an instant, he thinks about a secret dance lesson in Captain Dobey’s office and being dipped and then … and then, oh man, oh man, Starsky’s lips are pressing against his and Starsky’s tongue is pushing its way into his mouth and oh yeah, there goes his universe, turned upside down with no turning back because he’s kissing Starsky and Starsky is kissing him back. Their lips do not part as they roll onto their sides, their legs entangled in the bed covers and their arms clinched around each other as if they never, ever want to let go. Hutch is careful, oh so careful while he squeezes the back of Starsky’s neck and then rubs comforting circles down Starsky’s back and listens to the low, mellifluous sounds of need coming from Starsky’s mouth whenever they are forced to suck in precious air to fill their lungs.
Oh, here is that beautiful and calm and sunny place, more perfect that he’d ever believed possible.
Right here in Starsky’s embrace, where it has been waiting for him from the very beginning.
An eon passes before Hutch gently rests Starsky on his back again, tugging up the blankets to their waists. Starsky’s cheeks have become rosy, glowing. Starsky’s lips – so much more delectable than the finest white wine – are wet and swollen, and Starsky’s smoldering eyes are mere slits that stare from under long, lush eyelashes at his face with newfound, rapt fascination and awe and maybe, just maybe, his universe wasn’t the only one to be turned upside down with no turning back.
He returns Starsky’s adoring gaze, then smiles widely and says with a deliberately mangled Spanish accent, “When you got it, flaunt it.”
Starsky’s smile at that very point in time is one Hutch has engraved upon his soul. Starsky’s accompanying jubilant laughter seems to flow forth from the very depths of all that is Starsky, to unfurl itself like the first rays of dawn from Starsky into his own depths where he can give it sanctuary and keep it safe from cruel, indifferent reality.
He’s already failed at least once to keep Starsky safe.
That sweet laughter may, one day, be all he has left.
Starsky is quiet now, eyes wider and vivid with concern. Hutch is uncertain of the expression he’s showing Starsky, but even after he does his best to curve his lips upwards, the concern etched on those dear features doesn’t dissipate. He feels the warm palm of Starsky’s left hand on his chest. Then it glides up to his lower jaw, cupping it, halting him from swiveling his head to the side.
Starsky’s fingers on his lips unlocks them.
“My partner,” he whispers, blinking away a stinging wetness. “Always.”
Starsky, too, is blinking those big, soulful eyes, stroking his moustache and then raising that adroit hand higher to stroke silky, golden strands of hair.
“Hutch, I –“
“Promise me that, Starsky.”
“I promise, Hutch ... I promise.”
Then, he is kissing Starsky again, kissing that high forehead underneath those fresh-smelling curls, kissing those delicate eyelids and dense eyelashes that flutter against his lips and hearing Starsky sigh his name like a poignant prayer of gratitude, kissing the tip of Starsky’s nose and suddenly – or perhaps it is hours or days later – he glances down and sees that Starsky’s lips are tinged with blue. Starsky’s eyes are shut. Starsky’s face is ashen and Starsky isn’t moving. At all.
Now, there is a wall of glass between him and Starsky and a team of doctors and nurses surrounding Starsky’s bed. He slams his hands on it, paying no heed to other hands grabbing his arms and trying to haul him away, away from Starsky who he’s kissed at long last and has been in love with him for what seems like forever too, and no, no, this isn’t happening again, NO –
“Detective, please step away from the glass, please, before you hurt yourself!”
No, what are the doctors and nurses doing, why are they stopping their treatments and why is the doctor glancing at his watch –
Hutch can hear someone mumbling two horrifying words over and over and over and he really wishes the stupid bastard will shut the fuck up because the bastard’s wrong, because Starsky can’t be –
“… dead, he’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead …”
And Hutch is running, running down a hallway and plowing through people who don’t evade him in time and someone else is shouting his name but he doesn’t look back and he keeps running and running, all the way down endless stairs, bursting through the hospital entrance doors and into the car park and past Starsky’s Torino he’d driven from HQ and oh god, maybe, maybe if he runs fast enough, he can reverse time and go back to the very first day he met David Michael Starsky at the police academy and oh god, he swears he’ll do things right this time and he’ll stop all those monsters from hurting Starsky and stop those bullets and – and didn’t Starsky once tell him that they would be partners, always?
Oh, Starsky – his gorgeous, robust, pizza-loving, Paul Muni-wannabe imp of a partner – is holding out those strong arms towards him again, silently begging him to seek shelter within them but he can’t. He can’t because Starsky’s not really here and he wants to be where Starsky really is and if he wants that, he’ll have to … have to –
“Don’t, Hutch. Don’t even think about it.”
Hutch glances downwards and sees that the ground is as far, far away as it was minutes – hours? days? months? years? – ago. Those tiny, crawling ants are still there, as well as that odd, light blue, pool-but-not-a-pool thing and a piece of his brain is telling him that if he wants to be where Starsky really is, he has to avoid falling into that odd, light blue thing.
He has to land on the dark grey area. The solid, gravelly, dark grey area.
“You said we can go anywhere I want.”
Starsky’s chest is heaving, like the poor guy can’t breathe and is this close to shattering into a million, irredeemable shards.
“That is not where you wanna go. No.”
“Starsky, don’t you understand? I have to –“
Jesus, he’s never heard Starsky roar like that before, not even during that robbery case where the ensuing shootout between them and the robbers resulted in a young artist named Emily Harrison going temporarily blind. Starsky isn’t just angry, Starsky’s enraged.
“No, Hutch. No,” Starsky adds vehemently, shaking his head in undeniable condemnation of Hutch’s mission, and it causes something in the left side of Hutch’s chest to ache terribly. He doesn’t get it. He just doesn’t get why his mule-headed partner is so goddamn determined to prevent him from leaving here and going there. Shouldn’t Starsky be happy about that? Doesn’t Starsky want to be with him anymore?
Is that why Starsky’s torturing him like this, appearing so alive and handsome and untouchable?
“I have to. You don’t understand but I have to.”
Wordlessly but furiously, Starsky yanks off his leather jacket and hurls it to the side and out of sight. Without it, Hutch can now see that Starsky’s shirt has two buttons unfastened at the top and is loose, long-sleeved and collared with white piping trim and … wait, he’s definitely seen Starsky wear the same shirt somewhere else but he can’t remember where –
“If you have to, then so do I.” Somehow Starsky has managed to take one step forward without him noticing it, one step nearer to him. Starsky’s voice has gone all strange and scratchy, cracking from the same ache he’s still feeling in his own chest. “You think I won’t go after you, huh? You think I’m gonna think twice if you do it, huh? ‘Cause I will go after you, Hutch, I will if you do it. I told you that night, didn’t I? Partners, Hutch. Always. Even in this.”
It’s his turn to shake his head, but he does so in mounting confusion. He moans in frustration and jerks his thinning hair in fists and drag his hands down his grimy face and then, he’s struck by another bout of dizziness and for the second time tonight, Starsky reaches out for him with both hands, those big blue eyes so stark and brimming damply with terror and worry for him that something deep inside him caves in on itself. All he can see in his mind is Starsky lying on that hospital bed, absolutely motionless and colorless and breathless and dead and he is, all of a sudden, very, very cold and lonely and frightened. Two trails burn their way down his cheeks.
It takes him a very long time to realize that the translucent droplets on the palms of his upturned hands are tears.
It takes him an even longer time to realize that the sobbing he hears isn’t coming from Starsky.
“I don’t want to be here anymore, Starsk. I want to be there. With you.”
When Starsky cries, Hutch has learned from rare, firsthand observations of the event, Starsky doesn’t emit a single noise. Most times, Starsky’s face doesn’t even contort and remains relatively smooth apart from the wrinkling of the skin between the eyebrows and pursed lips, a bastion of strength even in the darkest hour of sorrow. Tonight, however, no facet of that beloved face in grief is hidden from Hutch. Several rivulets of tears have already trickled down from inflamed, glimmering eyes, dripping off a trembling lower jaw and sliding between parted lips twisted in a downward arc of misery. Starsky’s breath snags every so often, hitches so intense that Starsky’s entire upper body freezes in split second-long battles for oxygen.
Bizarre as it is, Starsky has never looked stronger and more courageous to Hutch.
And he knows Starsky has never, ever revealed this particular mien to anyone else before. Until now.
“I’m here, Hutch. I’m here,” Starsky croaks out eventually, pressing his left hand against his chest, over his throbbing sternum. “Don’t you see me?”
Hutch swallows past a huge lump in his throat, the distress in Starsky’s voice and face all too tangible and heart-wrenching to him. He is the one who put all that pain there. He is the one who’s made Starsky hurt like this.
What is he doing?
He blinks hard, then mumbles, “I … I saw you die.”
Starsky sucks in a deep, long breath and rubs his eyes and face as dry as he can with one hand. If the circumstances were any different, Hutch would have teased Starsky about appearing just like an adorable, little boy but no, thinking that will merely remind him of his loss of Starsky’s innocence, of Starsky’s ingenuous smiles and youthful curiosity and –
“I’m not dead, Hutch. I know you’re thinking that but I’m not. I’m still alive.” Starsky pats himself on the chest twice. “Hutch, babe, look at me. I’m still here. My body just doesn’t know how to give up, does it? My body’s healing so well that it made my lungs clog up with blood clots and almost suffocate me. Almost being the key word here. Do you understand me?”
Hutch blinks again. He scrutinizes Starsky’s face from forehead to chin and back up through sore eyes, his lips quavering soundlessly. He … he’d been so certain he saw Starsky die a second time, die and not come back, saw everyone surrender after giving it all they had to resuscitate Starsky and saw the doctor glancing at his watch and why else would a doctor do that if not to –
“It’s ‘who do we trust’ time, pal.”
Starsky is offering his left hand, palm up and open. Waiting for Hutch to accept it.
Hutch stares at it, hesitant. If he’s right and the Starsky in front of him is just a delusion, it won’t matter whether he grasps that hand or not. Won’t matter whether he leaves or not. Nothing will matter because Starsky’s gone. But if he’s wrong, if he’s wrong and the Starsky in front of him is real after all …
His hand shivers as he raises it into the space between them and touches his fingertips with Starsky’s.
Starsky’s hand is warm. Steady. Calloused in the same places as his own right hand due to handling guns for years.
Starsky’s hand is squeezing his so tightly, and Starsky’s shuddering exhalation of extreme relief is piercing in the hush high up where they are.
Starsky is … real. Starsky is really here.
Hutch shuts his eyes for a moment, swallowing down that obstinate lump of anguish in his throat that seems very reluctant to go away. Then, opening his eyes again, thinking of another day where death had also hovered over Starsky and came to within an inch of adding Starsky to its toll, he murmurs, “Same as always ... me and thee.”
Starsky’s smile in reply almost renders him visionless with its unbridled elation, even in the dimness of night.
“D-don’t let me go, Starsky.”
Starsky intertwines their fingers, fortifying their mutual grip, and gazes deep into his eyes.
A heartbeat, two, three, and on the fourth, Starsky is slowly lifting his other hand, offering it as well to Hutch.
“What are you doing all the way there, huh? C’mere where I can hold you.”
Hutch recalls now, where he’d seen Starsky wear this Prussian blue, long-sleeved shirt with its white piping and big buttons. It’s the shirt from Starsky’s favorite pajama set, the same set Starsky had worn the night of the private party with Huggy and Dobey in Starsky’s hospital room. It’s soft and thin and, huh, he never thought he’d see the day Starsky wears his pajamas in public and oh, Hutch can feel the play of muscles in Starsky’s back under his hands through the threadbare fabric and oh no, Starsky’s shoulders are tremoring once more and Starsky’s hands are slipping underneath his jacket and clutching at his shirt so forcefully, as if Starsky never wants to let him go.
“Oh god, Hutch.”
Hutch says nothing about the growing patches of wetness on his shirt’s collar and shoulder. He squeezes his arms tighter around Starsky’s quaking torso, and burrows his nose into Starsky’s copious curls and breathes in his partner’s scent, imbuing his purged vessel of a body with it.
“Come on now … let’s get you both away from the edge.”
A large, familiar hand is clasping his upper arm, steadfastly albeit kindly pulling him and Starsky away from … away from … the edge?
“You really know how to scare the living daylights out of a man, don’t you, Hutchinson?”
Wait a minute, Starsky’s face is still buried in the crook between his neck and shoulder, and Starsky’s voice isn’t that gruff and resonant so it can’t Starsky who said that. Then, who –
“Captain, the ambulance has arrived.”
“Good. Let them know they’ll be bringing back two men to the hospital.”
For some reason that his brain will inform him of in a couple of hours’ time when his sanity is fully restored, Hutch feels immense shame flooding through him, even more so after he turns his head to meet the emphatic gaze stemming from wise, brown eyes set in a jowly, authoritative countenance.
“Captain, I …” Hutch mumbles, his head bowed.
I don’t know where I am. I don’t remember how I got here.
Am I falling? Or am I flying?
“You look like the devil himself dragged you to hell and back.”
There is no admonition in Dobey’s voice. Only compassion and relief.
Starsky’s voice is a different story.
“What were you thinking, you big, dumb lug? What were you thinking, HUH?!” Starsky has stepped back, just enough to be able to glare at Hutch with blazing eyes still bloodshot and coil fingers into his shirt and shake him to and fro in a fleeting surge of energy. “What the hell were you thinking, going missing for three goddamn DAYS! D'you know what it felt like when I woke up and Dobey told me you were gone? When he told me you'd been spotted standing on the ledge of the rooftop of a twenty-story building?!”
Hutch wants to laugh, not from amusement, but from the pure bliss of seeing – and feeling – Starsky pissed off so bad and boiling with that inner fire and so damn alive and well. There’s his Starsky. His gorgeous, robust, loving, living Starsky.
“I’m sorry,” he susurrates brokenly instead, his eyes filling up again. “I’m so sorry.”
The soothing, tender kiss Starsky bestows upon his bristly cheek keeps the tide at bay.
“You ever do something that crazy again and I swear, I’ll kick you off the building myself. Ya hear me, Hutch?”
“I hear you, partner. I hear you,” he whispers in response, and Starsky’s head is laying on his shoulder and Starsky’s eyelashes are brushing the skin of his neck and Starsky’s arms are crushing him and then … the first rays of dawn are here, unfurling themselves not only from Starsky in his arms but also from the dazzling, rising sun on the horizon and taking away the darkness and figments of creeping death and aloneness. Taking him there, to that beautiful, calm and sunny place where there’s nobody else except him and Starsky.
Perfection, beyond anything he could have ever believed in.
Hutch gazes down at their feet. He senses rather than sees Starsky shift his head to glance down at their feet too, his in grubby boots and Starsky’s in half-laced, well-worn Adidas shoes.
“Starsk, look.” Hutch pats the back of Starsky’s head and smiles. “The ground’s beneath our feet again.”