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This Mission Thing

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While his last patient of the day put himself gingerly back into his t-shirt, the doctor sat staring sideways out of the fifth floor window on to the crawling traffic below. He tapped a pen lightly on the patient's records, a bulging file of testimony to a life nearly lost.

"So, Doc... how am I doing?"

The 6.30 patient, David Starsky, Detective-Sergeant First Class, came and sat on the other side of the desk. He smiled hopefully at him with that smile that could warm you to your very boots, although it had been rarely sighted these last months.

Sinclair laced his fingers together, meeting the blue-water gaze directly. "Well," he said in his deep, British accent, "I have a few questions."

"Me too, Doc," said the dark-haired policeman in mock seriousness. "Why are we here? Where are we going? What am I having for dinner?"

"My questions are a lot simpler, David."

"Uh-huh. So ask me." David Starsky slipped from facetious to almost brusque in a split second. Dr Sinclair was accustomed to it by now.

"How are you managing out there on the street?" he asked bluntly.

A small smile. "Well if you're asking if it's the same as before, the answer is no -- but I'm managing. More than managing. I'm doing my job."

"Well, I don't doubt that. I'm just wondering how it feels to you? A struggle? Natural? Easy? Difficult?"

"That was five questions at a time," Starsky protested.

"I'm sorry, I'm just trying to get a feel."

Starsky relapsed into a short silence. It was his habit to be flippant and dismissive, but he knew that Sinclair was used to him and that Sinclair really wanted an answer to his question this time. He slid out of his chair and began to turn small circles round the room, looking for a prop. In his Captain's office he would wind himself around the hatstand or fiddle with the pens in the holder. Dr. Sinclair's room was quite spartan, white and shiny, with nothing much to hang on to, and in any case he did not quite like to fiddle with things in here. So he settled for leaning up against the windowsill -- anything but sitting in that chair over the desk, where he felt like his younger self called up into the Principal's office.

"The physical things I can handle," he said eventually. "As long as we don't have to run for long. I c'n do the sprints -- piece of cake. If some perp has set off on a marathon then I let Hutch go after him." He smiled disarmingly. "But then I'd probably have done that before."

"OK, so you can run, but not too far. Do you feel as quick as before -- your reaction times I mean?"

"Well it's kinda weird," Detective Starsky confessed, crossing his arms over his chest. "I feel quicker than before. I feel... sharper. My partner says he notices it, and he should know. My mind travels quicker than it did. I get a good feel for things. Yup, it's better than before. That's weird isn't it, Doc?"

"It is," Sinclair acknowledged. "It's weird alright, but it somehow doesn't surprise me. The brain is a wonderful organ. When you've been so internalized after a traumatic incident like your own, it's surprising how things like perception and intuition can change." He twirled his pen, tapped it again on the fat file. "And your appetite for the job? Do you feel anxious about it? Wary of being injured again?"

"There's another three," Starsky reproved. "And the answers are good, no and no." He made a face. "It's Hutch who feels anxious."

Sinclair knew that well enough, but Hutchinson was not his patient. "So, your confidence is good?"

Starsky came off the windowsill and slunk back to the chair again. "Yeah, why? Shouldn't it be?" There was a slight jut of the chin.

The doctor sighed, and Starsky did not like the sigh. "Now you know, David, that I'm more than glad that you were passed fit for work again and that you are back doing your job. But looking at the reports that come through from your department medical people... the physical and mental stress you live under is quite intense. It concerns me."

"Doc, it concerns me too, believe me," Starsky said. "I know, I know... I'm not the man I was, but somehow I'm the cop I was, or even better. That's what I feel right now."

"Do you?"

"Yes."

"Well good. However, I have to tell you... again... that you're not standing on steady ground."

Starsky tilted his head to one side. "What are you saying?"

"Just that you need to bear in mind that sooner or later, somewhere along the line, something will give. As long as you are doing the job you do, and probably even if you aren't. It will just be sooner as long as you are a policeman."

"You know," said Starsky, "I think I kinda knew that. So... what? I'm gonna fold one day?"

Sinclair opened the file and stared down at the first piece of paper in it. "Well I wish I was psychic," he said. "And I could tell you exactly what will happen and how serious it will be. All I know is that you have recovered from what should have been a fatal attack, and that we were able to put you back together... imperfectly. What I think I'm trying to tell you, David, is that you will not get better than you are now. The medication will always be at this level -- you will carry on needing it for pain, for adequate sleep. Your susceptibility to things will always be as it is now, or worse as you get older. You do a dangerous job and you are exposed to many things -- just... be aware. That's all."

Starsky seemed unphased by this. But he did look serious, and thoughtful, and both these were not looks that Sinclair would have associated with him normally.

"Is the pain medication sufficient?"

"Mostly."

"And does pain ever prevent you sleeping?"

"Sometimes."

"The damaged tissue will always react the same way you know."

Now it was Starsky's turn to sigh. "Yes I know. Doc, are you trying to get me to resign my badge?"

"No, David. I'm just trying to keep you as safe as I can. If you're aware of the weak areas then you are forewarned. It's coming up to 'flu season, and I'm going to prescribe you some antibiotics."

"What?"

"As a precaution. You need to start the course the moment any infection appears at the precinct, or amongst friends or neighbours."

"Oh man..."

"Really, that's what this is all about. You have to do this. Another incidence of pneumonia or respiratory illness could be very dangerous indeed. You said it yourself -- you're not the man you were." He scribbled on a piece of paper. "And we're going to try some different pain meds. Give you a selection. Something stronger you can take at night if you feel you need the sleep."

"What, you mean the tequila's not strong enough?"

"You have to be sensible," Sinclair ploughed on. "Just from a cursory exam I can tell you're tired, and I know you're pretty expert at hiding it but the deep tissue is hurting you. Listen to your partner, take what you need, when you need it, and come back to me if there's any problem. That's what I'm here for." He gave a small smile. "You're my miracle patient, David. You're here in my office on a wing and a prayer."

"Lookit, Doc, I appreciate what you're saying. I do try to think about these things and when I don't Hutch is there to catch me. To nag me. I know... I know that one day something will happen. I'm not looking at a long career in the force anymore... really, I'm not. Just taking it one day at a time. The most important thing for me is to know that right now I can function well enough to watch my partner's back out there. The minute... the second I can't do that then I'm calling it a day. Do you think I can still do it?"

He leaned a little further over the desk. Sinclair thought again, as he had in the past, that he would not like to be on the bad side of Detective Starsky. "You can still do it," he said. "But you have to recognize when that changes. Your partner won't tell you that. Will he?"

"Hutch will try and tough it out," Starsky admitted. "To make me feel better. It's OK. I understand. Thank you, Doc. I appreciate your honesty."

Sinclair nodded. "And I appreciate your courage," he said simply. "Four weeks, yes? Let me know how the new meds go." He handed the paper over the desk. As Starsky stood up he put out his hand and they shook. "It does me great good," Sinclair said, "to even see you standing up and talking. It makes everything else easier, Detective Starsky."

Starsky grinned. "Just doing my job," he said.

Out in the waiting room he stood still a little while, the prescription still in his hand. He breathed in and out, feeling the sharp ache under his ribs from where Sinclair had pressed. The doc was right. He'd hidden the yelp that had bubbled up inside him when the probing had reached the pain spots -- and for God's sake, there were so many of them. And what had Sinclair just said -- that it would never get any better. That was so deeply sobering, such a body blow, that Starsky remained where he was in the middle of the empty waiting room, not sure where he could go from here. The outer door opened and a head poked round.

"You all done?" said a comfortingly familiar voice.

Starsky propelled his feet towards the tall, graceful frame of his partner. He did not answer, just weakly waved the prescription in the air. "I gotta go get these from the pharmacy," he said.

"More of the same, huh?" Ken Hutchinson was sympathetic, hiding the twitching anxiety he felt about how the check-up had gone. Starsky just gave a grimace, one that Hutch knew well. It told him that there was plenty to say but that he was not going to say it right now, however hard he was pushed. Hutch battled away his worry and played along. "OK, let's go do that and then sign off. We got one more hour on shift but hell... I'm done with it, how about you?"

A murmured reply. Hutch prattled on as they took the elevator down to the third floor pharmacy, not expecting any immediate comeback but wishing there was some. They sat and waited for the meds to be made up and Hutch's stomach lurched when four separate bottles were handed over. Usually there was just two. Starsky jammed two bottles in each pocket of his leather jacket and led the way out to the hospital car-lot. There was a small cloud suspended over his curly head and Hutch wanted to shift it. He let his partner settle into his seat, tool up the Torino and pull out of their space, over the ramp and on to the street. Then he made himself count to sixty.

"OK, Starsk, spill it," he said in a rush as the last second ticked away in his head.

Half amused, Starsky slung him a look. "I wasn't there, I never touched her, you got the wrong guy, I want my attorney," he said.

Hutch eased into a laugh. "I mean it though," he pressed on, "what did Sinclair say?"

Starsky sucked his teeth, kept his eyes dead ahead. "Oh the usual stuff."

"Starsky!" Hutch snapped, "For fuck's sake don't give me that! Just don't, alright? What did he say? What's on your mind? Why the new meds?"

"Are you and Sinclair in competition or what?" Starsky bit back. "One question at a time!"

"OK. What did he say?"

"That I need to be careful. Steer clear of sick people."

"And that was it?"

"Pretty much. He poked me about, like always. The new meds are... well, to cover stuff."

Hutch gurned in frustration. "Stuff? What stuff? You know, Starsk, I'm not giving up on this. I can't, even if I wanted to -- it's like goddamned breathing to me now."

"What is?" said Starsky, intrigued.

"Being on your case. Standing by. It's a mission." The deeply sarcastic tone covered the fact that every word he said was true. Starsky took pity on him. He slowed the car down to a crawl and came to a standstill on the hard shoulder. He put on the handbrake and sat back, his arms stretched straight out on the steering wheel, his gaze far ahead on the lines of traffic swirling around downtown.

"Well the thing is this, Hutch. I'm a mess." He let go the wheel and shifted slightly in his seat so he was facing his partner, stretching one arm across the back of the seat. Hutch turned in towards him too, closing the space between them that had been yawning open since leaving Memorial. "Sinclair said I'm at my optimum now, it's never going to get better, more likely get worse. On meds the rest of my life. That means... " His voice abruptly choked up and he snapped his mouth shut.

"That means pain and trouble sleeping and always thinking about getting sick," Hutch said quietly, running over the very things that he thought about himself every damn day, thinking whoah... that musta hurt him... boy he looks tired today... mustn't let him catch that cold.

"Yeah." Starsky looked at him. "I dunno, Hutch, I kinda figured that one day Sinclair would say hey! today's the day, you're officially recovered, welcome back, all systems go."

"You're back at work -- Sinclair's sanctioned it," Hutch reminded him. "You're still doing a hell of a great job out here. He thinks so. Dobey thinks so. I think so."

"No doubts?"

"Doubts? Sure, every day, all the time we're out there. But I'll go with them. To be honest with you, buddy, I'd rather have you watch my back off your face on meds than any other cop in the precinct. Any other cop I've ever met. Sure, it's a bit scary out there now, we both got a bit more to deal with. Jeez, remember I'm on meds too. What kind of a pair are we?"

Starsky tipped his head down, suppressing a possibly inappropriate smile. "We're rattling," he said.

"But we're not quite alone," Hutch said stoutly. "We got plenty of basket cases in the precinct. Guys on the booze, fuck-ups, headcases, that guy in narco with the dodgy eye."

Starsky snorted with deeply inappropriate laughter. "Yeah," he said, "even Dobey and his ulcer."

Hutch tutted to himself, looking up at the car roof and becoming serious all of a sudden. "So," he said, "you got more pain meds?"

"Warp factor eight and warp factor nine," Starsky said. "Nine will send me to la-la land. And I got the blood thinning drugs and I got some antibiotics in case anyone sneezes on me. Can you believe it?"

"And you know which is which, right?"

"Oh they're colour-coded. The horse pills are the ones I should treat with the greatest respect." He shifted, fished in a pocket and drew out one of the little brown bottles. He peered at it, shook it a little. "Yup, these puppies. Blue ones." He frowned. "Or is that pink?"

"Ha ha."

"So... nine more months until the next department physical."

"Nine months," said Hutch. "It's a whole career, Starsk. If you fail it, we get out. No sweat."

"We do?"

Hutch nodded. "Let's do it how we have been," he said. "Me and thee. One day at a time. We never wanted promotion anyway."

"Well I never did."

"I never did either."

"Come on, college boy. Don't tell me you haven't hankered after a big desk and a roster."

"Absolutely not."

"Lieutenant Hutchinson? Captain Hutchinson?"

"Nope."

Starsky gave a low laugh. He was not quite sure, he always figured maybe Hutch had that little bit more ambition in him. Part of the genes. High-achieving family, college education. But somehow it did not matter anymore, even if it were so. They sat for a little longer, this time in companionable silence. They had sat this way in many places, many situations, silent, each with their own thoughts but still connected somehow. It was a good feeling. Eventually Starsky reached for the ignition.

"Could you use a beer?" he said.

Hutch swam out of his reverie. "Sure," he said. "But one more thing, Starsk."

Starsky pursed his lips, jutted them out, left his hand hovering over the car-key. "Hmn?"

"While we're doing this, this crazy thing, doing this job, living this life... don't hold out on me, OK? I'm cool with throwing in my badge tomorrow. Or next month. Or when the medics tell you. When you go, I go. I'm cool with that. But you have to let me do this mission thing."

Starsky seized the key and jerked the Torino into noisy life. "This Mother Hen mission thing?"

"Whatever. I take my role seriously. I've auditioned for it, I deserve it."

"OK. Deal." It was going to be like that, they both knew it. Starsky talking Hutch through panic attacks, palpitations and anxiety. Hutch standing by when the pain got too bad, steering Starsky through the medication that would keep him going. They were a long way from the Academy, a long way from the early days at Metro. Weaker now. But wiser. Sharper. Closer.

"Go on then," Hutch urged, as Starsky hesitated a moment more. "Set a course for Huggy's."

Starsky looked over at him for a second.

Keep doing it, Hutch, he thought. You eat weird crap, the Mother Hen routine does my head in and I don't get those books you read, but it's just fine, it's more than fine. You keep right on doing this mission thing.

He pulled the Torino smoothly away from the edge of the road.