"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Claridge speaking. We've reached our cruising altitude of 36,000 feet, and the 'fasten seat belts' light has been turned off. It looks like we'll have clear skies all the way to New York, folks. Just sit back and enjoy your flight."
The voice over the speakers was deep, gravely, and rumbling, and reminded Starsky a little of Dobey in his calmer moments. Starsky wondered idly what this captain would sound like if his crew members did things to piss him off. Not that he really wanted the man piloting his airplane to be that pissed at anyone; or at all, for that matter. But if he was, would he have the same resonating quality that Dobey could project, the same bellowing outrage that could, if circumstances warranted, punch through his office door and carry clear out into the squad room?
Geez, I miss it, Starsky realized with a pang. He never thought he'd see the day when he would reminisce nostalgically about Dobey yelling at him, and yet here he was. It had been months since his boss had so much as growled in his direction, and the absence of that sound in his life was a glaring reminder that things weren't the same.
Starsky unfastened his seat belt and settled back, trying to find a position that would, hopefully, let him sleep. The seats in Coach were as rigid and uncomfortable as they always were, and he stifled a sigh. Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate, I should have it printed on my forehead like an IBM card, he thought sourly.
"Hey, quit squirming, would you?"
Starsky turned his head and gave Nick a dirty look. "I'm not squirming. And quit hogging the armrest."
Nick grimaced but relinquished the space between them. "Fine. I guess you should have it. You feeling okay?" he asked belatedly. "You want I should ask the stewardess for more pillows, or something?"
"I'm fine," Starsky replied shortly. Another pillow wasn't going to make much difference, one way or another. He forced himself to sit still and hoped fervently that his muscles wouldn't seize up. They were still hours away from landing at LaGuardia, and he already knew from experience that his pain meds had limited effect on that kind of cramping.
After a pause, Nick said, "Are you still mad at me?" Starsky sighed again, aloud this time.
"I'm not mad at you, Nicky."
"'Cause I told you, Davey, I had no idea the date mattered. I wanted to surprise you, for Pete's sake. How could I have asked you without it looking fishy, huh?" It was said with all the petulance of a small child, annoyed that his well-laid plans weren't being received with the gratitude he expected. The possibility that they weren't, perhaps, well-laid after all didn't seem to have occurred to him. The possibility that Starsky would have, in fact, preferred not to be surprised with a trip to New York with only two days' notice seemed to have escaped Nick completely.
"All you had to do was ask me if I had any plans or something," Starsky snapped back before he could catch himself. "You know, like if you were calling to just shoot the breeze, see how I was? Oh wait, that would have looked fishy." Nick's phone calls, once Starsky was out of danger and recovering well, had dropped off to practically nothing. That was one thing that hadn't changed. Besides, Starsky was pretty damn sure the timing of the visit also had something to do with his little brother's newest entrepreneurial venture, which was supposedly "all above board and legit, I swear, Davey," but Nick had been vague and coy about the details, and Starsky, despite his misgivings, hadn't had the energy to push for more.
Nick's face clouded up, so Starsky just held up a hand wearily. "I said I'm not mad, so just drop it, alright?"
Nick, apparently determined to have the last word, said, "Well, Hutch didn't seem to mind, so I don't see why you're the one who's all pissed off."
Starsky clamped down on the words he wanted to say, knowing that they would only add fuel to the fire. Because the truth was, he was pissed, even though Nick was right and Hutch hadn't seemed to mind at all when he'd heard the news.
"That's great, Starsk," he'd said. "Your mom must be thrilled. You were still pretty rough when she was here so soon after— when you were still in the hospital." His eyes got distant for a moment, then he smiled. "She's going to be thrilled to have you there, and see you looking so well."
"Yeah, but... we had plans."
Hutch laughed easily and said, "It's no big deal."
"It is a big deal," Starsky insisted, but Hutch merely waved it off.
"Just bring me back a kitschy souvenir, how's that?" he said, and went off to pack Starsky's suitcase for him.
Starsky watched as Hutch made quick work of it, finding all he needed with practiced ease. Of course, he knew where everything was: even before he'd moved in to help Starsky after the shooting, Hutch had known Starsky's place like the back of his hand, just as Starsky knew Hutch's place as well as his own.
"I don't want to miss your birthday." Starsky was oddly disappointed that Hutch didn't appear to be the least bit upset.
Hutch paused, his hands going still for a few seconds before pushing down the last pair of jeans and closing the case.
"You won't," he replied firmly. "You just won't be here."
Hutch really had been fine, almost obnoxiously cheerful, Starsky thought. He even volunteered to take Nick and Starsky to the airport. He grinned as he told Nick, "You better take good care of him," but there was an edge to the bantering tone and Starsky saw Nick's smile slip a little as he nodded, surreptitiously flexing the hand that Hutch had gripped. Then Hutch caught him in a careful hug. "Give my love to your mom," he said, "and don't forget: bring me back something." Starsky, tired of careful, squeezed back as hard as he could.
"I will," he said, a promise.
"Hey," Nick said, breaking into Starsky's thoughts, "Won't be long now. A few more hours, and we'll be home."
No, Starsky thought. A few more hours, and we'll be in New York.
He closed his eyes and pretended to sleep.
Hutch got to the phone on the third ring. "Hello?"
After a brief pause, Hutch heard, "Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, dear Bliiiiiiintz, happy birthday to youuuuuuuuu!"
Laughing, Hutch said, "Why, thank you, Starsk. You were even on key."
Starsky chuckled back. "Nothing's too good for you, babe. Ma and Nicky said to say 'happy birthday' too."
"That's nice. Thank them for me, will you?"
"Sure thing. So, whatcha doing?"
"Well, I was sleeping, seeing as how I'm not working today and it's only—"
"Oh shit, it's only 5:30! Damn, I forgot."
"You forgot about three time zones?" Hutch asked drily. "It's the same three time zones you adjust for when you call your mom, only backwards instead of forwards."
"Shaddup. I wanted to talk to you, okay? But I'm sorry I woke you." Starsky really did sound contrite, so Hutch only rolled his eyes.
"You've been gone less than a week, don't tell me you miss me already," he teased.
"Nah, of course not," Starsky said lightly. "What about you? Miss me?"
"Of course not."
They listened to the faint crackle of the long distance connection for several long moments.
Eventually, Starsky coughed and said, "So, whatcha gonna do, then?"
"Go for a run. Maybe take a drive later."
"Is that all?" Starsky sounded disappointed.
Hutch sighed. "I told you, I'm fine. Really. Don't worry about it."
"Yeah, okay," Starsky said reluctantly, then added, "I'll make it up to you later."
"I'm counting on it," Hutch said firmly. "So, what's been going on with you? Feeling alright? Not overdoing things, are you?"
"Gee, Ma. I thought I just saw you in the kitchen. What are you doing all the way over in Bay City?"
"Ha, ha, very funny. Starsky...."
"I'm doing okay, babe. The flight over wasn't a picnic, but I've been taking it pretty easy since I've been here. Trust me, the mom that's actually here won't let me overdo anything, either." Starsky's exasperated amusement was reassuring, and Hutch relaxed.
"Good. Seen all the relatives yet?"
"Most of them." Starsky's voice dropped slightly. "I tell you Hutch, they're family and I love 'em, but if one more cousin asks me what it was like to get shot, I swear I'm going to offer to show him first hand."
"Aw, cut them a little slack, huh?" Hutch chided, although not without sympathy for his partner's frustration. "They've probably never had a real-life hero in their midst before."
"Fuck that 'hero' shit. Taking a bullet doesn't make me a hero." The words were soft but uttered with an intensity that rendered Hutch momentarily speechless.
In a way, I suppose that's true, Hutch thought. You were my hero long before Gunther.
Aloud, he forced himself to say calmly, "You took three. And it wasn't the first time you were shot in the line of duty. I think that qualifies, Starsky."
"Hell, no. Getting shot didn't make me a hero, it just made me bleed. You're the hero, Hutch."
That surprised him again. "No, Starsk—"
"Yes, you are. You brought down one of the biggest criminals in the country, maybe the biggest. How do you not get that this is a huge fucking deal? That's doing your duty, that's what a hero does." Starsky's voice broke, and he paused before he went on hoarsely, "Don't you know how God damned proud I am of you?"
Hutch struggled to keep his own voice even. "I didn't do it alone. You were there with me, every step of the way. Don't you ever doubt that."
A murmur in the background caught his attention, and he stopped speaking to listen. He recognized the voice as Rachel's, although he couldn't make out the words. Starsky cleared his throat.
"Nothing. Just talking to Hutch," Starsky said, obviously not to him. Then, "Yes, I know it's early over there, Ma.... Yes, I told him, and he said 'thanks'.... Okay. Just give me a minute, I'll be right there." After a few seconds, he said, "Hutch?"
"Still here," Hutch replied. He took a deep breath and pulled himself together. "You gotta get going, huh?"
"I do, yeah. Sorry. Ma has a bunch of things planned and we need to head out soon if we're going to have a snowball's chance in hell of getting them all done today."
"Sure. You enjoy yourself, and don't let the cousins wind you up, okay?"
Hutch could hear the gentle affection in that one word, could picture the smile that went with it, soft and warm. He closed his eyes to make the image last a little while longer.
Just before he hung up the phone, he heard, "Hey, Hutch."
"I do miss you, you know."
"I love you too, Starsk."
Starsky groaned as he lowered himself onto the sofa. "Oh God, I don't think I can eat another bite, ever."
Rachel Starsky laughed as she locked the door and began removing her coat. "You say that, and yet somehow you'll be hungry tomorrow. It's funny how that happens."
Starsky chuckled weakly, which was all he could manage without doing himself an injury. "Well, yeah. Only, not really all that funny. Not right now, anyway."
"It's nice, getting to eat some really good food for a change, huh? Put some meat on your bones," Nick said, plopping himself down next to Starsky and aiming an elbow at his ribs.
Starsky blocked it and frowned. He was only a few pounds shy of his normal weight, but he knew the loss of muscle mass made him look thinner than that. Regaining the strength and stamina he had lost to his injuries was an ongoing battle, but it was a battle he was determined to win, and soon. "It's not like we don't have good food in California too, you know."
"Yeah, but I'm not just talking about fancy restaurants. You can't get great home cooking like Ma's or Aunt Liz's," Nick countered. "And Aunt Rosie's doesn't count."
"Show a little respect, Nicholas," Rachel said in an admonishing tone, but her lips were pursed with obvious amusement.
"What? Davey always used to complain about her cooking," Nick said. Starsky, recalling at least several such conversations in years past, could not deny the charge. He felt his cheeks grow warm.
"Geez, what kid doesn't complain about having to eat vegetables and stuff? Besides, that was a long time ago," he said. "I can cook, you know. And so can Hutch."
"I understand my 'Paul Muni Special' recipe was quite a hit," Rachel said complacently, ruffling both men's hair as she passed behind them to sit in her favorite armchair.
"That pot roast is the best, Ma. No one makes it better than you, but Hutch comes pretty close," Starsky said, and smiled at her delighted laughter.
"Seriously, though," Nick said, "There's no place like New York, am I right?"
Starsky nodded absently. It had been fun, playing tourist and seeing the sights. Nostalgia had been mixed with amazement, as nearly everything was recognizable, but very different from how he remembered them as a child.
"Yeah, greatest city in the world," Nick continued. "Too bad you're too far away to appreciate it more often. Maybe you oughta do something about that, big brother." He stood up and stretched. "I'm gonna hit the sack. G'night."
"Good night," Rachel said. Starsky just watched with narrowed eyes as Nick disappeared down the hallway towards his bedroom.
When they heard the door close, Rachel smiled faintly at Starsky. "He wants you to move back, you know."
"Yeah, I know," Starsky replied with a sigh. "He's been hinting at it the whole time I've been here. That's really what this trip is about, isn't it? I figured he was up to something when he waved those airline tickets in my face."
Rachel tilted her head slightly and said, "Shame on you, David Michael, for thinking that your brother would have ulterior motives." She waited a beat, then added, "Even if it happens to be true." Her delivery was perfect, with only the barest hint of irony coloring her words. Starsky grinned briefly.
"He wants to move to Chicago," she continued. "One of his friends has an electronics shop there, and is apparently doing quite well. He's asked Nicholas to help him run the business. I've known Anthony since he was in short pants, and I know his parents. He's a good boy, David, not like some of Nicholas' other 'friends.'" At Starsky's raised eyebrow, she added ruefully, "Yes, I know. You don't have to say anything."
Starsky shook his head and said it anyway, although not unkindly. "You've always been too easy on him."
She nodded resignedly. "A mother divides her love among her children equally, but for good or ill, she gives her help to the one that needs it the most. God help me, that has always been Nicholas." She looked at Starsky, her eyes clear but sad. "I did the best I could, but it wasn't enough, was it? For him or for you."
Starsky went over to her side and, perching on the armrest of her chair, pulled her into his arms. "You did good, Ma, really. Us Starsky men are a real handful, that's all. Nicky will come around. Sounds like he's turning a new leaf, right? And hey, look how well I turned out."
Rachel pulled back slightly to look at him. She cupped his face in her hands. "You turned out very well, indeed. No thanks to me, but—"
"Aw, Ma. That's not true. C'mon, now."
"Hush," she said, and Starsky knew that was going to be the last word on the subject. She pushed him away gently, and Starsky went back to the sofa. "Anyway, Nicholas has got it in his head that he can't leave if I'm here by my lonesome, so he's making his pitch for you to come back."
Starsky studied her closely. "Is that what you want, Ma?"
Rachel shook her head. "It is NOT," she huffed with mock indignation, "He's taken the whole 'man of the house' thing a bit too far. Am I so old and frail that I need looking after?"
Starsky smiled fondly. "No, old and frail you definitely are not. I think Nicky's confused about who's been looking after who, all these years. Still, he does have a point."
"What, about me being alone? Don't be silly. I have family, and friends. We'll cross the 'looking after' bridge when the time comes. Right now I have a very full and very rich life, one that does not completely revolve around my sons, thank you very much."
"Okay, okay." Starsky held up his hands placatingly. Rachel winked, then sobered.
"I don't deny that I wish you were closer, David. But it was my decision to send you to California, and that is your home now. I realized that when you were here for those few months after you got out of the army."
Starsky blinked, surprised. "Really? You never said anything at the time."
"Well, I was hoping you'd stay," she said wryly. "Still, when you left, I knew it was for the best."
Starsky nodded. After his discharge he'd been restless, unsettled. He hadn't truly known what he wanted at the time. But then he'd talked to John Blaine, made the decision to enter the Police Academy, met Hutch... and he hadn't looked back since.
"It would be selfish of me to insist you move back to New York now, even if I wanted you to. And I don't, trust me. Your life is there. Your life... and your heart."
Starsky started, then stared at his mother as though seeing her for the first time.
"It would be selfish of me to begrudge you your happiness, or object to it, simply because it wasn't what I expected." She reached out her hand. "I wouldn't. Do you believe me?"
Starsky knelt next to her chair. "Yes," he whispered.
"Good." Rachel smiled warmly. "Do you have something to tell me, David?"
Starsky lifted her hand to his lips before enfolding it in both of his.
Starsky got out of the elevator, took two steps, and stopped short.
Hutch gave him a gentle shove from behind with one of Starsky's suitcases. "Hey," he said, with pretended annoyance, "you're blocking the way."
"Merle finished ahead of schedule," he said gruffly. "When I told him I was picking you up from the airport today, he insisted I drive the damned thing."
"Aw, Hutch. You do love me." Starsky hurried across the parking deck and patted the hood of the newly-repaired Torino reverently. "I've missed you, baby."
"Oh, for crying out loud," Hutch said with asperity, but he couldn't take his eyes off his partner's face. The entire ride home, Hutch watched Starsky from behind his sunglasses. He lights up when he's happy, Hutch thought. He glows. God, he should always look this way.
When they got inside the apartment, Starsky sank down onto his couch with a contented sigh.
"You okay?" Hutch asked. "Why don't you take a nap?"
Starsky looked up with a bright grin. "I told you, I'm fine, Hutch. That empty seat next to me made a world of difference. And I hardly had to take any meds at all during the whole time I was away." He patted the seat next to him. "C'mere, sit down."
Hutch obeyed with a rueful smile, turning slightly to face him. "You're doing so great. I forget, sometimes, how far you've come. Sorry."
"Sorry? For what? For worrying about me? For taking care of me when I couldn't take care of myself? For loving me?" Starsky grabbed Hutch by the collar and pulled him in. "Don't be stupid."
The hug was tight, almost fierce, but it was the kiss that stole his breath away. Starsky's lips took possession of his, claiming ownership, and Hutch was only too glad to yield: every breath, every heartbeat. Every fiber of his being. He belonged to Starsky, after all, just as Starsky belonged to him.
Starsky gave a groan of protest when Hutch broke off the kiss, but they were both panting by that time and needed the air. Hutch, with his fingers laced together behind Starsky's neck, pressed his forehead to Starsky's and just held him there: Starsky's strong pulse beating under his palms, Starsky's warm breath mingling with his own. God, he'd missed this so badly.
"You were right," Starsky said softly, when he could breathe normally.
"Of course I was," Hutch said automatically, and Starsky snorted. "About what?"
"About Nicky, and the trip."
At that, Hutch sat up and dropped his hands. "He tried to convince you to move back to New York," he said grimly.
Starsky nodded. "He wants to take a job in Chicago, and thought it'd be easier for him to go if I was closer to Ma."
Hutch felt his heart sink. Damn Nick, it was the one argument that trumped all others, the one thing that Starsky would not ignore. And Hutch wouldn't want him to. If Rachel needed Starsky, well, that was all there was to it.
"So," he said, trying not to sound as disappointed as he felt, "when are you going back home?"
Starsky just stared at him with a look of amazement. "Boy, you really are stupid today. I am back home. Wherever you are, is home."
Hutch wasn't sure what his face was doing. He suspected he was grinning, or crying, or something equally ridiculous, but he found he didn't really care. "Yeah?" was all he could manage to choke out.
"Yeah." Starsky was smiling that bright, beautiful smile again. "Ma, she's really something, you know? I told her about us, Hutch."
"I did. Well, I tried, but she already knew. All this time, and I'd been so careful.... I guess she knows me better than I thought. Anyway, now it's official, I guess. She and Nicky both know. Then she told Nicky to go do his thing in Chicago, and me to do my thing in Bay City, and she would keep doing her thing in New York." Starsky laughed, and Hutch felt a weight lift off both their shoulders.
"Your mom is an amazing woman, Starsk."
"That she is," Starsky said, nodding emphatically. "At some point, though, she will probably need one of us to be close by," he added pensively.
"Whatever she needs, we'll work it out, babe," Hutch assured him. "That's what family does."
Starsky gave him a look so intense that Hutch felt his ears start to burn. "What?"
"Nothing. Everything. I love you, Hutch." The kiss this time was gentle, sweet, and above all else, a promise of unwavering devotion.
Afterward, Starsky dug into his suitcase and pulled out an oddly-shaped object, covered in red paper and festooned with ribbons. "Happy belated birthday, Blintz."
Hutch ripped off the wrapping to find... "The Statue of Liberty."
Starsky grinned mischievously. "I promised you a souvenir, didn't I? What's more kitschy than a plastic model of Lady Liberty? Lookit, it even glows in the dark!" He looked up at Hutch expectantly.
I hope I always make him look this way.
"Yes, it does. Thank you, Starsk."
Thank you for coming home.