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At three in the morning, fluorescent hospital lights burn your eyes, force you to squint and wish for cool moonless nights or dark sunglasses. When you have a hangover from shared wine and too much tearful laughter, the lights can cause you to swear you’ll never drink again. Especially when you are trying to look inconspicuous while sneaking in to see your partner.

When the festive party in Starsky’s room had turned into a spring shower, Dobey and Huggy had grabbed all the evidence of the merry band’s rule breaking and gotten the heck out of Sherwood Forest, leaving Hutch alone with Starsky, weak from laughter and relief. At Dobey’s last barked order as he left the room, Hutch summoned enough strength and presence of mind to bodily lift a giggling Starsky and move him to the empty bed by the window.

Hutch cringed at how light he felt and held him close to his chest to spare him any pain the jostling might cause, then gently placed him on the dry haven. Next, Hutch swiftly got him out of his soaked pajama top and cautiously felt his chest to see if the water had gotten through his friend’s bandages to the massive damage underneath.

Hutch’s hand lingered above Starsky’s heart. He closed his eyes, hearing the blip of a ping-pong ball that haunted him night and day. The sound of the ball becoming the beat of Starsky’s heart and his own. One bad play and the ball is off the table.

When Starsky placed his hand over Hutch’s and squeezed, Hutch came back to reality to see steel blue eyes full of concern. He smiled at his partner and fussed with the blankets, tucking him in.

~~~S&H~~~

Once the sprinkler was turned off, the floor nurses fumed and fussed, circling their patient like a witch’s coven. Starsky’s doctor breathed fire. The head R.N., backed by a huge orderly, spoke heated words to a chastised Hutch who backed away from the chaos.

Hutch meekly let himself be removed from Starsky’s side without resistance but not without hesitation. His eyes never left Starsky who chuckled and threw him a lopsided shrug, as far as his bandaging would allow. Hutch shook off the orderly to bow and blow Starsky an exaggerated kiss. Hutch straightened his wet clothes, smoothed his hair, oblivious to all but his partner’s smile as he walked out.

Hutch hit the cool air of the May evening and shivered. He knew of a coffee shop nearby where he could wait and warm up a bit. He wouldn’t go home to change. He couldn’t face the quiet of his home for more than the five minutes it took him to pack a duffel bag and head to work or the hospital. He toyed with the idea of going to Starsky’s place for a quick hot shower and borrowed clothes, but just the thought of being there without his partner made him shiver again from more than the cold.

~~~S&H~~~

Hutch glanced at his pocket watch. Three a.m. was when Starsky usually woke because that was about the time his pain medication wore off. If Hutch were there, Starsky would talk and smile despite the pain almost like he and Hutch were on stakeout in the Striped Tomato until the nurse came in with Starsky’s next dose of meds. Hutch always waited till he was sure Starsky was asleep before he made his way to Metro for a shower and another change of clothes.

Three a.m. was also the time for change of shift. Hutch found in the organized confusion of nurses coming, going, updating each other on patients and gossip, he could get into Starsky’s room without being seen by the powers that be. The night staff tolerated him if he was unobtrusive. The watchman just happened to be a retired cop who happily looked the other way as long as Hutch brought hot, black coffee and listened for a few minutes to well worn stories of him and his own gone but not forgotten partner’s exploits.

Once the tales were ended for the night, Hutch slipped into Starsky’s room, closed the door behind him and took up his vigil at Starsky’s side to watch him breathe in and out. He pulled the chair close enough to the bed to be in just the right spot to hold Starsky’s hand.

“I wondered if you’d show up tonight, Blondie.” Starsky croaked out. Even with his eyes closed he knew the hand holding his.

Hutch smiled. “Couldn't keep me away. How you feeling? That surprise shower didn’t cause any problems did it?”

Starsky opened his eyes and blinked to clear them. “Naaaa. It was just water. No harm done. That veal was worth it. And watching you three numskulls scramble did me a world of good, babe. Never thought Dobey could move that fast.”

Starsky chuckled and took a deep breath that ended in a harsh cough. But then continued as if he didn’t even notice while Hutch’s chest tightened with worry.

“They took the wet bed out. Guess they want to sterilize it or somethin’. No biggie. ‘Sides, this one is closer to the window. I thought they might have taken you away in cuffs though.” Starsky patted his partner’s arm. “Hey! Why’s your jacket feel damp. You changed didn’t you?”

Hutch stood and walked to the window, avoiding the subject. The last thing he wanted was Starsky to worry about him.

“What’s it like out there tonight, Hutch. Is it rainin’? I think the thing I miss most about this whole invalid thing is goin’ outside for a breather.”

Starsky sounded so down. Hutch knew it had to be hard for his normally energetic partner to feel so caged in - like an animal in a trap. Hutch opened the Venetian blind and took in the view. He quickly glanced at Starsky’s bed and realized sadly that his partner couldn’t see out the window at all. He heard the ping-pong ball in his head hit his side of the table and looked over at Starsky’s expectant face as he hit the ball back.

“Ah, Starsk. It’s a beautiful night. The palm trees are waving in the light spring breeze and the moonlight is shining on that tiny pond in the park cross the ways making it look like it’s full of sparkling silver fishes. The stars are out blinking in the midnight blue sky. Oooo! I saw a falling star! That’s good luck. Make a wish, Starsk.”

“You saw it fall, Hutch.”

“Yeah, well I got what I wished for. You take this one, buddy.”

Starsky closed his eyes and shook his head. “Okay, if you insist.” Starsky made a show of making a wishing face, like a child blowing out his birthday candles. “There. All done. I made a good wish. Now come back over here and tell my how about this new task force you’re on to make sure Gunther goes down hard.”

~~~S&H~~~

Dobey watched as Hutch went over the spreadsheets laid out in his office yet again. He took in his worn appearance and anxious eyes as they discussed strategy with the District Attorney and the corporate lawyer assigned to the task force. The bust was Starsky and Hutch’s, no question, but knowing the strain Hutch was under, Dobey got him some help with the morass of pre-trial paperwork. He and Hutch were working closely with the lawyers to make sure every loophole was closed and no bit of evidence was tainted. All four men knew that Gunther still wielded some power, even behind bars. Dobey wanted to make sure that Gunther’s last act would not be to take Starsky and Hutch down with him.

When the lawyers took their leave heading out for a late breakfast, Hutch sat back in his chair and wiped at his tired eyes. It was nine-thirty and visiting hours at the hospital started at ten a.m. Hutch tried to get there on time everyday. Thinking of Starsky’s smiling greeting each morning was the only thing keeping him going.

Dobey had arranged all meetings around visiting hours so that Hutch was able to be with Starsky. Dobey was proud to see that the other Detectives were treating Hutch with an odd mix of hero worship and mother-henning. Coffee and sandwiches seemed to magically appear at Hutch’s desk whenever he was in the office. Some days Dobey was sure it was the only time Hutch let himself eat. Dobey knew Hutch was hurting and didn’t dare put him back on the streets without his partner.

Dobey had Hutch’s back the way he always did. He organized a small task force to tighten their case against Gunther in answer to the higher up’s inevitable questions about what the hell Hutch was doing with his time. As Hutch groaned and raised himself from the chair, Dobey touched his arm.

“I know how Starsky is doing since you give me an update every morning, but how are you holding up, son?” He asked gently.

Hutch looked towards the ceiling and grimaced as the ping pong game in his head picked up speed. “Nothing happened to me, Captain.”

“Well, that’s a load of bull.” Dobey took Hutch’s hand and turned it to see how his injured wrist was coming along. It was covered with a large size band aid that was a little frayed around the edges. Hutch winced at the touch. “This still hurts? It got infected didn’t it? Did you ever even see a Doctor?”

Hutch pulled his hand away and stood. “It’s nothing! I didn’t get shot! I didn’t flat line and…”

“What the hell are you shouting for Hutch? I’m right here. I’m here for you. You know that.”

Hutch could barely hear him because of the little white ball’s relentless rhythm. He took a deep breath to calm himself. “I know, Captain. I’m so grateful to you. I just… I…”

Dobey sighed and placed on of his big powerful hands on Hutch’s bent shoulder. “It’s okay to take what you need to let yourself heal, son. You were hurt just as much as Starsky was. Yeah, we almost lost that curly haired bastard, but he beat the odds, didn’t he? You’re not a lone white knight slaying a dragon. We got Gunther by the balls and I for one am not letting go. You are not alone.”

Hutch pulled back, nodded and smiled. Hutch drew strength from the stalwart brown eyes that met his blue ones. He patted Dobey on the shoulder. “Thanks, Cap. I gotta go.”

As he walked out the office, Dobey yelled, “Hutch! Whatever you need to get through this. I’ve got your back.”

Hutch heard the ping-pong game slow at the kind words, but in a breath it started again, sure and steady. He turned with his hand on the squad room's door, gave Dobey a quick nod and left.

~~~S&H~~~

“Hey! Hutch! Good news. I start physical therapy on Friday. I already had this guy come in to exercise my legs in the bed. Tomorrow I might be able to try to go for a stroll down the hall!”

Hutch grinned in answer to Starsky’s announcement. He tried to not to think of the irony of his ball of energy partner excited about taking a few steps. “That’s terrific, buddy.”

He stepped up to the bed and automatically placed a small kiss on Starsky’s forehead as he smoothed back his hair. Starsky’s raised eyebrow reminded him Starsky was usually asleep when he did this. Hutch started to blush. Starsky smiled and took his hand.

“It’s okay, Hutch. Whatever you need.” Starsky echoed Dobey’s earlier words, leaving Hutch puzzled.

“I don’t need anything but for you to get better, Starsk.”

Starsky smirked as if he knew something Hutch didn’t. “Uh, huh. So give me the weather report, babe.”

“Wha’?”

“The window.”

“Oh, oh! Yeah.” Hutch went to the window and looked out. “It’s another beautiful spring day, Starsk. That little park is so pretty. It’s got trimmed grass and a little playground for the kiddies. Lots of trees and benches and that pond I told you about. There’s a Dad and his kid feeding the ducks. They must be hungry. They sure are mugging the kid.”

Starsky chuckled. “I was scared of geese when I was little. Those suckers would take my animal crackers right outta my hands. So I’d have to take Nicky’s.”

Hutch smiled. Starsky was safe in his happy memories. “There’s a man jogging…” He continued but Starsky interrupted him.

“What color shoes?”

“Huh?”

“Sneakers. What color?”

“Oh. Ah, white with green stripes.”

“Hum. Haven’t seen my shoes around here. Figured maybe I needed a new pair if…”

Hutch closed his eyes. Starsky’s blue Adidas had been covered with blood. They were in the evidence lock up at Metro along with his other clothes and his leather jacket with the three bloody holes torn into it. The ping-pong balls were bouncing and Starsky’s heart was pumping blood out of his wounds…

“Hutch? Babe? What’s wrong? What do you see? Something happening out there?”

Hutch shook his head and opened his eyes. “N… no... “ He tried to steady his voice for Starsky’s sake. “Nothing’s wrong, it’s just… ahhh… this dog with a leash trailing behind it attacked the jogger.”

“No way! He okay?”

“Sure it’s just a little ankle biter… a white poodle… with little pink bows tied up in it’s ears. Oh, and here comes the owner, she’s a beautiful blonde in a yellow dress with flowers in her hair.”

“Hey! You think the jogger and the blonde are gonna hook up?”

“Well, she’s holding the dog. The dog is growling at the jogger..” Hutch smiled at Starsky’s laugh. “She’s reaching in her little straw purse…”

“Uh! He’s gonna score!”

Hutch chuckled. “Yep. Phone number given. She smiles. He goes to shake her hand. Oh! The dog gets out of her grasp.. And the jogger takes off running. It’s okay, though, the blonde is running after both of them.”

Hutch turned away from the window and took in his chuckling partner. He was holding his ribs while he laughed, with a big grin on his face. Starsky waved Hutch over to his waiting chair.

“That’s rich. Funny I never knew there was a park there.”

Hutch stifled an unexpected yawn as he sat. “Well, it’s hidden.You can’t see it from the road. I think it’s private. Part of that subdivision next to the hospital. Probably a lot of the hospital staff live there.”

Starsky caught Hutch’s yawn and went for it big time.

Hutch chuckled softly and patted Starsky’s arm. “You must be worn out, Starsk. You’re doing so well. I’m proud of you. Take a nap. I’ll stay right here.”

Hutch moved his hand till it was resting on Starsky’s forehead. He began drawing soothing lines over the pale skin with his long fingers. Starsky hummed his sleepy approval as his eyelids drooped shut.

“Shhhh, babe. I’ll watch over you.” Hutch whispered.

The ping-pong ball game continued.

~~~S&H~~~

Friday at ten, Hutch made his way to Starsky’s room eager to hear how the first day of physical therapy went. His own experiences with therapy after being trapped under his car gave him a good idea of how exhausted Starsky would be so he had brought coffee and crullers from his partner’s favorite bakery to take his mind away from the pain.

“Hey, Hutch.” Starsky said weakly.

Hutch’s ping-pong ball skipped a bounce when he saw the IV drip back in Starsky’s arm and a sickly pallor back on his face. Hutch ran to the bed tossing his white bags of goodies on the bedside table.

“Oh, babe! What’s wrong?” Hutch immediately started to stroke Starsky’s hair. He felt warm. “You got a fever?”

Starsky closed his eyes briefly and pushed his head into Hutch’s hand like an affectionate cat.

“Ummm. That feels good, Blondie. Yeah, they said I’m fightin’ some sort of infection. I woke up this mornin’ shiverin’ and sweatin’’. Good news is it ain’t my lungs and the fever is low grade.”

Hutch took in a shaky breath. He felt his eyes tear up and his hands starting to tremble. “It’s alright, partner. We’ll get through this too,” he said more to himself than to Starsky,

Starsky stilled and took Hutch’s hand into his own.

“Awww, Hutch? It will be alright. Just a little infection. They already got antibiotics drippin’ in me. Believe me it’s nothin’.” Starsky turned his attention to the white bag and deflected. “Whadya bring me, huh?”

Hutch tried to pull himself together as he raised the bed slightly and handed Starsky his sugary treats. He walked over to the window as Starsky inhaled the aroma coming from the bag. “I’ll skip the hot coffee, Hutch. But this beauty ain’t gettin’ away.” Starsky pulled the pastry out of the bag and took a small bite, closing his eyes in donut induced ecstasy “Man, I’d sure love to get away from these four walls. Just to take a walk around the block would be heaven. Tell me what’s goin’ on in the park today, buddy.”

Hutch blinked the tears away and cleared his throat quietly. He concentrated on the beauty of the park.

“It’s a warm morning. The moms are out with their kids. There are two young mothers sitting on a bench by the playground. They both have coffee cups in their hands and are talking a mile a minute. Their kids are in the sandbox. Two little boys, sweet as angels. One’s a redhead and one has dark hair peeking out from under a Dodger’s cap that’s too big for him.”

“Awww, cool! A little fan. They behavin’ themselves? That seems strange. I never behaved in the sandbox. So much potential for mischief.”

“Well they seem to be getting along. Of course they are just three or so… whoops! Spoke too soon. The redhead just dumped a pail of sand on the Dodger fan’s head!”

“Uh, oh!” Starsky chuckled.

“The moms are not paying attention.”

“Naaaa. They wouldn’t notice. My Ma never stopped talkin’ to her friends till the blood was flowin’.”

“Dodger fan’s going for the slow burn. His cap is off. He’s filling it with sand. Whoa! It’s on the redhead’s head.”

“Tit for tat.” Starsky smiled. “Any tears yet?”

Hutch couldn’t help but smile himself. His observations through glass for Starsky’s entertainment seemed to be the only time he could leave the worries the room held behind.

“Not yet. Both boys are standing now. The redhead threw the Dodgers cap into the sandbox. The Dodgers fan is motioning for him to pick it up. Redhead crossed his arms. Oh! No! He stuck out his tongue. Bad move. Yup! Very bad move. Dodgers fan was ready. Redhead now has a mouth full of sand.”

Starsky’s deep laugh filled the room. “Oh! He didn’t see that coming!”

Hutch hoped to keep the laughter flowing. “Uh,oh. A new element is being added. Another mom, coffee in hand is sitting down on the bench. She‘s brought a darling little girl in pigtails dressed in a pink polka dot sundress into the mix.”

“Icky. Girl cooties.”

Hutch chuckled at Starsky’s remark.

“Let’s see if the boys agree. They are poking at each other, throwing sand everywhere. Pigtails approaches them. The boys spot her and freeze. She swings her hips side to side making her hair bounce. She’s saying something. Dodgers fan puts his hat back on. Redhead nods at Dodgers fan. Oh! Man! They both threw sand at pigtails and ran for the monkey bars.”

Starsky laughed and wiped his eyes. “That made my day, babe.”

~~~S&H~~~

Huggy was cleaning up the bar, stacking chairs and wiping tables. All the while he had an eye on his last customer of the night. In fact, it was the same last customer he’d had every night for weeks. Hutch was tucked securely in his favorite booth, nursing his third beer, a plate of food untouched at his elbow. His eyes were glazed, far beyond tired. He was watching and listening to the steady beats of a ping-pong game that made up his life.

Huggy slid into the booth and flung a friendly arm around Hutch’s shoulders. “How you doin’ tonight, my blond bro?”

Hutch blinked, and allowed himself to slowly settle into the loose embrace of his good pal.

“He’s still fighting the infection. Everyday he fights it and it puts him further and further behind in his physical therapy. It’s really hard for him to keep his spirits up, Hug.”

“So you told me when you arrived, all those hours, beers and not even touched Huggy’s Hutch special ago. I asked how are you are doin. I can tell how Starsky is doin’ just by the look on your face.”

Hutch straightened a little and drained his beer. It was warm and skunky and Hutch grimaced.

“Don’t blame me. That beer was fresh from the tap three hours ago, man.”

“I know, Hug. Sorry. Thanks for letting me hang out here. I’m fine. Just worried about Starsky.”

Huggy sighed. “Hutch. I know your schedule. You go to work. You visit Starsky. You go back to work. You visit Starsky. You come here. I make you dynamite food that you don’t touch, till it’s time for you to sneak into the hospital in the wee hours of the morning and sit with Starsky. When do you go home, bro? When do you take a drive or a walk on the beach to clear your head or just relax and get a good night’s sleep?”

Hutch fidgeted. What was Huggy’s point? Starsky was still battling for his life. Gunther’s trial wasn’t for weeks yet. How could he possibly relax?

“Is this about your cousin Clara? Does she want more money to clean the apartments? Because I’d be glad to…” Hutch had asked Huggy to hire someone to take care of Starsky and his apartments. Mostly water the plants, do Hutch's meager amount of laundry, pick up mail and dust. Not too taxing a job. And Huggy had insisted on paying for it.

“Noooo, my clueless friend. No, this is about you takin’ time to heal. You’re runnin’ on fumes, Hutch. Yeah, Starsky needs you. But he’d never want you to put him before everything.”

“He is my everything! I didn’t get shot, Hug. I didn’t get shot, he did.” Hutch placed his hands over his ears as the ping-pong game in his head grew more frantic. What if he missed a volley?

“Hutch, baby? What’s wrong?” Huggy watched with concern while Hutch rocked back and forth holding his head. “You got a migraine? Why don’t you forget about goin’ to the hospital tonight and get some sleep upstairs. Tomorrow’s Saturday. I’ll wake you in time for you to have a good breakfast and you can see Starsky in the morning.”

Hutch growled, “Let me up, Huggy!”

And Huggy did. He let Hutch out of the booth, but put both his hands on Hutch’s shoulders and looked into his eyes. Huggy was taken aback at the despair he saw there.

“I… I’m sorry, Hug. I… Thanks… but I gotta go to him. There’s nothing left but him, don’t you see? I can’t drop the ball.”

Hutch ran out the door leaving a stunned Huggy Bear behind. This wasn’t right. Starsky was alive, struggling, but alive. Starsky would make it. He was wrapped in a cocoon of care, love and good wishes. Even the scales of justice were leaning a bit towards his side. But what if ...

~~~S&H~~~

Hutch sat in his uncomfortable chair next to Starsky’s bed from three a.m. until Starsky woke at seven. By now the shower party had been forgiven by the staff and they left Hutch alone with his thoughts. It was Saturday and if he wanted, he could spend the whole day with Starsky without interruption. As long as he was quiet and didn’t make waves, or any more showers.

Starsky’s doctor had given his tacit approval to the unorthodox weekend visiting hours, bowing to the hopeful request from his favorite miracle patient. No one spoke of Hutch’s three a.m. visits or did the math on how much time the blond detective spent at his partner’s side. They just learned to work around him.

Hutch listened in as Starsky’s doctor told him the good news.

“You are doing great, Dave. Your white blood cell count is normal. Temperature is normal. We can start your physical therapy again on Monday. I know you are a week behind because of your infection. But everything looks good now. And if all continues to go well, you may be able to go home in two weeks. Your recovery is nothing short of miraculous. And if I might say, your attitude through all this has been inspiring.”

Starsky gave his doctor a relieved smile. He nodded towards Hutch. “Easy to keep your spirits up and fight the good fight with a partner like Hutch on your side. He’s been here every step of the way.”

Hutch looked down at the floor speechless. He had done nothing. The doctor gave Hutch a quick pat on the back as he turned to leave. “Good friends are more precious than gold, Dave. You are a lucky man.”

Hutch looked up and mumbled, “Thanks, Doc.” But how could he thank a man who had given him back his world?

The silence after the doctor left was unusual. Hutch was stuck in the ping-pong game in his head. It was an endless, heated match. How could it keep up at this pace? Hutch couldn’t find any words for his partner.

“Babe? You okay? You look kinda pale.”

Hutch took a deep breath. “I’m fine, Starsk. Just happy to hear you’re doing so well. I was thinking, when you come home, where would you like to go?” Hutch shook his aching head. “ I mean, do you want me to stay with you at your place? Or mine? Huggy offered a beach house he knows about. Belongs to an aunt or cousin or someone, you know Huggy’s many relatives.”

Starsky shrugged. “Hadn’t really thought about it.”

“Well, whatever you want, babe. The beach house is all one floor, no stairs. That might be good at first. We kept up your apartment, Hug and I. You won’t find withered plants on your shelves or mold creatures inhabiting your fridge and all your bills are paid. Maybe the beach house for a month and then move back to your place when you can take the stairs?”

Starsky arranged his head on his pillow so he could better see his partner’s face. “Got it all figured out, huh. You sure you wanna bunk with me? Might cramp your style, buddy, having your has-been partner around all the time.”

Hutch stood abruptly. “Don’t say that. Don’t ever say that. You are not a has-been! You… you are everything. You… you don’t even know how much you…”

“Hey! It’s alright Hutch. I was just joking. Stupid joke. I should not have said that. It’s just you kinda overwhelmed me, Hutch. You just put your life on hold for me and you wanna continue for who knows how long. Not to mention the money you must have laid out…”

“Money? Who the hell cares about money? I’d give you anything, Starsk. I’d give you my life. I’d give anything for it to be me in that bed and not you. Why? Why, Starsk? Why you and not me? It should have been me. I deserve it.”

“Hutch!”

Hutch went to the window. He pulled back the blind, His voice was rough with emotion as tears puddled in his eyes. A few were released with a blink. Hutch blinked a few more times to clear his misty vision.

“It’s sprinkling outside, Starsk. It probably will start raining soon. There’s no one in the park. No...wait… there’s a gray-haired gentleman on the bench by the pond. His elbows are on his knees. His head is in his hand. I don’t think he knows it’s going to rain.”

“Hutch. Baby. Come away from the window.” Starsky spoke softly like he would to a frightened child.

Hutch shook his head. “He’s so alone, Starsk. He has everything, but he’s so alone.”

“Hutch.” Starsky stretched out his hand. “Hutch. Sit by me.”

“Starsk? Why would someone sit in a park in the rain. Why wouldn’t they come when the sun is out and the grass is so green, the air so fresh. Why would they choose to sit in the rain?”

“I don’t know, baby. Please, Hutch, come over here.”

The man on the bench slowly raised his head and turned to look up at the hospital’s windows. Hutch gasped. It was Gunther. The gray-haired man looked straight at Hutch and raised his hands. In his hands were a paddle and a ping-pong ball. The man on the bench threw the small white ball in the air and swung the paddle.

Hutch grabbed his ears. The ping-plunk of the game thundered unbearably in his head. He ran from Starsky’s room.

“Hutch! Hutch? Where the hell are ya…”

Starsky swore under his breath and hit the call button for the nurse. The duty nurse swiftly answered his call knowing her charming and handsome patient seldom asked for anything.

“Help me to the window, will ya, doll?” Starsky already had his feet on the floor with his slippers on. He had been walking the few steps to the bathroom with just a nurse to hold him steady since the IV came out. He couldn’t run after Hutch but needed to look out the window and see if Hutch had headed to the park.

“Sure, Detective. But why on earth…”

“Just help me.” He started to lift himself off of the bed.

She took his arm and gently led him to the window. He grabbed the cord and lifted the blinds. He took in a shaky breath and let it out with a soft, “Aw, Hutch.”

The nurse gave Starsky a puzzled smile. “I can get a wheelchair and take you to the solarium if you want. This view is for the birds.”

Starsky stared out the window but all that he saw was a brick wall.

~~~S&H~~~

Four hours later, Starsky was on the his bedside phone with Dobey, fighting to remain calm. He had called Huggy first. Hutch wasn’t there and Huggy said he’d send his cousin Clara to check for signs of Hutch at both the detective’s apartments. Then Starsky called Dobey. Dobey understood immediately. He didn’t want to put out an APB on Hutch, so he said he’d call in a favor and send a black and white to discretely search the hospital area for their wayward and hurting friend.

Starsky pulled at his hair in frustration. He heard someone open the door and he raised himself slowly on one elbow.

“Cap. Thanks, but he’s here. I gotta go. I’ll call ya later. Oh, call off Hugs for me. Okay, yeah, bye.”

Starsky hung up the phone without looking at it, keeping his eyes on Hutch. His blond hair was soaked as was his open varsity jacket and shoes. His eyes were red-rimmed and glassy. His hands trembled as he wiped the rain from his pale face.

“Hutch? I want you to listen to me, buddy and do just what I say. No thinkin’. No talkin’ till I tell you. This is real important. Okay? Just nod if you understand me.” Starsky’s voice was steady and authoritative. Hutch nodded meekly.

“Good. Now you see those towels over there?” Hutch looked to where Starsky had pointed. A neat pile of white towels sat on a shower seat near the bathroom. Hutch nodded and sniffed .

“Bring them over here and put them on the bed where I can reach them.”

Hutch performed the simple task like he was in a trance.

“That’s my Hutch. Now take off your jacket and your shoes.”

Hutch removed his jacket and placed it over the back of his usual seat beside Starsky’s bed. He toed off his shoes and waited for more instructions.

“Are your socks wet, babe? Remember, just nod.” Hutch nodded. “Your shirt?” Hutch nodded again. “Okay then, take ‘em off.”

Hutch stood before Starsky in just his faded green t-shirt, slightly damp at the edges jeans and his bare feet. He started to shiver. Starsky moved gingerly to the far side of the bed and lifted the covers.

“Get in.” he commanded simply.

Hutch frowned and hesitated. He looked down at his bare feet and shook his head no.

“Hutch, get in this bed or so help me I’ll wrestle you to the ground and cuff ya!”

Hutch looked up and Starsky noted that Hutch’s eyes were starting to come back to the brilliant blue he knew so well.

Hutch moved to the bed and cautiously crawled in. Starsky grabbed a towel and immediately started to rub Hutch’s hair dry. Hutch closed his eyes, giving himself over to feeling of being cared for. Starsky grabbed a second towel and gently wiped Hutch’s face and neck. He tossed both towels on the floor and fussed with the blankets till both men were covered to his satisfaction. Then Starsky wrapped his arms around Hutch and pressed Hutch’s head gently to his damaged chest.

When Hutch started to pull away, Starsky just held on tighter.

“No you don’t. You’re not goin’ nowhere. You need to know that I am alive. I may be damaged, but my heart is beating just like yours and they are both gonna keep that up for a long, long time.”

Hutch let out a held breath and wrapped his arms, cautiously at first, then more fiercely around his partner, his life. He slowly entwined his long legs with Starsky’s till his cold feet touched warm ones. He pressed his ear to Starsky’s chest. For the first time since Starsky was hurt, Hutch heard Starsky’s heartbeat, Not the cold heartless beeping of a monitor, not the plink, plunk of a capricious ping-pong ball. It was Starsky’s heart, strong and alive. He cautiously pulled Starsky closer.

“That’s good, Hutch. You take all the warmth you need. You can talk now.”

Hutch pressed his head into Starsky’s shoulder and shook his head.

“No? Well guess I’ll have to ask questions. You gonna answer me?”

Starsky felt the nod against his shoulder and chuckled. He smoothed Hutch’s damp hair and asked quietly, “Hutch when you left here, did you go to the park?”

Hutch nodded and let out a long, trembling sigh.

“I thought there was a park. I searched for hours. That’s when it hit me. There was never a park, Starsk.”

“I know.”

“I… I guess I’m a nut job, huh?”

“Naaaaa, babe. You ain’t crazy. You had the whole world on your shoulders for a while. Not enough sleep, not enough food, too many worries and no one to care for you and love you like I usually do.”

Hutch stilled and listened to Starsky’s heartbeat again. He heard Starsky’s words and his sigh. He let them sink into his being, like a withered plant taking in water. He felt the soft kisses placed on his head.

“I’m sorry I didn’t notice sooner, baby. I’m sorry you went through this without your backup. But I’m here for you now. I’m gonna take care of you. Make sure you are eatin’ and restin’. I’m gonna make sure your tank is on full with everything you need. It’s a two way street, babe. You’re gonna help me heal my body and I’m gonna help you heal your mind. You’re my world, Hutch. I came back here just to be with you. Don’t go where I can’t follow you.”

Hutch took a shaky breath, speaking to Starsky’s beating heart. “I never knew how much you meant to me, how much I loved you till Gunther and Death tried to take you away from me. I was overwhelmed. Anger, fear, grief and love. So much love I thought I would drown in it. Then I heard the ping-pong game in my head. It drove me. To bring down Gunther, to pry Death’s hands off of you. I felt like it was up to me to keep the ball on the table never miss a volley. Or…”

“Or game over, huh?”

Hutch nodded into Starsky’s chest his eyes squeezed shut, his breathing speeding up.

“It’s okay, babe. The ping-pong game is over.”

Starsky reached down and gently lifted Hutch’s chin till they were inches apart.

“I love you, Hutch.”

Starsky gazed down at his hurting partner, his own pain forgotten. Hutch’s eyes were closed tightly and his breath erratic. Starsky shook his head and smiled. He placed a kiss on Hutch’s trembling lips and felt the gasp escape Hutch’s mouth. His mouth drew away, then plunged like a man dying of thirst. They kissed for a long time, drinking deep till they were both satisfied and renewed.

Starsky finally pulled away and Hutch immediately took up his rightful place nestled above Starsky’s beating heart. Hutch nodded. “Game’s over. I love you too.”

Starsky waited for more, but when he felt warm breath against his chest and heard soft snores coming from his precious Hutch, he chuckled and relaxed.

“Sleep, pal. Game’s over and we both won.”