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In a Heartbeat

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"What the hell did you think you were doing?" Starsky demanded.

The words coming from the hallway weren't loud, but they were uttered with an intensity that penetrated right through the door of the exam room. It drew the attention of the sole occupant, who sat waiting on a gurney. He shivered as the vent overhead blew a frigid stream of air directly down on his bare shoulders.

"Hey, I'm sorry, alright? How was I to know the perp had another gun?"

The apology from Margolis did not sound very apologetic, and the listener winced. The shit was gonna hit the fan now.

"What kind of lame excuse is that? That's part of your job, moron. It's called police procedure, you ever heard of it?"

A Code Blue went out over the PA system, and the subsequent scurry of activity outside drowned out everything else for a minute. When that died down, it was apparent that the conversation had continued despite the commotion, and in fact, had escalated into an out-and-out shouting match.

"Anytime you're out on the street, anything can happen, and you've got to be prepared for it," Starsky thundered. He was really hitting his stride. "You're no wet-behind-the-ears rookie, I shouldn't have to tell you this!"

"So don't! I said I was sorry, so just lay off! Anyway, the doctor said he's gonna be fine—"

"No thanks to you, you son of a—"

Dobey's rumbling voice cut in. "That's enough! Starsky! Margolis! Pipe down before the nurses throw us out!"

But Starsky wasn't finished. "You are sorry, Margolis. You're the sorriest excuse for a cop I've ever seen. Don't you get it? You're supposed to watch your partner's back, not let it get shot, you asshole!"

The door swung open and Starsky stormed into the room, fierce and breathing hard. He paused mid-stride when he saw the patient was awake. Between one step and the next, all traces of the fierce anger were gone.

"Hutch!" He hurried over with a relieved smile. "Hey, pal." He stood in front of Hutch, taking in the bandaged torso. "You okay?"

"Sure, just have to get dressed, then we can blow this joint." Hutch looked at Starsky expectantly. "Where are my clothes?"

"Huh?" Starsky looked blank.

"You were supposed to bring me clothes, buddy. Didn't Dobey tell you?" Hutch could make do with the grimy pants he still had on, but his shirt, bloody and torn, had been unsalvageable.

"Oh! Right. Sorry." Starsky stripped off the faded blue flannel overshirt he was wearing and thrust it at Hutch. "Here, use this. I hope it fits."

"It should," Hutch replied dryly, "It's mine."

"It is?" Starsky sounded mildly surprised. He squinted at it. "Oh, yeah. I guess it is, now that you mention it. I forgot."

Bullshit, thought Hutch, smiling to himself. This particular shirt had been one of Hutch's favorites. Old and starting to fray at the cuffs and collar, yet so comfortable, so soft and warm, Hutch couldn't bring himself to throw it out. He'd lent it to Starsky one breezy evening a few months ago, and for some reason, Starsky had seemed reluctant to return it. Somehow or other, Hutch never got it back. Until now.

Well, almost.

As he stood up to put it on, Starsky plucked it back.

"Wha— C'mon, Starsky, cut it out. I'm cold!"

"Wait a sec. Are you sure you're okay to leave?"

"Yeah, I'll be fine. It's just a graze. I thought Dobey told you this already."

"Huh. Maybe he did, I guess."

Starsky held the shirt open. Hutch tried to pull it out of his hands, but Starsky wouldn't relinquish his grip. Hutch finally gave in, too sore and tired for a tug of war. He turned around and lowered his arms, and Starsky carefully eased the shirt on for him. When he was done, Starsky left his hands resting on Hutch's shoulders. Hutch could feel the warmth of them soaking through the fabric.

"When Dobey called, I... I think I went a little nuts, babe." Starsky's voice wavered slightly. "All I heard was that you got shot. I don't remember what else he said. I just knew I had to get down here." Starsky pressed his forehead against the nape of Hutch's neck and sighed heavily. "Thank goodness it wasn't any worse. God, I could kill Margolis."

Hutch froze. The mention of his ersatz partner was like a bucket of ice water to the face, a harsh wake-up call to reality. All these months, he'd been living with his head in the sand, but after today, he knew his sins were finally coming home to roost.

Starsky must have sensed something was up, probably felt the tension twanging through his body. He came around to face Hutch and asked anxiously, "You sure you're okay? How're you feeling, Hutch, really?"

Hutch dredged up a sorry excuse for a smile from somewhere, and replied, "Like crap."

It was the truth. Maybe Margolis didn't get what this was all about, but he did.

*****


He tried to be patient, he really did. But this was the last straw.

"I swear to God, Starsky, if you plump the pillows one more time, so help me...."

"Okay, okay." Starsky said, with a final poke. "Just making sure you're all comfy."

"I'm fine," Hutch huffed. Starsky, seemingly unperturbed, nodded approvingly.

"Good. I'll get us some beers, we need to celebrate." He headed to the kitchen. Hutch cautiously leaned back against the mound of fluffed pillows Starsky had piled on the couch and tried to relax.

As his temper cooled, Hutch felt a little pang of guilt at his churlishness. Starsky had taken all his guff over the last two days without so much as a murmur, or even a raised brow. He'd been a difficult patient, to say the least, and for more reasons than he was willing to discuss with Starsky. But willing or not, he knew that discussion would have to happen, and soon.

Starsky returned with two bottles, and slid down to sit on the floor next to Hutch, between the couch and the coffee table.

"I'm sorry," Hutch said.

"For what?" Starsky opened the bottles and handed Hutch his. "Just the one," he warned. Hutch made a face at the coddling, then remembered he was supposed to be contrite.

"For being a pain in the ass."

Starsky chuckled. "That's how I know you're gettin' better, Blondie. Besides, it's kind of nice, me taking care of you for a change."

After Starsky's shooting, he had had to let Hutch help him with even the most basic of things, a bitter pill to swallow for a proud man. The healing process was long and arduous, and had had its share of rough spots—Hutch wasn't the only difficult patient in the room. Tempers were lost, harsh words were uttered, things were thrown. Eventually, though, they found their balance again, an equilibrium that shifted through the various stages of recovery, like water finding its level.

So Hutch could certainly understand the sentiment. There was a kind of balance in this too; a rightness, in letting Starsky be the caregiver for a while. Still, he had to say something, or Starsky would think he'd gone soft.

"You didn't have to stay over, I could have managed. It's not that bad."

"Oh, really? Just how were you going to manage when your back seized up yesterday and you couldn't move, huh?"

Hutch had to admit, that had been pretty awful. Just to himself, though. No way was he conceding the point.

Starsky snorted. "A pain in the ass, and stubborn. Deadly combination, Hutchinson." He took a pull of his beer and tilted his head to stare pensively up at the ceiling. "But, yeah, not that bad, considering...."

Yeah, considering how stupid Margolis had been. The detective was trying to handcuff the prisoner when he fumbled and somehow let the guy twist out of his grasp. The perp pulled out a piece he had hidden in his sock, and aimed it at Hutch. Hutch had caught the movement out of the corner of his eye and moved just as the gun was fired. The trajectory of the bullet was not so much into his back as across it, so shallow that it was more of a long, deep furrow than an actual through-and-through, and there was no damage to anything vital. It hurt like a son of a bitch, naturally, as did the cuts and bruises he'd gotten from taking down the robber in the first place, when the struggle had slammed him into a bank of steel shelving. He was going to be a mass of aches and pains for a long time. But there was no denying, he'd gotten off easy.

Starsky was still staring at nothing, so to change the subject, Hutch asked, "Hey, what are we celebrating?"

"Oh, yeah." Starsky brightened. "While you were asleep, I talked to Dobey. He said the paperwork finally came through."

"Yeah?"

"Yep. I am officially back on the job, starting Monday." Starsky was quietly jubilant, and Hutch tried hard to be the same. He tried not to look as though the moment he'd been both wanting and dreading for weeks wasn't now looming over him.

"Congratulations, pal." He could say that sincerely, at least. He tapped his bottle against Starsky's. "That's great news."

"Desk duty at first, of course. But you'll be driving a desk for a while, too. Can't say I'm too disappointed about that. At least it'll get you away from Margolis." Starsky glowered at the thought of Hutch's temporary partner. "I swear, Hutch, he was the worst of the bunch Dobey stuck you with."

"You said that about all of them, buddy," Hutch pointed out.

"Yeah, well, it was true every time. They just kept getting worse and worse." Starsky drained the bottle and set it aside. "But that's all over now. If we play our cards right, and I keep eatin' my Wheaties, we might be ready for active duty at the same time."

His grin was brighter than the sun, and Hutch felt like shit.

The moment of reckoning couldn't be put off any longer. He had to say something now.

"Starsk, I've been thinking...."

He'd had a little speech carefully prepared, rehearsed it countless times, but he couldn't remember a word of it now.

When he paused, Starsky gave him an inquiring glance and quipped, "You just keep thinkin' Butch, that's what you're good at."

Before Starsky could launch into a rendition of "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," Hutch blurted out, "I think maybe it'd be a good idea if you partnered up with someone else."

Starsky stared at him as though he had suddenly grown a second head. A really big one.

After a very long minute of dead silence, Starsky said, "I take it back. You're no good at this thinking stuff." His eyes narrowed and he added stiffly, "If this is your idea of a joke, it ain't funny."

"N-no, I'm serious. I—"

"You're out of your mind, that's what you are. You seriously think I busted my ass getting back into shape so I could work with just anybody?"

"Starsk, you did that so you could be a cop again. You fought hard, beat the odds, and you're getting your badge back. That's what matters." The words were true, and Hutch said them with conviction.

"Fine. So I'm back. What does that have to do with getting another partner?"

I-I just think it would be for the best. A chance to start over, start fresh—" Hutch shut up, chagrined. He was screwing things up royally. It sounded lame in his own ears, and Starsky's derisive snort confirmed it.

"Don't give me that crap. What the hell is this really about?" When Hutch didn't respond, his face darkened. "Or is this some kinda bullshit reverse-psychology way to tell me that you're the one who wants another partner? That you'd rather keep working with the likes of Bobby Margolis?"

Hutch was about to deny the sarcastic barb when he saw his opening.

"Why not?"

"Why not what?"

"Why not work with Margolis?"

"Wh-Why not?" Starsky sputtered. "That jackass, are you shittin' me? You're delirious."

"Why not?" Hutch repeated insistently.

"Because he's a jackass," Starsky snapped. When Hutch said nothing, he clarified, "An obnoxious jackass." Hutch remained silent, and Starsky rolled his eyes. "Fuck, he almost got you killed, Hutch, isn't that a good enough reason?"

"It is. A cop is supposed to watch his partner's back, not let it get shot."

It took everything Hutch had in him to keep his head up, his eyes fixed on Starsky's. He watched the irritation turn to confusion, then give way to dawning comprehension.

"Geez, Hutch." Starsky gaped at him, astounded. "That's—that was totally different! We were in the precinct parking lot, for Christ's sake, not on a 2-11 in progress."

Hutch was about to say it didn't make a damn bit of difference when Starsky continued, with a hint of hurt in his voice, "So that's where this is coming from. You been carrying this around, the whole time? Do you really think I blame you for that?"

Hutch shook his head slowly, so as not to dislodge the fiery coals being heaped on it. Starsky forgave him so easily; he always had, no matter what the offense. Hutch was deeply grateful for that, but there were some things that just weren't supposed to be so easy. Some things, you just had to do the penance.

"I know you don't. But that doesn't alter the facts. I didn't do my job. I didn't look out for you."

"Hutch, you didn't know what was going to happen."

"Doesn't matter. Anything can happen at any time, I wasn't prepared—"

"Damn it, stop throwing my words back in my face!" Starsky ordered peevishly.

"They're not just your words, they're ours. They're the words every cop is supposed to live by. I didn't, and I failed. Don't you get it?"

"You're the one who doesn't get it, mushbrain. You did not fail!"

"Well, what the hell would you call it—a resounding success?" Hutch could feel the bile rise and burn in the back of his throat.

"I call it what it was—the bad guys winning one round. That's all it was. Besides, you were looking out for me. You warned me. You yelled at me to get down."

"Then why didn't you?" The words slipped out before Hutch could stop them.

During the long, heavy hours that Starsky lay comatose, that one question had run through Hutch's mind over and over, even though he knew the answer. He was the answer, the reason Starsky had stood his ground. Starsky's instinct to protect his partner kept him on his feet, kept his body between the danger and Hutch. Hutch knew, and so he had never asked aloud. But now he had, and, God help him, he didn't even want to take it back. Say it and be damned.

"Why didn't you? I did. I got down, I took cover—fuck that, I cowered and hid, while you were standing out there in the open, exposed...." Hutch halted, choked by the shame that had never really left him.

He left his partner exposed to an assassin's gun, fired over and over at point-blank range. His partner and best friend, cut down by a barrage of bullets. The image of Starsky, crumpled and motionless in a pool of his own blood was seared in Hutch's brain with a clarity that refused to fade.

Hutch lurched awkwardly to his feet and turned blindly, his body tense and ready to strike out at something, anything. Starsky scrambled up, grabbed Hutch's arm, and nearly got clocked for his troubles.

"Hey, take it easy, you're gonna hurt yourself." Starsky pushed Hutch back to the couch, and sat on the coffee table opposite. He didn't let go.

"I can't believe you've been keeping this inside, all these months... Babe, listen to me. You got down because you thought I had. And I should have. I should have listened to you, Hutch. I don't know why I didn't. Because of that, I put us both through a lot of grief."

"No. It's not that simple." Hutch saw the besieged Torino in his mind's eye, heard again the cacophony of metal and glass as she too was ripped through and torn apart. "Even if you had gotten down, you'd still have been hit."

"Maybe, maybe not." Starsky let out a frustrated sigh when Hutch wouldn't acknowledge that. "It was still the wrong reaction. And that's what it was, a reaction," Starsky stressed. Then his voice sharpened.

"But you, Hutch—you acted. You could've laid low for a while; hell, you should have. But you didn't. Damn it, Hutch, you knew they were gunning for you, and you didn't back down, not one god-damned inch. You deliberately went out on the hunt and made yourself a target in the process. So you tell me, who was playing the hero, huh?"

Startled at the suddenly accusatory, almost-angry tone of Starsky on the offensive, Hutch protested, "It wasn't like that. It... it—"

It had been a single-minded need for revenge, a burning desire to make someone pay, to draw blood. Blood for blood, and he almost didn't care whose. It was rage. And fear. Hutch closed his eyes and shuddered at the memory. It was all those things and more, but it was not heroism. He had never felt less heroic in his life.

"It was what you had to do," Starsky said. No anger anymore, just acceptance and understanding. "As much as it scared the crap outta me when I figured out what you were doing, I knew you had to, and why.

"Look at me, Hutch." He waited until Hutch lifted his gaze to meet Starsky's. "Look me straight in the eye and tell me: would you have traded places with me if you could've?"

Under that clear blue scrutiny, Hutch could only whisper, "In a heartbeat."

"And don't you think I know that, too?" He pulled Hutch's hand to his chest and held it in place with his.

"That's your heartbeat, babe. Feel that? It beats 'cause of you."

The pulse was strong and steady under his fingers; a little fast, as was the rise and fall of the chest.

"It beats for you."

"Starsk..."

"So don't tell me there's anybody else who's going to look out for me, for this heart, better than you, Hutch. That person don't exist. Only you."

Hutch dropped his head to Starsky's shoulder as the tears came, and he made no attempt to stop them. A hand came up to stroke gently through his hair, and he felt Starsky's cheek, wet as well, press against his temple.

It was more than forgiveness, it was redemption. It was a warm flannel shirt. It was water finding its level.

It was coming home.