Return of the Magi
Post-SR, Slash (PG-13), Christmas
“Patience is overrated,” grumbled Starsky, “I am sick of hearing ‘Be patient.’ I’ve been patient for two months.” He was sitting up in his hospital bed eating dessert. “And from you, of all people.” He waved a plastic spoon in his partner’s direction and Hutch ducked to avoid the pieces of flying red Jell-O. “What do you have to be patient about?”
“You try my patience everyday,” Hutch replied straight-faced.
“Very funny. You know what my great accomplishment today was? A walk around the block? A little jog in the park? Don’t be ridiculous.” His voice grew higher as he continued. “Today, for the first time in two months, I peed standing up! Wahoo!”
“You peed? Standing up? Ahh, Starsk. That’s fantastic. I wish I’d been there to see that. How come all the good stuff happens after I go home?”
“God help me, Hutch. I think you’re serious.”
“I am, Starsky. It’s like I keep telling you…..”
“Hutch, I’m warning you, if you say “baby steps” one more time, I will come over there and pee on your leg.”
“Finish your Jell-O, Starsk. Cherry’s your favourite.”
“Go home, Hutch.”
“No way, buddy. If I leave, you’ll probably do that standing up to pee trick again. Without me.”
“Oh, fuck off.”
Two hours later, Starsky slowly and painfully made his way back to bed after another excursion to the bathroom. Hutch applauded.
By early November, the doctors were hinting that Starsky was almost ready to go home. They recommended a convalescent home, but Starsky’s disability pay wasn’t enough for that, therapy and rent. But Hutch had a plan, he would extend his unpaid leave as long as he could afford to and Starsky would move in with him. As Hutch expected, Starsky pointed out everything that was wrong with such a plan. Hutch’s place was small, he only had one bedroom, and finally all that “healthy shit” he would be forced to eat would send him straight into a relapse. “Do you want that on your conscience?” Starsky whined. Hutch promised burritos and pizza at least twice a week, “healthy shit” optional. When Starsky was convinced that he was doing Hutch a favour by agreeing to stay with him, he gave in. In truth, Hutch knew, Starsky was scared to death of being alone. He wore a brave, albeit grumpy, face most days but his self-confidence had been left shaken and bruised by the shooting. He told Hutch one afternoon he felt like he was living in someone else’s body, and it was someone he didn’t like very much.
The afternoon before Starsky was discharged, Hutch sat in the hospital room watching his partner sleep. In the bright afternoon light, he saw the new lines around his partner’s eyes and mouth. His felt the familiar ache near his heart and he wondered if it would ever go away. Would he ever be able to look at Starsky and not see the blood? Or watch him sleep and not pray for the next breath? He reached across the space between them and lightly brushed his palm across Starsky’s cheek, suddenly overcome by the realization that against all odds, Starsky was going home.
Hutch remembered another afternoon he had spent watching Starsky sleep. It was a week after the shooting and no one would tell him with any certainty if Starsky was going to make it. That afternoon, as he sat exhausted and afraid in the uncomfortable chair by his hospital bed, he had prayed to a god he wasn’t sure he believed in anymore and had made a deal. In exchange for Starsky’s life, he would give up any claim to a place in his future. He would be his friend and his partner, but he would never ask for more than that. He thought bitterly that a god cruel enough to let this happen would be satisfied with nothing less.
Now, two months later, his partner was wonderfully, vibrantly and even sometimes annoyingly, alive. And whether it was science or a miracle that had got them here, Hutch would take no chances. He would stick to his deal. “God help me,” he whispered.
That evening, his last in the hospital, Starsky was quiet.
“Starsk, I thought you’d be happy to get out of here.”
“I am. I’m so just tired of being helpless. You still dress me, for crying out loud.”
“Which explains the lovely outfit you’re wearing.”
“Shut up. If I walk down the hall, I’m too tired to walk back. I take naps. I still can’t use my right arm for shit and I can’t go four hours without a handful of painkillers.”
“You used to only last two hours without them.” He struggled to keep his voice light.
“Hutch, don’t take this the wrong way. But I’m kinda sick of you too. Not the old you, the new ‘here let me help you, be careful, I’ll do that for you’ you. You haven’t told me to fuck off once in two months. That’s just not normal. You have to stop acting like I’m going to keel over and stop breathing if you’re not around.”
Hutch replied quietly, “You did.”
“I did what?”
“You stopped breathing. When I wasn’t around. The first night here.”
There was a pause. Starsky always felt at a disadvantage at moments like these, he remembered nothing of that night or many others after. It was like being the star of a movie he’d never seen. Starsky finally said, “Yeah, well, get over it.”
Hutch looked over at his partner, who had the hint of a smile forming at the corners of his mouth. “If he can smile, I can smile,” he thought.
“Get over it,” he had told Hutch the day before. Easier said than done, he thought as he stood before the mirror in the small bathroom off his hospital room. He had been putting this off since they removed the bandages last week, but now it was time. He wanted to be alone when he did it. With his good arm, he reached behind his head and untied the string of his hospital gown. He pulled it open, took a deep breath and turned to look at his back in the mirror. “Oh god.” His right side was a jagged road map of raised red scars from his shoulder to his waist. He felt light-headed, sucker punched by the image in the mirror. He turned away, leaning against the sink for support. He was going to be sick.
“Starsky, you in there? Starsk?” Hutch cracked open the bathroom door and poked his head round. Starsky looked up at him, his face ashen. Hutch felt the lurch of fear in the pit of his stomach as he went to him. “Not his heart. Please not now. Not after all this time.”
“Starsk. What’s wrong? I’ll go get the nurse.”
“No, I don’t need the fuckin’ nurse! Look at my back, Hutch. Why didn’t you tell me it was this bad? You shoulda told me.” His voice was shaky, his eyes damp. “You shoulda told me,” he repeated.
Hutch stared at him. His heart was pounding as he tried to erase the image in his head of Starsky dying there on the bathroom floor while he watched. His relief that Starsky was fine was quickly replaced by anger.
“Fuck you, Starsky.”
Starsky wasn’t sure what he had expected Hutch to say, but it wasn’t that.
“Maybe I forgot to mention it because I was too busy making deals with God to keep you alive. Every time I walk into the hospital, I hold my breath until I get to your room and see with my own eyes you’re still alive. It’s been two months and every night I lie in bed expecting the phone to ring and to hear some doctor tell me they did everything they could but you died anyway. So yeah, it slipped my mind. And don’t you dare ask me to apologize, because I won’t. I thought you’d agree with me that a few scars were a fair trade for getting your life back.”
Starsky stared at him.
“So basically what you’re telling me is get over it?”
“Yeah, Starsk, get over it.” He slammed the bathroom door behind him.
Hutch went to the bed and began throwing Starsky’s clothes in his gym bag. He collected the get well cards and magazines that were scattered around the room and threw them in with the clothes. He took the stuffed bear from the window sill, and before he shoved it in the bag, he held it up and said, “Tell you what, Ollie, it’s your turn to look after that ungrateful, self-centered moron. I quit.”
Starsky stood at the door watching him. “You really think the bear is up to it, Hutch? I hear I can be a handful.” Hutch scowled at him. “OK, fine, Hutch, I’m sorry. I’m a vain, ungrateful, ignorant excuse for a human being. I admit it. Feel better?”
“I never said you were ignorant.” Hutch’s face relaxed a little. “Half-assed apology accepted. Oh, and Starsk?”
“The scars will fade, you know. It won’t always look that bad. I promise.”
“Promises, promises, blondie.”
“C’mon Starsk, let’s get you dressed and go home. Have I ever told you how much I hate this place?”
“But you gotta admit, they make a damned fine cherry Jell-O.”
Hutch’s stairs were steeper than Starsky remembered. He arrived at the top sweaty and breathless, Hutch’s arm wrapped around him for support. The apartment looked the same as before, Starsky wasn’t sure why that surprised him, but it did. He walked around the living room, touching things lightly as he passed. The sight of Hutch’s guitar casually propped up against the wall unexpectedly took his breath away. He whispered a grateful prayer of thanks to whoever decided it wasn’t his time to die that day in the garage. He knew Hutch assumed he pushed himself so hard in therapy because he wanted to be a cop again, to get back on the street. He wondered if Hutch would be disappointed to learn his goal had been less lofty. “This is the moment I dreamed of, Hutch, the one I worked so hard for,” he thought.
He was exhausted. He dreamlessly slept the afternoon away in Hutch’s cool, darkened bedroom. He woke in the dark to the aroma of pot roast and what he thought might be apple pie. Ella Fitzgerald’s sweet clear voice filled the apartment. He lay there for a while, smiling and reveling in the sensation of feeling like a normal person.
They ate together later at Hutch’s small table, and talked about everyday things. Hutch made a toast and Starsky heard the catch in his voice when he said “Welcome home, buddy.” And if Hutch was disappointed at how little Starsky ate, he didn’t say. Later he shooed Starsky off to sit on the couch while he washed the dishes. He stood in front of the sink, singing along with Ella, his right foot tapping.
Starsky sat on the couch watching him. He was tired but it was a contented kind of tired. Even his pain had mellowed. He thought then that Hutch wasn’t the only one who could make deals with God. “If this is as good as it gets with me, I’ll take it,” he thought. “I will take naps every afternoon and walk like an old man and learn to live with one good arm, if it means I can sit here every night and listen to Hutch sing while he washes dishes.” He shifted on the couch a little, and Hutch looked back over his shoulder to smile at him. For the first time since the shooting, his smile wasn’t tinged by concern or worry or guilt. This smile was all uncomplicated pleasure and it stirred in Starsky a physical reaction he never expected, but felt right nonetheless. It occurred to him then that in this upside down world he now lived in, where time was measured not in minutes or hours, but in the intervals between painkillers, where climbing the stairs was an Olympic event, and returning to duty remained a distant dream, maybe loving Hutch was the sanest thing there was.
Starsky went to stand by him.
“Hutch, look at me.”
Hutch turned. Starsky laid his hand against Hutch’s cheek. It was flushed, warmed by the steam rising from the water in the sink. He moved his hand to Hutch’s neck, then pulled him close and kissed him. Softly at first, then harder as he responded. But then Hutch pulled away. The smile that lit his face only a minute before had collapsed. “Shit, what I have done?” Starsky thought.
“Starsk, I can’t. I promised I would never….”
“Promised who? My mother?”
“I know this is going to sound crazy but I made a deal, Starsk. I would have done anything to keep you alive. Anything. I swore that if you lived, I would never ask for this.” He made a move to turn away, but Starsky held him by the arm.
He looked at Hutch and spoke softly. “That was your deal, babe, not mine. Besides, I don’t recall you asking.”
Hutch felt like he was standing on the edge of a very high cliff. Only no one could tell him which choice would send him hurtling over the edge. In the end, there was really no choice to be made at all. He only had to look at Starsky to know. He sighed, “Trust you to find a loophole in a deal with God.”
Starsky kissed him again and this time Hutch didn’t pull away. Then he asked, “How long have you known, Starsk?”
“For about a minute…and probably forever.”
They thought they knew all there was to know about the other. But that night, and in the ones that followed, they met under the cool white sheets of Hutch’s bed like shy strangers, drunk with joy to discover that Starsky’s body, scarred and fragile as it was, could be a source of pleasure to them both. And Starsky, who understood how much his partner had suffered with him over the past two months, rejoiced to learn that he had something left to offer Hutch. Something neither one expected or even imagined, was his to give.
In the hospital, Hutch had learned the sounds of Starsky’s pain; he knew his quiet groan when he moved too quickly, the sudden gasp when he lifted his arm, the muttered “I’m fine,” which always meant he wasn’t. But that night, he learned a new language. He listened to Starsky’s low moan as he laid his hand upon his chest. the gasp when their mouths met, and later, the final joyful cry that forever after reminded him of cool nights and white cotton sheets.
As they lay together later in the moon-drenched bed, Hutch wondered aloud how, after all this time, they had finally arrived here. Starsky, being Starsky, told him that he shouldn’t think so hard about things that “just are.” But then, as his thumb brushed lightly against Hutch’s mouth, Starsky said, “I guess we finally stopped looking for other ways to love each other.”
Unsure how to weave this new thread into the fabric of their daytime lives, they never spoke about it. During the day, things continued as before, but as soon as night fell, they retreated to Hutch’s room and each other. Every day, though, there were countless small moments that reminded them that things were really not the same at all. Often it was just a look, or a smile when they accidentally brushed up against each other in the hall. Sometimes at breakfast, Hutch would find himself reaching across the table to brush a loose curl from Starsky’s face. At the top of stairs or getting in the car, Hutch’s hand would linger on Starsky’s back and they would feel the heat begin to rise. In the afternoons, Hutch sat on the bed and tried to read while Starsky slept beside him. Watching the soft rise and fall of Starsky’s chest would remind him of the previous night, and he would end the afternoon on the same page that he had begun.
The days and weeks that followed took on a rhythm of their own. Hutch helped Starsky shower and shave and dress. He drove him to his therapy appointments, and later to the beach. Starsky sat in the old striped chair and took pictures while Hutch went for long walks along the sand. He brought Starsky shells and starfish, like a child showing off his treasures. Sometimes Hutch brought his guitar to the beach and played while Starsky dozed. He would grumble all the way home about how the salt and sand would ruin it, but he brought it just the same.
On rainy days, with nowhere to go, they would stay in bed late, blinds drawn, room darkened. On those mornings, he and Starsky would talk. Mostly about old cases or old girlfriends, sometimes their childhoods. But never about the future. There were silences, during which one or the other would think, “How can we make this last?” But as long as neither dared say it out loud, they could pretend the bedroom was the real world and everything beyond it a dream.
Starsky grew stronger and by early December was able to walk up Hutch’s stairs unassisted. He decided it was his job to make lunch every day and sent Hutch out most mornings with a long shopping list that led him on scavenger hunts across the city. He swore that Starsky never used half of the things he asked for, what the hell would Starsky know about something like chestnut butter, anyway? Hutch pointed out he would be happy with a sandwich but Starsky looked hurt. “I just want to be useful, Hutch. Don’t take that away from me too.” Hutch thought he heard Starsky suppress a giggle as he walked away. So Hutch continued to eat Starsky’s strange concoctions, praising each more lavishly than the last, never completely sure if Starsky was doing this to torture or to please him.
One morning two weeks before Christmas, Hutch started to button Starsky’s shirt for him, as he did every morning. Starsky caught Hutch’s hand, held it for a moment, and then moved it away. He smiled, “I’ve been meaning to tell ya this for a couple weeks now, but you seem to enjoy it so much. I really can dress myself, you know.” But something in the look Hutch gave him, a strange combination of pleasure and hurt, made Starsky pull him back with a wry smile. “Fix my collar, would ya?”
Looking back, Hutch realized that was the day they began to let the real world back in. His savings had run out and he knew he would have to go back to work after Christmas. He told him that night. “I’m broke, Starsk. Those fancy lunches of yours have put us in the poorhouse. Either we start eating peanut butter sandwiches three times a day or I start work in January.” Starsky was silent, and Hutch worried that maybe it was too soon. “I’d stay home longer if I could, Starsk, but we need the money.” Then Starsky laughed, “We’re poor? Does this mean I don’t get a Christmas present?”
It was early. They lay side by side staring up at the ceiling, breathing hard, the echoes of their lovemaking reverberating through the room. Starsky reached over and took Hutch’s hand. He always wanted to tell Hutch everything he felt at moments like these, but he never thought he could manage it without sounding corny. So he usually settled for “I love you” and hoped it was enough
“Merry Christmas, Starsk.”
“Merry Christmas, yourself.”
Hutch reached over to the bedside table, turned on the lamp, and retrieved something from the drawer. He smiled and held out a small box to Starsky.
“Your first present of the day.”
“You mean what we just did wasn’t my present? ‘Cause I have to tell you, blondie, you are a very giving fellow.”
“I was going to wait till tonight, but what the hell?”
It looked suspiciously like a ring box. Starsky raised his eyebrows and looked at Hutch.
“Just open it.”
Starsky opened it and looked puzzled. “It’s a key, Hutch.”
“I know it’s a key. It’s the key to my apartment.”
“Why do I need a key? It’s always over the door. Which is not exactly safe, you know.”
Hutch rolled his eyes. “For chrissakes, Starsk. It was supposed to be symbolic.”
“A symbolic key? Does that mean it doesn’t open your front door?”
“Give it back. You drive me crazy.” He made a motion to take it back, but Starsky held it over his head.
“Hold on. First, you give me a key I don’t really need, which may or may not open your front door and now you want it back. You feelin’ OK, Hutch?”
“Why do I bother? I gave you the damn key because I want to you to stay here.”
“I already stay here.”
Hutch threw the pillow at him.
“So help me Starsk…. I want you to stay here for good, OK? I want you to give up your apartment and move in here permanently. Or we can find a new place together if you want, something bigger.”
Starsky reached across the bed, pulled Hutch close and kissed him hard.
Starsky was laughing, “In case you’re wondering, Hutch, that was a symbolic yes.”
They spent the afternoon watching old movies on TV. Starsky caught Hutch sniffling during “It’s a Wonderful Life”, but he swore the hot chocolate had made his nose run. Starsky asked later if hot chocolate was also responsible for his damp eyes, but Hutch just elbowed him and told him to shush. They had agreed to go to the Dobeys’ for Christmas dinner; it would be their first social outing since Starsky had been home. Hutch suggested Starsky have a nap before they went, but Starsky replied he would sleep in the car on the way there; he wasn’t wasting a minute of Christmas.
“Besides,” he continued, “it’s time for real presents. Close your eyes, Hutch. Don’t move. I’ll be back in a minute.”
Hutch heard the closet door open and close, then heard Starsky approaching.
“No peeking, Hutch!”
Hutch opened his eyes. Starsky was standing in front of him holding out the most beautiful guitar case he had ever seen. He had tied a bright red bow around it. “God, I love you, Starsk,” Hutch whispered, and then thought, “I am so screwed.”
“Look, I even had it engraved.” Under the handle was a small bronze label.
“Awww, Starsk, it’s beautiful. How did you manage it?”
“Huggy helped. Remember that morning I sent you to buy the Peruvian vanilla beans?”
“Which I never found. You never did explain why they had to be Peruvian. Do you know how many stores I went to? Everyone I asked looked at me like I was crazy.”
Starsky looked sheepish. “Well, that’s sorta my fault. I made it up.”
“What do you mean you made it up?”
Starsky was looking off somewhere behind Hutch’s head. “I don’t think they even grow vanilla in Peru, Hutch. I just needed you out of the house for a few hours so I could go shopping with Huggy. I couldn’t think of any other way. And then last week, Huggy took me to get it engraved.”
“No…don’t tell me.” Hutch groaned, his head in his hands. “The Australian nutmeg hunt?”
“Well, er, no actually, that was the Canadian lychees.” Hutch’s head shot up. “The nutmeg was just this bet I had with Huggy.”
“Starsky, you and Huggy were making bets on me?” he sputtered.
“Huggy said you would last two hours. I bet on three. I know you better than he does. I won of course. You were so tired when you got back, I almost told you.”
“Starsk! You told me your grandmother always made you these special cookies with Australian nutmeg! You told me she baked them for you the day she died! You made that up?”
Starsky had the decency to look abashed. “Yeah, pretty much. She died playing canasta in Florida, couldn’t bake for shit. Nice lady, though. C’mon, don’t be mad. It’s Christmas. Go get your guitar. I wanna see how it looks.”
“In a minute, Starsk. I have a present for you too. Not sure you deserve it though.”
“C’mon. Go get it. You know you love me.”
“Fine, but you do your own damn grocery shopping
from now on.”
Hutch came back with a gift-wrapped box and handed it to Starsky.
He ripped off the paper, inside was the expensive zoom lens he had been wanting. “God, Hutch, I love you,” he whispered, and then thought, “I am so screwed.”
“How did you know, Hutch? It is exactly the one I wanted.”
Hutch looked pleased, “I saw you lusting over it in a magazine.”
“It’s perfect, Hutch. Thanks.”
“Go get your camera so you can try it out.”
“In a minute, Hutch. First, I have to tell you something. But promise you won’t be pissed.”
“Starsk, I need to tell you something too.”
There was a silence and then they both spoke at the same time, the words tumbling out as quickly as they could make them.
“I needed money to buy you the guitar case, so I sold the camera.” said Starsky.
“I sold the guitar so I could buy you the lens,” said Hutch.
They looked at each other. Then as the truth of what they had done settled in, Starsky’s shoulders started to shake and he burst into wild, joyous laughter. His eyes watered as he held his sides, laughing and gasping for air. Hutch, watched him straight-faced, and only said, “Well, it’s not as if they won’t keep.” Then he started to laugh too.
Later, as they were getting ready to leave for the
Dobeys’, Starsky kissed Hutch lightly on the cheek. Hutch raised his hand to
touch the spot, and looked at him, both pleased and surprised. Except for that
first night, they had never kissed outside the boundaries of Hutch’s bedroom.
“What was that for, Starsk?”
“I jus’ figured it was time. You okay with that?”
“Yeah, Starsk,” he smiled, “I’m okay with that. C’mon, let’s go, I don’t want to be late.”
Epilogue- One week later
The night before he returned to work, Hutch stood by the bedroom window staring out onto the darkened street below. Behind him Starsky slept, one arm thrown back over his head, the other laid out across Hutch’s side of the bed. Except for an occasional passing car and the soft sounds of Starsky’s breathing, it was quiet. Hutch turned to look back at him and wondered again how he had ever imagined he could settle for less than this. And he refused to risk it all at the hands of the next Gunther or some strung out, trigger-happy junkie. Tomorrow morning he would ask Dobey for a transfer to somewhere quieter, somewhere safer. He hadn’t told Starsky yet; he started to a hundred times in the past week but never found the right words. He would tell him tomorrow at breakfast.
“Hey, you,” came a sleepy voice.
Hutch turned, “Hey yourself.”
“What are you doin’?”
“Again? I warned you about that.”
Starsky pulled back the sheet with one hand and patted the empty space beside him with the other. “Come back to bed, babe, I’m freezing here.”
Hutch climbed in, and lay with his back towards him. Starsky wrapped his arms around him and pulled him close. Hutch felt his warm breath on his neck and exhaled.
“That’s better,” Starsky said. After a few minutes, he asked, “You awake?”
“Good. I was thinkin’ Hutch, now that you’re going back to work, you’ll have money, right?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Which means you can stop trying to welsh on that bet.”
“The ping pong game, remember? You owe me a three course dinner, buddy, and I aim to collect.”
Hutch paused. Had they really come so far they could talk about that day so casually? “Cheeseburger, fries and a shake, right?”
“In your dreams, blondie, in your dreams.”
The next morning, he finally told Starsky about the transfer. “Are you disappointed, Starsk? You can probably transfer with me when you go back.”
“If I go back.. Seriously, I don’t care if you clean bathrooms at the station. As long as you come home in one piece every night. Now go. Someone has to make money round here.”
Hutch looked at him. He couldn’t decide if Starsky meant it or not about the transfer, but realized they had lots of time to work it out. He liked the sound of that. He kissed him and headed towards the door. “See you tonight, Starsk.”
“Hutch, wait! I made you a lunch.” Starsky wore a wicked grin, his eyes laughing. “It’s an endive and eggplant salad in a light vinaigrette dressing.” He handed the bag to Hutch who sniffed it suspiciously as he went down the stairs.
“Then why does it smell like peanut butter and jam, Starsk?” he yelled back at him.
The echo of Starsky’s laughter stayed with him all the way to the station.