The gunshot rocked Hutch just enough that he stumbled backwards through a pothole. He fell back against the wall, shoulders hitting first, head bouncing off the brick. He heard another shot from somewhere as he slid down the wall and then everything went dark for a moment. When he opened his eyes again Starsky’s face was hovering over him, eyes all pupil with an old fear.
“I thought you were dead . . .”
For a moment he wondered which Hutch he was. His eyes slowly scanned the dark alley. No, there was glass. Last time, there was glass.
His eyes returned to his partner’s face and then fell, heavy under the weight of Starsky’s concern.
“’Sokay. Vest caught it.”
He felt Starsky’s fumbling search for surety, the slow drain of adrenaline as he found it. It hurt to breathe, the weight against his chest too familiar, and he drifted for a moment, remembering the scent of antiseptic and desperation. He took another breath. Starsky’s hand was in his hair.
He opened his eyes and looked up, wondered which Starsky this was. The tiny lines around his partner’s eyes shocked him into the present, made his chest throb harder. He coughed and the lines of concern deepened.
God, Starsky was getting older, would someday be old, then gone forever. It didn’t matter what Hutch did, what sacrifices he made. In the end he would still lose.
His hand moved of its own volition, pulled Starsky close, bumping their foreheads together. He closed his eyes, took another breath. Starsky smelled like gunpowder and fear and he was so damn familiar and Hutch was so tired of hurting.
He tilted his head, just a little, to feel the soft drag of Starsky’s lips against his, the stilling panic in his breath. Hutch pulled away, watching sudden wonder move across his partner’s face, the kindling glow in the coals of his eyes. Starsky started to move toward him again and Hutch watched as his own hand rose to stop him, brushed softly across the fear-bitten lips, dropped down to rest a moment over his heart. Hutch closed his eyes and let his head fall back against the wall. It hurt. He took another breath.
He felt more than heard Starsky move away to direct the uniforms that had finally arrived. The sounds of their voices echoed strangely in his head, muffled and without meaning, like people talking outside the oxygen tent. Had he come unstuck in time like that guy in the Vonnegut story? Would he open his eyes to find himself back in that damned Italian restaurant, or on the roof watching Starsky’s last chance for survival disappear in a flash of gunfire? Or was this some fever dream and he was still sick with the plague?
He was suddenly afraid to open his eyes. Afraid that he’d only dreamed the last three weeks, dreamed of waking up to an exhausted Starsky smile, dreamed that kiss with Judith, right under the too-indulgent eyes of his partner. If he opened his eyes, what would he see: cubic nurses behind creased plastic sheets; shadow figures staring through the window, watching him die; the relentless, fluorescent glare of artificial day?
No. It’s dark. We’re in the dark.
“Right here, Hutch.” Starsky’s hand found his wrist, circled it.
“Yeah,” Starsky tightened his hold. “Still in the alley. Hang on. Paramedics are coming.”
Hutch’s eyes snapped open. “No hospital.”
“Hutch you’ve probably got a concussion, at least . . .”
“Hutch . . .”
“No Starsky. I’m not going back to the damned hospital. I’ll be fine.” Hutch started to get up. Shouldn’t have been lying around while there was work to do, anyway.
“Hutch . . .” Starsky wouldn’t let him up.
“I mean it, Starsky. Now let me up.”
“Hutch, would you shut the hell up and sit still for a damned minute!” Starsky took a deep breath and scrubbed his hands across his face.
“Okay, look. Let the paramedics take a look at you, at least. Then we’ll decide.”
“Starsk, please. I really don’t want to go back there. I just got out, for Christ’s sake.”
“Exactly. You just got out. Dammit, Hutch!” Starsky pulled at his own hair. “You’ve only been back on the street for what, two whole days after almost fucking dying on me? And then you just had to be the one to call this turkey out? What the fuck are you doing? It’s like you’re trying to make sure you go first or something.”
“Hey! You flipped the coin, partner. And I was wearing a vest, wasn’t I? And it wasn’t my fault I got sick, either. How the hell was I supposed to know Jake had the fucking plague?”
Starsky just looked at him.
Hutch looked down and realized his hand was still wrapped around his gun. He blinked at it for a moment. It seemed heavier than usual when he finally lifted it. He put it in its holster. It was hard to let go. His left hand worked on rubbing the stiffness out of his right.
“This thing with us. It’s already too late. Isn’t it?” He didn’t look up.
“No way to go back now.”
Hutch sighed. “And all this fighting I’ve been doing is just completely useless, isn’t it.”
“The problem is . . .” Something caught in Hutch’s chest and he took another careful breath. “The problem is you actually see me.”
He dared to look up and Starsky was right there. Just as he always was, unflinching honesty looking back at him.
“Yeah, Hutch. I see you.”
“And you’re still here.”
“You’re a damned fool.”
“Maybe.” Starsky put his own gun away. “Still not going anywhere.”
Suddenly, there were more sirens and controlled, frantic movements. There were strange hands on him and small bright lights shining in his eyes. He closed them.
“I mean it, Starsk. No hospital.”
Starsky’s hand was resting on his shoulder. “We’ll see, partner. We’ll see.”