A couple hours later, Hutch had had a blood transfusion and was doing better, so the docs moved him to a private room. I wanted to stay with him, but I knew he was gonna be okay now—and that if he wasn't, I was damned well gonna know about it—so I didn't put up too much of a fight when Dobey showed up and asked me to come out to the waiting room with him. He was calling me "Dave," again, so I guessed he'd heard how bad Hutch'd been when the ambulance got there—but even that didn't faze me. Hutch was gonna be okay. Dobey coulda told me World War III had just broken out and I'd'a still been on top of the world.

"Can I get you anything?" Dobey asked me as we sat down. "Cup of coffee? You're looking pretty worn out, son."

I shook my head. "No, thanks, Cap'n; I'm okay."

Dobey nodded gruffly, which was a pretty clear sign that he was feeling anything but gruff. "That was good work you and your partner did with that hold-up," he said after a second.

I frowned. "Good work? Cap'n, we didn't do a damned thing. You want the official report, we ran around back, the kid jumped out at us with the gun, and then Hutch got shot and I ended up on my ass on the ground. Wasn't exactly our finest moment."

"You held it together in a crisis," Dobey grunted. "Got Hutch out of the line of fire after he was hit and then did CPR until the paramedics could get there."

I laughed, but it came out sounding sharp—kinda bitter. "Cap'n, I told ya before, I didn't do a damned thing. The kid's gun came up empty, or Hutch and me'd both be splattered all over the sidewalk right about now." I looked down at the floor, a bad taste suddenly in my mouth. "And it wasn't me doin' CPR that saved Hutch," I said quietly. "I-I didn't even do it for long enough. Just…panicked and gave up. If that ambulance hadn'ta come…" I shook my head, noticing that my hands were starting to tremble again.

When I was sitting there in the ambulance with Hutch, everything was so clear, and I knew that he was gonna be okay, that everything was gonna turn out fine. But now, it was starting to hit me just how close it'd really been. He'd been dead. Hutch had been dead. I couldn't help a ghost of a smile (forgive the expression) at the thought. "Guess we've both been to the other side now, huh?"

Dobey looked at me like he thought I was losing my mind, and I probably was—but I couldn't explain, not right then. Thinking about all that doom and gloom, I suddenly wanted to see Hutch so bad it choked me, so I got up outta the chair and hurried off down the hall towards his room, glad that Dobey seemed to understand and didn't even bother to holler after me.

Hutch was asleep when I got in there, but that was no big surprise. What with the anesthetics and the blood loss and all the other stuff he'd gone through, he was pretty wiped out—and to tell ya the truth, so was I. It was still pretty early in the day, only around noon or so, but I was ready for bed. So I dragged one of those uncomfortable plastic chairs over to Hutch's bed and pillowed my head in my arms, close enough to Hutch so I'd know if he so much as twitched. Close enough to feel the body heat coming off of his hand. And then I closed my eyes and, within a minute or two, was fast asleep.

Next thing I knew, there was a hand on my shoulder and somebody was shaking me awake; I sat up with a start, noticing it was dark outside, and rubbed my eyes a couple times. Hutch was still out, though he was breathing a little quicker than he'd been before. Wondering if it would help, I tried slowing my own breathing, and sure enough, his got all calm and relaxed at the same time. That done, I turned around and saw Hutch's doc—a tall, youngish guy with glasses—standing behind me with the weirdest look on his face.

"How did you do that?" he asked me quietly. He was holding one of those clipboards docs always seem to be dragging around with them, and he tapped a ballpoint pen against it while he watched me.

I opened my mouth, then closed it again. "Whaddya mean?" I said at last, settling on outright denial, since there was no way in hell I could explain what was really goin' on.

The doc's frown got a little deeper. "I saw you, Mr. Starsky. You woke up, noticed that Mr. Hutchinson's breathing rate was elevated, and slowed your own. …and his slowed with it." He chewed on his lip, tapping the pen a little harder. "I suppose it could just be a coincidence, but from what I hear from the ER doctors, this isn't exactly your first display of an almost…supernatural knowledge of Mr. Hutchinson's condition. Would you care to explain?"

I gave the guy a wincing smile. "Don't think I could if I had to, Doc."

He stared at me for a hell of a long time after that, looking like he was trying to figure out whether or not I was telling him the truth, and then finally he sighed and dropped the clipboard down to his side. "All right, Mr. Starsky," he said, taking off his glasses and looking kinda tired. "In any case, visiting hours are long over, and it would be best for both you and Mr. Hutchinson if you were to go home and get some rest. You can come back first thing in the morning if you—"

"No."

We both blinked, and you know why? 'Cause we were both surprised. I sure as hell hadn't intended for that to come outta my mouth—I mean, it wasn't like I wanted to leave, but the guy made a certain amount of sense. I wasn't gonna do Hutch any good just sitting here, and I was pretty damned tired…but when I opened my mouth to tell the doc sorry, I'd do what he said, my mouth just didn't wanna obey.

"I'm not leavin' him."

The hell? Sorry, Doc, I'll go, I tried to say, but what came out this time was, "Hutch needs me, and I'm not leavin' until he's ready for me to."

The doctor slid the glasses back onto his nose. "Mr. Starsky, I understand your concern, but—"

There was a rustle from the bed right then, stopping the doc mid-sentence, and we both turned around to see Hutch laying there with his eyes closed just as tight as ever…but his arm was moving. It was reaching out, his fingers straining for something—for me. And right then I figured it out, that it was Hutch puttin' words in my mouth somehow, 'cause Hutch needed me to stick around. Quick as that, I scooted my chair over and grabbed onto his hand. His fingers laced in between mine like they were meant to be there, and even though he was out cold, his grip was so firm I could never'a left him then even if I'd wanted to.

The doctor—Stevenson, I finally saw on his name badge—frowned a little bit more, then sighed again and stared hard at me. "All right," he said. "It seems as though the patient would…benefit from your presence for a bit longer. I'll alert the nurse's station that you're to be granted after-hours privileges to his room, and we'll see about having a bed made up for you."

I grinned, feeling Hutch's fingers suddenly relax against mine, like he knew it was all set and I wasn't going anywhere. "Thanks, Doc."

Shaking his head, Stevenson turned and left the room, scribbling like mad on his clipboard as he went. Looking back at Hutch, I saw that he was smiling a little in his sleep, and I couldn't help smiling, too.

"I'm right here, buddy," I whispered, bringing his hand up to my forehead and holding it there for a couple seconds. "I'm not goin' anywhere, Hutch. You just relax. I'm not goin' anywhere."


I was dreaming. Weird thing was, though, it didn't feel like a dream, but since I could remember pretty clearly goin' to sleep in Hutch's hospital room, I knew it was all in my head. But that didn't mean I couldn't enjoy it while I was stuck there.

We were at the beach, Hutch and me, sittin' in comfy blue lawn chairs with our bare feet buried in the sand. The sun was risin' way out over the waves—which was another clue, I guess, since we live in California—and everything smelled all fresh and clean and salty. Grinning, I glanced over at Hutch. He was lookin' a little pale, maybe like he'd just been sick or something, but he was smilin' too. He was wearin' a T-shirt and swimming trunks, just like I was, and there was some book in his lap whose cover I couldn't make out.

"This is nice, huh, Hutch?" I asked him, still grinning. There was an open cooler between our chairs, so I reached down and snagged a beer. "Ya want one?"

He shook his head. "No thanks, Starsk. They have me on an IV, remember?"

"Oh, yeah." Shrugging, I flipped the top off the beer and took a sip. "So whaddya wanna do? Wanna go for a swim?"

When I looked back over at him, I saw that Hutch'd leaned his head back and closed his eyes, and by the way he was smiling, I knew he was lettin' the sun warm his face. Good, I thought. The guy could use a tan. "Maybe later," he said. "I'm kinda tired right now."

He didn't really have to say that, though, 'cause I already knew he was tired, and not just from the look on his face. I could feel it in my bones, kinda like that ache you feel in your legs after a long day of runnin' around. And there was somethin' else, too—this…other ache comin' from my chest, but for some reason, I couldn't think of why that would be hurting or what could be causing it.

Suddenly, Hutch opened his eyes and stared at me. "Starsk," he said, and he looked kinda worried, "am…am I gonna be okay?"

I swallowed. I told myself I didn't know what he was talkin' about, but I think maybe I did. "You kidding? 'Course you're gonna be okay. You think I'd let you go anywhere without me?"

Hutch blinked down at his lap for a few seconds, and I saw that he was gettin' that crease between his eyebrows, the one that means he's thinkin' big thoughts. "I…I died, Starsky."

I felt myself start shaking. "Yeah, so what?" I said fervently. "Look, you're fine, okay? You got through it. The doctors patched you up, and you're fine. You're not goin' anywhere." And because I was suddenly feelin' like he might slip away any second, I reached over and took his hand in mine, squeezing it tight—and feelin' him squeeze right back. "You're gonna be okay, Hutch. You think a little bullet's gonna do anything but slow ya down? No way. Not my partner." I squeezed his hand again, then carefully let go and gave him my best thousand watt grin. "So c'mon, whaddya say? Enough of this gloomy stuff?"

Hutch finally relaxed when I said that, and gave me a little smile. "Yeah, okay."

"Okay," I said with a nod. Suddenly thinking of something, I waggled my eyebrows. "So, ya never did get a chance to tell me about that cat o'yours. Wha' was her name? Marybeth? Marylou?"

"Marianne," Hutch corrected. "Her name was Marianne, Starsk."

"Fine, Marianne. So, go on. Tell me about her."

He shrugged. "Not much to tell, really. Met her at Huggy's. She's a stewardess."

"Tryin' somethin' new, huh, buddy?" I asked dryly.

"You're one to talk."

"Whazzat supposed to mean?"

"You know what it means."

"If I knew what it meant, I wouldn't be askin', now would I?"

"It's never stopped you before."

"You insultin' my intelligence, pal?"

That one earned me Hutch's patented Innocent Look. "No, Starsky, of course not," he said sincerely. "Why would I want to insult something that doesn't even exist?"

I grinned. "Oh, you're gonna get it for that one, Hutchinson. You think you're safe just 'cause you're the convalescent this time? Think again, pal." And before Hutch knew what was goin' on, I'd grabbed a couple pieces of ice from the cooler and stuck 'em down the back of his shirt.

He didn't jump up or yell or anything, but his eyes got real wide, and after he'd managed to fish the ice out, he turned to me and glared so hard I wondered if he might burn a hole through my forehead. "Starsky," he growled.

I couldn't help it. I started laughing. And when I was doubled up with it, hugging my stomach 'cause I was laughing so hard, Hutch took it upon himself to stuff a whole handful of ice down the back of my shirt. I didn't care, though, 'cause even though it was really damned cold, it just felt too good, laughing and joking around with Hutch again. When I finally got control of myself again, I sat back up in my chair, leaned my head back, and looked over at him with a smile.

"I missed ya, Hutch," I said, and even though I was still grinning, my words sounded kinda sad, like maybe I might start cryin' any second. "They said you were only gone for two minutes, but God, I missed ya. It was like…like havin' half of me torn away, ya know? Like I was…like I was missin' some important part of me or somethin'."

Hutch rested his hand over top of mine. "I know," he said, real quietly. "I've been there too, remember?"

I swallowed. "Is that why you did it?" My voice was too soft, not even really a whisper, but I knew Hutch heard me. And knew what I meant.

"Yeah," he admitted, "I guess it was. That kid had you cold, Starsky. After…after Gunther, I swore to myself I'd never let anything like that happen to you again, no matter what I had to do to prevent it."

"But you died, Hutch. 'Cause of me, 'cause you were tryin' to save me, you died. How was I supposed to live with that, will ya answer me that? How was I supposed to live with knowin' that you were dead 'cause of me? 'Cause you were tryin' to protect me?"

Hutch smiled a little sadly. "But at least you would've been alive."

"You think I'd wanna be alive without you?" The words came out before I could stop them, and I blinked a couple times afterwards, surprised I'd actually said them. They were how I felt, and Hutch knew I felt that way 'cause he felt the same, but there was a big difference between thinkin' them and actually comin' out and sayin' them. And now that they were said, it wasn't like I could take 'em back or somethin'…and I really wasn't all that sure I wanted to.

"It's the truth, Hutch," I went on softly, not looking at him 'cause I knew I wouldn't be able to keep going if I did. "When I thought you were dead—when you were dead—I…I shut down. And if you hadn't'a come back, I…" I shook my head. "I might still be sittin' there in that alley, staring."

"Starsky," Hutch said softly, gently, "no you wouldn't. Somebody probably would've picked you up for loitering by now."

I was quiet for a minute. Then I looked at him. "Was that a joke?"

"Yeah."

"So I'm sittin' here spilling my guts out," I said calmly, "and you're tellin' jokes."

He nodded.

I shook my head, tryin' to keep the grin from pulling at my lips but failing miserably. "You're a piece'a work, you know that, Hutchinson? A real piece'a work." And even though it was awkward around the chairs, I leaned over and got my arms around him and hugged him. And while I was doin' it, I remembered sittin' there in that alley and not even being able to touch him, because touching him would'a made it real and I didn't want it to be real. But now… I could touch him now, 'cause there was nothin' I wanted more in the whole world than for this to be real—for me to really be sittin' here talkin' to Hutch and holdin' him against me, feelin' him breathing and knowing that he was okay, that we were gonna be okay. I couldn't think of anything I wanted more than that.

Suddenly feeling like something was different, like something had changed, I opened my eyes…and saw that I was back in the hospital room, sittin' there by Hutch's bed. I blinked a few times, trying to get used to being awake and having Hutch still injured and unconscious beside me, but before I'd quite managed it, I felt a warm kind of pressure against my hand. Looking down, I saw that Hutch was holding onto my fingers, squeezing them gently. His eyes opened to slits then, and he gave me a soft little smile. "You're some piece of work yourself, Starsk," he whispered. And then he closed his eyes again and I knew he'd fallen back asleep.

I sat there for a long time, holding onto his hand and not doin' much more than starin' at him, thinking about how close we'd always been and how impossibly close we were now. I mean, feelin' what the other one was feelin', having the same dreams? It was unbelievable. Weird, psychic stuff like with Collandra. So why was it so easy for me to believe it now when I had such a hard time buyin' it back then?

Maybe 'cause it was Hutch this time, Hutch and me, and what was goin' on between us wasn't anything new. 'Cause maybe…maybe this weird link, this weird connection thing—maybe it's always been there, but we just weren't ready for it yet, not for all of it. I mean, there's been lots of stuff that's gone on between Hutch and me that I can't explain. Times when I've just…known where he was, or that he was in trouble or needed me or somethin'. Times when he's called me right after I had a nightmare, or come over right after I was wishin' I had some company. And one time—God, there was this one time when I was sick with this real bad cold, and I was layin' there in bed and thinkin' that I'd kill for a pizza, and not twenty minutes later, Hutch showed up at my door with exactly that; even got the toppings right.

And then there's our job, how we work when we're out there with our lives depending on each other. We don't need words when we're doin' that, and come to think of it, we never really did. I know, 'cause our instructors at the Academy kept pairin' us off with other cops during training exercises, since we were damned near unbeatable when we were paired together. So I guess we've always had this connection, Hutch and me. There've been times, like in those couple of months before the Gunther thing, when it was kinda weak, when it was really only workin' when we were doin' cop stuff, but it's always been there. And now it's just a little stronger, I guess. It's gone onto the next level, made us a little more into one…one entity. One being. And maybe that's the way it's supposed to be.

I stood up a little while after that, yawning and stretching my arms up over my head. Hutch was sleeping peacefully and there was a little bit of light seeping in through the blinds, so I figured it was morning enough for me to be up. I didn't feel like sleeping anymore, anyway—I felt like some breakfast. Sure sign everything's okay, when I start gettin' hungry again. I wandered out into the hall, past the nurses' station, and into the elevator, then stumbled out on the second floor and made my way to the hospital cafeteria. They had a pretty decent spread this morning—toast, scrambled eggs, pancakes, french toast strips, sausage—and I was so starved I loaded up my plate with every bit of food I could cram onto it, even some crusty bran muffin that I figured Hutch would like…if he was feelin' up to breakfast, of course. If not, he could damned near wait 'til the nurses brought him something, 'cause hell if he was havin' any of my breakfast.

Hutch was still asleep when I got back to the room, so I settled into my plastic chair, flipped on the TV (keepin' the volume low, of course), and starting stuffing my face. I was about halfway through my third piece of sausage and Wile E. Coyote was fallin' off his fourth cliff when Hutch cleared his throat.

"Do they have anything left?"

I turned around, my mouth full. "Huh?"

He glanced down at my heaping plate and raised an eyebrow. "The cafeteria."

"Oh." I grinned, swallowed. "I left 'em a hash brown or two. Oh, and here. Gotcha a bran muffin."

"Gee, thanks, Starsk. You're all heart."

"What? Thought you liked bran muffins."

He looked at me with the most pitiful expression I think I've ever seen. "Well, yeah, I like bran muffins." He sniffled. "But I don't know. I mean, I'm pretty weak. I don't know if I can manage. Those things are pretty chewy, Starsk."

I frowned. "Chewy?"

"Yeah." He shifted himself carefully so he was sitting up in the bed, his back propped against the headboard and the pillows. "Now, those eggs you have there…I bet I could handle those."

"Uh-uh. No way. You're not gettin' my eggs, Hutch. I'm hungry."

He laid back against the pillows and turned his head away from me, letting out a long sigh. "That's…that's all right, Starsky. After all…you need to keep your strength up. I'll be fine. I'll just…lay here and smell the eggs. That's almost like eating them."

I sighed. "All right, ya big ham. Sit up." I scooted my chair back over to the bedside and laid the tray in his lap. "We'll share 'em, how 'bout that? One bite for you, one bite for me. Sound fair?"

He was still lookin' like I'd just stepped on his dog, but he nodded. "Yeah, sure. If that's all you can spare, then sure, Starsk. I think the doc left me some ice chips, anyway. Those oughta tide me over until tomorrow."

Scowling, I shut him up with a bite of egg. "Keep it up and it's the bran muffin for you, partner." While he chewed, I dug into the eggs again and this time brought the fork to my own mouth. We went on like that for awhile, and pretty soon, we'd finished off the whole plate. All that was left was the muffin.

I held it up. "You want it?"

Hutch made a face.

"Okay." I grinned and set it down on the bedside table. "We'll save it for Dobey."

Hutch was laying comfortably on his pillows now, his eyes on the TV, so I slouched low in my chair and went back to the cartoons myself. It wasn't 'til the next commercial break that either of us said anything.

"Hey, Starsk?"

"Yeah?"

He was quiet for a minute. "It was…real, wasn't it? That dream?"

I felt a little smile pullin' at my lips when I looked at him. "Yeah, Hutch, it was real."

He smiled back. "Good." And then, before either of us could say any more, he winced and shut his eyes—just as I felt a twinge of pain from my upper chest, like somebody was jabbing me there with a knife every time I breathed. I gave Hutch a rueful kind of smile. "Guess the painkillers are wearin' off, huh?"

Hutch's voice was a little strangled. "Guess so." He drew a shaky breath. "It hurts, Starsk. Hurts…real bad."

I grabbed onto his hand and clasped it in both of mine, then held it to my heart, like I'd done when they were rollin' him towards the ER. "I know it does, buddy. But you don't hafta handle it alone, you hear me? I'm right here. I'll take however much of it you wanna give me."

He cracked an eye, looked at me like he thought I was nuts. "Give you?"

"Yeah, give me. We're partners, Hutch. Means we share things."

"Things like breakfast, Starsky. Not like—" He winced again, cringing back against the pillows with his eyes squeezed shut. "—excruciating...pain."

"See, that's where you're wrong. That's the most important thing for us to share. Give me some of it, Hutch. Come on. We'll handle it together."

"'Cause everything's…better when it's…together…right?"

I squeezed his hand hard. "Right. C'mon, Hutch. C'mon, buddy, give it up. Let me help ya out."

I don't know what he did or how he did it, but all of a sudden, it was like…like there was more goin' between our clasped hands than just body heat, and pretty soon, it started to feel like my skin was on fire. And not just my skin; the pain started way down deep—deep inside my chest—and spread out these long, searing fingers until it seemed like everything but my littlest toe was in agony. I clenched my teeth against it, holding on tight to Hutch—and when I looked at him, I saw that he was staring at me in shock, his eyes all wide and every bit of the pain gone from his face.

Too much, he thought, and I didn't even find it weird that I could hear him. I gave him too much.

There was another sensation, then, like something was being…pulled from me, and just like that, the pain lessened, got down to a bearable level. It still hurt like hell, but not so bad that I didn't think I could handle it—and glancing over at Hutch, I saw the same kind of expression on his face, like he was in pain but not about to pass out from it or anything. I gave him a tight smile, and he flashed one back at me.

Partners.

He nodded.

Partners.

To Be Continued…