Refuge

By Liz Tucker

(Originally published in Zebra Three, Vol. 5, 1980; Slightly reworked ending, 2005)

Ken Hutchinson strolled into his partner's hospital room, unwillingly wrinkling his nose at the antiseptic smell that wafted through the halls. He carried a large Mexican pot with a half-wild tree weaving back and forth. The room was already filled with roses, begonias, yucca plants, cacti, and small trees taking up all the free space on the tables and floor. As Hutch pushed open the door with his shoulder, he took a deep breath, trying to slow his frantically beating heart. Whenever he visited Starsky here, he remembered how things could have been. Fixing a bright, and hopefully happy, smile on his face, he spoke, "Well, Starsk, how are things today?"

David Starsky peered over the magazine he was reading, a photo of two luscious women playing volleyball on the cover. "Who's that from?"

"Uh, this is from Carol, Joanne and Suzanne at the Taco Palace. They said to tell you that business has been off 15 since the…accident." Hutch settled the pot onto an already groaning table near the window. His partner snorted and resumed his reading.

"Starsky, it would be nice if you would talk to me after all the trouble I've gone to for you."

At this, Starsky's head snapped up. "Trouble? You call one lousy dinner in intensive care a lot of trouble?" Seeing the hurt look steal over his friend's face, Starsky amended his outburst. "Not that it wasn't nice, but when I was dying for a pizza the other night, did you go get one for me? No! Too much trouble."

Hutch moved closer to the bed, noticing the empty, crumpled Dixie cup in the trash, and the too-bright eyes in his partner's face; signs that sadly pointed to continued pain and still more painkillers to combat it. "Look, I'm sorry, but since that night the security around this place has been terrific."

Starsky may have been slightly doped up, but he was no slouch when it came to reading his partner. And the white knuckles clenched at the military straight sides of Hutch told him the conversation needed to be lightened. Hutch dwelled too much on the shooting, and so did he.

"Hey, did you ask my landlord for an extension on the rent?"

Hutch slumped against the side of the bed, laying his hand near Starsky's. "Oh, yeah. He apologized, but said that if you want to keep the place, you have to pay up. Speaking of which…"

"What?"

"Dobey gave me some bad news today."

"About me." Flat, a statement, not a question.

"Sorta. It seems the coverage you have with the department isn't going to cover all the recuperation and therapy. The way we figure it out, your portion may be over 30 of the bill."

"How the hell can I afford that? All this damn space-age technology they used on me costs a small fortune, which I don't have!" Starsky paused, his mind racing. "Damn it, I don't know if I can swing that. No job for a while, either, from what the doctors say."

"I've been thinking about that. I know you've been sinking most of your pay into the bank and, with me as a co-signer, we could get a temporary loan from the Union if they refuse us at the banks. We can handle it, Starsk, I know we can. Like always, buddy." Hutch smiled, giving the patient a thumbs-up sign. "Just tell me where your bank and checkbook stuff is, I'll figure out how much we'll need."

The magazine crumpled in Starsky's hand, causing Miss Sport of the Month to appear like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. "No! I mean, never mind, I'll take care of it later." Starsky gave a very unconvincing yawn. "Uh, Hutch, I'm kinda tired. Maybe you should come back later this evening and I'll be better company, okay?" Starsky was pleating the light yellow sheet, avoiding the guileless blue eyes that studied him in worried puzzlement.

"Starsk, what is it? Did I say something --?"

"No, like I said, I'm tired."

Hutch was confused. Starsky's gently joshing look was gone, cut off like a light switch. He leaned over the bed, awkwardly patting the unbandaged shoulder of the dark, brooding man in the blankets. "Fine, buddy, I'll take off for now. See you this evening."

His evening visit didn't go much better. Anytime Hutch brought up the money, Starsky began to squirm. If he persisted, the man froze, refusing to discuss it at all. The visit finally ended with a nurse ushering Hutch out, explaining he was upsetting the patient too much. While Hutch was curious, he wasn't unduly concerned, assuming that Starsky had been spending money on foolishness, and didn't want to think of such mundane matters as bills. Particularly large bills. Nevertheless, Hutch was convinced that, with luck, they could pay off most of the tab. After all, he thought to himself, the only new things Starsky had bought lately was a set of speakers for his old stereo system. That couldn't have run more than a couple of hundred.

Going to Starsky's apartment to pick up his ailing partner's mail, he stopped by to see Mr. Willets, the apartment manager. The man had always reminded Hutch of a rat waiting to leave a sinking ship.

"Sergeant Hutchinson, I'm sorry about your friend being ill, but if he wishes to keep the apartment, I must have at least half of this month's rent. Do you think you could remind him?"
"I'll write you out a check myself. How much is it?"

"Three hundred and seventy-five for this month, and the recreation fee."

"Recreation fee?" Hutch turned.

"Yessir, use of the hot tub for parties and such."

Hutch had been to Starsky's place many times, but couldn't recall ever seeing a hot tub. "Hot tub? Where is it?"

"Oh, we haven't built it yet, but the plans are in the works."

Shaking his head, Hutch finished writing the check for Willets and excused himself. Letting himself into the apartment, Hutch again reminded himself that he should get someone in to clean the place. It was musty from disuse, a fine layer of dust covering the tables, chairs and cabinets. Rummaging through the desk drawers, the blond man finally found the papers in the back behind a small box of photos. He returned to the table, pushing the mass of magazines, books, and model parts to one side. As he prepared to pull out a check for Starsky to sign for his rent, he noticed a series of withdrawals, leaving his partner almost penniless. Curious, Hutch rummaged through the drawer some more, coming across a copy of a loan agreement for 40 thousand dollars. Hutch sat down on the couch, dumbfounded.

If he took out a loan for this kind of money, where the hell was the cash?

"Starsky, we need to talk, and talk now. I wrote your landlord an advance on the rent, which I assumed you could cover. Now I see I was wrong. You don't have a dime to your name. Where the hell is all your money?" Blue diamond-tipped drill bits bored into Starsky's slightly blurred eyes. "Starsk, for God's sake, are you in trouble?"

"No, I'm okay."

"Starsky, is someone blackmailing you?" Hutch could see by the reaction from Starsky that this wasn't the case. "Whatever it is, you know I'll help you. If it's that serious, if it's a family emergency and you needed money, you could have come to me."

Starsky needed time to recover, to think things out. To buy that time, he attacked. "You dirty sonuvabitch! What were you doing in my stuff anyway? You had no right prying into my papers. What I do is none of your business, except where it concerns our work." His voice got progressively louder with each word, conveying his anger, but not as well as he could have hoped.

"Starsky! Don't use that tone with me. You aren't pissed off about my going through your stuff, and you know it." Hutch saw a flush of embarrassment steal over Starsky's pale cheeks, but why? "Level with me. Is your Mom sick? Or is that no-good brother of yours in trouble again?"

"Let's not get started on Nick, stick to the facts: you snooped in my private affairs. Did you have a warrant, Officer Hutchinson?" Starsky snapped.

"I didn't realize I needed one, friend," Hutch replied.

The silence in the room could've been cut with a knife. Hutch wanted to reach Starsky, to shake the truth from him, but for the first time, he was cut off. No, he reminded himself, not the first time. When Gillian was killed he'd… Hutch refused to remember any more. Instead he tried again to reach his partner.

"Starsk, please?"

"Lay off me, Hutch, and while you're at it, you can get out. Now," Starsky ordered, pointing to the door where a nurse's aide hovered, attracted by the noise.

Hutch stared at his partner, his best friend, for a long moment, unable to understand what was going on in the mind behind those drugged eyes. "Okay, I'll leave. For now. But later, we will talk about this, or we won't talk at all."

Hutch tried to slam the door as he left, but even the damned air cushion hinges refused to cooperate.

Hutch went to the only place he could think of: The Pits. If anyone could possibly know what was on Starsky's mind, Huggy would. Starsky wasn't close to many people, not enough to confide in. Hutch had always thought that what Starsky knew, he knew. The shock of his partner holding back on him threw him.

It was early in the evening when Hutch arrived, after the lunch and dinner crowd and before the heavy drinking set arrived. The debonair black man was tending bar while his waitress, Anita, was on break. Sliding into a rear booth, Hutch signaled for a beer.

"Hello, my stalwart denizen of the night. How is our favorite crime buster this evening?" Huggy Bear slid into the seat across from Hutch, setting down beers for the both of them.

"If you mean Starsky, fine. If you mean me, confused. Hug, would you know of any reason why Starsky would need a large amount of cash? Something he wouldn't, or couldn't tell me about?"

Huggy Bear didn't answer immediately, considering the question. He sighed, then drank some of the foaming beer from his glass. "Why do you ask?"

"Because I know he's taken almost all of his money out of the bank and has a large amount on loan. Hug, I can tell you know something. Tell me. If he's in trouble, I want to help."

"Hutch, if he was in any kind of trouble, you know he'd come to you first. So why ask me?"

"Huggy, you're stalling."

"Not me, man. I'm just passing the day with you."

"Bullshit!" Hutch exploded. "Now I'm getting sick and tired of the runaround I'm getting. I want to know what's going on and I want to know now!" Hutch was getting angrier by the minute. He knew Huggy had some idea what the money was for, but seemed determined not to tell.

"Hutch, believe me, if Starsky was in any trouble, large or small, if he didn't tell you, I would. It's okay. Drop it." Huggy started to get up, but Hutch's hand gripped his arm, preventing him from leaving. "Hey, you're hurting me."

Hutch held on for a moment longer, as if to emphasize a point, then relaxed, allowing Huggy to pull free. "Huggy, Starsky means a lot to me. And I don't like seeing my buddy afraid to tell me the truth. If anyone else could tell me and didn't, I would be very angry. I would hate to have this ruin a long friendship."

Huggy heard the steel in the man's voice and felt a thin blade of ice run up his back. Hutchinson could be colder than an Antarctic blizzard when crossed, especially where Starsky was concerned.

"I'm sorry. You'll have to get it from Starsky, not me. I made a promise. I can't tell you a thing."

"Can't or won't?"

"Amounts to the same thing, old friend. Like I said, get it from your partner. If he's willing to say anything."

Hutch nodded. Finishing his drink, he rose to leave. Turning to stare at Huggy Bear, he said, "If I find out you knew something that hurt Starsky, and didn't tell me, I'll be back. And it won't be as a friend."

Huggy watched the blond detective leave. As soon as he heard the roar of Belle driving off, he walked to the bar and dialed a number on the phone.

"You'd better be prepared for some fireworks. Hutch was just here, breathing fire, and madder than hell. Either tell him what's going down or find a plausible story to occupy him. I, for one, don't want Detective Kenneth R. Hutchinson on my case, understand?" Huggy listened. "I know what you're saying, but…" A strident voice came over the phone. "Okay, okay, calm down. I'll do what you say. For now." Huggy hung up, muttering profanities to himself.

Anita, who had just returned from the back room, thought he looked worried. "What's up, boss?"

"The end of a dynasty, if some people don't watch out."

"Huh?"

"Hutch is threatening me, and Starsky is threatening me, and I'm caught in the middle. Shee-it!" Huggy poured a shot glass full of Scotch and downed it. "It's like they want me to choose between them, and I can't do that!"

"Can't you back out of whatever it is?" Anita asked.

"No, it's too late for that." Huggy looked over the room, seeing people begin in filter in. Personal problems would have to wait; he had a business to run. "Hey, woman, get to work. We ain't got time for all this gabbing."

Anita knew by the return to the jive, glib street talk that the serious talk was temporarily shelved. Question and answer period was finished, leaving her in the dark about what was going on.

Hutch didn't show up at the next two visiting hours, causing a few of the hospital staff to become the brunt of a fierce, wrathful man's rage. The normally charming patient had turned, snapping at doctors, nurses, and orderlies alike. The pain he was experiencing was worse due to his emotional state, and the medication was giving Starsky a 'flying effect.' Alone in his room, he wondered if he had finally pushed Hutch too far. What is he didn't come back? "Shit, all I wanted to do was make him happy!" Starsky threw the TV Guide across the room. "I can't do anything right anymore."

Finally, the awaited visitor arrived, but without the usual cheery greeting and sappy jokes. Hutch wasn't smiling and he didn't approach the bed, sure signs, to an already anxious Starsky, that something was wrong.

"Starsky, how are you feeling?"

"Where've you been? I missed ya," Starsky asked plaintively.

"Sorry I'm late, been tied up at work."

"Tha's okay. I waited for ya."

He was slurring his words again, Hutch noticed. He felt a twinge of guilt at having put Starsky through that interrogation days earlier, but he realized that this was the perfect time to find the truth. "Hey, buddy, I need to ask you something. Sorta personal, but important. Can you give me a minute?"

"Sure, always have time for you." Starsky felt a warning light go off in his head, and a siren screaming, "watch yourself." He tried to focus carefully on Hutch's words.

"Uh, I was wondering if you want me as a partner anymore. We've been together a long time now, and we've always leveled with each other. But I feel like it isn't the same any longer. Eight, no, nine years of trust is a long time, but if it's changed, I want to know about it." Hutch felt like a heel, but Starsky had always been a sucker for a guilt trip routine, so he laid it on thick.

"Wha? I don't understand. Slow down. 'Course I trus' you, tha's stupid, why wou'nt I?'

"Well, it appears everyone has your confidence except me these days. Look, if you want a new partner, just say so. I'd rather not find out later, the hard way." A definite Academy award performance, if he said so himself!

Starsky couldn't think, the medicine was lowering his capacity to lie. "Hutch, don't say that. I trust you more than anyone else in the whole world, you know that. You're my best friend. Why else would I guy…" Even in Starsky's woozy state, he realized the cat had almost escaped the bag.

"Why else would you buy what, buddy?" Hutch said, pressing his advantage.

"Nothing, nothing at all." Starsky felt himself beginning to tear up. Unplanned, yet it could get him out of a tricky situation. Sniffling loudly, he muttered, "please, stop it, Hutch. I really feel lousy, and you keep hounding me, making it worse…"

Hutch was shaken. The doctors warned him that his partner was still very weak and shouldn't be upset, any extreme aggravation could cause undue stress on the new tissue healing inside. Hutch leaned over the bed. Using the sheet as a tissue, he wiped his partner's wet face. "Buddy, I'm sorry. Please, don't cry. I won't ask any more questions, I promise. Just, please stop crying," he murmured softly until the tears slowed to a thin trickle. "Look, maybe I'd better go and come back tomorrow, okay? Do you need anything?"

Starsky shook his head, hair falling down into his gaunt face. "I feel so helpless, cooped up here. I need to get out of here, see fresh air. To see something except sunshine yellow walls. I want to go home."

"I know, pal, I know. Soon, very soon."

Hutch stood close by the bed as Starsky slowly calmed down, gradually falling asleep. Hutch let out a long held breath, running his fingers through his blond hair. He hadn't meant to push this hard, and felt like before murmuring a good-bye. As he left the room he failed to see a blue streak appear under long lashes, watching him exit the room.

Stopping at the nurse's station, Hutch asked them if they'd mind looking in on Starsky, as he'd been a bit upset. When Nurse Carson peeked in a few moments later, she noticed the "weepy" patient was chuckling over something. She thought she had better mention this the next time she spoke to the doctor, since the medication was affecting the patient with such varied highs and lows.

Hutch raced to the hospital a few days later, after a strange phone call from Huggy Bear at eight that morning. Hutch was befuddled. Huggy had stressed that it was an emergency, yet he seemed gleeful over it. As they walked down the hospital corridor, Hutch saw Captain Dobey sitting outside the waiting area. Uneasy, Hutch's steps quickened into long strides, causing Huggy to almost run to keep up.

"Starsky?" Hutch's hands shook as he gripped Dobey's arm.

Dobey smiled, his eyes twinkling. "No, he's all right. Just a little surprise." So saying, he flung open th edoor to Starsky's room.

Looking in, Hutch saw one David Michael Starsky cheerfully sitting on the bed, completely dressed in wrinkled blue jeans and a new Levi-type shirt of light blue. Instead of his usual sneakers, though, he was wearing soft slippers.

"Well, you gonna stand there with your mouth open all day, or are you ready to take a little drive into the country?"
"A drive in the country?" Hutch was elated. "Are you being released today?"

"Nah, you dummy, just sprung for the day. The doc thought I'd recover faster if I got some time off for good behavior. Well?" Starsky couldn't stop grinning at the astonished look on his partner's face. "Come on, ya blond blintz, I've got places to go. I'm only free till six this evening." Starsky gingerly lowered himself into the waiting wheelchair.

Once in the car (Huggy's white Caddy, as they couldn't all fit in Belle, even if Starsky had consented to ride in her), the two friends sat in the back with Dobey and Huggy in front. The country drive was just that, a drive deep into the hills surrounding the city. It was a two hour drive on the winding, semi-paved road before Huggy pulled the car over to the side.

"Now?" the driver asked, looking at the dark haired man in the back.

"Yeah, it's as good a time as any," Starsky replied. "Hutch, you remember how you bugged me about all that money?"

Hutch nodded, thoroughly bewildered by the smug smiles on the three men's faces. "Sure, considering your reaction, how could I forget?"

"Well, I didn't want you to find out what kind of an idiot I am. On account of you might decide I wasn't your partner and friend anymore," Starsky waved off the protest that sprang to Hutch's lips. "Close your eyes. For me. No questions till later."

Hutch humored Starsky, tightly closing his eyes and leaning back against the cushions. Huggy drove on, turning onto a bumpy road and driving for what seemed to a tense Hutch like twenty minutes, but in reality was only two. After coming to a stop, Hutch heard the sound of running water and birds singing. Starsky told him to get out of the car, with his eyes still closed, while Huggy and Dobey helped him from the Cadillac.

"Okay, partner, open those baby blues."

Hutch was blinded for an instant, a flash of light shining into his face. Allowing his eyes to adjust, he slowly turned completely around. The light was a reflection from a lake fed by a sparkling brook, gurgling next to a beautiful wooded cabin. A canoe was propped up at the side of the house. The whole area was shaded by trees and bushes, with no civilization in sight. Turning back to Starsky, Hutch mutely asked the question. Smiling gently, Starsky nodded.

"Happy belated birthday, buddy. She's all yours."

Hutch had forgotten all about his birthday a few weeks ago, what with Starsky's gunshot injury and his long convalescence. He didn't know what to say. Several weeks before that fateful day, he and Starsky had stumbled across this cabin, after seeing a 'for sale' sign on the highway. The owner hadn't been available and what had happened after had shoved the place out of Hutch's mind. So this was where all the money had gone and the reason for all the secrecy. He hadn't realized he had spoken aloud, until Huggy answered him.

"Yep, we all knew about it. I really wanted to tell you the day you stormed into The Pits, but Starsky said you could weather any storm for a little while longer."

Starsky struggled to get out of the car door. Hutch helped him to stand. Offering his shoulder for support, they started for the cabin. By common agreement, Dobey and Huggy waited outside.

Inside, the cabin was warmly decorated with Indian blankets and rough-hewn wood furniture. Hutch's fishing rod was hanging on a rack on the back wall, alongside Starsky's. Hutch gazed at his exasperating co-worker and friend. "Why? How?"

"Why?" Starsky lowered himself onto a couch, breathing heavily from the exercise of the walk. "I thought we could both use a place to get away. God knows, we have little enough time to ourselves. You love the great outdoors, and though I may bitch about all this being too far away from the lights and sounds of the city, I do love the quiet, and the peaceful beauty of the area. Anyway, I thought you'd like it. It is okay, isn't it?"

"Okay? It's perfect. Absolutely the best present that I've ever had to refuse. And too much…"

"Hutch, I swear, if you say too much money, I'll belt you one. And what do you mean, refuse it?"

"Starsk, it's too much. You're just euphoric after that close call, when you think about this later, you'll regret spending all that money."

"No, that's not it. It's not euphoria or the drugs or anything like that. It can't be."

"Why not?"

"Because I bought this place before the shooting. In fact, the deal was finalized that morning. Huggy and Dobey helped set things up here, but all the other stuff was taken care of. For a long time, I thought they would have to give you the keys. I wasn't sure if I'd be around to share it."

"Starsky, I'm sorry. I didn't know…"

"Dummy, how could I take out a loan from a hospital bed, and in a coma besides?" Starsky chided Hutch. "Maybe you're right about the drugs affecting me, though. There are some things I need to say, that I thought you would know by seeing this place." Starsky motioned Hutch to sit down, leaning back and staring at the ceiling.

"We've been together a long time. Like you said, a lot of years of trust. And we've been through hell more times than any man should have to be. Except for Ma, and maybe Nick, nobody has ever stayed around me for very long. They're all gone; Dad, my grandfather, Helen, Terry, Rosie, all of them are gone. Aw, I know you can't help it if it's your time, and Rosie felt her duty to her father was stronger than her love for me. I don't know, maybe she was right to leave. I do know one thing for sure, no matter what happened, you were always there. I've come to the point in my life where I find it hard to imagine you not there when I need someone's shoulder to lean on, to talk my problems out with. But nothing lasts forever. If I tried to ignore that fact, this recent stay in the hospital has reminded me graphically. It could have been you lying in that bed, on that dirty pavement.

"I've watched you change over the years. Everyone does, but I can see the change in you isn't good, not entirely. There's a weariness in your voice, in your eyes. I can't seem to help you like you've helped me. I thought, maybe this get-away place would be the answer. A place for that special lady. Or to be alone. No phone, no television, no radio; just solitude and forgiving Mother Nature."

Hutch leaned forward, burying his face in his hands. He felt a strong grip on his shoulder, causing him to look up. Starsky had moved closer to him, expectantly awaiting Hutch's decision. "I can't accept it, Starsk."

Starsky withdrew, his lower lip pulled in, clenched in his white, shining teeth.

"I can't accept it. Not unless we share it all."

"Huh?"

"We're partners, right? And partners share things. You're right about me, I have been down. You've been the one bright spot in an otherwise dreary world. I need that cheerfulness, that humor, that caring. Granted, this is a great spot to bring the ladies, but it's an even better spot to bring just us. But we have to share the cost as well as the place. A fill-up station, a place to recharge, call it what you like." Hutch stood, stretching to his full six feet.

Starsky rose also, weaving a bit. "Partners. Always." Starsky offered his hand to Hutch, and when Hutch took it, he pulled him into a bear hug. Hutch gripped him tightly.

It would soon be a new year, and a new decade. And they were still alive, still together. For the time being, that was more than enough.

"To think…I almost lost this wonder," Hutch murmured. "I love ya, you idiot, stupid and annoying as you are. Just don't ever change."