The beeping gave it away. It was reflexive by now; steady, monotonous beeping always accompanied waking up in a hospital bed.
The sharp bite of antiseptics filled his nostrils, mixed with the chemical taint of pure oxygen. His muscles were leaden, but his skin relayed perceivable sensations nonetheless. Something was taped to his chest. He tested his limbs and felt more tubing, one traveling the length of his arm and the other the length of his leg.
"He's waking up."
It was Starsky's voice, coming from somewhere to his left. Hutch rolled his head towards the sound and tried to open his eyes.
Blinding white light made him wince and he groaned against the pain. His eyes were watering and the tears leaked traitorously down his face.
"Hold on Hutch, lemme get the lights." There was movement, then a door opened and Starsky muttered, "He's awake."
"Pulse is good, blood pressure is up," a foreign male voice noted. "Can you hear me, Detective Hutchinson?"
His eye lids went dark as the light was turned off, and instantly the stinging in his eyes was eased. How did he get here? There was a dull pain in his chest and head. Was he shot? Was Starsky alright? He tried opening his eyes once more, and as the twenty blurred images merged into two, Starsky and the doctor smiled.
"Welcome back," Starsky greeted as he moved to Hutch's bedside.
Something pressed into his ear and Hutch flinched. "Temperature is still a little high, but I'd like to remove the ventilator now," the doctor announced as he flipped a switch over Hutch's head.
Ventilator? He didn't recall that being on his list of inventoried medical paraphernalia. But then he heard the whooshing, and felt air being dragged from his lungs before he was done with it, and Hutch started to panic.
"Hey," Starsky said as Hutch swallowed against the tube in his throat. "Calm down, Hutch."
The damn beeping filled his ears as it got louder and faster and he couldn't breathe right and the tube was choking him as he tried to shake it loose-
"…Hutchinson, on the count of three, you have to blow, understand? One… two… three!"
The exhale turned into a coughing fit as the slick plastic traveled up his trachea, under his tonsils and over his tongue. Starsky was pushing him back down onto the mattress. Once his head hit the pillow, exhaustion claimed him once more. Hutch was barely aware of the doctor leaving the room.
"Here," Starsky said and suddenly a straw was pressed to Hutch's lips.
He accepted the water, greedily taking as much as he could before Starsky pulled it away.
"Not too fast," he scolded, but Hutch already knew that.
"What happened?" Hutch asked, running his tongue over his teeth to collect every last drop of the cold water.
"We were in a car crash," Starsky replied. "On our way to the cabin. We went over the side of the mountain and came to a stop a couple thousand feet from the road."
Visions of trees and blue sky and crumpled red metal flashed across his mind's eye. "I've asked that before, haven't I?"
Starsky smiled. "Just once or twice."
"We were run off the road?" he frowned, not sure where the information was coming from. "By kids?"
Starsky looked angry. "We'll probably never find 'em."
Hutch shifted under the starchy hospital sheet. "Might get lucky." Then, suddenly, he looked into Starsky's eyes. "You alright? Your leg-"
"I'm fine," Starsky grinned, but it was forced.
"Okay, I will be fine. They're gonna wait for the swelling to go down, then I'll have some surgery and be good as knew."
"Gotta repair some kind of ligament or tendon or something. I'll be fine."
Hutch huffed. "We'll see about that. You'll be outta work for a while."
"Well after spending two days on a mountain, I'm looking forward to some rest and relaxation."
"Most people would fail to see the humor in that, Starsk."
"There is no humor in that," Starsky retorted. "You had a bad concussion and four of your ribs are broken. You were bleeding into your chest. Your lung collapsed. They almost lost you on the way in here. I think we've earned a real vacation, don't you?"
Hutch ignored the question, still trying to comprehend everything. He eyed the IV bag wearily before looking at Starsky. "You never gave up."
"Of course not. I made a promise."
"A promise?" The contents of the bag worried him, but he trusted his partner to stand up for and protect his wishes. Hutch tried to focus on the conversation.
Everything seemed to click. It was as if the last puzzle piece had fallen into place. "I remember now."
"She really likes you, for some strange reason," Starsky teased.
The doctor returned, holding a syringe in his hand. "I've brought you something to take care of the pain," he said, and held up a finger when Hutch opened his mouth. "It's just an anti-inflammatory, and it will help with the fever. It's very safe for someone in your… condition."
Hutch glanced at Starsky before allowing himself to relax. He supposed he was paranoid. Just because someone approached him with a needle didn't mean he'd wind up in that alley again, broken and embarrassed. But it would take a while to shake the fear, no matter how irrational it was.
The syringe was emptied into the tubing and the doctor stepped back. "Detective Hutchinson will need his rest," he said, hinting not-so-subtlety at Starsky.
Starsky raised a hand. "Yeah, yeah. Just gimme one more minute."
The doctor left and Hutch eyed the bandages on Starsky's cheek, horribly white against his dark hair. "Thanks for not giving up."
Starsky smiled as he folded his arms over the back of the chair as he straddled it. "Merle says there's no way those headlights should have worked. And there's especially no way anyone should have seen them."
"So how did we get here?" Hutch's eyelids were slipping, and his surroundings took on a dream-like quality.
"It was a trucker who found us. He said he was coming home after being on the road for three days. He was tired, and heading into town to find a place for the night. He was starting to drift off, so he turned the radio up loud and when he looked back to the road, there was a woman standing there."
Hutch's eyes grew wide. "A woman?"
"Wearing a sweater with a gray cat on it."
"Really?" Man, whatever he was being pumped with, he loved it. He suddenly realized that the doctor had given more than just an anti-inflammatory, and he felt betrayed.
"He slammed on the brakes and got out, but she was gone. When he went to the side of the road, he saw the Torino's headlights."
Hutch's eyes drifted shut as he grew warm and content. "It was Terry," he stated, in case Starsky hadn't figured it out.
Starsky snorted softly. "Yeah, partner, it was Terry." Hutch felt a hand on his arm. "Get some sleep."
And he did, feeling better than he had in months.
By the next morning, Starsky had once again mastered the art of crutches. It was like the proverbial riding a bike; once you learned, you never forgot. He came around the corner, heading down the hall towards Hutch's room, candy bar clutched tightly in one hand and a pack of cards in the other. The steady, alternating rhythm of rubber-padded aluminum and sneaker against polished tile flooring echoed as he moved. When he reached the slightly-ajar door, he stopped, listening to the voices inside.
"So I told the crazy fool, 'you better stop while you're ahead!' and you know what? He keeps right on eating!"
Hutch's soft laughter filled the room and Starsky nudged open the door. Huggy was sitting beside the bed, a big smile on his face, and the laughter seemed to intensify with Starsky's appearance.
"You telling stories about me again?" he asked, making his way to the other side of the bed.
"Only the ones that are true," Huggy replied. The hospital chairs were too small even for Starsky, and seeing Huggy bent into one was a sight to behold.
Starsky leaned the crutches against the wall and sank into the second chair. He tossed the cards onto the bedside tray and leaned back, unwrapping his candy bar.
"Huggy brought me some food," Hutch stated, nodding towards a large paper bag against the wall. "For when I get out."
Starsky fought to keep the smirk from his face. Looks like just when Hutch finally got out from underneath the avalanche of free food, that's exactly where he found himself all over again. "Hey, thanks Huggy!" he grinned, "I'll be sure to taste test it for Hutch. You know, make sure it's to his liking."
Huggy narrowed his eyes. "You keep your paws off Blondie's food," he warned, raising a finger. "At least until you start making payments on your very large tab."
Embarrassed, Starsky changed the subject. "It looks like a jungle in here, Hutch," he noted looking around and carefully avoiding the black man across from him. "Who woulda thought you had so many friends?"
Hutch looked around at the multitude of gift-wrapped house plants and grinned. "Kinda makes being stuck on that mountain worth it, huh?"
Starsky made a face as Huggy rose to his feet. "Uh… yeah… I guess…"
"Well I've gotta get back. You know that saying, 'when the cat's away, the mice will play'? Last time I left for this long, Sally was giving out free beers." Huggy shivered as he headed for the door. "Between my waitresses and you-" he pointed at Starsky- "It's a wonder I ever have enough to pay the bills."
"Just send me a bill!" Starsky called after Huggy said goodbye to Hutch and walked through the door.
When they were alone, Starsky looked at Hutch in companionable silence.
"Cards?" Starsky asked, taking a bite of the candy.
Hutch nodded and Starsky opened the box and began shuffling. "I want to apologize," Hutch said at last.
Starsky snorted. "For what?"
"For being such a handful."
"Hell-o…" Starsky waved a hand, emphasizing Hutch's bruises and bandages. "You're the one with stitches in your head and four broken ribs. I just twisted my knee."
"Okay, well… thank you. I know it was a lot of pressure on you, especially dealing with… Terry."
For the first time since her death, Starsky felt warm at the mention of her name. He owed Hutch more than his partner would ever know. "Don't worry about it," he said, dealing the cards. "I'll let you pay me back."
"How about dinner at my place?" Hutch asked, staring at the brown bag on the floor.
Grease stains were already glistening on the bottom.
Starsky set the stack of cards down and picked up his hand. "Yeah, sounds good. And maybe one of these days, I'll pay the man."