EIGHTEEN WHEELS

AND A

HITCHHIKER

TAG

Author's note: Thank you so much for riding along!

It was dark, and he felt so sleepy, but something was calling to him, trying to wrestle him awake. He tried to dodge the issue, but the voice called and called, begging him to make the dark go away. For a second, Hutch opened his eyes, seeing only dappling gray shadows which caused him to shut his eyes once more. He only wanted to drift away, back into the quiet comfort he'd come from, like a leaf floating down a lazy river.

Sometime later, he flitted near the surface of wakefulness again sleepily wondering who the person was that kept calling his name. Again he opened his eyes, and looked around. For a moment he watched as a shadow drifted from one end of the room to the other. The strange silhouette finally stood still, then moved toward him and came to rest in what appeared to be a chair. Hutch wanted to call out to the shadow. Not because he knew who or what it was, but because it felt like the right thing to do. He licked his lips, opened his mouth, and then blacked out, unable to bring himself to reconnect with the world around him.

Again he woke, this time to find himself alone, behind the wheel of the noisy truck, threatening to bring back his headache. Where had the room gone? The shadow? The chair? That quiet, lazy, floating feeling?

There was a voice above the thunder of the idling truck's engine, but Hutch didn't know where the sound was coming from. He could feel the stickiness of the wheel beneath the grip of his hands, could feel the heat of the wind. The CB squawked. He saw a diner. A parking lot. A fuel station. A scarecrow. He was having a tough time of it, trying to grasp where he was. Cold sweat dripped down from the nape of his neck and beneath his shirt collar. He was hot, and then cold, and then hot again. His timeline was completely off-kilter; a gun now pointed at his head. Where'd that come from? He shivered, readied himself to feel the pain of the world's most powerful handgun.

"Hutch."

He startled awake, opening his eyes. A sudden numbness seized him, and he didn't move. Couldn't. Everything was a brown haze, slowly going in and out of focus, like a broken camera lens. Hutch blinked rapidly, and for a brief second he found himself staring up at a low-hung ceiling. He studied the swirling plaster, lying there under the warm covers, until the ceiling blurred into a brown haze again.

"Good morning, buddy."

Hutch heard the voice, but still his stare remained fixed on the fuzzy ceiling. He was confused, only remembering grainy images of him running through the rain, tripping and stumbling. He quivered, recalling the wind and stalks of corn hitting his face, mud squishing beneath his shoes. The images all played out like a bad movie. Everything suddenly disappeared and turned black, until he felt something hot and painful slip into his side -- much like a knife burying itself into bone.

"Ahhhh," he gasped for air.

"Take a breath." His head thrashed back and forth on the pillow feeling like he was suffocating. "Hutch," the voice spoke calm and slow. "Take--a--breath."

He inhaled, and held the oxygen inside his lungs -- replenished by the cool breeze. Breathing, it was the most basic of things, how could he have forgotten, but the sudden rush caused him to sputter and choke.

"You gotta let the air back out, buddy." The voice chuckled, but Hutch could sense the tightness in the tone. "Let the air out," he was instructed once again more sternly. "In and out."

Hutch let out a slow breath, taking in another and another, letting the air flow back out each time. The tube he now knew was in his nostrils made his nose itch. He concentrated on his lessons in breathing.

The voice was quiet again, seeming to wait patiently for him to get the pain under control. Hutch could feel the softness of fingers tenderly running up and down his bare arm.

"You know, you handle yourself real well, Hutch."

Opening his eyes, Hutch turned his head toward the man's voice and stared stupidly at the shadowy mass hovering really close to his face. For a few beats of his heart, Hutch didn't know who 'he' was. He automatically reached for something, although he wasn't sure what, and his fingers blindly found a pleasing warmth.

"Hey, buddy," a voice quietly spoke near his ear.

Hutch's eyes narrowed, finally able to identify his partner. His lips tried to form a word, but couldn't.

"Don't try to talk, partner, just stay nice and still."

Using his eyes only, Hutch looked around the room, then down to the white bandage taped against the burning in his side.

"You're in the hospital. Going to be okay. They removed the bullet."

Hutch frowned, raising his head up slightly off the pillow. "F-feel sick."

"You didn't just catch a bullet, buddy boy, you caught the flu, too. You have a temperature. You'll be slugging down chicken broth and Jell-O for a few days, but you're going to be fine."

"O--o--o?" Hutch muttered weakly, his mouth and his mind not working as one. Realizing he was wasting his breath, he let his head sink back into the pillow.

"Yeah, pal, it's over," Starsky helped out. "Thanks to you, we nailed the Kings of the Road, and all you have to do now is take things real slow, and rest." Starsky paused. "You with me?"

"With me," Hutch echoed the last two words, scowling at his own jumbled thoughts that seemed to have been kicked to the curb. "With you," he corrected.

Starsky gave a light laugh. "You're not trucking up to full speed there yet, Golden Goose."

Hutch nodded, blinking at his friend, already starting to feel the effects of sleep again.

Starsky settled back in his chair still holding Hutch's hand.

"Starsk," Hutch said, closing his eyes.

"Yeah, buddy, right here."

"Next time--" Hutch forced one eye open. "Next time you drive." He sighed, and his eye fell shut.

"You got it, pal," Starsky whispered, squeezing Hutch's hand. "Now rest."

"I--I can do that," Hutch said, squeezing Starsky's hand in return, slipping beyond the sound of his partner's voice.

The end.