A Joke Among Friends
(A "tag-on-the-tag" of "The Trap")
Starsky felt the support of the cane disappear, and snatched at Dobey's suitcoat to avoid the pain that flared in his leg at the sudden burden of weight and loss of balance. The captain reacted quickly, supporting the upper half Starsky's body, and giving him an upward pull that helped him right himself. Joey grabbed for the discarded cane and handed it back to him, babbling incessantly. He knew she was expressing concern, admonishing him to be careful, but it was all falling on deaf ears. His uncharacteristically silent partner had the ghost of a smile on his face, apparently greatly amused by the whole situation.
"...could come over and help take care of you," Joey concluded, her litany ending in an offer that made him cringe. He flashed his best smile, patted her face and thanked her for her concern.
"Really, I'll be okay, Joey. I guess I just came back to the office a little too soon," he said, shooting a sideways glance at Hutch. The fact that it wasn't a glare, or even particularly accusatory, unnerved the prankster who had found Joey and Dobey's reactions predictably funny. Starsky's reaction was just plain...odd. He wasn't fuming, though he knew exactly what had gone down.
"It wouldn't be any trouble, Dave. Really. I'd love to help you out."
"Thanks, kiddo, but I really am okay as long as I keep most of the weight off my leg and don't walk around too much. I usually do pretty well with this thing--guess I just hit a slippery spot."
"Slippery spot, huh? Hmph." Dobey glanced Hutch's way and retreated into his office.
"I guess since you're wounded I can forgive you for standing me up."
"Yeah, well, as soon as I can stand myself up right again, I'll take ya out for that pizza--promise."
"It's a deal. I'll stop by next week." She smiled a little. "Call me if you need me."
"Will do." He watched her saunter out of the squad room. "Think I'll head for home." Starsky didn't look at Hutch when he said it, and the other felt a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. It had only been a joke--a game--but Starsky wasn't playing along this time. He pulled his car keys back out of his pocket and after testing his walk tentatively with a couple of winces, he started for the door.
"Starsk--wait a second."
"Look, I'm pretty worn out, Hutch. Guess I came back too soon after all. I'm due for another pain pill, and that'll knock me out anyway. God knows I need it right about now."
"If you're mad about the stunt I just pulled, I'm sorry. It was just a joke," Hutch explained with a little smile, though it was an uneasy one.
"Yeah? Well, I'm not laughin'. I don't want to get into this with you right now." And with that, Starsky made a slow but determined trek to the door, and something in his demeanor discouraged Hutch from pushing the issue. As his partner disappeared through the doors, Dobey stuck his head out his office door.
"Hutchinson--I want to see you." He stood aside and held the door open while Hutch walked through it, then closed it behind him. "What the hell was that about?" he demanded, none too pleasantly, taking a seat on the edge of his desk as Hutch occupied a chair.
"We were just joking around, Captain. I didn't think you'd mind catching the fall out." Hutch smirked a little at the mental image of Dobey catching Starsky, though his partner's reaction had definitely deflated the humor of the whole situation.
"I just got the report from Starsky's doctor. He's not even supposed to be walking around on that leg yet without crutches--did you know that?"
"Well, no...I assumed when I saw the cane that he had the all-clear. The doctor didn't think he'd need the crutches more than a few days, and it's been almost a week."
"He's also taking some pretty strong pain medication and antibiotics. I'm extending his leave another week. I don't even want him on desk duty until the fog clears and he can get around better."
"I didn't think it was all that serious. I mean the bullet was removed, and we managed to slow the bleeding to almost nil in the barn. He told me he'd be fine in a week or so."
"My point here is that your little stunt was damned irresponsible and I don't want to see anymore antics like it in my squad room, is that clear? If you two want to wrestle each other in your off time, that's your prerogative, but when you're here, I expect you to act like adults."
"Sorry, Captain. It was just a joke. I--"
"Stop right there. The discussion is over. This isn't a debate. It's a verbal reprimand in case you weren't paying attention. Don't let something like it happen again--understood?"
"That's all." Dobey stood up, making a dismissing gesture with his hand. Hutch rose and exited the office silently. Antibiotics? Dobey's mention of antibiotics was just now registering. It wasn't too odd the wound would be somewhat infected, given the dirty conditions and lack of antiseptic when it occurred, but for Dobey to react the way he did and also to extend Starsky's leave, must mean it was serious enough.
Starsky stared listlessly at the noisy game show progressing on the screen in front of him. Back in his robe with his leg propped up on a pillow, he was restless again. Laid out on the couch, he felt able to get up and face the world. It was only when he tried facing it that he realized his leg had a ways to go, he still needed the crutches to make it farther than the bathroom or the refrigerator, and the medication was turning him into a zombie. Now the dull throb in his leg was getting to him, and he downed another pill with some water that had been sitting on the coffee table for quite a while. Grimacing at the room-temperature liquid, he chased it with a swig of Coke from the bottle he'd been draining during the game show.
He'd tried not to think too much about the incident at the precinct. It was probably just a joke, and he was making a big thing out of it. But he'd felt shaky enough trying to make it into work, and was pretty worn out by the time Hutch had pulled his stunt. What he couldn't seem to fathom is what was supposed to be so funny about it. Some of Hutch's practical jokes--like Starsky's own--were funny, even if they were embarrassing or annoying at the moment. Most of them were harmless. This had shaken him up, gotten his leg back to throbbing and made him feel like an idiot. He finally accepted that he was missing the humor and went back to helping a housewife from Kentucky win a new station wagon.
It was just plain mean. It wasn't funny. Besides, why should it be funny to your best friend to kick you when you're down? The leg'll heal, and beyond making it hurt a little more, it didn't do any big damage. But the spirit behind the prank hurts a hell of a lot more...
Starsky tried to ignore the inner voice and go back to his game show, able to doze a little now as the pill worked its magic. He didn't hear the knock or the click of the lock turning as Hutch entered the apartment.
Hutch closed the door quietly now, deciding if Starsky was sleeping soundly enough to miss his knock, he was better off left to his rest. He was about to leave when he noticed the prescription bottles on the table and then took stock of Starsky's appearance. He was lying on his back on the couch, sleeping peacefully, with his leg propped carefully on a large bed pillow. He was a little paler than usual, but otherwise seemed comfortable. Hutch hadn't been over to see him in the last couple of days since he'd been released from the hospital. The case had taken diligent paperwork and follow up to conclude and hand over to the DA, and he'd had a first date with a lady he'd been charming for the last two months the previous night. Starsky had insisted he was fine, getting a ride home from the hospital from Huggy. He'd only been kept one day after the bullet was removed for observation and to let the anesthetic wear off. In the world of bullet wounds, it was a minor one. They'd talked by phone several times, ironing out the case details, and hashing over the details of Hutch's hot date. He'd had no reason to be unduly worried about Starsky, and certainly hadn't gone behind his back to check up on him with his doctors.
He noticed a catalog open on the floor near the couch, and stealthily slithered over to it and picked it up, looking over the page that Starsky had been studying. A myriad of watches assaulted his eyes. He glanced down at his sleeping partner who had begun a little light snoring. Hutch carefully replaced the catalog and slipped out of the room as noiselessly as possible.
Starsky came to and glanced at the TV. Evening news. That little knockout pill was pretty good. Almost a three-hour nap. Then he spotted the small wrapped package on the coffee table. And sensed a presence in the room.
"You're awake," Hutch announced, coming into Starsky's line of vision from where he had been working on boiling pasta in the kitchen. "I thought I'd make us dinner--if that's okay."
"You don't have to do that. I can order out for pizza."
"Starsk, listen, about earlier--"
"You were joking. Let's just drop it." Starsky pulled himself into a sitting position and rearranged the pillow under his leg.
"You didn't tell me you were feeling this lousy, buddy." Hutch sat on the edge of the coffee table, facing his partner.
"I'm doin' okay. I only need the crutches to go long distances, and the doctor said I probably won't need 'em at all next week. I just got a little frisky going out with just the cane. I think the distance between the curb outside and the squad room's gotten longer since I was shot," he concluded with a little half-smile. "The steps were a lot of fun too," he said, still grinning slightly.
"Starsky, I'm really sorry about that trick I pulled on you. I'd have never done anything like that if I thought it would hurt you--I hope you know that."
"I know. But I was just sittin' here earlier, tryin' to figure out what was supposed to be funny about it. I don't get it. I mean, usually I get it, even if I wanna strangle you for it, and it's kinda funny. This was just...I don't know...mean, I guess." He looked away toward his propped leg. "I guess it was more my feelings than my leg that got hurt, that's all."
"I didn't think, okay? It was an impulse--a dumb joke--a sight gag--Three Stooges stuff, I guess. Dobey told me you were on some pretty heavy medication, and he wants to extend your leave. I would've never done it if I'd known--why didn't you tell me you had an infection too?"
"'Cause you did everything you could to take care of the wound in the barn and you made sure we both got out alive, and you've been feelin' all guilty and everything because I got hurt by those guys that were really after you. I didn't want to make you feel worse, and besides, you'd'a been over here trying to feed me seaweed juice and chicken beaks or something equally revolting to bolster my immune system. You had a case to wrap up, and as long as I got a phone and a pizza place that delivers, I was okay. It made more sense to just take care of this one myself."
"Yeah, but you don't have to. That's what your partner's supposed to be for--when he's not acting like an ass," Hutch concluded in a self-deprecating tone.
"Apology accepted, pal. Let's forget it." Starsky smiled, more genuinely this time. "So what's in the box?"
"Peace offering." Hutch handed him the package and watched while he tore into it. Starsky's eyes became two saucers in his head when he uncovered the box, then opened it.
"Hutch--I don't believe it! It's--it's a Yamamoto Reflex--just like my other one!" He unceremoniously cast the box aside, divested himself of his old watch and had the new one on his wrist all in one relatively smooth and continuous motion. "Wait a minute--this had to cost a fortune--the other one was 300 bucks with a scratched crystal. You didn't get this from Huggy, did you?" Starsky's voice hushed conspiratorially on the last question, and Hutch laughed out loud.
"All nice and legal, partner. I got it at Kellerman's--the new department store that just opened? They have better prices than the jewelers."
"Yeah, but still..."
"Hey, nothin's too good for my partner." Hutch patted his arm, and Starsky snorted a happy little laugh. "Read the back of it."
"Read the back of it. You put it on so fast I didn't have time to tell you."
"Okay." Starsky seemed even more excited now, if that was humanly possible. He removed the watch and carefully read the inscription: "'To My Best Friend. Love, Hutch'. I--I don't know what to say." Starsky's adam's apple bobbed a little, and he smiled warmly. "I'll keep it always, Hutch. Thanks."
"Just don't scratch the crystal on this one," Hutch said lightly.
"Oh, no. This one only gets worn on special occasions."
"But I thought you liked having all those altimeters and barometers and gadgets to play with."
"My old watch does just fine for work. This one is special...it's gonna last forever," he said solemnly, putting a great deal more meaning into the words, encompassing much more than the piece of jewelry he held in his hands.
"It sure is, buddy. It sure is," Hutch replied, smiling.