This story first appeared in the zine, That's What Friends Are For #6 (1997). This zine and other fine S&H gen zines can be obtained from the editor at: Intertwined@webtv.net. Comments on this story can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org and will be forwarded to the author.
Ghosts of Christmas Past
This time it was to be a small inn about an hour outside LA. Hutch hadn't gone through a lot of trouble to find the place, had just seen it in an ad somewhere, but it looked okay. Adequate for his purposes, anyway. And no one went to inns in the middle of nowhere for Christmas, either, so reservations had been no problem. They would be expecting him Christmas Eve morning.
"You really want me to believe you got me nothing for Christmas?"
Starsky's question reluctantly returned him to the present. Normally, he'd have told his partner by now that he was going away, but somehow he'd never gotten to it, and it just made him feel all the worse to listen to Starsky's childlike enthusiasm about the holidays and gifts. Hutch sighed inside as he answered negatively, then launched into the speech about commercialism that he'd given so many times, he'd half begun to believe it himself. It was a good excuse, even if he cringed to hear the disappointment in Starsky's voice in response. But how his partner hadn't figured out after 6 years that, even when he'd given in and exchanged gifts before leaving, Hutch didn't really want anything to do with the holidays, he would never know. Not that he'd always been so disillusioned...
Cinnamon and pine. Those were the two smells of Christmas, the smells of his grandmother's house all throughout December. In their family, Christmas wasn't just one day out of the year, it was a whole season, a month of baking and song and wonderful secrets. This year, he was a big boy, all of eight years old, and he couldn't act as silly and childish as 5-year-old Christine, but deep inside, he was still excited. Grandpa had even promised to let him help cut the tree this year. His joy was complete; he was a man of eight...
"All units, all units in the vicinity of 101 South Main, a 211 in progress."
Hutch said a silent thank-you for the interruption as he leaned forward to grab the mike. "This is Zebra Three, we are responding."
They were silent on the way to the robbery; it was an unacknowledged truth that every call had the potential to turn into a life-and-death situation, and the few minutes interception time was usually used for mental preparation and concentration. Hutch gladly left thoughts behind of both his dilemma and his partner as they returned to business. He had all but forgotten the problem as they entered the store, alert and ready. And found the owner guarding his prize catch, a pre-teen juvenile delinquent.
Hutch's stomach knotted at the sight. What was a kid doing shoplifting right before Christmas? And would the shopkeeper really want them to arrest her now? Whatever happened to holiday goodwill? Hutch winced at the reminder of the lecture he'd just given to his partner on the subject only minutes before. But the kid couldn't be more than 12 or 13...
He was still trying to digest that when Starsky turned to him. "So, what do you want to do?"
Hutch didn't know himself, but had opened his mouth to respond when the shopkeeper broke in, demanding they arrest the little girl. The blond's patience gave way. "You. Stay out of this," he commanded flatly.
The man shut up.
Hutch met his partner's eyes again, seeing the emotion behind the surface amusement. Starsky was bothered by the situation, too, feeling pity for the kid. "I'll handle it," Hutch quietly volunteered.
A minute and a throbbing thumb later, he had almost changed his mind about the girl and, retreating woundedly to suck his thumb, he let his partner take over. Starsky had the unique qualification of mentally being near the girl's age, anyway. Hutch watched their exchange with silent curiosity. The girl was all bluster and bravado, but why? Surely it wasn't just fear of what her parents would say.
Starsky somehow managed to coax the girl out of her corner, and Hutch resolutely followed the two of them out to the car, still not sure what they were going to do with her. When she took off, he was startled but not really surprised. It fit with the belligerent attitude - and the rebellious cover she was trying so hard to keep. It was almost ridiculously easy to catch her and scare her into giving them her address; she was just a scared kid underneath the tough behavior. Hutch's amused grin faded at the thought.
They pulled up in front of a shabby hotel the girl had directed them to, its sign hung with a few strings of tinsel in a pathetic attempt to decorate it for the holidays. Hutch felt his heart sink even lower at the sight. He'd long gotten used to the thought that some of humanity was consigned to live in such dirt and squalor, but it never seemed fair when kids were caught up in such a life. "Merry Christmas," he muttered to Starsky, who had turned wide-eyed to look at him. Hutch couldn't keep a trace of bitterness out of his voice and caught the resulting flinch deep in the other's eyes. He sighed to himself. Was he really that determined to kill the Christmas spirit in Starsky, too? He didn't mean to, but it was hard when he was so disenchanted himself.
Inside, the apartment told a predictable story. Even shabbier than the hotel, it spoke of neglect and disinterest, and a father who drank. Was this what the kid had been trying to cover up, Hutch wondered. It was reason enough. He gave the room a once over, silently appalled at the lack of food in the refrigerator or heat in the room. That the girl seemed to take it for granted didn't help at all.
The tension left his posture as he suddenly stopped for a minute to smile at his partner's enthusiasm over baseball. It didn't cease to amaze him how Starsky never seemed long affected by all the bad they saw in the world, or how his optimism never let Hutch get buried too deeply, either. Hutch finally shook himself out of his reverie and, after agreeing that they would be staying for a while, decided to make himself useful and at least do what he could to improve the living conditions a bit for the girl. He frowned at the chill in the air again and got up to try to work on the furnace.
He was making some progress when the phone rang, and he absently listened to Molly's one-sided conversation. His attention sharpened when she agitatedly put down the phone.
"That was my dad's girlfriend. Something about he's hurt or something..."
A sense of foreboding pricked at him, suddenly. He swallowed. Oh God, no. It couldn't be. He pushed himself to his feet and followed his partner out the door, hoping fervently that their waiting for her father hadn't been in vain.
Only six more days to Christmas, he crossed another day out on the calendar before he went to bed. Before, it had seemed like an eternity to wait, and each day dragged on longer, but now there were only six more of them left. He climbed off the bed and moved quietly to the corner, not wanting to alert his mother that he was up. But he had to see the tree one more time, wish it goodnight. He never did that when anyone was around; they'd think it was too babyish, but he did indulge when he was alone. Somehow, he knew that even halfway across the world, Michael would hear and know that his little brother was thinking of him, too. Kenny acted tough about it and never told anyone, but he missed Michael something awful, especially at night. And the only thing that brought them closer was that tree, Michael's tree, that they'd planted together before Michael left. He couldn't wait to show his brother how much it had grown since. He patted the trunk gently and climbed back into bed. Only six more days...
Silence reigned in the car. Molly sat quietly between them, face expressionless, the baseball glove she twisted around in her hand the only sign of her worry. Starsky, by turns, stared at the road and at his two passengers. Hutch was vaguely aware that his partner was trying to catch his eye, silently ask him what he thought, but Hutch had withdrawn into himself, sensing, knowing what was coming, hoping desperately he was wrong. And fighting the overwhelming waves of déja vu.
They saw the ambulance from down the street, and Starsky screeched to a stop behind it. Molly was already getting out. Hutch took his badge out as he silently watched her struggle past the policeman, over to the stretcher. It was completely covered by a sheet, and he held his breath as she slowly pulled the edge of the sheet up. When she collapsed on it, crying, he shut his eyes tight for a moment and let out the breath in a long, slightly unsteady sigh. Starsky picked up on his distress and glanced at him, but a policeman's arrival distracted them both.
Hutch forced himself to take the initiative. "What happened?" he asked tersely.
"Some bum. Two shots in the back. Musta been killed instantly."
Killed instantly... "What was the hassle? Robbery?" he pressed.
The policeman snorted. "In this part of town, who knows? Unfortunately, except for her," the cop motioned to Molly, "who cares?"
Hutch heard the regret in the young patrolman's voice and didn't argue, knowing the truth of the statement. Who cared, indeed? He took an absent step, turned back to look at Starsky, who returned his gaze with confused, sad eyes. His partner's innocence never seemed to fade no matter how many of these scenes he witnessed. Hutch looked back down at the ground, then at the sobbing Molly. If only he could say the same about himself.
Good news came on the telephone, bad news they delivered in person. Kenny hadn't thought anything of the ring of the doorbell, but had gone down to see who it was now, who from their long list of friends was stopping by in this last week before Christmas. He watched out of sight behind the parlor door as his mother answered the door and immediately called for his father, something in her tone that Kenny had never heard before. He angled for a better look at the visitors and was excited to see the two men in Navy uniform. Just like Michael! Could it be that his brother would be home for Christmas after all? Kenny crept forward to hear better.
His father appeared, putting an arm around his mother, and the four conversed quietly, but Kenny was close enough to hear. "... to inform you that Ensign Michael Hutchinson was killed in the line of duty on..." Kenny didn't hear anymore. Even to an eight-year-old, those words, however hard to grasp, still meant something horrible. His mother gave a cry that made Kenny shiver and unfroze him, and then he was running upstairs, oblivious to the sob he himself had uttered or his father's voice that called after him. All he wanted to do was run far away from there and never see anyone again...
Molly had stopped crying by the time they got her in the car again, but she seemed oblivious to her surroundings or the fact that she was leaning against Hutch while he stroked her hair over and over. Occasionally, the blond looked up at his partner, seeking answers he knew neither of them had, feeling only a little reassured at the matching depth of feeling in the other's eyes.
There was no question of what to do now, Starsky had turned them back toward the station without a word, then called for Jen Perkowitz to meet them as soon as possible to make arrangements for Molly's care. When they got to the station, Hutch gently directed the child up to the squadroom and sat her in a chair, then pulled Starsky aside.
"Starsk, they can't put her in juvie. Not now."
Starsky shrugged. "Well, maybe they can find her a foster home. Doesn't mean she's gonna end up in juvie."
Hutch shook his head, frustrated. "But she just lost her dad, and it's Christmas."
His partner kindly avoided a reminder about earlier complaints of 'euphoric sentimentalism.' He simply nodded. "Yeah. But there's nothing we can do. Can't take her home ourselves..."
Hutch frowned and fell silent. "It's not fair," he finally said so softly, Starsky, who had been turning away, almost didn't hear him.
Bright, concerned eyes turned back to him, this time studying him, looking for something. "You okay?" Starsky asked. It was not a simple question.
Hutch knew, but wasn't able to deal with that now. "Yeah," he said unconvincingly, dismissing the cause for concern with an impatient movement and an attempt to walk off.
A hand closed down on his, halting him. "Hutch." This time it wasn't a question.
He met the worried eyes almost shyly. "Yeah," he said again, this time some of his pain leaking into the word. The other looked at him silently, trying to understand but aware that he wasn't ready to talk yet. That answer Starsky could accept, at least temporarily.
In the meantime, there were other ways to deal with stubborn, silently-suffering partners. "Say, d'you ever manage to get Perkowitz to go out with you?" Starsky asked with a sly smile.
Hutch grimaced good-humoredly. "Mind your own business," he shot back.
Starsky's grin grew satisfied. "That's what I thought," he said pleasantly.
Jennifer Perkowitz chose that moment to walk in the squadroom door. Starsky sent one last knowing glance in his partner's direction, then made his way back to Molly, pausing to grin appreciatively at the woman from social services. She smiled back, first at him, then at Hutch, who led her into Dobey's office.
He outlined the situation to her quickly, and she, in turn, told him that Molly had been in foster care before, and that, if it was possible, she'd get them to take the girl back for the time being. Hutch cringed at the thought. Foster care was a hit-or-miss situation at best, and at Christmastime, it sounded almost as bad as juvie. He sat down at Dobey's desk while Perkowitz set about making some phone calls. Can't take her home ourselves... Starsky's words echoed in his head, voicing Hutch's thoughts. It certainly wasn't his first choice - it had been years since he'd lived in the same house with a young girl, what did he know about them anymore? Not to mention that there was no telling how long the situation would last, and it was quite possible that he wouldn't be able to get away for Christmas, then. Hutch didn't know if he was scared or relieved at that thought. It had become almost a ritual, a way of dealing with the pain and memories the holidays brought, the easy way out. It was a little jarring to think of facing all that again. And yet he knew he couldn't do anything else.
Hutch put the plan to Perkowitz in between phone calls. Her response was disappointingly predictable. "Highly irregular," she said.
"So is being a little girl, alone. Waiting for her father to come home," Hutch protested softly, aware that his expression was conveying more emotion than he'd intended, but not able or trying to hide it.
Perkowitz stared at him thoughtfully and continued her calls.
As they left the office, Hutch couldn't help but feel dejected. Yes, he'd tried, but it hadn't been enough, and, like it or not, Molly was going to end up in juvie. There were some he just couldn't save, no matter how hard he tried. He leaned heavily on the chair, not wanting to see Molly's face when Jen told her.
Molly had shaken off her earlier shock and retreated behind resignation. "Juvie, huh?"
Perkowitz hesitated. "No, Molly, I'm afraid it's too late to get you booked into juvie tonight." Hutch started, turned to stare at her. Her eyes were smiling as she met his gaze and added "Officer Hutchinson has agreed," she emphasized the word just for him, "to let you stay at his place."
Hutch could see Starsky's head come up at the news, but, embarrassed, he didn't look at his partner, watching instead as Molly's lit up for a moment before carefully retreating into apparent indifference. Hutch smiled at the act, and then leaned over and kissed Jen on the cheek, deeply grateful for her kindness. "Come on, Molly, er," he snapped his fingers in recollection, "Pete," he corrected, turning towards the door.
Starsky's parting jibe only added to the happiness that unexpectedly filled him.
It was getting late by the time they got to Venice Place, and Hutch almost immediately set out to collect everything Molly would need for spending the night. He tried to ignore the way she was openly studying him, and instead concentrated on finding something for her to sleep in. But her inevitable question still took him off guard.
"How come ya did it?" Her expression was a mix of curiosity and suspicion.
Why had he done it? Were his motives all together altruistic, or was he trying atone for an unpleasant past? Or maybe just trying to keep history from repeating itself...
"Oh, I just thought that juvie was a pretty crummy place to have to stay."
"But you don't even know me. What do you care for?"
Another good question. "I don't know," he said honestly. Perhaps he knew her better than she thought. "It's Christmas." Boy, Starsky would get a kick out of that one. "Seemed like a good idea at the time." Where had he heard that before? "Welcome," he finally said simply, gently touching her cheek.
A few minutes later she was finished in the bathroom and curled up on his bed. Hutch turned out the lights and settled on the couch, still clothed, to do some thinking. Several minutes silently ticked by when he heard the first sniffle. First instinct was to go to her and try to provide some kind of comfort, but he restrained himself. He was still, after all, a stranger and a grown-up. His presence would have just made her swallow her sorrow again, and that was the last thing she needed right now. All he could do for her right now was to just be there, not let her be completely alone. The crying turned into heavy sobs, a child's breaking heart. And only a few feet and 25 years away, Hutch curled up, heartbroken, and cried with her.
The attic had always scared him before, full of dark corners and large unidentified bugs, but now it seemed like the only haven he could retreat to. He had crawled under a small table in one corner and curled up on a dusty blanket he found there, not able to do anything at the moment but try to understand the news that seemed too big for his 8-year-old mind to grasp. How could Michael not be? He had been gone for a while, but Kenny had always known, believed that he would be back. Now he wouldn't be, that's what they were saying. Why wouldn't Michael come back? Why did he go if he knew he wasn't going to come back? He'd promised...
His mother found him there shortly after and had softly tried to coax him out to come sit in her lap. He could see she had been crying, and that scared him even more. Michael wasn't coming back. Kenny didn't want to sit in his mother's lap, didn't want to see anybody. After a while, his mother finally let him be. Kenny continued to lie there, unmoving, uncomprehending. It was a long time later before he began to believe it. Michael wasn't coming home ever again, not to talk to his little brother, not to celebrate Christmas with them, not to see his tree.
The tears finally came, and once they did, they couldn't stop.
Molly's vulnerability of the night before was gone in the morning, replaced by the indifference again. After Perkowitz called to say the Williams' were back home after all, the stoicism gave way to sullen anger. Hutch, deeply disappointed himself, couldn't blame her, even after repeatedly being the target of her scorn.
His perceptive partner picked up on the change of mood at once, too, after his arrival shortly thereafter. Out of Molly's earshot, they discussed the possibilities, Hutch vaguely hoping that Starsky would find some solution he hadn't thought of himself. But there just wasn't any. It seemed like nothing he could do would help Molly after all. Christmas cheer. He should've left town and not gotten involved like he planned to in the first place.
They went to the quickly assembled funeral first, and Hutch had to steel himself to go to the graveside with Molly. The last time he'd been to a graveyard was for Helen's funeral, providing moral support for his partner, but then he'd been so involved in Starsky's pain, he'd not had time for his own. Even Gillian had been buried back home in Ohio with her family, and he'd paid his respects to her privately. Now, though, it wasn't hard to remember the first time that he'd been to a cemetery.
Part of him was impressed with the long row of serious men in their fancy uniforms, their buttons and trim shining even in the weak December sun. But then his eyes fell on the flag-draped coffin and he remembered why they were there. He lost all interest in the soldiers, even when they lined up to shoot their guns. He felt too sad to cry, but his grandmother next to him seemed to understand as she squeezed his hand tight. The flag was folded and given to his mother, who looked even sadder than he felt. Then the coffin was lowered into the ground. He wasn't sure he understood that part. All he knew was that he was saying good-bye and Michael was leaving him for good.
"I won't go," Molly declared decisively.
Hutch sighed, sitting on the edge of the car seat next to her. "You have to." He hated the idea as much as she did, but it wasn't up to them. Nothing ever seemed to be.
"Why can't I stay with you, Hutch?" Her unusual sincerity touched him. If only she knew how much he wanted her to stay, too.
He gave her all the right reasons, hating himself for doing it. She didn't buy them, either, but she didn't fight anymore. Hutch was at least grateful for that -- he didn't think he could bodily force her to go.
At the door, they listened in disgusted amazement as Mrs. Williams gushed as badly as Molly had parodied her. "Come on, you guys," Molly pleaded while having the breath squeezed out of her, then the vulnerability disappeared behind the safer hostility. "Traitors!"
Hutch flinched openly. "Pete, we'll come back and visit you," he tried helplessly.
"Yeah, who cares!" she shot back, and escaped into the house.
Mrs. Williams smiled at them, then shut the door. Hutch stood staring at it for a long moment; this was wrong, he knew it. He glanced at Starsky, seeing his own guilt mirrored there. This was just plain wrong. Kids didn't belong in an environment like this, especially not when they were hurting and alone. He raised his hand to knock.
A gentle hand descended on his shoulder, restraining him with empathy instead of force. Looking down at the ground, Hutch nodded. Yeah, he knew. He just didn't like it. Silently, he turned to follow his partner down the steps, his mood not lifting even in response to his friend's attempt at levity and reassurance.
At the car, he looked up at Starsky, desperate for some confirmation that they hadn't completely abandoned the kid. "We can still come back and see her, right?"
"Sure. Take her to the movies, the zoo..."
"She'd probably rather go to the fights," Hutch tried to joke, but it fell flat. All he could see was the betrayed and hurt expression on Molly's face as they'd left her, abandoned her just as her father had.
He didn't come down from the attic 'til the next day, and his parents, immersed in their own grief, hadn't come after him again. The first night, he'd cried himself to sleep, the next day he just lay and thought for a long time, watching the shadows of the trees playing through the attic window. He didn't understand what was going on, felt scared that everyone else he loved would also leave like Michael did. But most of all he was angry. At Michael for leaving and at whoever it was who made it so that Michael couldn't come back home. But most of all, at everyone who had lied to him, saying Michael would be back soon. He didn't want to talk to anyone now, and that made him feel awful lonely.
Hunger had finally asserted itself. The cocoon of the peace and silence of the attic finally soothed his spirit a little, rallying him to venture out of its safety. Kenny crept quietly out from under the table, then across to the attic door and down the steps. The house was strangely silent, more so than usual. Even Christine seemed to be behaving. But the hushed atmosphere just served to remind him that all was not normal. He went down to the kitchen, relieved to find it empty, and took a piece of chicken upstairs from the refrigerator. Inside his room, he curled up on the bed and ate soberly, staring at the calendar by his bed. Only two more days before Christmas. A few days before, that had been so exciting and he'd felt his life would be complete with the arrival of that special day. Now, it just seemed stupid. Gifts were stupid. What good was a gift if the person you meant it for didn't even show up to receive it?
Kenny's eyes fell on the little tree in the corner. He froze for a long moment., the chicken dropping out of his hand onto the bed. Suddenly scrambling off the bed, he attacked the tree, hitting it and tugging at it until it was uprooted and in pieces in a mess of dirt on the floor. His mother was going to kill him, he knew, but none of that mattered anymore. He'd show them.
The tree was dead. Michael was dead. Kenny was alone.
He curled up on the floor next to the broken tree and, for the first time since he was three years old, sucked his thumb and wished someone would hold him.
What was left when the person you loved most abandoned you?
The evening seemed endless to Hutch. In an attempt to raise his partner's spirits, Starsky had coerced him into going out on the town for a while, having dinner and some beers and dancing with a few girls they met. But the blond's heart wasn't in it. He could almost feel the approach of the holiday and the memories, and Molly's face haunted constantly. For Starsky's sake, though, he tried. He kept up the act until nearly midnight, fully aware he wasn't fooling his partner one bit, then finally begged off and went home.
The night didn't provide much sleep. Being a cop had taught him to take advantage of spare moments and to be able to fall doze off about anywhere, but heavy hearts were another matter. Sitting on the couch simply brought back memories of the night before, achingly listening to Molly cry, so he finally went to bed and resigned himself to a night of insomnia.
The next morning, his humor had returned to some extent, enough to tease Starsky a little, who, happy to see his partner enlivened, tolerantly played along. Tracking down the lead on Edwards' two accomplices cheered him even further when it meant paying another visit to Molly. Starsky didn't need to be asked twice, either.
The next hour brought an almost complete about-face. Hutch thought he'd strangle the clueless woman when she told them how carelessly she had given Molly over to a man who surely was one of her dad's accomplices. It took effort to remain civil, but the woman was no help at all and they soon gave up on her.
"Don't worry, we'll find her," Starsky said reassuringly after a minute. Hutch could only tensely nod, wishing he could be so certain. If anything happened to her, it would be his fault -- he never ought to have left her like that. Kids should never be abandoned, period, no matter what "they" said.
Half an hour later, he was beginning to get frantic. Starsky's attempts at reassuring him were no longer even registering when the call came in to see the girl at 102 7 1/2 Ocean. Hope returned. For once, Starsky couldn't drive fast enough to suit him.
The sight of Molly, calmly and safely watching TV with Kiko, brought intense relief, then anger, then frustration. Before, he would've given anything to get her back, but he could tell she wasn't revealing everything, and her coyness made him want to shake her now. But in the end, he let it go. What mattered really was that she had turned up safely, and nothing else was as important. Hutch couldn't help being surprised at how delighted he secretly was that the turn of events also meant that Molly was temporarily back in his custody. Enough so that when Starsky tricked him into agreeing to go Christmas shopping, he didn't even fight it.
But he wasn't looking forward to it, either.
His grandmother had done her best to celebrate Christmas with all the usual festivity of the season even though it was obvious no one in the family except for Christine was much in the mood for celebrating. Kenny had heard talk about keeping the holidays for the "sake of the children," but he resented it. It made him angry that everyone was acting like everything was normal when his life had just changed so radically. Had they really forgotten Michael already?
At his grandmother's urging, he still went out with his grandfather to get the tree, a chore he ended up enjoying despite himself, then feeling intensely guilty the rest of the evening for it. The next day brought no such lapses. He'd sullenly avoided the dinner despite his parents' and grandmother's hurt entreaties. And the next morning, he'd refused his presents. It hadn't been easy, the expectations of several months were hard to curb. But he was determined. If he couldn't have Michael, he didn't want anything. Kenny could see his parents were getting upset, and that bothered him a little. They looked so sad, he didn't want to hurt them anymore than they were. He just couldn't do it, though.
Over the next few weeks, some of the gifts had ended up in his room despite him, unwrapped and lovingly tucked among his toys and books. He left them there. The calendar went into the trash and wasn't replaced, and the tree he buried in the backyard before anybody found it. He wasn't interested in Christmas anymore.
"Christmas joy," Hutch said softly, sardonically to himself as Molly trudged out the door. Her quiet statement that he had been more a father to her than hers had ever been, struck a chord deep within him. Not only of caring -- it seemed all too often that he cared about and ached for half the world already -- but of a kindred spirit. Deep down, maybe he'd never put to rest that hurting, lonely child from his past. He had slowly changed over the years, thanks mostly to a certain person in his life who had also been more of a brother to him than Michael had ever been. He didn't bleed so easily now, didn't hurt so badly when the trust he freely gave was betrayed. But it had taken this long to get to that point, and a very patient and caring teacher. Molly had no one but him. And even he still had his Christmas ghosts...
He put the thoughts away as he stood up to rejoin Starsky outside. There'd be time for reflection later; they still had a job to do.
The thieves' apartment revealed no clues, and the frustration was building in Hutch. Starsky silently placed a hand on his arm in response as they left the building, unsure what to do next. They could always stake-out the building, wait for the two to return, but there was no guarantee they would, or that they wouldn't try for Molly again before then. Hutch's jaw tightened at the thought.
"Zebra Three... I have an emergency patch-through for you from someone named Kiko."
Hutch stared up from the microphone at Starsky, who looked as puzzled and concerned as he felt. Déja vu of a phone call only two days before assailed him. No, not Molly...
"Hutch?" Kiko's voice sounded urgent but not upset. Hutch felt himself relax a tiny bit even as his mind raced through the possibilities.
"Pete's in trouble at your place."
Trouble. That wasn't very informative. "We're on our way," Hutch quickly answered, pulling out the mars light. Starsky was already screeching away from the curb, and Hutch glanced at him briefly as they turned, wondering if his partner felt as scared as he did. One look at the set face gave him the answer, although Hutch suspected that it was as much because it was obviously so important to the blond as for any personal feelings Starsky had for the kid. It reassured Hutch to know that they were both equally determined not to let this one get away, though, and he sat back in his seat a little, trying to will himself to be patient.
The sight of the two men chasing Molly on the street in front of his apartment dispelled all calmness or self-possession, and it was pure rage that fueled his dash from the car after one of the men. He didn't hear Starsky pull away or the yells of the crowd he ran past. Everything narrowed down to the chase, getting the bad guy, saving Molly's life and her future and Christmas and himself...
Twenty-five years he'd been running. While still at home, there had been the unavoidable trappings he hadn't been able to avoid, the visitations and the church service and Christmas dinner, but Kenny staunchly refused to take part in the festivities or to give or receive gifts. The whole idea of pleasure and joy at that time of year made him feel pained and guilty. Maybe the others didn't show it or talk about it, but he knew they remembered, too, and it hurt that they hypocritically still went through the motions. Christmas spirit was a fake.
After he left for school, it became a lot easier. He went home at Thanksgiving and again at Easter break, but the Christmas holiday he spent alone at school or, later, at his apartment, working and studying. He knew his parents weren't happy about it, but they'd learned to accept it. And none of his friends ever knew, always assuming that he went back home for the holidays as they did. With Van, it had been a little harder. She loved presents and special occasions, so for her sake he tried, choosing special gifts for her with sincere love and feigning pleasure at her preparations and gifts for him. But after the sincerity wore off, the holidays, like everything else in their marriage, became forced and rote, and it had made him all the more scornful of the entire practice.
Then Starsky had entered his life, and after a while it dawned on Hutch that there was nothing fake about the other's enthusiasm or sincerity. For Starsky, Christmas truly did mean a time of joy and peace and selfless expressions of love. And, like everything else about his partner, that outlook had slowly permeated his own feelings and worldview. The thought of celebration was still painful, and he still fled from it every year, but each year it got harder to leave behind the warm happiness and love the other freely offered him, too.
Maybe it was time to stop running...
The last day had been an overwhelming rush. Putting the bad guys away had given him a deep satisfaction as well as a great deal of relief. Molly's revelation about the diamonds also closed several books, and there had been a lot of official work as a result. But, more importantly, it had been a turning point for the girl. No longer aloof or bitter, she clung to Hutch with open attachment. For his part, Hutch soaked up the affection happily, occasionally giving his partner a glance full of contentment and profound peace. Starsky only grinned, very willing to temporarily be replaced at his partner's side.
The one obstacle was still Molly's fate. But God was smiling on them once again, as Mrs. Ramos came over late that evening to have a long private talk with Hutch. Upon hearing her out, he quickly called up Perkowitz and Starsky and a meeting was quietly held in the living room while Molly slept in the next room. When everyone went home after midnight, Hutch fell asleep on the couch, heart lighter than he could remember for a long time.
"Hey, Kiko, if I can really arrange it, how are you going to like having Molly for a sister?"
Kiko smiled at the social worker and then at Hutch, who smiled back wholeheartedly. "I guess a sister's okay. I always wanted a brother, though." He got up to move to the Christmas tree. "But Pete - I mean, Molly's - close enough." He returned with a gift and stretched it out to Starsky. "This one's for you."
"Me?" Starsky looked up surprised. Hutch stilled next to him.
"Yeah. From Hutch."
Starsky turned to look at him, and Hutch grinned. "Really?!"
"Yeah." The blond was coloring with embarrassment.
Starsky laughed. "I knew it! You know, for a while there you had me going there, for a while I thought you weren't going to get me anything."
Hutch winced slightly. Time for a little less sincerity. "Well, it's not really much, Starsk, I tried to stick to my principles," he teased.
His partner wasn't buying it. He ripped open the present excitedly, sorting through the papers with childlike glee. He finally found the envelope. "You know what this is?" he asked the room at large. "This happens to be a clue. It's gonna tell me where the new caboose to my train set is," he said smugly.
Hutch froze for a second, recalling with sudden clarity Starsky's repeated hints about that particular gift. Suddenly, he was unsure about what he'd done. He put an arm across his partner's shoulders and spoke with apparent playful enthusiasm, "Starsk, before you open it... Merry Christmas, pal." But his eyes reflected the sincerity and affection that was for his partner alone to see.
He could feel Starsky's touched acknowledgement and reciprocation even before the other softly responded, "Merry Christmas."
Hutch picked up the ant farm again with feigned disinterest of Starsky's actions beside him as the other opened the envelope and began to read the paper inside. He could hear the pleasure in his friend's voice taper off as Starsky read the certificate that vouched for the tree planted in his name.
"They say it's only about 50 yards from the horseshoe pitch," Hutch offered, mock deadpan, as he studied the ants intently. He finally put them down and turned back to his partner.
It was a moment before Starsky met his gaze. Hutch smiled cheerfully, his voice gently teasing. " 'That nice?" Starsky's face softened at the tone, losing its hurt look at the realization that his friend had not been trying to grieve him.
Hutch was satisfied. Starsky didn't get it now, but he would later, Hutch would make sure of that. Maybe after a quick trip to the toy shop, first... But he knew his partner would appreciate the gift once he knew exactly what Hutch had given.
One day was not much in which to learn how to do Christmas shopping again. He knew Starsky's taste thoroughly, and it would have been simple to run out and get an appropriate sweater or toy for his grown-up kid of a partner. Even a nice dinner out would have been appreciated, he knew. But somehow none of it seemed right, from the heart. That was when the ad in the paper had caught his eye. And suddenly the perfect gift seemed obvious.
He had once planted a tree with someone who meant everything to him, and when he'd destroyed the tree, he thought everything had died with it. It seemed appropriate now to celebrate rebirth and a friendship that meant everything to him with the planting of a new life. It would be a true celebration of Christmas.
Starsky would understand. And so would Michael.
Written in 1996