Comments on this story can be sent to Dana Austin Marsh.

He sat rigidly in the ugly, molded plastic chair, every particle of his being so focused on the man who lay helpless on the other side of the glass that he could no longer feel the hard contours gradually pressing the feeling out of his butt. Without a doubt he knew that the only thing holding his partner in this world was that single-minded focus. He watched every rise and fall of the sheet-draped chest until his own leather clad one was moving in synchronized rhythm. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the white-coated doctor leave the bedside and head for the door of the ICU. He sprang to his feet, determined to get some answers.

"How is he?"

Dr. Franklin finished closing the door behind him before answering. "He's critical, Officer Starsky. Right now he's in a coma. The next 24 hours are . . ."

Starsky heard no more. The strength went out of his legs and he sagged, only vaguely surprised to feel the flimsy security of the chair meet his butt. Two long-fingered hands settled on his shoulders and squeezed.

"Easy there, Starsk. Don't fade on me now," Huggy Bear coaxed.

Starsky's head sank into his hands and he gave a nearly soundless moan. "Oh God, Huggy. Hutch is gonna die and it's all my fault."

The grieving cop rocked slightly as Huggy squeezed and shook him just a bit. "Now that ain't nothin' but foolish. The doc didn't say nothin' about Hutch dyin' and it wasn't nothin' but an accident."

Viciously, Starsky tore away from his friend's touch. "What the hell do you know about it?" he shouted . .

The blond thundercloud that followed him into the apartment waited until the door was decently closed before unleashing the storm that had been brewing since they left the disco.

"You did that to me on purpose," Hutch accused.

"I like to dance, Hutch. You know that," Starsky defended himself.

"You were doing everything you could think of to make me crazy," Hutch insisted. He hadn't moved more than two steps away from the door, but hovered there as if his anger wouldn't let him step any further into what was technically Starsky's domain even though the two of them had been sharing both apartments equally for months now. "You were all over that . . . that bimbo."

"I was not!" Starsky shot back. "I was dancin'. I like to dance. I'd dance with you if I could." He was doing his best to stay calm, but Hutch's unfounded accusations were lighting the fuse of his never-too-stable temper.

"No, you wouldn't," Hutch accused, the Hutchinson finger coming into play to emphasize his point, a gesture damned near guaranteed to jack Starsky's temper well past boiling point.

"You're right!" Starsky shouted, getting right into Hutch's face even though the finger stabbed him in the chest. "You dance like a duck!"

Hutch drew himself up with all that offended dignity that he did so well. "Well, if I'm not good enough to dance with, I'm not good enough to fuck with either, partner," he spat, spun on his heel and made a grand exit, slamming the door behind him.

Starsky stood staring at the door, hearing Hutch clattering down the stairs, knowing the long legs would be taking them three at a jump. He yanked the door open to shout the last word. "You'll be back. I'm the best thing that ever happened to you, Blintz."

Hutch, already almost to the parking lot, spun around to offer his own last words. "No, Starsky, you're the worst thing that ever happened to me" . . .

"The car came outta nowhere and hit him. And that's the last thing he said to me, Hug. Might be the last thing he ever says. And he was right. I am the worst thing that ever happened to him," Starsky lamented, his face still hidden behind both hands.

"And I'm telling you again that's foolishness," Huggy tried to soothe. "You're tired and scared and you're talking nonsense. Let me take you home and get a few hours sleep and you'll see how everything . . ."

Starsky pulled away again, pushing up to his feet. "I ain't leavin'," he insisted, standing before the ICU window, gaze once again intent upon the unmoving form of his partner under the sheet.

"That's enough of that," Huggy pronounced firmly, grabbing one of Starsky's arms and towing him bodily over to a couch and pushing him down onto it. "There ain't no Hutch without Starsky and there ain't no Starsky without Hutch. Either one of you'd look lopsided without the other. Now you lay down here."

Reluctantly, Starsky allowed himself to be pushed down on the couch, still refusing to look anywhere except at that window that framed the bed where Hutch fought silently for his life. He shook his head, however, in denial of Huggy's reassurances.

"No, Huggy, no. He'd be so much better off if he'd never met me."

"Starsk. Come on, Starsky, wake up."

Starsky's eyes flew open. He hadn't been aware of closing them, but he obviously had because the sudden bright light made him squint. "Hug. Wassa matter," he mumbled.

"Come on. Come on."

Starsky went with the hands that were dragging him to his feet, catching sight of the empty room beyond the glass. "Hutch!" he shouted, automatically lurching toward the last place he had seen his lover. Despair was already swelling in his chest, crowding out the last vapors of sleep and confusion.

"Yeah, that's right. Hutch. No, come on. This way."

The hands were tugging at him again, pulling him toward the bank of elevators. He tried to pull away but Huggy seemed to have developed ten times the strength he usually possessed. The green doors parted as Starsky reached them and he found himself stumbling inside, propelled by a firm push in the center of his back. He hit the back wall and managed to turn around in time to see the doors closing on Huggy's grinning face. He was gathering himself to rush at the doors when suddenly the floor fell out from beneath him and he was plummeting straight down. He barely had a moment to register that he was trapped in a runaway elevator when it stopped. His feet went out from under him and he landed on his butt with a teeth-rattling jolt.

Starsky had barely figured out that he was all in one piece when the doors open to reveal a grinning Huggy. He did a double take. Yes, it was Huggy all right. A Huggy clad in simmering satin from his hair to his shoes in so many colors that Starsky couldn't even begin to count the hues. The man looked like a walking, grinning rainbow.

"What the hell is going on? And what the hell are you wearing?" Starsky shouted, the wild ride and the shock of his friend's outlandish get up successfully driving Hutch out of his mind for a few seconds. "And where's Hutch," he added belatedly.

"All in good time," Huggy replied. "But first, let's get you up off your honky ass." With that, he reached into the elevator, grabbed Starsky's hand and hauled him to his feet.

"What the . . . ?"

"I heard you say you thought Hutch would be better off if you'd never met him, which is just so much jive talkin' as I've ever heard. I'm here to set the record straight," Huggy explained.

Starsky looked around at the parking garage they stood in. "Where's here?" he demanded. "And where's Hutch?" he repeated.

Huggy linked his arm through Starsky's and began towing him across the curiously empty parking garage. "Hutch is where I'm taking you. As for where you are . . ." A huge grin bisected the homely face. ". . . you're the SciFi fan. Where do you think you are?"

They arrived at the bottom of a staircase and Huggy got behind him, pushing Starsky up the stairs which seemed to become seedier and seedier with every step.

"I'm still asleep, right? This is a dream. Too much coffee and worrying about Hutch," Starsky hypothesized hesitantly, uncertain why he couldn't seem to summon the will to break away from Huggy and go find Hutch himself.

"Ouch!" he protested, reaching back to slap Huggy's pinching fingers away from his butt. "Whadya do that for?"

"To show you you're not asleep," Huggy replied, continuing to herd Starsky up the stairs. "Guess again."

"What are you, some kinda angel or something?" Starsky ventured. He didn't know why he was playing along with his mad friend, but he couldn't seem to help himself. He felt like Alice in Wonderland as he took the last few steps up to a landing.

Huggy snorted. "Angel? Hell no. You think heaven's that desperate they'd let me be an angel? And I already told you, think SciFi, not religion. You're the Trekkie, aren't you?"

The answer popped into Starsky's mind with dazzling clarity. "An alternate universe? I'm in an alternate universe like on Star Trek?"

"Give the man a Kewpie doll," Huggy exclaimed with another of those maniacal grins, opened the landing door and pushed Starsky through it.

"Why didn't we use the elevator?" Starsky wondered as he staggered into what appeared to be a hotel lobby. The kind of hotel where the rooms were usually rented by the hour.

"What elevator?"

Looking back over Huggy's shoulder, Starsky saw that the door they had entered through had disappeared and in its place was a fly-specked window that looked out over a filth-strewn alley. "What the . . . ?"

"Just go with it, Starsk," Huggy advised as he dragged Starsky toward another staircase leading upwards.

Deciding he was definitely having a nightmare and seemingly unable to do anything to wake himself up, Starsky opted to go along with the madness. This ersatz Huggy had said he was taking him to Hutch, and since that's where he wanted to be . . . . It was, therefore, Starsky that reached for the door handle of room 2J as they reached the top of the stairs.

"Whoa. Wait a minute," Huggy cautioned, yanking Starsky away from the door. "You need to know the rules here."

"Rules? I'm having a nightmare. There are no rules."

"Humor me," Huggy insisted. "Hutch is on the other . . ." He grabbed at Starsky before the cop could bull his way through the door. ". . . side of this door, but he can't see us, hear us, feel . . . you get the idea," he finished and flung open the door.

As eager as he had been to enter, Starsky froze only a step inside the dimly lit room. The place was a mess—dirty clothes, half-eaten meal, and discarded junk littered the room. Starsky hardly noticed the squalid conditions for in the center of the filthy, sagging bed sat Hutch. Every bit as filthy as his surroundings, he was unshaven, with long strands of greasy blond hair falling about his thin face. The place reeked of unwashed male and cheap booze and the odor was coming from Hutch.

Disbelieving blue eyes roved down the dejected figure on the bed until they came to the Magnum cradled lovingly between the big hands. Starsky lunged and found himself on the opposite side of the bed. He whirled around to face the bed again while his gaze continued the journey it had begun, coming finally to rest where Hutch's legs sprawled on the dirty sheets. No, not legs. Leg.

Starsky raised horrified eyes to Huggy who shrugged.

"Remember when Humphries had Hutch run off the road?" he asked.

Dumbly, Starsky nodded.

"You weren't there to convince Dobey to start looking soon enough. You weren't there to follow up on the kid ham radio operator. You weren't there to figure out about crazy old Sonny McPherson. By the time they found him, well . . ." Huggy made a gesture toward the empty leg of Hutch's ragged jeans, ". . . it was too late to save his leg."

Eyes filling with helpless tears, Starsky watched as palsied hands lifted the big gun to Hutch's mouth. Then suddenly, he was leaning back against the outside of the door, his ears ringing with the deafening echo of the magnum's retort.

"Didn't figure you needed to see that," Huggy explained their abrupt change of location.

Starsky's knees gave way, only the grip of two black hands on his arms keeping him upright. "Oh God, Hutch. Oh God," he moaned.

Then Huggy was dragging him down the stairs and they were out on the street. The Torino was sitting at the curb and Huggy opened the passenger door and shoved him into the seat. This time, Starsky pinched himself viciously, desperate toe wake up from this nightmare before it got even worse. Although what could be worse than Hutch eating his gun, Starsky couldn't imagine.

"This ain't no dream," Huggy admonished as he slid in behind the wheel. "I already told you that."

Where was his partner? "What . . . ? How . . . ?" Starsky stammered helplessly.

"Sorry," Huggy said, starting the car and putting his foot down. "I don't do the spirit of Christmas thing. You said Hutch would be better off without you and I'm just here to show you that ain't so."

Stomach churning, Starsky closed his eyes to block out the sight of the scenery speeding by and tried to absorb what he had just seen. He opened them again when the car stopped with a squeal of protesting tires and he was almost catapulted into the windshield.

Both hands braced on the dash, he turned his head to scream at the maniac beside him only to find Huggy smiling indulgently at him. And once again Huggy had changed his clothes. Huggy again, but a different Huggy. And, despite the disappearance of the rainbow satin, it wasn't just the change of clothes that told Starsky that this was an entirely different Huggy Bear. The clothes, however, were distracting enough to catch Starsky's attention long enough to catalogue the nauseating combination of lime green pants, royal blue jacket and a sequined shirt in a particularly vicious shade of orange.

"No, Toto, you ain't in Kansas anymore," Huggy joked and pointed at the building before them.

Starsky recognized Metro station and the two men coming through the front door. At least he recognized Dobey's rotund frame. That the walking, hallow-eyed wreak beside the Captain was Hutch took Starsky longer to realize. By that time, the two men had paused beside the car and Starsky could hear every word they spoke.

"Thanks, Captain. I really appreciate it," Hutch rasped hoarsely, arms wrapped around himself as he shivered beneath the warm California sun.

"It's the last time, Hutchinson. You didn't show last time and I had to pay the bond. I'm not going to mortgage my house to post your bail, and I just signed over the last of my savings."

"You won't have to bail me out again, Captain. I'm gonna be fine now. If you could just spare me a little cash," Hutch whined.

And Starsky winced, never having expected, even in his worst nightmares, to hear such a tone coming out of his independent partner.

"No way. I'm not feeding your arm as well as paying your bail. You promised me you were going to get some help last time."

"I meant to, honest, Captain. And I'll do it this time. I swear. I'm gonna go home and call right now."

"Sure, you will. Just make damned sure you make that court appearance in the morning or I'll throw you into the tank myself and let you dry out there."

Heartsick, it took Starsky a moment to realize that he wasn't sitting in the Torino anymore, but was standing in another dingy room, this one even sorrier than the last, although he hadn't thought that possible. Hutch was huddled on the bed, knees pulled up to the thin chest and trembling arms wrapped around them. Starsky sank down beside his suffering partner.

"Aw, Hutch. What happened to you?" he whispered.

"You weren't there for him after Ben Forest was done, and I couldn't get him off the smack by myself," Huggy replied from the other side of the bed.

"What's going to happen to him now? Will he go to rehab like he promised Dobey?" Starsky begged for Huggy to give him a little speck of blue sky amid the unremitting gloom.

Huggy shook his head slowly, nodding toward the bedside table and the Magnum that waited there even as Hutch's trembling hand reached for it.

"No. Please, no. Not again," Starsky whispered and once again he was standing outside the door waiting for the Magnum's echo.

Caught up in the nightmare, Starsky clapped both hands over his ears, refusing to hear, refusing to accept. He bolted. His toe catching on the top riser, he tumbled down the stairs. Coming to rest at the bottom, he opened his eyes to find Huggy, wearing crimson leather and white silk, standing over him.

Still lying on his back, Starsky looked around, seeing yet another crummy hotel lobby. "Not again," he moaned softly.

Huggy just shrugged and offered a hand to pull Starsky to his feet. Resigned, Starsky accepted the hand and began trudging up the stairs. Entering room 4D, he found an all too familiar scene of squalor. At least this time Hutch appeared to be cleaner than his surroundings, but one glimpse of the hard, bitter expression on the lined face warned Starsky that this incarnation was no happier than the previous two had been. As he watched, Hutch reached for the gun that rested before him on the table.

"Oh, for fuck's sake," Starsky groaned. "Isn't there any universe where he doesn't eat a 44 caliber night cap?"

Huggy Bear just shrugged as they both continued watching Hutch as he cleaned his gun.

"What happened this time?" Starsky finally asked in hopeless resignation.

"Vanessa's murder. He was convicted," Huggy explained. "You know how popular former cops are in prison. All that long, cool, blond beauty didn't help none either."

Starsky's stomach lurched as he thought of how Hutch had willingly placed that cool beauty into his hands and how it had warmed to a passionate conflagration that had nearly consumed them both. "I'm gonna be sick," he moaned softly.

"Might as well," Huggy said. "This place is gonna be a mess in about a minute anyway." He gestured toward Hutch who was bringing the gun up to his temple.

Starsky sprang to his feet and bulled his way past Huggy and out into the hall.

"Convinced yet?" Huggy asked as he joined him, carefully closing the door behind him.

"All right. All right. So he's better off with me as his partner," Starsky shouted, ears pricked, despite himself, for the sound of the shot.

Huggy's right eyebrow sauntered up his forehead. "Just his partner?"

"Okay," Starsky conceded, desperate to get away before Hutch pulled the trigger. "His friend, too. But I never shoulda . . ."

"Become his lover?" Huggy asked with a disgusted sigh. "You really are a hard man to convince, aren't you?" he said and, planting his hand in the middle of Starsky's chest, shoved him through the elevator doors opening behind him.

For a second time, Starsky experienced the sickening sensation of falling, managing to brace himself this time so that he was on his feet when the doors opened to reveal yet another Huggy doppelganger.

Starsky grabbed the handrails, dug in his heels and shook his head as Huggy made an 'after you' gesture. "No way. Uh-uh. I'm staying right here until I wake up."

"Suit yourself," Huggy replied, sauntered to the apartment door across from the elevator and flung it open.

Despite his resolve, Starsky moved out of the elevator when he saw the clean, well-appointed living room revealed by the open door. And there in the center of the room stood Hutch. A blessedly clean, shining, upright, whole Hutch. A Hutch who was just about as furious as Starsky had ever seen him.

"Why didn't you tell me yourself? Why let me find out like this?" Hutch roared, waving around a piece of paper.

Gillian shrugged, casual in the face of Hutch's formidable rage. "The cop and the call girl?" she asked. She held up her left hand, wriggling her fingers so that the light caught the diamond-encrusted engagement and wedding rings she wore. "I couldn't take the chance of not getting my hands on your Daddy's money. How was I to know he was going to check me out."

"Get out!"

Automatically, Starsky stepped out of the doorway as Gillian scurried to obey, finally having the sense, it seemed, to fear Hutch in this state.

"Goddamn you!" Hutch roared as he grabbed up a heavy and expensive looking knickknack and heaved it toward the closing door.

Starsky stood shaking his head as he watched Hutch snatch up a full bottle of whisky and throw himself into a chair. Starsky looked around searchingly.

"What you lookin' for, my man?" Huggy asked.

"His gun," Starsky replied succinctly.

"Nah. He ain't gonna off himself," Huggy reassured. "At least not directly," he qualified as Hutch upended the bottle and poured a steady stream of forgetfulness down his throat.

"No way. I'm not buying it," Starsky protested. "He'll bounce back. The guy's a chick magnet for crissake."

"Yup, sure is," Huggy agreed. "Attracts all the wrong chicks just like magnet north. This is two strikes, you know. Vanessa first and now this. You really think he's gonna trust another woman any time soon?"

"You trying to tell me he's gonna spend the rest of his life alone? No way. Not Hutch. He needs to be loved," Starsky insisted.

"Needing and getting are two different things. He's hiding his heart behind the walls of Jericho now, Starsky, and you ain't around to come and blow the Torino's horn to bring 'em down. He's gonna be strictly a one-night-stand man after this."

Starsky sank onto the couch, shaking his head in despair.

"You ready to face it yet, Starsk? Come on, my man, admit it. There just ain't a Hutch anywhere that's better off without his Starsky. Starsky and Hutch. That's how it's meant to be. Starsky and Hutch."

"Starsk. Come on, Starsky. Wake up."

"Starsky and Hutch. Starsky and Hutch," Starsky mumbled as he fought his way out of the clinging vapors of sleep and opened his eyes to find Huggy leaning over him.

"That's right. Hutch. He's wakin' up and he's askin' for you."

Still half immersed in the terrible night terrors, Starsky was nevertheless off the couch and at the door of the ICU before Huggy could draw his next breath. He pushed the door open and stumbled to the bed side, captivated by the amazing sight of baby blue eyes open and aware.

"Hutch?" he whispered, searching among the tubes until he could take one of Hutch's hands in his own and squeeze. Tears sprang to his eyes when he felt the return pressure.

"Sorry," Hutch rasped. "Was an idiot." The hand in Starsky's spasmed again, squeezing just a bit harder. "Best thing." Then the blue eyes closed and Hutch slipped away into a natural sleep.

Starsky bowed his head over their joined hands as fragments of his night visions danced in his head.

"Only a dream. Thank God, it was only a dream," he muttered, looking up to find Huggy standing on the other side of the bed. As he watched, one large, dark eye closed in a conspiratorial wink.

Or was it?

The End