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PART 1

Tandem

by

Paula W and Hutchrules 3

Part 2

Hutch rounded the bakery aisle, and spotted his partner about halfway down. Starsky held identical loaves of bread, one in each hand, and he was gazing at them intently.

"What the hell are you doing?" Hutch hissed, coming up behind them.

"Huh? Uh...." Starsky frowned. "Jesus, Hutch, y'almost made me squish the bread." He looked down at the two loaves again, holding up first one, then the other. Then he looked up at Hutch, and tossed both loaves in the shopping cart.

"Starsky?" Hutch looked at him as if he had lost his mind.

"I was checkin' for freshness," Starsky said defensively, "but then I figured, if we get as much snow as they say we're goin' to get, I'd better buy both of 'em anyway."

"Okay," Hutch said. He looked down into the shopping cart, which was filled to the brim, overflowing, in fact. At quick glance he was able to identify two bags of chips, some candy canes, two chocolate bars, and several six packs of soda. "Do you only have junk food in there?" he asked.

"No," Starsky said. "You didn't look down far enough. I've got stuff for spaghetti, coupla roasts, chicken, steaks, hamburger, stuff to make soup with, lotta vegetables, because I know you like them, some fruit, you know, uh, flour, sugar, butter, milk, eggs...lotsa junk. Oh, and a turkey."

"You're the turkey," muttered Hutch. "Flour? Sugar? How long do you think we're going to be stuck there," Hutch asked him. "Like, forever?"

"No, not at all," Starsky replied, beginning to move the cart down the aisle. "But, you know, if it's over Christmas, and all, and we can't get out again...wanted to make sure we had good stuff to make."

"Yeah, but Starsk, flour and sugar?"

"Well," Starsky drawled, "you never know, I might wanna make cookies or somethin'."

Hutch rubbed his forehead tiredly, as if to stay the beginnings of a headache. "Starsky, in all the years I've known you, I've never seen you 'wanna make cookies,'" the last three words echoing Starsky's intonation.

"Well, yeah, I know," Starsky admitted uncomfortably, "but it's Christmastime, it's gonna snow, isn't that what you're supposed to do?"

Hutch threw up his hands. "Oh, I give up. Can we afford all this?"

"Sure. I've been adding it up."

"I dropped you off here an hour ago," Hutch reminded him, "so anyway, how come you're only halfway through the store?"

"Oh, I, uh," Starsky smiled beatifically. "It's Christmas time, Blintz, I had to do a couple of other things before I came in here." He poked Hutch in the arm warningly. "It's Christmas, Blintz," he repeated. "So don't ask questions."

"Okay, okay," Hutch shook his head, resigned. He looked away, then, hiding a small smile as he thought how clever he'd been, offering to pick up the horse feed alone, when in actuality he'd done that and hit a few extra stores himself. "What can I do to help?"

"Well...." Starsky turned his list upside down so he could read something he'd scribbled along the edge. "Why don't you think of a couple of things you'd like to have, and get the stuff to make 'em."

"Sounds good," Hutch agreed, "but I guess I'll need another cart. Do we need anything else for the house, you know, shampoo, razors, aspirin, anything like that?"

"Got 'em, yours and mine both," Starsky assured him.

"All right," Hutch agreed affably. He loped off down the aisle, and headed for the produce section. "Bet there's not a single vegetable in that cart except frozen French fries," he said to himself, smiling, and he quickly gathered up makings for salad, and a few other vegetarian dishes he'd been meaning to try.

It didn't take him long, and he soon met up with Starsky who had not moved past the bakery aisle. "What're you doing?" Hutch asked him. "You've got bread."

"Huh?" Starsky blinked up at him, "Oh, I know, I know, just...thinkin'...."

"About what?" Hutch asked, concerned. "You feeling okay?"

"Sure."

"Then what?"

"Oh...." Starsky gestured vaguely. "My mom used to make this really cool bread stuffing for the turkey, I was tryin' to remember what she put in it, and...."

"Feeling a little homesick?" Hutch asked gently.

"Well...no, I...well, y'know, yeah...." Starsky shrugged his shoulders. "S'dumb, I know, I haven't spent the holidays there in...years...."

"True," Hutch agreed, patting his shoulder. "But usually we're in L.A., and the last couple of years we've worked. So we're here, it's cold and snowy, we're not on a case...I think it's perfectly understandable."

Starsky nodded. "I guess. And I keep thinking about everything that happened a few weeks ago," he said, softly. "How it coulda turned out, how I coulda been...." He shook his head to clear it and smiled sadly at his partner. "You'll never know, Hutch, what that was like. Knowing it was happening, watching it happen, not being able to do a damn thing about it, not being able to...."

"Hey," Hutch shook his shoulder. "I do know, or at least I think I do, honest. You've put me through a few scares in your time too, you know. But it's...." He stood against the shelves to allow a large woman, her four children, and two shopping carts to pass. The woman looked at him accusingly, and he smiled benevolently.

"Merry Christmas, ma'am," he said with a polite nod. After she passed, he turned back to Starsky. "It's over, pal, nothing like that is going to happen again. I promise." He grinned crookedly at his partner. "Just for your information, it was no picnic on my side of the glass either."

Starsky released the pent up breath he was not aware he had been holding. "Aw, Hutch, I know, that's why I felt stupid tellin' ya, I know that what was goin' on in my head was nothin' compared to...."

"That's not what I meant," Hutch interrupted him. "I was joking. What you went through was every bit as awful as me...or maybe more, because I was so out of it half the time."

"Yeah," Starsky agreed vaguely. "D'you ever, I mean, I'm thinkin' back here, in all the Christmases we've spent together, either at work, or at your place, or my place, you never mention...like, d'you...?"

"What?" Hutch asked, his voice clipped and guarded. "Feel nostalgic for a good old Christmas at home?"

Starsky nodded.

"Nope," he said shortly. "Never." He looked away for a moment, then looked back at Starsky, smiling, although the smile was tight and didn't extend to his eyes. "We about ready to check out here?" he asked in a jovial voice that Starsky knew was fabricated.

The woman and her children headed past them down the aisle again, this time the woman gave them a condescending stare as she passed.

Starsky beamed at her. "Merry Christmas again, ma'am," he purred. He looked back at Hutch. "Let's get outta here and go get a tree," he urged.

"Right behind you," Hutch agreed.

~*~*~*~

"Boy, it's flurrying," Starsky said, looking up at the sky. "Think it's startin' early?" When he looked back down a few stray snowflakes remained on his hair and cheek. He brushed them away with a gloved hand.

Hutch glanced at the sky. "I don't think so, Starsk, the clouds aren't thick enough yet. I think it's just random flaking. I hope so, don't want to miss out on our ride, who knows when we'll be able to clear a path after today." He looked around at the rows of Christmas trees that surrounded them. "See anything you like? He asked.

"Kinda like that one," Starsky said, pointing to a medium sized Douglas Fir. "It's got a nice shape and all."

Hutch went to stand next to the tree, which was not quite as tall as he. "It's nice," he said.

"But...."

"But...if we're gonna piss off my dad, we should get the biggest goddamned tree on the lot, you know?"

"Hutch," Starsky said, grinning, "Hutch, I'm so proud of you, I've taught you so well," he said. "Sweet revenge...it's the best medicine there is."

"You may be right," Hutch mused. "We're looking in the wrong place though. Let's find the extra sap section, and pick one out there."

Starsky laughed, then moved over to a taller, wider tree, with a perfect shape, that stood about eight feet tall. "How about this one?" he asked.

Hutch stood back, arms crossed over his chest, nodding as he appraised the evergreen. "I like it," he said. He moved to different angles, checking the tree out from all sides. "It's tall, it's full, got a good shape," he moved over and pinched the needles between his fingers. "Looks healthy," he said. Smiling at his partner, he added, "Final test...." and buried his nose in the branches and inhaled deeply. He looked up, pleased. "Mmmm...Smells great. This is the one."

Starsky leaned over to sniff at the tree. "Ouch!" he yelped as a needle caught him in the forehead. Rubbing the puncture, he glanced back at Hutch, as he held the saw aloft. "You sure?"

"I'm sure," Hutch pronounced, reaching out to tousle Starsky's hair. "I'll hold it, you saw."

~*~*~*~

"Starsk?" Hutch called, pouring cocoa from the hot pan into the thermos he held tight on the counter. "You almost ready to go?" He laid the empty pot in the dishpan, and screwed the lid on the insulated carrier tight, giving it a shake then, to make sure it was well mixed. He carefully slid the thermos in one side of his saddlebag, and buckled the flap down tight, thinking to surprise his partner somewhere along the trail with a hot drink.

He checked the other side of the saddlebag, trying to remember if he had forgotten anything important. He'd packed his camera, extra film, and a couple of Styrofoam cups. At the last minute he'd added a wad of tissues, because sure as shit either the dust puffing up from the shaggy coated horses, or the frigid, biting air, were bound to make his nose run. He strapped that side down securely, and set the saddlebags down on the chair by the door. "Starsk?" he called again.

"I'm ready," Starsky said, clattering into the kitchen. He wore jeans and boots, and a few layered shirts. "Hope my jacket zips over this," he said smiling ruefully. He patted his stomach. "Too many leftovers."

Hutch grinned at him. "Know what you mean," he said, indicating his own midsection, although both of them knew that Hutch had not yet regained the weight he had lost while he was ill. He held out his shirttails, I've got a t-shirt, a pullover thing, and this on top," he tugged on the flap of an insulated flannel-hunting shirt. "We ought to stay warm for a while anyhow. Got your gloves?"

Starsky peered out the window. "It's not snowing yet, is it?" he asked, casually, all the while thinking of the high calorie dinner he would prepare on their return. He looks like a good wind would blow him away, he thought, glancing back at his partner.

"Not yet, but the wind's picking up," Hutch offered.

"Terrific," Starsky said. "Hey, I'll make dinner tonight. How about linguine?"

Hutch considered for a moment. "Well, that depends. Clam sauce?"

"Whatever you want," Starsky said. "You're way too thin, Blintz," he said, tugging his partner's shirt. "Ya gotta eat some good stuff, build yourself back up."

Hutch shrugged. "I guess, sure, whatever." He puffed out his chest. "I thought I was looking lithe and agile these days," he said, defensively.

"Hutch, if my mom saw you now, she'd have an apoplectic fit," Starsky said firmly. "And she'd be pissed at me and say it was all my fault."

"Aw, come on, Starsk, I only lost a couple of pounds, don't over dramatize."

"Yeah, but you didn't have much extra to play with, you know?" Starsky said. He reached up into the cabinet, pulled something down, and popped it into Hutch's mouth. "Here," he said, "have a cookie."

Startled, Hutch nearly choked, and sprayed his partner liberally with a light layer of crumbs. He chewed what was in his mouth, and brushed at Starsky's shoulder. "Oops," he said. "Sorry." He grinned. "That's what you get, though."

Starsky reached into the cabinet and grabbed a cookie for himself. He poked it in his own mouth, and held another one out to Hutch. "Have another one."

"Starsky...."

"Eat it."

Hutch accepted the cookie with a roll of his eyes. "Yes, mother," he said, not letting on that for some reason, it tasted awfully good. "Evil sugar," he said, with a shake of his head as he swallowed. "Processed flour. Bleh."

Starsky narrowed his eyes. "You want one more for the road?"

"Damn right I do," Hutch said, digging into the package and pulling back a handful. "Maybe three or four." He headed toward the door. "You coming, or what?" he asked over his shoulder.

Although Starsky admittedly didn't feel the same kinship with the Hutchinson horses as he had with his Striped Tomato in Malibu the previous week, he had been finding it rather pleasant to engage in the normal barn chores with his partner during the last two days.

The horses, both large bays, seemed friendly enough, and acted as if they enjoyed the attention when the men brushed them, and began to tack them up for the ride. "You need any help with that?" Hutch asked, peering around his horse's rump to see Starsky working with the cinch on his own saddle.

"Nope, I think I've got it," Starsky said, giving the horse a pat, and moving over between the two horses. "You better check it before I get on though. Now which one's Sam and which one's Ben?" he asked. "I can't tell when they're outta their stalls and there's no name tags."

Hutch patted his own horse. "This one's Big Ben," he offered. "Who is still filthy, despite the fact that I've been brushing him for fifteen minutes."

Starsky patted Ben on the rump enthusiastically, a cloud of dust well embedded in the shaggy winter coat rising up to envelop them both.

Hutch stood still for a moment, then doubled over in a loud sneeze as his allergies were put on alert by the visible burst of fine particles.

"Gesundheit," his partner offered, guilelessly.

"Damn it, Starsk," Hutch growled, straightening up.

"Oops, sorry," said Starsky, although he clearly wasn't. He hid a smirk and went back to his own horse, fiddling with the saddle that was already in place, as Hutch wiped his eyes and glared at him.

"Maybe you're gett'n to be allergic to horses," Starsky commented, scratching Sam between the ears.

"You know damn well what I'm allergic to," Hutch snapped with a sniffle. "Not horses."

"Well, okay, let's see, flowers, fuzzy dashboards...oh, yeah...dust...."

Hutch sneezed again. "Shit. Damn it."

"Oh, come on, you'll be fine when we get outside," Starsky soothed, unobtrusively crossing his fingers, and hoping he was right.

Fortunately, within moments of leading the horses into the barnyard, Hutch's eyes weren't watering any more, and his head had cleared. "Lucky for you," he muttered as he came over to hold Sam while Starsky got up.

Starsky swung into the saddle and sat still for a moment, getting his bearings. "He's bigger than the Tomato," he pointed out, patting the horse on the neck. "Aren't ya, Sam?"

"He's a good boy," Hutch said, stroking the horse's velvety nose. "He'll take good care of you." He glanced up at Starsky. "Not that you deserve it or anything."

Starsky grinned down at him. "Don't be a grouch, Blondie. Hey, are these stirrups right, they don't feel even."

Hutch looked from side to side appraisingly. "Which one feels better?" he asked.

"This one," Starsky indicated his left leg. "Th'other one's too short."

"I can fix that," Hutch said, pulling Starsky's foot from the stirrup. He adjusted the buckle, moved to the front of the horse to check for evenness, then came back and guided his partner's foot into the center. "Now stand up," he instructed, and put your weight in your heels. Feel better now?"

Starsky did as he was told, then sat back down. "Yeah, that's good," he approved. "Go get Ben."

Hutch released Ben from the cross ties and let him out to the barnyard. He put one foot in the stirrup on the left side, and swung into the saddle with ease, not missing a beat as the horse began to strut and prance. He talked softly to him, and stroked his neck, all the time securing his seat and not losing control of the reins.

"Why's he doin' that?" Starsky asked.

"Hm? The wind," Hutch said. "They're not crazy about the wind."

"You think we should do this some other time?" Starsky asked. Although Sam stood still, practically yawning with boredom, the sight of his partner perched on the still prancing mount made him nervous.

"Nah, we're fine," Hutch said calmly. He continued soothing the horse with his voice and his touch, and soon the big bay began to respond, settling down, and collecting himself. "Out that gate there," Hutch said, pointing toward the north end of the barnyard, "Okay? I'll go first." The two rode out silently, single file, through the gate, around the barn, and through a narrow woodsy path, until they finally came to a dirt road that ran alongside the huge lake. The afternoon sunlight was thin, indicative of the snow that was moving in from the west, an occasional flurry dotting the horses' backs as they moved along the road.

Starsky brought his mount alongside Hutch and Ben, and the two rode side by side, taking in the beauties of the outdoors and the afternoon. Hutch glanced over at his partner, who seemed to be holding his own as he kept a relaxed but brisk walk. He looked past him, taking in the sparkling beauty of the lake, so big it looked like an ocean, its surface covered with a thin sheen of ice that looked as delicate and lovely as the individual snowflakes that fell intermittently from the sky. He took a deep breath and sighed contentedly.

How he had missed this, he thought, just like last week, hopping into the saddle seemed as natural to him as breathing. There was something about the steamy breath expelled by the horses as they took in the icy air, the solid feeling of warmth and power beneath him, that made him feel at one with the creature he rode.

"You doin' okay?" he asked Starsky, breaking from his reverie.

"Pretty good, yeah," replied the dark-haired detective, flashing him a grin. "Feels a lot better than it did last week."

"Want to try a canter?" Hutch asked.

"Sure," Starsky said, looking over at him. "How do I do that?"

"Well, you want to have good contact on your reins," Hutch said, "and keep your legs tight. You're gonna give him a little kick, but really," he shortened his own reins slightly in anticipation, "once Ben and I are going, Sam will just do the same, he's a follower." Hutch held up a finger. "But if you want to stop, you know how to...."

"Sit tight, pull back on the reins a little bit and say 'whoa,'" Starsky said, "I remember."

Hutch held his hands down low over the horse's withers, and nudged Ben's sides with his heels. "Canter, Ben," he said quietly, and the big horse lurched into an easy lope. He looked behind him to see Starsky follow suit, and soon the two of them were clattering up the dirt road, in tandem, matching stride for stride, the horses' hooves striking solid, even beats against the ground. The road ran right along the water's edge, and it was obvious to Hutch that Starsky's grin matched the sparkle of the glittering water they rode beside.

"Y'okay?" Hutch called.

"Doin' good," Starsky called back. "This feels great.helluva lot easier... than trot...."

Hutch laughed happily. "That's for sure," he called back.

Suddenly, a flock of birds flew out from a clump of trees and brush, directly to Hutch's left. The birds, frightened by the approaching horses, scattered in front of them, and flew away as quickly as they had appeared, flapping their tiny wings madly. Ben reared up on his hind legs, and Sam followed suit, catching their riders unaware, and unprepared. Through years of experience, Hutch was able to maintain his seat with little difficulty, but a quick glance to his right told him that his partner was in trouble.

Starsky clutched at Sam's mane, and the saddle, all the while, the trajectory of the horse's leap and sidestep, leaning him precariously off the horse's right side. He grabbed on tight to the horse's neck, even as he was sliding down to the side, dangling. At precisely this inopportune moment, the edge of a flailing hoof, sharpened by its iron shoe, caught him full in the forehead. Stunned, he lost his grip, and tumbled down the bank.

Hutch watched in horror as Starsky let go, almost as if he'd been shot. "Starsk!" he yelled, as a millisecond turned into the longest fall he had ever seen. Starsky crashed down the bank, and through the thin layer of ice that covered the lake, all but disappearing under the murky water. "Jesus!" Hutch whispered, in a voice that was somewhere between a curse and a prayer.

He launched himself from Ben's back, and as the two horses stood together, trembling in fear, he raced down the bank and plunged into the water himself, his only thought being the need to get his partner to safety. Truthfully, at this part of the lake, the water was not that deep, only just above his waist, but as he'd thrown himself at the spot where Starsky had disappeared, he'd plunged all the way under the water as well. Blasting through the surface, shaking his head, the shock of the cold water worse than knives invading his skin, he shook wet hair from his eyes, and grabbed his partner's arm as Starsky was struggling ineffectually to stand.

"Come on, come on, I've got you," Hutch said, clenching his teeth to keep them from chattering uncontrollably. A quick look at Starsky's face, blood pouring down from the cut, eyes a little unfocused, told him that Starsky was not quite with him. Hutch quickly wrapped an arm around Starsky's chest from behind and began dragging him to the bank. The rocks were slick with forming ice, and Hutch lost his balance more than once, both he and Starsky dunking under the water each time, the effort to bring them back to the inclined bank seeming an insurmountable effort, even though it was only a few yards away.

Finally, devoid of breath, Hutch summoned a Herculean effort, and hauled Starsky up onto the shore, scrambling up beside him, both of them dripping rivers of water which ran back down the bank into the lake.

Starsky tried to sit up, rivulets of blood pouring down his right cheek. "Hu...." He gasped weakly. "Wha...."

Hutch looked at him in horror. Keeping his voice calm, he tilted Starsky's chin to look in his eyes. "It's okay, Starsk, you're okay," he murmured, looking into Starsky's eyes as if to assess the damage. He rubbed away some of the blood with his thumb, wiping it on his pants, so he could get a better look at its source. "That's a pretty good cut," he said, through chattering teeth, "you're gonna need stitches, you're still beautiful, it won't scar, don't worry, just gonna take you to the E.R., get you warmed up."

Starsky gazed at him through half lidded eyes. "Don't feel good," he mumbled, "...be sick...."

"Okay, okay, I know," Hutch soothed, as he immediately helped Starsky onto his hands and knees, holding him tightly from behind as he threw up over and over. With one hand he rubbed Starsky's back, squeezing a shoulder, and rubbing lightly again, until the spasm and heaves subsided. Pulling Starsky away, then, he settled him in a sitting position, Starsky's head resting on his knees.

Hutch leaned down and spoke softly. "Feel better? You okay?"

"No...and no...." Starsky's voice was muffled. "Cold...." and he began to shiver uncontrollably from both the icy plunge and the aftermath of being sick.

"Gotta...gotta blanket on the saddle," Hutch whispered, "don't go away." He lurched himself to a standing position and quickly retrieved the blanket and the saddlebag from Ben's back. The horses, quiet now, stood still, watching, waiting.

Hutch shook out the blanket and wrapped it around his partner, who clutched at it as if it were a lifeline. He was shaking so hard he couldn't speak, couldn't even muster the strength to wipe another trickle of blood that was running down his face. Hutch ripped open the saddlebag and retrieved the wad of tissues he had packed earlier.

Taking half of it, he folded it carefully, held it against the cut on Starsky's forehead, then lifted Starsky's own hand to hold it in place. "Keep that there," he instructed firmly, squeezing Starsky's other hand a bit to let him know that he was aware of how much effort this required.

His own hands shaking from the cold, he clumsily opened the thermos, pouring half a cupful of hot chocolate. "Starsk?" he said quietly, bringing the cup to his partner's lips. "Gotta drink a little for me, it's hot, warm you up...."

Starsky managed to get down a few sips before growing pale again, and he pushed Hutch's hand away. "Can't...."

"Okay," Hutch crooned, "okay...." he set the cup aside and wrapped strong arms around Starsky, rubbing his hands up and down Starsky's arms briskly in an effort to lessen the shuddering chills. He wrapped the blanket tighter and held onto his partner for a few more moments, trying to fight down his own shivers, and think, think, how to get Starsky back home.

"M'all right," Starsky mumbled into his chest. "M'okay...."

"Sure you are," Hutch agreed, "you're gonna be fine, but...." He pushed Starsky back to arm's length. "We've got to get you home, and it's a long walk."

"Aw, Hutch...." Starsky slurred, "You really know how to cheer a guy up."

"You keep saying that," Hutch replied, the ghost of a smile on his lips, "and I keep tellin' you I do my best...but this is serious, buddy, we've got to get you back on the horse."

"Are you nuts?" Starsky blinked at him, and shivered hard again. "Can't...."

"You can, and you have to," Hutch said. "With me, it'll be okay." He pulled Starsky close again, his voice almost a whisper. "Can't carry you, Starss, it's too far...."

"Shit...."

Somehow, mustering every reserve of strength that was inside him, Hutch was able to get Starsky standing. Starsky came through in the clutch, holding onto Sam's saddle while Hutch boosted him up, and managing to hang on when Hutch climbed up behind him.

Hutch wrapped one strong arm around his partner, holding him firmly in place, and held his reins in the other hand. Entwined in the fingers of the arm that was wrapped around the brunet, he kept a grip on Ben's reins as well, leading him back as horses and riders made slow progression back to the house.

Once in the barnyard, Hutch slid off, then eased his partner slowly down from the back of the large bay animal. Both of them were shivering uncontrollably now, from the icy water, the cold and biting wind, and from abject shock and fear. Hutch sat Starsky down on a hay bale while he untacked the horses, which took only seconds. He secured them in their stalls, and reached over to help his partner up. "Last mile, buddy," he urged, "back to the house, we'll get you warm, come on...."

Although it seemed to take forever, Hutch managed to get Starsky into the house, and upstairs to the master bathroom, the largest one in the dwelling. Sitting him on the edge of the tub, he began stripping away Starsky's heavy, wet clothing, despite Starsky's feeble attempts to help him, which mostly just got in his way.

He had Starsky shirtless, and had pulled off his boots, when Starsky suddenly said, "M'sorry, Hutch...." and lurched himself toward the toilet, where he was sick again.

When there was nothing left, he knelt there weakly, only remaining upright because of Hutch's strong arms, which kept him from falling. "Drank...drank half the lake...." he wheezed. "M'sorry...."

Hutch closed his eyes, hoping to heaven that the nausea was from swallowing lake water, and not a symptom of a serious head injury. "It's okay," he said, gently guiding Starsky to a sitting position on the floor. He took a washcloth, soaked it in warm water, and wiped his partner's face, then folded it in half, and tried to soothe away a bit of the dried blood on Starsky's cheek.

He leaned over and began filling up the bathtub with hot water, then returned to his task, pushing aside tangled wet curls until he could see the laceration splayed open beneath them.

"How'd I look?" Starsky asked, closing his eyes.

A quick grin, "Oh, you look terrific," Hutch assured him.

Starsky gave him a half smile, and the expected response. "I bet I do," he said. Another spasm of shivers overtook him, and Hutch tugged on his arm.

"Come on," he urged. "Let's get you cleaned up and warm."

Starsky pulled off his soaked jeans and socks, and Hutch held his arm as he climbed into the hot water that filled the tub.

"You can't stay there," Hutch said, his own voice shaky. "I just don't want to be embarrassed when I take you to the hospital, you're filthy."

"A'right," Starsky agreed, splashing ineffectually at his face.

"I'll help you in a sec," Hutch promised, gathering up Starsky's filthy, soaked clothing, and tossing it down the laundry chute. "How do you feel?" he asked, glancing back.

"Um...sleepy...n'cold...."

Hutch leaned down and grabbed the shampoo from the side of the tub. "Need to wash your hair, Starsk," he said gently, "it's full of leaves and lake crud, and I don't want the cut to get infected because of it, all right?"

Starsky closed his eyes against a wave of dizziness. "I don't have to move, though, right?" he asked.

"Nope, stay right where you are," Hutch assured him, kneeling down next to the tub. He tilted Starsky's chin back with a finger. "Close your eyes," he said, "that's it...." He wet Starsky's hair with a glass he'd brought over from the sink, making sure that he pushed his hair back so it didn't touch the still bleeding laceration.

Squirting a tiny bit of shampoo into the palm of his hand, he fingered it through Starsky's dripping curls, massaging gently for a few moments. "Just gonna rinse and we're done, all right?"

"Okay...." Starsky said, never opening his eyes.

Hutch ran glass after glass of clean, warm water through his partner's hair until all the soap was out. He did not attempt any more than that, figuring that the hot water running over his back and chest was as much as he could take, and had likely warmed him up some, anyway. Reaching behind for a large, clean towel, he helped Starsky to stand, wrapping the towel around him securely. "Can you get dry?" he asked.

"Yeah."

"You know what, Starsk? Sit. I need to get you clean clothes, and I don't want you to fall."

Starsky sat heavily on the side of the tub, moaning as the move jolted his head and sent slivers of pain shooting in every direction. "Oh boy...." he muttered.

Hutch handed him the pile of clean clothes he'd swiftly procured. "Need some help?" he asked.

"Uh-uh, I can do it...." Starsky pulled on his clothing slowly and painfully, but when it came time to button his shirt, found that his fingers did not wish to work, they were cold and clumsy, and after a few fumbles Hutch stepped in and buttoned them efficiently, though his own fingers were stiff with chill.

"There you go," his tone matter of fact. "Come on, hospital time," and he began to pull Starsky toward the stairs. Starsky leaned on him heavily, and was out of breath and pale by the time they reached the kitchen door.

"Blintz...."

"Yeah, Starsk, what is it?"

"You're wet, go change, gonna get sick...."

Hutch looked down at himself, surprised to see that he was still wearing the same wet jeans and shirts he'd had on when he'd crashed into the lake after his partner. His jacket was gone, although he did not remember taking it off. His one thought was to get Starsky someplace for treatment, and he shrugged.

"Doesn't matter," he said. "Come on, I'll change later...."

"Change now," Starsky said, with as much force as he could manage. "Don't be stupid. Just gett'n over...and Judith said...." He closed his eyes and bit his lip, the nausea threatening to return.

Hutch pushed him down into a chair, realizing both that Starsky was right, and that the calmer he could keep his injured partner, the better. Hutch pressed a gauze pad he held against the brunet's forehead. "Okay, I'll change," he acquiesced, "but you've got to hold this for me. Feel sick?"

"Not right now," Starsky said, eyes closing again.

"Okay," Hutch squeezed his shoulder. "Be right back."

Hutch took the steps two at a time and stood in the middle of his room, not being able to remember for a minute, what he was looking for. "Jesus, Hutchinson," he thought, in irritation, "you're great in a crisis."

Funny, he was so cold, he wasn't even cold anymore, more numb than anything. He peeled off his soaked clothing and grabbed clean jeans and a sweater from the drawer. The soft dry clothing felt wonderful against his chilled skin, and he stood still for a minute, pressing his fingers under opposite arms to warm them.

He pulled on a thick pair of socks, and dry sneakers, and grabbing a blanket from the top of the closet, raced down the steps to the kitchen. He stopped short at the doorway, as he was hit with an uncomfortable bout of shivers, both from having worn the wet clothing for so long, and from the sight of his partner. Head down, gamely pressing the gauze against his forehead, Starsky looked miserable and sick, and Hutch's heart felt ill thinking it was his fault for pushing Starsky into an equestrian pace for which he had not been ready.

"Hey," he whispered, leaning down next to Starsky. "You ready to go?"

Starsky gave a nearly imperceptible nod. "'M ready, 'm okay..."

Hutch squeezed his shoulder reassuringly, and began to unfold the blanket, wrapping it around Starsky's shoulders securely.

"'S that for?"

"Your coat is wet," Hutch explained patiently. "Remember? The lake?"

"Oh yeah...what about yours?"

"Starsk, I'm working on pure adrenalin here," Hutch said with a short laugh. "I'm sweating, see?" He held up his bangs so Starsky could see the dots of perspiration on his forehead, and he willed his own shivers to stop, although truthfully Starsky wasn't really with it enough to notice.

He located a sweatshirt hanging by the door. "I'll take this in case I need it, now stop arguing with me about stupid stuff and come on."

Hutch reached an arm around Starsky's waist and helped him get to his feet. Starsky draped a loose arm around Hutch's shoulders although Hutch was forced to grab his hand with Hutch's free one when it was apparent that Starsky was too weak to keep his hold. In this manner they lurched out to Kim's car, as fast as Starsky could manage.

Hutch leaned him against the side of the car while he opened the door, and carefully lowered him into the passenger's seat. As soon as the door was closed, Starsky slumped toward it, leaning his aching head against the cold glass. Hutch moved quickly to the driver's side, hopping in, starting the engine, and turning on the blower full force. "Be warm in a minute, Starsk," he promised, as a blast of cold air hit them both. Quickly he adjusted the vent so it was not directing icy air at his partner.

The car sputtered as it struggled to warm up in the frigid, damp temperature, and Hutch backed it around quickly, and moved out the long driveway. The drive to the hospital took well over a half hour, Hutch did his best to drive quickly, but to avoid any bump or sharp corner which might cause Starsky any more discomfort.

Starsky, for his part, dozed for most of the ride, although he woke occasionally to answer a question, and once when Hutch reached over at a stoplight, wiping away the thin trickle of blood that seeped through the gauze on his head. Hutch wiped his bloody thumb on his pants. "Doing okay?" he asked.

"Terrific," Starsky muttered. "You tell 'em...." he sighed. "Tell 'em I hate stitches, okay, Blintz?"

"I'll tell them," Hutch agreed.

Hutch pulled down the circular driveway, following the signs, which read "Emergency." He stopped the car in front of a set of double pneumatic doors, and came around to the passenger's side to help Starsky out.

Starsky leaned on him heavily, as they made their way to the reception desk. "Sit, Starsk," Hutch said quietly, easing him down.

Hutch was mildly surprised when his own legs felt weak, probably relief at having arrived at the hospital, he supposed. He sank into the chair next to his partner.

"You guys don't look so good," the receptionist said kindly. "Hang on a minute, and you can tell us all about it." She picked up a telephone on her desk, and spoke into it a moment later. "May I have someone to triage, please?" she asked calmly. Replacing the receiver, she handed over a fresh piece of gauze. "I think you need a new one," she offered, as Hutch accepted it, and held it to Starsky's head.

Almost immediately, a nurse breezed through the door marked "Majors," and leaned down next to Starsky. "Hi there," she said, "I'm Susan, one of the nurses here. What on earth did you get into?"

Starsky managed a crooked grin, feeling comfortable with her at once. "We were riding, up along the lake," he said, voice strained. "Something scared the...the horses, and I fell...hoof got me...."

"So much for thinking you have a hard head," Hutch said, nearly giddy with relief, now that help was at hand. He looked at the nurse. "He kinda crashed through the ice, and, uh, into the water, and...."

The nurse smiled warmly, taking in Hutch's disheveled appearance. "And you went in after him," she deduced. She nodded in approval. "Very heroic," she said.

"Thinks he's...White Knight...uh...I'm...."

"He's gonna throw up," Hutch said, rising quickly. "Bathroom?"

"Round the corner here," Susan pointed. "Come on, I'll help."

A few moments later, Hutch tugged a pale and diaphoretic Starsky from the men's room, to find Susan waiting patiently by the door. "Okay now?" she asked.

Starsky nodded, his lips white.

Susan put one hand under Starsky's arm, and her other hand on Hutch's shoulder. "I'm going to take him in," she said, "so he can lie down, and I can get a good look at this, okay? Maybe you could go back to the window and get him signed in. One of us will come and get you as soon as we've got him settled."

Hutch walked heavily back to the reception window, every muscle protesting, and feeling drained. "What do you need from me?" he asked the receptionist. "I've got all his information, insurance stuff, a permission to treat...."

"Permission to treat? Are you kidding?" she asked, her eyes sparkling. "I love you."

Hutch managed a grin. "He's my um, partner, we're policemen...always carry that stuff with us."

She poised her fingers over the typewriter keys. "Fantastic," she said, "Let's get to it, then. Can you spell his last name for me?"

~*~*~*~

Hutch peeked around the curtain, and smiled at the sight of his dark-haired partner lying quietly on the stretcher in Room Two. He was covered with white blankets, and Hutch was glad to see that he was no longer visibly shivering—unlike Hutch, who had his fingers jammed in his jeans pockets to warm them. "Hey," Hutch said, warmly. "How you doing?"

Starsky turned his head slightly. "Hi," he responded, "I'm glad they let you in. I asked them to...."

Hutch closed the curtain behind him. "She says I can stay till they're ready to stitch you up," he said. "Unless you wanted to rest or something." Hutch found himself caught in the traditionally awkward scenario of the hospital visit. It didn't matter that he had been speaking normally to his partner not fifteen minutes before. There was something about the sterile environment, the white blankets, the antiseptic smell, even the goddamned curtains, for Christ's sake, that made him tongue tied, unsure of himself, and pretty sure that he'd be shuffling his feet in a minute.

"No, don't wanna rest," Starsky said, "I'd rather have you here. How'm I doin'?" He slid over slightly on the stretcher and patted the edge with his hand. "Sit," he commanded, "and stop shuffling your feet."

"But I wasn't—" Hutch felt himself blushing. "Okay." He perched lightly on the edge of the bed. "You're doing fine, you need a bunch of stitches, but I guess you already know that. They're waiting for the plastics guy on call."

"Yeah, what does that mean?" Starsky asked him.

Hutch shrugged his shoulders. "She said, whenever there's stitches and it's on your face, they try to have a plastic surgeon do it so it doesn't scar, or something, I don't know...." He blinked down at his dark-haired partner. "How do you feel? Still throwing up?"

"Nnn...." Starsky shook his head almost imperceptibly. "But don't talk about it or I might."

"Okay," Hutch smiled. "Warm enough?" He pulled the blankets higher over Starsky's reclining frame.

"Getting there," Starsky said. "Blankets are heated, pretty cool."

"Yeah," Hutch said awkwardly. "Cool. Um, warm. Um...."

"How about you?" Starsky asked. "You took a pretty good dunking too, as I recall."

"I'm fine," Hutch assured him. "I parked the car up in the lot, snow's comin' down pretty good, maybe we'll get a few inches out of this one. I wonder where my dad keeps the shovel. I think there's some rock salt in the garage." Even to himself, especially to himself, Hutch sounded stupid.

Starsky reached over and grabbed his wrist. "Hey."

"Hey?"

"Hey. Stop it. I'm fine."

"Starsk, you're not fine," the words rushed out in a torrent. "You're gonna have a mess of stitches, gonna look like Frankenstein, probably catch pneumonia, and it's all my...."

"Hutch." Starsky commanded firmly. "Knock it off right now. You're gett'n yourself all worked up for nothin', it's no big deal."

Hutch shook his head, drying blond strands of hair brushing over his collar. "It's not nothin', Starsk, and it is a big deal, and I should never have...."

Starsky tightened his grip on Hutch's wrist so hard that it nearly hurt. "Enough." He said. "Stop it now, or I'm gonna get up and slug ya." He grinned to let Hutch know that, although he meant what he said, he wasn't angry. "I love ya, Blintz, but I don't have the energy to argue right now, a'right?"

Hutch took a deep breath. "All right," he said. It was funny, he thought, as he smoothed back the dark curls from Starsky's forehead. He could be so calm in the middle of a crisis, he'd taken care of Starsky more times than he could count—on the job injuries, a sprained whatever from playing basketball or some other sport, Starsky's annual bout with the flu in which he was usually so miserable and whiny that Hutch was ready to kill him by the end. Hutch was always calm and collected and soothing—right until the real medical personnel stepped in, and then he somehow lost it. "I need to work on that," he said, ruefully.

"Yes, you do," Starsky agreed. "But you mean well."

"Hey, guys," Susan poked her head around the corner of the curtain. "Dr. Jennings is here to do his thing on the Puking Goose."

"That's puce," Starsky said darkly.

She grinned as Hutch began to snort. "So, Blond Blintz," she added, "guess that means you're back out in the waiting room." She looked at Hutch, and pointed back to Starsky. "We've bonded," she said, "I know it all."

Hutch nodded, gave her an even look, and leaned down to Starsky, whispering, "I will kill you for that." He pointed a finger at Starsky, who was trying not to chuckle. "I mean it," he said, putting on his mad face.

His exit would have had more effect had he not tripped on the leg of a chair, and nearly sent himself flying onto the bed. Face blazing, he slunk back to the relative anonymity of the waiting room, hearing Starsky and Susan laugh hysterically as the door whooshed shut behind him.

~*~*~*~

Hutch shivered and yawned. He stretched his legs out in front of him, and then pulled them back under the uncomfortable chair. He swirled his lukewarm coffee in the Styrofoam cup, taking a half-hearted sip before setting it down on the table next to him.

On the television set above, Merv Griffin continued his late afternoon patter with a group of guests. He glanced up and saw a guy wearing some kind of a mask over his face, getting ready to sing. Nice voice, but why would the guy wear a mask he wondered. Shaking his head, Hutch pulled his arms around himself, wishing he could stop the chills, which hadn't left him since he'd pulled Starsky from the icy lake.

"You look like you've had it," a cheerful voice to his right intoned, and Hutch jumped, startled.

"What?"

The receptionist smiled down at him. "I come bearing gifts," she said, handing him a folded blanket. "This is from the warmer in the E.R.," she offered. "I've been watching you shiver for an hour now, and you're making me cold."

Hutch looked up at her, "I think I love you," he said, pulling the blanket around his shoulders. "My God this feels good."

"This might help, too," she said, holding out a mug. "Coffee from our lounge-it's fresh, and it's hot." She gestured toward the vending machine. "That stuff'll kill you, and it's just barely warm."

Hutch smiled at her, and took a grateful sip of the steaming liquid. "Thank you," he said, "thank you so much."

"No problem," she said, starting back to the reception area. "I'm sorry it's taking so long. Dr. Jennings takes forever to suture, but honestly, he's the best there is, it's worth it. Anything else you need, let me know...."

Hutch sighed and pulled the blanket closer, as he took another sip of coffee. Finally he felt as if he might be warming up, and it was wonderful. He sipped at the coffee slowly, letting his eyes wander back to the television. Merv was still on, but now he was interviewing two guys from some buddy cop show.

Hutch shook his head. "Ridiculous," he thought, "two pretty boy actors, how could anyone find that show believable-it was all car chases and implausible plots...." Every once in a while he and Starsky made a point to watch it, just because it was good for a laugh, particularly if they'd had a few beers before the show came on.

Finally warming up, Hutch felt an overwhelming sleepiness overtake him. He knew it was the aftereffect of the adrenalin rush he'd experienced, but despite the coffee, he was barely able to keep his eyes open.

"Hutch? Hutch?"

Hutch heard Starsky's soft voice, and his eyes flew open immediately. "Starsk?" He sat up, rubbing a hand over his eyes. "You done? You okay?"

Starsky stood before him, nearly as pale as the gauze bandage that was taped to his forehead, but standing, talking.

Hutch stood up and clutched at Starsky's elbow. "Sit down," he urged.

Starsky sat gingerly, conscious of not jostling his head, which was beginning to throb now that the Novacain was wearing off. "The nurse will be out in a second," he said tiredly.

"How are you doing?" Hutch asked, concerned, and equally tired.

"I'm fine. Really." Starsky assured him. He tugged on the blanket that was still draped around his partner's shoulders. "Like the shawl, you look good in white," he teased.

"Okay, heroes," came Susan's voice as she headed out the doorway to the waiting room. "How are we doing?"

"We are looking forward to going home," Hutch answered, a smile in his voice as he rose to meet her. "He didn't give you too much trouble, did he?" he asked, indicating his partner with a nod of his head.

She grinned. "Nothing I couldn't handle, believe me. Compared to what usually tramps in here every Saturday night, your buddy's a pussycat. Sit," she urged him, and crouched down, facing both men. "I want to go over your discharge instructions here, okay?"

"Sure," Hutch said, shrugging out of the blanket, and holding it out to his partner. "You need this?"

"Uh-uh," answered Starsky, with a nearly imperceptible shake of his head.

Susan took the blanket from Hutch's outstretched hand, and draped it around the dark-haired detective. "Wear it anyway," she said. "Now, the important thing is to keep the wound clean and dry. No showers till tomorrow, and even then, you've got to be careful."

"No showers?" Starsky asked.

"Mm mm," she said, with a shake of her head. She turned to Hutch. "I want this bandage in place for twenty four hours," she said, "but then you're going to have to change it, unless you want to come back here and we'll do it."

"No, I can do that," Hutch said, "that's not a problem."

"Okay, good," she nodded in approval. She handed Hutch a paper bag. "Here's all the supplies," she said, "got gauze, tape, antibiotic ointment, the whole nine yards. If you're just careful when you take that one off, and put a new dressing on tomorrow, that'll be great, then twice a day after that."

"Do I need to clean it or anything?"

"Yeah, twice a day, when you change the dressing. Just use a warm washcloth," she said, "and no soap. You can rinse away any dried blood or anything that's around it, and sort of pat at it. He could take a bath while you've got the dressing off too, tomorrow," she explained, "as long as you pat the incision dry before you redress it."

"Just watch what you're pattin', Blondie," Starsky put in, wiggled his eyebrow, then winced. "Ow," and he raised a hand toward his forehead, pressing his fingers into his hairline, above the bandage.

Hutch rolled his eyes and grinned at Susan. "You'll have to excuse him," he apologized, "he has a head injury."

Susan smiled broadly. "You mean he's not usually like this?" she asked.

"Oh, no," Hutch assured her. "Usually he's worse."

"Well that's just frightening," she replied. She turned to Starsky. "And you," she said firmly. "You're going to take it easy, right?"

"Right," he said.

Susan turned back to Hutch. "By the way," she offered, "it's not out of the realm of possibility that he's going to run a little fever tonight, that doesn't mean anything awful. His body's had a shock, and an invasive procedure."

"I'll say," muttered Starsky. "Hutch, do you know what they...."

Hutch patted his arm absently. "I know, I know," he said, as he turned his attention back to Susan. "Okay, so what do I...."

"Tylenol, aspirin, whatever you've got," Susan said. "What you're really watching for, over the next couple days, is an infection. Like...if it looks red, or swollen, or oozy, anything like that, you're going to need to bring him back to have it checked, and maybe be put on antibiotics, all right? And in any case, the stitches will need to come out in ten days, either here, or at home, family doc is fine, whatever."

Hutch took a deep breath. "We can handle that, right Starsk?"

"Absolutely."

"How are you feeling?"

"Terrific."

Susan stood up and moved to the window. "And now," she said, "although I will miss you both dreadfully, I think you should go." She pointed outside. "It's really snowing. You guys are from Los Angeles, either of you ever drive in snow before?"

"I grew up here," Hutch said quietly. "I can drive in it, no problem. I've got my sister's car, it's four wheel drive...."

"Okay," Susan said, "but be careful and drive slow. I don't want to see you guys back here tonight. Who's your sister?" she asked curiously. "I've been thinking you looked familiar since you got here."

"Kim H—Kim Kelly," Hutch said, embarrassed that he'd almost forgotten her married name.

"Kimmy? Oh wow," Susan's eyes lit up. "My daughter Sarah is in preschool with Jeremy."

"You're Sarah's mom?" asked Starsky. He grinned. "Jeremy speaks very highly of her," he said. "Thinks she's pretty cute, calls me for advice all the time."

Susan burst out laughing. "Ah," she said. "Then you would be the uncle from California who is responsible for the fact that Sarah now calls everybody 'schweetheart' huh?"

"Uh...."

"Jeremy taught all the kids to do that, and I really want to thank you; it has certainly enhanced our home life."

Starsky beamed, missing the sarcasm, and Hutch burst out laughing.

Susan held out the discharge instructions for Starsky to sign, and looked over her shoulder at Hutch. "I've, uh," she said, "met your dad a couple of times."

"Hm," Hutch said, noncommittally.

She smiled at Hutch kindly. "Never would have known," she said, "'cause you're not too much like him."

"Thank God," Starsky muttered, handing back the pen, and winking at Susan. He put a hand on Hutch's shoulder. "Ready to go, Blintz?" he asked.

Hutch nodded. "I'll go get the car and bring it down," he said.

"You guys take care, now," Susan said, moving back toward the Emergency Room proper. "If you need anything at all, call us, okay?"

~*~*~*~

Hutch drove slowly, both hands tight on the wheel. It was nearly dark now, and the snow was coming down harder than it had been all afternoon. It bounced and swirled in the headlights, and he was finding it a bit difficult to focus on the road, a situation not made better by the fact that his eyes were grainy with exhaustion and strain.

He sneaked a quick glance at his partner, who looked in a similar state. "How you doing, Starsk?" he asked. "You feelin' okay?"

"Yeah," Starsky sighed, "but I'm sure lookin' forward to puttin' on sweats and crawlin' into the couch," he said. "You?"

"Oh, yeah, fine," answered Hutch. "What do you want for dinner?" he asked.

"Truthfully? Nothin'" Starsky said honestly. "After all that, I'm...my stomach's a little...questionable."

"You don't feel like you're—"

"No, don't worry," Starsky chuckled. "Not gonna throw up again, just don't feel like eating especially."

Hutch exhaled noisily, and grinned. "Well, good," he said, "because the roads are slippery and if I had to stop fast I think we'd end up in a ditch."

"Great, that's all we need."

"Just hang in there, pal," Hutch said gently, reaching over to squeeze his friend's shoulder. "Why don't you try to sleep a little...we'll be home before you know it."

"Too late," Starsky mumbled, but he obligingly leaned his head against the window and closed his eyes.

Hutch chuckled softly and turned his full attention back to the increasingly treacherous road. Between the dark and the heavily falling snow, most of the familiar landmarks were invisible, but he hoped that they were nearing the turnoff for County 7, the back road that was the next stage of the journey to the ranch.

Oops. Suddenly there it was, rising out of the dark and the swirling snow, and he hurriedly turned the car to the right. The rear of the car fishtailed a little, but good tires and years of driving at top speed on the street helped him keep it on the road. In a moment, they were straightened out, and headed in the right direction down CR 7.

He stole a glance over at Starsky.

Uh-oh.

His friend's lips were set and white, and his throat was beginning to hitch. Hutch knew that look well enough; he began to slow down, and was able to stop just as Starsky said in a strained voice, "Uh...Hutch...."

He threw the car into park and somehow got over to the other side without falling flat on his butt. Starsky had shoved open the door and was hanging onto it with one hand, while he vomited weakly into the snow. He had thrown up so much earlier, there was very little to come up, but beads of sweat stood out on his forehead at the pain from the effort.

Heedless of the snow, Hutch knelt beside him, gripping his shoulders and pulling him back against his chest to help absorb the strength of some of the convulsions. After a moment, Starsky relaxed.

"Not here, pal, huh?" Hutch said gently. "Let's get you back in the car where it's warm and dry." Carefully, he helped Starsky lift himself back into the seat, then closed the door and rounded the car to return to the driver's seat.

He drove as cautiously as he could the rest of the way, dropping his speed so he wouldn't have to make another last-minute save when he spotted Spoede, the road on which the Hutchinson ranch was located. The snow continued to hurtle past the headlights, and it was with relief that he traversed the long driveway and finally brought the car to a stop beside the house.

Rounding the car, he pulled open the door carefully so he wouldn't dump Starsky onto the driveway, then circled his friend's waist with one arm and hoisted him to his feet. Starsky muttered a little, pressing a hand to the bandage on his head, as Hutch nudged the car door closed with his hip.

"Just a little further, buddy," he panted as the two of them made their way up the porch steps. "We can take a rest in the kitchen before I take you upstairs." He paused at the side door to dig the key out of his pocket.

"No." Starsky's voice was as stubborn as that of a petulant child. Hutch glanced over at him, eyebrows raised.

"No what?" he said, confused, as he inserted the key into the lock and pushed the door open.

"Don't wanna go upstairs."

"Starsk, c'mon," Hutch pleaded, getting them both inside and pushing the door closed. "It's been a long and lousy day...you need some rest."

"Don't wanna go up to that room," Starsky insisted. "Just lemme sleep in the den."

Hutch flicked a switch, and they both blinked in the bright light. Hutch looked over at his friend, and sighed. Starsky wore the mulish expression that meant arguing would be a waste of time and energy. He shrugged. "Okay, pal, whatever you say," he said. "Be better than lugging you up all those stairs anyway."

Not bothering to shed his boots, he changed their direction and started toward the den. As they reached the enormous leather couch, Starsky suddenly released a low chuckle.

"Did I ever tell ya that you're beautiful, Blintz?"

"Oh, you say that to all the blondes you know, Starsk," Hutch said teasingly, easing the blanket from Starsky's shoulders and helping him lower himself to the couch. "Easy... easy," he coached as Starsky winced. "Try not to move too fast."

Between the two of them, they got the dark-haired detective stretched out on the couch and covered with an afghan. Hutch built a roaring fire and then, with a smug smile, brought down the soft and fluffy blanket from his parents' bed to help warm his friend. Fetching a warm, damp cloth from the kitchen, he gently blotted the sweat from Starsky's forehead and neck, hoping the combined warmth of the fire, the blanket, and the cloth would ease his partner's shivers.

"Tha' feels good, Hutch...." Starsky murmured. His eyes opened a slit, and he smiled, emitting another hoarse little chuckle. "Tole you...you're beautiful, babe."

"And you," Hutch said fondly, tucking the covers more securely around Starsky's shoulders, "are drugged out of your mind. Now, c'mon, pal. You've had a long day...try to get some rest, huh?"

"Not 'til you say you're beautiful," Starsky insisted stubbornly.

Hutch sighed. It was the pain and his exhaustion talking, but he knew Starsky. Now that he had this idea in his head, he would persist- until Hutch said what he wanted to hear, no matter how stupid it made him feel.

"All right, you win, Starsk," he conceded. "I'm beautiful. Now go to sleep, y'big lug."

"An' smar'...."

"Starsk...."

"A'right, a'right...." Starsky was beginning to fade, along with all his consonants. "Hutsh...."

Hutch leaned toward his partner, eyebrows raised. "Whatcha need, pal?"

"You res' too...ge' warm, dry...'kay?"

Hutch half-grinned. "You got it."

"Prom'se."

"On my honor as a Sea Scout."

"'kay...." The lids lowered over the dark blue eyes as Starsky began to drift off to sleep...then fluttered open a fraction of an inch as Hutch stifled a sneeze. "'less you," he murmured.

"Thanks, Starsk," Hutch said quietly.

He stood there for a moment, watching and listening as some of the pain lines smoothed out of Starsky's face and his breathing became slow and deep. Then, glancing at his watch, he decided he should go feed the horses before he got too drowsy and comfortable himself.

He searched through the hall coat closet and found a dry jacket. Returning to the kitchen, he zipped the jacket up, and tightened the thick woolen scarf around his neck. Humming somewhat absently, he filled a kettle with water and set it on the stove, leaving the lid open so the whistle wouldn't disturb his friend. Pulling on his gloves, he started out the door...and stopped, realizing what he had done.

It had been a habit of his grandfather's, starting the teakettle before going out to the barn. Robert had always said that it made the trek back from the barn much more pleasant on a cold winter night or morning, knowing a hot cup of tea would be waiting for them. And somehow, he managed to set the heat just high enough, and do the chores just quick enough, that the kettle would have just begun to whistle when they stepped back in the door.

It was something Hutch himself had done, when he had been home after his grandfather died...but not in years. Yet, he had done it automatically, as part of the twice-daily ritual.

He chuckled to himself, then stepped outside into the chilly night.

As he walked across the yard, the snow had a different feel and look to it. He didn't know how, but years of living in Minnesota told him that the worst of it was past. The storm would probably stop sometime that night, leaving at most 2-3 inches on the ground. He half-grinned, wondering what weather novice had decided to call this a "dangerous storm," then pulled open the barn door and ducked gratefully into the warmth and friendliness generated by the creatures inside.

The routine was familiar enough that he went through it easily and rapidly, pausing at each stall to greet its occupant by name and stroke a velvet nose, or rub a flank thick with winter fur. As he made his way down the row, he breathed in the smell that had never failed to comfort him, remembering the many times he had fled here after a particularly devastating reprimand from his father or a performance that fell short of expectations. When his grandfather was still alive, he would often follow the boy and find him tucked away in one of the stalls, crying as if his heart would break, with one of the horses snuffling gently at the towhead to offer comfort.

Now, Ken. His grandfather's voice would precede him, with that combination of gruff and tender that was as soothing as the warm scent rising from the animals around him. Then his head would appear around the corner, eyes rich with compassion, and he would enter the stall with perfect confidence, knowing the horse would move aside and allow him to crouch down beside his distraught grandson. I know your dad hurt your feelings, but don't take on so.

But no matter what I do, it's never good enough, Ken would whisper miserably, unable to meet his grandfather's eyes, feeling small and worthless.

Now that's just not true. At this point, Robert would lower himself to the ground with a slight moan as his arthritic knees protested the movement. He would lean against the wall of the stall and pull the boy close to his side. Your father's a very hard man to please, Ken, and sometimes he expects far more of you than you could ever give. All you can do is your best, my boy, and let the rest fall where it will.

Easy for you to say, Ken would grumble, though he'd have perked up a little by now and would be sitting up straighter in the circle of his grandfather's arm. You're not the one he's grounding because you got a B on your geography test.

His grandfather's rich laughter would ring through the barn. The horses' ears would flicker back, but not in disturbance, for the sound of Robert Hutchinson's laughter was familiar in that setting, and a sign that all was right with the world.

Unfortunately, the young boy's sobs were becoming just as familiar, and an indication of what was wrong rather than right in the house beyond.

One of the horses nudged him, nickering softly, and Hutch started back to the present with a jolt. Jesus, he thought, with an enormous, exhausted yawn and a hand passed over his face. Goin' down that road again...I need some sleep. "Thanks, old girl." He gave one final stroke to the horse that had broken his reverie and braced himself for the trip back to the house.

As he climbed the steps to the porch, stamping his feet to shake off the snow, he rubbed the back of his neck and shoulders...and cursed the day's events and the hospital's molded plastic, designed-for-your-discomfort chairs on behalf of muscles that seemed drawn tight as wire. He thought briefly and longingly about a long, hot shower, but he really didn't want to leave Starsky alone for that long. Silly, he knew, but maybe it would assuage some of his guilt for getting the poor guy into this mess in the first place.

Cut it out, Hutch.

He heard the words as clearly as if Starsky had been standing beside him, and laughed to himself as he dropped the coat off his shoulders to the kitchen table, and prepared his cup of tea. The chuckle triggered a tickle, and he cleared his throat, massaging the base of his neck. Then, looping the string of the tea bag—for of course, his parents would never dream of owning a tea ball or strainer, much less loose tea leaves—-around the cup's handle, he went quietly back into the den.

Just inside the door, he paused, leaning against the arched frame and taking a sip from his cup. He couldn't restrain a half-smile at the sight of Starsky, snuggled cozily under the blanket and warmed by the fire, sound asleep. The pain lines had disappeared, along with the drawn tightness around his mouth, and the only sign of the day's events was the white bandage on his forehead.

Hutch sighed and rubbed his own forehead, then pushed himself off the doorjamb. Setting the cup of tea on the hearth, he tucked the covers more securely around his friend. Then, in one final chore before he allowed himself to rest, he fetched both of their wet jackets and hung them on the backs of kitchen chairs before the fire—with luck, they'd be dry by tomorrow. Retrieving the cup, he then settled himself in the recliner on the other side of the fireplace, throwing an afghan around his own long legs. Taking another sip of his tea, he sank back into the chair's embrace, inhaling the scent of his grandfather that rose to him, that olfactory concoction of pipe tobacco, aftershave, and horse. For just a moment, he did nothing more than let his eyes roam the room, as he absorbed the warmth and loving safety of its original inhabitant.

It was the one room in the house to which both he and Starsky instantly and repeatedly gravitated, and no wonder. Two generations earlier, when Hutch's grandfather had first purchased the bundle of land that had birthed the Hutchinson ranch, this room had been the sole dwelling. Robert had first patched, then renovated, the tiny one-room shack, then gradually built around it the grand structure of the current house...and his son had added onto it further. In a rare fit of sentimentality, however, James Hutchinson had left this room alone when he had completely gutted and redecorated the homestead after his father's death.

The room still bore one of its original log walls, and had been furnished by Robert in warm earth tones, with deep, comfortable carpeting and welcoming furniture. The walls were covered with aerial and ground photos of the ranch's growth and expansion over the years, appreciation plaques attesting to Robert's generosity and service to various civic organizations...and, other than the one in the kitchen, the only family photos that included Hutch.

How right it was to share this warmth with his best friend, one of the few other people in his universe who showed him the same love and acceptance that his grandfather had.

He turned his eyes from the room to his partner, and as his gaze lingered for a moment, he felt another pang of guilt about the equestrian disaster. He had been so caught up in his own pleasure at riding again, he had forgotten how risky it could be in the winter, even for an experienced horseperson. He should have anticipated some unexpected event might spook the horse...combined with the ground conditions and a novice rider, it was an accident waiting to happen, and his own damn fault.

He'd been so close to dying, not too long ago. Since then, he had been determined to...notice everything, whether it was the sun shining off the water, a child running down the street, or a particularly beautiful strain of music. Somehow, all of those things now made his chest ache in a way they never had before...simultaneously better and worse...and he just couldn't get enough of them. Had he lost track of his partner's welfare, in the midst of his own need to experience his life more fully, more vividly than he had before he had been ill?

He brought himself up short then, with a sharp, humorless laugh. What was it about this place that made him feel so inadequate, so self-accusatory, he wondered; it was as if his father's disapproval hovered in the shadows, just waiting to launch its insidious attack on Hutch's sense of himself.

Draining his cup, he set it on the table with a small, weary sigh, and tried to replace the despondence with a dose of common sense. They had both been enjoying themselves, he couldn't have predicted the birds, and it certainly could have worked out a lot worse. Starsky had had a bad knock on the head, that was true, but he hadn't lost consciousness, and the cut hadn't needed too many stitches to close it. They'd both taken a bad dunking, but Starsky seemed none the worse for it, and his own shivers finally seemed to have subsided.

He hitched the afghan up further on his shoulders, and ordered himself to think happier thoughts, as his eyelids began to droop.

The room enveloped him. Before he could help himself, he had dropped off to sleep.

~*~*~*~

The boy lay shivering in the bed, covers pulled up tightly around his ears. He had as many blankets on him as he could drag out of the closet, but he was still so cold, so cold

There was a tap on the door, and Melinda Hutchinson peeked in.

"Ken?" she said with a touch of impatience. "Come on, dear, it's time to get ready for school."

"C-can't," the child said from under the covers, teeth clenched to keep them from chattering. "Mom...I don't feel so good."

With a sigh, Melinda pushed open the door and entered the room. Taking in her son's appearance, she touched a hand to his forehead and then withdrew it with a frown. "Well, you do feel like you have a fever," she said uncertainly. "Let's find out for sure."

A few moments later, she was shaking down the thermometer. "101," she stated. "What were you doing last night? Going outside without your coat?"

"No, M-mom," Ken said, hunching his shoulders underneath the pile of blankets.

"Well, I just don't know what to do," she said to herself, twisting her hands. "I can't stay home with youI have three meetings at the hospital and a half-dozen errands to run...oh, Ken, are you sure you can't just go to school and see if you feel better?"

"I-I don't think so, Mom."

"What's going on in here?" James entered the room and flicked on the light. Ken flinched at the sudden brightness and turned his head away from the fixture. "Ken? Why aren't you up?"

"I think he's sick, James," Melinda said helplessly. "He's got a fever of 101."

"Told you not to leave your coat at home, didn't I?" James said disapprovingly.

"Yes, sir."

"Well, I can't stay home...I've got to be in court this morning," James said. "I'll have to see what Dad has planned for today. Come, Melinda...."

Still shivering with cold, the boy barely noticed as his parents left the room, his mother somehow apologetic, his father impatient and clearly ready to get out of the house and away from this inconvenience. He drifted off to an uneasy sleep, broken occasionally by weird images of the monsters that had inhabited his closet when he was much younger but which he hadn't seen in forever...and he could see the other students at school, wondering where he was...his teachers...wait, did he have a geography test today? No, that was next week...no, it was today, and he hadn't studied!

Suddenly there was a gentle, warm hand on his forehead, and a soothing voice broke through the haze of images. "It's all right, Ken," his grandfather murmured. "It's just a fever dream, son...you're all right."

Ken opened his eyes to find his grandfather sitting beside the bed, smiling softly down at him. He had a glass of orange juice in one hand and a cup of something that smelled wonderful in the other. "Here," Robert said encouragingly. "Try to take a sip of that...that might warm you up a bit."

Ken freed his hands from under the covers and took the cup in his hands, almost sighing at the lovely warmth that seeped instantly into his hands. Careful not to spill, he moved the cup to his lips and took a long, grateful sip. This time, he did sigh as the heat spread down into his body and began to quell the tremors.

"Thanks, Granddad," he said hoarsely, draining the cup and handing it back to his grandfather. "Feels a lot better."

"I bet it does," Robert chuckled. "Here...take a couple of these." He handed the boy two aspirin and the glass of orange juice.

Ken swallowed the tablets obediently, washing them down with the orange juice that felt heavenly sliding down his dry, aching throat. Then, with another sigh, he leaned back onto his pillow, feeling better already.

"Now, since it's just you and me today," Robert said conspiratorially, glancing over his shoulder as if to ensure no one could overhear them, "I thought it would be better if you came downstairs with me, to the den."

"But Mom and Dad...." Ken began falteringly, knowing his parents would object.

"We'll make sure you're back up here long before they get home," Robert assured him. "And if we don't, I'll just tell them I didn't want to go up and down those stairs all day long...not the best thing in the world for these old legs of mine."

"I guess you're right," Ken agreed. He was more than eager to leave the bedroom, which always seemed cold no matter what the thermostat read, for the warm haven of his grandfather's den, and was glad that Robert had come up with an excuse that his parents might find acceptable.

He sat up, and Robert helped him arrange the blankets so he was still reasonably well covered but wouldn't trip on any trailing edges. Then, the two of them went down to the den, where Robert immediately bundled the boy into his enormous leather chair, where Ken watched from a cocoon of blankets while his grandfather built a blazing fire, talking all the while.

Enveloped in the covers, soothed by the fire and the lingering warmth of the hot soup, listening to the familiar tale of how his grandfather had renovated the one-room log house, the boy's shivers subsided. And it was not long before he drifted off to a contented, healing sleep...not to awaken until the long shadows of the afternoon sun stretched across the lawn, and his grandfather gently shook him awake so he could go back upstairs before his parents arrived home.

"Ken...Ken...come on, son, it's time to get up...."

~*~*~*~

"Hutch?"

No response.

"Hutch...hey, Hutch."

Slowly, Hutch opened his eyes, somehow expecting to find his grandfather standing beside him. Ridiculous, as his grandfather had never heard him called Hutch in his lifetime...Jack was the only one who had done that, and never in the Hutchinson house. But then, stranger things had been known to happen....

Nope. It was Starsky who knelt beside him, looking considerably more alert than he had last night, holding a steaming cup in his hands.

"Starsk?"

"Hey, mornin'," Starsky said cheerfully.

"What're you doin' up?"

"It's morning," Starsky repeated with exaggerated patience. "Time to get up and at 'em, Blintz...you should see all the snow outside. Here...take this," he added, extending the cup of coffee. "That'll open your eyes."

Hutch took a sip...and whistled at the potent taste. "Holy shit, Starsk...what the hell is this?"

"Double strength," Starsky said, his cheerfulness now just this side of annoying. "Figured you'd need it after last night. Come on, up and at 'em, Blintz, I wanna go walk around in this white stuff. Haven't seen snow in an age...bet I can still make a killer snowball."

Hutch snorted. "Yeah, right, city boy," he scoffed. "How could you find enough snow in New York to put together a decent snowball?"

"Wasn't easy," Starsky replied, not the least daunted by his partner's cynicism. "Roust it out, Blondie. There's breakfast on the stove for me, a shiny high-tech blender for that nauseating stuff you call a morning meal, and a batch of hungry horses waitin' in the barn. So, c'mon, c'mon...."

"All right, all right." Taking another sip of the coffee and praying that it wouldn't blast his head right off, Hutch lowered the foot of the recliner and got to his feet, pleasantly surprised to find that he was not the least bit stiff. Well, it wasn't really a surprise, he thought with a half-smile. Trust his grandfather to find the one chair in the world that you could sleep in without regretting it the next morning. As he folded the comforter, he heard Starsky's feet thudding up the front stairs, in a rhythm this house had not heard since—well, ever. He and Kim had rarely been permitted to "romp," at least not indoors and certainly not in the formal front hallway. But though Starsky's eyes had widened on his first visit to the ranch, he had quickly recognized the sprawling homestead for what it was: a showcase, prepared for the reaction of its guests rather than the comfort of its residents. Typically, he had warmed his own niche of it and avoided, then gently mocked, the pomposity of the rest. Now, with Hutch's parents gone, he had even less reason to worry about the propriety that seemed to ooze from every corner; rather, he appeared determined to chase it back to its hiding place. Allowing himself a final whiff of the comforter, and the accompanying happy memories, Hutch mounted the front stairs himself, whistling cheerfully, and perversely enjoying the acoustics of the great hallway.

His feet seemed to fly up the steps; he felt a hundred times lighter than when he had trembled up here yesterday and stood in his room in freezing wet clothes, idiotically trying to remember why he was there. The early rising, the relentless teasing, and the blast-the-top-off-your-head coffee could mean only one thing: Starsky was all right. The words sang through his head, lyrics to the tune he continued to whistle as he stripped off his jeans and sweater and headed for the shower. Starsky's eyes had looked bright and cheerful, his speech and smart-ass wit as sharp as ever. Of all the fears that had unreeled through Hutch's head as he had watched the horse's hooves paw the air and his friend take that hideous slow-motion slide under the lake's surface, it looked like none of them had come true.

The hot water of the shower was a balm to his neck and shoulder muscles. He felt them loosen their grip at last on the lingering tension from being unbelievably cold and frightened, followed by hours of sitting in the most uncomfortable chairs manufactured. If the receptionist hadn't been equally observant and kind, Hutch thought as he shampooed the leaves and lake debris from his own hair, he suspected he'd be shivering yet, hunched permanently into a ball of cold and misery.

He took his time in the shower, then wrapped himself in a fluffy robe. As he toweled his hair dry, he felt a slight ache in his throat, accompanied by an equally minor pulse in his head and his back. Well, no wonder, Hutchinson, he told himself, swiping the mirror free of steam so he could comb his hair. Did you think you'd take that dip in the lake yourself and be free of all aftereffects? He'd leapt off Ben so fast, hurtling down the bank and into the lake, that he had probably jarred no end of bones and muscles; they'd be complaining to him for hours, or until he did something to warm and loosen them up.

Like a good, old-fashioned Minnesota snowball fight.

He yanked on warm socks, jeans, and three layers of shirts, then strode down the hall to his partner's room. Ready to issue a full-throated challenge to an East Coast-Midwest snowball contest, he hesitated, hand raised to pound on the door. Though he wanted nothing more than to tumble immediately into the fluffy white stuff with his closest friend, his conscience was insisting that he take care of the livestock first. Sighing, and half-cursing his midwestern work ethic, he dropped his hand and headed for the stairs instead.

All was not lost, however; he amused himself by thumping decisively and happily down the front staircase. He had such a good chuckle over that, in fact, that he had to pause at the bottom of the steps to catch his breath and clear the little tickle from his throat. Then, shaking his head at this clear emergence of his once-suppressed adolescence, he went out to the barn, grabbing his now dry, down-filled jacket along the way.

~*~*~*~

Between his cheery mood and the increasing practice, it didn't take long to feed the horses, and give them fresh water and a loving scratch to each furry, fragrant head. He returned to the house, stamping the satisfying but still somewhat skimpy snow from his boots, and charged up the stairs to begin the Snowball Event of the Century.

He opened Starsky's door without knocking, preparing to greet Starsky with his most robust version of "Winter Wonderland"...then stopped short, just inside the threshold.

Starsky was sprawled across the bed, his carefree sleeping form an echo of the position where Hutch had found him that first night. He was dressed in an assertively red sweater with reindeer dancing saucily around the middle. A thick wool sock covered one foot; the other was bare, its intended covering forgotten in the dark-haired man's lax hand.

Hutch chuckled, and felt a tenderness pierce his heart. Starsky had clearly used his small reservoir of energy on making his special coffee and waking Hutch. Now he looked like a child who had spent himself on one round of play, and was only refueling. Gently, Hutch brushed the brunet curls from his partner's forehead, careful not to touch the bandage, then silently pulled up the blankets and laid them over the sleeping form.

Quietly switching off the lamp, he began to tiptoe out, then he hesitated and went back toward the bed. He was sure Starsky would be all right...and yet.... Feeling somewhat foolish, but not caring, he drew a second blanket from the chest at the foot of the bed, pulled the comfortable chair from the small sitting area across the room, and settled himself beside the bed. Snuggling into the soft blanket, he thought of all the things he would never take for granted again, from the simple warmth of a bed covering, to the man now gently snoring in front of him. He yawned hugely, allowing himself to sink back into the combined embrace of blanket and chair, and just let his eyes linger.

"You're so different," his sister had observed when he'd brought Starsky home for the first time. "But, as soon as I saw you together, I couldn't envision you separately anymore."

Join the club, Hutch chuckled to himself. On the bed, Starsky shifted and emitted a soft, sleep-blurred mumble. Hutch sat very still, holding his breath without knowing why. But without waking, Starsky merely dropped the orphan sock, scooted until his head was in its proper place on the pillow, and burrowed more deeply under the feathery comforter of the bed. Quietly, gently, Hutch laid his feet on the edge of the bed, careful not to jostle his partner...though he had the strangest urge to drape his legs over Starsky's, the way sleeping kittens tangle their limbs together in the midst of contented slumber.

We are different, he reflected. Starsky was like a kid in so many ways...maddeningly impulsive, and yet so incredibly open to every experience that crossed his path. And though Hutch often pretended to scoff and condescend, he was frequently envious of Starsky's wonder and awe at some of the simplest things. Between his father's rigid exclusion of emotional displays and his own insecurity and fears, Hutch had somehow locked out that kind of full-hearted embrace of the world in all its facets. In a way, he had been like this house—- neatly and deliberately organized and presented, with a fašade that the world could and did admire...and yet somehow yearning for something indefinable and indescribable, and almost unbearably delectable now that he had found it.

He chuckled again, softly. Starsky had charged into his life the way he had into the Hutchinson house: he had respected and appreciated the good and solid things, the genuine intelligence and strength in Hutch, but he had refused to kowtow to the silly formality and distance that had been bred into the blond man practically from birth. Instead, he had cajoled and coerced and coaxed until Hutch found himself participating in some of the most ridiculous activities he had ever imagined.

Or not, actually.

And he had found himself loving every minute of it.

Had he ever believed he was capable of this whole new dimension of caring...of experiencing?

No. And it was entirely possible that it never would have happened, if not for this man who could easily have been taken from him the day before.

Suddenly seized with an absurd lump of tenderness and fear that threatened to burst into tears, Hutch sat up and leaned his elbows on the bed. He tucked a hand that had somehow strayed back into the safe cave of covers, and once again stroked the curls back from Starsky's forehead. Then he relaxed back in the chair, wiggled down until he himself was enveloped in warm softness, and closed his eyes.

Forgetting the snowball fight, forgetting the horror of the night before...and the months before...he let the love and peace in the room carry him away.

PART 3