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Paula W and Hutchrules 3

Part 3

Incredibly for both of them, they slept the day away, waking in the evening only to throw together an impromptu dinner, change clothes, and stumble to their respective bedrooms. Hutch didn't understand why he was so exhausted after sleeping for nearly 24 hours straight, but since his body was still twinging with various aches and pains, he resisted analysis and just succumbed to it. He slept seamlessly, waking from time to time with only vague memories of colors skating across a field of rich, velvet darkness.

He awoke the next morning to a virtual replay of the day before, to the scent of powerhouse coffee permeating his nostrils first, then Starsky's presence, so near Hutch felt his friend's breath stirring the blond strands on his forehead. Then Hutch realized that Starsky was saying, over and over, "Wake up, Blintz...wake up, Blintz...." He feigned sleep, watching through one slitted eye as Starsky paused for breath, set the coffee cup on the nightstand, and began his litany again. Then, when the dark-haired man reached up to yank the covers away, Hutch grabbed both his wrists and neatly flipped him onto his back on the bed.

"Cheater," Starsky grumbled, rubbing his wrists as the blond man rose gracefully to his feet and took a long pull from the cup. Hutch tapped his temple.

"Brains over brawn every time, Starsk," he pronounced, with a slightly smug grin. "Someday you're gonna learn."

"Yeah, and in about twenty seconds you're gonna be eating snow with those words," Starsky predicted, flopping back on the bed. "Get dressed, Blondie. We got a score to settle."

Snorting derisively, Hutch nevertheless obeyed, taking the cup of coffee into the bathroom with him.

It didn't take long for Hutch to shower and dress, and for the two to wolf down breakfast. For two people who had practically been in hibernation for 36 hours, Hutch thought they had indecently hearty appetites. But the eggs were just soft enough, the bacon crisp, and the orange juice chilled to that perfect tartness that actually made waking up worth the effort, so he even restrained his lectures on the cholesterol elements of such an all-American breakfast.

He downed the last dregs of his glass and nudged his partner, who was pursuing the last bite of egg yolk with his toast. "Let's go," he urged, shrugging into his jacket and wrapping the muffler around his throat. "I'm bettin' the horses have an appetite as big as yours."

"Ve' fu'y," Starsky mumbled through his mouthful of eggs and toast, but he rose to his feet and tugged on his own jacket.

The horses were as eager as Hutch had predicted, and it wasn't long before the air was filled with the sound of happy munching. Starsky strolled contentedly up and down the aisle between the stalls, pausing to scratch this one's forehead or comment on that one's eating style. Hutch didn't bother to smother his chuckle as he poured feed into the last bin, and returned the bucket to its resting place. Starsky looked up, and Hutch felt renewed relief surge through him at the robust color and healthy light in his friend's face.

"What?" Starsky said suspiciously.

"Nothin', city boy," Hutch teased. "C'mon, I want to let these guys out...they're probably more than ready for a run around the yard."

Moments later, Hutch had the barn doors wide open, and the horses were venturing into the cool, crisp air. For a moment, they simply stood in the paddock, nostrils flaring busily, feet pawing at the snow on the ground. Then, they suddenly seemed to catch their caretakers' lightheartedness, and as one, burst into play. Snorting, snuffling, they kicked up their heels and romped around the yard, stopping occasionally to drop, roll, then heave to their feet again, crazy white patterns dotting their coats.

Leaning on a fence rail, Hutch grinned at the animals' antics, and heard Starsky laugh out loud behind him. He had to admit, he missed this. There was nothing like going to the beach all year long, or the warmth that let him keep his windows open well into the winter...but he'd forgotten how beautiful snow could be, and how fun it was to watch the horses cavort in it.



"Sneakiness over smarts, Hutch, every time," Starsky said smugly. "Someday, maybe you'll learn."

Hutch brushed snow from the back of his neck, and turned just in time to duck a second missile from Starsky's mittened hand. "All right, city boy," he said. "This means war."

For several minutes, the snow flew, and the horses' frolic increased as if they wanted to join in the game. They nickered to the fence, then dashed away, tails and hooves high. Neither man seemed to gain the upper hand. Starsky's snowballs were perfectly formed and packed; they struck with a resounding thump, then scattered snow everywhere, coating Hutch's front in no time. But making them took time, while Hutch sacrificed style for speed and landed two shots for every one of the dark-haired man's.

At last, they paused, both gasping for breath, hair damp with perspiration. Leaning against the fence, Ben's lips nibbling at his shoulder, Hutch gasped, "Are—you—rea-dy—to—give?"

"No—way," Starsky replied, the words huffing out in clouds of steam. "I got you up against the wall."

"Maybe," Hutch said, pleased that he managed to squeeze two syllables in one breath, "we should—settle this—like gentlemen." He knelt and scooped a clump of snow, then rose to his feet, forming it between his hands. "One shot, winner takes all."

Starsky snorted, but mimicked his partner's actions, then took several minutes patting the snowball here, flicking edges off there, and shaping the ball between his mittens.

"C'mon, Wyatt Earp," Hutch complained. "The rate you're goin', that thing'll be melted before you miss me with it."

"These things take time," Starsky said airily. "I don't want you to lose to anything less than snowball perfection." He held the orb aloft, eying it critically, then nodded. "Okay, it's ready. What's the drill?"

"We stand back to back, here," Hutch said, moving forward and marking an X in the snow. "Then take ten paces, turn, and fire."

"A duel?" Starsky said incredulously. "Do you have any idea what a geek you are sometimes?"

"At least you know what one is," Hutch fired back. "Got any other ideas?"

"Naw, and I'm gettin' cold," Starsky conceded with a shiver. "So no 'do-overs'—one shot and that's it."

"Agreed," Hutch said. "So haul it over here, and let's see who's gonna be the Snowball King."

"Loser makes dinner?" Starsky suggested.

"You're on."

Soberly, they positioned themselves on the X, snowballs held at shoulder level. Slowly, they counted off the ten steps, turned, and prepared to throw. As Starsky drew his arm back, one of the horses gave a particularly spectacular and amusing leap into the air; he burst into laughter, and the ball went wide, missing Hutch by at least six feet. Simultaneously, Hutch's snowball struck his arm with a thump, spraying snow into his face and making him laugh that much harder.

"The winner and still champion," Hutch gloated, striding up to the dark-haired man, who was now collapsed in helpless laughter in the snow. "And I know just which of my favorite recipes I want you to make."

"Aw, c'mon, Hutch," Starsky managed from his supine position on the ground. "That wasn't fair...I was distracted."

"No do-overs," Hutch reminded him, extending a hand to help Starsky up. "Take it like a man, Starsk...I got a new liver recipe I've been dying to try; that'll build up your throwin' arm."

Starsky's laughter choked off as if a switch had been flipped. "Liver?" he echoed, blanching. "Hutch. You know I hate liver. I can't even stand the smell of it while it's cookin'."

"Hey, that was the bet," Hutch told him, suppressing a grin as they headed back toward the house. "Snowball King picks the meal, you make it."

"I never said you got to pick," Starsky pouted. "I just said I'd make dinner."

"True," Hutch conceded. "Okay, how about vegetables?"


"Okay, okay, we'll compromise," Hutch said. "You pick the meat. Everything else is up to me." He stamped his feet, and brushed the snow from his jacket. "Deal?"

Starsky nodded, following suit. "Except dessert," he said. "I'd trust you with my life, Hutch, but never, in a thousand years, with dessert."


It was a meal full of contentment, since Starsky actually grilled a mean steak and Hutch further compromised by preparing baked potatoes in addition to mixed fresh vegetables. Both ate with appetites whetted by the physical activity and the fresh air, and as the sun went down, sat in the kitchen with the lights off and watched the waning light make rainbows in the stirred snow. Hutch was surprised to find that he was still tired; after he smothered half a dozen yawns, Starsky finally ordered him to bed.

"You're makin' me tired, and I wanna read this book," he said. "Go on, get outta here."

"Guess I'm just finally relaxing," Hutch said, reluctantly rising to his feet. "I'll see you in the morning." Starsky, already absorbed in the novel he had picked up from the table, gave an assenting grunt.

At the door, Hutch paused, then turned back. "Hey."

Starsky didn't respond.


Without looking up, Starsky said, "What?"

"I'm glad we did this."

With that, Starsky looked up. "You're welcome, Blintz. Now scram."


Hutch awoke with a small start, not quite sure what had woken him.

He lay in bed for several seconds, eyes examining his surroundings, ears straining for a repeat of any possible aural explanations...but the room was dark and silent.

Dark? Silent?

Where was the moonlight bouncing off the canal, and that streetlight just above the kitchen window that drove him crazy? What about the sounds of cars from the street a block away...or the distant sounds of the beach festivities that somehow never went away, no matter what time of year or night it was?

He sat up and started to throw the covers back...then paused with a frown as he realized he had been sleeping under a blanket and two quilts...and he was wearing a t-shirt in addition to his usual sweatpants.

Then he remembered...he and Starsky were far from the beaches of Venice. At his parents' house in Duluth, in fact, where the temperature had risen to all of 20 degrees the day before, when the neighbors declared a heat wave.

Amused at his own disorientation, he shook his head at himself and started to lie back down...then he also remembered the accident from earlier that week.

He swung his feet out of the bed, yawning and rubbing at a vague ache in his forehead. As soon as his feet hit the floor, he couldn't restrain a yelp at the feel of the cold hardwood. He dropped back onto the bed and crawled to the end of it, where his suitcase rested on a cedar chest. Digging in the dark, he found a pair of socks, pulled them on—then on second thought, dragged on a robe, too.

The air in the room was cold. He sniffled, then wrapped the robe over his chest, braved the floor was much better with the socks on...and padded out of the room.

The hallway was dark, too, but Hutch traversed it sure-footedly, letting childhood memories carry him down the elegant, old-fashioned Oriental rugs, past rare paintings and antique tables holding priceless vases, to the guest room. He carefully pressed open the large, heavy oak door on the right, somehow remembering that the left one had a squeaky hinge, and poked his head inside the room.

He couldn't tell much, though there seemed to be a dark lump somewhere around the center of the bed, which was illuminated only by a small opening in the heavy velvet draperies. The lump didn't appear to be moving; Hutch took this as a good sign but was not about to base his judgment solely on this impression. He crept into the room, going first to the drapes to open them the slightest bit more, and then turned to the bed where his partner was sleeping, examining him closely for any ill effects from his head injury, or the rigorous snowball fight.

In the slender sliver of light, Starsky's face was half-visible, the other half buried deep in a thick feather pillow. His eyes were closed, his mouth half-open, and the smallest snore escaped from the depths of the pillow as Hutch stood there. A white bandage stood out against the dark curls, but otherwise, there was no sign of that wild ride.

Hutch stifled a cough, then watched anxiously to make sure he hadn't wakened his partner. He should have known better; once he dropped off, Starsky was one of the soundest sleepers Hutch had ever encountered. Still, Hutch turned and tiptoed out of the room, rubbing his head again. Since he was up anyway, he decided this might be a good time to go out and take care of the horses...and then, since his throat felt dry and somewhat scratchy, he just might make himself some chamomile tea.

A short time later, he was taking a sip from the steaming cup, and sighing with pleasure. Relaxing, he glanced around the kitchen, thinking it was the one room that hadn't changed at all since he had left here more than ten years ago.

"If that's what you want to do with your life, Ken, then you may rest assured that you will do it without my permission, my blessing, or my money."

The immediate family—Vanessa was at her parents' for the evening—had been gathered around the table for Christmas Eve dinner. Twenty-two-year-old Ken, freshly returned from a triumphant semester at graduate school, was barely able to wait for the main course to be served, for that was the rule in the Hutchinson household: nothing of a family nature to be discussed until the main course was on the table. His father was a firm believer in the adage, "Not in front of the help." Across from him, 18-year-old Kimberly, fresh from her first semester at college, beamed delightedly at her big brother. Unable to restrain himself, Ken had told her everything earlier that day, then sworn her to secrecy as she squealed and hugged him tightly.

Now, full of excitement, proud that he had been admitted to the toughest police academy in California and done it all on his own, Ken announced his plans to his parents.

He had thought his father would choke on his wine.

"What the hell are you talking about, Ken?"

"James, please...there's no need to use profanity...."

"I told you, Dad. I applied to the academy in California and they accepted me," the younger Hutchinson said proudly. "I start in February...and I intend to take the detectives' course as soon as they'll let me."

James Robert Hutchinson, Esquire, stared at his son, the son who had been a shining star and valedictorian of his high school class, who seven months ago had graduated summa cum laude from the University of Minnesota, in addition to winning a fencing championship, who had earned top grades during his first semester in graduate school. The son whom he intended to see in office, or in a corporate boardroom one day. The son who had never, in his twenty-two years on this earth, defied his father or his father's wishes.

The son who had just begun his dinner and then informed James and Melinda that he wanted to be a police officer. In California, of all places.

"And what does your wife think of this?" he asked tightly, his forehead gathered in a dangerous frown.

"She doesn't know yet," Ken replied, his excitement beginning to fade under his father's harsh glare. "I wanted to tell all of you first."

James gazed at his son a beat longer, then returned his attention to his meal.

"No," he said, very simply, spearing a piece of meat with his fork and turning it over. "Melinda," he continued roughly, his mouth turning down in displeasure, "the new cook is terrible...this meat is barely warm. Please tell her to take this back and serve me something that won't give me food poisoning, will you?"

There was no response. At first, James didn't notice the silence; then, taking a sip of wine, he realized that his wife and both of his children were staring at him.

Ken's face was pale, and wore a stubborn expression James could not remember seeing before.

As soon as her husband's cold gaze turned to her, Melinda's eyes dropped, and she bit her lip.

Kimberly's eyes, wide and frightened, darted back and forth between her father and her brother.

James raised an eyebrow questioningly.

"Is there something wrong?"

Ken looked down at his plate, but his jaw moved and set. For several seconds, the only sound in the dining room was the heavy tick of the grandfather clock, then the young man spoke.

"I'm going, Dad."

"You know the rules, Ken," James said mildly. "No one is excused until the meal is over."

Now Ken's eyes shifted back from his plate to his father, and in their gaze James saw something else he had never seen before.


"That's not what I mean," he said firmly.

Under the table, his hands were shaking. But he meant to have this, no matter what his father said.

James sat back in his chair, both eyebrows cocked now, fingers steepled before him. "Oh?" he said archly. "And just what do you mean?"

"The police academy," Ken said, his voice somewhat stronger. "I'm going."

James laughed shortly. "Out of the question," he pronounced. "Now finish your dinner...I can only hope the cook has something more...completed...for dessert." He lifted his fork.


The fork froze in mid-air. Over it, frigid blue eyes contemplated the young man.

"What did you say?"

"No," Ken repeated, ordering his hands to remain steady.

"And just what is that supposed to mean?" The icy tone matched the gaze; despite herself, Melinda Hutchinson shuddered.

"It means I'm twenty-one and I have the right to decide what I want to do with my life." Ken began heatedly, then stopped himself, knowing that getting angry with his father would do him absolutely no good. "Dad, listen...I got my bachelor's, married a great girl in the bargain, and I got into the PhD program at the U," he said persuasively. "I've got all kinds of time to get my doctorate...I want some real life experience for a change."

Once again, James Hutchinson said, "No."

It was not a tone that invited...or even permitted...argument.

Ignoring this fact that he knew all too well, Ken dropped his persuasive manner. "I intend to do it, Dad."

"If that's what you want to do with your life, Ken, then you may rest assured that you will do it without my permission, my blessing, or my money."

Ken's lips whitened, but when he spoke, his voice did not waver.

"Fine, Dad...that's just fine with me."

He pushed his chair back and tossed the snowy white linen napkin onto his plate. As if his movement released some hidden lever, Kimberly jumped up too, eyes spilling tears, horrified at the very thought that he would be leaving.


"Kimberly!" James thundered authoritatively. "Stay out of this." He fixed her with a ferocious gaze that returned her submissively to her seat. "And how many times have I told you not to call your brother by that ridiculous name?"

Kim subsided. Order restored, James turned back to his son.

"Well, Ken, if that's the way you feel about it, I have no wish to stand in the way of your 'real-life experience,'" he said coldly. "Feel free to pack your things and find somewhere else to stay at any moment."

"I'll do that," Ken threw over his shoulder as he strode out the door.

"K.J.!" Heedless of the certain consequences, Kimberly threw back her chair and flew out the door after her brother.

Melinda turned to her husband, eyes wide, mouth open slightly in disbelief.

"Oh, finish your dinner," James ordered.

"But, James...he's leaving," she protested.

"Don't be ridiculous," James snapped, spearing another piece of meat and scrutinizing its color suspiciously. "He's not going anywhere."

But he had.

Hutch contemplated the room as he drained the cup of tea, reflecting on how long it had been since he had returned to this kitchen...and how the memories still twisted his stomach into knots. He smiled somewhat wryly at the idea that his father could make him this uncomfortable even while absent, and then, frowning, passed another hand across his forehead. He seemed to have a headache, which in and of itself wasn't unusual given his tendency to grind his teeth in his sleep. However, it usually went away by the time he really woke up...and he had been awake for at least an hour. He yawned, and rubbed the base of his throat absently, worrying at a little tickle that kept nagging at him there.

Then, suddenly, without a hint of warning, a spasm of coughing hit him.

A cold vague thought brushed over him and he shuddered, shoving it away with all his mental strength.

Everything should be fine, Ken.

Judith. Kissing him goodbye at the airport.

The doctor assuring him in her best medical voice that the plague that had nearly killed him was a one-time thing, a fluke, that his system had absorbed the antibodies and developed them into his very own personal vaccine. The odds of him catching it again, she had told him, were minimal, as long as he took the time to build himself back up.

All the while, the woman's eyes telling him how much she hated to leave.

Just take care of yourself, all right? Don't try to do too much too fast...I don't want to come back here. She had paused. At least...not like this.

For a moment, he thought of how he'd been dragging Starsky all over Bay City...and now do the things he had wanted to do for years, but had deemed himself "too busy." Almost dying had changed his priorities; lying in that damned hospital bed, roasting from fever and feeling the clutch of the virus tighten around his chest and throat, he had sworn that "too busy" would never stop him from experiencing things again.

You gotta slow down, can't do everything at once.

With a set to his jaw that echoed that of the 22-year-old Kenneth Hutchinson, Hutch point-blank refused the notion. It was dust in the house that had been empty since his folks had been gone, it was nothing, he was fine.

So fine, in fact, that he would take advantage of his early rising to go out to the barn and give the horses food and fresh water.

He set himself into quick, efficient motion, setting the cup on the counter, collecting his jacket and scarf from the closet, and pulling heavy boots onto his feet. Opening the side door and making sure it was unlocked, he pulled on the jacket, zipped it up, and wrapped the scarf securely around his neck. He turned the burner on under the teakettle. Then he stepped out into the still-dark winter morning.

Snow was falling in thick flakes, whirling in the whistling wind that seemed to find his ears immediately. It seemed the previous storm had been just a sneak preview, and they were now in for a real Minnesota howler. He hurried through the several inches that were already on the ground, emerged into the circle of light at the barn entrance, and went inside, barely able to keep hold of the door.

For a moment he just stood there in the welcoming warmth, remembering the last time he had taken refuge in this place. He had been eighteen then, just about to graduate from high school, and his grandfather had been ill for some time. His father had insisted on taking him to a hospital in his final days, ignoring Robert's wish to die in his own bed, surrounded by the land and creatures he loved and the ranch he had built from a few acres of land and a tumbledown house. He had died hours after being placed in Intensive Care, slipping soundlessly away with Hutch by his side, clutching his hand, tears streaming down his face.

The family had returned home, and Hutch had veered off to the barn to check on his own horse and spend a few moments collecting himself after the long and saddening ordeal.

To his discomfort, his father had followed him and chosen this moment to lecture him on the unseemliness of letting his feelings show so blatantly at the hospital.

It's just...not appropriate for a young man your age to be...crying like that in public, he had said stiffly, looking very out of place in the open area between the two rows of stalls.

Ken could only stare at his father in disbelief. His own father had died, and James was worried about "the impression Ken has made on the hospital staff." Even at his young age, even with his inherent and persistent desire to please his father whenever he could, he knew there was something very, very wrong with that line of thought.

His horse had poked his head over the stall gate and nudged him. Ken laid his cheek against the animal's velvet jowl, letting the warmth seep into him, and looked up into the trusting brown eyes. In that intelligent gaze, he remembered, he had found more comfort than he ever would in his father's voice or touch...and this made him unutterably sad.

Stop it.

Face drawn at the painful memory, Hutch shook himself. Jesus Christ, you're getting maudlin in your old age, he told himself sternly. You're on vacation, for cryin' out loud, your dad's not here...put it to rest, huh?

He gave the final horse one last pat on the neck, then braced himself for the return trip back to the house.

Back in the kitchen, he pulled off his boots and padded in his stocking feet to answer the teakettle's insistent whistle, turning off the stove and moving the kettle to another, cool burner. Dropping a tea bag into the cup, he poured the boiling water, appreciating the steam that rose to his nostrils. He placed the kettle on a back burner and dipped the tea bag absently into the mixture then, as usual, looped the string around the handle and left the cup on the counter to steep.

Deciding he wanted something a little sweeter this time, he shrugged out of his jacket and dropped it onto the kitchen table with his scarf, then started digging through the cabinets, in search of honey or some other semi-natural substance for his tea. He tried the refrigerator, thinking he might locate a stray lemon...but the only one he found was shriveled and somehow pitiful. With a noise of disgust, he nudged the door shut and went back to the counter to fetch his cup.

He had taken an experimental sip of the tea, and resigned himself to adding a spoonful of sugar, when another spasm of coughing struck him and bent him double. For a moment, he couldn't catch his breath, and he couldn't help the wave of terror that washed over him.

It was several seconds before he recovered. When he did, the thought he had pushed away returned, and hit him with such violence that his knees buckled and he sank to the floor beside the stove.

Sore throat. Headache. Cough.

He touched his forehead with the back of his hand, and realized how warm his skin was; yet, he was trembling with cold and he felt an ominous ache in his lower back.


Sweet Jesus.

He sat there for several moments, thoughts swooping around in his head like distracted bats. He tried desperately to find rational ways to battle the panic, but it wouldn't be checked. All he could think of was the last few weeks, and how he had found a new passion for his life, an appreciation he had never experienced before...and now that joy, that—zest—came back to mock and taunt him. As if somehow, it had not been real, but merely a mask the illness had worn as it waited to pounce when he least expected it.

And it was just like the first time.

One minute, he had felt fine, and he and Starsky had been intent on catching the celebrated hitman who had somehow managed to fly into the city undetected, spread a deadly virus, and make at least one attempt at fulfilling his contract. He had been so focused on that hunt, he hadn't had time to think of tomorrow, or the next day, because he assumed they would be there and he would attend to them when the time came.

Then...slam. Without a warning, without so much as a chill or a hint of fatigue...the call had come in from Judith. Not for him—which should have been his first clue that something was terribly wrong—but for Starsky.

He remembered the look on Starsky's face, how it had changed from teasing pleasure at talking to "the lady doc" to something else, a look Hutch had never seen before. Starsky's eyes had darted back and forth for a moment, the corners of his mouth twitching and then setting firmly, and he had turned away from Hutch. Puzzled, Hutch had waited for his partner to pass him the phone so he, too, could talk to Judith...but Starsky had merely said, "No. I'll take care of it," and hung up.

For several seconds, the dark-haired detective had not moved. Concerned, Hutch laid a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Starsk? You okay?"

Starsky nodded once, then took a deep breath, and finally, turned back to face his partner.

Hutch's frown deepened at his expression. "Something's happened," he guessed.

Not yet trusting his voice, Starsky nodded.

"What?" Hutch urged gently.

Starsky looked away, then back at Hutch again, licked his lips. "Judith said they rechecked the blood samples they've been holding, just to see if anyone who was exposed before turned up with this thing."

"Someone did," Hutch assumed. Starsky nodded. Hutch waited, then when nothing else was forthcoming, he prompted, "Who?"

Again, Starsky was silent for several seconds. Hutch could see his partner struggling for composure, eyes blinking, throat working.

He hadn't needed to say anything more.

And just that fast, his life had shrunk. Not turned upside down, but reduced the way the television picture used to race down to a tiny dot when you turned it off, from the whole city to the hospital...and then to that suffocating room...and then, finally, to that bed where he had felt his life being ripped away with every painful breath and ragged cough. He had been certain, in those last hours that he was going to die...and it wasn't something he had seriously faced before.

Sure, he had been in danger plenty of times, but always with some degree of power in his own hands. This...this had been vastly, terrifyingly different. And he could not describe the gratitude with which he had faced each day after Starsky had found Callendar and the serum had been successfully formulated. He knew he had survived by the barest slice of luck...or at least, he thought he had.

Now, he wasn't so sure.

Enough. He'd been thinking far too much, and the cold floor beneath him was not helping the way he felt. Slowly, somewhat shakily, he got to his feet. Wrapping the robe more securely in an effort to ward off the chills, he turned the light out in the kitchen and made his way back upstairs.

He paused for a moment outside the guest room door; hearing nothing amiss, he went on to his own room. Not bothering to turn on the light, he shed the robe and slipped back into the bed, shivering slightly as he hit sheets that had cooled in his absence. He pulled the covers up close to his neck and burrowed down into the blankets as far as he could. Eventually, the shivering eased somewhat, and he drifted off into a heavy, although far from easy, sleep.


Several hours later, it was Starsky's eyes that popped open, and gazed around fuzzily at the unfamiliar, richly appointed surroundings. For a moment, the dark brows drew together in a frown, wondering as his partner had where he was and what had awakened him. Realization was quick in dawning, and he sat up, reaching for the robe that lay across the foot of the bed. Throwing the covers back, he swung out of the bed and shoved his feet into the sheepskin slippers he had purchased especially for this trip.

Quickly—and, he had to admit, somewhat excitedly—he went over to the draperies and fumbled among folds of material for the cord. The air had a particularly muffled feel, and he hoped it wasn't just the heavy material causing that absence of sound he remembered from his years in New York. Locating the drapery cord at last, he yanked at it impatiently...and was literally struck breathless by the sight that met his eyes.


Thick, enormous flakes of snow fell heavily outside the window, obscuring the view of the Hutchinson ranch. Where last night he had been able to distinguish the garage, the horse barn, and a vast grazing field, now there were only mounds and stretches of white as far as the eye could see, broken only by the trees that looked as if they had been heaped with powdered sugar. Starsky grinned as he moved closer to the window and saw that Kim's car was completely buried. Judging from that, and the drifts on the balcony, there were several inches already on the ground.

He looked up. Judging from the slate gray skies, it wasn't letting up any time soon. His grin widened as he decided that his vague wish for a "good old-fashioned, snowed-in white Christmas" might come true after all. He hadn't realized how much he missed it, after spending more than half his life in California, until he gazed across the picture-postcard landscape and felt that simple joy and pleasure that only nature's beauty can bring.

Particularly when you don't have to drive in it.

He turned away from the window and flipped on the bedside light, grateful that the Hutchinsons had a generator that would ensure electricity even if the rest of the city lost power in the winter storm. Though the idea of being cut off from the world for a few days undoubtedly appealed to him, he had no wish to do it without heat or hot water, not in the midst of a frigid Duluth winter. He rummaged in his duffle bag for a few minutes, came up with his shaving gear and other sundries, then disappeared into the bathroom for a nice, leisurely shower.

Some thirty minutes later, he emerged, clean, freshly shaven, and wide awake. Humming a mixture of Christmas tunes under his breath, he dressed in his customary jeans and t-shirt, topped off by a thick sweater, and sat down on the bed to pull on his shoes. As he was tying the laces, his eye fell on the clock and he paused, surprised to see that it was well after eleven—later than he normally would have slept, and far past the time he would have expected Hutch to be up and about. Of course, at home, everyone was awake once Hutch was—the diminutive size and open floor plan of Hutch's apartment virtually assured that—but "Hutchinson Manor," as Starsky had dubbed it, could have held approximately ten of Hutch's home with room for at least two of the Starsky abode as well.

He headed out of the bedroom and down the stairs, fully expecting to find Hutch in the kitchen, or failing that, in the library reading or noodling around on the grand piano. Surprised at the empty silence that met him in both those places, he went from room to room, wondering where his partner could be.

The more he wandered, the more amazed he was at the meticulously conspicuous consumption that marked so much of the Hutchinson home. Each room clearly had been coordinated around a particular theme, from a dainty floral sitting room with delicate, pale furniture and fabrics, to an obviously masculine den that virtually emanated the scent of cigars and brandy. As Starsky poked his head into a room filled with carefully arranged objets d'art and chairs that looked eminently unsittable, he thought of the vastly different furnishings of Hutch's apartment, which was a hodgepodge of antiques his grandfather had left him and odds and ends he'd picked up during his time in California, and the warm earthiness of Kim's house that sat on the northern edge of the ranch's boundaries. He tried to envision Hutch and Kim living in this museum piece...tried to imagine any child running down the carpeted hallways or thudding down the gleaming hardwood stairs...and failed utterly.

Appearances, he thought to himself, as he returned to the kitchen. Hutch's always said that's all his old man cared things looked to the outside world. He had to admit, it made him somewhat sad to think of Kim and Hutch growing up in this sterile environment, and then he shook himself. Hutch's parents weren't here, the snow was at least six inches outside and fallin' fast, it was almost Christmas, and they were on vacation.

It wasn't the norm, but it wasn't completely unheard of for Hutch to turn off his alarm and crash for a few extra hours from time to time. The week had been more eventful than either of them had bargained for, and if he knew his partner, he'd bet Hutch had been in at least once or twice to check on him during the night. Maybe Hutch was still sacked out upstairs, and would appreciate a little room service.

Having grown familiar with the Hutchinson kitchen, it took him no time to make a pot of steaming hot coffee; he even located a thermal carafe to pour it into. Pleased with himself, he took the carafe and two mugs up the stairs and nudged open the door to Hutch's room.

"Up and at 'em, Blintz," he said cheerfully as he set his offerings on the night table beside Hutch's bed. "It's practically tomorrow, Blondie...plannin' on sleepin' the day away?"

When there was no response, he reached over to flip on the light, and turned back to the bed, thinking he'd whip the covers off and drag his partner up as he'd tried to the morning before...but then he caught sight of Hutch and froze.

He sank down on the edge of the bed and laid his hand on the blond man's shoulder. As he did, Hutch moaned in his sleep and turned away, then was racked with a deep, rattling cough that hurt Starsky's chest just listening to it. He moved his hand up to touch Hutch's forehead, and frowned at the heat and dampness that met his hand. As he drew back, Hutch groaned and turned again, this time onto his back, and his eyes opened.

With a lurch that nearly knocked him off the bed, Starsky saw the look of fever and pain in the pale blue eyes...a look that was all too familiar.

He swallowed.

"Hutch?" he said softly. "Hey, buddy...what's goin' on?"

"Starsk," Hutch said hoarsely. "Woke up earlier...felt like shit...."

"Yeah, ya look it, too," Starsky ribbed him gently, battling his own sense of panic. "What is it?"

"Sore throat," Hutch whispered. "Headache...." He brought a hand to his mouth as another spasm of coughing struck him with such force that the bed shook under both of them. "Cough," he added unnecessarily, bringing an involuntary twisted grin to Starsky's lips. "Think I've got a...fever, too...." He shivered. "Starsk...I'm so cold...."

"Probably just a bad cold," Starsky said with a reassurance he did not feel. "Got a thermometer around anywhere?"

At the moment, Hutch was coughing too hard to reply, but he waved a hand toward a nearby door. Starsky pulled the blankets back up and tucked them firmly around his friend's neck, then squeezed his shoulder once and got up from the bed. Keeping his demeanor casual and confident, he went into the bathroom and closed the door...then sank down onto the commode as his legs threatened to buckle beneath him.

Sore throat. Headache. Cough. Fever.

"His temperature's up...his white count is dropping."

"In other words, he's dying."


No way. There was no way that this could be that, not again. Judith had assured them both of that, that Hutch was immune to a recurrence of the weird plague that had almost killed him. This couldn't be it. It had to be a fluke, a cold, Hutch's system protesting the breakneck pace he'd been driving himself at over the last few weeks, in his desire to taste everything he'd been certain he'd never experience. He'd have a slight fever, nothing dangerous, and after a few days of R&R under the care of one David Michael Starsky, he'd be up and around....

Alakazam, Captain Marvel....

He'd almost been wrong then. What if...?

He shook his head again, and ordered himself to get to his feet, find the thermometer, and go back to his friend, who needed overreaction and conclusion jumping like a hole in the head at this point. Whatever it was, they'd handle it...they'd go to a doc in town if they had to, get a shot, and they'd be on their way in no time. Nothing, but nothing, was going to spoil this recovery time...not this tomb of a showcase home, and not some jumped up version of the common cold.

He had a fleeting thought of the heaped snow outside his window, but shoved it aside firmly. One thing at a time.

He forced a smile to his face and pulled open the bathroom door, returning to Hutch's bed and sinking back down on the side of it. Hutch had half-drifted back into a doze, and Starsky shook his shoulder gently, though he hated to wake him. "Hey, Blintz...hold onto that for a couple minutes, huh?" He slid the thermometer into Hutch's mouth and glanced at the clock beside the bed.

It seemed forever before the requisite minutes were up...and yet, the time that both men could tell themselves it was nothing serious flew by. Starsky withdrew the slender glass tube and examined the level of the mercury...then shoved it under the light of the lamp, not wanting to believe what he saw. He gave a low whistle. "Holy shit, Hutch," he said teasingly, again trying to keep his own composure, "Your temperature's higher than my bank account."

From the sweat-dampened pillows, Hutch started to chuckle, but the sound was swept away by another coughing spell. Starsky swallowed hard, and occupied himself with shaking the thermometer down, returning to the bathroom and running it under cold water, then returning it to its case in the medicine cabinet. As he closed the door, he saw his own stricken face in the mirror, and told himself to stay calm.

"Starsk," he heard from the bed, and he nearly gave himself whiplash turning back to the room.

"Yeah, buddy, right here," he said, crouching beside the bed and taking Hutch's hot hand in his own. "Whaddya need?"

"Maybe...just in case...we should go into town and find a doctor," Hutch said hoarsely.

"That's a good idea, Ollie," Starsky replied with a sigh. "Unfortunately, there's about a ton of snow out there that might get in the way."

Hutch half-smiled. "White Christmas," he whispered. "Got your wish, partner."

"Yeah, well, it coulda waited a few more days...or you coulda," Starsky responded. "Lookit, I'm gonna go down to the kitchen and rustle up some orange juice or somethin'...don't go away, huh?"

Hutch snorted, and for once the sound didn't bring on the racking cough. "Very funny." Then his face contorted in pain, and he clutched the blankets tight to his chest, half-turning away from Starsky once again.

"Just take care of that little sucker...that's twisting my chest into a knot...."

Starsky ordered his brain to stop running that movie, got to his feet, and hurried out of the room.

Tucked under the blankets but still shaking with cold, Hutch finally felt the pressure in his chest lessen, and attempted to ease the tension in his neck and shoulders. Desperately, he tried to draw in a deep breath to help himself relax, but his irritated lungs and throat would not permit it. Despite his best efforts to try to calm himself, he could feel his logic slipping away in the riptide of the high fever and the all-too-vivid memories.

Then Starsky was beside him, setting a pitcher on the night table and pressing a tall, wonderfully cool glass into his hand. "Take this, Blintz," he urged gently. "Least your folks've got plenty of orange juice down in that high-tech kitchen."

As Hutch tried to take a sip of the juice, another coughing spell struck, knocking a generous splash of orange out of the glass and over the sheets and the pillowcase. Starsky moved the glass to the safety of the bedside table, then scooted further onto the bed, edging his arm underneath his partner's shoulders. "Here," he said. "Try sittin' up and see if that helps ya breathe any easier."

With Starsky's help, Hutch was able to rise into a sitting position, still fighting for breath. Starsky held him tightly against his chest, trying to absorb some of the terrible force of the paroxysms heaving through his friend's body, stunned at the heat that was radiating from him.

Finally, Hutch's breathing eased, and Starsky felt his body slump with exhaustion. For a moment, neither of them spoke; they just sat there, Hutch trying to recover from the physical strain, and Starsky trying to sort through possible solutions in his mind.

"Starsk," he finally heard Hutch saying. "Starsk...can you loosen up a little bit?"

"Yeah...sorry," he said, somewhat hoarsely, as he relaxed the arm that was wrapped around Hutch's shoulders. Hutch lay back against the pillows, his face drawn and pale from pain and effort, and closed his eyes. Starsky laid a hand on his shoulder; a beat later, an answering hand slipped out from under the covers and rested on his thigh, heat seeping almost instantly through the jeans to pulse against his skin.

Starsky tipped his head back and blinked up at the ceiling, willing himself again to stay calm.

"Starsk," Hutch whispered, and Starsky's eyes flew immediately to his friend's. "Got any ideas?"

"Fresh out at the moment," Starsky admitted. "That storm they told us about at the hospital musta moved in...there's gotta be seven or eight inches of snow out there, and more on the way." A thought struck him, and he snapped his fingers. "Ambulance," he said. "You do have one of those around here, don't ya?"

Bizarrely, Hutch thought about how Starsky's New York accent always showed itself more strongly when he was under stress and trying to convince Hutch that nothing was wrong.

"Yeah," he murmured, through a throat that felt like sandpaper. "Phone book should the kitchen." He tensed again as pain swept through him, blessedly without a cough this time. "Hate the idea...." he began, as it ebbed away again, but Starsky interrupted.

"Deal with it," he said firmly. "I told you, I almost lost ya once and I'm not takin' any chances." He pulled the blankets back up around Hutch's throat once more, gripped his hand briefly, then went back downstairs.

As soon as he entered the kitchen, he spotted the phone book under a pile of papers on the shelf of a small occasional table. He reached for it, thinking his limbs were moving smoothly and efficiently...only to have that impression completely dispelled when the sheaf of papers went flying in one direction and the thick book in another, landing on the floor with a plop. As he sighed exasperatedly and bent to pick it up, he understood why his coordination was suddenly so Hutch-like...his hands were trembling violently.

Gritting his teeth, he picked up the book and chucked it onto the counter, then clenched his fists and spoke sternly to himself. He knew he was scared, he knew of what, and he knew he had every right to be. But that didn't change the facts. You gotta hold it together, he ordered. Hutch is countin' on you.

Hands steady once more, he flipped open the phone book and rapidly scanned the inside cover. Spotting the number almost immediately, he committed it quickly to memory, then strode over and lifted the receiver, thinking briefly that if the phone service was out they were in some serious trouble.

Luck was with him; the dial tone hummed busily in his ear. He jabbed the numbers for the Duluth hospital, and when it was answered, explained the situation.

The dispatcher at the other end paused for a moment. "Where did you say you were again, sir?" she said, and Starsky thought he detected a note of disquiet in her voice.

"The James Hutchinson residence," he replied briskly. "Uh..." he looked around for a piece of mail or some other item that would have the address on it, "I'm staying here as a guest with their son," he explained, scattering papers again in his search. "I'm not sure what the address is...."

"I know the address, sir," the operator said, her voice becoming uneasy. She hesitated, then continued bravely, "I'm afraid there's no way for us to get out there."

"What?" Starsky heard the yelp of protest bounce off the ceiling and reined himself back in sharply. "What do you mean, you can't get out here? You're an emergency medical service, this is a medical emergency, and you need to get an ambulance out here as soon as possible."

"Sir, please," she said, her tone now somewhat pleading. "I know you're frightened for your friend, but that's a full-scale Minnesota snowstorm going on out there, and the plows can't keep up with what's coming down. The highways aren't even cleared out, and the Hutchinson ranch is a good ten miles from the nearest major street...twenty from the highway. I want to help you, I really do...but I can't get anyone anywhere near your location."

"Okay, okay," Starsky relented, his mind continuing to flip through possible alternatives. "How about this...can you patch me through to one of your paramedics?"

"Yes, that I can do," she said.

"Good," he said with a sigh of relief. "Do it."

There was a series of clicks and whirs, and then a tinny voice came onto the line. "Pierce here...what seems to be the problem?"

"Detective Starsky, here on vacation from L.A.," Starsky said brusquely, hoping his "cop voice" would speed things along. "My partner's here with a bad cough, headache, high fever...and I got no way of getting him out or you in. Got any advice?"

There was a small pause on the other end of the line, then the voice said somewhat testily. "Detective Starsky, we're on our way to a ten-car pileup through a freakin' blizzard, and you're asking me what to do with a case of the flu?"

"It's not that simple," Starsky snapped. "You hear about that plague that was in our neck of the woods last month?"


"Well, my partner had it, and he's only been out of the hospital a coupla weeks."


"And this looks an awful lot like it," Starsky said with exaggerated patience. "Now do you see why this is an emergency?"

Again, there was a pause and a sigh at the other end of the line. Over the wire's hum, Starsky could hear the muted wail of the ambulance siren. He waited, feeling his pulse pound in his chest and his throat, for somebody else to understand just how serious this was.

But this jerk wasn't it.

"Look, Detective, I wish there was something more I could do for you, but there's no way we could get any kind of medical supplies to you way out there. All I can suggest is that you take the normal precautions for a cold or flu, and try to get him to a doctor as soon as the weather clears." The siren's shriek slowed and stopped, and Starsky heard slamming doors and voices speaking urgently, all underscored by the howling of the winter wind. "I'll be right there!" the paramedic said tightly to someone, then returned his attention to Starsky. "I'm sorry, Detective...I really am. Good luck, to you and your friend."

"Yeah, thanks," Starsky said, resisting the urge to slam the phone down. He cradled the receiver, then, in a gesture of helpless fury, swept the telephone and the directory to the floor. As the din from that faded in the kitchen, he stood stock still, fists clenched at his side, forcing himself to think.

Fortunately, portions of the Starsky brain were clearly working as the good Lord had intended, and another idea popped into his consciousness. He dug his wallet out of his hip pocket, and sifted hurriedly through its contents until he located the business card he was seeking. Rescuing the phone, its cord tangled but the instrument otherwise unharmed, he flicked the hook switch to restore the dial tone, then hurriedly punched in the number on the card.

After what seemed like forever, the phone on the other end rang... and rang...and rang.

"C'mon, babe, c'mon," Starsky said urgently under his breath. "Be there, you gotta be there." Finally there was a click, and he breathed a sigh of relief...but his hopes were almost immediately dashed.

"This is Dr. Judith Kaufman of the Center for Disease Control, answering by recording...I'm sorry I'm not available to take your call at this time, but please leave your name and number after the tone, and I'll get back with you as quickly as I can."

Starsky lowered his head as the beep pierced through his hearing. For a moment, he was unable to speak, then slowly, his voice strained, he said, "Judith...this is David Starsky. I'm in Duluth with Hutch, and he's...he's real sick. High fever, chills, cough...just like before. There's a blizzard here and nobody can get to us. Call me here at..." He searched frantically again for the phone number...finally finding it penciled neatly on the telephone itself. He read it off, then repeated it, and paused again. "Right away...hear me, Judith? Call me right away."

This time, he returned the phone slowly and carefully to its cradle, eyes blinking rapidly, shoulders slumping as if they literally bore the responsibility that seemed more and more to be his alone. In less than an hour, his delight in the heavy snow had changed to a dread that lay in his stomach like a soggy lump. No ambulance. No doctor. No one around for miles...or even available for questioning, it seemed. All the services he took for granted in the city were completely out of his reach. And who knew how sick Hutch really was? Maybe it was just the flu...or maybe all their nightmares had come true.

Dammit, Hutch, he thought with a bitterness some detached part of him knew was unreasonable, his fear so intense that it gave birth to resentment at Hutch for putting him in this horrible place again. I told you...I told you to slow it down and take better care of yourself. This oughta be're the one who knows what to do in these medical situations, not me.

He stopped himself then, knowing that being mad at Hutch for doing too much too soon was like being mad at a river for overflowing its banks. That was just how his partner was. Give Hutch an allergy and he'd give you news updates on the hour and milk it for all it was worth. Something like this, and he'd call you long distance to tell you he was fine, he was skiing, it was just a little concussion and a broken leg and a sprained wrist.

There had been only one time when even Ken Hutchinson had to admit things were damned serious.

This ain't no f-fun...and the game is, Hutch is dying.

Memories ripped through Starsky like razors, so sharp that he lost his breath for a moment. When he'd stalked out of the isolation room that day, ripping away the paper gown and mask, he had sworn viciously, that he would never, ever be in that spot again, of watching his friend dying while all of his own best efforts fell short again and again.

And yet here he was. Utterly cut off from the world around him, poised on the cusp of complete helplessness when it came to taking care of his best friend.

No way.

He tapped his fingers on the phone furiously, forcing himself to think, eyes scanning the room for any possible source of inspiration. His glance swept past a gallery of pictures on a kitchen sideboard...then backtracked to one of Hutch with his mother. His eyes narrowed...what a cliché...and then he shrugged; what did he have to lose? He picked up the phone and rapidly punched in a New York number.

To his relief, his mother picked up after only two rings.

"Ma...hey, Ma, it's David."

"David!" Ruth Starsky's delight at hearing her son's voice was immediately apparent, even across the telephone wires. Despite his fear, Starsky smiled, and he couldn't help being grateful that this was his mom, instead of that impeccably groomed woman who sat with a much younger Hutch, both smiling stiffly out of the silver frame. "How are you, darling?"

"Not great, Ma, and that's why I'm callin'," Starsky admitted. Under normal circumstances, he would have engaged in some small talk, a little teasing, and a lot of affection with his mother before getting down to brass tacks, but he was too worried about Hutch to take the time just now. "Hutch and I are here in Duluth, at his parents' house...."

"Oh, right, I remember you said you were going there for Christmas," Ruth said. Starsky could hear muffled thumps in the background, and he imagined his mother cradling the phone between her chin and her shoulder as she busily pounded dough into submission on the counter. "How's Ken?"

"Not great," Starsky repeated with a rueful half smile. "Matter of fact, he's pretty sick."

"You sound worried," his mother said, her tone acquiring a maternal concern that was intended for Hutch as well as her son. "What's the matter with Ken?"

"Chills, cough, headache, high fever," Starsky rattled off. "Remember he had that—that virus?"

That almost killed him, he thought but did not say.

"Well, this looks like a lot like the same thing."

Ruth left the dough at peace for a moment so she could give her son and his dilemma her full attention. Her lively face with its merry blue eyes became somber, as she remembered how frantic Starsky had been when Hutch had fallen ill, not so long ago. "Oh, David," she murmured softly, and her voice was as soothing as the warm hand she undoubtedly would have stroked across his forehead if she had been there. "I'm sure it's nothing that could just be a case of the flu. Everyone's got it here, too...people staying home in droves. Stores are saying it's the worst Christmas shopping in years."

"They say that every year, Ma," Starsky reminded her, wishing she wouldn't climb the soapbox like she always did...but at the same time loving her for trying to shrink this down to something manageable.

"So they do," she agreed, and Starsky could almost see that expressive lift she gave to her shoulder when she didn't agree with you but didn't consider the argument worth pursuing. "So. Bundle Ken up, and get him to the doctor, or a hospital...."

"No can do," Starsky said regretfully. Leaning against the kitchen counter, he looked out at the whirling snow, which seemed, if anything, to be falling even more heavily than before. "We're havin' a blizzard out here, and you gotta go twenty miles from his folk's place just to get to the edge of nowhere. I've been tryin' to reach the doc who treated Hutch while he was in the hospital, but she wasn't in her office."

"What about an ambulance?"

"They can't get through either, because of the snow." Starsky sighed. "And all the paramedics could tell me was to treat it like a regular cold or flu."

"That sounds like good advice," Ruth stated firmly. She knew her son, and she suspected he knew exactly what to do but needed reassurance more than anything else—reassurance and a sense that he wasn't in this thing alone. She gave the dough a final thump and dusted off her hands as if preparing to hunt through the Duluth cabinets herself. "So, tell me, David. What do these rich Hutchinsons have in the house? Any kind of juice at all? Soup?"

"Juice I know for sure," Starsky replied, finding a half-dozen cans of frozen concentrate in the freezer. He located a food pantry and scanned the contents, "And....yep. Cans of soup, all shapes and sizes." He could feel his tension beginning to ease under the capable certainty of his mother's verbal ministrations.

"He's not going to want to eat," Ruth predicted briskly. "But you'll have to make him, because he'll need his strength."

"Ma, you ever tried to make Hutch do somethin' he doesn't want to?" Starsky queried plaintively. "Trust's like puttin' toe shoes on a bull."

"Make him whatever kind of soup he wants," Ruth Starsky ordered, ignoring her son's glibness. "And sit on him if you have to, but make him eat."

His mood improving by the second, Starsky grinned at the image that conjured in his head. "Roger, Ma...anything else?"

"Have they got a vaporizer?"

Starsky rolled his eyes, a sure sign that his natural good humor had returned full strength. "Hell, I don't know...I've been in this house all of a week."

"Don't swear," his mother chided him automatically. "Well, see if they do...and if they don't, take him into the bathroom, close the door, and turn the shower on as hot as you can. The steam'll help clear up his head and chest. He'll feel a lot better, trust me."

Starsky agreed with her wholeheartedly, and his smile grew somewhat lopsided as he recalled a single mother, worn out from the long day at work, nevertheless sitting for hours in a sweltering bathroom with one croupy boy or another...holding him close in her arms, rocking and crooning a soft tune, her caring as much a cure for what ailed him as the waves of steam.

"Start with that," his mother's voice ordered, breaking his reverie, "and keep trying to reach that doctor. She probably knows more about this than I do, especially since she took care of Ken before." She gazed out her kitchen window thoughtfully and her tone grew soft once more. "David?"

"Yeah, Ma?"

"Are you okay?"

The smile wobbled further and grew very, very fond. "Yeah, Ma, I'm fine...or at least a lot better."

"Ken'll be okay," she assured him gently. "Try not to worry."

"Thanks, Ma," Starsky said sincerely. "I'll call you on Christmas."

"Day after," she told him. "The lines won't be so busy."

Starsky's grin became a throaty chuckle. They both knew he'd call her on Christmas, and probably the day after, too. "All right, Ma. Talk to you then."

He hung up the phone, feeling vastly better, comforted in that way that sometimes, only a mother can accomplish. He glanced again at the pictures on the sideboard, and felt a pang of sympathy for his partner, who had probably never had the kind of affectionate conversation Starsky shared with his mother on a regular basis...and indeed took for granted.

It was strange, he thought, dragging a can of concentrate out of the freezer and dumping it into a convenient blender. Most people would have looked at the two of them and considered Hutch the lucky one, growing up in a wealthy suburb in the heart of Americana. With his attorney father, private schools, and a college degree assured, he would have been envied by many as the golden boy of the pair.

Whereas Starsky had lost his father at the tender age of ten, and watched his mother struggle...first with raising him and Nick in an inner city neighborhood, then with the decision to send Starsky to California. It had been the hardest decision she had ever made, he reflected, filling the blender with water. But his aunt and uncle were loving, childless, and they adored young David. In less rough-and-tumble surroundings, Ruth had hoped her son would have a chance at a better life.

Starsky slapped the lid on the blender and jabbed at the "mix" button. Sure, things had been lean, even when he'd come to his Aunt Rosie's; though they were better fixed than the New York Starskys, they were by no means wealthy...not like Hutch's folks, anyway. But for all its material deprivation, the Starsky home had been jam-packed with warmth and noise and people constantly reaching out to each other—sometimes with a hug, sometimes a slap, but still, the contact was there.

Unlike the Hutchinson home, where the overwhelming message was as clear as if it had been posted on every available surface, including the living ones: DON'T TOUCH.

Which made it all the more amazing that Hutch always responded so immediately to anyone in pain, whether it was a victim, a child, or Starsky himself, with a warm and tender touch, that laying on of hands that communicated his caring so completely.

And this was one of those times, Starsky decided, for his partner to get some of that back.

Searching rapidly through the kitchen cabinets, he located another thermal carafe, and dumped the freshly-made orange juice into it. Under the sink, he found a small serving tray, on which he placed the carafe, two glasses, and a bowl of ice. Hefting this, he went back up the stairs and into Hutch's room.

Hutch seemed to have dozed off, but he was restless, twisting back and forth in his sleep, his eyes and mouth twitching, small moans escaping from time to time. Starsky set the tray on the nightstand, and sat on the edge of the bed. "Hutch?" he said softly, laying his hand on his partner's shoulder and rubbing gently until the fevered blue eyes opened and blinked up at him. "Got some stuff for you here...prescribed by Mama Starsky."

Hutch's lips half-twitched into a faint smile, then fell again as if even that took too much effort now. Starsky tried to ignore the waves of heat that poured up at him as he slid his arm under Hutch's shoulders and helped him into a sitting position. He handed his friend a glass of the orange juice, ordered him to "Drink it," and then got up from the bed and went into the bathroom, where he dampened a number of washcloths.

Grateful for the liquid that soothed his parched throat, Hutch drained half the glass as he watched his partner bustle around the rooms. Under other circumstances, he might have protested, might have insisted that his friend go back to bed and rest his own injured head and let Hutch take care of himself. But he was too tired, and too scared, to fight that age-old for a change, he just relaxed and let Starsky take charge and fuss over him.

And, he had to admit as he polished off the glass of juice, it felt pretty darned good.

Starsky nodded approvingly when he returned and saw the empty glass. As he refilled it, Hutch half-smiled at him. "Bet you never thought this was how you'd spend Christmas," he said, his voice husky.

"Bite your tongue," Starsky commanded. "It's still five days before Christmas, Blondie... I'm countin' on you bein' up and around by then." He handed Hutch the fresh glass of juice. "Here. Drink this, and then we're gonna take a little walk."

"Walk?" The glass halted halfway to Hutch's lips as he raised an eyebrow at Starsky's words. "What?"

"Don't try to figure it out, Hutch," Starsky suggested, patting his friend's forehead and face with one of the washcloths. "Just do what you're told, and everything'll be fine."

Hutch snorted, but couldn't restrain a small sigh of relief and pleasure at the blessedly cool feel of the damp cloth on his burning face and aching head. Starsky traded the rapidly warming cloth for a fresh one, gently blotting away the sweat that had accumulated from hours of fever and pain. He repeated the process with the third cloth, then tossed all three onto the table and pushed the covers back. "C'mon."

"Where we goin'?" Hutch asked, nevertheless obeying as Starsky guided his legs to the side of the bed.

"Just trust me," Starsky said, scooting next to him. Draping one of Hutch's arms over his shoulder, and placing his own arm around his friend's waist, he looked up. "Ready?"

"As I'll ever be, I guess," Hutch shrugged. He tried to help as Starsky rose to his feet and steered both of them toward the bathroom, but his legs didn't seem to want to hold him, and they just barely made it.

Situating his friend on the commode, ignoring Hutch's puzzled looks and half-mumbled questions, Starsky closed the door, turned on the shower, and cranked up the hot water. The room was fairly tiny, and it wasn't long before the steam began to billow forth, enveloping both of them in the moisture and heat.

Starsky parked himself on the vanity counter, and wrapped an arm around Hutch's chest, drawing the blond man close against him. For one thing, he wanted to make sure that Hutch wouldn't slip off his seat if he launched into another coughing fit...and for another, he was bound and determined to give Hutch that human contact...that healing, holding power of touch that he knew his partner desperately needed but for which he would never ask. As he pulled Hutch close against his legs, Hutch's hand, still burning with fever, groped up, and clasped Starsky's tightly. In the strength of that grip, Starsky knew that despite his attempts at joking, despite the delirium of the fever, Hutch was thinking about the plague too, and was as frightened as he was.

Before too long, both men were drenched in sweat from the makeshift steam bath, but Hutch's breathing sounded somewhat easier. Untangling himself, Starsky turned off the water, and somehow got both of them back to the bed. Settling Hutch under the covers, he re-wet the cloths and fetched a few towels so he could blot some of the perspiration from both of them.

Hutch watched him with eyes that were a little more alert and comprehending. "I take it the ambulance isn't coming," he said at last.

"Nope, it's me and thee as usual," Starsky said, trying to keep his tone light as he applied the cloths and towels to his friend's face, chest, and arms. "Man, you're soaked, Blintz...if I get you something else to wear, do you think you can change out of these?"

"Don't bother," Hutch said dismissingly. "I'd just sweat through those too."

"Yeah, but it seems like you shouldn't be layin' there in wet clothes...."

"Stop fussin'," Hutch said drowsily. "I feel a lot better."

"Liar," Starsky accused him affectionately. "But it was a killer performance."

"Hey," Hutch said, eyes widening as a sudden thought struck him. "Why don't you call Judith...maybe she can help us out...."

"Already did," Starsky said, picking up the thermometer and shaking it down. "Here." He slipped it between Hutch's lips, and then responded to the question his partner's eyes were asking. "She wasn't there," he explained. "I left a message for her to call as soon as possible."

They sat there again as the seconds ticked by on the clock. Hutch was still struggling for each breath, and Starsky could still feel the fever and see it in his eyes. When he withdrew the thermometer, he had to look at it twice, then shook it down without a word, his lips tightening as Hutch's eyes fluttered shut and stayed that way.

Higher than before. Hutch was cooking inside there, and nothing they were doing seemed to help.

Dammit, what now?

As if on cue, as if for once, something was going to go his way, the phone rang. Somehow, he managed to pull the covers around Hutch's shoulders and sweep the receiver to his ear, all in one motion.



It was only when he heard Judith's voice that he realized just how much he had hoped it was her.

"Judith...thank God."

"You said Ken was sick? What's wrong?"

"Fever, chills, cough...just like...." His voice faltered.

There was a moment of silence on the other end of the line. When Judith's voice returned, it was strong and unwavering, but Starsky didn't know her well enough to know if this were true confidence or just her own brand of bravado. "I'm sure it's not a recurrence, Dave," she said firmly. "We had over 300 cases of this in BC, and not a single one relapsed after they received the antitoxin."

Starsky blew out the breath he didn't know he had been holding. His shoulders, hunched under the tension of both his and Hutch's fear, began to drop...then tensed again at Judith's next words.

"I'm still concerned," she confessed. "He's probably not 100% recovered, and his immune system was pretty severely compromised by the virus." She paused again; then went on, knowing the answer but asking anyway: "There's no way you can get him to a doctor?"

"Nope," Starsky confirmed. "Roads are closed from here to eternity...the ambulances can't even get through."

"All right," and her brisk professional voice returned. "What have you done so far?" Starsky told her about the orange juice and the improvised steam bath. "Good...keep doing that, every couple of hours, but try to get him into something dry afterward," she instructed. "He doesn't need to get chilled again from damp clothes. Do you think you can find some aspirin?"

"Yeah, of course," Starsky said, mentally smacking himself on the forehead for not thinking of that before.

"Two aspirin, every four hours, 'til the fever gets down to something reasonable," she said. "Keep using the cool washcloths, particularly on the pulse points—his wrists, neck, and face. That'll help bring the fever down, too." She paused again, and Starsky could almost hear her mind ticking through a mental checklist, to see if she had missed anything.

When she spoke again, the quality of her voice had changed completely. Gone was the brisk certainty, replaced by that sweet, slightly shy quality that had endeared her to both men from the day they had met her. "Starsky?"


"Can I talk to him for just a second?"

"Sure." Starsky went back to the bed and nudged Hutch gently until his eyes opened. Starsky's heart lurched when he saw that the brief bout of alertness was gone, the blue depths glazed once more. "Judith," he said, gesturing with the phone. "Wants to say hello."

Hutch half-grinned, then took the phone, laying it on the pillow and anchoring it between his ear and his shoulder. "Hey, there," he greeted her, his words faint and hoarse.

"Hey, yourself," she replied, smiling involuntarily at the familiar sound of his voice...and then frowning at the harsh rasp that marred it. "How're you feeling?"

"Marvelous," Hutch lied. "Never been better."

"Yeah, right," she scoffed. "Listen, I've given Dave all kinds of things to do to help bring the fever down. I don't think it's anything too serious, but you need to do what Dave says and take care of yourself, got it?"

"Yes, Doctor," Hutch said drowsily.

"And Ken," she said, her voice catching just a little.


"I...."At the other end of the phone, she smiled regretfully at herself. She was a thousand miles away from him now; more than that once he went back home. There was really nothing more to say, not in that direction anyway...and even if there was, he wouldn't remember it once the fever passed. "Take care of yourself," she repeated.

"Scout's honor," Hutch promised.

"Now let me talk to Dave again."

"Okay." Hutch waved the phone back at Starsky, who took it and walked a few paces away from the bed.


"He sounds like he's delirious," she said immediately, the professional veneer back in her voice. "Get him some aspirin right away, get him into dry clothes, pump fluids into him, and keep those washcloths coming. I'll call you back in a couple of hours to see how he's doing."

"Got it," Starsky said. "Thanks, Judith, I...." He found himself at a loss for words, and settled for repeating, "Thanks."

For the next several minutes, neither he nor Hutch spoke as he found the aspirin in the medicine cabinet, forced two down his partner, and dug through Hutch's suitcase for a dry t-shirt and pajama bottoms. Hutch managed to drag himself out of bed and into the bathroom to change his clothes, while Starsky stripped the bed and replaced the sweat-soaked sheets.

Hutch had to admit, the clean clothes were infinitely more comfortable than the ones he had been wearing, and the fresh, cool sheets felt marvelous as he slipped between them and settled back onto pillows that were newly plumped and sheathed in crisp, dry cases. With Starsky's help, he propped himself back up for a moment and downed another glass of orange juice, and let his partner pat his wrists and neck with the damp cloths.

He closed his eyes, and allowed himself to give his full attention to the fever colors that danced behind his lids. Worries about the future slipped away as the headache began to ease in response to the aspirin. Other thoughts flitted through his head, but he didn't feel capable of examining them too closely, so he didn't try. Images popped up, seemingly at random, of the cottage and ducks on the canal...his greenhouse...that stupid ant farm Starsky had given him for Christmas one year....

His breathing slowed, though it still rattled in and out of his chest, and he drifted off to sleep.

As the storm raged outside, the two men repeated the pattern Judith had recommended. Starsky would wake Hutch, they would somehow stumble to the bathroom, and sit, huddled together, for several minutes while the rivulets ran down the mirrors and the steam rose in clouds from the shower. At first, Starsky rummaged through Hutch's clothes, and eventually his own, to find dry items for them both to wear; then Hutch reminded him that there was a washer and dryer off the kitchen that he could use to provide an endless supply of clean clothes and bed linens. So Starsky would change the bed, then run downstairs to throw a load in the laundry and replenish the orange juice carafe. At one point, he managed to scrounge together and wolf down a sandwich, but Hutch insisted he wasn't hungry and stubbornly refused the soup that Starsky tried to make him eat.

He talked with Judith twice more as the fever remained high, but there wasn't much more she could suggest, and nothing she could offer besides words of encouragement and another human's voice to assure him he wasn't alone. Eventually, the night came and went, bringing with it an eerie surrealism for both men.

For Hutch, it was long stretches of fevered sleep, broken by startled awakenings, drowsy, half-awake moments in the steamy bathroom, and the soothing feel of clean, dry clothes and fresh bed linens. Once, Starsky muttered that it would be easier to move to different rooms in the Hutchinson home than to endlessly change the bed.

From somewhere, Hutch vaguely remembered smiling at this through fever-dried lips, but the cough arrested the laugh that wanted to rise from his throat. Too soon, too soon, he had drifted back into the sleeping place, which had its advantages, since the pain wasn't so bad there...but it was still red hot, with flickering demons from the past popping out of the dark at the oddest moments.

Occasionally, he would lose track of time completely and awake with a start, sure that it was Christmas and he had forgotten to do something. Always then, there would be the cool touch of the damp cloth on his face, neck, and wrists, and the soft, crooning sound of Starsky's voice, telling him it was just a dream, everything was okay, he was right here, buddy, right here....

Each time Hutch awoke, Starsky's heart rose a little, hoping this would be the time when the blue eyes would open and be lucid...but his hope began to wane as the night wore on and Hutch's condition remained virtually unchanged. For hours he sat, straining forward in the chair by the bed, watching his partner labor for breath, as exhausted as if he were helping draw each one.

The only thing that had been worse had been going through this whole thing from outside the hospital isolation ward, forbidden to touch or care for his only to send a simple message in lipstick on the glass.


All the things that message had said...don't give up, I'm here for you, I love you...Starsky now said with ice-cold orange juice and clean clothes...with crisp, fresh pillowcases and dry sheets...with cool, damp cloths and bowls of soup that he made more tempting each time. Somehow, he deciphered Hutch's whispered, feverish instructions and plowed through the snow to tend the livestock. And though his ministrations made no discernible dent in the course of Hutch's illness, it seemed to make both of them feel better, to show them that this time, neither one was fighting alone.

He knew he dozed from time to time, and as the sun began to rise, and Hutch seemed to rest a little more easily, he dropped off for a couple of hours.

When Starsky woke, it was full daylight. Sitting up with difficulty through stiff muscles and an aching neck, he blinked at the clock and saw that it was just past nine. He looked over at Hutch, who was propped up slightly on the pillows. The blond man was asleep, but not soundly; from time to time, his face tightened and he muttered something, in a dry whisper that sounded like dead leaves rattling down an empty sidewalk and made about as much sense.

Leaning over, Starsky pulled up the blankets that had slipped down during the night, and tucked them around Hutch's shoulders. He stood there for a moment, rubbing at the stubble on his chin, and tried to decide what to do next.

The phone rang.

"How is he?" Judith's voice, no preliminaries, beginning to sound a little concerned now. Hutch had been sick for over 24 hours now, his symptoms slowly worsening as the time went on. Without saying, he and Judith each knew what the other was thinking.

He means we have to find an antitoxin in the next two days.

And if you don't?

"Not great," Starsky admitted, pressing the back of his hand against Hutch's forehead. Hutch's eyes opened; with an inward sigh, Starsky noted they were as clouded as they had been the night before.

"What's his temperature?"

"Wait a sec, I'll see."

He, Hutch, and Judith went through the ritual, waiting for the time to tick by until the glass tube gave its report. When Starsky examined the thermometer, he felt a slight surge of hope. "Hey, it's down a little bit," he said. "Hey, Blintz, maybe you're gonna make it through this thing after all...."

Lips turned up ever so slightly, Hutch gave a nearly imperceptible shake of his head...then his eyes drifted shut again.

At the other end, Starsky could feel that Judith was somehow...not relieved. "What?" he barked, more harshly than he intended, afraid of what she was going to say.

"Dave...I don't want to...." She sighed. "Fevers tend to be lower in the morning. This could be a true break, but it might just be the regular symptom pattern. Don't stop what you've been doing, all right?"

"No chance," Starsky said tightly, filing away her comment for later processing. Right now, he was too tired, his nerves too raw, to address the meaning of her statement. Which way things would go would become clear all too soon, he was sure.

"Let's try giving him three aspirin instead of two," Judith suggested. "And get him to eat something. I don't care what, give him whatever he wants, but he needs some kind of fuel to help him fight this."

"He's not eatin'," Starsky told her. "I've been tryin', but he says he's not hungry."

"He has to," Judith said simply. "He hasn't had anything in over 24 hours...and that doesn't help his system any. Try to catch him when he's a little rational and explain that to him...promise him a four-course health food dinner when he's better...use your best guilt doesn't matter how, Dave, just do it."

"Okay," Starsky said, dubious but willing to give it a try.

"Dave...." Judith's voice became apologetic. "Listen, I've got meetings all day long close to the holidays, we're going crazy trying to get stuff in place before people leave on vacation. But I'll call you this evening to see how he is, okay?"

"Okay," Starsky repeated.

"And Dave?"


"Take care of yourself, too," she advised gently. "He needs you...and that means you have to keep your strength up, too. Eat a good meal, sleep when you can, try to duck out for a little bit if it's at all possible. He won't get acutely worse in the fifteen minutes it will take you to stick your nose outside and get some fresh air."

"I'll try, Judith," Starsky promised, though he was as skeptical about this as the possibility of "making" Hutch do anything he really didn't want to. " to you later."

He hung up, thinking it was going to be a helluva long day...and he was right.

The snow finally stopped, but another phone call to the hospital yielded only the news that while the highways were open, the back roads remained piled high with drifts. The dispatcher, who now knew Starsky by name, again promised the worried detective that she would notify the road crew of their dilemma, and send some form of medical help as soon as it was humanly possible.

Starsky roused his partner and got him into the shower, then back into fresh clothes, and settled him back into bed. He threw another load into the washer and trudged upstairs with the latest dry batch. Somehow, he managed to convince Hutch to consume a half-bowl of soup...later, he had absolutely no recollection of how he had accomplished it. He was running on will at this point, like a man who is crossing the desert and focuses only on the next step, never on the expanse of sand in front of him.

Shower. Laundry. Eat something. I fed the horses, Hutch, quit worrying. Take the aspirin, babe. Don't argue with me, just swallow it, then you can go back to sleep. C'mon, wake up, time to go back into the sauna. Coaxing, soothing, cajoling, inserting a note of humor here and there to keep them both somewhere close to sane, feeling absurdly relieved when Hutch chuckled, even though the sound was hoarse and shallow.

Judith called in the late afternoon. Hearing that the fever had not broken—had, in fact, risen over the course of the day to its all-time high—she prescribed another increase in the aspirin. Learning that Starsky had eaten and taken brief catnaps but not left the room since his trek to the barn that morning, she ordered him to hang up the phone and get his butt outside.

"Give Hutch the phone if it'll make you feel better," she cracked, and Starsky couldn't restrain a laugh at the ludicrous notion of his partner stringing together a complete, comprehensible sentence at this point in time. The brief interlude broke the tension somewhat, and he did as she bade, leaving the dozing Hutch with a full glass of orange juice and three freshly dampened washcloths.

He pulled on Hutch's thick, down-filled winter jacket, and wound a soft woolen scarf around his neck. Stuffing his hands into the gloves he found in Hutch's pocket, he unlocked the door and stepped out into the crisp air and brilliant sunshine. Blinking, he gazed at his surroundings and thought, This is where the phrase winter wonderland comes from.

Rays from the setting sun bounced off piles and piles of snow, shooting off glimmers like a million tiny diamonds scattered everywhere around the ranch house. Everything was buried. He could barely make out the shapes of the barn and the garage. Kim's car was somewhere beside the door, but at this moment, he had no idea where. There was no sound. The cold air bit at his face, but after a world that had shrunk to two rooms, one bed, and a washer and dryer, it felt marvelous against his skin. He drew in a deep breath, appreciating the sweet freshness, and blew out the clouds of vapor, and leaned against the wall of the house, trying to think of something else he could do to help his friend.

Abruptly, he flashed onto a vivid memory of Hutch, bracing himself with one hand against the wall of an Italian restaurant, his face glistening with sweat and his forehead furrowed deeply, as if he could generate a solution by the sheer force of his will. He had thought Starsky, lying a few feet away with a bullet buried deep in his shoulder, couldn't see him in that moment of terrible vulnerability and helplessness...and Starsky had never told him that he had. It had moved him beyond words that his friend had fought constantly and ferociously for him...and wanted so desperately to hide it when he had no strength or weapons left to fight.

Somehow, Hutch had picked up his head and gone on...and eventually, they had all gotten through it alive.

In the days that had followed, Starsky had labeled that image "THINK, Hutchinson"...and now, he determined to borrow its fortitude for himself.

He turned and went back into the house.

He heard the sound before he even hit the stairs...and as he crossed the threshold he found Hutch doubled over and coughing, clutching at the blankets as he tried to regain his breath. Without a word, Starsky strode over, climbed onto the bed behind his partner, and wrapped his arms around him, pulling Hutch tight to his chest to absorb the shock of the convulsions ripping through his body. When at last they passed, a spent Hutch leaned back against Starsky, who tightened his hold and tried to keep his growing fear in check.


The hoarse voice caught his attention immediately, and he rubbed his hand up and down Hutch's arm. "Right here, Hutch, right here...whatever you need."

"...gotta talk."

"Not a good idea, Blintz," Starsky said gently but firmly. "Save your strength...'ven if you don't need it, your lungs sure do."

"I mean it, Starsk," Hutch insisted, in what was quite possibly the first full and coherent sentence he had uttered all day, "...humor me...."

With a sigh, Starsky gave his arm a final pat, then released him and climbed off the bed. Hutch propped himself up on the pillows as the dark-haired detective pulled his chair close to the bedside.

"Okay, you got two minutes," Starsky said in his best schoolteacher voice, making a great show of synchronizing his watch. "Shoot."

"Get serious," Hutch ordered, the command weakened considerably by the lack of strength in his voice and the fact that he was not exactly firing with all cylinders at this point. "No Captain Marvel bullshit this time, huh?"

At the reference, Starsky's teasing demeanor dropped. He reached forward and took Hutch's hand in both of his. "I'm listenin', Blintz."

" just, shit," Hutch groaned, groping for the words that were hard enough to find when he wasn't burning with fever. "'re the best friend I've ever had...been better to me than my own family, you know that, 'cept for Kim...."

"Yeah," Starsky said quietly. "Not exactly a news flash, Hutch."

"I know...but...."

Starsky leaned forward. "What, babe?"

Hutch gave up. He could give an entire lecture on why double parking was inconsiderate as well as impractical, he could trap a suspect with seemingly innocent questions and precisely chosen statements, and he could sweet-talk about any woman in the place into letting him buy her a drink. But when it came to telling his best friend how he felt...the words just wouldn't come. It wasn't how he did things, and his brain was too damned tired to learn new tricks right now. Tears spilled out of his eyes and burned hot trails down the side of his face.

"Hutch...." Nearly in tears himself, Starsky grabbed a tissue from the nightstand and tried to staunch the flow.

"Don't," Hutch protested weakly, attempting to brush his hand away. "Give it to me...I can do it." He shivered. "Dammit," he muttered. "I think I'd feel all right if I weren't so damned cold."

"Yeah, right," Starsky said, relinquishing the tissue and snorting at the idea that a warm blanket would take care of everything.

On second thought....

He got up and hurried out of the room. "Don't go 'way," he tossed over his shoulder at Hutch. "I got an idea."

Hutch managed to do a reasonable job of wiping away the tears. As he crumpled the tissue in his hand and leaned back with a sigh, Starsky re-entered the room, carrying something folded in his hands. He unfolded it and spread it tenderly over his partner...and Hutch realized that it was his grandfather's quilt. The tears threatened again as Starsky leaned over him to tuck the quilt around his other side.

Hutch closed his eyes and inhaled, breathing in the scents of his grandfather and his best friend, enveloped by the real and remembered of those who loved him unconditionally.

"There," Starsky said softly. "That oughta do the trick."

Hutch's eyes struggled open. He began to speak.

"Just go with it, Hutch," Starsky urged, sinking back into the chair and covering his partner's hand. "I gotta feeling we're comin' down the homestretch."

Hutch's eyes fluttered, then closed.

Absolutely drained, Starsky leaned back in the chair and rubbed his forehead with his hands, trying vainly to rub some life back into his numb brain, which had shut down long ago and was now working on autopilot. His eyelids drooped...snapped open once...then dropped again. The thick dark lashes remained on the cheeks nearly as pale as his partner's, and his breathing became slow and even.