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Paula W and Hutchrules 3
"Come on, Starsk, it'll be fun, you'll see," cajoled Ken Hutchinson as he slid the car down the Santa Monica ramp onto the Pacific Coast Highway. The early morning weekend traffic was light, and he merged the LTD easily into the flow of traffic. "What an incredible morning," he enthused. "Look at the sky, look at the ocean, look at...."
"Look at your partner asleep," David Starsky grumbled, trying to rearrange his body against the uncomfortably lumpy door. "Why d'we have to do this so early?" he asked, for the fifth time. "The seagulls aren't even up yet." He closed his eyes against the blinding sunlight that was peeking over the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains.
Hutch smiled indulgently, and eased the car into the middle lane. "Take a nap, then," he urged. "We won't be there for a little bit. I'll wake you up."
Starsky nestled his head into the window without a reply, yawning, and rubbing his eyes as he settled in for the duration.
Only two weeks out of the hospital, after having survived a bout with a septicemic plague, Hutch felt as if he had been reborn. No, that wasn't quite right, he thought, re-invented. During the days of his nearly fatal illness, and the ongoing recuperation period, he had come to the realization that "sometime" was a word borne out of laziness and procrastination.
As he lay near death, all the things he had hoped to do "sometime" became cloying, heartbreaking tragedies in his mind. All the things he would never experience, the things he would never see, were ultimately more painful because he simply had not taken the time during his life to stop and do them when he was able.
Hutch was determined that, despite life's uncertainties, he would never fall into that trap again. He would never stop appreciating and embracing each moment, each separate joy, each experience that might never have been. And reveling in the company of the person with whom he was closest, he was going to drag his best friend right along on the adventure, even if it killed the dark-haired detective, which, this morning, seemed a distinct possibility.
Hutch glanced over at him, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. An early morning horseback ride was not something that had ever been on Starsky's "things to do" list, as was evidenced by the man's pained expression when Hutch had proposed the idea the evening before.
"Hutch, do you have any idea how dangerous horses are?" Starsky had asked him. "We could be killed!"
Hutch found this amusing, given their profession, and he tried to assure Starsky that a gallop down the beach was certainly much safer than any of the cases they had covered that day alone. "Besides," he said, taking a bite of pizza, "I know how to ride. I practically grew up on horseback."
Starsky narrowed his eyes. "Are you makin' that up?" he asked.
Hutch swallowed his pizza. "No, I'm not," he said calmly. "I was leading junior hunter rider three years running in the county." His eyes looked dreamy for a moment. "I miss that," he said. "I miss it so much, and I haven't...." He shrugged his shoulders. "I've had plenty of opportunities, there are enough ranches around here, but I just never got around to...." He grinned at Starsky. "Until now. Now I'm going to do it, and I'm taking you with me."
"What? I don't think so, Blondie," Starsky retorted. "You go ahead, and call me when you get back. I'll pick up lunch."
After a half hour of playful arguing, Starsky relented and agreed to go. Of course, there had never actually been a doubt that he would join Hutch on the adventure—these days he found it difficult to refuse his partner anything—but the banter was part of the dance, and came as second nature to them both.
Although Starsky did not share Hutch's penchant for relentless activity, the days spent watching his partner fade in the hospital had changed him immeasurably as well. Rather than stir within him the need to do all the things he had missed so far in his life, however, the lesson Starsky had taken away was to never take anything or anyone, particularly his best friend, for granted.
Watching his partner grow more ill, and being unable to reach him, touch him, comfort him, had broken Starsky's heart. He'd recover from this too, he knew, just as Hutch looked more physically robust with every passing day. But he also knew that there was a scar from the remnants of pain and near-loss, and a lingering sadness inside him, and he wondered if this would ever be healed.
"Starsk?" Hutch shook his shoulder gently. "Starsk, we're here. Come on."
Starsky opened one eye. "You go ahead," he murmured. "I'll catch up."
"No way, Charlie," Hutch grinned. "Come on."
"We're really gonna do this, huh?" Starsky said, stretching and sitting up straight. He ran a hand through his dark curls. "Okay, let's get it over with."
As the two walked toward the barn, Hutch took a deep breath and sighed. "Oh, God, that's wonderful," he said. "There's nothing like the smell of early morning horse."
Starsky wrinkled his nose. "You know, I think I'm allergic to hay," he mused. "Maybe I should wait in the car."
"Y'are not," Hutch said, clapping him on the back. "I'm the one with the allergies. But hay isn't one of them."
"Just my luck," grumbled his partner.
The ranch hand who had taken their telephone reservation the night before, greeted them at the gate. "Morning, gentlemen," he said. "I didn't get the horses ready yet, thought you might want to do that yourselves. What sort of ride are you lookin' for, here?"
"D'you have anything that's so gentle it doesn't move?" asked Starsky hopefully.
"Well, the fence," he said, grinning, "but it's not real comfortable. English or Western?"
Hutch pointed at Starsky. "Western for him," he said, "and English for me. It's been a while for me, though, is it okay if we ride in the ring first before we take them out?"
"Absolutely," the ranch hand said, opening the gate and allowing them entrance. "That way you get to know the horse a little bit, and he gets to know you." He led them through the barn, where rows of horses munched contentedly on their breakfast hay. Stopping in front of one stall, he pointed to Hutch. "I think you'll like this guy," he said, pointing to a tall, black horse. "He's a beaut, not a mean bone in his body, but he can move if you want him to."
Hutch gently stroked the horse's velvety muzzle. "Hey...." he crooned. "Can I go in?"
At the ranchman's nod, Hutch slid back the bolt on the stall door and stepped inside. He began petting the horse, and continued to talk to it softly. "What's his name?" he asked.
"His registered name is Schuyler's Midnight Something or other, too fancy for us, we just call him Sky." the man grinned. "Do you want to tack him up yourself?" He turned to Starsky. "You can help him, and I'll get your horse ready, all right?"
"You want me to go in there?" Starsky gulped. "Uh...."
"C'mon, Starsk," Hutch urged. "You can help me brush him. He won't hurt you, I promise."
"Okay..." Starsky muttered, unconvinced.
A short time later, they led Sky out to the ring, and Hutch checked the saddle's girth for tightness, then swung up easily. He pushed his right leg forward, and tugged on the stirrup leather from his perch.
"What are you doing?" Starsky asked him nervously. "Be careful."
Hutch grinned down at him. "I'm just making the stirrups longer," he said. "These're set for someone with shorter legs than mine."
"Oh, okay," Starsky stroked the horse's muzzle as Hutch began to fix the other one.
Hutch put both feet in the stirrups and pressed his heels down. He rose slightly in the saddle, and stayed that way for a moment, gripping tightly with his knees. "Perfect," he pronounced, sitting back down. He gathered the reins, holding them in both hands, and sat up straighter. "Here I go," he announced with a grin, as he urged the horse out into the ring.
Hutch walked the horse around the ring several times to warm up, and as he passed Starsky at the gate on the third go around, he urged the black horse into a trot, amazed at how natural it felt as he began to post. He knew without checking that he was on the correct diagonal, not surprising really, even after so many years. Bringing the horse back to a walk, he glanced over at his partner, who was watching, awestruck, from the gate.
"Watch this," he said, and nudged the horse into an easy canter.
Hutch was unprepared for the feelings that swept through him with an intensity as strong as the wind that rushed by him. He felt free and unencumbered, in tune with the lithe swiftness of the animal he rode, and peace and serenity began to flood his very being. Why had he waited so long to do this, he wondered.
The horse needed no urging to maintain the steady gait, and Hutch sat the canter easily, barely moving with the fluid smoothness of the motion. He pulled the horse back to a walk at the upper end of the ring, and walked slowly back down to his partner.
"Hutch, that was...that was...." Words failed Starsky as he tried to put voice to his feelings. "You never told me you could do that," he said. "I used to ride once in a while, you said," he mimicked, recalling conversations past. "But that was...that was...."
Hutch laughed happily. "Okay," he acquiesced. "I used to ride a lot. But boy," he wistfully patted the black horse's neck, "I had no idea I missed it so much."
"Well, you were...you look...." Starsky shook his head. "Y'oughta do it once in a while."
The ranch hand approached, leading a large red chestnut horse, big boned, big footed, white blazed, and sleepy eyed. "You can take that one over a jump if you want to," he said to Hutch, indicating an oxer that was set up in the middle of the ring.
Hutch nodded and took up a trot, circling the front of the jump. As he came around toward the others, he picked up a canter on the turn, then approached the fence straight on. Rising slightly in the saddle, and pushing his hands up the horse's neck, he felt all his weight push down in his heels and his calves. He leaned forward, as the horse cleared the jump, neatly tucking its front feet, and landing smoothly on the other side.
"Wow!" Starsky yelled enthusiastically. "That's terrific, Blintz! Ya do that better than you play the guitar!"
Hutch patted the horse again, talking to it all the while, as he wended his way back over to the gate. "Thanks," he said, smiling. "Your turn," he continued as he indicated the large red horse nudging Starsky's neck and sniffing the dark curls.
"Hey," Starsky hunched his shoulders, "that tickles." He patted the horse on the face and looked at the ranch hand. "This guy's real gentle, right?" he asked.
"Absolutely. If you wanna walk he'll walk, if you wanna stand, he'll stand. He's not too much interested in going any faster than that. Maybe a bit of a jog once in a while, if he's feelin' real energetic." He began to tighten the cinch on the Western saddle.
Starsky continued to pat the horse. "Sounds about my speed," he agreed. "What's this one's name?"
"Aw, he's got a fancy name too, he's part Quarter Horse and part Belgian draft...but since he's so red and soft and squishy, we just call him 'the Tomato.'"
Starsky's hand froze on the white stripe adorning the horse's face. "You're kidding, right?" he asked.
"No," the ranch hand replied, puzzled. "Why?"
Hutch was unable to control himself, and burst into peals of laughter that eventually left him weak and teary eyed, and leaning all the way forward, his head resting on Sky's neck. "That's what I...." he started, and broke off as he was overcome with laughter once more.
Starsky gave him a dark stare. "That's what he calls my car," he said. "It's red, with a white stripe, kinda like this," he indicated the horse's blaze.
The ranch hand grinned. ""Prob'ly means this horse is your destiny then," he said. "You ready?"
"Ready as I'll ever be," Starsky said. "Last time I was on a horse I was eight, when my dad took me to the barn where they kept the police horses." Lithe and conditioned, he swung into the saddle easily, despite his fear, and he held on tightly, his lips paling a bit when he looked down.
"Y'all right, Starsk?" asked Hutch.
"Awful high," Starsky replied, "long way down, awful high."
"Just hold the horn there," Hutch said pointing to the front of the saddle. "You won't fall. Grip with your knees, and try to push your heels down in the stirrups. That'll hold you in place, and give you some balance besides."
Starsky glanced over at the front of Hutch's saddle. "How come you don't have one o'these?" he asked, indicating the saddle horn on the front of his own saddle.
"Different kind of saddle," Hutch explained. "Yours is Western, like...oh, you know, a cowboy thing. Mine's English. I can ride Western, but this is how I grew up, so I'm more used to this kind. I just figured you'd like a little more to hang on to."
"You figured right," Starsky said, though clenched teeth. "Are we done now?"
"Not a chance," Hutch grinned. "Come in here and ride with me."
"Uh...." Starsky gulped as the ranch hand opened the gate and led the Tomato inside the ring. He hung onto the horn for dear life.
"You guys be okay?" the man said, shutting the gate. "I'm gonna go work on stalls, 'less you need me here?"
"No, we're fine," Hutch said.
"Okay then," he grinned at them. "Technically you've got an hour, but nobody else is scheduled this morning, so you can have all the time you want. The ring here and," he indicated a gate at the far end, "there's a path down to the beach, over that bluff. You can ride all the way down to where the houses start if you want, horses are used to it, and they won't give you any trouble. Holler if you need anything."
"Uh..." Starsky raised one finger. "You gotta seatbelt for this thing?"
"Uuunnnhhhh...." Starsky groaned, leaning against the frame of the door.
"Hang on, I'm coming, I'm coming," Hutch said, pulling their jackets from the back seat of the car. "Just stay there."
"Got no choice," Starsky moaned, "I can't move...."
With a chuckle Hutch moved to his side, and took his arm. "Come on, Roy, let's get you inside." He unlocked the door with one hand, and pushed Starsky through ahead of him.
"I think I'm paralyzed," Starsky said, through gritted teeth. "Oh my God."
Hutch lowered him gingerly onto a chair. "Just sit here," he soothed, "You'll feel better after a shower and some aspirin."
"I'd have to get better to die," Starsky glowered. "How come you're not feeln' like this?"
Hutch shrugged his shoulders. "I dunno," he said. "I used to ride an awful lot, maybe some of the muscles just stay stretched. I'll go turn on the shower for you." Hutch disappeared into the bathroom, leaving his partner alone to contemplate his misery.
Starsky flexed one leg and winced. How could a two-hour ride on a furry animal with the personality of a teddy bear result in such unrelenting agony? Although he would certainly not admit as much to his partner, at least unless he was under considerable duress to do so, Starsky felt that he and the Tomato had bonded in some inexplicable way. The horse's gentle personality had touched him, and by the last jog they'd made up the beach, he had realized that riding was something he could possibly enjoy from time to time.
He was sure that a lot of this unexpected pleasure was a direct result of having spent an enjoyable and close morning with his partner, away from the sterile walls of the hospital, and the unrelenting tensions of their job. Seeing the glow of health radiating from Hutch's eyes, exacerbated by his utter joy at riding after such a long time, well, it did something to a guy, Starsky thought, made him thankful for all he had, and gave him a feeling of peace somehow.
The fact that his own horse was so gentle and willing had allayed his fears somewhat, at the end there, he had actually jogged without holding on to the saddle, a feat of which he was rather proud.
"Here you go," Hutch offered, holding out a glass of water and two aspirin. "Take these, and the shower's already running for you. You'll perk up. Come on." He put the empty glass on the table, and pulled on Starsky's arm to help him stand. "Thought I'd make lunch," he said, as he steered Starsky toward the bathroom door. "Maybe go walk on the beach after that?"
"You gotta be kidding," Starsky said, but a sharp look at his partner told him that Hutch was anything but. "Hey," he said, softly. "You can't do everything all at once, Hutch, you're gonna wear yourself out. Remember, Judith said you gotta take it easy for a while."
"I don't think taking a walk on the beach is going to wear me out, Starsk," Hutch replied dryly. "Or am I wearing you out, is that it?"
"Well, yeah," Starsky grinned, "but that's not the point." He looked at Hutch seriously. "You need to take care of yourself, Blintz, 'cause I can't go through all that life and death stuff again this soon."
Hutch leaned against the doorway. "Okay," he said. "Point well taken, you're right. I... I guess I forget that the whole thing's been as tough on you as it has on me," he said. "I don't mean to be...."
"You're not," Starsky interrupted. "But we've got plenty of time. You don't have to do everything you wanna do all in one day."
"I know you're right," Hutch acquiesced. "It's just that...."
"I know," Starsky broke in, gently. "I get it. Let me get cleaned up, I'll make lunch, and you'll take a nap. Then we'll go down to the beach. All right?"
"You win," Hutch smiled. "Hurry up in there," he pointed to the bathroom. "I'm hungry, and I," he sniffed at his shirt, "I smell like a horse. I need a shower too."
"You got it," Starsky grinned, closing the door.
Hutch paused for a moment outside the bathroom door, brow furrowing sharply. "Starsky?"
"Did you say...nap?"
Starsky opened the door a crack and peered around it, smiling benevolently at his partner. "Who, me?" he asked innocently.
"Yes, I rode a horse, and stop laughing," Starsky was saying defensively, as Hutch emerged, freshly showered, some time later. Starsky was draped across the couch, the telephone receiver cradled between his ear and his shoulder.
"I have to put up with this from Blondie, but not from you...oh yeah?" He laughed good-naturedly, then dropped his voice, although he did not realize that Hutch was in the room. "Yeah...yeah...no, honest, Kimmy, he's good, he's fine, he's...here," he said, glancing up to see his partner at the foot of the couch. "And he's clean, too," Starsky added with a guilty grin, "for which I am grateful...yes...uh-huh...I will...." He struggled to sit up. "I'm gonna give you Hutch," he said, "'cause I'm hungry...okay...okay...here you go...." Starsky held the telephone out to Hutch. "It's your sister," he said, pushing himself to stand. "She's as bad as you are," and he limped away toward the kitchen.
Hutch took the phone and sat down, not realizing until he did so, how tired he really was. "Hey," he said into the receiver, "Are you done harassing my partner yet?"
"I am," replied his sister, with a familiar, melodic laugh. "Now it's your turn. How on earth did you get him to go riding with you?" she asked.
"It wasn't easy," Hutch grinned. "So what's up? Checking on me again?"
"Well...sort of," Kimberly Hutchinson-Kelly hesitated. "Um, how are you?"
"I'm great," her brother replied. He glanced toward the kitchen. "Well, as great as someone can be who's going to be forced to eat toxic waste for lunch," he added, as Starsky pulled a frying pan from the cabinet. "What's up?" he asked again. "Everything okay with Mom and Dad? I..." he hesitated. "I haven't heard from them."
Kim's reply was nervous, breathy. "Well, you know how it is," she said, "two weeks before Christmas, and they're getting ready for their trip...they've been busy, and...." She took a deep breath. "No," she said, "that's ridiculous. Why am I making excuses for them?"
"Honey, it's okay," her brother soothed. "I know the score." His voice took on a slightly bitter tone. "Their only son almost died, but it was his own fault. If he hadn't been...if he'd...."
"Mom sends her love," Kim said quietly. "She wanted to call, but...."
"I know," Hutch sighed. "So what's up?"
Kim took a deep breath. "Michael has a chance to go to Hawaii," she said. "For three weeks."
"Fantastic," Hutch said. "Can you go along?"
"Well, yes...." she said hesitantly. "But the thing is...."
"You want me to watch the kids?" Hutch squeaked nervously. "Kimmy, I don't know if that's such a good idea...I mean, Jeremy's easy, he's no trouble, he and Starsk like to play the same things, but the baby...."
"No," Kim interrupted, "we'd take the kids, that's not it."
"Well what, then." Hutch looked over at Starsky, making a gesture of relief.
"We're supposed to be staying at Mom and Dad's while they're away," she said, "through New Year's, and, you know, watch the horses, and...the house...."
"Can't you find someone else to stay there?" Hutch asked. "You shouldn't pass up an opportunity like this."
"Come on, Kenny, who am I going to get to stay there for three weeks, and over Christmas, too?" She sighed. "I guess it just wasn't meant to be."
Hutch glanced over at Starsky, who was bent over the kitchen table, cutting up something unidentifiable. He snapped his fingers to get Starsky's attention, but Starsky did not respond, continuing his food preparation as if he were performing delicate surgery requiring intense concentration. Hutch sighed. "It was a mistake ever introducing you two," he said. "What did Starsky say?"
Kim's words tumbled out in a rush. "Well, only that you guys had a lot of vacation time coming, and...he's...you know...he misses snow at Christmas...."
"When?" Hutch asked her.
"Well...Michael's leaving tomorrow, and we...we'd leave in three days," she said. "Mom and Dad leave in two."
"Kim...." Hutch sighed. "Three days, that's not...."
"I know, I know," she said, "but think how nice it would be. The house is great, the lake, you guys could go ice skating, there're the horses...it might be a nice chance for you...get out of L.A., enjoy the holidays...no Mom and Dad here...you'd have a chance to relax and get your strength back...."
Hutch rubbed his forehead tiredly, and looked at Starsky again. This time Starsky looked over at him with a grin. "It's all been pretty much decided, hasn't it?" he asked his sister, although his eyes were fixed piercingly on his partner.
"It'd be good for you, Hutch," Starsky said quietly, from across the room. "You've been through hell." He paused for a moment, shrugging his shoulders. "We've both been through hell."
Hutch nodded. "Okay," he sighed into the phone. "Okay." Christmas in Minnesota, he thought, haven't spent Christmas in Minnesota since.... "We've got to clear it with our captain, but as long as he says okay...call you back with the flight information?" he asked.
"Thank you," Kim said quietly. "I love you."
"I know," Hutch said gently. "I love you too." He shook his head. "You owe me," he said. "You owe me big."
Starsky had moved next to him, and handed him a tall glass of juice. He pulled the receiver from his partner's loose grip. "See that, Kimmy," he said. "I told you he was just a big mushball." He looked down at Hutch. "Drink that," he said. "Hey," he said into the telephone. "You got snow yet?" he asked hopefully.
Hutch raised himself from Starsky's couch, peering blearily at the dim room. "Starsky," he said, his voice heavy with sleep. "What the hell are you doing? It's..." he squinted at his watch. "It's four a.m." A huge yawn took control of his body.
Starsky tossed a heavy flight bag next to the door. "Time to get up, Blintz," he said cheerfully. "Flight leaves in four hours." He wiggled an eyebrow at his partner. "I'll be home for Christmas...." he sang, in his very best Bing Crosby.
"Four hours, are you nuts?" Hutch blinked sleepily. "We're twenty minutes from the airport. Go back to sleep." He flopped back onto the couch, and pulled the blanket up over his face.
"No can do, Hutch," Starsky said, his eyes twinkling merrily. "Please have snow-w-w...and mistletoe..." he sang. He pulled the blanket down to Hutch's chest, and held out a steaming mug of coffee. "Come on, drink this, it'll wake you up."
Hutch's eyes remained closed. "I don't wanna wake up," he said. "It's the middle of the night." He cracked one eye open. "You're out of your mind, you know that?" He hitched himself up slowly, and accepted the proffered coffee.
"Frequently," Starsky agreed amiably. "That's why you love me, I'm zany and whimsical." He picked up his own coffee from the table and took a long pull.
Hutch nodded, but said nothing, deciding that discretion was the better part of valor.
"Do we need to stop at your place on the way?" Starsky asked.
Hutch indicated his bags with a tilt of his head. "No," he said. "I've got everything."
"Which one has my presents in it?" Starsky asked him curiously. "Because prob'ly you should use that one as a carry on, I mean, what if the airline loses your bags or something?"
Hutch laughed, in spite of himself. "Just a big kid, aren't you?" he asked affectionately.
Starsky sat down next to him. "As often as possible," he agreed. He tousled Hutch's already frazzled hair. "You sure you're okay with this?"
"With what? Being railroaded?" Hutch shrugged his shoulders. "Sure...." He looked at his partner. "As if I had a choice."
Starsky grinned back at him. "Love your sister, Hutch, I always have." He paused thoughtfully. "The thing is...after all this...it's like...we're doing something nice for her, but we're doing something nice for us too. We need to get away for a while...do something different. Maybe we'll get snowed in." He looked at Hutch seriously. "You need this."
"You need this," Hutch returned. "You want to get snowed in because I've been dragging you all over Southern California the past couple of weeks and you're tired."
"I'm sure that's part of it," Starsky agreed affably. "But you're a fairly complex person, Detective Hutchinson."
"Who, me?" Hutch asked, taking another gulp of coffee.
"Who else am I talkin' to?" Starsky smiled. "You need this. You need to think about what you've been through, what you're going through now...you need to slow it down. Everything's okay now, it's just that, in your heart, you don't believe it."
"And getting me up at four a.m. is slowing it down?"
"You can sleep on the plane," Starsky assured him. He got up, took hold of Hutch's arm, and pulled him upright. "Come on. This'll be good. I promise."
"Hutch," Starsky whispered urgently. "Wake up."
"Hunh?" Hutch opened his eyes sleepily. "Whassit?" he asked, disoriented.
"Switch places with me."
"Switch places with me."
"I thought you wanted the window," Hutch said, beginning to regain consciousness.
Starsky leaned in and hissed into his ear. "That kid across the aisle from you's been coughing since we flew over Denver." He tugged at Hutch's arm. "I mean it, switch places with me."
Hutch looked at him as if he had lost his mind. "Have you lost your mind?" he asked incredulously. "Maybe the kid has allergies, and besides, Judith said...."
"So humor me," Starsky growled. "Don't wanna take any chances, I just got you back. Come on," he insisted.
Hutch threw up his hands. "Okay, okay, okay...."After a difficult maneuver in the cramped airline cabin, Hutch settled into Starsky's seat and leaned his head against the window. He closed his eyes. "Satisfied? Can I go back to sleep now?" he asked.
"Yeah, sure," Starsky patted his arm. "Warm enough?"
"Starsky...." Hutch murmured. "Stop. Take a break."
Starsky nodded. "Yeah, okay," he said.
Hutch patted him on the knee. "Thanks," he said, ready to doze.
"Uncle Hutch! Uncle Hutch!" A blue-jeaned, green-jacketed blur came flying through the air, and Hutch dropped his flight bag just in time to catch the tornado in his arms.
The force of the leap knocked him backwards into Starsky, and the two of them just barely maintained a semblance of balance. Further complicating matters, the whirling dervish reached out his own arms to include Starsky in his hug, thus binding the three of them together in a stranglehold, with Hutch sandwiched in the middle.
"Starsky!" the tiny voice cried joyfully.
"Ngrhm..." came Hutch's strangled voice, as he was unable to breathe well through the clinch.
Starsky reached around his partner and grabbed the boy by the waist, effectively loosening the child's grip on Hutch. "Jeremy," he said, "Hi there!"
Jeremy buried his head in Starsky's neck, then reached out a pudgy four year old arm to drag his Uncle Hutch into the hug again, but at least this time Hutch's airway seemed safe, thanks to Starsky's quick tactical maneuver.
"Hey, buddy," Hutch murmured into Jeremy's hair. "How's my guy?"
"Your guy's good," whispered the boy.
"How about your sister," came a teasing voice. "Don't I get a hug too?"
Starsky, pressed tightly against Jeremy and Hutch, said, "I don't think we can fit one more in here," and he winked at her over the child's shoulder. "I'm sorry, miss, you'll have to take a number."
"Hug Starsky for a minute, partner," Hutch instructed his nephew, "so I can say hi to your mom."
A quick transfer settled the child onto Starsky's hip, as Hutch opened his arms to his sister. He grinned at her, before pulling her into a hug.
Kimberly Hutchinson-Kelly was as tiny as her brother was tall. Taking her coloring from her mother's Irish ancestors, her hair was a dark chestnut, highlighted with flecks of red, and reached halfway down her back in a long braid. Her eyes were the essence of blue, darker than her brother's, but held the same enveloping warmth that was characteristic of them both.
"Aw, K.J., you look so good," Kim sighed, pulling him close and holding him tightly. She pushed him back to arm's length, took another appraising moment, and hugged him back again. "I'm so glad you're better," she whispered, her voice catching slightly. "I was so scared...and you wouldn't let me come out and help...."
Starsky leaned over and ran a hand down the back of her head. "We couldn't be sure it was safe," he said quietly, "that the antibodies would work, and you've got the babies...."
Hutch released her from the hug, but kept a strong arm around her shoulders. "Starsky's right," he said, "and besides, he took really good care of me when I came home." He smiled reassuringly, and glanced over at his partner gratefully. "Honest he did."
Jeremy leaned over from Starsky's arms to pat his uncle on the cheek. "Uncle Hutch, Mommy said you were sick, your very bad cold is okay now?"
"He is absolutely okay," Starsky answered, bouncing the boy a little on his arm. "I fed him vitamins and pizza, and burritos on the really bad days." He touched foreheads with the child. "You know what time it is, partner?"
"Frisking time?" asked the child, his body wiggling with a smile.
"You got it," Starsky said, setting the boy down in front of him. He made a big show of patting down the child's arms and chest, till he reached Jeremy's jacket pocket. He looked at Hutch with a grin, as Hutch observed the familiar, if peculiar, ritual of greeting.
"What do you think, Starsk?" Hutch asked him, trying to keep his face serious. "Do I need to call for back up?"
"I think he's carrying, Hutch, I'm sure of it," Starsky said, seriously, continuing to pat Jeremy's jacket. "Ah ha!" he exclaimed, reaching into the child's pocket. "Jackpot!" He pulled out three wrapped bars, and started to slip them into his own coat.
"No, no," Jeremy protested with a giggle. "You can't have 'em all." He plucked the candy from Starsky's hand and held them out. He selected one and offered it to his uncle. "This one's for you, Uncle Hutch," he said solemnly. "'Cause it's granola." He handed a Hershey bar to Starsky, and kept an identical one for himself. "An' these," he said to the dark-haired man, "are for you 'n me, partner."
"Deal," Starsky agreed. "Let's dig in, I'm starving,'" he said, ripping the paper off his bar and taking a bite. "There a coke machine around here anyplace?"
Hutch held up the granola bar. "Thanks, Jeremy," he said. "This looks great."
"Mom said you'd like it 'cause it's got miserables in it," he said.
"It's got what?"
Kim burst out laughing. "Minerals, Jeremy, and vitamins."
Starsky snorted and nearly inhaled his chocolate bar. "I think you were right the first time, Jeremy," he said, laughing. "I love this boy," he said to Hutch. He took the boy by the hand. "Come on, kid, let's find the soda."
Kim watched them for a moment, taking in the interaction, then turned to her brother. "Do you know how lucky we are?" she asked.
"Lucky?" Hutch asked. "Are you kidding? In about fifteen minutes they'll be pinging off the walls from all that sugar."
"Oh, I know," Kim agreed. "But imagine what it would be like if our kids didn't get along. Come on," she said, pulling his arm. "Let's go home, dinner's waiting."
Several hours later, Hutch sat in a comfortable chair by the fireplace, five month old Kate asleep on his shoulder. He leaned his cheek against her downy hair for a moment, inhaling slowly, taking in the incomparably heady scent of freshly washed baby. He kissed her head lightly, and stretched his legs out in front of him.
Suddenly Starsky appeared at his side, setting down a cup of coffee on the table next to him. "Here you go," he said easily. "Drink this or you'll fall asleep drivin' us back to your parents' house."
Hutch smiled up his thanks. "Can you believe how much she's grown in two months?" he asked.
Starsky reached down to stroke the baby's cheek. "No, I can't," he agreed. "What a beautiful girl she's going to be. Like her mom." He smiled and sat down on the couch next to Hutch's chair.
"I thought about her a lot, you know, the baby, when I...you know..." said Hutch. "Like, Jeremy would remember me, probably, but Kate...."
"I know," Starsky said, leaning back against the couch. "I thought about that too." He looked around at the warm and comfortable room, sighing contentedly. "I love it here," he said. "You know? It's so different from...."
Hutch nodded. Kim's taste in furnishing and decoration were merely an extension of her own personality. The room was colorful, inviting, and cozy. There was no pretense here. Although the furnishings and artwork were clearly of high quality, they had not been chosen for that reason. Kim had selected each piece carefully, for durability, and comfort, and warmth, and had done it so well that she could feel equally confident entertaining her husband's legal colleagues one day, and building pillow forts with Jeremy the next. It was as if the house adapted to its inhabitants and guests, and tonight it was particularly apparent to Hutch that it had been furnished with love.
"You're right," Hutch said softly to his partner. "I feel the same way. My house—my parents' house...it's like a museum. Always has been."
Jeremy came into the room, wearing blue flannel cowboy pajamas, and carrying a worn teddy bear. Wordlessly he climbed into Starsky's lap and leaned his head back. Starsky put an arm around him, and kissed the tangled curls. "You about ready for bed, kiddo?" he asked.
"Where's your mom?" Hutch asked him.
"On the phone with my daddy," Jeremy said. "He's in Wowwee, you know."
"Wowwee?" Hutch furrowed his brow. "Oh, Hawaii."
"That's what I said," Jeremy told him. "An' we're goin' there tomorrow, you know." He yawned widely. "On a airplane."
"I know, buddy, that's terrific," Hutch said, smiling.
"You're gonna feed my pony, right, at Grandpa Hutchinson's?"
"Absolutely," Hutch assured him. "And Starsky's gonna help me clean the stalls."
Starsky narrowed his eyebrows. "I don't remember agreeing to that," he countered.
Jeremy squeezed Starsky's arm. "It's not hard," he said, "'n you can use my wheelbarrow if you want."
"Okay," Starsky said with an exaggerated sigh. "For you I'll do it." He looked over at his partner. "Hutch, why don't you put Jeremy to bed for Kimmy. I'll take the baby."
"You sure?" Hutch asked, remembering the last time Starsky had held the infant.
At Kate's christening two months before, in a moment of spontaneous joy over his new almost niece, Starsky had swooped the baby up, held her over his face, and said, "Kiss me, Kate," and just as he had lowered her to plant a peck on her cheek, the baby had spit up most of the contents of the bottle that her Uncle Hutch had just fed her, leaving everyone but Starsky in near hysterics.
Starsky's face reddened. "Yes, I'm sure," he said. "V'you got a towel, though?"
"Just don't turn her upside down and you won't need one," Hutch assured him. "Besides, she's sound asleep."
Jeremy hopped off Starsky's lap, and Hutch transferred the sleeping infant to his partner's arms. "There you go," he said, patting Starsky's shoulder. He picked up the coffee cup and took a sip. "I'll be back soon," he promised, and picked up his sleepy nephew, heading for the stairs.
Starsky leaned his head back against the couch, enjoying the baby's warmth against his shoulder. What a long day it had been, he thought, shouldn't have gotten up so early. Of course, it had been a long month as well, he thought, and he laid his cheek against the baby and closed his eyes.
"Do you want me to take her?" Kim asked softly, appearing beside him.
"Hm? No, no, she's fine," Starsky said, opening his eyes with a yawn. He caressed the back of the baby's head, reluctant to relinquish the tiny child. "Sit," he said, patting the couch with his free hand. "Dinner was great," he added. "Thank you. You cook better than your brother."
Kim sat on the opposite end of the couch, tucking her legs up under her. "That was the least I could do. I can't thank you guys enough for all this," she said. "You have no idea...."
"He needs it," Starsky said simply. "He's been to hell and back, and he needs time to regroup." He yawned again. "I think we both do. Besides, he's wearing me out, dragging me all over Southern California."
"Is he okay?" she asked him. "I mean...really okay?"
"I think he is," Starsky assured her. "It's just...what happened was so damned terrifying...for both of us, you know? One minute he was fine, the next minute he was just so, so sick. It seemed like three years till we found Callendar...." He shuddered at the memory. "And I couldn't even...be with him, you know? Couldn't hold his hand, couldn't...couldn't touch him...." He swallowed with difficulty, around the lump in his throat.
She leaned forward and squeezed his arm. "It was horrible for you, sweetie, I know," she said. "I could tell from your voice when you called, even though you tried so hard to...."
Starsky looked at her seriously. "Can I ask you something?" he said abruptly. "I mean, really, honestly?"
"Of course you can," she said, meeting his gaze. "You always can. You know that."
"Why didn't your parents come out?"
She shook her head bitterly. "Because my father...my father...it's all for principle, it's all about respecting him, and his life, and his wishes...and K.J. defied him, and...." She pulled the end of her braid over her shoulder and began twisting it around her fingers. "Like, if he'd been in a car accident or something, I swear to you Dad would've been there in a minute...pissing off the nurses," she said, with a wry smile. "But because K.J.'s being so sick was a direct result of his job...the job that he took when he defied Dad's decrees...." She shrugged her shoulders. "It's ridiculous, and I told him so, but I'm just a girl in his eyes, and nothing I say matters, as long as I keep up appearances, have lots of babies, and meet Mom for lunch at the Country Club when I'm supposed to. Isn't that ridiculous?"
Starsky blinked a few times, his heart breaking for his partner. "But...he almost died..." he said in a near whisper. "How could they not...be so incredibly proud of him, of what he does, what he accomplishes?" He reached up to swipe at his eyes. "I just don't get that," he repeated. "How can they not be proud...and awed...by his goodness, his determination...." Starsky shook his head.
Kim moved down to sit next to him. She pulled his head down on her shoulder for a moment, then kissed him lightly on the cheek. "I don't know," she said, near tears. "But I do know..." she looked at him piercingly, "that you and I love him, and we're proud enough of him for everybody."
Starsky nodded through watery eyes. "I just don't know it that's always enough."
"I know," she said, softly, laying her head on his shoulder. "I know."
"Okay," said Hutch, setting down a glass firmly. "I've read a story, I got you a drink, you peed, right?"
"Yup," Jeremy nodded.
"We always have to remind Starsk about that too, before he goes to bed," Hutch said, grinning, and Jeremy melted into the mattress as his small body was consumed with giggles.
"You're joking, right, Uncle Hutch?" the child asked.
"Who, me?" he asked innocently. His eyes twinkled merrily in anticipation of their next visit with Jeremy. Smart as a whip, that kid, he'd remember to ask Starsky for sure. He sat down on the edge of the bed. "Okay, what else do we need to do here? I'm out of practice." He pulled the covers up around Jeremy and stroked his forehead lightly.
"Kiss goodnight," Jeremy reminded him.
Hutch leaned over and scooped the child up into his arms. "I can do better than that," he said, "kiss and a hug."
Jeremy hugged him tightly. "I don't want you to go," he said, with a curl and a quiver of his lower lip. "Can't you stay here?"
"Aw, Jeremy," Hutch said. "I wish we could, but we have to go to Grandpa's and take care of the horses and your pony. Besides," he said, laying the child back down, "you're leaving tomorrow to go see your daddy."
Jeremy thought for a moment. "I really want to see my daddy," he said slowly, "but I want to be with you and my Starsky too."
"I know you do, sweetheart," Hutch smiled, "but Santa Claus will be looking for you in Hawaii this year, so you have to go. I don't want you to miss any presents. Oh, and hey," he continued, "when you wake up in the morning, you can open your presents from Starsky and me, okay? We gave them to your mom."
"Presents?" the child asked hopefully.
"Of course presents," Hutch assured him. "It's Christmas time, isn't it?"
Jeremy yawned and nodded. "But I will miss you."
"I will miss you too," Hutch answered. "I always do. So does Starsky. Do you know what?"
"Your mom and I were talking the other day, and we were thinking maybe...like, the next business trip your daddy has to take? That your mom could go with him, and you and Kate could come and stay with me."
"And Starsky?" asked Jeremy, rubbing his eyes.
"Sure," Hutch assured him. "He can stay over too, okay? We'll have a great time, we can go to the beach, and maybe the zoo, how about that?" Hutch realized that he was trying to placate himself with plans and promises as much as he was the child. He hated seeing his niece and nephew so infrequently, because of the constraints of time and distance, and they were growing up so fast. So damned fast. And he'd almost....no, he thought, don't think about that now.
"Uncle Hutch?" asked Jeremy, effectively bringing him out of his momentary reverie. "Can I tell you a secret?"
"Of course you can, honey, you can tell me anything, always." Hutch smiled down at him.
"Promise you won't tell?"
"Cross my heart," he declared solemnly.
"I don't..." the child's voice faltered, "I don't think Grandpa likes Starsky. He said...I mean...." Even at four years old, Jeremy knew enough to realize that the words he had overheard from his grandfather would hurt his beloved uncle, something Jeremy would never purposely do.
Hutch pressed his lips together, and blinked slowly, in an attempt to swallow the anger he felt billowing up from inside. His father had no right, none at all to— "Jeremy," he said softly. "Do you like Starsky?"
"I love him," Jeremy replied. "I love him so much."
"Well, so do I," Hutch said, with a smile. "Not everybody likes everybody in the world. Is there anybody you don't like?"
"Well..." Jeremy mused, "I don't like Mrs. Graver at nursery school. She yells all the time and she has a moustache."
"But I'll bet her family and her friends think she's just fine," said Hutch gently. "Everybody likes different things, for different reasons, and even if we don't agree with them, that's just the way it is. I think as long as we like Starsky, and we show him that when we're together, it doesn't matter so much who else does or doesn't. You know?"
"That's what I thought," Jeremy said, turning over, matter resolved. "Starsky plays with me, 'n I love him." He turned back to Hutch. "And I love you too," he offered, holding out his arms for another hug. Jeremy snuggled under the covers. "Night, Uncle Hutch," he murmured, and was asleep before Hutch turned out the light.
Hutch collapsed wearily in the chair next to the fireplace. "Your kid wears me out," he sighed, glancing at Kim, then closing his eyes. "He's so goddamned smart." The fire in the fireplace warmed him, and he stretched out his legs, and yawned.
"Takes after his mom," she said, her eyes twinkling. "Do you want more coffee," she offered, "or will it keep you awake?"
"Nothing could keep me awake," Hutch retorted. He pointed at his partner. "This guy got me up at four this morning. But no, thanks, I'm coffeed out."
"Hey," Starsky said defensively. "You slept on the plane. What're you complainin' about?"
"Except when you were waking me up," Hutch opened his eyes wearily. "Hutch, we have to change seats, Hutch, I have to go to the bathroom, get up, Hutch, grab the stewardess and ask her for another Coke." He winked at his sister. "Prob'ly worse than traveling with Jeremy," he said, and closed his eyes again. "You guys keep talking," he said, waving a hand in their direction as another yawn overtook him. "I'm just gonna close my eyes for a minute."
Kim giggled, and Starsky snorted, and the two resumed their tête-à-tête about Jeremy's proclivities in art at nursery school, and the latest cases the two detectives had been working on.
Hutch only half listened; his mind was still whirling over his conversation with his nephew. How dare his father, he thought angrily, how dare he poison that little mind with pomposity and bigotry and hatred. The kid was only four years old, for Christ's sake.
He recalled bitterly his last conversation with his father, two months before, at Kate's christening. He and Starsky had been thrilled to attend, they'd had to trade with other officers to get the weekend off, and had worked eleven days in a row before they left, but it had been worth it.
Hutch was Jeremy's godfather, and he was utterly delighted when Kim called, late one night, to ask how he would feel about her asking Starsky to stand up for Kate. Starsky, of course, had been thrilled, euphoric, ecstatic...and had told everyone in the squad room about it, as well as most of the suspects they had arrested over the next three days.
The christening had been held at Hutchinson Manor, as Starsky had renamed the property wryly, and the guest list had included friends, family members, and "all the right people" from his parents' social circle. Fed up with the inane conversation, he and Starsky had taken the kids into the library, where he worked quietly on a puzzle with his nephew, while Starsky offered copious verbal jigsaw method advice, as he rocked the colicky, overtired baby to sleep. It was one of those cozy, companionable times that were the very essence of their friendship, and after having listened to the Country Clubbers discuss the merits of Astroturf grades on the golf course, Hutch was relishing this quiet time with Starsky and the children.
Starsky had leaned over his shoulder at one point, pointing down at the corner of the puzzle they were working on, and Hutch had looked up briefly to see his father standing in the doorway. When Hutch looked up again, his father was gone. Later, of course, his father caught him in the kitchen, looking him up and down in disapproval.
"Kenneth, your tie is undone."
Hutch looked down at his dreaded necktie, askew across his chest. "It was choking me," he said calmly, "so I undid it. I was playing with Jeremy."
"So I noticed," his father said, clenching and unclenching a fist at his side. "Kenneth...."
Hutch reached for a glass from the cabinet and filled it with water. He took a sip, even though he was not thirsty, but anxious to escape his father's disdainful stare. "Yes, Dad?" he responded, clipped.
"Just how...close...are you and your...partner?"
Hutch had not been expecting this, and his mouth suddenly went dry. Glad for the glass of water, he drained the cup, and set it down on the sideboard. "Starsky, you mean?" he asked, consciously keeping his voice level and soft.
"Yes. Just what is your...relationship with that...with him?" his father's voice trailed off.
Hutch drew himself up to his full height, standing stiffly as if there were a board pressing into his back. "He's my best friend, and my partner, why?"
"You must be aware of the way it looks," his father said, "the impression that you're...."
"That we're what? More than friends?" Hutch narrowed his eyes and felt his cheeks flush. "We are more than friends, Dad, although not in the way you're implying. We're family. He's Kate's godfather, it's official now." Hutch felt a triumphant smile tug at his lip, but he pushed it back.
"Kenneth, some of my most important clients are in the next room, and I won't have you jeopardize my reputation by bringing home a...a...."
Hutch's mother sailed into the room, looking from one to the other, obviously aware of what was being discussed. "Darling," she said to her son, "please try to listen to your father. It's not that we don't like your friend, whenever you've brought him home he's seemed like a nice boy...but he's...he's not...he isn't like us," she finished, not knowing how else to say it. "And you're...."
"So wrapped up in him, that I'm sure you've lost all perspective."
"I've—" Hutch shook his head angrily. "How dare you?" he asked his father.
"Kenneth, I am sure he is very good at the sort of work you do...on the streets, dealing with the lesser elements...but please, try to respect my feelings in this matter. He doesn't fit in here, particularly when it seems as if the two of you are...."
Hutch licked his lips, which were suddenly dry again. He blinked slowly, the conversation incomprehensible to him. "If you spoil this day for Kim and Michael," he said quietly, "you will have to answer to me." He turned and strode from the room.
"Kenneth, come back here," he heard his father say. "Don't you dare walk out on me."
Hutch was aware that he was being followed, and he slowed his pace as he walked into the living room, where knots of people talked and laughed, and sipped champagne. Kim sat on a chair in the corner, engaged in a lively conversation with his partner, whose back was to him as he approached.
Hutch sauntered up behind him, and in plain view of his parents, wrapped an arm around Starsky from behind, pulling him back against his own chest. Starsky didn't resist; he glanced up at Hutch. "Uh-oh, what's that for?"
"It's...nothing," Hutch said. "Just...nothing."
Starsky nodded. "Trouble in Paradise?" he asked quietly, understanding.
Hutch blinked quickly, and nodded. He let his arm drop from around Starsky, who immediately moved to his side and put an arm around his shoulders, giving a little squeeze to his arm before releasing him. "'S okay, Hutch," he said. "Let it go."
"I am," Hutch nodded again. "I'm...it's okay, just...."
"K.J.," interjected Kim. "Let it go. It's okay."
Starsky grinned up at him, eyes twinkling with affection. "Besides," he said, "your sister likes me, that's all I care about."
Kim jumped up from the chair and threw her arms around both men. "Sure do like you," she said. "Love both of you. Now come on, guys, make this look good, they're watching!"
Hutch leaned in close to her, and whispered in her ear. "You are the best, Kimmy, you know that?"
She squeezed him tightly. "Of course I am, I had you for a big brother."
"Hutch? Hutch? Hutch? Blondie?!"
Hutch started awake, opening his eyes into the face of his partner, who loomed over him, hand shaking his shoulder gently. "Huh? What?"
Starsky chuckled over his shoulder at Kim. "He wakes up good, doesn't he? You should see him on a stakeout, it's a real treat." He leaned down closer, and gentled his voice. "Hutch, it's after nine, I think we should get going."
"Going," Hutch repeated, uncomprehendingly.
"To the manor," Starsky said. "Kimmy's got an early flight, she still has to finish packing. He patted Hutch's arm. "And I think you've had enough excitement for the day," he added. "Time for bed, little boy."
"Yeah, okay, I'm coming," Hutch said, struggling to wake up and sit up at the same time. "What time is it?" he asked.
"After nine," Starsky repeated. "Okay?"
"Yeah, okay," Hutch clawed his way out of the chair, which suddenly seemed to have taken possession of his body. "I hate this chair, Kim," he said, blushing, as he almost landed face first on the rug. "I've always hated this chair, I've just never told you," he added, blushing.
Kim held a bag out to Starsky, as Hutch shrugged into his jacket. "Here's the leftovers from tonight's dinner," she said, "You might as well take them. Oh, and wait a minute...." she waved a finger in the air and disappeared into the dining room for a moment.
She returned, holding out an envelope to Hutch. "Here is the film you promised you'd get developed for me, okay? Jeremy's nursery school Christmas play," she said with a grimace at Starsky, "and I finished out the roll tonight, but they probably won't come out."
Hutch pocketed the film carefully. "Yeah, sure, no problem," he said quickly.
Goodbyes were said quickly and lovingly. The leaving was always hard, for all of them. Hutch ventured upstairs, ostensibly to use the bathroom, but honestly so he could take a last look at his sleeping niece and nephew.
He leaned down and kissed Jeremy softly, then in the baby's room, placed the palm of his hand lightly on the back of her head as she lay sleeping. She stirred, but did not awaken, and he hated that it might be months before he saw her again.
As they walked outside in the frigid December evening, Starsky pushed his partner good-naturedly toward the passenger's seat of Kim's car. "I'll drive, Blintz," he offered. "I know the way."
"Okay," Hutch agreed, slamming the door. "Boy, turn that heat up, it's freezing in here."The short drive was made in silence, and all too soon the Hutchinson homestead came into view. Nice enough house, Starsky thought, as they ventured up the long driveway, but cold, just really cold, and not from the temperature. The house was impeccably clean and well cared for, nothing out of place, but lacked the lived in and cozy feeling of even Hutch's small apartment back in Los Angeles. But that's the way they like it, Starsky thought, don't touch, don't feel, just...don't.
Both men were too exhausted to engage in meaningful conversation. Starsky carried the bags into the house, dropping them in the kitchen, and then joined Hutch in the barn, as Hutch gave the horses their evening grain and hay. "Tomorrow I'll teach you how to do this," he assured Starsky.
"Oh, good," Starsky grinned, "I was so afraid you'd forget."
Back in the house, Hutch passed his parents' bedroom without so much as a glance, although Starsky was aware of the slight jaw tightening that took place as he strode down the hallway. Starsky automatically turned into the guest room he had occupied on previous visits, dumping his bags on the floor and throwing himself on the bed. He yawned widely. "Boy this feels good," he murmured, "I'm exhausted."
Hutch grinned at him, and walked into his own room, his old room, the room in which he had grown up. It wasn't his room anymore, of course, there were no reminiscent traces of the lonely little boy, or the shy teenager who had lived a lifetime inside these walls.
He sat on the edge of the bed and sighed. It wasn't so much that he expected his parents would have kept the room intact, it was more the...the way they'd done it. Clean. Precise. A surgical excision. The day that Hutch announced he was leaving grad school to join the Los Angeles Police Department was the day he was cut free from the family. It was hard not to be bitter sometimes, and he was, although it was something with which he struggled continuously.
He shook off the memories like cobwebs in an attic, rose from the bed and ventured down the hall to his partner's room. "Starsk, d'you need...." He stopped short in the doorway. His partner, fully clothed, bags still where they'd dropped, was sound asleep, sprawled across the double bed with reckless abandon. His breathing was quiet and deep and peaceful, and a mass of curly hair had tumbled across his forehead, making him look like a child who had taken a sudden nap in the middle of rigorous play.
Hutch shook his head, grinning affectionately at the dark-haired man. "Oh, Starsk," he whispered, "you're too much." He yanked off his partner's boots and, not wishing to wake him by pulling down the covers, looked in the closet for something to cover him with. He reached up for a familiar object, and brought down the comforter that had adorned his grandparents' bed during his growing up years. Holding it close to his face, he inhaled slowly, even now the faint traces of his grandmother's ivory soap and his grandfather's after shave were still there, as if they had become part of the fabric. He inhaled again, feeling more at home than he had since he had arrived.
Hutch shook out the quilt, and draped it gently over his partner, making sure he was warm and well covered. "Sleep tight," he said softly, as he turned out the light and closed the door.
"Sleigh bells ring... are you listenin'? In the lane...snow is glistenin'...."
Starsky sat up in bed. "Hutch, what the hell are you doing?"
Hutch appeared in the doorway, grinning. "Who me?" he asked innocently. "A beautiful sight, we're happy tonight...."
"Hutch!" Starsky rubbed his eyes. "Can't a guy sleep around here?" He sat up. "You don't sing Christmas songs, what's wrong?" He gave Hutch a suspicious glare.
"Starsk, it's ten o'clock," Hutch pointed out. "You've been asleep for twelve hours. I've been to town and back already."
Starsky sat up slowly, feet dangling over the edge of the bed. "Why'd you go to town," he asked, yawning again. "We outta milk or something?"
"Nope," Hutch answered, folding his grandmother's quilt and placing it reverently at the foot of the bed. "Needed to pick up a couple of things for today."
"Like what?" Starsky asked suspiciously, standing up and stretching. "What's today?"
"Got a surprise for you," Hutch said, his eyes twinkling merrily. "We're going ice skating!"
"Yup," Hutch said, throwing himself across the foot of the bed. "Ice skating. I checked the pond behind the barn, and it's frozen solid."
Starsky nodded slowly. "Well, Hutch," he said, smugly, that's a real nice idea, you know, but I don't have ice skates."
"You do now," Hutch told him. "Why do you think I went to town?"
"You're kidding, right?" Starsky asked, his eyes narrowing.
"Would I kid about something like that?"
"Sorry, bud, but I made breakfast, maybe that'll get you in the mood. Oh, and I went to the bakery too, there's some cinnamon buns down there."
Incredulous, Starsky sank back down on the side of the bed. "I've never gone ice skating in my life," he pointed out. "What if I break something?"
"You won't break anything," Hutch cajoled. "I promise. Besides, what do you mean you've never been ice-skating? You grew up in New York. What about Rockefeller Center and all that?"
"Hutch, I lived in Brooklyn," Starsky said darkly. "Woulda been an awful long walk." He shook his head, nearly resigned to the possibly fatal, and almost certainly embarrassing day that lay ahead. A ray of hope passed across his countenance. "Did you say cinnamon buns?" he asked.
"That's it, that's it, that's it...." Hutch encouraged, as he skated backwards, pulling his partner along with him. Starsky had a death grip on his arms, and wasn't so much skating, as he was allowing himself to be slid along the slick ice.
"Don't let go..." he murmured shakily. "I'm...don't let go...."
"I've got you," Hutch assured him. "I won't let go. You're doing great."
Hutch tightened his grip on Starsky's elbows, and propelled them another few feet. "That's it..." he said again. "It would be better if you moved your feet a little."
"Huh-uh," Starsky said with a slight shake of his head. "It's slippery."
Hutch laughed good-naturedly. "It's supposed to be slippery," he said. "It's ice."
The laugh startled Starsky and he wobbled slightly, but managed to retain his footing. "Don't do that," he warned. "You know I'm a...."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Hutch finished. "You're a virgin in these woods, I know. Starsk, you can't use that excuse every time you do something different. At least make up a new line." Hutch pulled one hand free from Starsky, pushing windblown blond bangs back from his forehead. "Come on," he replaced his hold on Starsky's elbow.
"Can't," Starsky replied, "Can't think when I'm tense."
Hutch dug his skate into the frozen surface of the pond, bringing them to a slow stop. "What is the worst that can happen here?" he asked seriously. "You'll fall?" He reached up and tugged on Starsky's jacket. "You've got so much padding on here you look like the Michelin Tire Man. You'd probably bounce anyhow."
Starsky pressed his lips together in annoyance. "Hey, Hutch, broken leg, broken arm, broken head, a guy can't be too careful. Let's go over to the side, now, huh?"
Hutch tightened his grip again. "No way. Not unless you get there yourself." He started moving again, pulling Starsky along with him.
Surprised to find himself moving once more, Starsky started slightly, and began to lose his balance. Clawing and grabbing at his partner, the two began a slow motion descent until they landed in a tangle of arms and legs on the ice.
Hutch, unable to retain his composure, laid his head back on the frozen pond, convulsed with laughter.
"I don't know what's so damn funny," Starsky glowered at him, trying to pull a leg free from underneath his partner. "I coulda been killed."
Hutch laughed harder, his breath coming in gasps. "Oh, Starsk, you're a piece of work," he wheezed. He sat up, and tried to pull his partner to a similar position, but Starsky's leg slipped out from under him and the two fell back to the ice once more.
Starsky rolled over on his side, propping his head on a hand, elbow resting on the ice. "Think I'll just stay here," he said. "Why don't you go get lunch?"
Hutch grinned and pulled on Starsky's arm, managing to get him into a sitting position, even though Starsky allowed his body to go limp and didn't help at all. "You can't stay here," Hutch informed him, continuing to tug. "It's freezing, you'll get sick, I'll have to spend all of this vacation waiting on you hand and—"
"All right, all right, all right," Starsky interrupted, waving his hands in acquiescence. "Quit bitching, and help me up. Geez!"
Satisfied, Hutch got to his feet easily, and managed to get his partner to a standing position as well. He pointed to the side of the pond. "We're going over there," he said, "Okay?"
Starsky nodded curtly. "Yeah," he said.
"You're gonna get cold if you sit still, though," Hutch cautioned, "So wrap up in my blanket and you can put yours on top of the log pile there."
"Yeah, yeah, fine, whatever, just get me over there."
Hutch grinned at the barely restrained panic in his partner's voice. "Come on," he soothed, and the two began a slow slide to the edge of the ice. "Honest, Starsk, you could do this if you tried."
"I believe you," Starsky said, as Hutch helped him off the ice. He shook out a blanket and arranged it on top of a tree stump. "Take your time," he said generously, "Go skate. I'll watch you and be proud like your mom used to."
Hutch's smile dimmed slightly. "Not my mom," he said, "but Kimmy...we used to skate together a lot. She's pretty good, she plays goalie, so we had a hockey net set up over there," he waved his hand toward one end of the pond, "and we used to shoot pucks every night before dinner."
"You sister plays goalie?" Starsky asked incredulously.
"Of course she does," Hutch said, as if it were a given of life. "Gotta have a goalie. I was a center. She was younger than me. She had no choice."
Starsky raised his eyebrows and nodded, seeing, in his mind's eye, the tall blond teenager streaking up the ice as he chased after a puck. Hutch hadn't mentioned hockey that much, but as Starsky thought about it, it made perfect sense. This was Minnesota, almost everyone learned the game when they were little, or so they always said on between-period interviews when the North Stars played Starsky's own New York Rangers. "Y'ever want to be a hockey player for real?" he asked.
"Nah," Hutch shook his head. "I wasn't that good, and besides," he grinned brilliantly at his partner, "I wanted to keep my teeth." He reached down and picked up a hockey stick he'd brought along. He reached in his pocket and dropped a puck on the ice. "Watch this," he said.
Hutch spun around and took off, his departure spraying up a mist of ice chips, most of which landed on his partner. He handled the puck up and down the pond, skating backward, forward, shooting the puck, then chasing after it.
Starsky watched him in amazement. It was kind of like the horse thing, he thought, who the hell knew Hutch could do that either? It was such a revelation to watch his long legged partner move with such grace, and even style. It wasn't that Hutch wasn't athletic or anything, because he was. It was more like, when he was in situations slightly out of his realm, this shy, clumsy farm boy occasionally took over his body—causing him to trip, and walk into glass doors. As far as Starsky knew, Hutch hadn't strapped on a pair of skates in years.
"Hey, Hutch," he called.
"Yeah," Hutch said, breathlessly, slowing down.
"When's the last time you skated?" he asked.
"Oh, hell, I don't know, it's been years," Hutch said. "Why?"
"Well, you're, you know...pretty good," Starsky said, smiling.
"It's like the horse thing," Starsky said. "You should do this more often too."
"And where do you suggest that I do that at home?" Hutch said, leaning over, his breath coming in misty clouds. "In Venice? Canals don't ever freeze, Starsk."
"I don't know," Starsky said. "But I'm ready to try again." He got to his feet slowly, and inched his way to the edge of the pond. "Come get me," he said.
"Uh-uh," Hutch teased, shaking his head. "You do it."
"Aw, Hutch...." Nevertheless, Starsky put one tentative skate, then the other, on the pond. Although he nearly lost his balance several times, by taking tiny steps he was able to get himself a few feet from the edge.
"Be better if you didn't try to walk," Hutch said gently. "Let yourself slide a little bit."
Starsky pressed his lips together, and inhaled sharply. The curly head went down in concentration, and he shakily pushed off with one foot, allowing himself to glide a few feet. Afraid to move anything but his eyes, he shifted them over to his partner, who had slid along next to him. "How's that?" he asked.
"Not bad at all," Hutch said. "Pretty good, in fact. Do it again, but with a little harder push this time. I'll catch you if you start to fall," he promised.
"Don't do me no favors, y'almost broke my neck the last time," Starsky muttered, although a quick grin belied the harshness of his words. Starsky concentrated hard and pushed off again. After a few minutes he was able to glide, albeit slowly, the length of the pond and back. He came to a stop in front of his partner. "Hey," he told Hutch. "I'm terrific."
Hutch snorted and tried not to smile. "Not bad," he said, "Not bad." He handed Starsky a hockey stick. "Come on," he said, "let's rag the puck a little."
To Starsky the stick handling was not all that difficult, and as he continued to skate, his form improved ever so slightly, bit by bit. Within an hour, they were skating side by side up and down the ice, passing the puck back and forth, and trading friendly insults with each slap of the stick.
Finally, tired and winded, they sat on tree stumps, wrapped up in the blankets they had brought, and shared coffee and sandwiches from the basket and thermos Hutch had packed.
Starsky swallowed the last of his sandwich. "What else ya got in there?" he asked, pulling the basket closer. "Aw, hey, Hutch, just fruit? Come on!"
Hutch took a bite of his own sandwich, and with one hand picked up a corner of the dishtowel that lay underneath the assortment of apples and bananas he had packed. Wordlessly he pulled out a bag of chocolate chip cookies and handed them to his partner, raising one eyebrow at Starsky's delighted expression.
"Terrific!" Starsky said, excitedly ripping open the bag. "You're a pal, Hutch." He pushed half a cookie in his mouth, and washed it down with coffee. He glanced at his watch. "Hey, it's three-thirty already," he said in surprise.
"Yeah, I guess," Hutch said, looking to the west where the sun was already beginning its descent. "Be dark in another hour."
"Can't believe the day went so fast," Starsky said, leaning back against the tree stump. "And I hate to admit it, but I had fun."
Hutch smiled over at him, relaxing against his own wooden seat. "Me too," he sighed in contentment. "I thought I'd never...all this...." he waved a hand around vaguely, "I'm glad you came with me," he said finally.
Starsky grinned. "Like I was gonna stay home and have Christmas with the Dobeys?" he asked. "Sorry, Blintz, you're stuck with me." He pulled the zipper of his jacket up across his chest.
"Yeah, a little," Starsky admitted, "getting there, anyhow. Sweat's drying...."
"The wind is picking up too," Hutch noted. "I hope it doesn't pick up too much, I thought maybe we could go riding tomorrow."
Starsky nodded, his plans for a morning of reading by the fire unfulfilled. "Okay, just make sure I get the slow one, all right?"
"They're both slow," Hutch assured him. "I thought maybe we'd ride up that path, up that way," he indicated the direction with a nod, "there are a lot of trails by the lake."
"Horses don't skate, do they?" Starsky teased.
"Not yet," Hutch said, "because the lake's huge. It won't be frozen all the way yet, just the top. They'd bust right through it." He sighed contentedly. "Don't take horses on ice anyhow, it's too dangerous for them." Despite his best efforts, he yawned widely, and Starsky couldn't help but smile at him.
"Ready for your nap?" he asked.
"Nah." Hutch yawned again. "Tired from dragging you all over the ice is all. Want to head up to the house?"
Hutch puttered around the kitchen, cleaning up the remains of the light dinner he and Starsky had just finished. As they had eaten lunch so late, neither one was ravenous, so they'd made do with heating up the leftovers Kim had sent along with them the night before. The leftovers were decidedly less in quantity than Hutch had remembered—until Starsky admitted having eaten some of them the night before, munching in the car on the short drive over while Hutch had dozed against the vehicle's window.
"Well, come on, Hutch," Starsky had said when confronted. "Your parents don't exactly lay out the welcome mat for us when we visit. I figured we'd be looking at an empty refrigerator, and a pretty bare cupboard. You don't want a guy to starve, do ya?"
Hutch had given him the expected hard time, although he was forced to agree with Starsky's assessment of the potential supply of sustenance. Unlike Starsky's mom, who laid in groceries by the truckload when her son and his partner were due to arrive, his own parents had apparently not bothered to grocery shop at all before their departure. There were the usual stock items, juice, milk, bread, soup, but it was clear they had removed anything that might have spoiled during their time away, and the freezer was fairly bare.
Hutch realized that this was par for the course anyway; mostly they ate out, at the Country Club, or with clients or friends. Home was not a cozy family dinner type of establishment; indeed it was more of a stopover between engagements.
He felt comfortable and warm and contented now, he was wearing flannel pajamas and his bathrobe, loosely tied, as he did the few dishes, and absently fiddled with the dial on the radio. A hot bath for both he and Starsky, each in one of the many Hutchinson Family Guest Bathrooms, had chased away the chill of the pond and the biting wind. He found himself humming along with the radio...then stopped, realizing that he didn't believe he had ever previously hummed in this kitchen...although he had lived in the house for almost all of his childhood. Suddenly he realized what the difference was. His parents weren't there.
"Hey, Starsk," he called cheerfully through the doorway. "You want some more wine?"
Starsky looked up from his book. "Yeah, sure, thanks," he said, untangling his legs from underneath him.
"Don't get up," Hutch urged. "I'll bring the bottle in."
Starsky settled back into the chair and turned a page of his book absently. He also wore pajamas and a bathrobe, and was warm and toasty, particularly since he had pulled the recliner chair a few feet closer to the fireplace. Something about the scene wasn't right, he thought, and he played it over in his mind. He looks happy, he thought, the picture of his partner in the doorway coming into his mind. And I've never seen him look happy here before. Realization dawned, and he grinned.
Well, the senior Hutchinsons were nowhere in the vicinity, that had to be it. Starsky looked around the room, and despite the lack of comfortable touches—like the ever-present afghans he and Hutch kept on their own respective couches, the place itself wasn't so bad. It didn't seem nearly as chilly and devoid of feeling as he remembered it from previous visits, and it dawned on him that it wasn't the house at all...it was the usual occupants who dropped the temperature in every room by ten degrees. Damn, he thought, that's so weird.
"Here you go," Hutch offered, filling up Starsky's wine glass. Hutch set the bottle down on the end table, making sure there was a coaster underneath it. Then, clutching his own glass carefully, he flopped down on the sofa. A furtive glance around him assured him that there were no disapproving elders in evidence, and with a salacious grin he pulled his feet up on the elegant and expensive Hutchinson sectional. "Feel evil," he said. "I like it."
"Hey, go for it, Blintz," Starsky encouraged him. "They'll never know."
Hutch took a sip of wine. "Oh, sure they will," he said affably. "Wherever they are right now, the hair on the back of my father's neck is standing up. "Melinda, his feet are on the furniture," he said, in a perfect imitation of his father's haughty tone.
Starsky laughed, nearly spilling the wine in his glass. He looked around. "It's not a bad house when it's just you and me, is it?" he asked. "Missing something, though."
"Yeah," Hutch agreed. "Missing food. Sounds like we're gonna have a couple of storms the next few days. A tune up tomorrow, and a whopper on its heels, that might start the next day, or the day after that. We'd better stock up or you'll starve to death."
"Where'd you hear that?" Starsky asked.
"Radio. Oh, and we'd better hit the feed store too, just in case," Hutch added.
"Okay, we can do that in the morning, huh? When's the first one supposed to start?"
"Not till late tomorrow afternoon or early tomorrow evening," Hutch said, arranging himself more comfortably on the couch. "We can do that in the morning, and go for our ride in the afternoon, that okay with you?"
"Yeah, sure," Starsky said. "Oh, and one other thing...."
"We need a Christmas tree."
"A Chr—Starsk...." Hutch shook his head. "Well, there's a real nice artificial one up in the attic, I'll find it for you if you want."
Starsky looked pained. "A fake tree? What are you, nuts? Gotta be a real tree." He drank some more wine. "I'm surprised at you, Nature Boy. Artificial tree, sheesh."
"Can't do a real one, Starsk," Hutch informed him. "They drop needles in the carpeting, they get sap on the walls, they're just messy and inconvenient, and it simply wouldn't do."
"Can we chop it down ourselves?" asked Starsky hopefully.
"Absolutely," Hutch said, as he drained his glass. He picked up the wine bottle and held it aloft. "More?" he asked with a devilish grin.