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Paula W and Hutchrules 3

Part 4

Hours later, Starsky sat up abruptly, not sure what had nudged him awake. He looked around the room, squinting, trying to identify the room in the dim morning light, trying to remember where he was and what he was doing there. Then everything came back in a rush as he heard Hutch's ragged breathing...and heard his friend mumble in his sleep.

Rising silently from the chair, Starsky leaned over the bed and tugged at the quilt his friend had shoved away in his sleep. Moving slowly and carefully, he pulled the cover back up to Hutch's shoulders, then paused, frowning. Hutch was absolutely soaked, drenched in perspiration that had seeped through the t-shirt he wore, as well as the sheet and much of the blanket that covered him. Though he'd been sweating throughout the last two days, this somehow had a different quality to it, as if....

Starsky pressed the back of his hand to Hutch's forehead.

Did it...? Was it...?

He pressed harder, and Hutch's eyes opened.

"Starsk...what're you...."

Starsky could swear his friend's eyes looked clearer.

"Don't go away," he ordered the bewildered Hutch. Hands trembling, he removed the thermometer from its case and shook it down, then inserted it between Hutch's lips.

Twenty minutes later, Starsky had completed another round of changing the bed linens while Hutch exchanged his damp clothes for clean, dry ones. Once again leaving his friend with a full glass of fresh orange juice, Starsky headed back downstairs. Grabbing Hutch's jacket and scarf from the kitchen table, he burst through the door and out into the snow.

He headed for the barn first to take care of the horses again, this time enjoying their warmth and seeing the appeal in what Hutch called, "that horsey smell." Having finished this very serious responsibility, he closed the barn doors and let loose, unable to restrain his tremendous, unspeakable relief.

Whooping at the top of his lungs, he tramped around in the snow until his toes reminded him that he had forgotten to put on boots and sneakers were hardly appropriate for an icy Duluth morning and several inches of snow. Shivering, he waded back to the steps and onto the porch, where he stamped his feet to shake off some of the snow and get his blood moving again.

Then, on a whim born as much from his own exhausted stupor as any conscious thought, he flew back down the steps to the yard. Somehow, he managed to find a spot where the snow was not so deep, and dropped himself backward into its soft embrace. Wincing as the cold wetness hit the back of his head, he nevertheless swept his arms and legs back and forth, in that movement children have emulated for centuries.

When he went back inside, he was covered with snow from head to toe and grinning from ear to ear...and a somewhat lopsided snow angel adorned the Hutchinson side lawn.

Upstairs, Hutch heard the commotion...and smiled before he drifted back to sleep. He didn't hear Starsky return to check on him before going back to the guest room for the first time in over 48 hours.


Each exhausted in their own way, the two men slept soundly through the rest of the day, and woke only when an insistent ringing of the doorbell pealed through the house.

Starsky staggered out of his bed. Pulling on his bathrobe, shoving his feet into his slippers, he stumbled down the stairs and yanked open the front door. "Will you keep it down?" he hissed at the figure on the porch. "We gotta sick man here, for cryin' out loud."

The young man on the porch raised his eyebrows. "I know that, Mr. Starsky," he said politely. He indicated the boxes he held in his hands. "That's why I'm here...Ben Pierce, from the EMT squad?"

"Right, Mr. Charm and Delight," Starsky grumbled, holding his bathrobe closed with one hand while he stepped back and gestured the paramedic in with a jerk of his head. "C'mon in; he's upstairs."

"Sorry about the static the other day," Pierce apologized as they climbed the great curving staircase to the second floor. "I was a little overwhelmed."

Starsky thawed enough to smile grudgingly. "Yeah, there was a lotta that goin' around," he conceded. He pushed open the door to Hutch's room and led the paramedic to the bed. "Hey, Blondie, time to shake it awake," he said, shaking Hutch gently to wake him. "Second string's here...guess they wanna verify you're alive so they can grab all the glory."

Hutch's eyes opened, and Starsky breathed a sigh of relief when he saw they were clear, free of the fever blur that had clouded them for the last 48 hours.

"Hey, Ken," Ben greeted Hutch quietly, moving close to the bed. "Heard you got knocked down by a nasty virus...mind if I take a look at you?"

"Sure, why not," Hutch said with a lazy yawn. "Might as well get the Good Housekeeping seal of approval."

Starsky decided this was a good time for him to go out to the barn, give the horses their breakfast, and brave the task of mucking out the stalls. Not being practiced in this, it took him a while, and he was winded and already sore by the time he mounted the side porch. Stamping the snow from his feet, he entered the house to find Pierce in the kitchen, just pouring himself a cup of coffee.

"Hope you don't mind," he said in response to Starsky's questioning look. "Ken said it would be all right to make a pot of's a long drive back to civilization from here."

"Tell me about it," Starsky said with feeling. "Think I'll join you."

There was silence for a few moments while the two men added sugar and milk to their respective cups. Starsky sank down at the kitchen table with a sigh, cupping his hands around the hot cup and resting his tired feet and legs with a sigh of relief. "So," he began conversationally, having drained half his cup with one pull. "How is he?"

"He's going to be fine," Pierce replied, leaning against the kitchen counter and cutting straight to the chase, as he sensed Starsky would prefer. "Just a garden-variety flu, though made pretty scary by that virus you mentioned. He's still got a low-grade fever and a pretty nasty cough that you want to keep an eye on, but I don't think there's any real danger at this point." He pulled a sheet of paper from his jacket pocket and, setting his cup on the counter, reached for the phone. "I'll have the OD call in a couple of prescriptions for him...the pharmacy delivers, and they have a four-wheel drive that'd climb Mount Everest if it had to."

He turned his attention to his phone call, and Starsky wandered to the kitchen window. The sun was again shining brilliantly, and he could make out the shape of his snow angel from the night before, only just beginning to blur from the solar onslaught. Half-smiling, he began to turn away, then caught sight of the huge Christmas tree he and Hutch had cut down and hauled to the porch earlier that week. In all the excitement, between his accident and Hutch's getting sick, they had forgotten to bring it in...just as well; the icy air would have helped it stay crisp and fresh.

An idea entered his head and the other half of the smile appeared.

"All set," Pierce's voice interrupted his plotting. "They said they'd be here in a couple of hours." He retrieved his cup and took a long, grateful sip of the steaming liquid, then frowned thoughtfully at Starsky. "Hey, weren't you at the hospital the other night?" he said curiously. "Fell off a horse or something, wasn't it, and took a pretty bad nick to your head?"

"Yeah, that was us," Starsky said dryly. "Not exactly our best week, huh?"

"It sure isn't," Pierce agreed. "Why don't you let me take a look at that and change the dressing, as long as I'm here?"

"Sure," Starsky said, echoing his friend's words. "Why not?"

Hutch slept for the rest of the afternoon and evening, then woke briefly in the evening when Starsky brought soup and the medication the pharmacy had dropped off. To his partner's relief, he actually had an appetite, and polished off a reasonably sized meal. Though his voice was still somewhat weak, and the cough still shook him from time to time, he was more alert and they were able to joke throughout the dinner.

The medicine relieved the cough but knocked him back out, and he was asleep by the time Starsky came back up from taking the dishes downstairs. Starsky set fresh orange juice on the table, ensured his friend was thoroughly covered, and tiptoed back to the guest room for his own period of well-earned rest.

For the next 24 hours, their routine was similar. Their world had expanded somewhat, and both vaguely remembered that Christmas was approaching, but for the moment they focused on reinforcing Hutch's recovery, and daring to believe that this had been a fluke, nothing more.


In the early evening of Christmas Eve, Hutch's eyes blinked open. He lay there for a moment, barely daring to breathe, taking stock of how he felt and sounded. Fever's gone. Headache feels a lot better. Cough is...still there, but at least it's doin' something now. All things considered, he felt...better.

The relief that swept through him was enormous...and he decided it was high time he got out of bed under his own steam.

Groaning along with his muscles as he sat up, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and managed to stand. He'd been sweating for two days and had only sponge baths to refresh him; more than anything right now, he wanted a hot, cleansing shower. He headed for the bathroom, stripping off the sweatpants and shirt he had been wearing along the way, and turned the faucets on full force. He stepped into it, sighing involuntarily as the water began to sweep away three days of sweat and grime. After he had shampooed his hair and soaped himself thoroughly, he just stood in the blissful hot spray that felt heavenly on his stiff, aching muscles, inhaling the steam that soothed the remaining congestion in his head and chest.

After a half hour, he emerged, toweled himself dry, and dressed in a clean pair of sweatpants and his robe. Returning to the bathroom, he wiped the fog from the bathroom mirror—smiling as he remembered Starsky's improvised steam baths—shaved, and combed his hair.

Feeling indescribably better, he finally emerged from his room for the first time in four days...and was met with an absolutely wonderful smell that was drifting up from the kitchen. Tightening the belt of his robe around his waist, he made his way down the stairs and followed the sound of Starsky's voice to the back of the house, which was lit to high heaven and toasted as warm as the inside of the oven.

At the door he stopped short; then, stifling his first response, he settled himself against the doorjamb with crossed arms and an amused smile, so he could watch his partner unobserved.

A towel wrapped around him and tucked into the waistband of his jeans, Starsky had set up shop on the long kitchen counter next to the sink. This had perhaps kept the lower half of him clean, but he seemed to be dotted with flour everywhere else, from the sleeves and chest of his dark blue shirt to patches of his hair, and even a smudge on his left cheek. He was surrounded by the packets of flour and sugar the two of them had purchased at the grocery store, a rolling pin, and a number of bowls, and was clearly engrossed in some serious baking task. As Hutch watched, he took a handful of flour from one of the bowls, and began to dust a section of the counter.

Realizing that he either had to speak or burst out laughing, Hutch chose the former. "What're you doin'?" he asked, his voice still hoarse from the hours of coughing.

Starsky jumped, a small cloud of flour surrounding him as his head snapped up to see his friend leaning against the doorjamb.

"Hutch," he gulped, trying to return his heartbeat to something normal. "Jesus Christ, you scared me half to death." He set down the cup and eyed his friend. Outwardly, his expression and demeanor were stern; inside, he was rejoicing at the light that had returned to Hutch's eyes, the damp hair, clean clothes, and fresh shave that indicated Hutch was feeling somewhat more normal. "What're you doin' up?"

"No fair," Hutch said with a grin. "I asked you first." Starsky looked down at himself, as if seeing his mad chef appearance for the first time, and waved a hand at the items spread out on the counter.

"Uh, well...I...." The oven buzzer went off; grateful for the reprieve, he grabbed a pair of potholders, opened the door, and removed a pan from the shelf inside. Carefully, he carried the tray to the kitchen table, where layers of wax paper were laid out and waiting, and with a spatula removed from the tray, two dozen sugar cookies.

Hutch raised an eyebrow.

"Cookies, Starsk?"

"Well, yeah," Starsky defended himself, arranging the cookies on the paper with what appeared to be military precision. "I thought it might be good for the kids."

Hutch snorted. Yeah, and the biggest one's standin' right in front of me, he thought. "The kids, huh? You mean, the ones that aren't due back for another week and a half?"

"Well, yeah, but...." Starsky returned to his main base of operations, dumping the tray into a sink of soapy water, and loading a fresh one with a new set of shapes. "I figured we could make these and then leave them at Kim's, y'know? That way she'll have somethin' to give 'em, that'll make 'em feel better about coming back here after their trip."

Hutch couldn't restrain his affectionate smile. Trust Starsky to think ahead about matters like these; it was the kind of thing that his mother did all the time when the two detectives made one of their rare visits to New York. He couldn't count the times he had unpacked his bags, only to find some treat tucked away, accompanied by a loving note in Ruth's Palmer penmanship. It didn't surprise him a bit to find that her son had the same streak of thoughtfulness, and could understand that cookies from his beloved Starsky would cheer up a cranky and overtired Jeremy and provide Kim with a few moments of relief on her return home.

He pushed himself off the doorjamb and came further into the kitchen, sinking onto one of the barstools that edged the counter where Starsky was working. He glanced down at the dough waiting to be transferred to the cookie sheets, and frowned.

"Hey, Starsk...what are these supposed to be?"

"Snowmen," Starsky replied with a slightly sheepish grin, showing Hutch the juice glass in his hand. "I had to use what was available...couldn't find any real cookie cutters."

"Oh. Right." Hutch tried to smother his widening grin and failed miserably. Starsky grinned back.

"So, Blintz...would you mind tellin' me where your family keeps the genuine article? Then I could do somethin' besides snowmen...maybe some reindeer, maybe a Santa Claus or two...."

Despite himself, Hutch felt his smile stiffen somewhat. Rising from the barstool, he rounded the kitchen counter and went past Starsky to a cupboard beside the sink. "Sorry, Starsk, I can't help ya there," he said, in a tone that he purposely tried to keep light as he took down another juice glass and then crossed over to the refrigerator. "You know the Hutchinsons...always too many Christmas galas to muck about in the kitchen." He pretended to occupy himself in a search for the juice pitcher, which in reality was sitting inches from his face.

Recognizing the same "shutting down" tone Hutch had exhibited at the grocery store, Starsky eyed his friend as he came over to the fridge, and reached past him to remove the pitcher. Not pursuing the subject, but watching Hutch out of the corner of his eye, he took the blond man's glass and filled it up. "Here," he said, handing Hutch the glass and returning the pitcher to the shelf. "Drink'll help get your strength back up."

"Yes, Ma." Hutch made a face at his partner's parental tone but drained half the glass anyway.

"Hutch...." Starsky began, but Hutch stopped him.

"Don't ask, huh, Starsk?" he requested, lowering the glass with an expression that was suddenly vulnerable and half-pleading. "It's way too long a story."

Starsky patted his friend's arm, leaving a white handprint on the red terrycloth. "Sure, all right," he said gently. "But you know you can tell me later if you want."

Hutch half-smiled. "Yeah," he acknowledged. "I know that."

For a moment, there was silence, as Starsky returned to his baking activities and Hutch leaned against the refrigerator and just watched. It had been a long time since he had felt this at home, this comfortable, in this room...probably not since his grandfather had died. After the scare of the last few days, it felt good to, standing here, watching Starsky putter around the kitchen, humming along with the radio. Starsky seemed to know all the Christmas carols...better than Hutch did, as a matter of fact...and though he started out humming under his breath, he was soon singing softly. Then, when "White Christmas" began, he cranked up the radio, put on his best Bing Crosby voice, and belted out the words in a rather excellent baritone.

Hutch applauded when he was finished, but couldn't resist saying to him, "You know, you're certifiable."

"Aw, bah humbug to you," Starsky retorted without missing a beat. He had slid another tray of cookies into the oven and was taking a break, sipping at a bottle of beer and testing some of his own handiwork. "Hey, not bad," he complimented himself. "Try one?"

"Nah, not just now." Hutch refilled his glass from the fridge and then pulled open the freezer door, poking through the items they had purchased for their various dinners.

"What're you doin'?" Starsky demanded with mock sternness, nudging his partner away from the door.

"Well, you're busy...baking," Hutch said, barely managing to swallow his laughter, "so I thought I'd get started on dinner."

"Ab-solutely not," Starsky pronounced, placing his body between Hutch and the fridge. "For your information, dinner's behind Door #2—" he waved his spatula at the dual ovens—"And your job is to take your orange juice into the den and not get nosy."

At his partner's tone, which bore the essence of an indignant housewife whose sanctum has been invaded, Hutch couldn't bear it another minute. Throwing his head back, he burst into laughter.

Starsky crossed his arms, spatula still in hand, and watched his partner with a completely sober expression, tapping his foot as if he were waiting for Hutch's moment of mirth to pass so he could get back down to business.

Seeing this only set Hutch off again.

He set the glass of orange juice on the counter and gave himself up to it, relishing the first good laugh he'd had in days, not minding that it made his chest ache and irritated muscles that were already disgruntled about the hours of coughing.

Starsky raised imperious eyebrows and waited...but then couldn't resist an answering smile.

Finally, Hutch ran out of steam. Wiping his eyes, wrapping one arm around his protesting ribs, he straightened and retrieved his glass of orange juice. "Thanks, buddy," he said sincerely. "It hurts like hell, but I needed that."

"Get outta here," Starsky ordered, pointing toward the door with the spatula. "And don't let me see you peekin', neither."

"Yes, Ma," Hutch repeated, grinning foolishly as he crossed the kitchen, and entered the den, settling down in the recliner beside the fireplace. Scanning the books that lay on the end table, he selected one by Steinbeck and opened it to the first page. In minutes, he was totally engrossed in the familiar and beloved story. He did not notice the passage of time until Starsky appeared at the door, steaming plates in hand.

"Room service," he announced, handing one plate to his partner and setting the other one on another end table, beside the soft brown leather couch. He bustled out, returned with silverware and napkins, then exited a third time and returned with a bottle of red wine and two glasses.

"Uh, Starsk, I don't know if I should, with the medicine and all," Hutch said dubiously.

"Aw, c'mon, Hutch," Starsky said persuasively, expertly extracting the cork. "It's Christmas Eve. I think we can ease off the pharmaceuticals for the evening, huh?" Without waiting for an answer, he poured a glass of the garnet-colored liquid and handed it to his partner. "Hey," he continued, inclining his head toward the far corner of the room. "You haven't said how you like my addition to the décor."

Taking a sip of the wine and savoring its rich flavor, Hutch let his eyes follow Starsky's nod...and nearly spit the mouthful of wine into his lap.

"Hey, you okay?" Starsky said with concern, as his partner was seized by a fit of coughs that were partially inhaled wine and partially flu remains.

"Yeah," Hutch managed, finally regaining his breath. He waved a hand at the corner. "Starsk...did you bring that thing in from the side porch?"

Starsky grinned at his partner and gazed at the tall, beautiful tree that now grazed the ceiling of the den. "Yep," he said proudly. "Did it while you were still playin' Sleeping Beauty upstairs...put on the lights, too. Doesn't it look terrific?"

Hutch said softly, "Yeah...yeah."

Starsky looked over at his partner...and was amazed to see that his eyes were bright with pooled tears. "What's the matter?" he asked. "Doncha like it?"

"Yeah," Hutch repeated hoarsely. "It's just..." He trailed off, then, blinked, said, "Starsk... where did you get those ornaments?"

"Found 'em in the attic," Starsky replied, bewildered. "Why?" He grinned and, abandoning his dinner for a moment, walked over to the tree. "This one's my favorite." With one finger, he lifted an awkwardly constructed reindeer, formed from brown and red construction paper. Details such as the eyes, reins, and a shiny red nose had been carefully crayoned in their proper places, and a banner that ran around its neck and draped jauntily to the side read, "To Mother and Father, from Ken."

Hutch was speechless.

Starsky turned to him, still grinning, and saw the stricken look on his friend's face. "Hutch?" In a heartbeat, he was at his partner's side, sinking onto the hearth. "Hey." When Hutch still didn't respond, didn't even look at him, he placed a hand on Hutch's arm. "What is it?"

Hutch still said nothing, eyes never leaving the reindeer; not daring to blink because he knew the tears would spill over. At last, he managed to compose himself and turned to Starsky with a crooked smile. "Nothin'," he said, shaking his head and turning his attention back to his dinner plate. "Hey...steamed vegetables," he observed with surprise. "This is terrific, Starsk...."

"Hutch," Starsky interrupted. "I wish you'd tell me what it is with you and Christmas."

Hutch began to speak, but Starsky broke in again, fixing him with another of his mock-stern gazes and wagging a fork at him. "And don't give me non'a that 'euphoric sentimentalism' crap, either."

Hutch couldn't restrain a grin as he remembered the years he had railed against the rampant commercialism of Christmas. Every time, he vowed he was not going to participate in it by doing gift giving...and every year, he broke his vow, for Starsky if nobody else. Because, he admitted to himself, he kind of enjoyed seeing that look on Starsky's face...first, just by the fact that Hutch had actually broken down and gotten him a present, and then, by the nature of the gift.

One year, Hutch had been unable to resist his own sense of humor and had ostensibly given Starsky nothing but a tree planted in his name in a local park. It was only when he returned home that Starsky found the caboose for his train set, topped with a cheerful red bow and perched atop a pillow on his bed.

"Hutch," Starsky prompted, nudging his friend's knee. "C'mon. Spill it."

Hutch looked down at his plate and toyed with the contents for a moment, trying to figure out what he wanted to say. Finally, he put the plate aside and leaned back in the chair, wine glass in his hand, contemplative eyes on the reindeer.

"You know, I made that when I was eight," he said reflectively. "And not once, in all the years that I was growing up, did my parents let me hang it on the tree."

Starsky's eyes narrowed. "You gotta be shittin' me," he said in a low, disbelieving voice.

Hutch shook his head. "Nope. The year I made mom had spent all this money to have a professional come in and decorate the tree, and when I tried to add that on, she told me it 'didn't go with the theme'. One night, I snuck downstairs and hung it on there anyway...boy, was there hell to pay over that, from both of them."

Starsky felt an ache deep in his chest. Like a movie reeling through his head, he saw Hanukah at his household, with handmade items and drawings in every room, and his aunt Rosie bursting with pride as she added another lopsided, cardboard dreidel to the display on the mantel. Starsky had a hunch that even if she had had a professional come and decorate the house...and the odds of Rose Starsky relinquishing that much control over her home were slim approaching none...she would still augment the results with anything that little Davey brought home from school. That Hutch would experience so much less, so much...rejection...from his own mother, made Starsky unutterably sad.

But there was something else. He could feel it.

His silence apparently spoke volumes, for Hutch sighed, and lacing his fingers behind his head, told his partner about the Christmas Eve when he was 21.

Starsky listened with barely restrained anger as Hutch told how his father had "suggested" that young Ken might want to leave the house and begin his "real-life experience" without delay...and how Hutch had immediately gone upstairs, packed a bag, and walked out, without a hint of second thought or "wait, let's talk about this" from his cold and rigid father.

"If it hadn't been for Vanessa's parents, I would have left Duluth that night," Hutch recalled, realizing with a start that his wine glass was somehow empty. Without a word, Starsky refilled it, and Hutch went on, gazing into the red depths. "But they insisted that we stay through Christmas...I think they thought that my folks would have to break down and call at some point."

"But they didn't," Starsky assumed.

"Nope." Hutch took a long swig of wine and thought about how furious his father had been when he had made good on his threat, leaving the city and the state, dragging a protesting and flabbergasted wife behind him. "I tried to let them know when we got to B.C., and then again when I graduated from the academy...but they never returned my calls." He snorted. "The only time my father did talk to me was when Vanessa left me...he heard about it around the office because one of his colleagues handled the divorce." He laughed bitterly and raised his wine glass in a mocking toast. "He called to let me know that there had never been a divorce in the Hutchinson family and, congratulations...I had managed to disgrace the family name once again."

Starsky realized suddenly that his fists were clenched, his muscles were coiled, and he was breathing in a slow, oxygen-building manner, as if he were getting ready for a fight. And he was, he realized; this was what his body did when they were on duty and he thought someone or something was threatening Hutch.

"I had just moved to the cottage in Venice," Hutch went on, not noticing that his friend was ready to rumble in front of the fireplace. "I was so calm...I didn't say anything, I just hung up the phone...and then I threw it right through the front door." He chuckled hoarsely; again, the sound contained not a modicum of mirth.

They were both silent for several seconds, while the fire crackled and hissed behind Starsky's back.

"But y'know what, Starsk?"

Starsky could tell the few sips of wine and the aftereffects of the flu were beginning to affect his friend; his words were beginning to blur ever so slightly. He tightened the hand that had been resting on Hutch's knee. "What's that, babe?"

"After that, I swore I was never gonna let my dad get to me like that again...and I haven't." He nodded decisively. "That was just how it was, and I came to take that as a fact of life."

"I know, pal, I know," Starsky said soothingly, wondering if he should nip this in the bud. But Hutch had kept this locked up for a long time, though Starsky discerned a lot of things about his family from their behavior and their sheer absence.

"But I almost lost it the day that Kim called me, after the divorce was final," Hutch went on. His face shifted, and Starsky's chest hurt again at the wounded look that rose there, even after all this time. Hutch looked down at his glass, and back up again, and the pain in his eyes was so great that Starsky was glad James Hutchinson wasn't there...because he would have killed him, and happily.

"You know that guest room that I'm in?" Hutch said quietly, all traces of drunkenness gone. Starsky nodded, not trusting his voice. "That used to be my room. After Vanessa divorced me, Kim called and said that my dad had taken it all apart. Taken everything that I had in there and had it hauled away to a dump somewhere. Took every picture down from every room except the one my mom managed to hide in the kitchen. Basically obliterated me from the place...changed his will...the whole nine yards." He closed his eyes and shook his head. "It was like I never existed."

"But there's pictures of you in here," Starsky pointed out.

"This was my grandfather's room," Hutch said, eyes still closed. "It was the one place my dad didn't dare touch." He sighed once, drowsily, and the glass of wine began to tip in his hand.

Despite his grim and homicidal thoughts toward Hutch's father, Starsky couldn't repress his grin as he rescued the glass before it spilled its excellent Cabernet Sauvignon all over Hutch's robe.

Clearly his friend wasn't quite as well as he wanted to be, and retelling the story of his father's banishment of him from his life had wearied him even more. Hutch's breathing became slow and even, and Starsky crept quickly upstairs to retrieve the quilt from his friend's bed, thinking he would try to offer a bit of solace to help clear away the bitter memories.


Starsky draped the quilt tenderly around his partner, still reeling from the conversation he and Hutch had shared before the combination of illness and the minimal alcohol consumption had sapped the last resources of his partner's limited strength and he had begun to doze in his grandfather's chair. Starsky tucked him in carefully, and Hutch nestled into the quilt as if it were a loving embrace.

Which in a way, Starsky thought, it is. He straightened, stretching muscles sore from days of sleeping in odd positions, and feeling an odd kinship with Hutch's grandfather, whom he had never even met. He sighed, looking down at Hutch. What a precious gift this man is, he thought. He reached over and, in a motion which had become second nature to him over the last few days, smoothed the hair back from Hutch's forehead, then sat back against the sofa, sipping the last of his own wine somberly.

He blinked his eyes slowly as he contemplated the evening, this very special Christmas Eve they had just shared. He and Hutch had been friends for so many years, partners, had been through so much, had shared innumerable confidences, that before this evening Starsky would have thought it well nigh impossible that there was something new he could possibly learn about the lanky, blond man who slept before him.

And yet, he thought. And yet.... Somehow their conversation this evening had confirmed suspicions and reinforced speculations that Starsky had held to himself for years and years. His heart broke for Hutch, for the little boy lost, and he was amazed that such a kind, nurturing, giving man had risen from the emotional wasteland of this stark family. All because of the grandfather, he knew, and he gave silent thanks to the elder Hutchinson for delivering a nearly intact brother into his care.

He reached over and unnecessarily tucked the quilt tighter around Hutch's frame, wishing with all his heart that he could circumvent any trace of pain that might ever touch his best friend. He hoped desperately that sharing some of these painful memories out loud might prove cleansing for Hutch, might exorcise even a few of the demons that lie within this bruised and complex man.

Starsky stood slowly and yawned. He crept around the room, unplugging the tree, turning out the lights, blowing out the candles. He hesitated by the stereo, and chose to leave it on, playing soft seasonal music, which he hoped would envelop Hutch in a lullabied cocoon and soothe painful and bitter memories from his subconscious.

Standing beside his partner once more, Starsky leaned down and dropped a soft kiss on the top of Hutch's head, as one might do when tucking in a child for the night. He wondered if anyone had ever crept into Hutch's room when he was small, just to watch him sleep, and wonder at the magic of his soul.

"Sleep well," he whispered, feeling curiously lighter as he realized that he had, by some divine intervention, been granted guardianship of this child, this man, this spirit. Grateful, and feeling fiercely protective of this responsibility he had chosen, he smiled briefly, and headed up the stairs to bed.

How the hell much wine did I drink, anyway? He wondered, as he crawled beneath the blankets. Boy, for somebody who hates soapy scenes...was his last conscious thought as he drifted off to sleep, a light smile softening his countenance.


Hutch blinked his eyes slowly in the early morning dark. Not yet light, it took him several moments to remember where he was, and why his entire being felt infused with a serenity that was so pervasive it was nearly incomprehensible. A cough brought him to full awareness, and he rubbed his chest absently, sniffling. Sick, he remembered.

Better, though, his mind added, as he remembered more. He sat up, pushing aside the covers, smiling as he realized that the quilt which covered him was the same one from his grandparents' bed, the one with which Starsky had enfolded him a few days before, during the darkest point of his illness.

Cold, he thought, the flu. Not the plague. Christmas. Somehow he felt like Ebenezer Scrooge awakening on Christmas morning, having divested himself of his past, reconciled his present, and a feeling of joy overtook him so intensely that he felt his eyes pool with tears.

He listened silently to the soft strains of Christmas music that created a backdrop to his mood. For a fleeting moment, he considered waking Starsky, perhaps jumping on the bed to herald the holiday, as he'd heard that children did on Christmas morning to awaken their parents. The thought made him grin, and yet he knew how utterly exhausted his partner had to be, after having spent days on end taking care of him, nursing him day and night.

The cookie baking probably wore him out, too, Hutch realized, then thought, cookies. Mm. He moved to the kitchen, yawning and stretching, and turned the kettle on to make tea. Lifting the lid of an elegant cookie jar, he peered inside and saw Starsky's prized creations nestled inside invitingly. Cookies before breakfast, he considered. Not something he'd done often in his lifetime, and never before in this kitchen. You will probably burn in hell for this, Hutchinson, he thought with a grin, reached in, and extracted two cookies, inspecting them to make sure each contained a suitable amount of icing and decoration, before taking a bite of one, and munching happily.

While he waited for the water to boil, he poured a small glass of juice and downed his medicine. He squinted at the label of the antibiotics. Not to be taken on an empty stomach. Hutch screwed the lid back on the bottle, and took another bite of cookie. See that? I had no choice. I had to eat them. Feeling somewhat vindicated, and caring even less, he popped the last of the sweet in his mouth, and started in on the other one for good measure.

He took his tea back to the den and let it steep on the coffee table while he folded up the quilt and placed it reverently on the back of the couch. He plugged in the tree lights, then tossed some kindling, newspaper, and a log in the fireplace, starting it up, and cajoling it along until it was crackling merrily, the heady scent of wood smoke pervading the room instantaneously, and making him feel inexplicably secure.

Moving to the hall closet, he pulled out the bag of presents he had stashed there. As he set them out under the tree, he wondered if he'd gone just a bit overboard. Nope, he decided, not possible. After all that Starsky had done for him over the last month, Hutch was determined that he would return the kindness in a way that would please his dark-haired partner—give him the best Christmas he knew how to do. He sat back on his heels and regarded the pile of presents. Perfect.

Snapping his fingers, he remembered the bag of presents that Kim had slipped to him a few nights before. He'd stashed them in the trunk of the car, and hidden them in the hall closet as well, but out of sight, behind his parents' collection of spring and summer outerwear. He pulled the bag out carefully, and arranged these gifts under the tree with the others—three apiece for him and Starsky, and from the looks of the ribbons and tape, Jeremy had lent an extensive hand in the wrap job.

He moved to the kitchen and snagged another handful of cookies, and they tasted so good he briefly considered giving up his healthy lifestyle to become a sugar junkie like his partner. Well, I've hardly eaten all week, he told himself, that's probably why they taste so damned good.

Wishing to share his goodwill toward man and beast, he quietly pulled on boots and his coat, finding both the gloves in one pocket rather than one in each as he usually stored them. As he zipped the jacket up high, he caught a whiff of Starsky's aftershave, and smiled as he realized that his partner must have borrowed his coat for one of his trips to the barn. Rather than checking for stains or rips as he normally might do when Starsky borrowed a piece of his apparel, he grinned feeling closer to his partner than he could have imagined.

Hutch stepped outside for the first time in nearly a week, and stood on the porch for a moment, taking in a deep breath of the clean, crisp, wintry air. Although it made him cough a bit, and his nose began to run immediately, he didn't mind at all, the air smelled fresh and icy and wonderful. He pulled his collar up higher, and trudged to the barn. There was no sun, in fact the sky was gray, and light, dancing snowflakes filtered through the air. Hutch grinned happily as one landed on his nose, and he brushed it away with a gloved hand.

He pulled open the barn door, and the horses greeted him with soft, sleepy wuffles. It was obvious that they had been well taken care of during his incapacitation, everything smelled clean and fresh and full of woodchips and hay. "All right, you guys," he said aloud. "Now, it's Christmas, and I'm not sure if any of you remember, but that means I make breakfast for you in the house, right?"

The horses regarded him solemnly, having no clue what he was about, but enjoying the sound of his voice nonetheless. He moved around confidently, filling water buckets, and portioning out laps of hay, and the horses began a quiet munching, their anxiousness for their grain temporarily forgotten.

Hutch filled a large bucket with grain, and when he had finished giving the horses their hay and water, staggered back to the house with his burden, to make the horses the Christmas mash that had been a yearly, beloved tradition between he and his grandfather.

In the kitchen, he shed his coat and gloves, but left them by the door, easily retrievable when he was finished with his preparations. He found his mother's spaghetti pot, and took a perverse pleasure in dumping the horse feed into it. He assembled some ingredients from the refrigerator and the cabinets, and began cutting up carrots and apples and dumping them into the pot. He found a bottle of molasses in the pantry, and poured it in slowly, turning up the flame slightly, as he stirred carefully, coating the oats and other grains with the sweet liquid.

He leaned in close and sniffed, appreciatively, the scent taking him back to Christmas mornings past, much as evergreen and the smells of baking might affect someone who had grown up in a different sort of family environment. Continuing to stir and simmer the mixture, he finally turned it off and set it aside.

Hutch looked at the kitchen clock. Seven a.m. More than anything, he wanted to wake up Starsky and tear into the presents. He stopped for a moment, and shook his head. God, must have been sicker than I thought, when's the last time I wanted to tear into presents on Christmas? Um...never.... Hutch wondered if he'd sustained brain damage from the illness, and the thought made him smile. He couldn't actually believe that Starsky wasn't awake yet, but then again, he'd put in an awfully rough few days.

Unable to restrain himself, Hutch downed another two cookies, which he ate while he made some hot chocolate. He carefully poured it into two mugs, put the pot in the sink to soak, and made his way up the steps to Starsky's room. He peered around the doorway to see Starsky splayed out across the bed, sound asleep, and again resisted the urge to wake him. He set one of the mugs down on the nightstand, and, holding the other, lowered himself carefully onto the foot of the bed, where he relaxed, sipped at his cocoa, and watched his partner sleep, a goofy, sentimental expression on his face.




These were not familiar emotions for the blond haired man, and he reveled in them.

Eventually, Starsky began to stir, perhaps it was the smell of the cocoa pervading his very being, or the sensation of being watched in his sleep. He obviously knew before he opened his eyes that Hutch was there.

"'Bout time," Hutch said fondly, taking a sip of hot chocolate.

"Time for what?" Starsky asked, not fully awake. "What time is it?"

"Christmastime," Hutch offered. "Get up. We got presents."

"Mm...." Starsky rolled over on his back, and draped an arm across his eyes. He yawned, rubbed his face, and turned over on his side, propping his head with an arm. "Merry Christmas," he said. "How you feeling?"

"Great," Hutch told him.

"How you feeling?" Starsky asked again.

"Okay," Hutch answered honestly. "A lot better."

Starsky allowed him a smile. "Define better." He picked up the mug from the nightstand. "Thanks for this, by the way. Now define better."

" fever, little bit stuffy, cough's still there, but a lot less, and it doesn't hurt any more. Okay? Do I pass? I studied hard." He ducked his head shyly and smiled.

"Okay," Starsky grinned, relieved. "That we can deal with. You get an 'A'." He took another sip of cocoa. "Did you say presents?"

"Sure did," Hutch replied. "Lots of 'em."

Starsky sat up. "Okay, now this is the part where I want to go rip through them, and you tell me that we have to get cleaned up and dressed and make the beds, and then we can sit down and have some tea, and perhaps open one present and save the rest for later, right?" He ran a hand through his sleep-tousled hair.

"Starsky, are you crazy?" Hutch stood up and started for the door. "It's Christmas, for God's sake." And he took off, thundering down the steps toward the den, Starsky close on his heels.


Once in the den, Starsky moved behind the wing chair that sat to the side of the fireplace. He pulled out a bulging trash bag, and began to open it carefully. Reaching in, he took out several brightly wrapped packages, which he piled neatly, and placed under the tree.

"Geez, Starsk, what's all that?" Hutch asked him. "I thought we already gave Kim everything for the—" He walked over and nudged the pile, boxes in varying shapes and sizes. Looking down, he realized that each and every package said "Hutch." "Starsky, what have you done?" he asked, unable to hide a pleased smile. "Does this mean I'm going to have to lend you rent money next month?"

"Probably," Starsky shrugged. "But this Christmas is special."

Hutch felt himself flush, both pleased and embarrassed at the same time. "It is for me too, Starsk." He nudged Starsky's pile under the tree. "That's yours."

"You're kidding," Starsky exclaimed. He moved over and planted his hand firmly on his partner's forehead. "Okay, now I know you're still sick. You never do this."

Hutch burst out laughing. "Well...we've never had a month quite like this, have we?"

Starsky exhaled loudly. "And I hope we never do again. Except for the presents, of course." He looked at Hutch appraisingly. There were still dark circles under his eyes, and his face was still too pale, although he looked much better without the unnatural flush of fever. But the clarity of his eyes, and the joy that emanated from within, spoke of returning health and, moreover, peace. Starsky pulled him into an affectionate hug. "Merry Christmas, babe," he said, a slight catch in his voice.

Accommodating the difference in their heights, Hutch nestled his head into Starsky's shoulder, and returned the hug, holding on tightly, and closing his eyes tightly. "Starsk?" he said softly.


Hutch didn't continue, instead he held tighter to his partner and shook his head slightly. Starsky rested a hand on the back of Hutch's head, fingers threading gently through the blond hair.

"S'okay," he said, "I know. Me, too."

Hutch nodded, but did not speak.

Starsky pushed him away, holding him by the shoulders, and studied the familiar face closely. "You all right?" He brushed a thumb across Hutch's cheek.

Hutch nodded again, eyes bright, a small smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "More than all right," he finally said.

Starsky grinned at him. "Me, too," he answered. "Hutch, I know what I'm about to say is gonna change everything you think you know about me...but it's something I just...I've gotta tell you."

Hutch nodded seriously. "Okay, shoot."

"Well," Starsky bit his lip. He gazed at Hutch for a moment, then his eyes swept the area under the tree, taking in the piles of presents, the warm, glowing lights, and finally lighting on Hutch's childhood ornament. "It's just that...."

"What, Starsk?" Hutch prodded.

"I don't want this to be over," Starsky said. "I don't wanna rip through the presents. I... I want to get dressed, and eat breakfast, and then open all this stuff."

Hutch burst out laughing, unable to stop until the effort made him cough, and he doubled over as Starsky thumped him on the back.

"Whatsa matter with you?" Starsky demanded, perturbed.

Hutch straightened up, wiping tears of mirth from his cheeks. He laid the back of his hand across Starsky's forehead. "I think it's you who's delirious," he said, laughter still evident in his voice. "Maybe you caught my—"

"Shaddup," Starsky grinned, batting his hand away. He took hold of Hutch's sleeve. "Come on," he urged. "Let's get breakfast."

Hutch stood up straight and allowed himself to be tugged. As they entered the kitchen, Hutch stopped. "Hey, I left a present upstairs," he remembered. "I'll be right back."

Hutch loped up the stairs to his room, and reached into the dresser drawer, pushing aside a pile of t-shirts. He pulled out a simply wrapped package, and smiled when he thought what Starsky's expression might be when he unwrapped it. He knew how lucky he was, this Christmas morning.

"Hey, Starsk, have you seen my...." Hutch broke off as he came into the kitchen. "What the hell are you doing?"

Starsky looked up from the bowl in his hand, still munching. "Mm...." he indicated the contents with his spoon. "Mm...." he swallowed. "I can't believe you made breakfast," he said. "What is this? Some kinda granola stuff? It's great." He took another mouthful and spoke around it. "Sweet. You put brown sugar in here or what?"

Hutch's eyes widened, and one eyebrow shot up and disappeared under the blond bangs. "'s, uh...molasses," he shrugged, "and, um...oats...bran...."

"Wow," Starsky said, swallowing another mouthful. "How come you never made me this at home."

"Well, uh, that's, uh, because...." Despite his best effort, Hutch could no longer contain the gulps of laughter that were welling up from deep inside him.

"Whatsa matter with you?" Starsky frowned. "Gonna make the cough worse, stop it."

Hutch continued to laugh, and Starsky set down the bowl and stared at him. "Hutch, what is the matter? Did I do something?"

Hutch shook his head, and doubled over in a spasm of coughs. He got it under control and straightened up, but as soon as he looked at Starsky, the chortles began again, tears pouring down his face from the effort. Finally he calmed down, wiping his eyes and nose with the napkin Starsky handed him.

"Are you going to share with the class?" Starsky demanded.

Hutch nodded, looking down, unable to meet his partner's eyes. "It's horse feed."

"It's what did you say?"

"Horse feed?"

"You made me horse feed for breakfast? Why would you do a thing like that?"

Hutch blinked quickly. "I didn't make it for you, Starsk, it's Christmas mash. I made it for the horses."

Stunned, Starsky stared at his partner for a long moment. He looked down at the bowl for a moment, back at his partner, and back at the bowl again. "The carrots threw me," he said, calmly.

"Yes, I would imagine they did," Hutch agreed with a nod.

"Thing is," Starsky continued, a lopsided smile breaking out over his face. "It's not half bad."

"Um, no, it's not," Hutch brushed imaginary lint off his shirt. "Kim and I tasted it once on a dare."

"Horse feed, huh?" Starsky lost his own battle with solemnity, and burst into hysterical laughter, which started Hutch off again. The two clutched at each other, and each time one stopped to catch his breath, the other started him off in a new wash of mirth.

"Gimme one of them," Starsky reached for the napkins and wiped his streaming eyes. He took a deep breath. "Eggs?" he asked.

"That'd be terrific," Hutch said. "I'll make the toast."

"Okay," Starsky said agreeably. He reached for the bowl of horse feed and spooned the last swallow into his mouth. Talking around it, with a grin, was not easy. "Hate to waste it," he explained.

Hutch reached over and tousled his hair. "You're a nut." He walked over and picked up his coat, then pulled Starsky's off the hook, and tossed it to his partner. "Put this on, we need to feed before you eat all the mash. We'll make our breakfast when we come in."

Starsky, still chewing, nodded. He moved to the coat rack, and shrugged into his jacket, zipping it up high. "Still cold out there?"

"Yes, but it feels...amazing."

Starsky shivered in anticipation. "I'll bet." He turned to the coat rack again, and extracted a scarf, which he draped around Hutch's neck, tying it firmly, then handed Hutch his coat. "Not takin' any chances." He let his hands slide to Hutch's shoulders and held on for a moment. He looked into his partner's eyes intently. "Can't go through that again, either one of us, you know?"

"I know," Hutch answered quietly. "I'm sorry I—"

Starsky put a finger to Hutch's lips, and shook his head. "Don't." He took a deep breath. "Not your fault. None of it."

"Okay." A slight tug at the corner of his mouth passed for an agreeing smile. Hutch nodded, and took a deep breath. "Okay."

Starsky dropped his arms and fished in his own pocket for his gloves. Although the physical contact was broken, the warmth of the bond remained between them, nearly palpable, enveloping them in such richness that the biting air was not even felt as they stepped outside.

Once in the barn, Starsky carried the spaghetti pot full of mash, and followed Hutch from stall to stall, drinking in Hutch's joy as he portioned it out to his beloved horses. Hutch had special, quiet words for each one, and the horses dropped their noses into their feed bins, greedily devouring their special treat.

"I think they like it better than I do even, Blintz," Starsky observed.

"Lucky there's some left for them," Hutch muttered, scraping the last of it for Jeremy's pony. "Here you go, darlin'," he said, giving the pony a pat.

"Shall I do the hay?" Starsky asked.

"Already did," Hutch told him. "While you were still snoring upstairs."

"Don't snore."

"Don't bet on it," Hutch yanked on a curl.

How the hell would you know?" Starsky demanded.

"Spent enough nights on that crummy couch of yours...."

"Like yours is any better," Starsky pointed out. "N'you snore too."

"Do not."

"Do too."

"Oh yeah?" Hutch picked up a handful of hay and tossed it at his partner, laughing as the strands became entangled in his partner's hair.

"Hutch!" Starsky leaned down and scooped up his own handful of hay. He held it aloft as Hutch backed up with a grin. "Right down your back this is going."

Hutch drew himself up to his full height. "I think not, Gordo," he looked down haughtily. Then he launched himself at Starsky's middle, barreling into him, and pushing him over into a pile of unbaled hay. He flipped Starsky over on his stomach, and using one well-placed knee to hold him down, deposited the handful of hay down Starsky's shirt.

Starsky wriggled around as the scratchy strands poked and tickled him. He narrowed his eyes, pulling his head up as best he could. "You are dead meat, Hutchinson. Let me up now."

Hutch considered for a moment. "Well...okay," he agreed, jumping off Starsky and racing for the house with Starsky in quick pursuit. Sensing that Starsky was gaining on him, he did a quick dodge and roll in the thick snow that covered the lawn, causing Starsky, in mid launch, to flop face first in the snow.

Hutch sat up quickly, the sight of his snow covered partner scrambling for purchase in the drifted whiteness made him laugh. Moving over toward Starsky, he stood and held out a hand to help him up. Starsky extended his own hand to accept the gesture, then tugged sharply at Hutch's wrist, pulling him down into the drift, and partially on top of Starsky.

They lay still for a few moments, and Hutch spoke in a measured voice. "I should put snow down your back for that one."

Starsky chuckled, feeling half the weight of his blond headed partner across his legs. "You'd never catch me," he teased.

"You don't think?"


"But," Hutch indicated their position with a wave of his hand. "I've got you pinned right now."

"Yeah, but you'd never do it that way," Starsky told him. "Unfair advantage, you know...all that...not honorable...."

Hutch nodded and moved his legs, allowing Starsky to sit up. "Good point," he agreed. "Besides...I'd rather have the element of surprise, I think."

"Right, exactly," Starsky said, emphatically. He braced his hand against the ground and began to push himself up with a knee, when suddenly Hutch deposited a handful of snow down the back of his shirt.

"Like now," Hutch offered.

Starsky burst out laughing, and shivered as the snow dropped quickly down his spine. "I say it again," he grinned. "You're dead meat, Hutchinson."

Both men sat up, and began brushing snow from their hair and faces. Starsky reached out and brushed at Hutch's shoulder. "Missed a spot," he said, and squeezed through the heavy jacket. "Good to have you back," he offered softly, then, running a hand back through his own hair. "We'd better go in. It's cold."


Starsky leaned back from the table, giving his mouth a swipe with a napkin. He eyed his partner suspiciously. "You didn't eat very much."

"Oh, well, you know I—" Hutch grinned at him, "all that grease, and..." he sniffled dramatically, "... taste buds aren't back to normal yet."

"Mm." Starsky nodded, not quite sure if he was being manipulated. "Fine, but you'd better eat a huge dinner if I'm gonna go to all the trouble of roasting a turkey."

"I will, I promise," Hutch answered quickly. "Presents now?"

Starsky rubbed his hands together. "Sounds great," he said, pushing back his chair. "Need something to tide me over, though."

"You just finished breakfast," Hutch reminded him.

"Yeah," Starsky said agreeably. He got up and moved to the cookie jar he had filled the day before. Lifting the lid, he peered inside, then dipped his head down for a better look. "Hutch?" he asked.

"Yeah, Starss, what?" Hutch answered, depositing plates and silverware into the dishpan, which he was filling with hot water.

"Um, I'm lookin' in the cookie jar."

"Yeah?" Hutch squeezed in a measure of dish soap, slightly more than he had intended, and he glanced over his shoulder quickly, as he tried unsuccessfully to pat down the resultant billowing bubbles. "Lookin' in the cookie jar, huh?"

"Yeah. Lookin' in the cookie jar."

"Mm," Hutch answered, trying to bat the bubbles down the drain so his partner would not notice.


"Yeah, Starsk?" Hutch felt his face beginning to flush, both from being sure he'd been caught, and from the effort of heaving great gobs of suds to get them out of sight.

"There's hardly any cookies in here."

"Is that right?"

"Yeah, there's..." Starsky pointed with an index finger, "...four, five...six. There's only six cookies left."

"Only six cookies left?"

"Six, Hutch." Starsky turned to face him. "Where did the rest of the cookies go? And what the hell are you doing?"

Hutch blushed furiously, holding up a sudsy hand. "Too much soap," he said lamely. "And, uh...I ate the cookies this morning."

"You ate the cookies?"

"I was really hungry."

"You ate cookies for breakfast?"

"I did," Hutch nodded solemnly. "A whole, whole lot of them."

"And how were the cookies, Hutch?" Starsky asked, eyes twinkling.

"Starsk...they...." Hutch lowered his voice and spoke in a reverent tone. "They were the best damned cookies I've ever had in my life."

Starsky allowed the grin he'd been suppressing to emerge. "I guess I'll have to make some more, then," he said. "You big goof. Come on, let's open some presents."


Hutch yanked the dark green sweater over his head. "How'd I look?" he asked, smoothing down strands of blond, hair, which were full of static electricity.

"You look terrific, Hutch," Starsk assured him, smiling at the look of delight on his partner's face as he sat, surrounded by wrapping paper and presents.

"It's so warm," Hutch said, running his fingers over the woven fabric. "And so soft." He looked around. "I can't thank you enough for all this..." he indicated the new bathrobe, several records, books, and other assorted items which he knew had been chosen with careful deliberation and overwhelming affection.

"Well, you're welcome," Starsky replied, "but I'm still in shock over here." He indicated his own stash. "To think that you—I never...." He shrugged, finding words inadequate, but needing to try. "Thank you. Thank you for...for the presents, and for...for not dying...." he finished with a sheepish smile.

Hutch looked at him for a long moment. "Thank you," he answered quietly. "For not letting me die, for finding Callendar...for this week...for always...." He shook his head. He leaned over and kissed Stasky quickly on the cheek. "I—" Sitting back, cheeks coloring, he whispered. " you."

Starsky reached out an arm, wrapping it around Hutch's neck, and pulling him into a tight hug. "Love you too, Blintz," he breathed softly. He closed his eyes, and rested his forehead in Hutch's hair. "...always have," he murmured.


Starsky placed a light finger on Hutch's lips. "Shh...It's okay," he said. "It's good, I—" He kissed Hutch on the forehead, and pulled the blond head back against him. "We'll talk later, okay?"

Relieved, Hutch nodded against Starsky's shirt. "Yes."

"Yes," Starsky echoed, reveling in the moment, and wondered how to always keep hold of the feelings whirling inside him, feelings which were all at once the same, but so very different, peaceful, serene, content, exhilarating, and just a little terrifying. And all at the same time. It was enough to give a guy a headache.

Finally Hutch pulled away, and surreptitiously wiped his eyes. "Talk about euphoric sentimentalism," he said with a laugh. "We're totally nauseating."

"You got one more," Starsk produced a box, from under the couch and handed it to Hutch.

"So do you," Hutch answered softly, reaching behind him and handing over the package he had retrieved from upstairs. "You go first."

Starsky looked at him a moment, eyes shining, then carefully unwrapped a framed photograph. He turned it over, speechless. It was a picture of himself and Hutch, obviously taken by Kim the night they had arrived, and without his knowledge. The photograph was a close up, the two of them engaged in conversation, and Starsky remembered they'd been seated on the couch at the time, facing one another, heads together, each completely focused on the other. "My God," he breathed. "I didn't know she...."

Hutch squirmed slightly. "D'you like it?"

"Hutch I—" Struck uncharacteristically speechless, he looked at the picture again. He looked up and grinned crookedly at Hutch. "Maybe you'd better open this." He thrust his own wrapped package at the blond.

"Okay." Hutch peered at him, not quite sure whether he should be disappointed in the reaction or not. He'd felt that the picture represented everything about their friendship, the closeness, the love, the expressions on their faces were clearly only about their involvement with one another—"We look smitten with each other," he'd told Kim on the phone the evening he'd had the pictures developed, and had been ever so slightly puzzled by her fit of giggles following his statement.

"Open it," Starsky urged him huskily.

Hutch looked up at him, half smiled, and set about opening his own last gift. Obviously a picture frame, what kind of a coincidence was that? But when he turned it over, he felt as if all the air had been sucked from his lungs, and his mouth opened and closed a couple of times, a slight squeak the only audible sound.

It was another picture of him and Starsky together, and another obviously taken by Kim. They were outside, against one of the big oaks on the bank of the lake, and from the vibrant colors of leaves and water in the background, Hutch knew it must have been taken when they'd come east for Kate's christening.

Again, the two were enmeshed in conversation, oblivious to the other partygoers whom, Hutch knew, had been around them on the lawn, and on the porch. In the photograph both were smiling slightly, Hutch looking shy and slightly embarrassed, and he remembered the moment, the exact moment.

After the typical run-in with his dad that had taken place in the kitchen, and a brief attempt to socialize in the den with Kim the other guests, Starsky had steered Hutch outside knowing that if he hadn't, his fair haired partner was going to blow up and say something he probably wouldn't regret, but would probably be reminded of by his father for the next thirty years.

Starsky had shouldered good-naturedly through the throngs of partygoers, and parked the two of them by the tree, alternately making sympathetic noises and affectionate wisecracks until the blond had begun to simmer down. Finally, Hutch had begun to focus, and relax and, a little embarrassed by how much he'd let his dad get to him, to smile.

"Your sister took this," Starsky said, reaching over and squeezing Hutch's knee.

"I d-d-d...." Hutch swallowed, and tried again. "I remember standing there, but I didn't know she—"

"She sent it to me, right after," Starsky explained. "Because she thought that it—well...."

"It does," Hutch answered softly. "It does, and I—"

Starsky nodded, unable to articulate. "Yeah," he echoed. "It does."

"" Hutch blinked his eyes quickly and met Starsky's unwavering gaze. "I guess we've got a...a lot to talk about, huh?"

Starsky stroked a thumb across Hutch's cheek. "Do we?" he asked.

Hutch closed his eyes. "I mean, if we—we—if..." He leaned back and sighed. "it's all so...feeling like new, and I—"

"Is it, though?" Starsky smiled at him fondly. "I mean, I gotta tell you, Hutch, I don't really feel any different than I did this morning, or last week, or last you?"

Hutch thought a moment, biting his lip, then looked back at his partner. "No, I don't think I do. And yet—"

Starsky scooted closer to him, and pulled the troubled blond head down on his shoulder. "To me, it's like...for years now, I've had this wonderful gift, this unbelievable treasure." He kissed the top of Hutch's head softly. "Something so precious that I—well, I couldn't put a name to it, you know? Didn't really understand it, maybe, I don't know...."

Hutch nodded against his shoulder.

"And then," Starsky continued, "I almost lost it, it was almost taken away from me," He squeezed the blond's shoulder tightly. "And when I got it back, it was somehow...all the more magical—except now it had a name."

"What was the name?" Hutch asked, his voice almost a whisper.

Starsky leaned down again, burying his nose in the soft blond hair. "Don't you know?"

"Love," Hutch said hoarsely, and cleared his throat. He spoke in a stronger voice. "It's love."

"What we have," Starsky offered, ""

Hutch wrapped his arms around Starsky's midsection and squeezed him. "Starsk...we are so, so lucky. Some people never—"

Starsky took hold of Hutch's chin with his finger, and tilted his face toward him, then leaned in slowly, and kissed Hutch with great care. He pulled back and watched Hutch slowly open his eyes. "No," he agreed, "they don't," and he leaned in for another kiss.

"Merry Christmas, Blintz," he breathed, just before their lips touched again.


"Kim?" Starsky held the phone away from his ear. "Kim, if you don't calm down, I'm gonna hang up, and I mean it," he said, although he didn't. "He's fine, I promise you. I shouldn't have said anything." I didn't mean to say anything. "It was just a, you know, touch of the flu, or a chest cold or something...." He thrust the telephone at Hutch, who had just come in from evening chores in the barn. "It's your sister," Starsky said, "I blew it, I'm sorry."

Hutch looked at him, startled. Although the two had spent the day talking and cuddling and exploring the ramifications of the new direction their partnership had taken, Hutch was nowhere near ready to share such confidences with anyone beyond the two of them, and he paled visibly. "What do you mean you blew it?" he hissed, holding a hand over the receiver.

"Just...just talk to her, Hutch, come on, please."

"Kimmy?" Hutch spoke tentatively into the telephone. "Um...Merry Christmas?"

"You!" his sister shouted back at him. "Kenneth James Hutchinson, what is wrong with you?"

"Uh-oh," Hutch mouthed to Starsky. "Look, Kimmy, it's like...we've been through so much together, Starsk and me, and I...well, it wasn't like it was something we'd planned or anything, it just kind of...."

"What the hell are you talking about?" his sister demanded.

Starsky waved his arms frantically at his partner, but Hutch brushed a hand through the air and turned away, clutching at the receiver like a lifeline. "I mean, it's like it was always there, only we just didn't...and then there were the pictures...and, I don't know, it just kind of h-h-happened...I mean, come on, Goddamnit, you're the one who took the pictures, for God's sake, and you kept giggling when I said we looked smitten with each other, and I...."

"Hutch," Starsky whispered fiercely.

Hutch covered the receiver with his hand. "What?" he demanded. "Will you—what?"

"I didn't tell her about us," Starsky said in a low voice. "I told her you were sick."

Hutch flushed bright red to the roots of his hair. "Oh. Well, I...Oh." He held the phone back up to his ear. "Kim?"

"K.J., what is the matter with you, are you delirious or something?" she asked him.

"N-no, I...I didn't know what Starsky...I thought he...." He looked helplessly at his partner who, now that things were in the open, wore a tantalizingly amused smirk. "I—I mean, we—we realized...."

"You finally realized what I've been trying to tell both of you for the last five years?" Kim asked, her voice slightly gentler. "Well, congratulations, Blondie, maybe you're not so dumb after all."

"That's it?" Hutch asked. "You're not pissed or disgusted or horrified or...anything?"

"About that?" Kim laughed warmly. "Are you crazy? I think it's great."

"Great? You're not gonna revoke our Uncle rights to the kids?"

Kim's tone softened again. "K.J., what you two have, what you two are together, most people don't ever find, not in their whole lives. The way you care about each other, care for one a gift, and it radiates from both of you when you're together. It shines in both your eyes, and it touches everyone you love, and everyone who loves you back, including Jeremy and Kate. If my kids grow up learning to love open-heartedly and caringly, and if any of that comes from having spent time with you and Starsky—how could that possibly be wrong?"

Hutch's eyes prickled with tears. "Thank you," he said, quietly, and cleared his throat. "Thank you. I love you."

"I love you too, sweetheart," she answered. "Now what's this bullshit about you being sick again?"

The catch in Hutch's voice turned to laughter, almost immediately. "Just the sniffles," he said, "I'm fine."


"Yeah, I promise." Hutch took a deep breath. "I'm more than fine."

"Terrific," she said. "Put Starsky back on."

Hutch held out the phone to his partner, whose grin immediately vanished as he backed away. "Uh-uh," he said, emphatically, then, "Kim?" as the phone was unceremoniously placed against his ear.

Hutch began to chuckle at Starsky's side of the conversation.

"Kim...Kim...come, Kim, be reasonable, what was I supposed to do? Call you up in Hawaii and say, 'your brother's got a cold?'...Yes, I know he was real sick before, but...oh, like there was anything you were gonna do about it bein' four thousand miles away...yes I had him takin' vitamins, I...yes I fed him healthy crud...Kim, I promise, there were no burritos involved...."

Starsky looked helplessly at his partner, but Hutch was doubled over against the refrigerator, shoulders shaking silently in mirth. "You're as pushy as your brother, Kimmy, you know that?" Starsky's stance softened slightly. "Honest to God, hon, he's okay... bit of a cough left, that's about, I didn't catch it, I'm fine...." Starsky blinked very hard several times. "I love you too," he said. "Thank you for...." he shrugged his shoulders. "Thank you."

He hung up the phone carefully, and yanked Hutch up by an arm, pulling him into a tight hug. "She's somethin' else," he whispered, then pushed Hutch away slightly so he could look him full in the face. "I can't believe you just did that," he said incredulously.

"Me neither," Hutch answered, "But, um, it...went well, don't you think?"

Starsky traced an eyebrow with his thumb. "Sure," he agreed, "but you're still blushin'."

Hutch nodded slightly. "Not every day a guy comes out to his sister," he said, raising an eyebrow, and allowing a smile to tug at the corner of his mouth. "Especially when...." he shrugged. "Especially when he's such a dope that he only just figured it out for himself."

Starsky pulled him forward and kissed him on the nose. "Feels good," he said. "Feels...right. Feels like it always shoulda been this way."

"I guess maybe it always was this way, but we—"

"You know what scares the hell out of me, Blondie?"


"We're detectives. Aren't we supposed to be able to figure stuff like this out? I mean, come on, your sister was on it. What is she, anyhow, Nancy Drew?"

Hutch grinned, and tugged Starsky toward the den. "Come on," he said, patting Starsky's stomach lightly. "You're starting to babble. Too much excitement, and too much turkey." He pushed Starsky down on the sofa. "Stay here, I'll get us some tea, and we can...we can talk...if you want to...."


Starsky looked around the room, and listened to the sounds of his partner filling the kettle, and taking down mugs from the cabinet. This is the day, he thought, that probably changes my life...our lives...forever. Instead of feeling nervous and unsettled, he felt calm, at peace, as if all the previous months, hell, years of the relationship, had somehow contributed to this moment. He closed his eyes and wondered at the gradual ascent the path had taken, wondered if there was anyone in the world who was as happy and as contented as he was at this moment. He pictured his partner, coming full circle, from this room, back to this room, and all of the lifespan that had taken place in between.

It amazed him constantly that someone who'd had so much to deal with as a child, who'd never felt the reckless abandon of continuous unconditional love, could be so able to give it to others as an adult. To me, Starsky thought, he gives it to me, has always given it....

"Here you go," Hutch said softly, holding out a mug.

Reverie interrupted, Starsky smiled up his thanks. "Sit," he urged, patting the sofa beside him.

Hutch slid onto the couch, obliterating the physical distance between the two, as he settled in, arm against arm with Starsky. They sat in silence for a good while, until finally Starsky set his mug aside, and lifted his arm, settling it around the blond's shoulders as Hutch cuddled in closer to him.

Hutch rested his head on Starsky's shoulder, yawning tiredly.

"How you feelin', huh?" Starsky asked, his lips against Hutch's hair.

"Good," Hutch answered. "Like it's all inside me, everything I've ever wanted."

Starsky chuckled. "That's terrific, babe, but I meant..." he brushed back strands of blond hair from Hutch's forehead and laid the back of his other hand there, against the warm skin. " you feelin'?"

" I've been through every cycle in a washing machine. Soak, rinse, dry, spin, and wringer." Hutch answered him honestly. He yawned again.

Starsky pressed his hand tighter against Hutch's forehead, and squeezed his shoulders at the same time. "Why don't you go to bed?" he asked. "You need the rest."

"In a minute," Hutch allowed. "Just let's...for a little bit...stay here...."

"Nah," Starsky released his hold, and stood, pulling the tired blond along. "We got the rest of our lives to 'stay here for a little bit'...wherever we are." The warm smile was evident in his tone. "You need to sleep. Your voice is getting' all scratchy again."

"No it's not," Hutch insisted, leaning away from him to cough briefly.

Starsky shook his head. "Big dope. Why don't you want to go to bed?"

"Honestly?" Hutch looked him in the eyes. "I don't want this day to be over."

Starsky's heart melted at the fluidity of the love and trust that was pooled within the depths of Hutch's eyes. "It's not gonna be over, Hutch,'s just what we've always had, but more, and I...."

Hutch nodded in acquiescence, but did not speak. He took Starsky's hand, and led him up the steps to the bedroom. He slowly climbed between the sheets, and with a tilt of his head, indicated that he wished his partner to join him.

"You sure?" Starsky asked. "You're ready for...."

"I've never been more sure of anything in my life," Hutch answered.

Starsky leaned down to kiss him quickly. "Me either," he admitted. "But let me...I need to lock up, and unplug the tree and um..." he flashed a brilliant grin, "brush my teeth."

"Do it quick," Hutch instructed. "I'll...."

Starsky covered his face with light kisses. "You do that, Blintz," he urged. "You keep it warm for me. The bed, I mean," he smiled, straightening.

Hutch smiled into the pillow.

Starsky took the stairs quickly, and strode about the downstairs, turning off lights, gathering mugs and stray spoons and dropping them in the sink, and looking around briefly to make sure he'd put all the leftovers from their Christmas dinner away. Finally satisfied, he made his way back up the steps, flicking off the hallway light as he moved toward Hutch's bedroom.

He stopped short in the doorway, overwhelmed by the sight of his partner, golden hair splayed across the pillow in the moonlight, his expression one of calm and a kind of peace that Starsky could not remember quite having seen there before. His own eyes glistened at the beauty of it, and he closed them quickly, giving thanks to the heavens that this beauteous treasure was forever linked to him, heart and soul.

Hutch's breathing was congested with a slight rasp, and yet Starsky felt nothing but secure, knowing that the sound showed much improvement over the ragged, hoarse gasps of a few days before. We can deal with this, he thought, moving slowly into the room. He placed one knee on the edge of the bed, sliding under the covers in a fluid motion, and Hutch automatically moved closer until their bodies were nestled together as if they'd always shared a bed.

Which they had, of course, on numerous occasions—gentling an illness or an injury, sleeping off a stakeout when either was too exhausted to make up the couch, the night Gillian had died, and Hutch, shattered into tiny, jagged shards, had needed someone to hold him together till morning's light.

Starsky slid an arm around the blond, and dropped a soft kiss on the edge of an ear, and suddenly realized that Hutch, exhausted both from being sick, and from the revelations of the day, had fallen fast asleep. Starsky stilled a momentary urge to wake him, instead wrapping his arms more tightly around Hutch, and his partner responded by moving even closer, burying his face somewhere in the middle of Starsky's chest. Starsky grinned down at him, overcome with warmth and a contentment that seemed infinite and filling at that moment, then closed his own eyes and drifted off to sleep.


"Hutch? Hutch, come on," Starsky insisted, shaking a shoulder, and gently running an index finger down Hutch's nose. "Come on, babe."

Hutch opened one eye blearily and absolved the resultant tickle with the hand he ran down his face. "What the hell time is it," he managed, his voice sleep-scratched and tired.

"Six," Starsky informed him, "and the sun's startin' to come up already, you gotta get up."

Hutch flopped onto his back. "You expect me to get up now? After last night? Are you out of your mind?" His sleepy smile belied the harshness of his words, and Starsky bent down to kiss the full, soft, morning lips.

"Damn right, Blondie," Starsky insisted, hovering in for another kiss. "It's the first day of a new year. Time to do somethin' important."

Hutch grinned and draped an arm over his eyes, hoping to close them for just a few more moments while Starsky elaborated on whatever his plans were for the upcoming day. "Starsk, come on," he moaned half heartedly, "last night was New Year's Eve, and we were up drinking champagne still at one a.m. And after that...." Hutch sat up slightly, "We did do something important." He raised one eyebrow. "Or have you forgotten?"

Starsky's smile illuminated the room like the morning sunshine that had not yet appeared. "Nope," he said, sitting down on the side of the bed. "Never gonna forget that."

Hutch reached up and tugged at a wayward curl. "You'd better not," he teased. "Or I'll...."

"You'll what?"

"I' forced to do it over and over until it's emblazoned on your memory," Hutch pushed back the covers and nudged Starsky's back. "Okay, out of my way if you want me to get up. What are we doing this morning that's so special, anyhow?"

"Well," Starsky replied cryptically, "Two things, actually."

"Two?" Hutch repeated, stretching and yawning. He looked down at Starsky. "You know what I'm really thankful for today?" he asked.

"Me?" Starsky asked hopefully, canting his eyebrows.

"Well, obviously," Hutch replied, "That goes without saying. No...I'm thankful that we're home and I can get out of bed in the morning in bare feet without freezing off a toe. Venice in early January is definitely preferable to Duluth, no matter how much you like the snow."

Starsky regarded him solemnly. "To be honest, I'm kind of glad to be back here too," he admitted. "Especially after your parents got home yesterday morning. They kept looking at me weird. Why'd they say they came home early again?"

"They said it was because they found out that my father's biggest client...."

"Rance Murdoch," Starsky said the name in his finest Brooklyn-British accent.

"Rance Murdoch," Hutch agreed, "is giving a New Year's Eve bash at the Country Club." He blinked at Starsky seriously. "Really, I think it was because they were trying to catch us in the act."

"They almost did," Starsky pointed out, grinning. "Never saw you get dressed so fast in my life. You think they knew?"


"They knew," Hutch assured him.

"You told them?"

"Hell no," Hutch reached for his bathrobe. "They knew, they knew what was going on, and they knew..." he leaned down and kissed Starsky quickly on the cheek, " was going on in their house. In addition to which," he knotted the bathrobe around his waist, "they knew I had my feet on the sofa, and I'm pretty sure they figured out we had a Christmas tree in there."

"My God," Starsky teased, in a horror stricken voice. "So, um...which thing you think upset them the most?"

Hutch regarded him seriously. "I can't believe you'd even ask me that question," he said, a touch of impatience audible in his tone. "They weren't happy about you and me, but," He pulled Starsky close and hugged him tightly. "They were really, really pissed about the pine needles."


"I don't understand why we're spending New Year's morning in the middle of LAX," Hutch complained. "We were just here yesterday. I thought this was a good surprise."

"Oh, it is, absolutely," Starsky assured him, eyes twinkling. "The best. You want coffee?"

"Bad coffee at the airport is my surprise?" Hutch tried to get comfortable against the orange molded plastic chair. "I'm gonna sulk now, I think," he said.

"Uncle Hutch!!!!!"

Hutch leapt to his feet just in time to once again catch that familiar green-jacketed, blue-jeaned blur as it flew through the air toward him. "Jeremy?" Chubby arms went round his neck, and he closed his eyes into Jeremy's shoulder. When he looked up at Starsky, his eyes were bright. "This is my surprise?"

"Hell, no, Blondie, I had no idea this kid was gonna be here," Starsky replied. He turned around quickly and motioned with a hand, and soon Kim, Kate, Michael and a very large diaper bag appeared from behind some large tropical plants, which decorated a partitioned area of the terminal.

Hutch looked up to see the rest of his family coming toward him, bumping Jeremy up a little higher on his arm, and reaching for his sister, niece, and brother-in-law with the other.

Michael stepped back first, allowing his wife free access to her brother. He cuffed Starksy lightly on the shoulder, and pulled him in for a quick embrace. "How you doin', buddy?" he asked, thumping the dark-haired detective on the back. "It's good to see you."

"Good to see you, too," Starsky responded, eyes twinkling. "Nice tan." He tilted his head toward Hutch, who now held both Jeremy and Kate, and had Kim's arms wrapped around his middle besides. "Think we surprised him," he said. "Thanks."

"I just wish we had more than two hours layover before our flight home," Michael said. "But we were thinking February, maybe, to come out for a better visit?"

"That sounds terrific," Starsky said. "Hutch is gonna have to start baby-proofing." He indicated the laughing infant who was alternately poking fingers in Hutch's eyes, in his mouth, and trying to grab his nose. "She might be crawlin' by then."

"So have you two...are you...."

"No," Starsky shook his head. "Not yet. For now, we're takin' things one day at a time, not making any big decisions right now."

"I think that's wise," Michael agreed. "I mean, it's only been...."

"Officially, yeah," Starsky ducked his head shyly. "Even though...." he shrugged his shoulders. "But we've got work to consider, and finances, figure if we keep on the way we are for a year, year and a half or so, save up some money...."

"Very wise," Michael nodded in approval. "And when you guys are ready for some legal counseling, or to start looking for a house, or whatever, you let me know, okay?" He tousled Starsky's hair. "Family discount." He made a wry face. "Uh...have the parents...?"

"Not really," Starsky answered him, reaching out to take Kate from his partner's arms. "They know, or Hutch thinks they know. It's terse. But how would you tell if it were otherwise—Ow!" he yelped as Kate pulled on his ear and wiggled with a robust baby chuckle.


"You're my best uncle," Jeremy told Hutch solemnly. He tugged at Starsky's sleeve. "N'him too, right, Starsk?"

"You bet, pal," Starsky hunkered down next to the child. "So you gonna come see us in a few weeks?"

"Sure am," Jeremy agreed. "Mommy says we just have to go home for a couple weeks to get clean clothes 'n stuff."

"We'll be all ready when you come back," Hutch assured him. "We've got some great stuff planned to do. Disneyland? And the beach? How's that sound?"

"Can we go surfin'?"

Hutch looked quickly at Starsky. "Well, um, sure, if you want, but neither Starsky nor I...."

"You 'n my Starsky can do anything," the little boy said honestly. "My mom told my dad that, and I heard her." He frowned. "They weren't talkin' about surfing, but it's prob'ly the same."

Hutch pulled him into a quick hug, then stood and faced his sister. "You told his dad that, huh?" he asked, gently brushing back her bangs.

"Mm hm," she said. "I did." Her eyes were bright with tears. "You know, I always swear I'm not going to cry when I'm saying goodbye to you...."

Hutch kissed her cheek. "But you always do anyway," he smiled. "It's only a few weeks, kiddo, not worth crying about this time."

She wiped her eyes quickly. "That's not what I'm crying about," she said. "It's because...."

Hutch placed a finger against her lips. "Sh...." he soothed. "I know why. And I'm happy too. Really happy."

"Okay," she said, squaring her shoulders and taking a deep breath. "You ready, Michael?" she asked, nodding toward the gate. "Think they're starting to board."

"Yup." Her husband swooped up his son in one arm, and caught Hutch in a quick hug with the other. "You hang in there, K.J.," he said, smiling. "We'll run interference with the parents, keep 'em from calling to bug you two, all right?

Hutch slapped him on the back. "Knew I could count on you, Mikey," he grinned.

"You know what?" Kim asked Starsky, as she hugged him fiercely. "I have always wanted another brother, and particularly one who's a good dancer—you know what a klutz K.J. can be."

Starsky laughed heartily. "Do I ever," he agreed, then turned Kim around in a perfect dip. He leaned in and kissed her on the nose, before setting her back up on her feet, breathless. "I always wanted a sister," he told her. "So try and get rid of me now."

She pulled away and grinned at him. "But there is one stipulation," she said.

"I know, I know..." he raised a hand in self defense. "The next time the Blintz so much as clears his throat, I'll be on the phone to you...."

"I don't think so, Gordo," Hutch broke in, draping an arm around his partner's shoulders. He looked at Kim's darkening expression. "We'll negotiate that point when you come back out, okay?" he said, placating her with a kiss and a nudge. "Now get out of here, you'll miss your plane, and I didn't clean the bathroom at home."

Amidst laughter and a hint of tears, the Kelly family trooped down into the jetway toward the airplane that would bear them home to Duluth.


"Come on, Hutch, it'll be fun," Starsky cajoled, as he urged the Torino down the Santa Monica ramp to the Pacific Coast Highway. "You'll see." He pointed out the window, waving a hand in the direction of the ocean, and then toward the foothills lining the other side. "See the ocean? See the mountains? See the—"

"See your partner, incredulous," Hutch sat up straighter and grinned. "You could at least tell me where we're going," he added.

"It's a surprise," Starsky glanced over at him.

Hutch placed a hand on Starsky's knee, and gave it a squeeze. "This morning...seeing my sister, and the kids, and Michael...that was already the best surprise," Hutch told him. "How on earth did you...."

"Hey, you've gotta sleep sometimes," Starsky shot back. "When Kimmy called yesterday morning for her daily 'Hutchdate' we figured out the times and stuff." He reached down and patted the hand on his knee.

Hutch nodded, and leaned back against the car's seat, closing his eyes dreamily. As the memories of his illnesses, both of them, began to recede, quickly, like the tide washing away from the beach, he had been left with an incredible combination of both euphoria, and peace. No longer compelled to fit everything he'd ever wanted to do in his lifetime into the next two hours, he wondered at the abject pleasure of serenity and contentment.

Nearly recovered, the only residual symptom was the occasional wave of overwhelming sleepiness—to which he had learned to give in, finding that the energy fueled by dozing with reckless abandon gave him new strength upon awakening, and only heightened the pleasure of the things he was doing when he was awake and alert. No more did he feel the pressure of a time constraint, and he knew that, in large part, had less to do with feeling better, and the return of health, than with the direction of his relationship with his partner.

All the pieces were in place now, he realized, and there was every reason in the world to take things at a slower pace, to savor each moment, and to revel in its magic. He wondered just where it was that Starsky was taking him, as the golden midmorning sunlight warmed him through the car window—and then he realized that it really didn't matter.

"We're here," Starsky announced, pulling the car off the road, and Hutch could smell the hay and the sunshine, and the indefinable heady scent of early-morning-horse before he opened his eyes.

"I don't believe this," he said, sitting up straighter. "You're willing to give this another shot after...." He reached up and touched the healing scar on Starsky's head, from which the sutures had only been removed two days previously.

"Hey, you know what they say," Starsky replied, putting the car in park, and turning off the engine. "You fall off the horse, you gotta get right back on." He looked at Hutch, eyes twinkling in surprise. "Wow, who'd ever've thought I'd be able to say that in real life and mean it? Now come on, I've got a date with the Tomato."

Hutch burst out laughing, and he reached up and tousled Starsky's curls gently. "Okay, Cowboy," he said, "let's see what you've got."

"Well, actually...." Starsky knit his brows together in a devilish leer. "I think I kinda showed you that last night, but...."


The horses slowed their paces in tandem from an all out canter, to a trot, and finally to a leisurely, calm walk, as the sparkling breakers twinkled under their hooves like a magic carpet. The horses moved closer together, merging like liquid lava, so that the riders' knees occasionally touched companionably as they moved down the beach.

"How are you doing?" Hutch asked, taking the reins in one hand as he pushed windblown bangs from his face. "You doing okay?"

"I am doing terrific," Starsky answered, nudging Hutch's calf with his toe. "Me and this horse, we've got some kinda understanding going here."

"You and the horse, huh?" Hutch smiled indulgently.

"Yeah," Starsky leaned down and patted the horse's neck affectionately. "How you doin'?" He squinted over at the blond. "Ready to head back?"

"I guess," Hutch sighed. "Can't help feeling, though..." he shrugged his shoulders, "...that this...this time in our lives...should know...."

"Go on forever?"

"Mm hm," Hutch nodded, shading his eyes with his hand. "You know?"

"I get it," Starsky agreed, "and I feel the same, but..." he smiled broadly, "maybe the path that takes us wherever it is we're headed will be even better than the one that got us here."

"Pretty profound. What about the details?"

"We'll figure them out as we go, Blintz," Starsky said gently. "Same's we always have."

"And that's enough?"

"That's a gift, Hutch. For both of us, all the time, together. Remember that, and the rest will fall into place."

Hutch nodded, smiled, and allowed his horse to bump up against Starsky's, their knees brushing together again, a show of solidarity. "In tandem, huh?" he asked.

"You got it, babe," Starsky grinned brilliantly as the horses began to move, with the riders, in perfect harmony, back up the long beach toward the rest of their lives.