You keep me standing tall,

You help me through it all,

I'm always strong when you're beside me,

I have always needed you.

I could never make it alone...


The next few days were a blur of funeral arrangements and long sad gatherings. Hutch's parents had declined to attend the funeral, much to Starsky's surprise, since they'd planned to be at the wedding the following Saturday anyway. Hutch dealt with the long days at the funeral home and the funeral itself with his usual stoicism and strength. Of course, he kept Starsky no more than a whisper away throughout most of the proceedings. His partner was his source of strength and solace, as Sandra's parents were too devastated to console anyone, and Hutch was, to some extent, mourning his own parents' decision not to come for the funeral. He felt, in an ironic sort of way, it would have been their last chance to meet Sandra.

Hutch put the house up for sale as soon as the bedroom was cleaned and the restriction lifted from it as a crime scene. Starsky had rounded up a couple other guys from the department to clean up the bedroom in question, and within a couple of weeks, another young couple had made an offer on the house. Hutch sold the crib and other nursery furnishings with the house.

Dobey was convinced to approve a brief leave of absence for both detectives. Despite his passion to work the case, Hutch was in no shape to concentrate on his work and finally accepted he needed some time to recover. Dobey knew very well after all the years he'd watched the two of them cope with just about every conceivable crisis, Hutch wouldn't get any better without Starsky, so both detectives were sent packing.

To Hutch's stunned amazement, it was Starsky's idea to rent a cabin on a lake for a week, getting completely away from civilization. Of course, the cabin Starsky chose boasted all the modern conveniences and frontage on a private beach. Hutch was strongly suspicious of the story that Starsky concocted of having gotten a great deal from a friend of a friend on the rent. He figured it was more likely his partner had taken the level on his savings down by quite a bit to make this little getaway happen. Too drained to worry about who paid for it or what it might be costing, Hutch just settled for appreciating the peace, quiet and companionship of his best friend he figured the trip would provide.

It was a small, one floor house with two bedrooms, a bathroom, living room, kitchen and a porch that extended the full length of the front of the house and continued down the side, overlooking the beach and the water. Arriving late afternoon, Starsky decided they should grill the steaks they brought and have dinner on the porch. In the perfect, mild, sunny weather, Hutch couldn't argue with that idea, even if everything he did seemed to hurt because he was doing it without Sandra. He helped to haul in the suitcases and supplies, then sat on the porch with a beer in his hand while Starsky worked on grilling the steaks at the foot of the three steps which led to the yard, which eventually sloped down a grassy hill to the sand and water.

"So, we gonna try a little fishin' tomorrow?'' Starsky asked, startling his partner.

"Fishing? You hate getting up early and sitting in a boat. You said so yourself.''

"I was pretty good at it up at Pine Lake--remember all those trout I caught the morning we left?''

"You never let me forget it,'' Hutch retorted, taking a drink out of the beer can.

"You're always rubbin' my nose in what a great outdoorsman you are and how I don't know a raccoon from a grizzly, so I gotta get my revenge somehow,'' Starsky answered, a smile tugging the corner of his mouth.

"Starsk, I appreciate what you're trying to do here, but I--''

"Then shut up and let me do it.'' Starsky's smile took the harshness out of the words. "Ya never know--it might work.''

"Okay. We'll go fishing tomorrow,'' Hutch replied through a half-hearted smile.

Dinner was a pleasant experience in terms of food and surroundings, but Hutch still regretted not being able to give Starsky the enthusiastic response all his efforts deserved. The steaks were perfect, the wine excellent, and Starsky even was trying his best to discuss the finer points of fishing or to draw Hutch out to discuss anything he might find interesting. The conversation was still spotty, and Hutch felt guilty that he was still miserable despite the fact that Starsky had done all but don a straw hat and cane and dance across the porch to make him smile. Of course, Starsky had resorted to a straw hat routine in the past, so Hutch would not have been surprised to see it make its return.

"So, you feel ready to talk about the case now?'' Starsky asked, pouring more wine for both of them.


"Sandra's case. You feel like talking about it?''

"I don't know where to start.'' Hutch leaned back in the chair. "My brain's so foggy I can't remember my own name half the time.''

"Maybe working on the case'll help. Look, I know not much of anything makes a difference to ya right now, and I don't blame you at all, buddy. I know how it feels to not care about anything for a long time. To hurt so much that you'd just like to go to sleep and never come to so you didn't have to get up and face another day of it.'' Starsky paused as he noticed Hutch's eyes misting again. Depressing him more hadn't been the goal. "What I'm drivin' at is that maybe, just maybe, if you feel like you're doin' somethin' to help Sandra, you'll feel better.''

"You're probably right,'' Hutch responded quietly.

"Then let's take the wine and go sit on the beach and start talkin' this over like detectives. And if it gets too heavy for you, we'll knock it off and come back here and find something stupid on the tube we can fall asleep in front of. Whaddya say?''

"I say grab the wine and let's go.''

The water was rolling languidly up to the beach, grasping the shoreline, then sliding back again. The moon highlighted the little ripples and waves, and a mild breeze carried the scent of the water to the two solitary figures who sat in the sand, backs supported by two beach chairs, sipping wine and staring out at the vast expanse of water and night in front of them. Though they were going to talk about Sandra and the case, they had done precious little talking about anything since settling into their comfortable seats. For his part, Hutch was relaxing, able to shut out the misery in a moment of fantasy. He and Starsky were just taking a vacation together, like they'd done so many other times. Sandra wasn't dead. She just...wasn't here...But that was a dangerous flight of fancy, and the crash would be too painful if he soared any higher with it. He looked over at Starsky, patient and uncharacteristically quiet, as if he knew exactly when to speak and when to let the silence speak for itself. Could I have found such solace sitting out here with Sandra if you were dead? Sometimes I think I breathe and you breathe with me...you think with me, function with me, and I with you. How does it work to cut that in half? Can it ever work? Where would I go when everything crashed around my ears? When Sandra died, I knew just where to go. Would I know that if you were gone? Would going to Sandra have healed that wound? Or to anyone else?

"Beautiful night,'' Starsky said quietly.

"Very.'' You knew I wanted to hear your voice right then, didn't you? That I was getting too lonely sitting here in my own space... "After we talked to Mrs. Nolan, I went over to see Sandra--took her some flowers, and she told me...showed me the nursery.''

"When were you in the house last--before that, I mean?'' Starsky sipped his wine again.

"The morning before.'' Hutch paused. "We've been over all this with Nedloe and Elliot.''

"And now we're goin' over it. So Sandra could have done the nursery any time the day before, or before you showed up to see her.''

"I s'pose.''

"I only went into the living room and kitchen when I got there to wait for the electrician.'' Starsky paused. "It's weird though. She took me up on it awfully fast when I offered to leave. But I imagine that could have been because she didn't want me somehow finding out about the nursery before you did. A delivery truck showed



up right when I left.''

"How did she seem?'' Hutch asked, shifting a little in his chair to have eye contact with his partner.

"Fine. She was a little nervous, but okay.''

"Yeah, but that could have been waiting for the nursery stuff to be delivered--you're right.''

"We know there was no forced entry. She had to let the person in. She usually kept the door locked when she was there alone, didn't she?''

"Yes. She was always careful about things like that.''

"So who was on her agenda for that day? You said she had a bunch of stuff to do that her mother set up.''

"Oh, I don't know.'' Hutch was pensive a moment. "God, Starsk, I didn't even listen to her. I just tuned her out when she told me everything she'd be doing all day...''

"Hey, come on,'' Starsky said gently, laying a hand on Hutch's arm. He could tell his partner was getting choked up, and was ready to beat himself up again for some created transgression against the woman he loved. "We're supposed to tune women out when they go off like that. She'd'a thought somethin' was wrong with you if you didn't.'' Starsky was relieved to see him smile a little. "How organized is her mother?''


"Would her mother be organized enough to keep one of those day planners--you know, a calendar book with all the 'to do' lists in it?''

"I know she kept close track of all the plans, so maybe.''

"What I'm driving at is that brides come into contact with a whole slew of people if they're planning a big wedding--caterers, florists, seamstresses, travel agents, and in Sandra's case, we can add decorators, furniture salespeople and delivery people, service people, new neighbors--a whole cast of extra people in her life--any one of whom she might let in without worrying. And someone could use any one of a number of cover stories to get her to open the door. The Nolan girl was a bride-to-be also--she was probably in contact with the same types of people. I was just thinking we could start with what her mother recalls being on the docket for the day it happened. Then we can compare that along with all the other wedding planning stuff she did to the Nolan girl's schedule and contacts before her death.''

"Good thinking. If I weren't so spaced out, I might be able to think like that.'' Hutch drained his wine glass and refilled it.

"Hutch, give it some time. It's only been a few weeks.'' Starsky stared out at the water a moment, then continued, still watching the gentle motion of the waves. "When Terry died, you know I was a mess for a long time. I mean, I pulled it together enough to go back to work, but even that took me close to a month. I was always



amazed Dobey put up with me bein' gone so long.''

"He's putting up with me now, so I guess you broke him in right,'' Hutch replied, grinning a little. Only he and Starsky could joke that way and have the other not take any exception to it.

"Nothing registered, ya know? I mean, I heard people talkin' to me, and they were all trying to be so nice and understanding...but none of it meant a damn thing to me. All I knew was that just...breathin' hurt, made me feel bad. My mind was a blob of mush. I think you were probably the only person who wanted to spend more than five minutes with me. I guess you were probably the only person I would have let in.''

"So when did it get better? I mean, I've been down this road with Gillian. I know it was hard to get past that, but this is...different somehow.''

"She was gonna be your wife. And then there's Elizabeth...'' Starsky had never referred to Hutch's ill-fated child as "the baby'' or "it'' once the coroner had confirmed the fetus was female. She had a name, and he always used it. "Man, can you picture that poor kid tryin' to date anybody? With two old cops screening all her boyfriends?''

"Who said anything about letting her date?'' Hutch replied, chuckling a little. "There'll be another chance, buddy,'' Starsky said quietly. "You deserve to have that. You should have at least twelve little Hutchinsons.''

"Twelve?'' The absurdity of the number helped Hutch speak past the massive, painful lump in his throat. Leave it to Starsky to mix heavy emotion with exaggeration.

"Some people ought to have lots of kids. I think, if you want kids, you ought to have a whole house full of 'em.'' Starsky was silent a moment. "I think you'd be the best dad a kid could ask for.'' Making his partner cry was the last thing Starsky had planned on, but that's what he accomplished. Hutch lost his tenuous grip on his emotions, and was glad when Starsky bridged the small distance between them, deserting his beach chair and kneeling next to Hutch. The familiar solace of the embrace calmed him, like it always did. "Sorry to upset you, babe. That was the last thing I wanted to do.'' Starsky rested his chin on top of Hutch's head and squeezed a little tighter.

"Not...you,'' Hutch managed. "I'm sorry... It's just...so hard...''

"I know. Just let it go, buddy. Nobody here but me and thee and the ocean...and a coupla those funny little crabs that have been eye-ballin' our toes for the last half hour.'' Starsky felt the shaking of tears transform into a little laughter. "Hey, you're doin' fine to the rest of the world, pal. You handled the house deal, you've been supportive to her family while they moved all her stuff out of her apartment--you've held up great. Only difference is, you don't haveta hold up with me. So don't, okay?'' Starsky crouched there quietly for a few minutes, just holding his partner.

"I don't think I want to go through this again,'' Hutch stated softly.

"Don't think anybody'd wanna go through it the first time, buddy. But with love comes risk. And livin' your whole life preventing gettin' hurt...you'd never have any love.''

"Maybe that's easier.'' Hutch straightened up and moved away from Starsky. He looked more exhausted than Starsky could remember seeing him in a long time.

"Can you honestly say you wish you'd never laid eyes on Sandra?''

"It's not that I can say something like that. But it just gets real tiresome hurting like this. Every time I think it's the real thing, and I...I take that leap of faith--I end up face down in the sewer.'' Hutch leaned back in his chair, and Starsky noted the location of the two small crabs he'd mentioned to his partner. Satisfied one wasn't lurking in the beach chair, he returned to it. "When you were shot...''

"But I lived, Hutch. No need to dredge up all that misery again, pal.''

"When you were shot, and then no one thought...no one expected you to live through it...I thought right then, 'I've made up my mind, this is it. I'm going to have to lose him and live through that. But I'm not going to ever...not again.'''

"Not going to ever what?'' Starsky asked.

"Give somebody else a piece of my soul,'' Hutch replied succinctly, staring straight ahead, talking more to himself than Starsky.

"Are you saying if you had it to do over again, you wouldn't be partners? Or friends?'' Starsky felt pierced by the idea that Hutch would be able to picture voluntarily giving up their friendship, even if it was by some cosmic impossibility of turning back time.

"Sandra got a piece of my heart and soul, and now that she's dead, it won't ever come back.''

"Not that piece, no. But you've still got enough to keep you goin'.''

"No, we've got enough.'' Hutch turned again to face Starsky, who was by now losing track of the convoluted thought patterns. "See, Starsk, as I was sitting here, I was trying to picture sitting here with Sandra, dealing with your death...and that scared the hell out of me. That nightmare/fantasy was bad enough to make me want reality again, which, God knows, sucks at the moment.'' Hutch took a deep breath and released it. "When everything shatters, I bring the mess to you and we rebuild it somehow. When you were in the hospital, I brought you those pieces but you couldn't help put them together, and I was just all over the place...and I didn't give a damn what happened if I could just nail whoever killed you. All that was gonna be left was the darkness...the solitude...'' Hutch shook his head slowly. "Nothingness...'' Hutch reached for the wine bottle, perplexed when he found it empty. "I just wonder why it's so bad to love somebody...why it seems like you get punished for it in the end.''

"We haven't ended yet, buddy.'' Starsky was still reeling a bit from the revelation of how much his partner depended on him. He'd always felt that he was the one who laid all his problems and fears at Hutch's feet and waited for his partner to "fix it''. "If you were gonna get punished for having me for a friend, I'd'a never come outta that cardiac arrest,'' he finally said. "Do you think there's some big cosmic plan to punish you? Or did you just have tragic bad luck in a couple of major things in your life?''

"You think I'm developing a persecution complex, huh?'' Hutch asked, smirking a little.

"Maybe a small one,'' Starsky responded. "Love's a funny thing, ya know? I mean, it rips your guts into little pieces one minute and then in another form it comes back and glues them back together again. I don't think I'd wanna give up the good stuff to avoid the bad stuff.''

"Sometimes I'm just tired, Starsk. Abby, Gillian, now Sandra...you invest so much and get nothing in the end.''

"Abby left, so that's a fair comparison. But Gillian and Sandra? That'd be like me sayin' I invested all that love in Terry and got nothin' back. It wasn't like the love didn't matter, or that she didn't want me, but it just...I guess that's a lousy comparison too, because I can honestly say I wish I'd never met her. It's because of me she's dead.''

"Starsk,'' Hutch said softly, not knowing what else to say. After all these years, you still blame yourself.

"I'm not going to go over all that again. I can't help how I feel about it. That's just the way it is. But I guess my point is that you can't look at someone's death as a punishment for loving them or be afraid to ever reach out to anyone else because of it.''

"And you can't blame yourself because of what some nut does, or because of a clerical error that let him go free to do it.''

"But I was the fatal connection. Prudholm wouldn't have shot Terry if she'd never met me.'' Starsky leaned back in the chair and stared up at the stars, blinking away a little moisture from his eyes. "It doesn't make it necessarily my fault, but it still makes me the ultimate cause.'' Starsky looked over at his partner. "This isn't about me, buddy.''

"When did you start...caring again? About living, breathing...anything?''

"It was a progression. The cases we worked on right after--they were kind of a fog. I think the first good time I had was when we went undercover doing that stupid western. I think it was the first time I felt really excited about anything. As far as how long it takes to heal--well, that's another whole story. When it happens, I'll let you know.''

"Wine's gone,'' Hutch lamented, tipping the bottle again.

"Yeah, well...'' Starsky was quiet a minute. "It's getting cold out here anyway. You wanna go back up to the house, break out another bottle and start making some lists?''


"Yeah, lists of people Sandra had contacts with.'' Starsky smiled slightly. "I kinda made copies of the Nolan file and brought it along.''

"You 'kinda made copies'?'' Hutch asked, returning the grin.

"You know, the kind you make after hours and smuggle out under your jacket?''

"Oh, those,'' Hutch replied, smiling affectionately at Starsky.

"Well, we sure got some good weather, anyway.'' Starsky commented as he led the way back toward the house, empty wine bottle and glasses in hand.



"Maybe I was wrong about it not bein' worth the risk.''

"Wouldn't be the first time I was right an' you were all wet.'' Starsky flopped an arm over his partner's shoulders with a laugh. "You just never admit it.''



Starsky watched the solitary figure walk along the shore, stopping occasionally to pick up a shell or stone and toss it into the ocean. Hutch sometimes needed these moments to collect his thoughts, and while he had made it perfectly clear that Starsky was not only wanted there, but indispensible, he still needed some time to himself. For his part, Starsky would sit inside the bedroom window that overlooked the ocean and watch him, wanting to be ready to spring out the door and be there if Hutch showed the slightest sign of needing him. The nights had been difficult...nightmares of the murder scene, of bizarre nightmarish weddings with blood-spattered brides, and the ghost-cries of an unborn child were all among the demons that danced around in his partner's sleeping mind. What happened to Terry was ghastly and unthinkable, but if I had walked in and seen her like that, known she was going to have our child and then lost both of them...I might have gone insane right there, on the spot. He watched Hutch pause and stare out into the water for a long moment, and wished he could give him a rest. God, please, do the impossible: give me his grief, and his terror, and his nightmares for just a few hours...just so he can be free of it for awhile, before it drives him crazy. Watching him suffer like this...it's gonna drive me crazy before it gets him anyway...



Starsky contacted Jim Nedloe near the end of their time at the cabin to discuss the possibility with him of them working on the case as a team. Though it would ultimately need Dobey's approval, Starsky didn't want a strain to exist with the other team by going over their heads to make the request. Both Nedloe and Elliot were receptive to the idea, at the end of their ropes with the cases that seemed to yield no leads. Starsky outlined his and Hutch's game plan, and though much of it would be a repeat of what had already been done, the other detectives were willing to let Starsky and Hutch have their go at it.

Both Sandra's parents and Mrs. Nolan happily cooperated with the additional questioning, listing every detail they remembered on the women's lives, schedules and wedding plans.

What time wasn't spent on the phone taking laborious notes was spent comparing those notes to locate any overlapping contacts or patterns. They found two caterers, a florist and a dress shop where both women had either visited or invited representatives to visit them. Sandra's expanded list of furniture stores, decorators and other service people was unique to her, so it was put on hold for the time being.

By the time a week was over, Hutch was chomping at the bit to go back to town and work on the case. Starsky was delighted at his partner's enthusiasm and his ability to take a hold of the investigation. He was thinking more rationally and coolly, raring to follow up the somewhat meager leads they'd cultivated by their joint research efforts.

Starsky finished packing the car while Hutch made one last walk through the house to be sure everything was back in order.

"Think Minnie'll have that stuff pulled for us when we get back?'' Hutch asked, hurrying down the front steps and walking toward the car.

"Probably. She was real anxious to help out.''

"Should be a lot of fun--reading about every sicko in Southern California who likes to use knives on women.'' He slid into the passenger seat of the Torino.

"Well, if we find one that overlaps with Sandra or Madeleine Nolan...''

"Hey, whatever it takes.'' Hutch settled into the seat for the ride back to town as Starsky began the journey through the trees back to the main road. "By the way, thanks for hanging around up here this week. I know a cabin in the woods wouldn't be your first choice.''

"Woods that lead to a beach and a cabin with all the conveniences--I can live with that. It's those lean-to's in the middle of God-knows-where I don't like.''

"Lean-to's? Don't let Dobey hear you say that.'' Hutch was thinking back of their ill-fated vacation at the Dobey cabin a few years earlier.

"Yeah, well, it's just a glorified cookie jar for the neighborhood bears,'' Starsky grumbled as he steered the car onto the paved road that would carry them back to town.

"Oh, come on, Starsk. It's not like you even saw a bear on that trip.''

"That's because we had the presence of mind to leave when he announced himself.''

"Yeah. You tried to get in the car with your hip waders on yet.''

"Like you'd'a noticed a little water on the seats of that rat trap you were driving.''

"That 'rat trap' was a good car, Starsk. A damn good car.'' Hutch was not going to allow the tattered LTD Starsky had bought him to replace its predecessor, totaled in the tumble down the side of a mountain, to be maligned. The fact it was a gift, and signified Starsky's total acceptance and indulgence of Hutch's diametrically opposite taste in cars had made it that much harder to see it destroyed--even if it was, in Starsky's words, a mercy killing.

"Yeah, well, it's not like it gettin' blown up solved anything. That critter you call a car now should have been scrapped five years ago.''

"What about this monster? Starsky, you keep patching this up like Dr. Frankenstein sewed up his monster. Eventually, you're going to step on the gas in a chase and it's gonna roll over and die.''

"You have the nerve to insult my car? Sandra told you that thing of yours was about due to have its plug pulled.'' Starsky immediately regretted the remark, though he had been laughing at the memory of the reaction Sandra's remark had elicited from her fiancé at the time. He held his breath while it registered with Hutch.

"You two always ganged up on me about my car. Let me give you a hint, buddy--she didn't like yours, either.'' Hutch was grinning, obviously enjoying bringing Sandra into the conversation in a pleasant way for a change.

"Oh, yeah? I'll have you know she told me that this was going to be a classic someday.''

"That was her polite way of saying you were driving a candy apple red dinosaur.''

"Dinosaur? This dinosaur is still hauling your sorry ass all over the freakin' map and it doesn't break down every other day, either.''

"The grey Mercury has been perfectly dependable and you know it.'' And so the battle raged, business as usual, for the next few miles.


Minnie had done her homework, and once Dobey was safely home for the night, Starsky and Hutch started the arduous task of wading through the files. Their leave was due to end the following Monday, so this Wednesday night saw them plowing efficiently through the information while the captain wasn't there to observe that they were working on the case right along with Nedloe and Elliot without his knowledge or approval.

"I'm not seeing any connections.'' Starsky leaned back in his chair and propped his feet on the desk. "I guess this was a waste of time, retracing Nedloe and Elliot's steps.''

"I hate to admit defeat, but I can't find a single tie to Sandra, or even to Madeleine Nolan. By the time I screened out the ones that were dead or incarcerated...''

"Yeah, Minnie must be slipping. I told her to take those out.''

"Well, Dobey's got a couple of major manhunts going on with that gang who're knocking over the liquor stores and that other pervert that's snatching little girls out of the parks. She probably has been pulling files on every conceivable type of pervert for days now. Think we should call it a night?'' Hutch piled up the thick stack of files.

"Probably. I've got a list of living weirdos who aren't in the slammer at the moment, so I guess we can compare notes with Jim and run those down tomorrow.'' Starsky yawned and stretched back in his chair. "How're you doin', buddy?''

"I'm real glad we're working on this case,'' Hutch replied quietly.

"Yeah. Going after Prudholm helped, even though it was all over with quickly. Gave me something positive to do for Terry.'' Starsky watched his partner stand and stretch, trying to alleviate the stiffness in his back. "Come on, partner. Let's head for home. You wanna come over and watch a ball game?''

"At this hour?'' Hutch checked his watch.

"My landlord just got a satellite dish, remember? They're playin' somethin' somewhere in the world right now.'' Starsky pulled on his jacket and headed toward the door.

"Starsk, you really don't have to babysit me. I'll be all right.''

"Who's babysittin' you? All I'd do if you weren't here is go home and watch it by myself, and that's no fun. Who would I fight with for the remote?''

"Okay, okay. Sounds like a good idea,'' Hutch agreed, smiling. He tossed his jacket over his shoulder and walked through the door Starsky held for him.

"Watching the ball game'' finally entailed watching a tape delay version of a Japanese baseball game, splitting a pizza--and of course, fighting over the remote. It had become more ritual than actual battle, with Hutch inflicting at least one cultural program on his partner during their multinational satellite cable viewing experience. Starsky, for his part, could usually locate some tacky B-movie that was more than adequate revenge. Since the satellite dish had been installed and the rent, of course, adjusted accordingly, Hutch was amazed his partner ever left the couch. He frequently warned Starsky not to overtax his trigger finger on the remote control buttons.

Hutch won the coin toss for the shower, and went into the bathroom first while Starsky cleared up the pizza remains and the beer cans. It was almost three in the morning, and they did hope to get a reasonable start on following up on their list of degenerates the next day.

"I'm done,'' Hutch announced as he wandered into Starsky's room, wearing one of his partner's old robes.

"You're not gettin' the bed, so don't get comfortable,'' Starsky shot back with a little grin on his face.

"I'm lookin' for those old pajamas I had here--after you got home from the hospital--I never did find those things.''

"Try the bottom drawer of the dresser, and do some digging. I've got lots of old stuff in there.'' Starsky headed for the bathroom himself, but stopped short when he saw his partner kneeling, motionless, in front of the dresser, clutching something in his hands. "Hutch? You okay?'' He approached Hutch and squatted next to him. His partner was holding a small, yellow stuffed rabbit with big blue plastic eyes.

"What...is this?'' Hutch looked up at him through the eyes of fresh grief.

"Aw, Hutch, I'm sorry. I forgot about that thing.'' Starsky sighed and rested a hand on Hutch's shoulder. "I bought it the night--right after you told me about--''

"Elizabeth? This was for her?''

"Well, yeah. I know it's silly, but I was so excited about it that I wanted to do something. So after we left Huggy's, I stopped to pick up some stuff at the drugstore, and I saw this. I stashed it in the drawer after... I didn't remember it was in there.''

"You mind if I keep it?'' Hutch asked, smiling, much to his partner's surprise.

"Sure, if you want.''

"You see, buddy, it's the only thing in this whole world that I have left that belonged to my daughter.'' Hutch was still smiling, examining the little stuffed toy with great interest. It almost fit in just one of his hands, and when he squeezed it, a little mechanical voice said "I love you''. He laughed out loud.

"That's what really got me,'' Starsky said, smiling and slumping into a sitting position against the foot of his bed. "They had this bin of stuffed toys up near the front of the store, and I was digging around in it, and when I pulled this one out, I guess I squeezed it a little harder than the others, because it talked.'' Starsky was silent a moment, and Hutch joined him, sitting there against the foot of the bed, still holding the rabbit. "It's not even a tenth as important or as big as what you're feelin', buddy, but I was really lookin' forward to that kid of yours. Boy or a girl, it didn't matter. I just couldn't wait to spoil her rotten.''

"Yeah, and leave Sandra and me with an impossible behavior problem, right?'' Hutch asked, grinning a little.

"Hey, that's what one of my teachers called me one time, and you manage to deal with me. Nah, Elizabeth would've just gotten a little of her Uncle Dave's spirit, that's all.''

"God help her,'' Hutch said with a laugh. "Thanks.''

"Oh, hey, don't mention it.''

"I wasn't exactly talking about the rabbit, Starsk. Everyone has been great about extending their sympathies about Sandra--I have a big pile of cards at home offering condolences on the loss of my fiancee. I guess Elizabeth isn't considered to be something as significant as my daughter because she wasn't living outside her mother yet. But from the moment Sandra told me we were going to have a baby, I loved that kid, and I started having plans for her in my mind--I could picture the whole thing, you know?'' Hutch shook his head. "But you understood that.''

"Yeah, 'cause I was doin' the same thing. I was already figuring out how much babysitting I could volunteer for without overextending my welcome in your house.'' Starsky laughed a little. "I don't know the first thing about babies or diapers or anything, so I'd'a probably been the world's worst babysitter.''

"But you would have loved her like your own, and you can't pay the most qualified person in the world enough to make them do that. You can teach anybody how to change a diaper.''

"Oh yeah?''

"So I've been told,'' Hutch replied, smiling a little sadly.

"We better get some sleep, pal.'' Starsky yawned. "I gotta hose down. If you can't find the old pajamas, just take something of mine.'' Starsky pulled himself up and headed into the bathroom.

When he came out, Hutch was asleep on the couch, under the throw, still holding the rabbit. Starsky chuckled softly at the sight of his partner actually sleeping with a stuffed animal. Under any other circumstances, it would have been fodder for at least a full year of teasing. This moment will never be mentioned again, Starsky decided as he pulled the throw a little further up to include Hutch's shoulder and slipped quietly into his room.

Hutch had progressed pretty well in the past month, in Starsky's humble opinion. He'd taken a hold of the investigation, he was generally in a pretty fair mood. There was no missing the fact that he was still in enormous pain over Sandra's death, but that certainly wasn't surprising. They'd loved each other like crazy, and missing the opportunity for a family, yet again, was a body blow. Starsky realized he had been planning to ride Hutch's coattails, spending as much time with his kids as he could without being thrown out of the family home. He laughed at the comparison his mind was making with women and their biological clocks. As he slid into bed, he reached the conclusion they still had enough good years left in them to have all that. He flopped on his back and stared at the ceiling. So why don't I care enough to settle down with somebody? Why do I get to a point in a relationship, think about Terry and what we were like, and then wriggle out of it before I have to make a commitment? You can't father children with a memory, or grow old with a fading photograph. At least Hutch had the guts to try again. After Vanessa, Jeannie, Abby, Gillian...he'd had the guts to give it another shot with Sandra. What have I accomplished? Starsky flopped onto his side. Let's see: there was Rosey Malone. That was smart. Fall in love with part of your job. That's what she really was--just part of the job. And in the end she'd accepted even that and believed I loved her...and then left. Okay, Starsky, score one for yourself. You tried, and it flopped. If you hadn't been so damned vulnerable emotionally after Terry that you couldn't keep your head on straight during that assignment, letting the first woman who sparked a little serious interest twist you into a knot...

Okay, there was Emily. You shot her in the head and then made friends with her. Warped path to follow into a relationship, but it led to something for awhile. But not for long. Once her sight was back, her dependence was gone, and so was her love. A few scattered evenings out, and it was obvious that you reminded her of being blind and scared and dependent.

Kira. Damn it. Starsky turned again, settling on his side. The glow of the digital clock ominously informed him it was almost five in the morning. Should've slipped something in Hutch's pizza to knock him out awhile, he thought, smiling to himself in the dark. Hutch will still be up rattling around in a couple of hours. Has some innate inability to sleep in. So now I can think about Kira and how she put my heart through a meat grinder. Shit. She had to do it with my partner... Bitch. He had tried to find another word for her, tried not to think of her quite that savagely, but that was what it boiled down to in the end. God knows Hutch wasn't exactly wide-eyed and innocent in all of it. I tell him I love her and he goes to her house and gets in bed with her. That brought another position change, returning him to his back. Well, we settled that. We finally dusted ourselves off, filled out our reports on that whole dance hall fiasco, came back here and fought for three solid hours until we were too hoarse to talk. I ended up crying, then Hutch ended up crying because I was, then we started laughing...and somewhere in that laughter, something healed and we moved on...or did we? Why in hell am I thinking about it now? Would it have been better to marry Kira, father her kids, and then have her dump me? That moment at Huggy's was worth a lot. Just to show her that she wasn't enough to split us up. That we chose our friendship over her in the end.

So here I am. By myself, planning to leech off Hutch's family life. Except now that's gone again, and it'll take him a long time to risk that battered heart one more time. But he'll probably do it. Guess I'll be one of those old bachelor cops that lives for his job. Terry did say she'd wait on the other side. "I'll be there...waiting.'' Don't give up on me, sweetheart. I know you're waiting, and I'll get there eventually. I have some more things I wanna do here, and I can't leave that blond klutz by himself. Guess he depends on me as much as I do on him, and I sure know I wouldn't wanna wake up in the morning if he wasn't around anymore. Maybe we can go out a la Butch and Sundance, and you and Sandra can be waiting to reward us for our heroism...

Hutch's voice startled him out of his near sleep state. His partner was moaning, saying something...the agitated mumblings of a nightmare. It wasn't the first since he'd found Sandra's body in that horrible state. Truthfully that was why Starsky so often tried to set something up after hours for them to do that would last late enough for him to stay with Hutch or for Hutch to crash at his place. He hated the thought of his partner waking up screaming, with that vivid image of Sandra, all alone.

"Hutch?'' He managed to sit on the edge of the couch near his writhing partner. "Hutch, come on, babe, it's me. Can ya wake up for me?'' Starsky shook him gently. "It's a bad dream, buddy.'' Starsky waited while a little of the strain seemed to leave Hutch's features, and he finally opened his eyes. "You were having a nightmare, buddy. Everything's okay,'' he said softly, pushing a couple strands of hair out of his partner's eyes.

"Sandra...she's dead,'' he stated, just like he always did when he woke up from one of those dreams. That part's real, buddy. Wish I could make it just a bad dream too.

"I know.'' Starsky waited a minute, watching Hutch fiddle absent-mindedly with one of the stuffed rabbit's ears. "Same nightmare, babe?''

"Not exactly.'' He swallowed hard. "She wasn't...coming down the aisle, like before, but she...she was in her coffin, but...like she was...in the bedroom--and that rose was on her chest...'' Hutch squeezed his eyes shut and his chest heaved a time or two.

"Just let it out, it's okay.''

"No, it's not okay. She's dead, Starsk. Nothing's okay,'' he protested angrily through tears he was trying to control.

"I know.'' Starsky heard the words as echoes of things he'd said himself after Terry died. Hutch had tried so hard to comfort him in those first few weeks, but he'd felt much the same way. Very little made him feel any better. "Lift up a little.'' Starsky slid into position to sit on the end cushion of the couch. "You need a little sleep, Blintz. You're lookin' like a zombie. Put your head back right here.'' Starsky straightened the pillows in his lap.

"You're gonna get a stiff neck sleeping like that,'' Hutch objected, settling into position nonetheless. He actually hadn't slept the night through since the night of Sandra's death, right here, on the couch, with Starsky close by.

"Let me worry about that. Now shut up and go to sleep. I'm here, pal.''

"I'm so tired, Starsk.''

"I know. Relax. Think about...think about the ocean--you know, like up at the cabin? The way the water would just kind of roll up on the beach? And the breeze, that fresh smell of the water...seagulls flying overhead...building sandcastles...counting stars while you lie there in the sand, feeling the breeze...'' He looked down at Hutch, noticed the closed eyes and felt the evenness of his breathing. Mission accomplished.