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As he rose toward consciousness, Starsky knew that he'd been out for a long time. The body he inhabited seemed to be listless, and his nose could detect the faintest hint of hospital disinfectant. He opened his eyes and a man with a haggard face looked at him from a chair a couple of feet away, staring so intently that he wondered if those weary blue eyes even saw him.

The man spoke, but his voice came out as a croak. "Starsk?"

He knew he should answer, because it would reassure and bring a peace to that forlorn face, which now appeared afraid to be hopeful. But he wasn't sure he remembered how to swallow, let alone form words.

Now that familiar form slid from the chair to the floor beside the bed. Hutch reached out with a trembling hand, hovering over Starsky, as though afraid to touch.

"You look like hell." Starsky found that he had a voice, after all.

Hutch stared at him in disbelief. He made a choking noise that sounded as though it wanted to be a chuckle. And then a tired smile broke beneath the frazzled mustache, and a hand settled in Starsky's hair.

Starsky closed his eyes, letting the hand touch, knowing it was necessary. He assumed he must have been shot again, but he couldn't detect the location of the wound. The numbness was too thorough. And what rotten luck to have been shot again so soon after recovering from Gunther's hit.

When his eyes opened again, Hutch's chin was resting on his forearm, which was on the bed. The blond continued to worship with his eyes, his fingers now furrowing through strands of Starsky's hair.

Starsky decided to use his vocal chords again. "How ya doin'?"

It was a simple question, but it brought moisture to those pale blue eyes. "How am I doin'?" Hutch asked unsteadily.

Starsky took a deep breath and furrowed his brows, wondering what was wrong with Hutch, why he looked so awful. "Looks like you can use some shuteye," he noted amiably.

A small, stubborn head shake. Then, weakly, "Just wanna be here. With you."

Starsky knew then that he was the cause of all those bad things that had worn into his partner's face. His voice was drier this time. "S'okay to go," he said, trying to sound reassuring. "'M gonna be okay."

Hutch made a small nod, but his position didn't change.

Then there were other people and noises, machinery.

"Mr. Hutchinson," a firm voice said. "Please step out of the way."

Hutch did... sort of. Starsky watched him slide to the far. He sat there, his back against the wall, watching Starsky.

"Can you give me your full name?"

Starsky's eyes darted to the white-haired, craggy-faced man in a hospital coat looking down at him. "David Michael Starsky."

"What year were you born?"


"How many fingers am I holding up?"


"Who's the President of the United States?"

"Ronald Reagan."

The craggy face smiled. "You're doing very good."

A stethoscope was placed against his chest. He was aware of other instruments being fussed with and demands made of his person. But his eyes kept drifting back to the wall, where Hutch sat, looking so wary while watching him.

Starsky tried to smile.

Hutch tried to smile back, but he had to close his eyes. And then he looked sharply away, and swallowed.

Whatever pain the blond was feeling, Starsky knew that, once again, he was the cause of it. He wondered how he would ever make it up to him.

* * *

Ma was supposed to take care of Hutch. Starsky tried to feel some comfort from that thought. He'd made her promise - as well as making Hutch promise to take care of her - in case anything happened to him.

A weight pressed upon his chest. Ma died three months ago.

Was it still three months? Or had he been in the hospital so long that it was much longer? Starsky frowned, perturbed that he didn't know.

"Hi ya," came a gentle voice from the doorway.

Starsky looked in that direction and Hutch stood there, a beaming smile on his heavily lined face. The blond approached and Starsky smiled too, grateful that he was able to remember what he wanted to ask. "How long ago did Ma die?"

Hutch looked worried as he took a seat beside the bed. "Five months ago."

That was disturbing. "I thought it was three."

A soft blink, followed by a gentle voice. "You've been sick a long time, buddy."

The tone was sympathetic, but Starsky couldn't help but hear an underlying accusation in the words - a feeling he knew that Hutch did not create, but one he himself did. For it was suddenly obvious now why the lines were so heavy on the other man's face. "You thought I was gonna die?"

Eyes closed. Throat swallowed. Head bowed. Trembling voice. "Th-They told me you weren't gonna make it."

Hutch should have known better. Starsky waited until watery eyes opened again, then he scolded, "I don't go down so easy."

"No," Hutch whispered with a quick head shake. He laid a hand on the top of Starsky's forearm. "You were sick for so long. The doctors all thought the result was going to be the same, no matter what they tried. But each morning, every hour, you were still here."

Starsky had been on the other side of the fence enough to know how... awful - no, that wasn't even the word - the worrying could be. At least, when Hutch had been sick with the plague, Starsky had been able to invest his time in trying to save his life by looking for Callendar. But this hadn't been that type of situation. Starsky furrowed his brow. He'd been on various medications for a long time, and conversations with doctors and nurses since he'd woken up were merely fragments of explanations. "What was wrong with me? I think I'm awake enough to pay attention."

Hutch took his hand and gently said, "You had a virus. Remember when you were bitten by that monkey?"

Starsky almost grinned. He and Hutch and been at the circus a few months back. It was yet another activity intended to help Starsky recover from Gunther's shooting. Actually, by that time, Starsky had been officially recovered and returned to duty, but Hutch still tended to drag him out to new and fun places. While wandering around the premises before the show started, they'd come upon some cages with monkeys in them. Starsky had stuck his finger between the bars of the cage - completely ignoring the "don't pet or feed the animals sign" - intending to stroke the fur of a sad-looking monkey leaning against the front of the cage. He was stunned when the monkey whirled around and bit him. It wasn't a bad bite - barely broke the skin - and Hutch had laughed at Starsky's outraged expression. Hutch's laughter, so rare in recent times, was a precious memory. "Yeah, I remember."

"Well, from what the doctors were finally able to determine from your spinal fluid - and from me remembering you'd been bitten by the monkey a few weeks before you'd suddenly collapsed - they were able to make a diagnosis." Hutch squeezed Starsky's hand. "See, the monkey had to have had an outbreak of a Herpes B virus. And - "

Starsky eyes widened. Oh, no. "HERPES?"

Soft chuckle. "Not that herpes. It's a different strain. Some monkeys can carry the Herpes B virus. It causes canker sores in their mouths and that sort of thing, but it's not fatal to them. However," Hutch swallowed thickly, "it is almost always fatal to humans." He quieted abruptly.

Ah, Hutch. "But... how can they let a monkey like that be at a circus? Surely, I'm not the only person in the world who's ever been bitten."

"The odds against that monkey having an outbreak - the virus is in remission most of the time - right at the time you got bit is supposedly pretty high. Plus, people who run those traveling circuses don't exactly have a veterinarian on the premises who is going to look for that sort of thing. Nobody would have known that monkey had the canker sores."

"But I didn't feel a thing," Starsky recalled, "other than when he first bit me. I mean, I was fine for -"

Quietly, Hutch said, "It was in remission in your system. Just like it is in the monkey's most of the time. And then it up and struck, and you developed severe myelitis, which basically means the virus attacked your central nervous system."

Starsky released a heavy breath. "Man." Who would have thought a trip to the circus could have such serious consequences? He studied his partner's face for a long time. "I'm gonna be okay, Hutch." It seemed he'd said it so much lately. "You can stop worrying now. Rest. Take care of yourself."

"Trying to get rid of me?" It was a half-hearted joke with an equally botched grin.

"Tryin' to save you." More forceful that he'd intended. Then he decided to get on with it. "Kinda hard to relax and get better when I see you lookin' like hell day in and day out."

The half-smile sobered. The eyes were weary and intense, and showed a glaze of recognition that Starsky spoke truth. The shoulders slumped and the blond head hung. Then Hutch picked up Starsky's hand and brought it to his lips, kissing it with a dry touch. He gently held it, stroking it between gentle fingers. Finally, those tired eyes looked up at him. "I knew you're going to be okay." Soft, struggling to be convincing.

"Don't sound like you believe it," Starsky pointed out, growing weary. He couldn't stay alert for more than thirty minutes at a time. Thorough physical exhaustion, the hospital staff had told him.

Hutch squeezed his hand lovingly, then stood. Looking down at Starsky with piercing eyes, he leaned closer. He cupped Starsky's cheek in one hand. Hutch's dry lips brushed at his face. His warm cheek pressed against Starsky's own.

Then Hutch was gone.

* * *

Hutch was obedient and didn't return for two days. Starsky spent most of his waking time questioning the hospital staff. He'd been rushed to the hospital by Hutch after collapsing while scarfing down lunch. One by one, his bodily functions began to fail. Since antibiotics were useless against the virus, and all the medical staff could do was offer supportive therapy; his prognosis had been extremely poor. But he'd hung on, and the doctors couldn't explain why. They were content to call him a medical miracle. But his loss of strength meant that he'd be in the hospital a while longer.

* * *

The door to his room swung open and a dark form entered, carrying flowers. "Starsky," Captain Dobey greeted, clearing his throat.

"Cap'n," Starsky said cheerfully, strong enough to sit up. He was now well enough to feel bored a good part of the time.

"Brought you these," Dobey indicated the flowers. Starsky nodded toward the windowsill where prior flowers had accrued, and Dobey placed the new pot there. "How you feeling, son?" he asked as he turned.

"Well enough to just wanna get out of here."

Dobey smiled affectionately. "Shouldn't be too long now."

"Maybe another three days, if I'm lucky."

Dobey grunted good-naturedly, but his eyes kept darting to the lone painting on the wall, as though he were hesitant to meet Starsky's eye.

Now that Hutch finally looked healthier, Starsky wasn't sure he could handle bad news. But he decided to be bold. "What is it, Cap'n?"

Dobey looked sharply from the painting, hands behind his back. "Hmm?"

"You seem to have something on your mind."

"Not at all," the large man muttered, studying the row of floral arrangements along the windowsill.

Starsky knew it was a lie. He decided on a conversational tone. "Hutch hasn't talked much about what's going on at the station. You try to partner him with anybody while I'm laid up?" He could imagine how well that would have gone over.

A grunt greeted him as Dobey's eyes finally fell on him. "I guess he didn't tell you," he said with forced casualness.

Starsky felt his heart beat fast for the first time since he'd woken up. "Tell me what?"

Dobey still carried an aura of good cheer. "He hasn't been at the station. He's been on extended leave ever since you fell sick."

Of course, Starsky thought. But then he remembered he'd been hospitalized for some two months. Suspiciously, he asked, "How did you arrange that with Personnel?"

"My approval was all that was needed to authorize it." Dobey sidled over to the flowers again and studied one particular petal. "It's without pay, of course," he said in a low voice that still struggled to be casual.

Starsky forced himself to relax back against the pillows. Two months. Without pay. He was struggling to remember what he knew about Hutch's various investment accounts when a heavy sigh came from across the room.

Dobey turned toward the bed, the forced casualness having slipped away. "You know, Starsky," he scratched at the back of his head, "I don't know about you two sometimes."

"What do you mean?" He suspected this was what was really on Dobey's mind.

Dobey made an awkward gesture with his hands. "There just seems, sometimes, something almost... Hmm, it's hard to put into words. Unhealthy, I guess. About the way you two are together."

Instinctively, he knew what Dobey meant. But he felt obligated to protest in an easy-going voice. "Come on, Cap'n, you know how it is. Gettin' shot at everyday... it makes you tight, protectin' each other all the time."

"Don't act like I'm some two-bit rookie who doesn't know what it means to have a partner watchin' your tail day in and day out," Dobey scolded. "I've been tight with my partners before. Real tight. But that doesn't replace family, Starsky. I know people of your generation like to think things are different now, but I speak from experience: you need people around you who can support you. Who are always there. This whole time you've been in the hospital, I've never seen Hutchinson come or go with another person. Not ever. If he had a wife or something, at least he could have had someone to go home to who gave a damn. If you only allow yourself to love one other person your whole life, what becomes of your life if that person isn't around anymore?" He took another breath and paced a few feet away. "I'm not sayin' Edith and my marriage is perfect. Far from it. We've seen the best and the worst of marriage. But the important thing is we know we'll always be there for each other. And if anything ever happened to one of us, the one left would still have the kids. And a whole slew of relatives from both sides of the family."

Starsky was listening to what he said and believing it, but feeling no urge to go out and change his life.

"I don't worry so much about you," Dobey went on. "I know you'd be devastated if anything happened to Hutchinson. But you have family in these parts, to say nothing of your brother back east. At least you wouldn't be totally alone." He looked up pointedly. "But who does Hutch have? If his family wasn't around him for something like this, chances are they aren't going to be around him if you really had died."

Starsky knew the main reason Hutch's family wasn't around was because Hutch hadn't summoned them. They would have come if Hutch had asked them to. But, he supposed, that was Dobey's whole point. Hutch wouldn't ask because he didn't have that kind of connection with them, the kind of connection where one could say, "I'm hurting and I need you," and someone would come and offer comfort without wanting anything, especially the right to judge, in return.

Dobey stared out the window. After a very long silence, he muttered, "These past weeks, I thought I was losing both of you." He turned and seemed to shake himself. "Enough of the lecturing. I just wish the two of you would realize that marriage isn't the trap a lot of single folks like to make it out to be. There's something wonderful and precious about counting on having a family to stand by you, no matter what. And families don't end with just one member. They grow and expand. You know you'll always have someone to take care of you." A deep, deep sigh. "Well, now that I've talked your ear off, guess I better get going." He headed for the door.

Starsky grinned. "Thanks for stopping by, Cap'n."

The captain waved and left.

Starsky released a sigh and focused on the plants. He'd heard this lecture before, most notably from his mother. She's gone now. He had to keep reminding himself of that.

He didn't disagree with anything Dobey had said. It's just that talking about a way of life and living it were two different things. He and Hutch could hardly say, "Gee, good point" and then go off and magically find two women who would want them and be happy with them, and start families.

Almost unnatural. That was the only thing Dobey had said that was disturbing, even though Starsky knew it was easy to view them that way. Heck, in a lot of ways it was downright true. He and Dobey both had used the word "tight", but Starsky didn't know any other police pair as tight as Hutch and him. Just last week, when he'd ordered Hutch home, the blond had given him that kinda, sorta kiss, running his lips along Starsky's cheek. Not exactly your everyday thing, even between tight partners. Of course, his recovering from an illness that had stopped just short of taking his life wasn't exactly an everyday thing, either.

Starsky tried to put the subject out of his mind, and was successful because there was something else that was disturbing him, something Dobey had mentioned when he'd first walked in: Hutch was no longer on the payroll. And hadn't been since Starsky had first fallen ill.

Been livin' on lettuce, pal? Hutch had certainly looked like it, but Starsky knew he hadn't stopped eating because of money. Hutch could get his hands on money if he wanted to badly enough. It was just a matter of how much pride he was willing to swallow.

Speaking of the devil....

The door opened and Hutch entered. He looked a lot better groomed than in recent days. He gestured to the door as it closed behind him. "Saw Dobey in the hall. Guess he was just by."

"Yeah." Starsky had been so bored lately that he decided a good confrontation might be just what he needed to boost his spirits. "He told me something interestin'."

Hutch took a chair from near the wall, placed it next to the bed, and sat down. "Yeah, like what?"

"Like you haven't been gettin' a paycheck the whole time I've been sick."

Hutch shrugged. "They said you were dying, buddy. What did you expect me - "

"I know," he cut him off. "But I'm okay now. Gonna be one hundred percent soon. So..."

Hutch shrugged again, evasive now, using humor. "Just because you're getting better doesn't mean I'm anxious to get back to work. Sitting in that sweltering office where the air conditioner breaks down every other week, working on cases of people who are already dead, isn't exactly a requirement for survival."

"So what have you been doin' with yourself when you aren't here?" Starsky asked.

"Relaxing," Hutch said, preening as he ran his hand back through his full head of hair. "Don't I look more relaxed?"

Starsky grinned. It was true. "Yeah." But he refused to be sidetracked. "But it's kinda hard to relax when you have money goin' out but none comin' in."

"I have my sources." Then, more seriously, "I'm not in any kind of financial trouble, buddy, so don't worry about it."

"I'm not worried about it. Just wondered how you were keepin' yourself afloat."

Hutch folded his hands on top of the bed, as though it were a tabletop. "Cashed in my trust fund."

Starsky blinked. Hutch had said it very casually - and not falsely so. Hesitantly, he said, "I thought you rejected your trust fund when you were eighteen. Told your parents to give it to charity because you'd never accept money you hadn't earned."

"They never did anything with the money. Just kept it in an account, in case I changed my mind." He grinned. "So, I changed my mind. Since I waited all this time to take the money, the account was worth a heck of a lot more than if I'd taken it when I was eighteen."

Starsky blinked again. Sometimes Hutch got a little angry when he spoke about his parents and his family's money. Now he seemed disturbingly casual about the whole subject. Amazingly so. And the sudden turnabout was a bit much to absorb. "So...," Starsky actually felt bashful talking about it, "is that why you're not anxious to return to work? Because you're... like.... rich?" He couldn't figure out if he hoped the answer was yes or no.

"What's rich?" Hutch countered.

Now, that was the Hutch he knew. Starsky guessed, "A million dollars?"

"Yeah, I'd call that rich, all right."

Starsky's heart beat faster.

"But I don't have anywhere near that much."

The beat steadied. "Oh. Well... I guess I'd consider anything over... say, a hundred thousand, to be in the `very well off' category."

"Try four hundred and fifty."

Starsky's eyes widened. Again, he couldn't figure out if he wanted it to be true or not. Everyone wanted lots of money. But, somehow, money seemed to ruin a lot of lives, as though it were an instrument of the devil himself. "Are you serious?" he finally asked on a high note.

A warm grin. "Yeah. Actually, before deducting for taxes, it was quite a bit more than that. So, you see, pal, I don't particularly care whether I ever return to work or not."

No, money definitely wasn't everything. "But...," Starsky sputtered, "you're a cop. It's what you are. I know it's frustrating as hell a good part of the time, but it means something to you. Surely, you aren't plannin' on retiring and spending your whole life golfing, or - or hanging out on yachts, or some bullshit nonsense like that."

Hutch looked at him a long time, those eyes such a crystal blue. And appearing so much happier now than they'd been even just a week ago. The blond's tone was very gentle when he replied, his hand slowly wrapping around Starsky's. "I haven't planned on anything, buddy. Couldn't see planning without you being a part of it. And I was hoping to wait until you were out of the hospital before the subject ever came up." Then, as though sensing his partner's thoughts, Hutch squeezed the hand his fingers held. "I'm still the same person, partner."

That was a relief.

Hutch squeezed his hand again. "I'm still Hutch. And I can't be Hutch without Starsky."

Ah, man. Hutch could be so mushy sometimes. Starsky found himself looking away, not up to handling too much emotion.

His arm was patted, and the chair slid as Hutch stood. Starsky looked back at him as his big blond leaned down to squeeze his arm. "It's gonna be okay, partner. Nothing has to change at all. Or we can change as many things as we want. But we don't have to decide today or tomorrow or next week or next year. Get well first. And we can talk whenever you're ready."

It felt so good, Hutch taking charge. Reassuring him that everything was going to be okay. That nothing had to be different. But if Starsky wanted it to be, it would. Just because Starsky wanted it. And anything Starsky didn't want would be disregarded. A non-issue.

He knew his mouth was hanging open as he gazed at the person he'd been tighter than tight with for eight years. The future suddenly seemed exciting beyond his wildest imaginations. And all because Hutch was placing his needs and wants first.

What do you want to do? Starsky suddenly found himself wondering.

Hutch waved with a hand and a large smile as he made his exit.

Starsky the door swing gently shut. Then he closed his eyes and focused on stilling his thundering heart. It seemed ironic, after Dobey's lecture, that Starsky felt more attached to Hutch than he'd ever felt to another person in his life. He knew that if he found a girl and fell in love, Hutch would buy him and his bride a beautiful car or boat or even a house, and throw them the wedding of all weddings. Simply because it was Starsky.

He bit his lower lip. Your days of sacrifice are over, Hutch. You've paid your dues, completed your quest, whatever. Anything that happens from now on, whether it's because of your money or not, is going to be because you want it.

That's all I want. Starsky waited a few more minutes, testing the truth of that last thought. And he wondered why Dobey didn't understand.

Hutch was all that mattered.

* * *

"Doctor Williamson can see you now, if you'd like."

Starsky had just finished buckling his belt, a handmade, expensive bit of clothing that Hutch had purchased, since it was necessary to hold up his jeans on his slim frame. "Huh?" he asked the nurse. "I thought his schedule was full for a while."

"He had a cancellation," she said. "He thought you might like to see him now, so you don't have to come back."

"What's this about?" Hutch asked with concern. He was holding a small suitcase that contained Starsky's belongings from his nine-week stay. Finally, he was going home this morning.

Starsky shrugged. "The doctor had said he wanted to talk to me. We made an appointment for next week."

Hutch's eyes flared. "When were you going to tell me?"

Starsky felt his mouth drop open. Then he realized how it must seem to Hutch. He softly said, "I didn't think to tell you, since it was a week away. Sorry." He knew he should have been more sensitive to Hutch's need to be overly protective.

That seemed to be all that the blond needed. More gently he asked, "What does he want to see you about?"

Starsky shrugged. "Don't know. Just said he wanted to talk to me." He really hadn't given it much thought, but he could imagine, after everything Hutch had been through the past year, how that must sound. He smiled soothingly. "If it was anything serious, he wouldn't be letting me leave," he pointed out.

Hutch relaxed visibly. But the lines on his face were still etched with concern.

Starsky turned to the nurse. "Yeah, sure, I'll see him now."

She brought a wheelchair in from the hall and patted it. "I have to take you to his office in this."

Starsky had been in enough hospitals to know there wasn't any point in arguing.

"I'm coming with you," Hutch said.

Starsky nodded as he moved to the chair. He hadn't considered otherwise.

* * *

Dr. Williamson's office was on the second floor. It seemed like a long journey down, for the elevator kept stopping. Finally, the nurse wheeled Starsky into the office, and then left the room as Hutch sat down in a chair next to him.

The doctor smiled warmly at Starsky. "You're glad to be leaving us, I take it."

Starsky grinned, knowing it was small talk. "That's for sure. Nothing personal, Doc, but..."

"I'm used to patients feeling that way."

"What's this meeting about?" Hutch cut in.

Starsky shifted restlessly, wishing his partner didn't feel it was his task to fight off all the demons in the world, whether real or imaginary.

The doctor drew a deep breath and folded his hands on his desktop. "I know you've had a lot of facts thrown at you the past few weeks, and sometimes the facts aren't always absorbed well by patients who are under the influence of various medications. Therefore, I want to summarize your situation and make sure you are clear on where you stand from a medical standpoint."

Before Hutch could jump in with another impatient comment, Starsky said, "I can tell you that Hutch here pretty much told me everything - that this was a type of Herpes virus from a monkey and all of that."

Dr. Williamson sighed. "What's most important for you to understand is that the virus is still in your system. It's in remission now. Whether or not it stays in remission is impossible to predict. But I want you to understand that you aren't `cured', in the normal sense of the word. Antibodies to the virus still show up in your blood tests, and will continue to show up throughout your life."

Starsky realized he had already been told bits and pieces of those facts; he'd been too focused on getting well to think about them in terms of the long run. But he couldn't recall one important question ever being addressed, or even asked. "Am I contagious?" Can I somehow give this to Hutch? Or any other innocent person?

"No. At least, not in the usual sense of the word, and definitely not while the virus is in remission. In order to infect another person, you would have to be experiencing an outbreak, which means you'd most likely be hospitalized, anyway; and you would have to, essentially, exchange a blood product somehow. The chances of that are pretty remote."

Starsky released a heavy breath. Okay.

Hutch said, so quietly, "The only threat the virus poses is to him."

"Yes," Dr. Williamson replied. "There's no way to guarantee that another outbreak won't occur. But, at the same time, I can't say that's it's likely another outbreak will occur." His attention returned to Starsky. "The best advice I can give is to live as stress-free a life as possible. You might want to give serious consideration to finding another form of occupation."

Starsky wondered why he didn't feel a need to rebel against the notion of quitting. After Gunther, he'd been more determined than ever to return to the streets. But now, somehow, it didn't seem as important.

He glanced at Hutch, who seemed to be avoiding his gaze. If I try to return to the streets again, what will it cost him, if something else happens to me? If I have another outbreak of this Herpes thing? If I get shot again?

He's already swallowed his pride and cashed out his trust fund and spoken of us - both of us - using the money to do something else. He's doing everything he can to make it possible to choose another way of life. But he won't force me into it.

Starsky felt heavy-hearted. Hutch had obviously already talked to the doctor about the future implications of the incurable Herpes virus. Otherwise, he'd be upset at what the doctor had just spelled out for Starsky's future. A future that was full of unknowns. He's trying to make the best of it.

Okay, buddy, I will, too. Starsky looked back at Dr. Williamson. "I hear you, Doc. That's probably a good idea." He glanced at his partner, seeing the expression of surprise, certain he could actually see a weight fall from Hutch's shoulders.

"Do you have any other questions?" Williamson asked.

They both shook their heads.

The physician stood and held out his hand. "If you need anything, you have my card."

Starsky shook his hand. "Thanks, Doc, for everything." He'd barely let go before the motion of the chair at the back of his legs prompted him to plop back into it. And then Hutch was wheeling him out the door, leaving a murmured, "Thanks," behind him.

They were silent as they made their way down the hall to the elevator, then out the main entrance. Hutch left Starsky on the patio while he went to get the LTD and drive it around.

Starsky had to shake his head at the fact that Hutch still owned such a pathetic car despite his many hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Hutch was staring out the front windshield as he brought the car to a halt. Starsky didn't waste any time getting into the passenger side, so Hutch didn't have to get out.

As soon as the door was closed, Starsky said, "I just want to say one thing."

Hutch looked over at him.

Starsky shook his head. "I'm not gonna live my life being afraid of this thing. I can't live like that, Hutch. I just can't. So, as far as we're concerned, it's over and done with. There's a reason why the virus went into remission. Maybe it found out that I'm stronger than it is. Maybe it'll try again someday. But I don't want to talk about the future as a bunch of if, if, if's. I don't want our lives being defined by whether or not this thing attacks me again or not. I can give up being a cop. But I can't live like I might not have a future. I am going to have a future, and that's the way it's gonna be for us from here on out. We're going forward, Hutch. That's all there is to it."

Hutch stared out the windshield for a long time. Finally, his expression relaxed. "Okay." He started the car forward.

Starsky studied him, then was convinced that Hutch was being as truthful as he possibly could be. Thank you, babe. Now, let's find out what life has in store for us.

* * *

"You really, really have that much in your checking account?" Starsky was sitting back against the sofa, feet on the coffee table. They had arrived home a little while before. He was studying his own measly balance. Hutch had, of course, taken meticulous care in seeing that Starsky's bills were paid while he was in the hospital. As he stared at his own check register now, Starsky tried to imagine a comma and a bunch of zeros.

Hutch snorted bashfully. "No, of course not." He brought a bottle of wine and two glasses to the coffee table. "I had my financial advisor divide the money up into different types of investments. You know, diversify. There's just a few thousand in my checking account."

Starsky let out a whistle.

Hutch set the wine down and eyed his partner. Levelly, he said, "The money makes you uncomfortable, doesn't it?"

Starsky had a sense of being "found out" but, following the pattern they'd forged since the beginning of their partnership, he fell back on honesty. "It's just kinda hard getting' used to the idea," he said with a shrug. "I've never been too close to anyone before with that kind of money."

"It is only money," Hutch reminded. "We can't take it with us."

"I know," Starsky said, eyes on the wine while Hutch poured it. "It's just... I guess it's just been such a surprise that you, you know, accepted it. After all this time. I mean," he looked from the wine to his partner's blue eyes, "it isn't like I wouldn't have gotten better if you hadn't done that."

Hutch handed him a glass and kept one for himself. "It wasn't a big deal for me, partner. It just, all of a sudden, seemed like the right thing to do. Almost as though me passing that money up when I was a college kid, and my parents essentially forgetting about it... it's almost like that all happened so it would be here for us now, all this time later."

Starsky felt a grin light one side of his face. Hutch was speaking of the money as being for "us". Ever since he'd first mentioned it, Hutch had acted as though it was Starsky's, too. Cap'n, how can Hutch and me be any less "family" to each other than you and Edith and the kids? I know our family may be small, but we're all we've got. And we gotta go with that. We can't sit around worryin' about what would happen if only one of us was left.

Hutch held out his glass. "So, a toast, to the future. Whatever it may be."

Starsky bent forward to clink his glass against that of his partner. After they both sipped, Hutch said, "And that's all you're having until you're back to being a hundred percent."

"Bitch, bitch, bitch," Starsky muttered good-naturedly. It felt good, being back the same way together, and Hutch just being Hutch. He grinned outwardly.

"What?" the blond man asked suspiciously.

Starsky sipped again. Then, feeling bold, he challenged, "Just what would you like our future to be like, blondie?"

Hutch shrugged. "Hadn't really thought about it much. Was waiting for you to get better, so we could talk about it, if you wanted to."

"I'm better and I want to talk about it and I'm ready to talk about it."

After the hint of a smile full of tenderness, Hutch asked, "What would you like to do?"

"Hadn't thought about it, either," Starsky admitted, wishing that Hutch had, so at least he would have something to go on. What he knew with absolute certainty was that he didn't want to stare at these same walls for the six weeks or so before he'd be well enough to work at a regular job.

Such a strange thought, not ever returning to the LAPD. He didn't intend to tell Dobey until he was absolutely certain. In the meantime, he'd be on disability.

He straightened and took a deep breath. "I think we should go away somewhere nice and private and fun, and then we can toss around some ideas."

"Like where?" Already, Hutch's face had brightened, as though he too wasn't interested in spending a lot of time pent-up with a restless partner.

"I dunno," Starsky admitted. "Just somewhere."

Hutch lowered his eyes. "You know, buddy," he began, and then looked up, "like I told you before, nothing has to change... just because it can."

Of course, Hutch felt obligated to say that again. Starsky said, "Right. So, whether anything changes at all will be part of what we talk about." He stood and brushed at his legs to help restore the circulation. "So let's go to a gas station or bookstore and buy ourselves an atlas or something, and go eeny-meeny-miney-mo."

Hutch seemed surprised at his enthusiasm. Then he said, "Okay."