It was a strange sensation, to burn up inside while icing over outside. The wind on rain-slicked skin shook Starsky's body like an engine missing on six cylinders, but the real shivers were shock waves coming from the furnace inside him. He was sick, and getting sicker. His eyes were two globes of throbbing heat. Worst, his brain kept trying to wander away from him at every chance, not interested much in what was going on outside and not making much sense of what was happening inside. It wanted him to dream or go to sleep. He couldn't let himself do either. Not now. Not yet. Something was going down outside. Going down. Hutch... Hutch was what was going down.
Death was not much of a mystery to Starsky. He'd seen a lot of it -- delivered some of it in what he always had to remember was in the line of duty, sometime part of the work of protecting folks who couldn't protect themselves. Death. Dying. Going down. It was cold taking over on both inside and the outside, and it never let you go once it had you. It took warm touchable skin and made it permanent ice. And when it finally thawed, what was left was empty, fit for garbage, needing to be disposed. The ultimate thief, and it was stealing Hutch from him. He knew it. He'd known it in a corner of his heated brain for several hours.
The long, once-strong body he lay against still shivered too, though the rain had stopped. Hutch had no inner fire to stoke him, lend him even the restless strength of fever. The only warmth he had was Starsky's, where Starsky was curled against him. It wasn't enough against the night chill. Hutch was slipping, slipping... Starsky could feel it in the weakening shudders, hear it in the struggling breaths. The knowledge ached in his chest with a sick desperation he'd known too well before: cancer that ate his grandpa away to a stick·figure in a funeral suit; blood-spouting wounds that wrenched his dad away right before his child's eyes; body-smashing bullets that left Walt, his first partner, a ruined husk on a warehouse floor; bleeding brain-wound that tore his girl Terri from his arms and life. And Hutch now. Warm, laughing, tense, dependable, thoughtful, crazy, loving Hutch. His partner. Oh God, not Hutch....
He didn't know he was sobbing aloud until cold fingers grazed his face.
"Oh Hutch," he heard himself groan. He gathered up the vagrant bits of his attention, needing to pull himself together, be together now, for Hutch. It was harder to focus his mind, not being able to see. He concentrated on the touch at his cheek -- icy, feeble, caring... real. The fever's grasp slackened and he was wide awake. He slid his arm from its embrace of Hutch's shoulder and grasped the thin fingers. Frigid. Already.
"Hutch," he said, "it's all right. I was just dreamin'."
"It's cold..." The whisper was faint, the voice frightened. "...so cold... won't make it... like this..."
"Shhhh." He didn't know what to say. "We'll be okay, soon as we dry off a bit. Here, this'll help." He draped as much of his body over Hutch's as his partner's seeping wounds allowed. At least the damned storm had gone. Rain, and now this cold. All kinds of bad news, for both of them. For Hutch especially. The cold... and the runoff water... between them, the only hope was washed out. He'd hoped, earlier, before the rain, that Hutch would make it through the night if necessary, that Maggie would be back, that help would come. But the nearby growl of the filled wash told him otherwise. The desert Maggie was travelling would be crisscrossed by many such obstacles, and each one could be a deathtrap. No way in hell was she going to make it out to help by morning -- if she made it at all. Even if she did -- too late for Hutch. Too late, too late. God in heaven.
Shuddering, he tried to calm himself. His mind was hazy, but he had to keep himself together. Otherwise it would be too heavy to endure. Hutch's frame of mind terrified him. Had to do something about that. Something. Anything.
"Hey, Hutch? Try to ease up on the shivering bit, huh? Keep it up and you'll vibrate the two of us halfway to China, and then what will Mag think?"
"I don't know what gets into you sometimes. Who told you to go running out into the open, anyhow, and try to shoot down a friggin' copter all by yourself? You've been watchin' too many war flicks again. Next you'll tell me your old man wasn't an architect at all, he was really Lawrence of Arabia."
"Y'know, I think you missed your calling. Should have been an actor, Hutch, you'd have looked terrific in a white burnoose. 'Come weeth me to the Kasbah...'"
"Starsky!" Hutch almost shouted it, then gasped through set teeth. "For God's sake..."
"Shhhh," Starsky hushed, alarmed.
"I'm... trying to... say goodbye," Hutch pleaded. "Won't you... let me say... goodbye?"
"Don't talk like that," Starsky said, wincing. "You're gonna be fine. You'll make it, you'll see."
"It's not... the dying, so much," Hutch went on, "it's that... it'll be over... everything..."
"Hey -- "
"...all we get... and you'll be... left alone."
A place in Starsky's chest constricted savagely, and his heated braincells swept him away, to another time and place: his poisoned body dying by degrees, mad search for the elusive antidote, and Hutch saying "It's always hardest on the ones left behind." A joke that was no joke at all. Not then. Not now.
"Well," he began, needing to say something, thoughts reeling, "well, just hold on there, babe, 'cause the good times aren't over yet."
Your pain hurts me, partner... Don't add mine to what you're already carrying.
"You're crazy..." Hutch's voice was so soft that Starsky had to put his ear to Hutch's face to make out what he was saying. "You're totally nuts... you know that?"
"Yeah, I've been told. They say God looks out for fools and old cops, so I figure we got it made."
The answering laugh turned into a cough. "That's one reason... I guess I love you... so much... You never... give up."
The sob in his chest threatened to crush him, and Starsky bit down hard on it. Hutch said that? Oh God, oh God, where are we, what's happening to us? Shifting position, he dug one hand through the sand under Hutch's neck, lifting very gently until his partner's head was cushioned on his shoulder. He found Hutch's icy right hand and drew it close, careful not to chafe the scrapes on it.
"You know who you remind me of? Huh?"
" -- Who?"
"Remember that dog, Smokey, I had when I was a kid? You remind me of that old dog of mine."
Whatever Hutch answered, it was lost in another bout of shivers.
"Do you know that crazy hound followed me to Rutger's Elementary every day for two years? And he never got hit by a car, not once, not even crossing Castenada Boulevard. That was because he was with me, y'·understand. Then one day, he got a notion and tried it alone. I don't know why, and Whup! he gets hit. Not too bad, but enough to put his ass in a sling for a while. Just like you. The only time you get your ass in a sling is when you try something dumb on your own. Think you'd know better by now."
It wasn't working. There was no laugh, no denial, no response of any kind. Hutch was dying, and all the jokes, stories, teasing, or tears they could manage weren't going to stop it. So little time left... where was joy? There must be some left somewhere, a little left to share yet, somewhere. Rage blazed in Starsky -- anger for the unfeeling universe that was letting this happen to them. But he was too worn to hold onto the feeling, make it last. It dissolved on a wave of chills, leaving a bitter aftertaste. Despair.
He had a sudden, overpowering desire to look at Hutch, to take in his face, to look in his eyes and say the things to those eyes that had never needed to be put into fumbling words. Friend who is more than a brother... But even if he lifted the bandage, even if it weren't the dark of night in a storm-cloaked desert, his eyes would see nothing but blurs of greyed-out color. Denied sight, he made his free hand be his eyes.
The skin of Hutch's face had dried, but was cold as death already. The muscles were drawn taut in a grimace, and the jaw trembled as the teeth chattered. The soft, drying hair was caked with sand. A wet pathway ran from each eye socket into the sideburns. He wiped at the wetness with aching tenderness, and laid his cheek against Hutch's hair.
"...the streets... alleys... all the dives... garbage... shit we took... it was okay... worth it... We did some... good work together...
"...and I'm not sorry... Would've like more... but no regrets, okay?"
Starsky's throat tightened, crying for him silently. After a few seconds, he forced down a swallow.
"Okay," he said, trying to keep the grief out of his voice. "You too, partner."
The breaths against his cheek were coming faster, more shallowly, but the constant shivering was slowing, Hutch seeming to deflate gradually in his arms. For long minutes, they laid together quietly, no sounds but their labored breathing and the background thundering of the flooded wash.
" -- Hey ?"
Shaky breaths. A swallow. Voice less than a whisper.
"...don't... blame yourself."
Starsky's grimace was almost a smile. Hot tears stung his blood-sealed eyes, no more to be denied.
"Make you a deal. I won't blame me if you don't blame you."
The answering laugh was feeble, but a laugh nonetheless.
"Deal -- " Hutch began, but a violent convulsion arched him back, wringing a wavering cry from him. Starsky clung as closely as he dared, knowing what was happening. Torn muscle cramping. Gut-shot. The spasm went on and on.
"Hutch -- Hutch, easy. Easy now. Easy -- "
" -- oh God -- hold me -- "
"I have you, partner, I'm right here with you," he breathed. "Right here, just hang on now."
" -- not so bad when you hold me -- "
The pain seemed to ease, but Starsky did not slacken his embrace.
"Okay. Okay. I won't let go." He made himself say it. "I love you, man. I won't let go. Never let go. But you hang on yet, Hutch." It isn't time yet. "You just hang on, because I'm not gonna let you go, you hear?" Not by yourself. Not all alone. We had good times. We'll go out together. "I'll take good care of you. Don't I always take good care of you? So go to sleep now. Just take it easy, and try to sleep. It's all right. I'll be right here with you. Be right with you." By tomorrow, anyway. Fever's got me, and the cold's doing its bit too.
The tremors stopped completely, finally, and Hutch's body began to untense, slipping toward coma's merciful embrace, but the hand in Starsky's stirred weakly, seeking freedom, and Starsky released it. The fingers crept hesitantly up his face, then curled in his hair. The head on his shoulder slowly rolled to him, and cold lips touched at his throat in a kiss.
"S'okay," Hutch breathed, at peace. "Take care..."
The hand loosened. Starsky covered it with his own.
By tomorrow, Hutch, I'll be with you.
"Go to sleep, partner... Go to sleep."