Starsky managed to find a secluded corner in the kitchen and sat down, enjoying what felt like the first moment of peace he had had since the plane landed. He wiped a hand across his brow, surprised by the amount of perspiration he felt there. This was October...Autumn in New York. The air should have felt cool to his LA accustomed body, yet the heat inside the apartment felt stifling. He brought the glass of ice water that he was clutching to his mouth and took several long sips, hoping to ease some of the hot flush he felt effusing his body.

The sound of the voices from the living room were pounding into his already aching head, crowding him...threatening to crush him. He felt, as he had from the moment he had gotten here, an overwhelming urge to get out.

He was hoping not to have had to face them tonight. Tomorrow would have been soon enough. But despite the fact that he and Hutch were going to be renting a car at the airport and staying at the Holiday Inn near LaGuardia, they had still come to meet him. There were his Uncle Leo and Aunt Kay, along with his cousins Fran and Ben, waiting for him as he got off the plane, ready to smother him with hugs and condolences. They insisted on waiting while the baggage was retrieved and the car rented. The entire time Starsky had to endure an endless discourse on why he shouldn't be staying at a hotel. When they grudgingly accepted the fact that all their arguing wasn't going to change his mind, they followed him and Hutch to the hotel, giving them only enough time to check in before ushering them off to Flushing.

Though the apartment in Queens where his mother had lived was not the home he had grown up in, his mother had lived there for many years and her essence permeated every inch of the place. Walking through that door...seeing all of her things but not seeing her...was like a hard blow to the gut that knocked the wind out of him. He wanted to get out the moment he came in, but the roomful of relatives that had gathered there made that impossible.

Instead, he endured the endless line of hugs and condolences...the insufferable questions about how he was 'holding up'...the monotonous litanies about how terrible he looked and how he really should eat...the disapproving remarks about his staying at a hotel...and...most difficult of all...the ceaseless renditions of how his mother had died ‘so peacefully.'

When he wasn't fending off another advance by a well-meaning family member, he was confronting an apartment full of reminders; his mother's favorite chair...the knickknacks on the book shelf, each with its own story behind it...her pink robe hanging on the back of the bathroom door still smelling like her...the countless photographs of her and his father and himself...and Nicky. They were all gone now...all but him. Nothing left but the haunting images encased in well-polished silver frames.

It was all too much. This was his mother's home and these people were his family and yet he felt cut off...isolated. He didn't want their comfort, or their support and he certainly didn't want all these reminders of his mother. Worst of all, he didn't want to go through this again...this scene from a bad play...this deja vu. The setting was the same...all the same characters in place except for one...they had all played out this scene only eight months before. He wasn't up for the encore. He didn't have the strength to play out his role again.

"David, there you are. What are you doing sitting in here by yourself'?"

Trying to get away from all of you, Starsky thought to himself. He looked up into the eyes of his Aunt Vivian and instead replied, "I just needed to get a glass of water."

"Water! Well certainly you're not going to keep your strength up with nothing but water. It's time you had something to eat."

Starsky watched as the determined woman moved about the kitchen piling food onto a plate from the huge spread laid out on the table. Just the sight of it turned his queasy stomach.

"I'm really not hungry."

"Nonsense. You have to put something in your stomach."

Aunt Vivian was his mother's older sister; older by eleven years. She was a formidable woman whose role in the family had always been a matriarchal one. She was not the kind to take no for an answer...not that anyone usually argued with her. Starsky groaned inwardly, realizing he didn't have the energy for the battle that was about to ensue but knowing he didn't have a choice. The nausea in his stomach was churning as he caught a whiff of the food she was bringing towards him.

"I can't eat that, Aunt Viv."

"And I can't let you continue to be so stubborn. You haven't eaten anything all day."

"That's not true."

Starsky sighed in relief at the sound of the familiar voice in the doorway.

"He had a small sandwich in here a little while ago while you were on the phone with the Rabbi," his partner continued easily. "He also ate a little bit on the plane. I don't think he needs to eat any more right now."

For a moment, Starsky wasn't sure his perceptive aunt was going to go for it. But then his partner laid on one of his most angelic smiles...the kind that forced you to trust him...and it was all over.

"All right, Kenneth. If you say so. I'll just put this down over here for now and you can have it later, David."

"Sure," Starsky managed, eyeing Hutch gratefully.

After putting the food back down on the table, Aunt Vivian turned back to them.

"Since you're here with David, I guess it's all right if I go in and see if anyone else needs anything."

"Go on. We're fine," Hutch assured. When they were alone, Starsky spoke quietly to his partner.

"Thanks."

"You're welcome. Although I'm not sure I did you any favors. You really should eat something."

"Hutch, I...."

"I know. I know. I saw the green complexion on your face when you were looking at that plate of food." Hutch moved to the table and picked up some crackers. "Here. At least try to get some of these down." As he handed them to Starsky, the pale blue eyes overflowed with concern. "Please. For me."

Starsky took the crackers, vowing to himself he would choke them down if he had to for Hutch's sake. It was the least he could do. Hutch had been running interference for him all night. When Aunt Kay was getting ready to renew her protest about the hotel for the fifth time, Hutch distracted her with questions about her garden, knowing how she loved to go on and on about her azaleas. When Aunt Vivian had asked him to go into the bedroom to get the folder with his mother's papers, it was Hutch who noticed his distress at going into the room where his mother had died. He jumped up to get the papers himself, insisting he was already up. Hutch had been friendly and charming, holding up their end of conversations in a way that covered much of his partners sullen moodiness. He had listened with infinite patience as various relatives droned on and on about the events following his mother's passing, descriptions of the cemetery and countless explanations about the Shiva, which would be held here for three days following the funeral. Each time, Hutch listened as if he hadn't heard it all before; as if he hadn't been through it all before just eight months ago.

As Starsky struggled to swallow the bite of cracker past the bile in his throat, he looked into the calm, strong face to see the familiar, comforting gaze that had several times this evening been the only thing that kept him from running screaming from this place.

"I'm glad you're here," he whispered before forcing down another bite of cracker. "I just wish I didn't have to be."

Hutch reached out to squeeze his forearm. "I know."

"It's like...like that Twilight Zone episode where the guy keeps reliving the same day over and over. I just finished doing this. I don't want to do it again. I don't want to go to that cemetery tomorrow and I don't want to look at that same book of headstones and make the same damn arrangements and..." he stopped abruptly, realizing he had crushed the remaining crackers in his hand to crumbs. Hutch unclenched the fingers of his fist and scraped the crumbs into his own hand before depositing them in the garbage. Then he heard Aunt Vivian's voice calling to him from the living room. He looked at Hutch with panic in his eyes. "I've gotta get out of here, Hutch. I can't do this."

Before Hutch could respond, Aunt Vivian was filling the door frame. "David, Kenneth, come on inside. The Rabbi is here and we're going to say some prayers. Hurry along." She left without waiting for a response.

Starsky felt both of Hutch's hands kneading his shoulders encouragingly. "Come on. You can do it. It's just a little while longer and then we'll go. It'll be all right."

He was not nearly as certain of that as Hutch seemed to be, but he didn't resist when Hutch led him back into the living room. What choice did he have really? This nightmare was going to go on whether he liked it or not. All that was left for him to do was to play his part.

~~~~~~~

Hutch opened his eyes to the darkness of the hotel room. He wasn't certain what it was that had awakened him since all was quiet, but he knew that something had jolted him insistently from his sleep. He glanced over toward the illuminated face of the bedside clock: 3:20 a.m. He rubbed his eyes tiredly, noting the traces of exhaustion that still permeated his body. Between the emotional strain, the jet lag and the time changes, he knew that the few hours of sleep he had gotten were far from enough to leave him feeling rested. So then why had he awakened so fully? As he started to become more oriented, something occurred to him and he twisted in the bed to look across the room.

Even with the curtains drawn, the bright New York City glimmer from outside lit enough of the room for him to be able to discern immediately that the other bed was empty. He quickly got up and switched on the light before making his way toward the small alcove where the bathroom was located. The door was not fully closed and the light from inside was shining through the crack. Somehow, he knew without a doubt that his partner had not gotten up simply to relieve himself. Something felt wrong.

Placing one hand on the knob, he used the other to knock lightly even as he eased the door slowly open. "Starsk...."

When he had opened the door fully he found his partner curled up on the floor against the bathtub, knees held tightly to his chest as he rocked back and forth. There was a strange, distant look in his eyes at first but when he became aware of Hutch's presence he seemed to snap back to reality.

"I'm sorry. Did the light wake you?"

"No," Hutch answered. "I just..." he paused, uncertain how to explain the unsettling feeling that had woken him. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah. Fine. I just couldn't sleep so I came in here. I didn't feel like being in the dark and I didn't want to wake you with the lights."

Hutch moved further into the bathroom and sat down on the edge of the tub beside his partner. Something about the way Starsky's body reacted made him hesitate to move closer. He wanted more than anything to be of some comfort, but he kept feeling that his presence was only serving as a source of further agitation. He couldn't hide his growing concern from his voice.

"You haven't slept at all have you?" When they had both gone to bed, Starsky had lain so still he was sure that the exhaustion had finally overtaken him and he had fallen asleep. Now, he realized his partner had only been pretending for his sake. He sighed, shaking his head. "You can't keep going on like this. You have to rest."

"I know. I will. I'm just a little wired from the jet lag and all."

Hutch started to argue that he hadn't slept at all last night either, but he stopped himself. Starsky had been on the defensive all evening from well-meaning but over bearing relatives. He surely didn't need to go through another inquisition now.

"I understand. Listen, since you can't sleep and I'm up now anyway, why don't we do something. Do you want to watch some TV or play some cards? Or we can just sit here and talk. Whatever you want."

Starsky looked at him with a smile that was forced. "I'm OK, Hutch. Go back to bed."

"Not until you do." Hutch folded his arms stubbornly, prepared to resort to this childish tactic if it would force his partner to get some rest. Starsky looked at him for a long moment then let out a resigned sigh. He stood up and headed towards the door.

"Fine, whatever you want."

There was a note of resignation in Starsky's voice that was discomforting. But Hutch knew it wasn't the time to pursue it fully. It was enough for now that he was willing to lay down. Hutch followed his partner back into the other room and watched as he climbed into the bed. Starsky lay across the bed stiffly, not even bothering to get under the covers. Hutch stood at the foot of the bed, gazing at his partner with deep concern.

"Are you sure you don't want to talk or something? Or maybe you're hungry. Do you want something to eat?"

"Just go to bed Hutch."

There was a dismissive tone to the statement that did not invite any further debate. Hutch sighed in frustration then made his way to his own bed. As he reached over to shut off the light, he caught a glimpse of the look that passed through his partners eyes. There was something almost fearful there. Hutch withdrew his hand and left the light on. Some of the tension in Starsky's face relaxed as his lips curled in a shy smile. Then he turned around in the bed, facing his back to Hutch as his arm curled up around the pillow. The room grew silent but for the sounds of city life beyond the window. Hutch lay for a long time watching the rise and fall of his partners back, trying to discern if the breathing pattern changed in any way to indicate sleep. But nothing changed...there was no movement, no sound but the light inhaling and exhaling. After what felt like almost an hour of watching and waiting, Hutch's exhaustion got the best of him and he fell into a restless. sleep.

~~~~~~~

Starsky twisted uncomfortably in the confines of the hard, leather chair. He had not been here very long, yet the voice of the funeral director was already droning into his head in a wave of indiscernible noise. Mr. Cox was a stone-faced, heavy set man dressed in a somber blue suit. He wore a tie with thin dark blue and gold stripes, in the center of which there was string of pulled material that bobbed up and down when he talked. Starsky found his attention riveted to that string, watching its rise and fall in focused scrutiny. He hadn't been giving Mr. Cox' words nearly the same concentration, which he realized only after the man had cleared his throat impatiently and spoke more sharply.

"Mr. Starsky. I do not believe you have been hearing everything I am saying to you."

"Huh? What...oh...sorry. What was that again?"

"I understand what a difficult time this must be for you, Mr. Starsky, but we have a great deal of work to get done here. The funeral is tomorrow and there are many decisions still to be made."

"Yeah, listen, about that. Why don't you just go ahead and do whatever you think is best. I'm sure that'll be fine."

Mr. Cox sighed with barely masked impatience before going on in a more patronizing tone.

"I am afraid that is not the way this works. As the next of kin, it is your responsibility to..."

The words 'next of kin' sent an icy chill down Starsky's spine. He bolted up from the chair, feeling suddenly stifled by the lack of air in the room.

"Look, it's awful hot in here. I need to go and get some air. We can finish this in a little while."

"I really do not think that is a good idea. Time is an issue here and these decisions take time. We have not even begun to choose the proper headstone and casket. As I am sure you will recall from your experience here when you lost your brother, choosing the appropriate headstone can be..."

Starsky lost the rest of the words as the sound of his heartbeat pounding in his ears raged louder. Mr. Cox' voice became distant, as though it were being filtered through a tunnel. The room was beginning to feel incredibly small and Starsky was certain that someone had sucked all the air from it. An overwhelming urge to get away was calling to him from every pore. In his haste to retreat, he knocked over the chair behind him. Clumsily, he tried to right it as Mr. Cox continued to beseech him.

"I do not mean to sound insensitive. However, I have found that the best way to approach these matters is directly. I know you will feel better once all of this has been taken care of and it is my job to make sure that happens. Now if you'll just sit back down, I am sure we can..."

Perspiration clinging to his skin, Starsky shook his head vehemently. "No...I can't...not now   please..."

Starsky headed quickly for the door with Mr. Cox calling after him. He fumbled a moment with the handle, then jerked it open, running straight into Hutch who was on the other side. Hutch grabbed him by the arms to halt his forward motion and spoke confusedly.

"Hey, what's the hurry? What's going on?"

"I gotta get outta here, Hutch."

"But I don't understand. I just finished parking the car. I thought you needed to..."

"I can't...I can't do this..."

"Mr. Starsky, please," Cox' voice was right behind him now. "If you'll just take a moment to calm down, I am certain..."

"No!" Starsky could hear the increasing panic in his voice but he felt helpless to stop it. This place...this 'responsibility'...these decisions...not again. He wasn't ready...he wasn't able. He clutched onto the lapels of Hutch's jacket, pleading for his friend to understand.

"Hutch, please...I can't do this now...I can't breathe in here...let me outta here...please!"

"Mr. Starsky, surely..." Cox' voice was even closer now, like a vulture swooping down on unguarded flesh. Any moment he would be swallowed alive...but then Hutch's firm voice halted the attack.

"Hold it! Just back off a second and let me talk to him."

"And just who would you be, sir'?" The condescending tone in the question was met with a sharp response.

"I'm the person who just told you to back off." That quieted the vulture immediately. Then, seamlessly, the voice lowered to a soothing tone meant only for Starsky. "Now talk to me. Tell me what's wrong. How can I help?"

Starsky looked helplessly into the eyes of his partner. He couldn't talk...couldn't explain. Emotions and voices were screaming inside him and it was all that he could do to fend them off. Most of his thoughts were an incoherent jumble and he was having difficulty staying in control of his reactions. He felt himself breathing in short gasps, as though he had been running for miles, while the sweat continued to dampen his skin. He noticed then that the hands that were still clutching Hutch's jacket were shaking. Hutch seemed to notice the same thing at the same moment, sliding his own hands down Starsky's arms to cover the trembling limbs.

"It's OK. I'm right here," the gentle voice continued to assuage. "Just relax and take a deep breath. Easy does it."

Starsky tried to do as he was asked, though it wasn't easy. Fighting to calm his breathing, he struggled to explain what he barely understood himself.

"I don't think I can do this again. That book...those headstones...caskets...I can't. I can't breathe in here. I don't know...I just...maybe later...maybe I just need some air...maybe..." The panic was returning to his voice despite his efforts to quell it. Hutch grabbed his hands more firmly.

"Hey, hey, stop. It's all right. You don't have to. Just take it easy. I'll take care of everything. I just want you to relax. Don't worry about any of it."

Starsky let out a long, grateful sigh and nodded. He could feel a small part of himself start to relax, feeling secure in Hutch's care. He did not resist when Hutch led him towards the sofa next to the water cooler on the other side of the room.

"I know you don't feel comfortable in here, but I can't let you walk out right now. You need to take a few minutes to calm down. Just sit down over here and I'll get you some water." Starsky sat down, leaning his back against the firm leather cushions of the sofa as Hutch drew a cup of water from the cooler. Handing the cup to his partner, he spoke reassuringly. "Just drink this and take a few minutes for yourself. It'll be OK. When you feel up to it, you can go outside and get some air. I'll go deal with Mr. Cox."

Starsky nodded, feeling drained and numb. He brought the cup to his lips and sipped, grateful for the cool swallow of liquid that soothed his parched throat. As Hutch turned to walk back across the room, Starsky called to him.

"Hutch."

He wanted to say something...needed to say something...and yet his frazzled brain couldn't seem to form any words. As always, though, somehow Hutch seemed to understand. He nodded wordlessly to his partner and gave him a comforting smile. Starsky nodded back then took another sip of the water as Hutch walked towards Mr. Cox' desk.

Though they were across the very wide room and Starsky's head was still somewhat jumbled, he was able to make out the beginning of the conversation that took place.

"My name is Hutchinson. I'll be taking over for Mr. Starsky. Whatever needs to be done, I'll take care of."

"And you are a member of the immediate family, Mr. Hutchinson?"

"No, but I'm his family."

"I do not understand."

"He's my partner. Whatever you need to talk to him about you can say to me."

Mr. Cox' tone became more agitated. "This is very unorthodox. The kind of decisions that need to be made here should be done by immediate family."

"I understand," Hutch went on in a voice that was trying to remain patient. "However, as I'm sure you understand, Mr. Starsky there has been under a tremendous amount of emotional strain and he's also thoroughly exhausted. We both decided it's best that I take care of the arrangements, so if you don't mind I'd like to get on with it."

"I really do not think it would be appropriate for me to do that. Perhaps if I spoke with Mr. Starsky again we could..."

Cox was getting up from his chair and coming around the desk. The tall blond that blocked his path was obviously losing patience rapidly.

"That's not a good idea, Mr. Cox. I prefer you deal with me."

Mr. Cox was either very brave or not very bright. Or perhaps he was just too shallow to recognize the underlying warning in that request. Heedlessly, he made a move towards where Starsky was.

"Mr. Starsky, I think that..."

Though Hutch's back was towards him, Starsky knew instantly by the tone of his voice what the expression was on his face. Hutch was nose-to-nose with Cox, his right index finger jutting forward authoritatively, while his eyes held an intense stare that dared you to defy it while at the same time terrified you of the consequences of doing so.

"I said you deal with me," the icy voice commanded. "I don't want you to so much as look at him again, you got that."

Apparently he did, because when Starsky glanced over again, Mr. Cox was back in his chair and the conversation was proceeding in a much quieter manner, Cox offering no further protests.

A faint smile crossed Starsky's lips as he thought about the ease with which Hutch moved from reasonable to intractable. Oftentimes the shift was a result of his protective instincts towards his partner. Starsky's head leaned back against the sofa as his heavy lids began to drift shut. I'm going to my partner. Words from the past...a hazy image witnessed from the floor of an Italian restaurant. Unbelievable pain...shock...fear...yet somehow assuaged by that commanding tone. His partner ready to stare down, almost daring a killer...to get to him. So much blood then...red like the squares on the table cloth...red blood like the blood covering Nicky's shirt when he identified the body at the prison...red like the roses on a coffin...a coffin picked from the black leather-bound book with the pictures of coffins...coffin after coffin...headstones...graves...mounds of dirt beside the hole in the ground that would soon hold his brother's coffin...his brother.

Starsky's head jerked up and he looked around disoriented. His heart was beating quickly as he fought to focus his blurred eyes. He was still in Cox' office. Hutch and Cox were still across the room, heads bent over that ominous black leather-bound book. Standing abruptly, Starsky moved towards the door. He had to get out of here. If he could just get out of here, everything would be all right.

Hutch turned towards him in concern as he hastened to the door. Starsky nodded at him in what he hoped was a reassuring gesture. Fighting to steady his voice, he spoke quickly.

"I'm all right. Just gonna get that air now. See you outside."

He didn't give Hutch a chance to respond. He just hoped that somehow he had managed to look convincing enough to keep his partner from following after him. He just needed some space, that's all. A quick walk around the block and he would be in control again. By the time Hutch was finished, he would be back and everything would be OK. At least that's what he kept telling himself as he burst through the door and out onto the street to the cool, welcoming air.

~~~~~~~

Harold Dobey tried to stretch some of the kinks from the long flight out of his back as he walked through the crowded airport terminal beside Hutch. Looking across the sea of bodies that continuously swam back and forth, his eyes landed on the familiar forms of Huggy Bear and Starsky as they waited by the baggage claim area for the luggage. From the moment he saw him at the Arrival Gate, Dobey had noticed how drawn and pale Starsky looked. Even from this distance there was an obvious slump to his posture that spoke of exhaustion, both mental and physical.

"How is he?"

"I don't know. Not good."

Stopping in front of a newsstand, Dobey turned and eyed his companion, noting that he looked somewhat haggard himself.

"And you?"

"Me? I'm just fumbling around trying to help but I don't think I'm doing him much good." Hutch sighed heavily as he ran a hand through the long blond hair. "I don't know, Cap. I feel so cut off. I have no idea what's going on inside him. Most of the time he's just closed up...quiet...distant. But then there's these moments...these attacks of panic when he looks like he's about to lose it."

"Has he talked at all about what he's feeling?"

"Not really. It's like he's fighting real hard not to feel any of it. Then it sneaks up on him and starts to overwhelm him. Like today at the funeral home. He was shaking and sweating and desperate to get out. There was a look in his eyes...almost pure fear. He just couldn't face being there and making all those arrangements again. Then he went to take a walk while I was finishing up with the director. When I got outside, I couldn't find him anywhere. Then he shows up ten minutes later with everything closed back off again and telling me he's fine. And that's it. He's barely said a word since."

"What about his family? Has he been able to open up with them?"

"It's more like he's doing everything he can to stay away from them. He retreats even more when they're around. Last night in that apartment he was like a caged animal. I don't think he really took a deep breath until we got out of there. All day he's been avoiding their calls. He refuses to go back over there."

"That's not like Starsky." Dobey glanced over again toward Starsky and Huggy. It was obvious the conversation was one sided, with Huggy babbling on while Starsky stood staring off distractedly. "He looks like he's about to fall on his face."

"He hasn't slept at all. He's barely eaten either. He's got to be running on empty, but I can't get him to lay down. He's in so much pain and I don't have the first clue what to do to help him."

Dobey turned to Hutch, recognizing well the look he saw in those expressive blue eyes. Hutch was one of the strongest people he had ever known. He'd seen him battle the kind of personal demons that would bury lesser men and come out on top. He could face down any challenge...any danger in the street. He was tough and tenacious and could go strong for days on nothing more than coffee, catnaps and pure adrenaline when he was pursuing a case. But when something hurt his partner, it was Hutch whose lifeblood drained, especially when he felt helpless to do anything to fix it. Oh, he would stay strong and steady on the outside, being an unwavering source of support while putting all of his own needs on hold. But inside, the emotional wound cut deep, slicing through the barriers that he had built to guard him against any other kind of assault. Dobey could already see the signs on the face he had come to know so well over the years.

Laying a hand on Hutch's shoulder, he spoke with quiet understanding. "Listen to me, son. There's no way you're going to take that pain away. All you can do is be here for him and you're doing that."

Hutch nodded mutely, as though seeing the truth in the words didn't make accepting them any easier. After a few silent moments he started to speak. "I know...you're right...I just...it's..." he stopped and took a deep breath. As he let it out slowly, he closed his eyes and composed himself. When the eyes opened again, he gestured toward the Baggage Area. "Come on. We should go. They must have those suitcases by now."

Dobey nodded and walked alongside Hutch as they started to cross the terminal.

"So the funeral's set for tomorrow?"

"Yeah. 9:00 a.m."

"And it was OK to wait that long? I know the Jewish tradition calls for burial as soon as possible."

"With yesterday being the Sabbath, it would have been held over until today anyway. And then they received some kind of dispensation to wait the extra day, being that Starsky had so far to travel and they felt it was important that he be the one to make the arrangements. You know, first born son and all."

"I take it nobody knows that you..."

"No," Hutch snapped. "And it's going to stay that way. He doesn't need to deal with anymore family pressure right now."

"What if the funeral director should mention something?"

"He won't," Hutch stated coolly. "Let's just say that Mr. Cox and I came to a clear understanding about things."

Dobey wasn't about to question that further. He knew Hutch well enough to gather the meaning of that statement. Instead, he changed the subject.

"And the Shiva. It's going to be three days this time rather than seven?"

"Yeah. Non-orthodox families have the option of choosing from three to seven days to hold Shiva. The last time...with Nick...well, it was important to Ruth that it be seven days. But now...well I'm not sure Starsky's going to last three hours in that apartment let alone three days. I'll just be glad when this part of it is all over and I can take him home."

Dobey thought about cautioning against expecting things to be any better after the funeral. There was a good possibility the oposite might be the case. But before he could think of a way to voice his concerns, they had reached the Baggage Area. Huggy and Starsky were standing next to two suitcases and Huggy was pointing to them and speaking animatedly.

"Didn't I tell ya. It pays to put out the extra buck for quality."

"I see you two found the bags all right," Dobey stated.

"Oh, we got ‘em but I don't know if all right is a word I'd use. I'm afraid your bag looks a little worse for wear, Captain."

Huggy stepped to the side, giving a better view of the brown suitcase that now sported several dents and numerous dirt marks.

"As I was just explaining to Starsky here, I prefer to travel with Samsonite myself." The lanky man reached down to pick up his own suitcase which didn't have a scratch on it. "It may cost a little more up front, but it pays for itself in the long run." He dropped it to the ground with a smile. "See. Indestructible."

"Just give me the damn suitcase and save the commercial," Dobey barked.

"Hey, no problem. Just trying to dole out a helpful piece of advice."

"I've listened to about as much of your advice as I can handle on that endless plane ride. I'm having my seat assignment switched for the return trip."

"You wound me, Captain."

"Not yet, I haven't."

Hutch reached over to pick up both bags, hiding the smirk on his face.

"Listen, why don't we finish this fascinating conversation later. I for one would like to get out of this airport."

"You'll get no argument from me there," Huggy responded. "Having found this particular airplane ride somewhat more cramped than usual, I would have appreciated some fresh air along with an adequate amount of elbow room."

Dobey ignored the obvious reference to his size, recognizing Huggy's banter for what it was; an attempt to lighten up the mood, if only for a few moments. But Starsky, who in the past could rarely contain his amusement at the endless bickering between his two friends, didn't even seem to be hearing them now. Instead, he stood quietly off to the side with eyes that watched but didn't see. Dobey exchanged sobering looks with Huggy and Hutch before moving closer to Starsky and speaking in a more serious tone.

"Edith wanted me to apologize to you again for not being able to be here. Rosie's fever still hasn't gone down and she felt it best to stay close by."

"That's the way it should be. Mothers should be with their kids." Starsky's voice was hollow and his body remained still. Dobey wasn't sure how to respond and Huggy and Hutch seemed equally speechless. It was Starsky who finally broke the uncomfortable silence.

"Why don't I go get the car. This way you don't have to carry those suitcases to the parking lot."

"No, it's all right." Hutch's response seemed almost too quick. "It's not that far to the lot and these bags aren't very heavy. Why don't we all just take the walk. It's a nice night."

Dobey eyes searched both of his officers. Hutch was painfully reluctant to let Starsky go off alone. And Starsky, who was one of the more contrary people Dobey had ever known, seemed strangely apathetic, shrugging his shoulders in disinterest.

"Whatever."

With that, he started off toward the exit. Hutch hoisted the two suitcases in his hands and fell in right behind him. Dobey heard Huggy Bear sigh and turned to see him shaking his head sadly. Then he began walking as well and Dobey followed along, completing the foursome that traveled through the bustling New York City airport in silence.

~~~~~~~

Starsky wandered about the darkened hotel room aimlessly. The sounds of city life filtering through the window did nothing to relieve the sense of silence in the room. He felt so disconnected from everything around him, as though he were watching someone else pace the floor of the lonely room. Flopping down into the chair, he felt the ache in his limbs that signaled the exhaustion running through his body. Tired...so tired...and yet not sleepy. Sleep was the last thing he felt able to do, remaining instead trapped in this endless limbo.

Unable to get comfortable in the chair, he stood again to begin his measured steps across the carpet. Why hadn't he gone? Hutch had practically begged him to go with them to dinner, but he had stubbornly refused. It was only his insistence that he needed time alone that finally convinced the reluctant blond to go without him. Time alone. For what? From the moment the door had closed, Starsky felt the near paralyzing loneliness engulfing him.

He realized now that this had been the first time he had been truly alone since he heard the news about his mother. Hutch had been by his side or at least close by every moment since then. It was only now that he began to see how much he had been depending on that support. Without it, he felt set adrift without an anchor and the unsettling, near immobilizing feeling was becoming more difficult to stave off with each passing minute.

Glancing toward the clock, he reminded himself that it had only been about thirty minutes. Surely he wasn't so far gone that he couldn't hold himself together for a lousy thirty minutes. He was acting like a child. No, even as a child he hadn't been this skittish. It was Nicky who used to panic at night ten minutes after their mother left for work. It was his job to comfort and reassure...to search for the monsters under the bed...to convince a frightened boy that unlike their father, their mother would be coming back.

What would I say to you now, Nicky? I guess I was wrong. She wasn't always going to come back If you were standing here right now I'd have to help you deal with that. I wouldn't have time to...Time to what? Time to feel the insecurities and abandonment that I never allowed myself to feel as a child?

Starsky flopped down on the bed and pulled the pillow over his head, desperate to block the unwelcome thoughts from his mind. He felt his hands shaking as he clutched the pillow. It was there again. That feeling of control slipping away...that inexplicable sense of panic that was beginning to take hold again like it did this afternoon.

Flinging the pillow to the floor he stood up abruptly and began to pace more quickly. The room felt so small and oppressive...and yet it felt empty and hollow as well...like a tomb...is that what it felt like to be in a tomb?

Nerves frayed, Starsky physically jumped at the sound of the key in the door. He turned to see it opening slowly, the glare from the corridor lights illuminating the darkened room in which he stood. His face must have conveyed his rattled demeanor since Hutch paused in the doorway speaking soothingly.

"It's only me. I didn't mean to scare you. Sorry."

"I just didn't expect you back so soon," Starsky covered, trying to will his features to relax.

"I know," Hutch began apologetically as he entered the room and closed the door behind him. "I know you said you needed to be by yourself and I tried to respect that. It's just...well I just didn't feel right leaving you like that. It kept nagging and nagging at me until I realized there was no point in my staying out because all I was going to do was worry about you anyway. So I had them drop me back here." He held up the bag he was carrying. "I brought take out," he said hopefully before dropping his voice to softer tone. "I hope you're not mad."

"No," Starsky replied, able to take in the first deep breath he had in the past forty minutes.

"Is it OK if I turn on the light?"

Starsky nodded, grateful that the darkness hid the blush of embarrassment. "Sure. I was just getting ready to do it myself. Guess I'm still on California time. Didn't realize it was night already."

The excuse sounded lame even to his own ears, but Hutch let it go without comment. He reached over to turn on the light, then carried the bag toward the small table near the window.

"Feel like eating something? I got burgers."

The knots in his stomach made the thought of a cheeseburger nearly unthinkable, but he knew he should at least try to eat, if only for Hutch's sake, so he shrugged his shoulders noncommittally and moved towards the table. The blond quietly laid out the contents of the bag on the table. Starsky sat down in the chair, the smell of the food turning his stomach as he tried to keep from looking at it. The silence lingered in the air as Hutch sat down across from him and began to eat while Starsky picked at the sesame seeds on his bun.

It was Hutch who finally ended the silence. "Don't force it." He nodded towards Starsky's untouched food. "I brought it in case you wanted it. If you don't, you don't."

Starsky couldn't bring himself to meet the worried eyes. "Sorry."

"Don't be." The tone was full of understanding. "Here. Try this instead. I brought you a shake. Maybe that will go down easier."

Starsky took the cup and drank down a few sips. It didn't have much flavor in his tasteless mouth but at least it seemed willing to stay in his stomach. He was grateful for that. He was grateful for a lot of things.

"Thanks," he stated, hoping that Hutch would understand that he was talking about more than the shake. He didn't have any real desire to eat or talk or even think for that matter. But he took comfort in the sense of security that had begun when Hutch stepped through the door and was continuing to ease his frazzled spirit.

Hutch looked at him searchingly for several long minutes as numerous unvoiced questions and comments seemed to pass through his mind. Finally, however, he settled on a simple "you're welcome," for which a weary Starsky was very thankful. Silence fell over the room again as Hutch finished eating his dinner and Starsky did his best to get the shake down. Starsky realized that the silence wasn't nearly as overwhelming as it had been only a short time before.

~~~~~~~

Heavy. Leaden eyelids drooped down across the pain-dulled blue eyes, slitting them against the bright morning sun. It was becoming so hard to keep them open...so hard to see. People and things moved before him in blurred images. Sounds came to his ears in a delayed fashion that made them seem so far away. Starsky struggled to make them out...music...words...prayers... choked sobs. It was all going on around him and yet miles away.

He shook his head trying to clear it as his eyes became riveted to the smooth pine surface of the casket before him. Beneath the large array of flowers, the wood gleamed in the sunlight. Pristine...lustrous...glossy...such a sleek, perfectly crafted box. It could be beautiful were it not for what it was, but its dismal purpose would render it eternally ugly.

A crisp autumn breeze rustled the trees above them, but its cooling breath did not touch the heated skin that was suffocating beneath the woolen black suit and dark, somber coat. A shaky hand reached toward the tie that strangled his neck, wanting to rip it off so that much needed air could pass through the constricted throat. But then Starsky wrested the hand down, knowing the tie had to stay in place...forcing himself to stay in place as well. Minutes...hours...days...he lost all sense of time as he stood near the freshly dug excavation. Eyes wandering across the grassy cemetery as the unintelligible words droned on from afar, his wavering attention was caught by the neighboring headstone.

Nicholas Starsky...Born 1952 Died 1982

A shiver ran through him then, though his body continued to perspire beneath the smothering clothing. It will give her peace to lay beside Nicky. The voice of his Aunt rang in his ears as the words echoed again and again in his mind. Peace. The faraway voice was talking about peace, too. He strained to listen...to hear it but, the words remained obscure and jumbled. It was like trying to translate a foreign language but no matter how hard he tried his scattered mind remained lost to it all.

He felt his weary shoulders slumping down as his knees quivered beneath him. A strong hand pressed into the small of his back steadying him. Instinctively he moved back into it...away from the deep hole and the mounds of dirt and the gleaming coffin. There was no peace here...only death...his brother's...his mother's...That was his mother in the polished wooden box. Soon the box would be put in the ground. A vivid image flashed through his mind briefly. Another wooden box...not nearly so polished and shiny...his mother bent over it crying as his little brother stood beside him clutching his hand so tightly it hurt. Nicky's tears spilled out onto their jointly clasped hands as Uncle Leo tried to get his mother to move away from his father's coffin. She didn't want to go...she threw herself against the coffin, clutching it tightly, refusing to be moved.

The memory dissolved, leaving him staring at the rich brown casket in front of him. He felt no desire to touch it or wrap himself around it. On the contrary, what he wanted most was to be away from it...from this place...this finely mowed and manicured garden of death. He took another step, pressing harder into the hand that had been rhythmically kneading his back. The hand moved to his waist, tightening around him and drawing him closer against the familiar frame that supported him. He closed his eyes and tried to will everything else away, focusing only on the comfort and safety of the embrace. The respite was brief.

The voice that had been droning on seemed to have finished. Its termination signaled a flurry of activity...music playing...voices crying...flowers being laid...movement...shuffling. The mass of bodies seemed to be converging toward him and he wanted to get away. But before he knew it, he was pulled away from the shelter of Hutch's strength and swept into the maelstrom. Arms and bodies pressed into him with unwanted hugs and pats...tears were falling on him and all around him...voices coming from all directions murmuring disjointed words that he heard in bits and pieces.

‘...it was a beautiful service...'

‘...lovely flowers...'

‘...finally at peace...'

‘...so, so sorry...'

‘...poor, sweet David...'

‘...with Nicky now...'

‘...such a shame...'

‘...mother and father finally together...'

‘...must be strong...'

‘...in God's hands...'

And on and on until he could no longer make out the words any more, just the muffled voices and the sobbing.

Flowers were thrust in his hand to lay down upon the coffin as he was pushed forward by the arms that wanted to support him but felt more like they were imprisoning him. And then the coffin was before him, but he didn't want to touch it...didn't want to kneel by it like the others had done...didn't want to say good-bye, for his mother was already gone and this was just a casket that housed her breathless body. He dropped the flowers down and tried to move away but Aunt Vivian had snaked her hand around his waist and Uncle Leo had taken hold of his arm...he was talking to him in a somber tone...careful instructions about the guests he had to see to...the condolences to be acknowledged...the invitations he needed to extend to the Shiva. He glanced over toward the throng of mourners who were all waiting to speak with him...offer their empty words and handshakes and tears. So many of the faces seemed unrecognizable although he was sure he must have met them before. But right now, they were strangers and he didn't want to hear their words or endure their sympathies...and why didn't these people who were his family stop pulling on him...stop expecting things from him...why wouldn't everyone just leave him alone so he could breathe?

A blinding pain pierced behind his eyes. As he reached up his hand to rub his temples, he realized he was shaking. At first, he thought it was just his hand but then he felt the tremors coursing through his body. What was happening to him? He closed his eyes tightly to try to clear the vision that had been blurred by the pain. But when he reopened them everything around him seemed to be moving in slow motion. He could feel his heart beating hard in his chest as his clothes clung to his sweat soaked body weighing him down and threatening to suffocate him.

He had to move...to get away...but everywhere he turned there was someone grabbing at him...blocking his escape...speaking to him in that mumbled jargon. Too many bodies...too many faces...too much perfect grass strewn with rows and rows of finely chiseled headstones...death all around...and that big hole where they were going to put his mother....

Daddy's with God now, Davey. It's just us now....

No! No! Not my Nick! Not my baby....

"Starsk!"

The familiar voice cut through the sounds of his mother's screams in the turmoil that was his mind. He looked up and struggled to focus on the face that had pushed through the crowd to reach him. He reached out his trembling hands and clung to the lapels of Hutch's coat like a drowning man would to a life preserver. He could hear his own voice in that same distant tone that all sound had taken on.

"Hutch...help me."

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