"Starsky's losin' it."

Dobey glanced briefly at Huggy Bear who had just uttered the anxious words beside him before returning his attention to the scene across the grass. Throughout the funeral he had watched with concern as his dark-haired detective waged an internal struggle to hold himself together. Starsky's hands had been fidgeting nervously, his eyes darting everywhere though seeming to see nothing, perspiration covering his face despite the chill in the air. He had taken several steps back, away from the grave and into his partner whose presence seemed to be the only thing keeping him upright. But it was when the service ended that Dobey had become truly worried about Starsky. All the color had drained from his face as his relatives moved forward to console him. Rather than taking comfort in their proximity, he seemed to recoil, looking as though he was drowning among the sea of dark coats and bodies. Even from here, Dobey could see the trembling that infused the stout body as he backed away from the grave, flowers dropping from his unsteady hands. Still surrounded by family members, his head and eyes darted everywhere as though desperate for escape. But then he became deathly still, riveted to the spot in which he stood, seemingly unable to see or hear those around him, a helpless look on his face as though he had no idea where he was or what was happening to him.

Dobey watched as the blond head made its way intently through the crowd, honing straight in on his partner and pushing aside anyone who stood between them. It was only when Hutch reached him that Starsky demonstrated any ability to move, grabbing onto his friend with trembling hands and nearly collapsing into him. Dobey couldn't hear the words that were exchanged between them, nor what Hutch said to the concerned throng who were still trying to get near Starsky. Whatever he said had succeeded in getting them to move, though reluctantly, and he was able to guide Starsky several feet away from the crowd, where the two stood now, the dark head hung down, straining to catch his breath, while the blond remained close beside him, speaking softly in his ear.

Hutch looked up then, eyes searching, until he found Dobey and Huggy. He motioned for them to come closer and the two men quickly responded. When they got closer, Dobey noted that Starsky was in even worse shape than he thought. His breathing was strained and ragged, he was deathly pale, and he was covered in perspiration. Huggy went to his side and laid a hand across his back as he spoke softly.

"Hey man, take it easy. It's gonna be all right."

Hutch exchanged glances with Huggy, then left Starsky to his care, moving a few steps off and beckoning Dobey to join him.

"What's happening, Hutch?"

"What's happening is that he hasn't slept or eaten in three days," the blond began in a voice filled with alarm and agitation. "His body's on empty, his emotions are in overdrive...he's been holding all this stuff in with no outlet and now he's too wired to control it anymore."

"How can we help?"

"We need to get him out of here."

"Are you sure that's wise? I mean his family should...."

"The hell with his family!" Hutch snapped. "This is not about them, it's about Starsky. Right now he can't be what everybody wants him to be and they're just going to have to back off and...."

"Hey, take it easy," Dobey cautioned. "I'm not the enemy. Nobody here is." The words got through, Hutch pausing to take a deep breath and run his hand through his hair.

"Sorry. I just...."

"I know." Dobey was only too familiar with the fierce streak of protectiveness that suffused Hutch whenever his partner was in danger. He was also aware that, blood ties or no, there wasn't anybody else here better qualified to judge what was best for Starsky. "Hutch, whatever you want me to do, I'll do. I'm worried about him too."

"I know." Hutch's tone had softened considerably. "I just want you and Huggy to take the car and take him back to the hotel."

"What about you?"

"Things are going to be a little dicey here. I think I should stay and try to smooth things over...tie up the final details with the funeral director, make the appropriate acknowledgments and apologies to the guests and try to reassure the family enough that they don't try to follow him and swoop down on him right now."

Dobey glanced over to the large group of family and guests nearby who seemed on the verge of swooping already and did not envy Hutch his task. He knew, though, that if anyone could handle it, his sincere, smooth talking detective could.

"Good luck," Dobey mumbled just as Aunt Vivian began to wave toward Hutch.

"Kenneth, is everything all right now? David?"

"Just give me another minute," Hutch responded with a reassuring tone that seemed to temporarily halt her intention to come closer. Hutch turned back to Dobey. "You'd better get going now while the coast is still clear. I'll get a cab and meet you back at the hotel as soon as I can."

Hutch moved back towards where his partner and Huggy were standing. Huggy was talking non-stop in an effort to distract Starsky from whatever turmoil was going on inside him but Starsky seemed to be only slightly aware that he was even there. Hutch laid a gentle hand atop his friend's shoulder and spoke in a soft, calming tone.

"Listen, buddy, the Cap'n and Huggy are going to take you back to the hotel now. You need to rest. You go on with them and I'll be there soon, OK?"

When Starsky looked up at Hutch his eyes were glassy and confused. It was uncertain whether he even knew where he was anymore.

"Hutch?"

The voice was small and unsteady. Hutch tightened his grip and spoke with tender authority.

"Starsk, just do what I'm telling you. Go back to the hotel and I'll be there soon, I promise. Everything's going to be all right. Just go on now."

Starsky nodded, although Dobey still believed that he had very little understanding of what was going on around him. But he responded to Hutch's entreaty and meekly walked along beside Huggy as he led him away. Before Dobey turned to follow them, Hutch called to him.

"Cap," the voice was much less assured than it had been a moment ago.

It was Dobey's voice this time that spoke with the measured authority. "He'll be fine. You do what you have to do. We'll stay right with him until you get there."

Hutch nodded, trying hard to look reassured but not quite succeeding. His eyes followed worriedly along with his partner for several long minutes before his focus was broken by the voices of Starsky's Aunt Vivian and Uncle Leo who were calling to him with alarm from behind them. Dobey hurried along after Huggy and Starsky, eager to get as much distance between themselves and this place as possible as Hutch turned to face the concerned, questioning crowd.

~~~~~~~

Starsky had been hauntingly silent during the ride back to the hotel. Upon first entering the room, the silence continued, with Starsky curling up into the chair and staring vacantly at the wallpaper. Dobey wasn't overly concerned since his breathing had calmed and the trembling had lessened significantly. But after an hour had passed, the signs of agitation began to return. Starsky bolted up from the chair and paced toward the window, looking out searchingly, his fingers curling and uncurling into tight fists at his sides. After a few moments of looking, he would return to the chair, throwing himself into it and tapping his fingers against its arms until he felt the need to return to the window again.

Dobey and Huggy watched the pattern continue for the next thirty minutes. With each trip to the window, Starsky became more anxious, his breathing once again growing uneven. Though several previous attempts had been met with silence, Dobey tried again to speak to him.

"Starsky, I really think you should try to rest. You can't keep going on like this."

"Hey, I got an idea," Huggy added. "Why don't I call down for some room service? I'm sure this hotel can rustle up something decent, though it may pale in comparison to the fine cuisine you're used to getting at my establishment."

For several long minutes, Starsky remained silent, pressing his forehead against the window pane and tapping his fingers along the sill. But then he turned abruptly and faced them, his voice hoarse and unsteady.

"Where's Hutch?"

"He stayed behind at the cemetery, remember," Dobey stated calmly. "He'll be here soon."

"It's too long. It's taking too long." Starsky grasped his wrist and looked at his watch, then walked over towards the night-stand and picked up the clock. "Is this right? What time is it?'

"It's 1:45, like the clock says."

Starsky threw down the clock and moved back to the window. "It's too long," he muttered, voice filled with apprehension.

Dobey looked to Huggy who seemed equally uncertain about what to do. Finally, Huggy shrugged his shoulders and spoke in an easy tone.

"Hey, these New York highways ain't so different from the freeways back home. Could take a man an hour to travel a block, especially if some greedy cabby's got his meter runnin'."

Starsky's head was shaking back and forth in vehement disagreement. He moved towards the two men now, perspiration again dripping from his forehead. "No! Something's wrong. Something's happened. Why won't you tell me!"

"Dave," Dobey forced calm into his voice despite his growing worry. "Nothing's wrong. Nothing has happened. Hutch will be here as soon as he can. You've got to calm down."

Dobey reached a hand toward him but Starsky pulled back. With trembling hands, he reached for the back of the chair and leaned on it to steady himself. He fought to control his breathing but was having great difficulty regulating it. His eyes were glazing over again in that distant stare and he began muttering to himself incoherently. His body looked ready to collapse on itself, yet he was forcing it stay upright.

"He don't look so good, Captain. It's like the funeral only worse." The worried look on Huggy's face mirrored Dobey's own fears. Starsky seemed to be coming completely unglued before their eyes. He moved towards the trembling detective again, grasping his arm. He could feel the pulse beat pumping way too fast through the sweat-soaked sleeves of his shirt and jacket.

"Listen to me, son. Hutch is fine, but you're not. You can't keep going like this. Now let's get you out of these wet clothes and laying down in that bed. Huggy, will go get you some aspirin and then you can...."

"No!" The distress in his voice seemed to shake the room. "I've got to find Hutch. Something's wrong. I can't lose Hutch too...not Hutch...No!...."

It took both Dobey and Huggy to block the frantic bolt for the door. Starsky struggled with them for a moment before losing the last strand of strength that was keeping him upright. Clutching his stomach, he dropped to his knees moaning ‘no, no' over and over. Huggy bent to help him but he retreated from the touch, scrambling backwards along the floor until his motion was halted by the wall. He curled up into it gasping for air as he clutched his trembling knees to his chest. His face was twisted in distress as confused, frightened eyes swept back and forth in a disoriented gaze.

"Leave...me...alone...." Every word was a struggle. "All...of...you...everybody...stop pushing me...leave me...alone...."

It was unclear whether he was talking to the inhabitants of this room or of his mind. He seemed to have taken a step out of this reality, which would make reaching him even more difficult.

"Maybe we should get him a doctor," Huggy mumbled worriedly, his eyes still riveted to Starsky.

Dobey wasn't certain that was necessary and he was well aware of Starsky's dislike of doctors. Yet he couldn't think of anything else to do and something clearly needed to be done. Starsky's pulse rate was dangerously high a few moments ago and it was surely higher now. That fact, along with the ragged attempts to catch his breath, put him in real physical danger.

"I think you're right, Huggy."

"I'll go down to the front desk...see if they can tell me how to reach...."

"What's going on?!"

Both Dobey and Huggy's attention had been on Starsky so neither had heard the door open. They both turned at the sound of the anxious inquiry and found Hutch standing in the doorway, alarmed eyes locked on the sight of his cowering partner.

"He's freakin', Hutch. We can't get through to him. I was just going to go get a doctor...." Huggy was moving towards the door but Hutch blocked his exit with his body then closed the door behind himself.

"No, wait." The blond was fighting for composure. The sight of his partner so distraught had obviously unnerved him greatly. But in order to help, he would push his own emotions aside to maintain a clear, level-headed veneer with which he could effectively approach the crisis. When he spoke again, his voice was calm and direct. "Tell me what happened. Everything."

Both Dobey and Huggy filled him in on the details, recounting everything that had happened since they left the cemetery, including Starsky's increasing apprehension that something bad had happened to Hutch.

"Hey, maybe that's it," Huggy reasoned. "Just tell him you're here. Show him you're OK."

"It's not going to be that simple," Hutch stated as he removed first his coat then his suit jacket. "His body's reactions are out of his control right now. He's having some kind of panic attack...anxiety. This is what I was afraid of at the cemetery."

"But I don't get it," Huggy went on. "If somebody's panicking and it's all in their head, why can't you just tell him everything's all right? I mean you're safe."

"It's not just about me," Hutch went on as he loosened and removed his tie. "And telling him the fears are unfounded will only exacerbate the physical distress. This kind of thing hits after a crisis. It can be triggered by several conditions...grief, despair, helplessness, repressed emotions. Being so physically run down makes him more vulnerable to it."

"And I was going to call a doctor," Huggy remarked with irony as he regarded Hutch with a note of awe.

"You may still have to," Hutch admitted with apprehension as he unbuttoned his cuffs and rolled up his shirt sleeves. "The physical symptoms are real. If I can't help him to calm down, he could be in a lot of trouble."

"What are you going to do, Hutch?" Over the years on the force, Dobey had seen several people in similar states of emotional attacks and knew it was a serious thing. It had usually taken trained professionals to alleviate the situation.

"Just try to reassure him. Help him ride it out and find his way back." It seemed as though Hutch were trying to sound more confident then he felt.

"Can we help?" Dobey questioned.

"Get a basin of water, some wash clothes, a blanket, a few towels...and just stay close."

~~~~~~~

As Hutch moved toward the corner of the room where Starsky was huddled he took a deep breath, hoping to muster the strength and confidence he didn't totally feel. Starsky was in a bad way; doubled over with one hand clutching his stomach while the other held his head. He was fighting for every labored breath. His clothes were soaked, clinging to his body limply as though he had just worn them in the shower. Most disconcerting, though, were his eyes. The usually brilliant blue pupils were small and dark, clouded over in an unfocused gaze that traveled rapidly back and forth yet couldn't even see that Hutch was next to him now. Hutch paused, his mind racing as he began to fear what would happen if he couldn't reach his distraught partner. No sooner had the question surfaced, however, then it was pushed sharply from his mind. He stubbornly refused to allow the self-doubt to incapacitate him...not now...not when Starsky needed him.

Crouching down on his knees about a foot in front of the shaken man, Hutch spoke in the calm, soothing tone that he would maintain throughout.

"Starsk, it's me. It's Hutch. Can you hear me?"

There was no change, no sign of recognition, so he tried again.

"Starsky, I need you to hear me. Focus on my voice. Come on. I know you can."

"Hutch?" The response was low and weak, but it was there.

"That's right. It's Hutch. I'm right here. I'm right next to you. Try to look at me."

"Hutch..." Flickering eyes fought to focus. "Hutch...you...are you...you...."

"I'm fine. I'm just fine. I promise."

"...sure...are you...sure...."

"Yes, I'm sure. Come here. Give me your hand." Hutch gently unclenched the hand that Starsky had pushed tightly into his stomach. He brought it slowly to his cheek, noting with alarm the rapid pulse pounding through the damp wrist as he held the trembling hand against his face. "See. I'm right here and I'm fine. I'm really fine."

For a brief moment Starsky's eyes seemed to lock with his as the cold, clammy, unsteady hand tried to stroke his face. But then a violent shudder ripped through his body and he jerked his arm back, wrapping both of his arms around himself as he cried out breathlessly.

"Hutch!....Something...wrong. I can't...breathe...."

"I know. I know. But it's going to be all right. Just try to stay calm."

"What's happening? My head...everything's spinning...can't stop it."

"Hold on, buddy, I'm right here. It's going to pass."

Starsky gasped as he threw his head back against the wall. Shoulders heaving back, he tried to inhale deeply but his throat sounded constricted. Hutch moved towards him, causing him to plaster himself further back against the wall as he tried to retreat.

"No air...there's no air in here...."

Hutch immediately backed off, realizing he had moved too quickly. He had to be more careful. "I'm sorry. Here, is this better? I'll stay back."

"No...Hutch...sorry...just...Hutch...."

The eyes were pleading now. He seemed fearful that Hutch would go.

"I'm not going anywhere. I just want to give you some space. I'm right here. Just try to breathe. Just focused on that."

Starsky closed his eyes and seemed to be making a concerted effort to regulate his breathing. It was still coming in short gasps, but it was clear that some air was making its way through.

"That's it. In and out. Just in and out. Don't worry about anything else." They remained like that for several minutes, Starsky laboring to take short breaths while Hutch continued to coax him. Knowing the tiny breaths were not going to be enough for long, Hutch searched for a means to make more progress. "Starsk, listen to me. I think it would help if we got rid of the tie. I'm going to move forward just a little to help you get it off. Is that OK?" Starsky's head nodded slightly but his body visibly tensed. Hutch hastened to reassure. "I'm not going to crowd you, I promise. I'm just going to move a little bit closer. If it's too much you just tell me."

There was no discernible response so Hutch edged very slightly towards his partner. At the slight change in breathing pattern, he paused, using his voice to ease the trepidation. "It's OK. Just one more little inch and I can reach, all right?" Moving with measured slowness, he brought his hand up to the knot of Starsky's tie. "There we are. I've got it. Now. I'm just going to slide it down a bit." Gradually, the knot was loosened. Bringing up his other hand, Hutch pulled the material until the knot came undone then took one end and drew the tie from around the shirt collar. Fingers at the collar button, Hutch paused again. "I'm going to open this button here, so you can breathe easier, O.K?" Hutch unfastened the top two buttons then backed off as Starsky gasped deeply. "That's right. Just breathe."

Again, minutes passed while Starsky struggled to get some deep breaths. He shifted then, pulling his knees up toward his chest and clutching them tightly as he rocked back and forth. He reached one hand to his chest and gripped the material from his shirt in a tight-fisted ball.

"Hurts...in my chest...so tight...like...like somebody's standin' on it."

"I know. It's because you're heart's beating too fast." Hutch reached over and covered Starsky's hand with his, pressing both their hands against the frantic rhythm pounding through the soaked cotton.

"What's wrong with me?" The plaintive wail echoed through the room. Desperate eyes roamed Hutch's face searching for answers. "Can't catch my breath...everything's spinning...can't...keep shaking...." He started to shift again, attempting to get to his knees. "Gotta stop...too closed in...it's all closing in...gotta get out of here...let me outta here...."

Hutch struggled to keep his touches as nonrestrictive as possible while he hastened to halt the escape. "No, no. Listen to me. You need to stay here. I know you feel like running but it's not going to help. You have to just stay here and try to work this thing through. I know it's scary, but it'll be all right. You're safe here. I promise. Please, Starsk. You've got to trust me here."

Starsky's forward movement halted though his eyes continued to dart frantically around the room as though looking for a way out. The agitation became more palpable, every fiber of his body twitching with barely controlled distress, but finally he slumped back down against the wall, digging his fingers into the carpet to anchor himself there. His voice betrayed the cost of the action as he spoke the whispered syllable; "Hutch...."

It was a plea filled with such desolation, confusion and raw fear that it threatened to decimate the walls Hutch had carefully built around his own precarious emotions. It had always been so easy for him to feel Starsky's pain...too easy in fact. The intensity of the connection was often overwhelming. In the beginning, he wondered about it...he even attributed all kinds of psychological theories to explain things like why, when his partner got a paper cut, his own finger would feel as though it stung. Or why he would go to work after spending a restless night unable to sleep and inevitably find that his partner had woken with the flu or some other ailment. As time went on, he stopped trying to analyze it and just accepted it. But with that acceptance came a new dilemma...how to cope with it. How to cope when you're trying frantically to decipher the cryptic clues from Simon Marcus' twisted ramblings while a screaming, icy fear keeps grabbing hold of your gut and threatening to unravel you. Or how to focus on disarming two gunmen and saving a restaurant full of hostages when you can't shake the feeling that your essence is slowly draining out all over the musty cushions of a dilapidated sofa.

It was always a balance...a thin line being walked inside his consciousness between the feeler and the doer...the reactor and the actor. Most times he could separate the two long enough to take care of the situation at hand while keeping the feelings to a bare minimum...at least in the present. The after effects were always another story. But the balance was always tenuous at best. Right now, the blue eyes boring into him, pleading for answers he wasn't sure he had, were cutting like a knife through his heart. He felt his own calm slipping as he became engulfed by the liquid blue anguish and plagued by inadequacy. The composure he had been so careful to maintain in his voice was slipping now as his own heart began to beat too fast.

"Starsk, I...just...don't...don't worry...."

"Hutch!" The tone became more distressed by the hesitance.

It was only when Dobey's firm clasp touched his shoulder did Hutch realize how damp his own shirt had become.

"Easy, Hutch. Stay steady."

The Captain's words echoed in his ears. He's right. The key is to help him relax and calm down. Constant reassurance...steadfast support. Hutch closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Trust that connection. It works both ways. If you're calm, he'll feel it. If you stay relaxed, eventually he'll be able to relax too. Just trust it.

When Hutch opened his eyes again he met Dobey's questioning look with a reassuring nod. Then he slowly inched over beside Starsky, leaning his back against the same wall as he spoke comfortingly.

"Buddy, listen to me. Everything's going to be all right. We're just going to sit here together until this thing passes...and it will pass, I promise you. It's just going to take a little time. I know it's scary. You're feeling very helpless and out of control right now and those are very real feelings. But it won't last forever. Just keep with me. Talk to me. Tell me what's happening."

"I don't know what's happening!" was the sharp reply.

"I understand that. It feels like it's all unraveling beyond your grasp."

"Can't stop it...can't stop the feelings...."

"Not right this minute, no. But they'll stop. Just give it a little time. You've been carrying around a lot of stuff. It's just all starting to rebel a little. It's nothing to be worried about."

"No...not right...it's not normal...."

"Sure it is. And it's perfectly understandable. There's nothing to be ashamed of or worried about. Just try to breathe. Don't fight it. Go with it. I'm right here."

'Hutch...."

"I'm right here. You're not alone. Just breath with me. Come on. In and out."

"It hurts...so tight...everything's racing...."

"It'll slow down. Just work on the breathing for now."

Starsky pushed his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. His face was contorted and tense but his efforts to breathe resulted in several long, good gulps of air. As Hutch looked on, he felt something damp and clammy touch his thigh. Immediately he wrapped the unsteady hand in his sure one and continued to speak with quiet encouragement.

"That's right. I'm right here. You just keep breathing. I'm not going anywhere." The hand in his stayed tightly fisted and shaky but Starsky made no attempts to withdraw it. They remained that way for the better part of an hour, Starsky struggling valiantly to contain the war being waged within him while Hutch continued his unflinching support. When there had been enough of an improvement in Starsky's breathing and pulse rate to indicate he was out of physical danger, Hutch signaled that Dobey and Huggy could leave. It had been a long day and both looked worn out. There was nothing more they would be able to do here for now anyway.

"Call us if you need anything...anything at all," Dobey whispered as they moved towards the door.

Hutch smiled gratefully. "I will. And thanks." The word seemed inadequate but he hoped that the sentiment was understood. From beside him, a hoarse voice called out signifying another step taken towards awareness.

"I'm sorry."

"Ya got no need to be," Huggy assured with a dismissive wave of his hand. "You just go easy, huh. And do what blondie tells you. He knows best."

Something that almost resembled a smile trailed across Starsky's lips before his head slouched to the side tiredly. Exhaustion permeated every muscle in his body. When the door to the room had closed and they were alone, Hutch got to his knees and faced Starsky.

"How about we try to get you a little more comfortable. We can start by taking this jacket off. Is that O.K?"

Starsky gave a small, disinterested nod. With care, Hutch was able to peel the sweat soggy jacket from the still trembling frame. He tossed it to the side where it landed in a heap on the floor. He gave a small smile, trying to lessen some of the tension in the room. "The cleaner's going to charge you triple to get that back in shape."

"Throw it out. I don't want it." His lips pressed together in a bitter frown before adding sardonically, "Better yet, bury it. Bury the suit of death."

Hutch sighed, clutching Starsky's forearm in a gentle squeeze before running his hand up and down it. The shirt was damper than the jacket had been. Hutch pulled over the basin of water and a washcloth. He moistened the cloth in the water then brought it to Starsky's hot, wet brow. As he cleansed the heated skin he noted the vacant expression. Worrying that he was losing him again, Hutch spoke into the quiet room.

"Listen, you can't be very comfortable here on the floor. How about we get you up...maybe have a shower, a change of clothes, lay down for a while?"

The dark curls shook from side to side as a barely audible voice declared, "I'm fine."

Hutch slid the wash cloth down Starsky's neck with one hand as he unfastened the remaining shirt buttons with the other. "No, you're not," he stated quietly. Trailing the cloth down through the matted chest hair, he made his voice as gentle as he could. "And you can't keep holding it all inside. You don't have to. I'm right here."

Hutch felt the shiver that shook Starsky's body as goosebumps cropped up along his flesh. Concerned about the effect of the room air conditioning against Starsky's sweat drenched body, he put down the wash cloth and started to peel the saturated shirt off of him.

"You can't sit here in these wet clothes. You're going to get sick. Here, get this shirt off." After he removed the shirt, Hutch draped the blanket around Starsky's shoulders. "There. That's better."

Starsky clutched the blanket to him, continuing to shiver. Hutch rubbed his hands up and down the blanket covered arms until the shivering lessened. Exhausted blue eyes that seemed to be carrying the weight of the world looked up at him as a voice filled with repressed emotion uttered, "Thank you." The head dropped down then, sagging from the load, as the voice began to crack. "Ah, Hutch...what am I doing? What's wrong with me? I didn't hear a word that was said at my own mother's funeral. I didn't go to the Shiva...."

"Couldn't," Hutch corrected vehemently. "There's a difference between didn't and couldn't. I know your mom would understand that difference."

A sharp intake of breath preceded the next hoarse words. "My mom is dead, Hutch. She's dead."

Hutch felt the tears start to well in his own eyes as he watched Starsky pull the blanket even tighter around himself like a cocoon, the taut muscles constricting as arms wrapped around legs trying to hold on. Hutch laid a hand upon the rigid back wishing Starsky would just stop fighting it and let it go. "I know, babe. I know."

Starsky was curled up into himself, bowed head resting upon knees inside the cloak of the blanket. The voice was tense now...tense like the body that refused to give in. "It's like this quicksand all around me. It's dark and it's cold and it just keeps pulling at me. It's trying to pull me in...pull me under. But I can't let it. I won't."

"I won't either," Hutch hastened to assure as he stroked his hand rhythmically up and down the blanket covered back. "I won't let you drown. But that doesn't mean you can't let go. You can let some of this out without going completely under. I'll be right here to pull you back out."

Hutch felt the tight body convulse beneath his hand. Several strained intakes of breath were the only sound in the room for a while. Then the muffled voice from beneath the blanket struggled to speak.

"Mom's dead. She's gone...gone like Nicky...like Dad. All gone except me. It's like...like I'm some kind of orphan or somethin'...no family...all alone...nobody...."

"No!" Hutch choked past the lump in his throat. "That's not true." He reached into the blanket, placing his hands against the hot cheeks and lifted Starsky's face to his. Sapphire eyes brimmed with tears but only one had managed to escape. The lonely drop was sliding down along the side of Starsky's nose. Hutch caught it with his thumb just as it reached the quivering lip. Fighting to keep his own voice steady, Hutch spoke with quiet conviction.

"You listen to me. You are never alone. Not ever. I will always be here. I'm your family and you're mine. Me and thee, remember. That's for keeps. I promise."

At last, the dam broke.

~~~~~~~

Every muscle in his body seemed to be weighted down. Just breathing took effort. Tired. So tired. Things felt so surreal as though he were a stranger in his own body. He had no idea how long he had been like this. He noted through swollen eyes that the room was dim and daylight was fading beyond the window. It had been bright with sunshine before.

He was so weary. He made an attempt to shift himself, perhaps even sit up, but his limbs gave no response. He tried to remember when he last felt in control of them. Certainly not during that endless frenzy when he could barely get his breath and his heart was threatening to burst from his chest. And not during that torrent of sobbing that racked through him uncontrollably for what felt like hours. Not for the first time today he wondered what was happening...wondered if he were going insane. He couldn't remember ever feeling so disconnected and unstable. Worse yet, he didn't have an ounce of energy to fight it.

The steady arms that were wrapped around him tightened their grip. He closed his eyes reveling in their security. Hutch. Through it all, Hutch had been with him...was still with him. They were still huddled on the floor against the wall and Starsky was laying limply in Hutch's embrace. It was disconcerting to feel so debilitated and yet he had no burning desire to move. He felt safe here...safer than he had felt in a long time.

The exhaustion continued to pull at him, dragging him down a dark corridor that beckoned behind his closed lids. He felt himself drifting...floating helplessly into it. He was only half aware of the movements that stirred him. Vaguely, he realized that his body was moving but he knew it was not of his own accord. He felt himself being lifted up...up into the arms that still sheltered him. His supine body was carried easily across the room and deposited on the bed. He felt his mind begin to form a protest but it never translated coherently into words and so he let it just fade back into the blackness. Again, all was dark...dark and distant. A rush of cold assaulted his heated skin as the material that covered it was removed. Blanket. Yeah, it was a blanket pulled away...pants too. But then there was warmth again as a cotton fabric drew up his legs and pulled around his waist in an elastic grip. As he felt a tee shirt being tugged over his head and arms he attempted to regain control over his pliant body and offer some assistance. He couldn't seem to get his arms to obey him, however, and ended up tangling them in the shirt. He groaned in frustration as he pulled at the shirt, but gentle hands stilled his efforts.

"Take it easy. It's OK. I got it."

Obeying the soft entreaty, his head dropped back, again drifting into the darkness. It had become impossible to keep the swollen, heavy lids open. Murky shadows danced in measured waves. The sound of heavy breath echoed in his ear. Faintly he realized it was his own. Hands cradled his head now as a pillow was placed beneath it...a fresh blanket enveloped him in its warmth. The shadows were calling to him...drawing him further into their midst.

Muscles that ached with fatigue melted into the mattress. Wearily, he yearned to surrender to the enticing nothingness...yet he could not. Though thought and emotion had long since transformed into disjointed fragments too fleeting to discern, something barred his passage to the much-desired oblivion. An unsettling agitation began to wash over him as his leaden limbs squirmed restlessly beneath the blanket. Trapped in this oppressive limbo between consciousness and unconsciousness, helpless to fully embrace either, he heard his own frustrated moans escape from his throat, though he wasn't aware of making the sounds.

A weight pressed down on the mattress beside him and then familiar hands were pulling on him...pulling him against the sheltering form that had been missing since the blanket had been drawn over him.

"It's all right...I'm right here," the voice that sounded like music intoned. "Just rest now. Everything's gonna be all right."

Something inside of him gave way then as he sagged into the arms that enfolded him. There were other words...hard to distinguish their meaning but the tone was lulling. Soothing touches gentled his restless limbs. All felt peaceful then. Calm. Uncomplicated. And then the darkness overcame him at last.

~~~~~~

Partial awareness returned to find the room basked in darkness but for the glimmer of the small television screen. A familiar fullness was pressing on his bladder insistently. He tried to sit up, but he didn't get far as lethargic limbs moaned from the strain. The body he was pressed against stirred and hands tightened their grip around him.

"What's wrong?" the anxious, scratchy voice asked.

"Gotta pee..." he managed to reply through the dry soreness of his throat.

Hutch stirred again, bracing firm arms behind him to help to help him sit up. A woozy rush passed through him at the change of position.

"Easy," Hutch cautioned.

"I'm 'kay," said the voice that sounded so far away from him. With effort, he peeled his eyes further open, though the lids felt weighted down. The features of the room were a blur but he thought he could make out 3 something on the clock. Managing to get his legs over the side of the bed, he moved to stand, groaning with the exertion. He was able to take two steps before a nauseous rush overcame him and the entire room began to spin, his weakened body swaying with it. Steadying arms moved quickly around him as Hutch got to his side in an instant.

"I said take it easy. There's no hurry."

"Tell that to my bladder," he heard himself say as he clutched the arms that kept him upright. They stood that way for several minutes as Starsky struggled to get his bearings. When the speed the room was moving at changed from tornado to light wind, he figured it was safe to venture forward again. He patted Hutch's arm assuredly. "Okay, I think I got it now." Hutch let go slowly, staying close behind until Starsky's steps became more steady.

When he finally reached the bathroom, he felt like he had completed a marathon. He stumbled inside, leaning hard against the wall for support as he released the long stream that had built up inside him. That done, he made his way toward the sink, flinching as he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the mirror. His face was pale but for the huge rash-like red blotches that were interspersed across it. His eyes were swollen to twice their normal size, bloodshot pupils nearly lost amidst the puffy lids. The haunted gaze made him almost unrecognizable even to himself. He bent to splash some water on his face then cupped some with his hand and sipped it down to lubricate his parched throat.

As he left the bathroom, he shook his head from side to side in an effort to become more oriented. Hutch was sitting on the bed still in the pants and shirt that he had been wearing earlier. His back was against the pillows which were propped up against the headboard. The bed across the room was still fully made. Glancing from the beds to the television, Starsky forced his voice to speak.

"You haven't slept at all have you?"

"I wasn't tired."

Starsky would have challenged the remark if he'd had the energy. As it was, his depleted body was having enough trouble making it back across the room. He felt his shaky legs beginning to give out and he stumbled near the foot of the bed. Hutch was out of the bed and beside him in a flash. A guiding hand moved around his waist and led him back towards the bed.

"Come on, Starsk. That's enough calisthenics for the night. You need to lay back down."

There was no disputing that. The pervading fatigue was becoming impossible to ignore. He fell meekly into the bed, eyes already falling shut. But when he felt Hutch climb back in beside him, he fought to summon the strength to protest.

"Hutch...it's okay...you don't have ta. You need to get some rest...."

As if he hadn't even spoken, Hutch resumed his position against the propped pillows, pulling Starsky's head onto his chest and drawing the blanket up around them.

"Hutch..." Starsky's voice sounded spent even to his own ears.

"Starsk, for once in your life don't argue. Just go to sleep."

Starsky took a deep breath, trying to muster enough energy to reply. But as he did, he inhaled the fresh, distinctive scent of Hutch and he felt his stomach quiver. Why was he fighting this? This was one of those rare moments when he was able to be as close to Hutch as he always longed to be. He needed to just cherish it as he had the others.

With a deep, contented sigh he burrowed further into the body beneath his where accepting arms wrapped him up tight. The steady beat of Hutch's heart pulsed beneath his ear as the familiar scent intoxicated him. It was like a piece of a dream...so many dreams actually. Dreams of wild, abandoned passions fulfilled...and always followed by this intimate embrace...this feeling of total serenity, as if nothing in the world mattered beyond this moment.

Were the delicate fingers combing through his hair real or was that just an image from the fantasy he had played out in his mind so many times before? Did it really matter either way? He was far too drained to attempt to separate the fantasy from the reality. All he wanted to do right now was close his eyes and live in this moment forever.

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