"The perfection of a life with a dog, like the perfection of an autumn, is disturbing because you know, even as it begins, that it must end. Time bestows the gift and steals it in the process."

George Evans

"Get in."

"No."

"Hutch, just get in."

"No Starsky, how many time do I gotta say it?"

Starsky shifted his weight and stamped his foot. "You can just keep on sayin' it as I wheel you outta here, how's that? Now get in the wheelchair."

"Not if you push a wheelchair like you drive that-" Hutch faltered and looked to the floor, then quickly regained his composure and looked into Starsky's eye with confidence. "Besides, I can walk."

"You can hobble," Starsky muttered. "Do I have to get the doctor and that mountain of a nurse back in here?"

The small hospital room fell silent as the partners engaged in a stare-down. Hutch was leaning on his shiny new crutches and his right leg was weighed down in a cast. Virtually everyone from the station had stopped by and left their signatures on the once-white cast, and there were a few hearts and phone numbers scrawled over the plaster as well.

Starsky's own cast had quite the collection of signatures as well. His left arm was fitted in a proper sling, although he had almost been sad to see the scrap of fabric that Hutch had used thrown away. His headache was finally quiet and most of his other aches and pains were virtually non-existent.

They spent the past week within the familiar walls of the hospital they had come to know and love. After the ambulance carried them out of the campsite and delivered them into the waiting hands of the doctors and nurses, Starsky and Hutch had each been tended to quickly. Starsky had been concussed, as Hutch had later boasted that he figured as much, and his arm had been set. The break had splintered from all the strenuous labor it was put through and required an operation to gather all the fragments of bone. There were no further complications.

Hutch's broken leg had- miraculously- remained fairly stable and was a rather routine fix. The dislocated shoulder had been correctly relocated and Starsky was even given a thumbs-up from the doctor attending them. Hutch was also lucky with his gunshot wound; after receiving fluids and a few stitches, the wound had begun to heal very nicely by the doctor's standards. Aside from some nasty bruising of both skin and bone, Hutch had also been declared healthy.

Starsky blinked his dry eyes and once more focused his attention on his blond partner.

With a dramatic sigh of defeat, Hutch ducked his head and sat heavily in the waiting wheelchair.

"Good boy," Starsky teased as they started into the brightly-lit hallway.

Hutch mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like 'Stuff it,' but Starsky chose to ignore the protest.

Huggy had brought Hutch's car to the hospital during one of his numerous visits. Convincing The Bear that he would be okay to drive was one of Starsky's more credible feats. After a long discussion about who was the better driver, Huggy finally relented and made Starsky swear to call if his assistance was ever needed. Of course, that was promise that Starsky had willingly made.

After a seemingly long and scenic tour through the hospital, the pair arrived in the parking lot and Hutch demanded to leave the wheelchair.

"Just relax and let me push you," Starsky tried to reason.

"I can walk across the parking lot like a big boy. And besides, if you push a wheelchair with one hand as well as you drive with one hand, I'll just start walking home now."

"I always drive with one hand, so what difference is a little cast gonna make? Now be quiet and sit down."

There was a pause, then Hutch began, "Starsky, don't you know that these wheelchairs aren't suppose to leave the hospital? It's like stealing a shopping cart or something. I have crutches, now I'm going to walk."

Starsky narrowed his eyes in thought. "Are you serious?"

Hutch focused on the ground as he placed the crutches before him and stood up. "Of course."

"Oh."

When Starsky looked up, Hutch was halfway to the car. "You coming?" he asked impatiently.

Starsky joined his friend and retorted, "Just giving you a head start."

They reached the LTD and feelings of disappointment swelled within Starsky for more reasons than one. The sight of Hutch's trademark vehicle made his own heart yearn for the familiar shape and gleam of his Torino. Captain Dobey had told him that the vehicle had been pulled out from underneath the fallen tree, but it was nothing more than brightly painted scrap metal now. The thought brought tears to Starsky's eyes. How was it fair that Hutch's piece of crap car was still blemishing the earth while his beautiful machine was awaiting a horrible, crushing fate at the nearest junk yard?

They stopped on either side of the old car and Hutch rested his forearms on the roof to look at Starsky. "You sure you're okay driving?"

Starsky rolled his eyes. "I was born okay to drive."

"That's what I was afraid of." Hutch sighed as they each slid into their respective seats. "Alright Andretti, take us home."

The ride home was smooth and ghostly quiet. After the car's initial protest about being started in the first place, it soon settled into it's usual temperamental self. They were turning onto Hutch's street now and the blond had yet to say a word. Starsky risked a glance at his partner. Hutch looked alright, a little pale, but that was nothing new since their rescue. His jaw was tight, as it often was when Hutch was thinking, and Starsky could only wonder as to what was eating at his friend right now.

Starsky wrestled the unruly vehicle into 'park' and took pleasure in killing the engine. He was quickly out of the car and reveling in the fresh air with the abandon of one who was cooped up within the confines of a sterile hospital for way too long. "Hold on a second and let me help you," he scolded as Hutch stumbled a little.

"Starsk, go away, will you? I'm fine!"

Humor was thick in Hutch's voice, for the sun and fresh air must have been lightening his mood also. "You're far from fine my friend, but if you wish to break your other leg on your way into your apartment, then have at it." Starsky leaned back against the patchwork car. "I'll just wait right here to drive you back to the hospital."

Hutch turned to glare over his shoulder. "You coming in or not?"

"Is there food involved?"

Hutch sighed and rolled his eyes. "Whatever you want."

Starsky grinned and pushed off the car. The horn honked in protest. "Those are the magic words," he said, clapping his hand on Hutch's shoulder in a covert attempt to steady him.

Getting into the apartment was a two-man job and Starsky was glad he had been there to help Hutch. Between the painkillers that coursed through their veins and the injuries themselves, once-normal movements were made sluggish and clumsy.

"I hate this," Hutch muttered as they moved inside the small apartment.

"Hey, I believe it was your idea to go camping in the first place." Starsky eased Hutch onto the couch and made his way into the kitchen. He had a feeling they could both use a beer.

Starsky's eyes rested on the bag of open dog food sitting on the counter. His mind went blank before filling with understanding.

So this was why Hutch had been apprehensive. He didn't want to remember the hurt and feeling of failure towards the scruffy dog they had befriended. Starsky understood now. He slowed his pace unconsciously and decided that he might still be able to save his friend from some of that pain. How had that mangy mutt wormed it's way so deeply into their hearts so quickly?

Starsky grabbed the bag of kibble and moved towards the trash can. It would be easy enough to sneak through the apartment and rid the place of the evidence. Luckily there wasn't much to hide-

Starsky stepped onto something hard and unstable and let out a yelp of surprise as he found himself falling. Grabbing onto the table with his good arm and catching himself, Starsky looked down to find that he had tripped over the bowl he had fed Gordo from the last time they were all in this kitchen.

"Are you alright?"

Before Starsky could form coherent answer, Hutch was at his side, balancing on his crutches awkwardly in an attempt to steady him. "I'm okay," he insisted, gently batting Hutch away. "I just tripped."

Hutch's blue-eyed gaze dropped to the floor and Starsky cursed himself as the blond's face fell.

"Hey," he started softly, then stopped, unsure of what to say.

Hutch stared at the bowl for a while, and when he lifted his face, Starsky was not surprised to find more sparkle in those deep blue eyes than normal.

"I miss him."

"I know you do," Starsky replied just as brokenly. "I'm sorry."

Hutch blinked and if it were possible, there was even more wetness in his eyes. "He was a good dog. He didn't deserve to die like that."

Starsky knew nothing of being a pet-grief counselor, but he didn't expect the pain to be much easier than losing a dear friend. Maybe even a family member. "Hey, you were his friend. You gave him a good life." As soon as the words left his lips, Starsky wanted to snatch them back.

"A good life? Starsky, I knew that dog for a little more than twenty-four hours! You saw how uncared for he was!"

"But you are what he remembers," Starsky said softly and with conviction. "You might have been the first person that was kind to him, but don't you always remember the more recent things the best?" He was rambling now, but if he kept talking long enough, the right words would fall out.

"Starsky, he's dead. He's not remembering anything." Hutch's shoulder's slumped. "He's dead," he repeated, "So it doesn't even matter."

"Damn you and that big heart of yours," Starsky said softly, only a notch above a whisper. "You know it matters- I know it matters!" His volume had gotten a little loud, so he dropped his voice again. "I was the one who scraped you off the ground afterwards, remember? I gathered all the tiny pieces of your broken heart and tried to press them back together. Don't act like it doesn't matter now." He paused and found his hand on Hutch's arm. The pain from that afternoon still lingered strongly on his mind. After pulling the trigger, Hutch collapsed and Starsky was only able to partially ease the fall. They waited for the ambulance on the ground, Starsky trying in vain to console his devastated partner in a very private display of raw emotions. It was the sort of thing that you never talked about again.

"You only gave the dog what it needed Hutch, and don't you forget that. Gordo saved your life, and in the end, you saved his. You know I'm no Dr. Doolittle, but even I could see that he was happy to be set free. That dog was grateful, Hutch. You didn't take his life. You took mercy."

Only when the silence echoed around them did Starsky realize that he had been speaking loudly, the way his heart often did when it bypassed his mind. Hutch was standing very still now, and the quiet was thick.

Finally, Hutch sighed and Starsky rubbed his hand over his friend's arm, stopping on his shoulder. "I'm right, as usual. You have nothing to regret, Hutch. Absolutely nothing."

A single tear rolled down Hutch's cheek and Starsky wondered how it had managed to hold out this long. Hutch used his shoulder to wipe the drop away and hobbled forward a bit, letting Starsky embrace him in a strong hug. After a few moments they separated and simply stood closely, Hutch leaning on Starsky for support, not unlike all those years ago in the small room above Huggy's restaurant, and simply listened to each other's presence.

"Thanks," Hutch finally whispered.

"Hey, what're friends for, right?"

They parted completely now, and Starsky picked up the bowl. Hutch sniffed and covered it by rubbing his nose as Starsky set the bowl in the sink. "So, are you gonna order pizza or not?" Hutch said.

Starsky felt a grin pull on his face. "Yes master, right away." He dropped the bag of kibble into the trash and pulled a couple beers from the fridge. When he turned around, Hutch's eyes had turned sad once more.

Starsky handed Hutch the cold beer and asked, "I'm sure Gordo wouldn't mind if you got another dog." He hoped it hadn't been the wrong thing to say.

Hutch merely blinked. "No. I do not want another dog."

"Oh. Okay."

"I'm serious Starsky," Hutch threatened. "No more. They don't live long enough, and I don't wanna go through this again. Besides, I really don't have the time. I don't know what I was thinking earlier."

Starsky could read the honesty in Hutch's face. "I'm serious too. Really." He grabbed the newspaper and folded it before tossing the bundle to Hutch. "While I'm ordering dinner, start looking for my new car."

Hutch fumbled with the sweaty beer bottle and the flutter of papers. He looked down at the newspaper in his hands then looked back at Starsky.

"You know, on second thought, I'll look for my new car after I order dinner." He sandwiched the phone between his ear and his shoulder, then reached forward with his good hand and snatched the paper out of Hutch's lax grip. "No telling what kinda hunk of junk you'd pick out… Yeah, I'd like to order a large pizza with everything on it…"

o0O0o

Epilogue:

Christmas Day, 1979

Starsky placed the lid on Hutch's Christmas present and made sure it wasn't too snug. His blond partner would be over any minute to share Christmas morning, then they would head over to Captain Dobey's house for a generous Christmas feast. The autumn season had been pretty easy on the recovering detectives and this holiday would most definitely not be taken for granted. They had survived a lot this past year. Starsky could only pray that the next year would be easier.

A knock on the door startled Starsky from his thoughts. He had not even heard the tell-tale cough and sputter of Hutch's car. Starsky hurried to the door, nervous energy coursing through him, and greeted a red-cheeked Hutch. "Merry Christmas!" Starsky blurted, grabbing Hutch in a hug before the blond could scoot away.

"Just let me in, will ya? It's freezing out there!"

Starsky released his friend and they moved inside. "Aren't you the boy from the country? What happened to that thick skin?"

"I left it at home," Hutch mumbled, taking off his jacket.

Starsky cocked an eyebrow. It was fifty five degrees outside. "Maybe you're just imagining the cold? I mean, where you come from, it actually snows…"

Hutch brushed him off. "Is that for me?" he asked, his eyes locked onto the gift under Starsky's modest tree. "I told you I didn't get anything for you this year."

"You say that every year."

"Well this time I'm serious," Hutch replied, crossing Starsky's living room and standing before the large present.

"You say that every year too," Starsky replied, although somewhere down deep, his doubt was beginning to grow. Money had been tight for both of them recently…

Hutch cocked his head. "Did you hear that?"

His thoughts dissipated and refocused as Starsky pushed the blond away from the box he had so diligently wrapped the night before. "Yeah, it's your present."

"My present makes noise?" Hutch asked, then a sliver of realization snaked across his face.

Starsky got behind the box and pushed it in between them. "Merry Christmas, Hutch," he said, then took the lid off the box.

Two dark eyes stared up at them.

Hutch was frozen, the proverbial 'Deer in the Headlights'.

However, there was no doubt in Starsky's mind now. "Here," he muttered, depositing a surprised and somewhat affronted looking dog in Hutch's arms. "Got him at the pound. He looked diseased and pathetic; figured you'd love him."

"Starsky," Hutch breathed, his eyes locked onto the ball of dark, downy fur in his arms, "I can't…"

"Sure you can and you will." Starsky replied, shoving the box out of the way. "This was the last puppy in the city- I had to fight an elderly woman to get that mutt for you."

Hutch put the small puppy down at his feet, where it quickly began attacking his shoelaces. Hutch sighed and looked up at his partner. "I don't know if I can." His brow furrowed. "It's not the same dog, Starsk. You can't ever replace a dog, no more than I could replace you."

Starsky smiled and wrapped an arm around Hutch. "I'm not asking you to replace anyone. I only want you to love this guy and maybe feed him once in a while. " He lowered his voice. "When I was walking down the row of reject dogs and looking for yours, this one called to me. Said Gordo sent him."

Hutch cracked a smile but didn't look up. "He did?"

"Yeah, he whispered it down from doggy heaven." Starsky raised his voice and squeaked, "Take me home to Hutch!"

"Doggie heaven?" Hutch looked up now, his smile brightening. "So this dog communicates with the dead?"

"Yeah," Starsky quipped, unfazed and excited, "and Hutch?"

"What?"

"I hear Gordo got fat."

Hutch closed his eyes for a few seconds and a light laugh filled the air. "Thanks, Starsk."

The two embraced in a brotherly hug that ended with a firm pat on the back. "No problem, Blintz. Anything to see you smile." Hutch rolled his eyes in response, wiping them simultaneously. Starsky looked the blond up and down. "Now where's my present?"

Hutch bent down and scooped up the quiet puppy. "I told you I didn't get you anything, now let's go eat. I'm starving."

The blond and his charge were out the door so fast, Starsky stood there for a moment, dumbstruck. "Wait a minute!" he finally called out, grabbing the Dobey's presents and hooking his foot around the door to pull it closed behind him.

"What the heck…" he muttered, cursing to himself as he struggled to keep up with Hutch. "Give the guy a dog and he forgets all about his partner!" he ended the sentence in a shout.

"Starsk, would you hurry up?" Hutch called from the sidewalk.

Starsky stumbled down the stairs and landed ungraciously on the sidewalk next to his partner. "What's the big d-"

The words died on his lips as Starsky's gaze landed on his beautiful, red and white striped Ford Gran Torino.

His heart swelled until it was to big for his chest and Starsky wanted to squeak in delight.

"My car! It's- how- when- who-"

Hutch laughed from behind him as Starsky found himself drifting forwards towards his long lost companion. "Deep breath, Starsk, deep breath."

Starsky whipped around. "It's my car!" he repeated, and turned back towards the car just as fast, making sure it wasn't an illusion. At some point, he had lost the presents he had been carrying.

"It's not your car. That one was beyond even Merle's talents. I bought this one from a kid in some small town 60 miles south of here. It seemed to be in good condition." Hutch joined him in running a hand over the slick paint. "I don't really know much about these flashy sports cars," he murmured with sarcasm.

Starsky shut his mouth before he tripped over his bottom jaw. "It's beautiful. Thank you." He couldn't presently thing of anything else to say. He didn't realize how much he had missed having a Torino sitting patiently out in front of his apartment. He had certainly not expected such a generous gift from Hutch.

Hutch was at his side then, one arm draped over Starsky's shoulders and the other cradling the nine-pound, fuzzy puppy. "Thank you," he said, giving Starsky a squeeze. There was a pause, then, "I couldn't take any more of your fussing about my car."

Starsky snorted. "I think your gift outdoes mine. I only spent thirty dollars."

Hutch looked down into the dark, liquid eyes of the soft, swollen puppy. The small dog radiated warmth and trust so strongly that Hutch was taken aback. This was not the mere gaze of a hungry dog- this was a feeling of undying love and companionship, of a friend that would remain true and strong as long as he drew breath.

Hutch looked up at Starsky and found the same expression.

"No Starsk, I think you chose well."

END