Note to the reader:

I do not own the rights to the characters. Just enjoy dreaming about them, and keeping the show alive.

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Sunshine..

even in rain...

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MIDNIGHT HUSTLER

By: Karen B.

Summary: Can Starsky survive a night alone in the wilderness? Yet another bet gone amiss between the boys. Silly humor -- mixed in with a dash of h/c and a teaspoon of sappiness.

Thank you, Laura so much, for helping me out. You're a flower in my bed of weeds!

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I woke up shivering and alone, after probably only a couple hours of fitful sleep filled with crazy nightmares. Nightmares of me, squared off with Bela Lugosi who had a vested interest in my neck. And Hutch calls this terrific fun? I shivered, curling back inside my sleeping bag, the cold just filtering through the nylong like it were an open window. Muttering to myself, I tried to go back to sleep, but as the night wore on, so did the nightmares, which became all the more vivid.

Under a full moon I ran in slow motion, the sound of hungry houds howling, the thunder of hooves, and the feel of bony fingers skittering down my back. I knew I was dreaming, but couldn't wake up. Something was chasing me, something headless and faceless. A phantom menace, trying to carry me away into the night. Damn, was my name Ichabod Crane? Where was I? Sleepy Hollow?

I jolted straight up, awake again.

Ominous sounds came to me. Something really was there. Lurking in the evil shadows.

"What was that?" I looked around the tent, listening harder.

I heard another noise coming from outside. It was a creepy grating sound, like someone was carving up dead bodies with a hacksaw.

I was scared.

You would be scared too.

Hutch had warned me not to pitch my tent far off, too bad I didn't listen.

"Starsk," he had said. "I just want to say, it's been nice knowing you, pal."

I rolled my eyes. Message received loud and clear. If I was reading Hutch right, and I always read Hutch right, he wasn't worried about me. He was trying really hard to pull my chain, get me to drop the bet before it ever got started.

I drew my shoulders back, trying to look comfortable with my decision to go ahead and do this. "I'll be fine," I said.

"Sure. Sure you will." Hutch had a real skeptical look on his face.

"What?" I asked, puzzled by his sudden concern.

"What?" He echoed, placing a hand on my shoulder.

Hutch tried to hide a smile, looking at me with those big round blue eyes of his, like it was the last time he'd ever see me breathing.

"You really going out there, Starsk?"

I shrugged. "Of course."

"Watch out for creatures in the night," he had said, laughing hard.

"What creatures?" I asked uneasily.

"Those creatures." Hutch growled, making a scary face and raising curled fingers.

"Uh--thanks for the heads up. I'll be fine," I told my partner again, trying not too sound rattled. I pulled my gear up and slung it over my shoulder. "Just remember it's only for twenty-four hours." I reminded him. "If I'm not back by then, call out the National Guard." I closed the door behind me.

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Well, I didn't have a watch on, so I didn't know exactly how long I'd been out here. What I did know was that I kept hearing bumps in the night. Just the wind blowing through the trees? Just my mind playing tricks? Just the night shadows scudding across the moon? A horror movie cliche' in my head?

Horror movie cliche'? I think not. My heart pounded.

How do I let myself get talked into these things? I huddled under my cheap sack, wishing I'd spent the thirty-five dollars for that extra thick goose-down thermal one. Time passed at a snail's crawl, and I swore there were holes in the canvas walls. I could feel a cold breeze sweeping through as the temperature fell. I was beginning to not feel so good. My head felt like it was swimming in a tiny fish bowl, and my nose was stuffed up.

The wind blew hard, rain pattered against the roof of my makeshift home, twigs snapped, and the rustling of leaves was so loud sleep was the last thing I'd be getting tonight. Nearby, I could hear the gurgling of water, and I safely assumed it was rising. What if it flooded my tent and swept me down the channel? I looked up noticing the roof of the tent had dipped where rainwater was pooling. I wondered how long it would hold before it all came down on top of me.

I decided to unzip the flap and peek outside. It was dark and drops of rain were coming down sideways so hard I couldn't see a thing.

I began to question my own ingenuity to survive out here in these primitive conditions. Blind dreamlike panic hit me square, and I shivered with cold, deciding I'd better zip the flap back up. How'd I get myself into this mess? This lousy piece of canvas wasn't the snug and cozy shelter that I thought it would be. The wind threatened to pull up the stakes I'd so diligently pounded into the ground a few hours before. It would suck my home away from home up into the night sky, and with my luck, I doubted it'd be Oz I landed in.

If this bad weather kept up, by morning the only thing for anyone to find would be my frozen body. Maybe half-eaten by wild animals.

What is it about Hutch and me that makes us place these childish bets? I wondered if Hutch was thinking of me, if he was worried. He was probably fast asleep. Enjoying a warm bed, with a full stomach, and pampered with indoor plumbing.

Thinking of indoor plumbing reminded me that my bladder was full again, and I urgently had to take a leak. But the last time I'd done that it felt like every supernatural being's eyes were riveted on my back through the darkness. I couldn't cinch my zipper up fast enough and get back into the tent.

I hadn't brought any of my own supplies, wasn't allowed any, it was part of the bet, to live off my own know how for one night. Hutch said one night of fasting wouldn't hurt me. What was going to hurt me was the toilet paper that I'd snagged from his bathroom, stuff could double for sandpaper. I felt like it'd been days since I'd eaten anything. It didn't help that the wildlife around here had invited themselves to share in the little bit of food I'd snuck with me. I had sloppily left it out in the open, and it had been raided by either a pack of wild dogs or maybe it was a flock of rabid pigeons?

I missed the warm cheery glow of a campfire, and what I wouldn't give right now for a cup of coffee or hot cocoa, tea or just plain hot water.

I started to panic. What was it about me that makes me take on these challenges? It was becoming questionable if I would survive the night. I tried to calm myself but my panic persisted.

Suddenly I had an idea. I could use my flashlight. The one I smuggled in my pillowcase. It was the solid, good, old-fashion, heavy-duty kind, that would cut through the worst of storms. I could use Morse code--send out a signal. Dot…dot…dot…dash--dash--dash--maybe help would come. After fumbling to find it, I flipped the switch to ON. Nothing. No sharp beam of light, no dot, dot, dot. No dash, dash, dash, not so much as a flicker. I shook it hard and tried again. Still nothing. Unscrewing the cap, I turned the casing upside down, maybe the batteries were put in the wrong way, and all I had to do was--

"Shit."

Batteries.

What batteries?

What moron takes a flashlight out into the wilderness and forgets to put the batteries in?

I sighed.

"This moron," I mumbled.

Tossing the useless cylinder aside, I speculated about what would kill me first? Starvation? Dehydration? Hypothermia? The head cold I knew I was coming down with? Or my own lack of common sense and ingenuity about camping?

I knew going into this there would be no way I would freeze to death or starve to death unless I was careless. I guess I'd been careless. I wondered briefly what the coroner would list as my cause of death? I could clearly imagine Hutch, standing over my stiff toe-tagged corpse, lying upon the coroner's steel examining table. Hutch's eyes full of pain. His shoulders shaking, hot tears streaming unchecked down his face, his heart heavy with grief --maybe even guilt.

"Officer Hutchinson," the coroner professionally spoke. "I've concluded your partner's cause of death," he said, sadly shaking his head. "Stupidity."

"Noooooooo!" My partner screamed, falling to his knees upon the cold tiled floor, and crying in uncontrolled anguish.

I shivered and grimaced at the surreal image. Rubbing my eyes, I scrubbed the picture in my head away.

Wonder if Davy Crocket ever had this problem?

Shit.

I had to get out of this. I couldn't put Hutch through the pain of finding my cold, dead body lying strewn in bushes or damp leaves--no matter how much I wanted to win the bet.

But trying to make it back? How far would I have to go? How fast would I be able to run in my current weakened state? What if I ran off in the wrong direction? I couldn't see through all this rain and things looked so much different at night. I could run right off a cliff if I wasn't careful. I was beginning to panic even more, my normal calm and rational reason being washed away with this damn rain. I didn't bring a compass and even if the sky was clear, I didn't think I'd be able to identify the North star so I could head in the direction I knew I needed to go.

I'd probably starve too death. I wished I had my weapon with me. Maybe I could find a squirrel or rabbit. Making snares out of sticks to capture my food or following animal tracks or their droppings, then sneaking up on them and hitting them over the head with a rock was an ability I didn't possess. I thought about eating local vegetation, but had no idea how to identify plants that I could eat and plants that were poisonous. This wasn't the grocer where things were neatly packaged and FDA labeled, edible or non-edible. Besides, what about snakes? Didn't they live in tall grass and brush? Rattlesnakes were about as common as Big Foot in this area. Both were hazards I didn't want to face.

Nature is a hostile villain that handcuffs and numbered cellblocks wouldn't contain.

It was a desperate situation and I questioned my ability to survive. I knew the actions I took from here on out would determine whether I ended up under the scrutiny of the coroners eye or not.

The stakes were at their highest…

It had all started with my charming and witty partner. Somehow he had gotten us into a deep discussion about survival situations. About instincts and abilities. Who could adapt the best. Who had the will power to survive.

We had argued about it one night while on stakeout. Hutch had told me I could fly to the moon and back before I could ever rub two sticks together to build a fire. I told him fire building was as primitive and as natural as the gut feeling we get out on the street, and that I could start a blaze in a torrential downpour. That's where the bet came in:

If forced to stay out over night who could hack it? Who could tip the scales in their direction and survive, alone, unaided by any modern methods?

"I bet you couldn't hack it for twenty-four hours." Hutch dangled the bait.

"Five will get you ten I could," I bit.

"You're on."

We flipped a coin. I won, got to be the first to venture out on my own. The rules. I was only allowed a tent and sleeping bag. No matches to start a fire. No processed foods of any kind. Not even a canteen of water or a lousy flashlight.

I sighed. What was I thinking? Rubbing two sticks together in a torrential downpour got me nothing -- but wet.

And banging two rocks together trying to produce a spark -- only got me this headache I now was sporting.

You know it's true what Hutch said to me once.

'What you don't know can kill you.'

How the hell did our forebears survive? Fire -- it'd be a far different world without it.

I wrapped my arms tightly around my shivering self, feeling lightheaded. I knew I had to do something and I had to do it now before I got any weaker and couldn't do anything at all. I figured before this was over I'd be in bad shape, lucky not to be dead. I decided I had to make a run for it now, before that happened. I hated to abandon my only form of shelter, but I didn't have the time or energy to pack up camp and drag it with me.

My hands were cold and shaky anyway, and I doubted I had the dexterity to break down Camp Starsky. Besides, the less weight I carried, the faster I could travel. I read somewhere the most common cause of death of people left outdoors for too long is exposure. I could already feel my body's core temperature dropping. Stronger shivers took over and my hands felt numb.

Hypothermia -- It makes the victim's movements slow and labored. I'd start to stumble, become confused. My sluggish thinking would make it even harder to find my way back, and once that happened I knew I'd be toast.

Maybe if I could make it half-way home, Hutch would find me in time? Before hungry wolves could smell my fear, circle me, and eat me alive. But I couldn't count on that. I didn't think he'd even be looking for me until morning. Maybe I should just wait it out, but by then it could be too late. I had to try and make it on my own. I would have to run, risking my balance on the muddy ground. If I fell I could twist an ankle, or worse, break a leg. Then I'd be forced to crawl through the cold mud that could then send me reeling into deep shock.

I didn't want to go striking out into the shadows by myself, but it was my only hope.

There was no more time to waste. Time to heed the call and leave this place, before I didn't have the strength to. When I unzipped the tent flap, icy drops of driving rain stung my face like tiny bees trying to extract pollen from their favorite flower. I ignored the pain, took in a deep breath and darted out into the darkness.

I looked back only once to see the silent dark water slapping angrily against the wet grassy bank behind me. I was exhausted and starting to ache all over. Wasn't sure I could make it, but I had only one goal in my mind -- to survive.

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I splashed through the wet grass, and mud oozed up to my ankles, suddenly realizing I was wearing nothing but socks. In my haste I didn't even remember to put my shoes on.

'Good going, Starsky.' I berated, but there was no turning back now. I gathered my arms around myself and kept going.

It was dark and I was disoriented; somehow I'd veered off my path. I slipped in the mud and suddenly found myself butt-first in the shallows of the black water I'd thought I'd left behind me.

"Aagghhhhh! I gasped as the chilly water soaked me clean through.

Quickly I yanked myself up and out of the muck.

'Stupid! Really dumb.'

My eyes shifted from side to side. Determined to find my way, I pressed onward.

The only thoughts I had now were to be warm and dry. I was cold. Very cold. The wind and rain in my face was making it hard to see. It was slow going, and I kept slipping in the mud. If I wasn't careful I'd probably drown in that canal.

This was the last time I'd take Hutch up on one of his crazy bets. I knew I wouldn't last much longer. Hutch warned me the weather was going to be bad. He tried to talk me out of this, but I wasn't about to lose by default. I raised my arm so I could look at my watch. Damn it, forgot I wasn't wearing a watch. I'd tried to smuggle that but got caught. I knew, however, it was nowhere near sunrise, also knew, Hutch would have a good laugh over this.

Maybe I should have waited it out back in the tent. Save face. But I hated being there alone and cold, and I really wasn't feeling well by this time.

I almost fell again when I hit the porch of the cottage, but I managed the steps and burst through the door, dripping wet.

"Hey, buddy." Hutch expectantly looked up from the book he was reading, flashing a welcoming smile. He was all warm and dry and snug in a chair, eyeballing me up and down. "Where's your shoes, huh?" He tried to hold back a smirk, but I saw it.

"Left them..." I took a breath, "...back there," I huffed, peeling off my waterlogged socks, and wringing them, not caring that a puddle of water now formed on the floor.

Hutch put his book down and came to me. "Want me to go in the backyard and get them out of the tent for you? Or are you planning on going back out there?" My smart-assed partner gave a small chuckle.

In disgust, I dropped my socks to the floor, kicking them aside, and brushed past Captain Hysterical. "You won, okay? Happy?" I sneezed.

"Starsky, I told you it was liable to rain."

I was soaked through and couldn't stop the shivers that wracked my body. I moved to the end table, grabbing a tissue from the box. I sniffled, trying to blow my runny nose, but the Kleenex got wet and fell apart in my hand.

"You and your bets, Hutchinson."

"It takes two to make a bet, partner."

"I'll bet you're wrong on that."

"Double or nothing." Hutch dared.

"Five--oh no, you don't." I was burned once already tonight. "You know, there is such a thing as fair play, Hutchinson?"

"And foul play, Starsk. I'll bet you thought I'd never know about the flashlight you tried to sneak out of here."

I was beat in more ways than one, and tierd of all the betting. I hung my head and mumbled the first thing that popped in my head, "And I'll bet living in a nudist colony would take all the fun out of Halloween."

"What?" Hutch was confused.

"Forget it." I was exhausted.

I glanced at the clock on the wall; it was midnight. I hadn't even made it close to morning's light.

"Damn it." I sneezed again, this time rubbing my nose on the back of my wet hand, feeling utterly defeated.

"Hey." Hutch lowered his voice. "You okay, buddy?" I could hear the genuine concern there.

I hesitated, wanting to tell him what I went through, but a moment later I just looked into those round baby blues, and shrugged.

"C'mon, Starsk, let's get you out of those wet clothes."

I nodded solemnly as he retrieved a thick black bathrobe from the closet. He reached out, gently pulling my shirt over my head. I began to unzip my pants. "I'll go get a towel," Hutch said, giving my shoulder a squeeze before he walked away.

I got the rest of the way out of my wet clothing and managed to get my stiff arms into the robe and tie the belt around my waist. As I crawled onto the couch, I snagged the blanket from the back an draped it around my shivering self, my teeth chattering so hard I thought I'd lose a filling.

I scrunched miserably down into the cushions just as Hutch returned with a towel. "Here you go," he said, tousling my curls as he dried them.

"Th-thanks."

When he was done he tossed the towel aside and squatted down on his heels. "Looks like you had some problems."

"Was dark. Got lost."

Hutch dropped his chin to his chest, and swallowed. "Starsk--" He started to say something, but instead reached up and lay a hand to my forehead, and frowned. "You're warm," Hutch said, his hand falling away, and his lower lip protruding out. "Starsk, I--I--I think--I mean, I have to tell you something." His voice sounded shaky.

"Not now, Hutch. Tired, just want to sleep--ouch!"

Something I was sitting on dug into my butt. I twisted and stuck my hand into the crack of the cushions, producing two D size batteries. I glared at them in disbelief, then looked up to Hutch's guilt ridden face.

"You -- you -- you midnight hustler," I yelled.

Hutch gave me a sheepish smile. "Starsky, you started it. You're the one who had the chip on his shoulder. Said you could make it on your own all night in a tent without any help from your partner."

"You sabotaged me."

"I wanted you to learn a lesson." Hutch moved off the floor to sit straight back and rigid on the couch next to me.

"What lesson?" I asked, scowling. "Did I teach you a lesson after you developed a case of amnesia? How 'bout the time you ducked out on me during our comic routine in front of our friends? Leaving your wounded partner all alone while you went to dinner without him?"

Hutch's light blue eyes glinted with anger. "Starsky! Did I retaliate after you watched from the sidelines as I fell down your front steps because of that lousy blindfold? What about the time you hid a hot water bottle full of green pea soup under your shirt and when we were in the cafeteria you--"

"Hutch!" I cut him off holding up a hand, making an awful face. "'Nuff said about that."

"Yeah, you never could get that right." Hutch 's eyes cast down and he rubbed at his chin in frustration.

It was showdown time, and we were both quiet for a while. The silence filled the thick air, and the buzzing in my head increased.

What the hell were we doing? All these silly bets, macho bullshit games of chance, tricks, and practical jokes. I thought back to the bet that almost cost Hutch his life. The time we played hide-n-seek, neither one of us at first knowing he was deathly ill with botulism. I almost didn't get to him in time. The thought made my anger do a one-eighty. All our games were our way of easing the tension caused by what we do every day. Of hiding our deepest fears of losing one another out on the street to some punk with an itchy trigger finger or a con with a score to settle.

My heart skipped a few beats, listening to the rhythm of the rain hitting the windows of the greenhouse.

"Are you mad at me?" Hutch asked, our gazes finally locking to one another.

I opened my mouth to tell him how stupid this all was. How we needed to stop targeting one another with our machismo, but my nose kept me from doing so. "Ahaaa--ahhhh---choooo!" I sneezed several more times, trembling and achy.

"Here. Here, buddy, this might work better."

Hutch slipped in under the blanket and eased me back against him. It was good. It was safe. I felt like a chameleon blending right into the warmth he provided.

"Starsk." Hutch's voice got serious. "You did good -- you know?"

I blinked heavy-lidded at my best friend. He was trying to apologize, in his own Hutchinson way.

"You almost made the twenty-four hour mark," he said wistfully.

"Short twelve hours," I said, giving in to a big yawn. "Can't believe we talked each other into another bet," I scoffed sleepily. "You know I fell in the damn canal."

"Yeah, I know."

"You knew! And didn't come help?"

"Would have taken the fun out of watching." Hutch gave a small snort. "Are you mad at me?"

I bit back the urge to shove him off the couch, didn't think I had the energy. Besides, I wasn't mad.

"Not really," I croaked, sounding like a sick frog.

"Starsky." He bent down close to my ear, and gave my arm a light squeeze. "You didn't sleep much, did you?"

"Some."

Hutch gazed down at me with a serious look on his face, like I were one of his fragile plants and he'd forgotten to water me.

"Don't do that," I ground out.

"Do what?"

"Look at me like that. I'll live, Hutch."

"Try to go to sleep, buddy."

"I can't."

"Why not?"

"You're distracting me."

"Starsky, you make me nuts sometimes."

"Feeling's mutual." My voice sounded raspy and low to me, and I cleared my throat.

"You're catching a cold." Hutch wrinkled his brow, and made a move to get up. "I'll go get you some--"

I shook my head. "Don't need anything, just want to stay like this."

Hutch settled back down. "Okay. Just lie here and take it easy."

Hutch was quiet for a really long time. I knew he was having a private conversation with himself. Probably about how bad he felt, taking the flashlight batteries. Not coming to help me out of the water. Not bringing me a warmer coat, not…

"You know I won?" Hutch whispered.

"What'd you say?"

"You owe me ten bucks," Hutch chided, his face beaming.

"Fine. You beat the pants off me. Happy now? I owe you."

"Starsk." Hutch's voice rang with enthusiasm. "I have a better idea."

"Okay, shoot."

"From now on if we want to play tricks we play them on Dobey, not each other. You up for it?"

"Makes sense to me." I twisted around to lay on my side and snuggled closer against my friend. "How do I look?" I asked, just to ask, really not caring at all. Just wanted to say something. To hear Hutch's velvet voice.

"I've seen you look worse."

"Thanks."

"You're welcome."

Sensing my need, Hutch kept talking. "What have you learned from all this, huh, pal?"

I rubbed at my itchy nose, thinking, 'that's a loaded question.' The trial version of wilderness survival didn't go too well, but our friendship had grown like it always does.

"It's a great big world out there." I snuffled. "Stay indoors."

"And?" Hutch pressed.

"And -- always carry waterproof matches in your wallet--aaahhh--choooo!"

"Gesundheit."

"Thanks, again."

"Welcome, again."

"What else?"

"Keep a spare pair of batteries strapped to your leg." I closed my eyes.

Hutch laughed lightly, his hands coming down on my shoulders and cuddling me closer. "That's my partner!"

"What have you learned?" I asked him, barely able to keep my eyes open.

"I was right, Starsk." Hutch spoke without hesitation. "You could fly to the moon and back before you ever built a fire," he teased.

I didn't argue. It was true. I sighed in defeat, closing my eyes, and letting my partner have the last jibe.

Hutch brushed a gentle hand across my forehead. "Sleep, buddy," came an affectionate whisper in my ear. "I'll be right here."

The end

Homework: Write a story about the 'green pea soup incident.'