Title: Unmasked

Author: Still Waters

Fandom: Starsky & Hutch

Disclaimer: Not mine. Just playing, with love and respect to those who brought these characters to life.

Summary: Starsky visits Hutch in the hospital in the aftermath of "The Plague" and discovers a unique way to deal with the confines of the required surgical mask. Gen/friendship fic.

Notes: This story is based on an idea that I had several years ago, back during my first encounter with an isolation patient as a student nurse. While I have not put it into practice (yet!), as I got to "know" Starsky and Hutch, I realized that it is totally something that Starsky would do. Maybe one day I'll dive into it as he did in this tale. This piece is unbeta'd so please excuse any blatant errors. Thank you for your support!

"Whaddya mean I still need to wear a mask?" Starsky exclaimed, gesturing wildly past the nurse barring his way into Hutch's room. "He got the serum – Judith...Dr. Kaufman," he corrected himself, "said he wouldn't be contagious anymore after twenty-four hours, " he looked pointedly down at his watch before bringing it up to the nurse's face, "which was four hours ago."

Nurse Mary Reilly sighed inwardly before pulling herself up to her, at this moment rather inadequate, five foot height, and plastering a patient smile on her face. "That is true," she reinforced Starsky's statement. "Detective Hutchinson did receive the serum and he is no longer contagious. He is now under what's called 'protective' isolation."

"Protective?" Starsky sputtered disbelievingly. "What, so I'm a threat to him now? Where's the doctor?" he demanded, trying to move closer to the door.

Nurse Reilly immediately shifted with Starsky, blocking his way once more. She planted her feet, green eyes hardening dangerously. "Yes you are," she said.

Starsky's brow furrowed. "'Yes I am' what?" he asked, bewildered by the apparent non sequitur.

"You are a threat to him," Nurse Reilly clarified, holding up a hand before Starsky could launch into another tirade. "Now you listen to me, Detective Starsky," she said, low voice cut with steel. "I know you've been through an emotional rollercoaster these last few days and that all you want to do is sit face-to-face with your partner and be with him. I understand that - but I will not let you endanger my patient, your partner, by entering that room without a mask and without understanding why you need one. I am his nurse, Detective, and that means that I am just as committed as you are, if not more so, to his safety and recovery."

Starsky went silent, eyes wide with shock.

Nurse Reilly nodded. "Believe it or not, Detective, I didn't take this job because I like white dresses." She allowed her eyes to soften slightly at Starsky's surprised chuckle. "I went through a lot of schooling to wear this thing," she tapped her cap, "and a big part of that was learning how to explain 'why', so let me explain what we're doing here to help get your partner back on his feet, and if I can't answer everything to your satisfaction, then I'll be more than happy to call Dr. Kaufman for you. Deal?"

Starsky began to uncoil. "Deal," he agreed. He ducked his head. "You know, I've never….."

"Been told off by a nurse?" she grinned.

Starsky shook his head with a laugh.

"Well, get used to it, Detective, because I'm your partner's nurse for the next three days and I'm not here to fluff pillows and look pretty. I'm here to help get him back to your side, and if that means shouting at pig-headed detectives who think my job is all bed baths and bed pans, then so be it."

"Yes ma'am," Starsky straightened with a mischievous grin before sobering and giving her his full attention. "Okay, this pig-headed detective is all ears."

"Good," Nurse Reilly smiled, "because your partner is due for his next dose of antibiotic and you're holding up my med pass." She held up the medication with a pointed look before using it to wave him to the nearby bench. "Now," she began as they sat down, "your partner is under what's called 'protective,' or 'neutropenic,' precautions. 'Neutropenic' means that he doesn't have enough neutrophils, which are a specific type of infection-fighting white blood cell. This fact, combined with his compromised lung function and general weakness from the plague, makes him extremely vulnerable to infection. Even a minor cold virus could be deadly."

Starsky swallowed nervously.

Nurse Reilly put a gentle hand on his arm. "The serum provided a cure, but it can't undo the damage that's already been done – that's going to take time and care. We put these precautions in place to help keep him safe," she assured him. "Anyone going into the room wears a mask to protect him from anything that could be transmitted through respiratory droplets or through the air. Frequent hand washing and gloves as well as the gowns are used to help limit contact with any infectious agents on your skin or clothing. The air in the room is filtered and is a higher pressure than the air outside, which helps keep outside air from entering his room. We control his diet to prevent unwashed fresh produce from transmitting bacteria, and we keep fresh flowers and plants out of the room to prevent infection from bacteria in the roots and soil."

Starsky's eyes lit up. "Is that why Cap'n Dobey's flowers are at the nurse's station?" he suddenly understood.

"Exactly!" Nurse Reilly smiled. "They're beautiful, but the risk is too great at this stage in his recovery."

"Boy, he's gonna hate that…..he's got a whole jungle back home," Starsky mused. He shot upright. "Oh no! I was watering his plants for him before I came here….is that gonna hurt him?" he asked desperately.

Nurse Reilly guided him back to his seat. "Washing your hands will take care of that," she reassured him.

"Okay," Starsky breathed.

"And by the time he can go home, Detective Hutchinson's white cell count will be back within a safe range, so he should be able to take care of his plants just fine," she continued.

"Good," Starsky muttered, "I hope that's sooner rather than later, 'cause I'm not sure how long I can keep 'em alive."

Nurse Reilly grinned. "I never had much of a green thumb myself," she commiserated.

"Yeah, and I bet you never named your plants either," Starsky grumbled fondly, soft eyes focused on Hutch's window.

"Can't say I have," she chuckled. "Now, what else can I answer for you?" she asked.

Starsky shook himself back into focus. "Uh, nothing," he smiled, taking the nurse's hands gratefully. "Thank you," he said earnestly. "I'm sorry I acted like such a….." he waved his hand vaguely, looking for the right word.

"Don't worry about it," she smiled, pressing his hands in return.

"And I'm real glad you're gonna be his nurse," Starsky added sincerely. "Makes me feel better about leavin' him alone here, you know?"

Nurse Reilly's heart melted at that trust-filled declaration. "It's my pleasure," she said softly.

Starsky snorted. "Yeah, just wait until he's feelin' better," he warned.

She laughed brightly.

Starsky stood up and began to pace. "I don't know why I got so wound up before….." he half-apologized, half-wondered aloud.

"You're worried about your friend," Nurse Reilly said simply. "That's reason enough. Besides, masks are tough to work with – we forget how much we express through our mouth until it's covered up. Some of it reaches our eyes, but it's just not the same."

"Yeah," Starsky paused his pacing as he nodded in agreement. "It's just…..Hutch and I….well, he's closer to me than my brother, you know what I mean? And sometimes, when he's really feelin' bad, it's hard to get him out of it, and I figure…. somethin' like this….. he's gonna be feelin' bad for awhile, right? He's gonna be depressed and frustrated….and I know, because I've been there and he's gotten me out of it." Starsky smiled, lost in private memory. "All he's gotta do is look at me a certain way…..gimme this one smile…and I can't help but feel better. It's the same for me to get him goin' again and this….." he gestured to the box of masks outside the door. He sighed. "It just messes everything up," he shrugged.

"I know," Nurse Reilly said quietly.

"When we were quarantined together, back when this whole thing started, he hated the masks more than I hated the closed space. Kept ramblin' on about how people didn't feel human in 'em. He was so happy when Ju – Dr. Kaufman came in to spring us and he could see her face." Starsky recalled Hutch's pleased, "Oh look at this, human beings without masks!"

"It's even tougher on the kids," Nurse Reilly added. "They don't understand as easily why their parents, nurses, and doctors have to hide their faces. They're hurting and scared and when all they need is a reassuring smile, they can't even see it." She smiled softly. "I actually knew a pediatric nurse once who drew a smiley face on a separate mask and brought it into her patient rooms. Whenever she wanted to smile at the child, she held that mask up to her face at the same time. Not quite the same, but the kids loved it – always made them laugh."

Starsky suddenly clapped his hands together with a loud crack. "That's it!" he grinned wildly, pulling the nurse to her feet and kissing her cheek soundly. "You're beautiful!"

Nurse Reilly blushed.

"Oh, this is gonna be perfect," he was rubbing his hands together eagerly. He ran over to Hutch's window. "Good, he's still asleep." He turned back to the nurse. "You're goin' in now right?" he asked.

Nurse Reilly held up the antibiotic with a flourish. "Yep."

"Good….tell him I'll be back this afternoon…..if he asks, just tell him….." his face screwed up in thought, "oh I don't know, tell him Dobey needed me to do something. I'll be back in a few hours," he finished breathlessly.

"You planning to fill me in?" she asked with a chuckle.

"Later…..I gotta go," Starsky was practically vibrating with excitement.

"All right, go on," Nurse Reilly waved him off with a laugh. "I'll find out when he does," she nodded toward Hutch.

Starsky grabbed her in a hug that lifted her straight off the ground, and with a final "thank you!", he was off.

Four hours later, as Nurse Reilly was preparing to enter Hutch's room for her next assessment, she caught a glimpse of a curly-headed blur coming around the corner. A few moments later, as she was tying the bottom knot of her mask, the blur reached her side, resolving itself into the form of one David Starsky, like an electron coming to an impossible standstill.

"You goin' in?" Starsky asked breathlessly, even as he shifted the small, dark bag in his hands to the crook of his arm so he could begin putting on his mask.

Nurse Reilly couldn't help but smile. The air around the detective was practically crackling with excitement - the man could probably power the entire unit with the force of that grin. "Yep – vitals and fluids," she held up the IV bottle. "Respiratory was in with him earlier, so I want to see if we can start weaning him off the mask."

Starsky nodded approvingly. He placed the bag on top of the isolation cart, gowned up, and walked over to the nearby sink to wash his hands again. "Should I wear gloves?" he asked, holding up his hands for inspection.

"Up to you," Nurse Reilly offered the choice. "It isn't necessary in this case. I'm wearing them because of what I need to do, but washing up is sufficient, and I'm sure Detective Hutchinson would appreciate being touched without gloves for once today." She watched Starsky's eyes soften in a combination of gratitude and agreement. She was no stranger to using touch to communicate with her patients, and she had the feeling that these two routinely communicated more by touch than anything else.

"Thanks," Starsky's voice was thick behind the mask. He bounced high on his toes. "Ready?" he asked brightly.

"Ready," she chuckled, leading the way into the room.

Hutch was propped up at a sixty degree angle in the bed, oxygen mask hissing softly, tired blue eyes slowly tracking his visitors.

"Good afternoon Detective Hutchinson," Nurse Reilly greeted him, laying a gentle hand on his arm as she checked his ID band and IV site. "It's Mary again – I know you'd much rather see the man behind me, but I just need to check on one or two things, and then I'll let you be, okay?"

"S'okay," Hutch murmured through the oxygen mask. "You're prettier'n he is," he smiled weakly over her shoulder at Starsky.

Starsky rolled his eyes.

Nurse Reilly grinned. "Okay, first things first, I need you to answer a few questions for me." She ran through the usual orientation questions, then checked his vital signs. She checked his oxygen saturation, listened to his lungs, and decreased the oxygen flow by one liter. "I'll be back to check how you're doing on the lower level," she assured Hutch, "but if you start to feel weak or short of breath, you have my number," she placed the call button in his hand, willing the smile over her mask and into her eyes.

Hutch tightened his grip on the call button with a smile and understanding nod.

"Okay, now while I'm giving you a refill," she held up the IV bottle, "I want you to do ten repetitions of the deep breathing and coughing exercise that I know respiratory did with you earlier. The more you keep those tiny air sacs open at the bottom of your lungs, the better you'll breathe and the less chance you have of developing pneumonia." She gestured Starsky over to the bed. "You can count him through it," she ordered.

"Yes ma'am," Starsky saluted. Most people would perch themselves on the edge of the bed, but not this one – Starsky pushed himself up onto the mattress so his hip was in firm contact with Hutch's. He took his friend's hands. "Hey," he greeted, his quiet voice tinged with a lingering, overwhelming relief.

"Hey yourself," Hutch returned with a tired, but pleased smile. He took a deep breath and followed it with a careful cough.

"No wussy coughs," Nurse Reilly insisted, swapping out the depleted IV bottle for the new one. "Splint if you need to." She reached over to the nearby chair and tossed Starsky another pillow. Starsky placed the pillow on Hutch's abdomen and guided his partner's hands, still firmly within Starsky's grasp, into position. She watched as Starsky finished counting Hutch through the exercises and Hutch moved to swallow.

"Ah ah ah ah," she tutted, grabbing a tissue and shifting the oxygen mask. "The whole point is to get rid of that junk. Spit," she ordered, thrusting the tissue to Hutch's lips.

Hutch made a face as he spit tan sputum into the tissue.

Starsky gagged. "That is disgusting," he pronounced.

"That's part of my job," the nurse said pointedly, noting the sputum characteristics and disposing of the tissue.

"Better you than me sweetheart," Starsky muttered.

Hutch chuckled softly, grimacing as he splinted against a weak cough.

"You okay?" Starsky's voice was low with concern.

Hutch nodded, shifting slightly in the bed. Nurse Reilly helped adjust the pillows protecting his bony prominences, and once Hutch assured her he was as comfortable as possible, she grabbed the chart and moved off to the corner. "Okay, I'm done poking and prodding. For now," she amended with a grin. "I'm just going to write up a few things and then I'll be out of your hair." She gave Starsky a wink. "He's all yours."

"Hear that, Blintz? You're all mine," Starsky waggled his eyebrows.

"Great," Hutch rolled his eyes with long-suffering resignation.

Starsky reached into the dark bag and Nurse Reilly heard the snap of a tape dispenser. Keeping one eye on her chart, pen poised above the next line, she watched Starsky take what looked like a trimmed photo out of the bag and stick it to his mask. He turned to her with a wink.

He had taped a cut-out photo of his mouth in a wide "O" of affronted shock to the mask, exactly where the real expression would be underneath.

Starsky turned back to Hutch, who had closed his eyes briefly while Starsky had been rummaging. Starsky nudged his partner, who cracked open his eyes, only to blink and open them wider as Starsky came into focus.

"Hutch, you wound me," Starsky said dramatically, placing a hand over his heart, "Here I am, bringin' my shinin' personality to my sick partner's bedside….."

"Starsky, what….." Hutch let out a half-laugh on a ragged huff of air.

Starsky pulled the photo off and dug into the bag again, the scratching of photo paper filling the room until he pulled out another cropped photo with a flourish and stuck it on to the mask. "I'm glad you said I didn't need gloves," he said to Nurse Reilly. "'S hard enough separatin' all these with my bare hands."

Nurse Reilly looked from the grin in Starsky's eyes to the matching grin he had taped in place. She couldn't help but grin herself – it was contagious. She shook her head with a laugh.

This was what he had been up to.

Starsky turned the grin back to Hutch. "I've got a whole bag of 'em," he pulled a clear sandwich bag from the darker one, pushing the cutout photos around through the plastic with one hand to show Hutch the variety. "Every expression I could think of," he said proudly.

Hutch's eyes brightened as a slow, fond smile shifted the mask. "Starsk…." He said quietly. "You did all this…..just so I could see your goofy face?" he gestured weakly at the bag and the mask.

Starsky swapped out the grin for the affronted look again. "Hey, you love my goofy face," he protested, before rummaging through the bag for a softer smile and sticking it into place. "I know how much you hate these masks and I figured…..well, 'least your mask is clear," he nodded at the oxygen mask. "I can see your face. I wanted you to be able to see mine….y'know, so you feel human."

Hutch reached up to rub at suddenly moist eyes. Nurse Reilly found herself doing the same.

"Hey," Starsky stuck a more serious look on his mask before taking Hutch's hands lightly from his eyes. "You okay?"

Hutch smiled, extricating one hand to reach for Starsky's cheek. "Thank you Starsk," he said sincerely.

Starsky leaned into the touch, closing his eyes at the soft pulsing through the warm skin. Alive.

Hutch's eyes sparkled. "You know, I'm surprised no one reported those photos as suspicious activity," he grinned mischievously.

"You have no idea," Starsky snorted. "If it wasn't a friend of Huggy's that knew the whole story beforehand….." he grabbed a rueful smile from the bag and stuck it in place.

Hutch laughed. "Probably scarred the poor guy for life," he chuckled through the mask.

Starsky put the affronted look back on. "Hey, what's not to love?" he asked, eyes dancing as he gestured at his face. He grabbed a pleading look from the bag and pressed it onto the mask. He turned to Nurse Reilly. "Right? I mean, come on," he waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

"Oh no, you're not getting me involved," Nurse Reilly threw up her hands with a laugh. "My work here is done," she said, closing the chart and heading toward the door. "I'm afraid he's all yours Detective Hutchinson," she grinned, jerking her head toward Starsky.

"Yeah, he is," Hutch chuckled softly.

"I'll be back in an hour or so – call me if you need anything."

Hutch held up the call button in acknowledgement.

Starsky met her gaze, eyes shining with joy and gratitude. "Off to see your other patients?" he asked.

"Actually, I need to make a call to pediatrics," she grinned behind her mask.

Starsky put his thousand watt grin back in place, dark eyes dancing as he laughed. He turned the grin back to Hutch. "See? She likes my goofy face," he proclaimed.

"Sure she does," Hutch placated him with a soft snort.

"You like my goofy face," Starsky insisted.

As Nurse Reilly closed the door, she heard Hutch's fond voice reply, "Yeah, Starsk. You know I do."