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Unacceptable Losses

By Valerie Wells

Starsky let himself into Hutch's apartment, juggling a bag of donuts and a cup of coffee, and set both down on the coffee table. He could hear the shower running. He opened the bathroom door a crack and hollered, loud enough to be heard over the water, "Mornin'! It's me."

"Of course it is!" Hutch called back. "Who the hell else is rude enough to let himself in and come in here when I'm naked and wet?"

Starsky grinned and shut the door, settling himself on the couch to enjoy his breakfast. He heard the water shut off, then the sound of an electric razor. Right about then, the phone rang. He leaned over and picked it up. "Hello?"

There was a long silence, then a trembling voice said, "Who is this?"

"Dave Starsky," he said.

"Uh, may I speak to Kenny, please?"

"Karen?" Starsky said, recognizing Hutch's sister's voice, even through the obvious tears. "Honey, what's the matter?"

There was a stifled sob, then Karen said, her voice even thicker with tears, "Oh, Dave, Daddy's...he's...dying. Please get Ken for me."

"He's in the shower, sweetheart. Hold on, okay? I'll get him." Covering the phone, Starsky swallowed hard, and called, "Hutch! Come here!"

The bathroom door opened and Hutch, wrapping a towel around his middle, said, "What? Can't it wait five minutes?"

"It's your sister, buddy," Starsky said past the lump in his throat. "It's bad news," he added gently.

Hutch paled a bit, but he came forward and took the phone, sitting next to Starsky on the couch. "Karen? What's wrong?" Starsky saw Hutch's Adam's apple move as he listened and he reached over to lay a comforting hand on his friend's shoulder. After several minutes, Hutch wet his lips and said, "Okay, sissy. Don't worry. I'll meet you there. I have to make a couple of calls first, okay? You all right? I love you. See you tonight." He replaced the receiver and sat staring at it for a moment while Starsky gently squeezed his shoulder and waited. Finally he turned to look at Starsky and his eyes were too bright. "It's my dad. He's had a stroke. They don't think he's gonna make it."

"God, Hutch. I'm sorry." Starsky slid his arm around Hutch's shoulders and lay his forehead against his. Hutch didn't move or return the embrace, but Starsky could feel him trembling with the effort to keep a grip on his emotions.

"I gotta go home," Hutch said finally. "Karen's a basket case and Mom is too. They need me."

"Sure they do," Starsky said. "You go get dried off and dressed and I'll call Dobey and the airport."

Hutch gave a wan smile. "Thanks, buddy." He went back toward the bathroom, his shoulders bent as if he carried the weight of the world.

Starsky swallowed his own sadness and picked up the phone. When Dobey answered his extension, he said, "Starsky, Captain. Hutch's dad had a stroke. They think he's dying. He's gotta go home for a few days."

"Shit, Starsky," Dobey said, stunned. "Of course he does. Are you going with him?"

Starsky paused at that. Hutch would probably need the moral support, but... "Can I, Cap? I don't think 'partner's dad dying' is one of the accepted reasons for taking leave."

"You've got plenty of sick time coming," Dobey said. "As long as it's not more than a week, I'll approve emergency leave for both of you. But keep me informed!"

"Yes, sir, I sure will. Thanks, Cap." Starsky was amazed, but he grinned a little, in spite of the circumstances. He always knew Dobey was an old softy under that gruff exterior, and now he had proof. He called the airport, and the next flight to Minnesota wasn't until 1 p.m. But it was a direct flight, and they'd arrive in Duluth by early evening, local time. He booked two seats on his own credit card -- they'd work all that out later -- and hung up.

Hutch emerged from the bathroom with suspiciously pink eyes and headed for his bedroom to get dressed. He paused to give Starsky an inquiring look.

"It's all set. Dobey gave the okay and we're catching a 1 p.m. flight for Minnesota," Starsky said.

Hutch blinked a couple of times. "We?"

"If you want me to come," Starsky said gently. "Dobey said it was okay."

Hutch's eyes swam at that, but Starsky was up and across the room, with his arm around Hutch's back before he could break down. In a moment, Hutch said, "Thanks, Starsk."

Starsky gave him a friendly pat on the back as he turned away to get dressed and pack. His coffee was cold and his appetite was gone, but Starsky sat on the couch and ate anyway. It was going to be a bleak few days.

~*~*~*~

Hutch had called his mother to let her know when they'd be arriving, so when the plane touched down at Duluth International Airport, Hutch's brother-in-law Steve was waiting to meet them. One look at Steve's sober face and both men knew it was as serious as they'd feared.

Steve gave Hutch a quick hug and shook Starsky's hand. "Do you want to go home first, or to the hospital?" he asked.

"What do you think I should do?" Hutch asked.

Steve met his eyes. "I think you better go straight to the hospital, Ken."

Hutch blanched a little, but nodded. "Let's go."

They tossed their bags into the trunk of Steve's car. On the ride over, Steve told them as much as he knew. "Dick woke your mom up in the middle of the night last night and told her he had a blinding headache, worse than any headache he'd ever had. And before she could even answer him, he just passed out. She called an ambulance, and they got him to the hospital pretty fast, but --" Steve broke off and threw a concerned look at Hutch, who was staring straight ahead. "He's in a coma, Kenny," he said, unconsciously using Hutch's childhood nickname. "God, I'm sorry. The doctor said...he'll probably only last another day or two."

"He doesn't recognize anyone, then?"

Steve shook his head. "No, but the doctor said he might be able to hear when you talk to him. He can't respond."

Starsky reached forward from the back seat and put his hand on Hutch's shoulder. It was rigid with tension.

~*~*~*~

Karen and Helen were seated next to each other in the intensive care ward, both pale but tearless, when the three men came in. However, they took one look at Hutch and both rose to meet him. He held one in each arm as the three of them stood silently drawing strength from each other for several minutes. Hutch's mother drew back first with tears streaking down her face. "Oh, Kenny, I'm so glad to see you," she said, reaching up to touch her tall son's face with a trembling hand.

He took her hand in his and kissed it, wrapping his other arm around her. "How's he doing, Mom?"

She shook her head, biting her bottom lip, before answering. "It's not good, Kenny. They'll let you go in if you want to."

Hutch glanced at Starsky, who took that to mean he wanted him to come, too. The two men walked down the hallway, stopping at the glass-fronted ICU room. The man in the bed didn't even look like Richard Hutchinson. His skin was as pale as the sheets, and the thinning blond hair was rumpled, making his face look years older than normal. Hutch froze in the doorway in dismay.

"Oh, my God," he whispered.

Starsky put a hand on his back and gave him a gentle push. "Go on, buddy. I'm right here."

Numbly, Hutch went forward to the bed and stared down at his father, lost among the wires and IV lines. He reached out a hand as if to touch the man in the bed, but drew it back. "D--dad? It's Kenny," he said softly, after long moments of just staring.

Watching, Starsky felt his own eyes burn in sympathy. He'd never, ever heard Hutch refer to himself as "Kenny" before. Even when telling stories of his childhood, when Starsky knew everyone had called him "Kenny," Hutch always used the name "Ken" for himself.

Hutch slowly sank down in the chair next to the bed, still not touching his father. After a moment, he folded his hands on the rail of the bed and dropped his head on them. Starsky went to him and put both hands on his shoulders, feeling the tension and the barely suppressed shaking as Hutch let himself go for the first time.

It was a while before Hutch could get himself under control enough to raise his head. His eyes were damp. He wiped at them clumsily, and Starsky wordlessly offered his own handkerchief. Hutch took it, dried his eyes, and gave it back. "God, Starsky," he said, his voice shaking. "I didn't think it'd be this hard."

Starsky stroked Hutch's hair once, then returned his hand to Hutch's shoulder. He didn't say anything; there was nothing he could say that could make it easier. He remembered all too well when his own father died. There was no pain to match it. All he could do was offer his silent support.

Hutch sat and stared at his father's still form for a long time before rising with a sigh and reaching out to put an arm around Starsky for a moment. Starsky returned the gesture. "Come on, buddy," Hutch said at last.

The two of them walked down the hallway back to the waiting room, arms still around each other. Karen and Helen had gone to get coffee, but Steve was still there.

"Let me take you back to the house, Ken," Steve said. "You need to get something to eat and rest a while."

"I'm not hungry," Hutch said tonelessly.

"But you gotta eat, buddy," Starsky chimed in. "We can come back as soon as you've had some supper."

"Okay," Hutch said with a sigh.

Steve dropped them off at Hutch's parents' house and gave Hutch a key to his mother's car. "Helen said for you to help yourself to whatever you want in the fridge," he told him. "I'll be at the hospital."

Hutch nodded and turned listlessly toward the house. Inside, he dropped his bag on the floor and sank into his father's big overstuffed chair as though his legs wouldn't carry him another step. Starsky put his own bag down, touched Hutch's hair briefly, and went to the kitchen to make something to eat.

He slapped together a few sandwiches, found some potato chips and made some coffee, and brought it all back to Hutch on a tray. Hutch hadn't moved. But when Starsky set the food down, he stirred, and made a valiant attempt to eat.

He didn't make much progress. Finally he gave up and settled for drinking his coffee. Starsky watched him and managed to eat a little himself.

"I've never told him I loved him," Hutch said at last.

"He ever tell you?" Starsky asked quietly.

Hutch shook his head. "We aren't a demonstrative family."

"It's not too late."

"Yes, it is," Hutch said. "He can't hear me. He doesn't know who's there. And ever since I was 19..." he stopped, dropped his eyes, and finally finished, "we haven't gotten along. Hell, it started before I was 19."

"You were 19 when you decided to be a cop," Starsky supplied, having heard it all before.

Hutch nodded, eyes still on his coffee cup. "He's never forgiven me for that."

"Come on, Hutch. Sure he has. He wants you to be happy, doesn't he? To like what you do for a living?"

"I'm not always sure I do like it," Hutch said.

Starsky suppressed a sigh. Hutch was in full-blown downer and nothing he could say was going to help at this point. He supposed it was to be expected, considering the circumstances.

"I want to go back to the hospital," Hutch said after a few moments.

"Okay, buddy." Starsky took the keys off the table. "I'll drive."

~*~*~*~

Helen and Karen were still sitting in the waiting room. Karen was dozing against Steve's shoulder and Helen was pale with exhaustion.

Hutch sat next to his mother and took her hand. "Why don't you all go home, Mom? Starsky and I will stay here tonight."

She squeezed his hand and tried to smile, but it didn't come off very well. "All right, hon. You'll call me if..."

"If there's any change," he said. "Yes, I will."

~*~*~*~

When they were gone, Starsky went for a couple of cups of coffee and tried to get comfortable in one of the chairs. Hutch simply sat and stared unseeingly at the bad modern painting on the wall. Every so often he'd go stand at the door of his father's room and just look at him. Starsky kept silent, figuring Hutch would talk when he was ready.

Around 3 a.m., Starsky woke from a brief nap and noticed the tears slowly rolling down Hutch's cheeks. He moved over to the couch and sat next to Hutch. When he put a hand on Hutch's arm, Hutch turned and wrapped his arms around him and held on for dear life, shaking with silent sobs. Starsky rubbed his back and stroked his hair and waited.

After several moments, and without letting go, Hutch whispered hoarsely, "He's gone, Starsk. My dad's...my dad's gone."

Starsky's throat closed and his own eyes filled with tears -- not for Richard Hutchinson, whom he'd barely known and had resented for his disapproval of Hutch but for the pain his best friend was in. He rested his cheek against Hutch's tousled blond hair and simply held on, offering whatever comfort he could in silence.

It took several minutes, but finally Hutch drew a long shuddering breath and sat up, though he still kept a hand on Starsky's arm as if to draw strength. "I have to...to call my mom," he said in a low voice.

"Want me to do it, babe?" Starsky asked.

Hutch lifted his eyes with a grateful look, but shook his head. "Thanks, buddy, but no. I have to do it. I just...can't face it yet."

"It'll keep a while longer," Starsky said soothingly. "In fact, we could just go back to the house and tell them in person."

"I don't want to leave him alone," Hutch said in a voice Starsky had never heard him use before. He sounded like a lost child and Starsky wrapped his arm around him and pulled him against him again.

"I could stay, if you want."

But Hutch shook his head again. "I want you to come with me," he said, still in that voice. "If that's okay."

"Sure it is, Hutch," Starsky said with a squeeze to his shoulder. "Whatever you want, buddy."

Starsky drove, because in Hutch's state, he didn't want him behind the wheel, even on the nearly-deserted nighttime streets. When they pulled into the driveway of the Hutchinson home, Hutch stared at the house as if he'd never seen it before. Starsky shut off the engine and waited.

"I imagine they're all asleep," Hutch said after a pause.

"Yeah," Starsky said. "You want to wake them up, or wait until morning? It's only a couple of hours."

"I don't know."

"I think you ought to wait until morning, buddy," Starsky said gently. "There's nothing they can do, anyway. And tomorrow's going to be a tough day. They're gonna need to be rested up for it. So are you."

"I can't sleep," Hutch said bleakly.

"Then let's go make some coffee, huh?"

Hutch nodded and opened his door, and Starsky met him with a supportive arm around his shoulders as they walked into the house. He made the coffee while Hutch sank onto the couch and threw his head back, closing his eyes.

When Starsky came back, with a cup for each of them, Hutch straightened and took the coffee in shaking hands. "Want something to eat, Hutch?" Starsky asked him.

But Hutch shook his head. "No. I don't think I could keep it down."

Starsky sat down next to him, close enough so their legs were touching, sensing that Hutch needed his nearness. He kept silent, however, waiting for Hutch to lead the way.

Finally, Hutch said, "How'd you do it, Starsk?"

"Do what, buddy?"

Hutch raised tear-filled eyes to his. "How'd you get used to your dad being dead?"

Aw, buddy. Starsky considered for a moment before answering. In a low voice, he said, "I didn't, babe."

One of the tears spilled over and ran down Hutch's cheek, but Hutch didn't seem to notice. He continued to stare into Starsky's eyes as if he expected to find a magic answer there, which would take away the pain. "Then how --" he paused and swallowed hard, "how do you keep functioning?"

Starsky reached out and wiped away the tear and let his hand drop to Hutch's shoulder. "You just do, Hutch. You got to. It gets easier after awhile. I promise."

"Did you love your dad, Starsk?"

Starsky nodded. "I sure did."

"Did you tell him?"

"Not in words," Starsky said honestly. "But he knew. I'm sure he did." And, knowing where this was going, he added, "So did yours, buddy. He knew. You didn't have to say the words."

Hutch didn't sob this time. It was more like he just melted. Starsky took his coffee cup, set it down for him, and put his arms around him. They were still sitting like that when Helen Hutchinson walked in. She took one look and knew without being told.

~*~*~*~

Two days later Starsky sat next to Hutch in St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Duluth -- the church the Hutchinsons had attended for three generations -- and listened while the pastor extolled Richard Hutchinson's virtues, his contributions to the church of his money and time, what a wonderful husband and father he'd been, what a generous and beloved friend.

"I am the resurrection and the life," the pastor read from the Bible. "Whosoever believes in me will live, even though he dies. And whosoever lives and believes in me will never die."

Starsky glanced at Hutch, who was staring at the pastor as though he was hanging on every word. Unobtrusively, seeing the unshed tears in Hutch's eyes, Starsky took his friend's hand. Hutch's hand closed around his and held on tight.

Later, at the graveside, Starsky stood back a little, close enough to be a comfort, but far enough away to allow Hutch to hold onto his mother with one arm and his sister with the other.

This is the hard part, Starsky thought. Standing here knowing that gaping hole in the ground is there, even though they cover it up with that fake grass carpeting. And knowing your dad's going to be lowered into that hole and covered with dirt.

After the service was over and the pastor had shaken the hands of Hutch, his mother, sister and brother-in-law, Starsky came closer and put a hand on Hutch's back. Hutch glanced at him pleadingly.

"There's something I gotta do, Starsk," he said quietly.

"Okay, buddy. What?"

Starsky followed as Hutch walked up to the casket. Keeping his hand on Hutch's back, feeling the trembling there as Hutch struggled to keep his tears inside, he watched as Hutch reached out with one hand and laid it on the casket. He stood there quietly for several moments. At last, in a low voice, so low Starsky wouldn't have caught the words if he hadn't been listening so intently, Hutch said, "I love you, Dad."

While the family was greeting the friends and neighbors who stopped by after the funeral, Starsky slipped into the den and dialed Los Angeles. "Cap'n Dobey, please," he told the person who answered the phone.

In a moment, the captain's gruff voice barked, "Dobey here."

"Me, Cap. It's all over."

"How's Hutch?"

Starsky sighed. "I don't know. Sad. Quiet. Withdrawn. About what you'd expect, I guess."

"How much leave time does he need?"

"Actually, I think he'll be ready to get back to work by Monday or so, Cap'n," Starsky said. "It'll give him something else to think about. Him and his dad didn't get along too well and he's feelin' pretty bad about it now."

"I'll leave your names off the duty roster for now," Dobey said after a pause. "When you get back, have Hutch give me a call. I'll decide after I talk to him when to put him back on. You, however," and the captain's voice got even gruffer, as it did when he was trying to hide his real feelings, "I will expect to see at 8 a.m. Monday. Got that, Starsky?"

"Yes, sir," Starsky said with a wan grin. "I'll be there, sir."

Dobey harrumphed in his throat and hung up.

"Starsk? What are you doing?" Hutch poked his head through the door.

"Callin' Dobey. Promised him I'd check in every coupla days," Starsky said.

"When's he want us back?"

"Me, Monday. You, that's still up in the air. He wants you to call him when we get home. If you need more time, he'll give it to you."

Hutch considered a moment. "No, buddy. I want to go back to work. I can't just hang around at home. I'd go crazy."

"What I figured. But Dobey wants to hear it from you."

Hutch dropped into a chair and idly played with a doily on its arm.

"Hey, ain't you missin' all the visiting going on out there?" Starsky asked gently, turning the desk chair around to sit in it backwards.

"I don't even know half those people," Hutch said, not looking up. "And the half I do know, I haven't seen for so long we're reduced to 'How ya doin'?' and 'Got any kids?' I can't stand it."

Starsky grinned a little. But the grin disappeared instantly when he saw the tears Hutch was barely holding back. "Aw, Hutch, dammit. I wish there was something I could do to help ya."

Hutch raised his eyes for a moment. "You are doing it," he said. "You're here."

~*~*~*~

Several of the neighbors had brought food for the Hutchinsons, and after Hutch had had time to compose himself, he and Starsky rejoined the group drifting around the kitchen and living room. It wasn't long before one of Hutch's childhood pals walked up, his arm around a very, very pregnant wife, and said, "How ya doin', Kenny? This is my wife, Angie. And this," he pointed proudly to her middle, "is Corey."

"What if it's a girl?" Angie asked mildly, with a smile at Hutch.

"Then we'll spell it C-O-R-R-I-E," her husband said without missing a beat.

"Starsk, this is Dan," Hutch said, smiling in spite of himself, "and Dan, my partner, Dave Starsky."

"Partner?" Angie asked with a puzzled frown, though she offered her hand to Starsky.

"We're cops," Starsky explained.

"Oh," she breathed, her eyes wide. "In Los Angeles? Isn't that dangerous?"

Starsky and Hutch exchanged a grin. "Once in awhile," Starsky answered for both of them.

"I always wanted to be a cop," Angie said regretfully. "I loved Dragnet and Adam-12. But, well," she pointed to herself, "it didn't work out."

Hutch actually laughed, and Starsky began to hope he was feeling better.

~*~*~*~

But a few days later, on the plane home to Los Angeles, Hutch was abnormally quiet. Starsky wondered if they'd left too soon, though Hutch's mother had urged him not to worry about her.

"You go on, honey," she'd said to him at the airport. "Karen and Steve are nearby, and I know your captain won't let you stay here forever." She'd smiled and reached up on tiptoes to kiss his cheek. "I'm proud of you, Kenny," she'd added, with only the slightest emphasis on "I'm."

As they'd turned to board the plane, she'd given Starsky a look he'd seen on his own mother's face a few times. It meant "Take care of my boy" and Starsky had smiled and nodded to show he understood.

But even once they'd landed and Starsky had picked up his car out of the long-term parking lot, driven Hutch to his own apartment, and accompanied him upstairs, Hutch still hadn't come out of the blue funk he was in.

"All right," Starsky said at last, "you wanna talk about it?"

"Talk about what?" Hutch said, dropping his bag next to his bed and coming back to start coffee.

"What's buggin' ya, buddy. I can tell something is."

"My father's dead, Starsky," Hutch said in that barely-controlled tone he used when he'd been pushed to his limit. "What else needs to be wrong?"

"So's mine," Starsky said evenly. "It stinks. No two ways about it. I know it hurts. And this tough Viking routine of yours ain't gonna help none, buddy. You gotta let it out."

Hutch turned suddenly, his right hand balling into a fist, but instead he let the hand drop to his side and looked so defeated and helpless that Starsky regretted his remark. He rose and went to him, holding out his arms, and Hutch began to cry. Starsky held him and let him for several minutes before Hutch pulled himself together and turned away.

"I'm sorry, Starsk," he said, with his back to Starsky as he went on making coffee. "I gotta quit doing that."

"No, you don't," Starsky said. "Not with me. Good God, Hutch, what are partners for?"

"For loving you even when you're a pain in the ass," Hutch said so quietly that Starsky wasn't sure he'd heard him right. He put the coffee on to perk and went back into the living room, sitting down on his couch with a thump. Starsky joined him.

"Now you wanna talk about it?"

Hutch sighed and threw his head back against the couch. "Dad and I never were close," he said after a moment. "He was always so busy when I was a kid, always in court or working on a brief, or locked into the den with mounds of paperwork. And then one day I barge into the house and announce 'I'm going to be a cop' and the shit hit the fan.

"When Dad started yelling, I started yelling 'Well, you wanted me to go into law,' and we had a huge fight and he swore he'd never give me another dime, and Mom was crying and Karen was crying..." Hutch stopped for a moment. He swallowed hard and finally finished, "I told him I hated him, Starsk."

"Kids say that to their parents all the time," Starsky offered quietly.

"When they're 6 or 8, not when they're 19," Hutch said.

Starsky could find no answer for that.

"I did hate him. I really did, right then. But you know, by supper time we weren't fighting anymore, and we both pretended it had never happened, but things were never the same after that. We never said 'I'm sorry.' And I never told him I didn't mean it when I said I hated him. I didn't really mean it, Starsky."

"I know."

"I went back to college, and Dad went back to work, and things went on, but --" Hutch shook his head. "I never forgot it. Neither did he. And we never made up. And now," he swallowed hard again, "now it's too late."

"It was a long time ago, Hutch," Starsky said. "He forgave you. He loved you. He knew you loved him."

"I'm not sure he did," Hutch said. "When I called home, I always talked to Mom. When I visited, he was always busy and I spent most of the time with Mom and with Karen. He never knew..." Hutch stopped suddenly and turned to look at Starsky with a sudden light in his eyes. "You can't go around not telling people how important they are to you. You never know when something might happen and it'll be too late. Starsk --" Hutch grabbed him by the arms. "Starsk, you're my best friend. Family. I love you. You know that, don't you?"

"I know that," Starsky said. "Don't ever worry about that, buddy. I know it."

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