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Wuemsel's Fanfic Corner

Of Trees and Ghosts


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A Sequel to "D´you believe in the North Pole?"
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Hutch wasn´t sure what had woken him. He´d been sleeping soundly, still in his clothes, as he noticed with a disapproving frown, when something had startled him awake, though he couldn´t recall or see what it had been.
 
'Probably a noise outside,' he thought and yawned widely, while crawling out of bed, still tired, but deciding that since he was up now, anyway, he could at least change into something more comfortable to sleep in.
 
Yawning some more as he shuffled along into the kitchen, he stopped suddenly, frowning, when he noticed that it was completely dark outside the kitchen window. Feeling the hairs on his neck rise slightly, he almost carefully continued on his way, all the time staring at his reflection in the window that stared back, obviously as confused as he was.
 
"What the... ?" he muttered, finally thinking of checking his watch. That didn´t ease his confusion at all, though, for his watch showed one minute to midnight.
 
Or noon.
 
'Noon, has to be noon,' he rambled in his thoughts, slightly shaking his right arm as if that would make the watch show something else. 'But I didn´t possibly sleep that long. And why the hell is it dark outside? What´s going on?!'
 
He´d reached the window by then and was leaning forward to stare directly into his reflection´s eyes, since there wasn´t much more to see in the darkness behind the glass, when all of a sudden a soft, feminine voice behind him made him jump so hard he nearly lost his balance.
 
"Booh!"
 
"Aaaaaaahhhhhh!!!"
 
Whirling around with one hand grabbing his heart, he stared at the chuckling, female speaker--and his chin dropped.
 
"Hi Hutch."
 
Hutch stared, eyes threatening to pop out.
 
An apologetic smile settled on the too pale feaures he was looking at. "Sorry `bout that." She shrugged. "Couldn´t resist."
 
"U-uh... Y-y..." Hutch started, cut himself off, managed to drag his chin back up and started again. "Y-you... Uh..." As his voice contained to fail him, he settled for squeezing his eyes shut as hard as he could, waited a split second and re-opened one to a slid.
 
She was still there, shaking her head at him. "You know, everybody does that. Every-body," she repeated with an exasperated sigh. "I mean, you´re an adult, for Christ´s sake. Hasn´t anyone ever told you that things don´t really disappear when you stop looking at them?"
 
Fully opening his eyes at that, Hutch swallowed past the thickening lump in his throat and asked in the faintest of voices, "T-Terry?" At the affirmative smile he earned for that, he let go off a deep breath, his gaze briefly wandering outside the window once more, then back again. "I´m dreaming, right?" he asked, though it didn´t sound the least convinced.
 
The ghostly pale woman, who, apart from her teint, looked exactly like Terry, even up to the air of amused irony surrounding her, rolled her eyes. "And everybody asks that too. They all do. Y´know, I thought you´d be different."
 
The annoyed statement sounded so much like the Terry he´d known, Hutch couldn´t help smiling. His convinced "Yup, dreaming", though, stood absolutely contrary to the gesture.
 
Throwing her hands into the air in a helpless manner, Terry shrugged. "Okay, you know what? If you want to believe you´re dreaming, go on. It doesn´t matter, anyway."
 
"Oh," Hutch laughed nervously, "I´d say it does."
 
"Whatever," she winked and straightened her posture a little, as if a formal announcement was about to follow.
 
Which was the case exactly.
 
"I am the Ghost of the Christmas of the past, and I´m here to-"
 
"You are what?!" Hutch cut her off, arching his brows in desperate disbelief.
Again, she sighed, her icon-like look ruined by her unnerved grimace. As if ashamed of her title, she repeated with much less enthusiasm, "I am the Ghost of all past Christmases."
 
Hutch stared.
 
A pause stretched itself, untill Terry lifted her brows in mock surprise, waggling her head slightly. "What, no smart comment?"
 
"The... Ghost of... Uhm..." Hutch stammered, nodding in slow-motion, accompanying each word with a shake of his head. "I... see. Y-you mean like in... Uh... like..."
 
"Like in this Dickens-thing," she finished his mutters. "Yup."
 
"Hm-mm," Hutch nodded in false conviction and let his gaze wander over to the blender on the breakfast counter, mumbling to himself, "Maybe Starsk´s right. Should lay off the eelgrass for a while..."
 
"You still drink that stuff every morning?" Terry smirked. "No wonder you get funny dreams."
 
Shooting her a look, he arched his brows. "Oh? So it is a dream after all?"
 
"Don´t ask me," she replied, shrugging, "I´m just a ghost."
 
"Ah... right," Hutch nodded mockingly gravely. "Of the past Christmas... Uhm, it´s been a while since I read that thing, but isn´t the first ghost supposed to be a little girl?"
 
"See, Hutch, that´s another thing," Terry replied, pointing her index finger at him, "you always believe everything you read."
 
"Huh?!"
 
"Oh, no, wait... that was Dave." Lost for a second, she finally waved her hand, continuing, "Well, anyhow, I´m sorry to disappoint you, but Dickens didn´t know everything. The first ghost just has to be female. The rest´s up to the, uh... reform-ee."
 
At Hutch´s blank stare, she rolled her eyes. "The Scrooge-guy."
 
"And..." Hutch started, thought for a moment, then pointed at himself. "I´m the... Scrooge...guy, yeah?"
 
"Yup."
 
"I see. And the ghosts have to be people I kn...ew," he finished, stretching the word as he eyed his late friend with awe. "Because... ?"
 
"Because this way you´ll believe us," she explained, sounding like she was talking to a particularly slow child.
 
"Don´t be too surprised if I won´t," he remarked dryly.
 
A sigh escaped her, followed by a sad shake of her head. "See, that´s exactly why we decided to come and visit you."
 
"We? That´d be 'Christmas Ghosts Inc.'?"
 
"Yep."
 
"Ah," he nodded curtly. "Thought so. You know, maybe I don´t want this to be a dream after all. Becausen that´d mean I made this all up myself."
 
"Well," she said with a grin, "your parents always told you reading too much´s not good for you."
 
Hutch frowned. "How d´you... Oh. Right. Ghost of the past." His words dripping with sarcasm, he raised his hands apologetically. "Sorry, tend to forget that."
 
"Okay, brains," Terry replied sternly, folding her arms in front of her chest. "You can go on wise-cracking, but it won´t change a thing. This is serious, I´m serious, and there´s nothing you can do about dreaming this dream up to its end."
 
"So it IS a dream."
 
"God," she breathed, exasperated, "you´re driving me nuts! YES, it is a dream. Happy now?"
 
"Very," he grinned.
 
"Good. Can we begin then?"
 
"Begin?"
 
Rolling her eyes, she gestured helplessly again. "I thought you read that book!"
 
"And I thought you said it´s not the truth."
 
"Not everything, dummy!" she shot back. "But the main facts are. You´ve been chosen to be taught the real meaning of Christmas, which you´ve forgotten. And I´m the first one to lead you on your way." Pause. "Got that now?"
 
"Uhm... yes. But," he added, flashing her an innocent grin, as she wheeled around to shoot him a dirty look, "just one more question. Why is it dark outside?"
 
"It´s midnight on Christmas Eve," she shrugged.
 
"Oh. See, I thought it was Christmas Day already."
 
Waving casually, she nodded. "Yeah, yeah, I know. We have this rule that I can only appear at midnight on Christmas Eve, but since you were working at that time, we had to... improvise. So it´s actually Christmas Day already, but for you it´s midnight at Chris-"
 
"I SO hope I´m not dreaming this," Hutch´s muttering cut her off, but at her glance he quickly lifted his hands in an apologetic gesture. "Sorry. No more dreaming-talk, I promise. Won´t say the d-word again."
 
"You´d better not," she nodded. "And now close your eyes."
 
"Why?"
 
At her deep, angry sigh, he quickly snapped his eyes shut. "Okay, okay."
 
"Good boy. And now open them again."
 
He obeyed--and froze. His kitchen was gone, as was the rest of his place. Instead, he found they were standing in deep snow, the sunset sending golden sparkles dancing on the shiny white ground of the alley they stood in. To their right, a small area had been fenced in, a sign as well as a bunch of small green trees identifying the place as a Christmas tree sale. The unmistakable sounds of city traffic were carried over to the peaceful place by the sharp, wheezing wind. Only few people seemed to even notice the sign from the other end of the alley, and most of them just stopped, but headed on again after a few seconds.
 
Though the wind seemed rather cold--the people were drawing up their shoulders, trying to make themselves a smaller target for the icy force--and the snow covered the ground, Hutch wasn´t cold at all, and when he looked down, he suddenly recalled that he wasn´t wearing shoes. Yet, he felt as warm and dry as he had inside his apartment.
 
Next to him, the Terry-ghost followed his gaze and grinned.
 
"Uhm," Hutch finally started, once more looking around in order to spot something that would at least look a bit familiar. "Terry, where are we?"
 
"New York," she answered.
 
After a moment´s thought, Hutch nodded in slow-motion. "Okay. And--why are we in New York?"
 
"Because this is a Christmas of the past you need to see. Well," she added, waving her hand, "actually it´s a few days before Christmas, but, oh well, sometimes you have to-"
 
"Improvise."
 
"Exactly," she grinned and turned towards the entry of the small fenced in place, suddenly excited. "I think here they come."
 
"Who?" Hutch asked, confused, and followed her gaze, standing beside her, who leaned forward in anticipation. "What the hell are we do..."
 
The moment he turned around, two people, a man and a small boy, appeared from somewhere behind one of the still waiting Christmas trees, heading for the exit. The man was about Hutch´s height and carried a small tree wrapped up in a net, while the boy bounced around him excitedly, trying to reach the tree. They both had the same thick, dark curls, tousled by the wind, and their shared excited happiness was clearly visible on both their faces, cheeks slightly glowing from the icy cold.
 
"Daddy, come ON, I can do it! Let me carry it!"
 
Feeling the color drain from his face, Hutch stepped aside as the two passed him and Terry, without seeing them, of course. "Uh... New York, huh?" he muttered, glancing at Terry.
 
"Hm-mm," she nodded with a wise smile.
 
"I take it the 'they can´t see you'-part of the book was right, yeah?"
 
Rolling her eyes, she nodded again, and he quickly hurried after the pair, so that he was walking next to them and able to follow the discussion taking place.
 
"D´you think Mom´ll like it?" the child asked and gave the answer himself, before his father had even opened his mouth. "I think she will. It looks great. Was the greatest tree around there, don´t you think? I think so."
 
Again, the father tried to get a word in, but was cut off by a pleading, "Can I carry it now? We´re almost there. You said I could carry it insi-"
 
"Davey, stop running in front of my feet!" his father chided, yet the chuckle in his voice took the sting out of the words. The boy, though, obeyed instantly, bouncing to the side and almost into Hutch, who swiftly stepped out of the way.
 
"Isn´t he just cute?" Terry asked next to him, having appeared out of nowhere at his other side. "I think he´s cute," she added with a dreamy smile that made Hutch drop his gaze sadly for a moment, before shrugging in fake casuality.
 
"Hm, dunno. You should have seen me as a child."
 
She laughed, like she always had, when he´d been trying to cheer her up. Most of the time he´d been pretty successfull at that too. And obviously, his special Terry-tacitcs still worked, even in his dreams. "Oh, you´re just jealous."
 
"Got me," he replied, but grew a bit more serious then, as he stopped to look at her questioningly. "But, uh, speaking of me... Shouldn´t it be, well... MY past we´re witnessing?"
 
Smiling mockingly, she blinked. "Why would we want to do that? Don´t you know your past?"
 
"Uhm-"
 
"Besides," she interrupted his confused stammering, "I always wanted to see what Little Davey looked like." At the look she received for that, she winked with a grin. "Just kidding. No, we thought his past would be a bit more... vivid."
 
"Vivid," Hutch repeated dryly. "Nice."
 
"C´mon, Hutch," she said with a small gesture, "you´re always teasing him about his soft spot for Christmas-"
 
"Soft spot?! That´s a slight understatement, don´t you think?"
 
Eyeing him for a split second, she crossed her arms in front of her chest, lifting her brows like a strict teacher. "See what I mean?"
 
"Uh... Yes," he answered in a small voice, arching his brows to a guilty expression.
 
"Hm-mm. We thought it´d be a good thing for you to learn a bit about this... soft spot," she said firmly, daring him to comment the expression, "because you seem to have lost your own."
 
"I never had a soft spot for Christmas."
 
"Huh?!" she shot back, brows flying up. "Beg your pardon, Mr. Played-Rudolf-in-Highschool? Maybe we ought to show you your past too after all."
 
"Okay, okay," he waved, rolling his eyes. "So, yeah, MAYBE I liked Christmas--as a child. But that doesn´t really count, I mean, every kid likes Christmas. It´s when you grow up and see things change and see how the world really is that you start to doubt what´s behind all that-"
 
"False sentimentalism," she finished.
 
"Yes," he nodded.
 
"Uh huh. And you think you´re so much smarter than your partner that you discovered that, while he didn´t?"
 
His mouth opening to shoot back a reply, he stopped suddenly, thinking. "Uhm... No, but... I..."
 
Looking at him expectantly, she finally gave a curt nod and gently took his arm. "Good answer, Hutch. And now come on, we don´t want to miss Davey trying to carry that thing inside, do we?"
 
So they followed the Starskys, and Hutch couldn´t help Terry´s words echoing in his mind. Funny, he´d never looked at it that way. Sure, there had once been a time when he´d liked Christmas. Not like his friend did, but in his own, modest sort of way. But that had stopped, when... And suddenly, he frowned. When what?
 
"Davey, don´t you think it´d be better if I took it again?" Michael Starsky´s voice suddenly broke through Hutch´s thoughts, when he and Terry arrived in front of a small apartment building. It sounded so much like his son´s would many years later, that Hutch had to smile slightly, and glancing at the ghost at his side, he found that she was smiling too.
 
"No, no," a weary small voice replied, seemingly from somewhere deep inside the tree that was now hovering only inches above the ground with small, unsteady feet showing out from under it. "I... can do... it."
 
The second he´d uttered the unconvincing statement, though, the feet suddenly disappeared, and the tree crashed down the short way to the ground, pinning the struggling form underneath it with only small, frantically waving arms remaining visible.
 
Hutch grinned, as did Terry, and Michael Starsky stared at the mess on the snowy ground for a split second, startled, then burst into laughter.
 
"Dad," a muffled voice broke through it after a moment, "stop laughing, will ya?! That´s not funny!"
 
But at the sight of little hands trying to shove the tree off of the form underneath it that wriggled helplessly, Michael only had to laugh harder, making Hutch involuntarily join in. At the look Terry shot him, though, he quickly settled for a wide grin again, suppressing his giggles as best as he could.
 
"Dad!"
 
"S-sorry," Michael panted. "Sorry, Davey. Uhm, wait, I´ll get it." Again, laughter overtook him, but finally he lifted the tree, looking down at his son, who lay flat on the ground, an annoyed expression on his face that to Hutch was just all too familiar.
 
"Thanks," Davey muttered sarcastically and, ignoring his father´s outstretched hand, came to his feet, brushing the snow off his clothes.
 
"Y´okay?" Michael asked trough unsuccessfully suppressed giggles. "How´s the butt?"
 
"`Triffic," came the grim answer, as Davey reached behind himself to rub his sore behind. "Just `triffic."
 
Glancing at Terry with a knowing, warm grin, Hutch mouthed a questioning "`triffic?" to her, that she replied with an affirmative wrinkling of her nose.
 
"Good," Michael Starsky giggled and held the tree out for his son again, who, without any protest, took it again, seemingly having anticipated that.
Hutch, though, lifted his brown in surprise, but only briefly, as understanding hit him fast. Father and son knew each other pretty well.
 
Steadying himself with his arms wrapped around the tree that was so much bigger than he was, Davey waited a few seconds to catch his breath, before he looked up at his father, who grinned down at him in amusement. "I just need to figure out how to get it up the stairs," he explained sternly.
 
His father nodded in mock earnest. "I know. Take your time."
 
A few seconds passed.
 
"And, please, don´t let the fact that it´s freezing cold out here influence you in any way."
 
At that statement, Hutch grinned once more, studying Michael Starsky appreciatively, before he glanced at Terry, who was undoubtly thinking the same thing. The very first thing everybody who hang around with David Starsky learned, was that when he realled liked you, he would start bantering with you. And obviously, Hutch thought, he´d had a good teacher.
 
"No one said you´ve to wait out here," Davey shot back, rolling his eyes.
 
"Oh?" his father replied, lifting his brows, and instantly, his son looked down as if ashamed.
 
Curious, Hutch stepped nearer, listening to Michael Starsky saying, "I think after what happened last year, I better stay and watch you get it inside. I really don´t want to have to dig this thing out again too."
 
Hutch frowned. "Dig... ?" he whispered, but Terry shook her head, gesturing for him to follow the conversation.
 
"I promised I wouldn´t do that again," Davey defended himself, though everybody with ears could hear the intended lie in his too innocent words.
"Davey," Michael sighed, exaggeratingly exasperated. "One more time--we will NOT plant this thing somewhere. You will carry it inside, and then we´ll decorate it."
 
The child´s brows arched to a heartbreaking sick-puppy-look that made Hutch grin. Starsky, Sn., though, rolled his eyes. "Dave."
 
Davey´s lower lip started to quiver.
 
"David! Get this tree up there!" The order didn´t sound the least serious, and Hutch was starting to wonder if he was witnessing a Starsky Christmas tradition. Still wondering what it was that his friend had done to create it, he suddenly stared, dumbfounded, when Davey stated, "But, Dad, why can´t we just plant it near the house and decorate it there?"
 
Obviously used to hearing that question, Michael Starsky sighed. "How many times do I have to tell you that it´s an honor for every tree to become a Christmas tree?"
 
Feeling Terry´s look upon him, Hutch avoided her glance by stepping even closer to the pair.
 
"But we always throw them away afterwards," Davey said. "What sort of honor is that?"
 
"Davey," his father said patiently, "pines only grow to become Christmas trees. When a pine is cut off in order to be sold as a Christmas tree, it´s the best thing that can happen to it. All the other pines are jealous of it."
 
Frowning slightly, Davey leaned a bit more against the tree he was still holding, his father quickly reaching out to support it from the other side. "Really?"
 
"Of course," Michael nodded, his genious expression reminding Hutch so much of his partner, he had to smile softly. It really looked as though the man was believing every word he said. Just like 'his' Starsky would years after that.
 
"Hm," Davey made, not yet convinced, but getting there.
 
"See," his father explained, searching for a concrete example, "it´s like when you become a, uh..."
 
"Baseball player?" Davey asked, understanding visible in his young grin.
 
"Yeah," Michael nodded eagerly. "Right. Like that. It´s nice to just be there, but becoming a baseball player´s the best that can happen to you."
 
"So the Christmas trees are the pines´.... baseball players?" Davey asked with a frown.
 
"Exactly," his father nodded, snapping his fingers. "All the other pines look up to them."
 
This time, the "hm" Davey made, when he himself looked up the tree he was holding onto, sounded actually determined, and his father barely managed to draw his hands back, before he had the tree up in the air again, carefully making it up the stairs to the apartment building´s entry.
 
Looking after him with a proud, happy, utterly contend smile, Michael Starsky followed finally, always ready to catch his small son. It wasn´t necessary, though, and the door fell closed behind them and the lucky pine.
 
Silence settled over the remaining part of the scenery outside, until Hutch said quietly, "That´s a nice story."
 
"What?" Terry asked.
 
"That pines are happy to become Christmas trees."
 
"Oh," she smiled, nudging his arm. "Yeah, thought you liked that."
"Hm," he made, looked away briefly, then back at her, questioningly. "So, d´we follow them inside?"
 
"No," she shook her head. "Actually this is not the Christmas I wanted to show you." At his confused glance, she shrugged. "Just thought you´d like the stuff about the trees."
 
"Terry..."
 
"What?" she shot back innocently, raising her hands. "You DID like it, didn´t you?"
 
Sighing in mock annoyment, Hutch nodded submittingly, but stopped, when he directly looked at her again. 'So familiar, this,' he thought with a sudden sting of a long buried pain.
 
"Did I say already that I missed you?" he asked softly, and she smiled gently.
 
"Gee, I thought you never would."
 
He laughed, the sadness of the moment lifting off his heart like fog. Just like it always had when Terry had tried to cheer him up. Yes, they´d been a pretty good team too. If they hadn´t been busy ganging up on Starsky, they always had had their own banters going on nicely.
 
"Okay, so which Christmas do you want to show me then?" he asked after a moment.
 
"Close your eyes."
 
Once more, he did, and when he opened them again, he gasped involuntarily, taking a small step back. They were standing right in front of Michael Starsky´s grave.
 
The smile that´d still been on his lips fading, he turned to cast Terry a pleading look. "Terry, I don´t think I should-"
 
"Yes, you should," she cut him off softly and pointed behind him.
 
With a deep sigh, he turned around to see an only slightly older version of the Davey Starsky he´d already met slowly making his way through the snow to the grave of his father. In one hand, he carried a very small baby pine, in the other a wrapped up package.
 
"Terry," Hutch whispered, "I really don´t want to-"
 
"Shhh," she gestured for him, and with a resigning sigh, he submitted, stepping aside to let the boy through, who came to a halt in front of the snow covered headstone.
 
"Hey Dad," he started in his young, somewhat strained voice, visibly having to force the smile to his face. "It´s me. Sorry I wasn´t here this morning with Mom and Nicky. I wanted to, but they had to cancel the flight, because of the snow storm, so I didn´t make it `til today. Sorry. Not my fault," he added in an exaggeratedly innocent tone, that obviously had once held a special meaning for him and his father.
 
A very long pause followed, the boy just standing there, gaze dropping to the ground, shoulders shaking slightly with the deep breaths he took, and Hutch shifted his position uneasily, one hand nervously wiping over his face.
 
"Terry..." he once more whispered, but didn´t even look at her this time, knowing full well he´d have to watch the whole scene.
 
"I, uh..." Davey started again, but stopped himself to clear his throat slightly, before he continued, "I didn´t forget your tree. See? Yeah, I know, it´s not as great as the one I brought last year, but..." A helpless shrug. "Ever tried to get a decent Christmas tree on Christmas day?"
 
His eyes filling slowly, Hutch sniffed. He recalled that his partner had once told him he´d been sent to California a year after his father had been killed.
 
Obviously, he was now witnessing the second Christmas David Starsky had had to live through without his beloved father. The first one he´d spent as a guest in his former home.
 
And he hadn´t made it in time, because the flight had been canceled.
 
"Aw, buddy," Hutch more felt than heard himself mutter and was about to turn away, when Terry´s gentle, ghostly pale hand stopped him. Meeting her gaze, he looked again and frowned, surprised, when he saw Davey placing the small tree next to the headstone, taking a step back to check its place and then shift its position to the right, just an inch, looking like an artist at work.
 
With the same dedication, he then started to produce small wooden ornaments from his coat pockets to decorate the tiny tree. All the time, he kept on talking to his father, informed him about his Californian life and how much he´d improved in school and in general.
 
The wrapped up package he´d layed onto the headstone, lovingly letting his fingers linger on it for a second, before he´d started his work.
 
"I mean sure," he was just explaining, "the weather´s sorta nice, but there oughta be a law against having no snow at Christmas, don´t you think? And d´you know what they DO about it?" he added with an exasperated gesture. "They put artificial snow on everything! Isn´t that weird?!"
 
Hutch´s brows all but flew up. His partner absolutely loved artificial snow.
 
As if he´d heard the invisible witness´ thoughts, Davey paused briefly, then grinned. "Okay, it IS kinda cool. The stuff, I mean." Pause. "But still--weirdos."
 
At that very familiar tone, Hutch chuckled, casting Terry an amused look. The sad air that had surrounded the boy when he´d arrived had seemingly vanished, if not completely at least a lot, and when he was finally done decorating the small Christmas tree, he sat down on the snow covered ground in front of the grave, snatching the package from the headstone.
 
Folding his legs, he sat quietly for a few seconds, the gift in his lap, nervous fingers scrambling at the colorfull paper, then slowly started to unwrap it, drawing in a deep breath as he did so.
 
"Okay," he explained, his voice not entirely steady, but sounding like he was determined not to cry, "I got one of them boring old things this year, but," he added, lifting a warning finger, "don´t get used to it. They just don´t have the really cool stuff over there."
 
Seeing what the gift was, Hutch felt a warm smile settle on his face, and he had to blink a few times. A half done, small model ship. Actually, it reminded him a lot of the one he´d seen Starsky marvel about just a day before.
 
Still talking non-stop, the boy started to work on finishing the task he´d started in California, his skilled fingers working swiftly enough for Hutch to understand that this, too, was a Starsky tradition, a hobby his friend had once shared with his father and had kept for himself after his death.
 
Suddenly feeling a piercing look upon him, Hutch turned to meet Terry´s direct stare. Her brows arched expectantly.
 
"What?" he finally asked.
 
"Well--seems to me like he´s just our christmassy Davey, don´t you think? All into trees and decoration..."
 
"And gifts," Hutch nodded with a smile, not really understanding where she was heading at.
 
"Right." Pause. "But then," she waved, "all kids like Christmas, don´t they? It´s when you grow up and see things change and-"
 
"Okay," Hutch cut her off, unnerved. "Okay, I get it."
 
"Do you?" she asked innocently.
 
He was about to shoot back a reply, when suddenly the scenery changed and they were standing inside a room Hutch knew all too well, since he´d shared it with Starsky during their time at the academy. Blinking in surprise, he almost lost his balance. "Wha... ?!"
 
"This," Terry said flatly like nothing had happened, "is the next Christmas on my list."
 
"H-how... uh... I didn´t close my eyes," Hutch stammered, thinking he must sound utterly stupid.
 
A thought that was only affirmated by Terry´s contend grin. "I know. We just tell you guys to do that, because the effect´s so startling. Some people get sick by this."
 
"Really?" Hutch asked, still busy gathering his wits, while he looked around, taking in the familiar surroundings. "Can´t imagine why. God, I SO hope this is not a d... Uh, I mean," he quickly interrupted himself at her glare, "which Christmas is thi-"
 
"Starsk, we´ll NEVER get this thing into our room!" a sudden voice cut him off, and when he whirled around to face the door, he saw a much younger version of himself as well as his partner dragging an unwrapped, small tree inside the tiny room, both panting with the effort, both scratched from too close contact with the needles of the pine.
 
"Have a little faith, Hutch!" came the reply from young David Starsky.
 
"I think I have a little hernia instead."
 
"You´re one to talk," Starsky shot back, "you´re carrying the light part!"
 
"Yeah, well, it´s not my tree, buddy."
 
"What d´you mean?" Stopping in mid-step, Starsky almost send his friend stumbling backwards. Only his fast reflexes kept Hutch from dragging the tree downwards with him. Looking over to the blond from where he stood holding the tree upright, Starsky stated, "It´s our tree."
 
"Yeah, okay, our tree, whatever," young Hutch waved. "Can we put it somewhere now? I think I need stitches on my hands."
 
"Ninny," Starsky muttered, but a few moments later they had their tree neatly placed between their beds with a few thin branches hovering over those. All in all it looked...
 
"Absolutely ridiculous," young Hutch commented from where he stood next to his friend, staring at the tree. "This is the most ludicrous thing I´ve ever seen. Where´re we supposed to sleep now?"
 
Eyes glowing with delight at the sight of the beautiful tree, Starsky shrugged.
 
"Thought you like sleeping under trees."
 
The older, unvisible Hutch chuckled. His young version, though, snorted. "Not in my room, I don´t. C´mon, buddy, face it, we can´t keep this thing in here for another three days."
 
"Watch us," Starsky just said, ignoring the look he received for that.
 
"Why can´t we just bring it outside?" young Hutch asked helplessly. "You can decorate it there too."
 
"Christmas trees have to be inside, dummy. Are you gonna help me decorate it now or what?"
 
Sighing exasperatedly, young Hutch nodded, though he didn´t stop trying to convince his partner otherwise. "I still don´t get it why you´re into trees like that, Starsk. I mean, you´re Jewish, aren´t you?"
 
"Half," Starsky replied, while he climbed onto his bed, careful as to not fall into the tree, and produced a box from up his shelf.
 
"What´re you doing?" young Hutch asked, while his older self grinned at the memory.
 
"Getting our decoration," Starsky answered, turning around to look at his friend. He nearly lost his balance at that and would have crashed into the tree if it hadn´t been for his room-mate to catch him and support him until he was on steady ground again. "There," he then stated as if nothing had happened, opening the box for Hutch to see.
 
"THAT´s in that box?!" young Hutch asked in disbelief. "Christmas ornaments?!"
 
Invisible Hutch just had to laugh at the expression on his younger self´s face. Terry, he´d long forgotten. He was just too lost in witnessing the banter.
 
"Why, what d´you think was in there?" Starsky asked, while putting the box in Hutch´s arms, so that he could start getting the things out and onto the tree.
 
"I don´t know," his friend answered with a shrug, unconsciously stepping
closer to the tree, accepting his role as box-holder. "Something cool."
 
"This IS cool."
 
"This is Christmas stuff," young Hutch replied and coughed once. "And it smells."
 
"Does not," Starsky shot back from where he was busy hanging a wooden reindeer to a branch.
 
"Does too."
 
"Does NOT!" An od of tinsel landed in the blond´s face, and stick to his hair.
Startled, young Hutch blinked, then sniffed without making any move to get the stuff out of his hair again, and nodded firmly. "Does too."
 
"Okay," Starsky shrugged and went back to his work, "so maybe it does. Good thing we hang it out into fresh forest air then."
 
His friend smirked, finally reaching up to free his head of the tinsel decoration. "Uh huh. Just don´t hang anything to eat up there, Gordo, or we´ll have our own squirrel farm before you can say Rudolf."
 
"Rudolf," Starsky said tonelessly and hang two small candy sticks onto a branch.
 
Young Hutch rolled his eyes.His older version grinned once more, watching all the time as if in trance.
 
"Are those out of the box too? For if they are-"
 
"Ha, ha, Blondie," Starsky cut him off, swatting away Hutch´s hand that´d started to rummage through the contents of the box. "Those are the yearly addition. Got you a special one without sugar."
 
"Really?" his friend asked, surprised.
 
"Yep."
 
"Which one?"
 
"The glowy green one," Starsky pointed out. "With all them chemical ingrediences in it."
 
"Great. Thanks a lot," young Hutch sighed over-dramatically and was rewarded with a wide grin, while his friend continued decorating their newest room-mate, humming 'Oh come all ye faithful' to himself happily.
 
After listening to it for a moment, young Hutch finally joined in, and when the song was over, a quick glance was exchanged, before they started with 'Joy to the world' in perfect unison.
 
Hutch watched, and only noticed he was unconsciously singing along, when he felt Terry´s gaze upon him. Stopping instantly, he shot her a quick look.
 
"Weeeeell..." she said, stretching the word.
 
"Well what?"
 
"Well, you seem to be in pretty christmassy mood there, Grinch."
 
"Yeah," he replied quietly after a moment, "yeah, I do, huh?"
 
Watching him, she nodded, and when she spoke again, her voice was featherly soft. "As much as I´d like to stay and listen, we´ve to move on now. There´s one more Christmas I want you to see."
 
Hutch didn´t look at her. "I don´t want to see any Christmases after this," he said, suddenly sad.
 
"I know," came the soft reply, followed by a cheery, "But hey."
 
"What?" he asked.
 
"I can show you another one of my tricks. My favourite one. See?"
 
And with that, the warm scenery before them faded away into a quickly thickening fog. As did the singing and laughing voices until they were
swallowed by complete silence.
 
"Just like in the book," Terry stated happily, and despite his wish to just keep on watching and listening, Hutch had to smile.
 
The next scenery he found himself suddenly witnessing he recognized instantly. It was just a few years later than the one at the academy, and also hadn´t been that long ago. Slightly older versions of himself and Starsky were sitting in a deserted squad room around one a.m. at Christmas Day. They both looked tired, and Hutch knew they really were.
 
He knew that Christmas, and it showed in his shoulders slumping. Once more feeling Terry studying him closely, he briefly squeezed his eyes shut with his thumb and index finger, suddenly feeling very tired.
 
"D´you remember this Christmas?" she asked, her voice loud in the deep
silence that filled the room.
 
He nodded.
 
She waited a second, then lifted her brows questioningly.
 
"We, uh..." he started and drew in a deep breath as if to brace himself. "We´d been doing the night shift, like every year, and... we´d been called to a shooting in a small store around eight or nine." Again, he sighed deeply. "A robbery. Nothing spectecular. Just an... every day robbery." Pause. "And one guy stepped in right in the middle of it. Didn´t see from the outside that something was wrong and... stepped in." Another pause. "They shot him instantly. Pure panic. Ran away afterwards without the money. But the man died before the ambulance was even there."
 
The next pause stretched itself, until Terry softly asked, "And?"
 
"He had two kids," Hutch replied, eyes focused on the two young man sitting on their desks in shared silent grief. "Wife. A dog," he added with a bitter smile. "Parents. Everyone waited for him to come back to dinner. He´d just gone to get milk or something, I don´t even remember what. He´d told them he´d be right back." His voice broke and he had to stop for a moment, eyes closing.
 
"You had to tell them," Terry said.
 
Hutch nodded without opening his eyes. "Yeah," he whispered.
 
"And what did you do after the shift?" she asked quietly.
 
He frowned. "Drove home." Thinking, he shrugged. "I don´t know, probably went to bed or... Oh no, wait, Starsk came to bring me this stupid tr..." Remembering, he trailed off.
 
"Yes?" Terry asked, tilting her head to one side.
 
"He, uh, brought me a tree, like every year, and... I yelled at him."
 
"Why?"
 
Letting go off a deep breath, he turned to look at her, and stated firmly, "You know something? I´d really like to wake up now."
 
****
 
He snapped awake with a gasp that echoed in his ears, not knowing what´d woken him.
 
Startled, he looked around, completely disoriented for a moment, before he finally recognized his own bedroom. Instantly, still laying on his back, he lifted his arm to check his watch and couldn´t help letting go of a relieved sigh, when finding that it was ten a.m.
 
The moment he´d done that, though, he rolled his eyes at himself. 'Believing in Christmas ghosts, tough guy?'
 
Chuckling, he shook his head and sat up, rubbing his tired features and yawning widely. When finally noticing he was still wearing street clothes, he decided to change into something more comfortable, stood up--and froze, frowning.
 
'Never knew you can have déjà-vus from dreams.' Suddenly feeling the hairs on his neck rise, he slowly continued on his way into the kitchen, but after the first two steps shook his head, annoyed at himself, and once more wiped a hand over his face. When arriving at his breakfast counter, he stopped to look outside the window at a bright blue sky, and breathed in deeply to shake off the remains of sleep still clinging to him.
 
"See?" he told himself, while producing a bottle of milk from his fridge, and poured himself a glass, turning around to look outside again. "Bright shiny morning. No ghosts in sight." With that he lifted the glass for a mocking Christmas toast, drained it...
 
"I wouldn´t be so sure about that, Kenny."
 
...and nearly choked on it as he coughed in startled surprise, whirling around to stare at a not the least pale, but rather fit looking old man with a grey beard and an ugly hat that´d seen better days.
 
"Grandpa!" Hutch choked out, and with a distrustfull look at the now empty glass, put it away quickly. "Shit, can´t trust anything these days."
 
"Kenneth," his late grand-father chided, waving his index finger at him warningly. "Watch your language, young man."
 
"Sorry," Hutch instantly replied in a very small voice, but sighed exasperatedly a second later, inwardly rolling his eyes at himself.
 
The old man, though, nodded satisfied, and inspected his grand-son with a frown.
 
"Uhm," Hutch stammered, shifting his position uneasily, "so... how´s afterlife?"
 
"Oh... hm..." his grand-father replied, waggling one hand. "It´s okay."
 
"Oh yeah?" Hutch asked with a slow nod, lifting his brows. "Glad to hear that."
 
"But I didn´t come to talk about me," the old man said sternly, folding his arms in front of his chest.
 
At that all too familiar tone of voice, Hutch respectfully lowered his gaze, waiting for the man to continue.
 
"Tell me,  how is it going HERE, Ken? You feeling alright?"
 
"Actually," Hutch replied with a dry smile, "I´m not so sure at the mom-"
 
"I heard," his grand-father interrupted him impatiently, "that actually nothing´s alright here." Staring at Hutch as if waiting for him to admit his sins, he finally gestured exasperatedly. "What´s this about you needing to be shown the true meaning of Chris... Oh shit, wait, I forgot something."
 
Secretly grinning, Hutch peeked up at his grand-father, who frowned, thinking, and at last snapped his fingers, when remembering what it´d been he was supposed to say.
 
"Right. I got it. Okay." Gesturing for Hutch to wait a second, he straightened his posture and stated, "I am the Ghost of the present Christmas."
 
A pause followed, the old man still staring at his grand-son expectantly, and finally, Hutch arched hs brows in mock surprise. "Really? Wow. Who´d have thought."
 
"Show a little more respect, Kenny, will you?"
 
Cringing, especially at the despised short form of his name, Hutch nodded obidiently. "Sorry."
 
"It´s not like I volunteered for this, you know?" his grand-father rambled on.
 
"I´d rather be enjoying my free time too, but nooo, my grand-son just has to turn into the Grinch. What´s gotten into you? You know, I never ever would have thought I´d have to be your present Christmas ghost one day!"
 
"Believe me," Hutch replied geniuenly, "my neither."
 
At the reprimanding look he received for that, he quickly bowed his head again.
 
"But anyway," his grand-father said after a moment and smiled. "It´s good to see you, Ken."
 
That brought an honest smile to Hutch´s face too, as he relied, "Yeah, you too, Grandpa. I missed you."
 
"I know," the old man replied softly, but instantly seemed to remind himself of the seriousness of his task and forced a grim expression on his face. "But I digress. We were talking about your problem." Again, the warning finger made an impressive appearance.
 
"My problem?" Hutch repeated.
 
"Yes."
 
"Which one? That I´m having funny dreams or that my subconsciousness believes in Christmas ghos-"
 
At his grand-father´s angry glare, he trailed off, gaze once more dropping.
"Sorry."
 
"Maybe I should also take care of your obvious lack of manners while I´m at it," the old man growled, and Hutch flinched. "You know, Kenny, I always feared this would happen. It´s this job of yours, you know. If you´re not careful, it can destroy your faith in simple things." Nodding gravely, the old man lifted his brows.
 
His grand-son smiled dryly. "You´re right. Never thought about that. What with all those guys telling you it can cost you your life one day, the danger of losing one´s Christmas spirit sort of tends to be underestimated."
 
"Funny," his grand-father replied in an equally dry tone of voice, "I always thought they´d get rid of your smartalecky attitude at college."
 
"They tried," Hutch answered. "That was the reason I quit."
 
"You dropped out of college?!" his grand-father called out in surprise.
 
Hutch rolled his eyes. "Grandpa, it was you who advised me to do it."
 
"Oh." Pause. "Really? Hm. Well," the old man winked, "it´s been an awfully long time. Can´t expect a dead man to remember every single mistake he-"
 
"Are you the ghost of the present Christmas or of the past education?!"
 
Narrowing his eyes, the old man snapped his fingers, and instantly, they were not standing in Hutch´s kitchen anymore, but inside a place he knew as well.
 
"Why are you ghosts all so focused on Starsky?" Hutch asked gesturing
exasperatedly. "I bet he hired you to do this to me."
 
"Don´t be ridiculous, Ken," his grand-father chided. "Your partner just happens to be the most Christmas loving person in this state. When we worked on your former seargent at the academy, we brought him here too."
 
Hutch stared, blinked and sighed. "I SO hope I´m not dreaming this..."
 
"Here he comes," his grand-father´s excited voice stopped his rambling, and indeed, a split second later, the front door opened, and Starsky stepped in, slightly out of breath from the effort of carrying a very small tree up the stairs.
Hutch watched and shook his head, stating with dry humor, "If there´s a sign in him always carrying a tree when I see him, I´m not getting it."
 
To his surprise, his grand-father rolled his eyes. "Well, you´ve always been a little slow."
 
"Uh... thanks, Grandpa. That´s very sweet."
 
Instead of a reply, the old man just gestured for Hutch to watch, and turning to concentrate on the scenery before him, Hutch felt his expression instantly soften at the sight of his obviously excited partner singing 'Jingle Bells' to himself, while he placed the tree in the middle of the room and then got a very familiar looking box from the couch table.
 
Following his friend´s movements, Hutch suddenly noticed that there was a tree in the room already--and now that he thought about it, he recalled it´d been there for quite some time too. Frowning, he turned to his grand-father.
 
"What´s he do... Oh," lifting his brows in realization, he looked at the tree again. "My tree."
 
"Hm-mm," the old man nodded. "Your tree."
 
Again, Hutch frowned, talking more to himself than to his grand-father. "I always thought he just buys them somewhere. I didn´t know he actually decorates them."
 
His grand-father sighed. "Ken, I love you, you know I do, but I just have to tell you, you don´t know very much."
 
"What´s that suppo... Oh." As he was approaching his still happily singing and working friend, Hutch all of a sudden recognized the box and its contents that were quickly, but with dedication, finding their way onto the small tree. "I didn´t know he uses his old...  He doesn´t do that every year, does he?" he asked helplessly, casting his grand-father an almost pleading look.
 
Once more, the answer was a deep sigh. And a disappointed shaking of his head. "Kenny, Kenny, Kenny."
 
His gaze suddenly blank as a fog of regret settled in it, Hutch muttered, more to himself actually, "This tree thing really means a lot to him, huh?"
 
"No, I´d say something else does," came his grand-father´s soft answer, and when Hutch cast him a surprised look, he mutely pointed out for him to look at the small tree more closely. Frowning in confusion, Hutch obeyed--and grinned.
 
"I-it´s still..." he stammered through a happy chuckle at the sight of the bucket the tree was standing in, then turned to his grand-father again, who smiled wisely.
 
"It took him all morning to find a living tree in a bucket." He made a short pause, watching his grand-son still grinning at his decorating partner and the tree with his eyes sparkling, then stated very quietly, "Isn´t that pathetic? So much false sentimentalism on just one tiny tree."
 
Shooting his grand-father a glance, smile fading, Hutch frowned angryly. "That´s not how I meant... I-I mean..." As his words trailed off, he once more found himself studying his busy partner closely, a confusing mixture of regret and pure, warm, almost child-like joy filling his heart. "You know something, Grandpa? Sometimes I envy him."
 
"Why?" the old man asked softly.
 
"'Why'?! Look at him," Hutch pointed out, and as if on cue, Starsky started humming a cheery version of 'Joy to the World'. His invisible partner´s gaze softened even more. "He´s seen the same shi... uhm... the same bad things I´ve seen over the years. He´s out there too, just like me, every single day, and still..." He paused briefly, then stated quietly, "He´ll always be a child somehow. No matter what´ll happen, there´ll always be a part of him that..." A small, loving smile crossed his lips, and he shrugged. "...that really believes in Santa Claus. He has something inside him that I... that I lost. And I envy him for that."
 
"That," his grand-father said after a short pause, "seems to be a bitter statement for someone who´s dreaming of Christmas ghosts, don´t you think?"
 
Hutch shot him a look, and laughed. "Yeah, probably." Squeezing his eyes shut briefly with his thumb and index finger, he said, "Oh Grandpa, I don´t know what happened."
 
"I´d disagree," the old man said with a wise smile. "I think you know exactly what happened. And I think you know that that´s the reason why you never told your friend to quit his tree tradition."
 
Again, Hutch chuckled, casting his grand-father an honest look, accompanied by a dry, yet warm smile. "Why would I want to do that? I LOVE our tree tradition."
 
A proud smile settled on the old man´s face. "You know, Kenny, you´re probably not the brains of this duo, but you´re getting there."
 
"Funny, Grandpa," Hutch replied. "Very funny."
 
About to shoot back a remark, his grand-father suddenly noticed that Starsky had finished his decorating job and was now rummaging through his shelves, until he produced an envelope.
 
"Oh." Immediately, he stepped in front of Hutch, efficiently blocking his view.
 
"We better go now."
 
"Why, what-"
 
"Come on, Ken," the old man cut him off, grabbing his arm to shove him further away from the scenery. "Don´t be so curious."
 
"Curi... Oh!" Hutch exclaimed in a very very child-like, excited voice, walking around his grand-father to approach Starsky. "That my present?"
 
A firm "Kenneth!" echoed through the room, and---
 
****
 
---Hutch snapped awake.
 
His own gasps echoing in his ears, he remained lying flat on his back, staring at the ceiling of his bed-room. After endless seconds, he moved one leg slightly, feeling he was still wearing street clothes.
 
Slowly, very, very slowly, he then lifted his arm to glance at his watch. Nine a.m. on Christmas Day.
 
After another short eternity, he carefully cleared his voice. "Hello?"
 
Nothing.
 
"Any... ghosts here?"
 
Still nothing.
 
Letting go of a relieved breath, he then struggled up into a sitting position, rubbed his face and drove a slightly trembling hand through his hair, shaking his head slightly to clear it. He could still see the images of his dream etched in his mind, could hear his own words.
 
'He has something inside him that I lost. And I envy him for that.'
 
I´d been just a dream. Of course, he told himself. Only a dream. Nothing to it.
But still...
 
'That´s the reason why you never told your friend to quit his tree tradition.'
Sitting there on the edge of his bed, elbows resting on his knees, Hutch thought about the past Christmases he´d celebrated with Starsky. The years he´d worked with him. All those small, seemingly useless gestures that´d always marked his friend´s behavior, as long as Hutch had known him. The sometimes annoying tendency to fall back into childlike enthusiasm. The unnerving delight in things--watches, cars, model ships and trains, toys, even Christmas ornaments. The ability to love absolutely unconditional.
 
All those ever young characteristics that made David Starsky the most loveable person Hutch had ever met. And the most important one, Hutch thought, was the ability to KEEP all those characteristics. To never change, even when other parts of him, the adult ones, did so.
 
'Life is about change,' Hutch´s grand-father had taught him when he´d been a child, and of course it was, but it was also about keeping the good things. It was about changing AND being yourself. It was about growing up AND staying a child--about seeing the world as it was and still finding joy in simple things. Like Christmas trees.
 
And what he also realized was, that he somehow had always known that. Deep down inside his self, buried somewhere under all that sarcasm and teasing comments, he´d known that he needed Starsky´s never aging enthusiasm, his childlike wonder, his love for simple things in life. If Hutch was the brains, Starsky was the heart of the duo. Without even being aware of it, he was the one who could keep Hutch going, even if the shadows grew and the doubts were almost silencing the faith. He was the one who could see the beauty in life, when Hutch could not, and he was the light, when darkness threatened to claim Hutch´s thoughts.
 
Through Starsky´s eyes, Hutch had always been able to see the hope behind all the horrible things they´d experienced over the years as cops, and with Starsky´s unconscious help, he´d always overcome his melancholy, his doubts. A part of the special bond they shared was that they both carried something inside, that the other one lacked, that he needed. Together, they were complete, and as much as Starsky needed Hutch´s rational, calm view of things, Hutch needed Starsky´s emotional enthusiasm.
 
That was what he realized--he needed Starsky to go on his nerves with over-excited Christmas joy every year, so that he´d feel it too.
 
But this year, he suddenly decided as he practically bounced off the bed with new found energy, this year there´d be no more moaning and growling about trees and false sentimentalism. This year, he´d show his partner just how christmassy a guy he himself could be. This year, he´d say thanks.
 
Smiling to himself as he went into the kitchen, yawning contendly, he marched over to the breakfast counter to get himself a glass of milk--and froze, hands hovering above the fridge.
 
A second passed, and nothing happened.
 
Rolling his eyes, Hutch shook his head in amused disbelief and opened the fridge, starting to sing 'Silent Night' to himself. Producing a bottle of milk, he then turned to pour himself a glass, looked outside at the bright blue sky and then turned again to put the bottle back.
 
"Oh no."
 
Right in the middle of the living room stood Simon Marcus, quietly eyeing Hutch, whose face fell in resignation. "It´s the milk, isn´t it?" he asked with dry humor, lifting the bottle. "I always knew they put some strange chemicals in it."
He received no answer. Marcus just remained where he was, his head slightly tilted to one side, his expression blank as it´d always been.
Hutch sighed. "Okay, let me guess--you´re the ghost of the Christmases to come, right?"
 
A nod.
 
"Thought so," the blond said with a wry smile. "I bet you´ll love it to show me my grave."
 
Unimpressed, Marcus lifted one hand and with his fingers gestured for Hutch
to come nearer.
 
Yet, equally unimpressed, the detective remained where he was, put the bottle aside and studied the ghost closely, before snapping his fingers as he remembered. "Right. I forgot. The last ghost´s mute, right? Hm." Again, a smirk crossed his lips. "Can´t say I´m sorry about that."
 
That at least earned him a scowl, followed by yet another slow wink.
 
But still Hutch wouldn´t move. "You know what I never understood about that book? After the second ghost, Scrooge´s pretty much done, know what I mean? He´s already realized his mistakes and he´s about to change and all--and then there´s the scary last ghost, who shows him his grave. I always wondered why. Just to scare the poor man witless? Or is there a greater meaning behind the actual act of just being cruel? Fun maybe?" he added, lifting his brows in mock curiousity.
 
Again, Marcus waggled his fingers, and finally, with a resigning sigh, Hutch approached him, as fog started to rise behind the ghost, engulfing the whole of the place.
 
"Nice trick," Hutch commented, but couldn´t help feeling the hairs on his neck rise in nervous anticipation. "Where´re we go..." At the thick whiteness clearing itself before his eyes, he fell silent, narrowing his eyes to make out a blury figure in the remaining fog that quickly faded to reveal a small, completely white room. There was a bed in it, a small desk, a chair and a drawer, but nothing more, and no decoration whatsoever could have shown anyone who wasn´t with a Christmas ghost the time of year.
 
In front of the only window sat a man in a wheelchair, familiar brown curls sticking up in every direction. His shoulders were slumped and his head bowed slightly, as he gazed vacantly outside at a neat, green park.
 
Swallowing dryly, Hutch remained where he was, as far away from his friend as he could. Marcus next to him, though, once more lifted his arm, gesturing for him to step closer.
 
"Uh... y-you know what I always liked about Christmas?" Hutch stammered, backing away instead of going forward, until he was stopped by the door. "This James-Stewart-movie where he´s shown how utterly miserable the whole world would be without him. That´s a dream I always wanted to have one day. But..." he stammered, casting a pleading look at the mute ghost, "I take it this is not it, huh?" He paused, unnerved by Marcus´  too calm features.
 
"Okay, give it to me straight. What happened?"
 
When there was still no answer but the ever outstretched finger, Hutch finally sighed deeply, slowly crossing the short space to his partner, who hadn´t moved an inch in the meantime. When he passed the bed, he noticed a folded newspaper on it, and quickly glancing at the date, he found that only two years had passed.
 
Once more looking back at Marcus as if for help, he slowly crouched down next to the wheelchair and studied his silent friend closely. He was pale, his skin stretched over clearly visible cheek-bones in the too thin face. The usually clear blue eyes seemed glassy, almost unseeing as if his gaze had turned inside towards his hiding self.
 
"He looks so old," Hutch whispered, not really speaking to Marcus, and carefully reached out as if to touch his partner´s cheek, but stopped himself, before the contact could be made.
 
"What happened?" he asked again, his voice strained with the emotions he couldn´t help rushing through him.
 
As if for an answer, a knock at the door could be heard, and when Hutch turned around, he lifted his brows in surprise. "Huggy."
 
The bar owner looked exhausted, old, the unmistakable signs of heartache visible on his tired features. It hadn´t been time that had him aging so much, but the pain it´d brought.
 
His brows arching in sympathy, Hutch stepped aside, watching the scenery before him with an icy hand grabbing his heart.
 
"Hey Starsky, my man," Huggy greeted his old friend, the words carrying only a shadow of his usually melodic voice.
 
What frightened Hutch much more than that, though, was the fact that Starsky didn´t react at all. Didn´t even blink.
 
"Hey," Huggy repeated and dragged the chair next to Starsky. Sitting down, he placed one hand on an unmoving shoulder, visibly suppressing a sad sigh.
Starsky remained silent.
 
Bowing his head, Huggy drew in a deep, bracing breath, and when he looked up again, his eyes were bright with unshed tears, yet he bravely forced a smile on his lips and reached inside his pocket to produce a red candy stick that he carefully placed in Starsky´s unmoving hands resting in his lap. "Merry Christmas, pal."
 
At that, Starsky actually moved, though only his head, and cast Huggy a brief, unfocused look, before he returned to staring outside. The candy remained untouched.
 
Swallowing past a thick lump in his throat, Hutch looked over at Marcus and asked in a choked whisper, "What happened to him?"
 
"Hutch says merry Christmas too," Huggy said, and Hutch´s gaze snapped back to him instantly, eyes wide.
 
"Wh... I-I´m alive?" he stammered. "B-but... why aren´t I-"
 
"Saw him this morning," Huggy continued, unaware of the object of his coversation being present, and again, Starsky looked at him. This time, his eyes seemed to clear a bit, and they remained upon him, as he said with a nod as if he was answering an unspoken question, "He´s doing fine. Don´t worry. Just fine."
 
"I´m doing WHAT?!" Hutch exclaimed excitedly, unconsciously approaching Huggy. "Are you kidding?! What the hell am I doing anywhere but here?!"
Only silence answered him, Huggy´s head was once more bowed, as he was obviously struggling to find the words to continue.
 
"What is this, the Twilight Zone?!" Hutch asked Marcus exasperatedly.
 
"Where am I?!"
 
The ghost, though, only lifted his arm, and with a frustrated "yeah, yeah, yeah", Hutch turned to his friends again, in time to hear Huggy mutter, "He said to tell you how sorry he is that..." He broke off, looked away, swallowed dryly. When he spoke again, he couldn´t look at Starsky anymore. "That he hasn´t been here since you woke up from the coma."
 
"C-coma?!" Hutch repeated in a fear-filled whisper.
 
Unhearing, Huggy sighed. Starsky was once again gazing outside the window. "I guess you´ve to understand him too," Huggy muttered. "Those days after the shooting when you... when you d... I mean..." Another sigh. "It wasn´t easy for him."
 
"Sh-shoo..." Hutch felt his knees starting to buckle slightly.
 
"I´m just saying this to... I..." Visibly feeling helpless, Huggy placed a gentle hand on Starsky´s shoulder. "He´ll come when´s ready. Just... give him time."
 
"Okay, that does it!" Hutch exclaimed, determined, and turned to march back to Marcus. "Take me to Future Hutch now, so I can kick his unworthy butt!"
The ghost actually grinned. A split second later, they were standing in what Hutch recognized to be his kitchen, though there were major differences visible.
 
"What the... ?"
 
Not only did his whole apartment look like he´d stopped bothering to clean it up every once in a while eons ago, but there were also seemingly countless empty beer bottles standing or lying around, as well as a few larger ones that had once contained liquor.
 
Startled, Hutch turned where he was standing, avoiding to step in anything, trying to overcome his surprise. "Wh-wha´... What..."
 
Behind him, Marcus lifted his arm, pointing at the half-opened bedroom.
 
"Can you do anything else?!" Hutch exclaimed exasperatedly, but was rewarded by stoic silence.
 
With a frustrated sigh, he finally followed the gesture, heading for his bedroom, when suddenly the front door opened, and Huggy entered.
 
"Hutch!" the bar owner called out, clearly angry, and let the door fall shut with a loud bang.
 
Too startled to ask any questions, Hutch watched Huggy kick some of the bottles out of the way, and after a few moments, there was first a grunt coming from the bedroom, then coughing, and finally, the door was shoved open from the inside to reveal a very dishevelled, very exhausted, very old looking Hutch.
Staring at his older self in wide-eyed shock, Hutch felt his chin traveling south.
The man he looked at was in definite need of a shave, probably a shower too. He was wearing his old academy sweats and no socks. The pain of loss was clearly etched into his features like a deep, red scar. In an eerie way he resembled his silent partner, his gaze as vacant, his shoulders as slumped, the air surrounding him as filled with pure hopelessness.
 
"Huggy," he croaked and cleared his throat, then, as a sudden thought seemed to hit him, asked with urgency, "Something happened to Starsk?"
 
"No," Huggy calmed him down, his gaze instantly softening at the fear in his friend´s voice. "Calm down, Hutch. I was just there and he´s okay."
 
"Good," Future-Hutch breathed, relieved. Turning, he shuffled along into the kitchen, towards the fridge. "D´you talk to the doctor?"
 
Watching after him, Hutch threw his hands into the air helplessly. "Why does Huggy have to talk to the doctor?! What´re you DOING here, you-"
 
"Yeah," Huggy´s quiet answer cut him off. "No change."
 
"Who´d have thought," Future-Hutch muttered, his words dripping with bitterness. His younger self´s mouth opened in disbelief at what he was hearing.
 
Huggy, though, seemed to be used to comments like that and replied angrily,
 
"Maybe if you´d go and see him some ti-"
 
Slamming the fridge door shut, Future-Hutch whirled around, waving his warning finger at his friend. "Huggy!"
 
But Huggy had obviously come to finally clear things up. Unconsciously, Hutch moved over to stand next to him, facing his future self. "It´s Christmas Day, Hutch!"
 
"It´s also Monday, so what?!"
 
"'So what'?!" both, Huggy and Hutch repeated in furious disbelief, and Huggy continued, "Are you listening to yourself?! CHRISTMAS, Hutch! It´s Christmas, and you don´t want to even see him?!"
 
"You know I can´t-" Future-Hutch started, but was cut off his by his friend, who´d obviously reached the point of no return now.
 
"I don´t know nothing! This gotta stop, Hutch! You can´t go on punishing him for getting shot! It wasn´t his fault!"
 
"Of course it wasn´t!" Hutch nodded, crossing his arms, while Future-Hutch was staring at his friend with widening eyes, the injury sinking in with watchable speed.
 
"How dare you-" he started, but, again, was cut off by Huggy.
 
"How dare YOU, man?! I know you´re hurting, but he´s alive, Hutch!" A pause followed, the air in the room filled with tension, until Huggy repeated very quietly, "Starsky´s alive. And he needs you to be there for him."
 
"I am-"
 
"No, you´re not. You´ve been there all the time while he was in coma, and then when he woke up, you just... vanished. Why?! Why, Hutch? I don´t get it!"
 
"I-"
 
"He doesn´t even know you care anymore! He doesn´t talk!"
Hutch´s gaze, that´d been focused on his older self all the time, snapped to Huggy. "He DOESN´T tal..." he repeated, confused, his voice only for him loud in the silence that filled the room. "You mean he CAN´T talk, don´t you?"
 
Since Huggy couldn´t hear him, he quickly turned around to look at Marcus questioningly. "Right? He can´t talk."
 
The ghost shook his head.
 
"H-he doesn´t-" Hutch stammered, but the conversation was picked up again, and he fell silent, not wanting to miss any of it. The icy hold at his heart tightened, though.
 
'I SO hope I´m dreaming this!'
 
"He hasn´t said a single word ever since he woke up," Huggy said, obviously repeating a discussion he´d had with Future-Hutch many times before. "And he could, you know that. It´s just that there´s no one there he´d want to talk to. He´s-"
 
"He DIED, Huggy!" Future-Hutch interrupted him harshly, the force of his voice silencing his friend instantly. "He died! He was dead for two minutes!"
He paused, staring at Huggy and, though he wasn´t aware of it, at his younger self with piercing eyes, before continuing, "I lost him."
 
"But, man, he came ba-"
 
"You don´t get it," Future-Hutch cut him off desperately, looking away. "I know how it feels like now. A-and I-I..." His voice threatening to fail him, he breathed in deeply. "Huggy, I´m scared. What if he won´t come back the next time? He´s been shot three times with an automatic weapon, for Christ´s sake! He could die again every day!"
 
Hutch could actually feel the color draining from his face, his stomach revolting against what he´d just heard.
 
"What if they missed something? What if one day he just drops dead, because they missed something? What then?"
 
"Hutch-"
 
"I´m SO scared, Hug. I´ve been nothing but scared for three weeks now! The only time I´m not scared is when I´m drunk, and you think he needs THAT?!"
Huggy bowed his head. Hutch didn´t. He kept on staring at his older, so bitter self, guilt washing through him as if it´d been him who´d said the words. His pleading gaze slowly wandered over to Marcus, but the ghost remained stoical.
 
"He needs you, Hutch," Huggy answered in a subdued voice, but Future-Hutch squeezed his eyes shut with his thumb and index finger.
 
"No, he doesn´t. He needs someone who can give him hope. But me, I´m..." Resigning, he let his hand fall and shook his head slowly. "I can´t do this, Hug. I can´t go in there and... I have nothing left to give," he stated desperately and added with a humorless smile, "Should have happened to me. Starsky would know how to deal with this shit. He always was... IS," he corrected himself quickly, "he is the one who could cheer a guy back into life, not me."
 
"Okay," Hutch exclaimed quickly, turning to Marcus. "I definitely got the message now. I really did. So please get me outta, will you? Please! I don´t want to hear any more of this self-pitying, pathetic..."
 
****
 
Hutch snapped awake, not sure what´d woken him. His heart was racing full speed, and he could feel persperation on his forehead. Blinking a few times, his vision cleared, and he saw that he was lying on his back on his bed, staring at the ceiling. He still wore street clothes.
 
Suddenly panicking, he sat up, glanced at his watch and found that it was nine a.m. on Christmas Day. "Up, up, up," he sang to himself and bounced off the bed, into the living-room, heading for the kitchen. Seeing the bright blue sky outside, he happily sang 'Joy to the World' to himself as he opened the fridge to have a quick glass of milk, before he´d go and get Starsky´s 'real present'.
Turning towards the breakfast counter, he poured himself a glass, the text of 'Joy to the World' now changed into 'Joy to the World, there are no ghosts, it´s all just been a dream...', when a sudden bang behind him made him whirl around, the glass crashing to the ground.
 
For a split second, he was staring at his partner, who stood in front of the closed door with a charmingly sheepish expression on his face and a small, already decorated tree in one hand, Hutch´s plant in the other.
 
"Uh... sorry `bout tha-" Starsky started in a small voice, but was cut off by his happily grinning friend.
 
"Starsk! Hi! Merry Christmas, buddy." Without looking at the broken glass and the milk on the ground, Hutch jumped over the mess and approched his friend to pat his back, then take the plant. "Hey great, you brought it back."
 
"Yeah, uhm, I... Are you feeling alri-"
 
"Here, let me put this somewhere," Hutch interrupted him, taking the tree as well to lovingly place it next to the couch. It was only when he stepped aside to study it that he noticed the bucket.
 
"Hutch? Are you okay? You look like you´ve seen a ghost."
 
"Huh?!" Turning to cast his confused partner a look, Hutch shook his head, grinning again. "No, I´m fine, buddy. Fine! `triffic! I mean, hey--it´s Christmas!" he added, laying on arm around Starsky´s shoulders.
 
"Uhm... Yeah, I noticed. Uhm... and you´re sure you´re okay, yeah?" Placing one hand on Hutch´s forehead, Starsky frowned. "You´re not running a fever. Did you take something?"
 
"Can´t a guy just be marvelling about the wonders of Christmas?" Hutch replied, squeezing his friend´s shoulders briefly.
 
"A guy yes, a Blintz..." Starsky muttered, a surprised smile slowly settling on his face, as if he wasn´t yet convinced he was actually witnessing this. "Hutch, are you really sure you´re-"
 
"Hey buddy," Hutch cut him off, letting go off his shoulders and grabbing his jacket from the couch, "we´ll talk later, okay? Right now, I gotta go. You," he added, gently pushing Starsky down onto the couch, "wait here and don´t move."
 
His partner stared at him in wide-eyed disbelief.
 
"Uh... wait." With that, Hutch dashed back into the kitchen--once more jumping over the milk mess--and produced a slice of cold pizza as well as a root beer from the fridge to shove both into his friend´s hands. "There you go. Happy breakfast, I´ll be right back."
 
Followed by a dumbfounded look, he rushed outside, throwing the door shut behind him--and stormed back in three seconds later, flashing his friend an apologetic smile. "Forgot shoes."
 
He hurried into the bedroom and out again with his shoes, not even bothering to put them on, waved his index finger at his partner once more--"Don´t go!"--and was out again.
 
Starsky sat, pizza and root beer in hand, and stared at the closed door, thinking that maybe he ought to try one of those health shakes too one day...
 
****
 
When Hutch returned twenty minutes later, after having had to pay a the toy
store owner, for opening his store on Christmas Day for five minutes, he was carrying a large package inside his apartment, that instantly became the focus of Starsky´s attention.
 
"I, uh, moved," Starsky greeted Hutch with a dry smile and pointed over his shoulder.
 
Understanding, Hutch rolled his eyes. "I could have cleaned that up later."
 
"I know you, Blintz. You´d have planted your breakfast in there. Soooo," Starsky added, before the banter could go any further, childlike curiousity sparkling in his eyes, "what´s in there?"
 
"Wouldn´t you want to know that?" Hutch grinned.
 
"Yep!"
 
"Oh. Hm. Well, then I guess you just have to look." Smiling, he sat down on the couch next to his partner, handing him the present. "Merry Christmas, buddy."
 
"Wow, that´s so... Hey wait. That´s not a card in there saying I´m the proud sponsor of a cola bear in Africa now, is it?"
 
"Are you kidding?" Hutch replied innocently. "There´re no cola bears in Africa."
 
Shooting him a 'very funny'-look, Starsky started to unwrap the thing, in the same rather... extrovertive way he unwrapped every gift.
 
"Hutch."
 
Grinning at the surprised whisper, Hutch waggled his head excitedly. "D´you like it?"
 
"I, uhm, I..." Starsky stammered, unable to tear his eyes away from the model ship building kit. It was a much larger version of a ship he´d built a long, long time ago.
 
"What," Hutch asked, "you like it, don´t you? Don´t you?" He repeatedly nudged his friend´s shoulder, until Starsky finally looked at him.
 
"Buddy, this is beautiful! Where d´you find this?"
 
"Secret," Hutch replied contendly.
 
His gaze wandering down to his present again, Starsky said dreamily, "I once had one just like this, when... when I was a kid. In New York."
 
"Really?" Hutch asked, lifting his brows. He couldn´t help feeling a tad uneasy at the thought, though. "Well, I´m just glad you like it."
 
"Like it?! I love this! Thanks! I mean, uh... I loved that tree too, but..." he muttered with dry humor, and Hutch laughed.
 
"Yeah, well, I´ll keep the idea with the sponsorship in mind for next year then."
 
"You do that," Starsky muttered absent-mindedly, still staring at the building kit, but suddenly looked up and quickly placed it onto the table. "Hey, I´ve something for you too."
 
"Yeah, I saw," Hutch smiled, nodding at the tree. "Nice. Thanks, Starsk. Where d´you want to plant it after Christmas?"
 
"That," Starsky said with a grin, producing an envelope from his pocket and handed it over to Hutch, "is the actual present."
 
Unmoving, Hutch stared at the envelope.
 
"Uh... Hutch?"
 
"Hm?" Snapping out of his trance, Hutch smiled and took the envelope.
 
"You okay?"
 
"Yeah, sure. Fine. Uhm, Starsk, the ornaments on the tree... Uhm... are those the ones we had at the academy?"
 
A grin that could only be described as a Starsky Special appeared on Starsky´s face, and he nodded. "You really recognize them?"
 
"Uh... I..." Hutch stammered, and suddenly became very busy at opening the envelope. "I guess I do, yeah, I... What´s this?"
 
The only thing in it was a picture Starsky had taken on their last vacation. It showed Hutch in the middle of a green forest, standing in front of a colorful mess, trying to understand why the tent just wouldn´t remain upright.
 
"It´s a gift certificate," Starsky answered happily and shrugged. "Or a picture of one clumsy Blintz. Whatever you want it to be."
 
Smirking, Hutch looked at him. "Supposin´ I wanted it to be a gift certificate, what would it be for?"
 
"A trip to wherever you want to plant that cute little thing here," Starsky answered, pointing at the tree with his thumb, and at Hutch´s spreading grin rolled his eyes in mock annoyment. "And no moaning or whining or complaining or whatever. Just you, a tree, a lot of other trees and good little 'Out-door Dave'."
 
"Wherever I want to go?" Hutch asked in childlike excitement.
 
"Wherever you want to go."
 
"Even Pine Lake?"
 
"*sigh* Even Pine Lake."
 
Hutch grinned. "Thanks. That´s a great gift."
 
Another sigh. "I know."
 
Watching his partner playfully enjoying his short-lived self-pity about being dragged into the wilderness once more, Hutch thought about his dreams. "Hey Starsk?"
 
"Yeah?"
 
"Uhm... I..." Hutch stammered, searching for the right words to verbalize what he´d found out when--hopefully--being asleep. That things had changed, that he had changed, that he now knew he would always be able to be there, and he would always treasure the simple joys in order to survive the big crises, and that he would never ever leave his best buddy alone in a small white silent room--especially not on a Christmas Day.
 
He´d realized so much, and he wanted to share it all with his friend, wanted him to know, wanted to thank him...
 
...and suddenly, he knew how.
 
Grabbing the building kit from the table, he lifted it, waggling his brows with a smile. "Care to show me how to do this?"
 
After a moment of surprise, Starsky nodded eagerly, his eyes sparkling.
Ten minutes later, they were both sitting next to the Christmas tree on the floor in Hutch´s living-room, working in silent concentration, like two little boys on a Christmas morning.
 
"Hey Hutch?" Starsky´s voice suddenly broke through the silence.
 
"Hm?" Hutch asked, not looking up from where he was trying to carefully
place a particularly tiny piece into its right place.
 
"How `bout hot chocolate?"
 
"Uhm..." Hutch made and glanced up with a slight smile. "Actually I thought I´d stay away from milk for a while."

THE END
 
MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!

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