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Opened Minds

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Starsky & Hutch: Together Again

Opened Minds
Copyright 1995, Bardicvoice

Act One

His hands were sweating, and he gripped the gun tighter. Nearly blind in the overcast dark, breathing through his mouth for silence, he listened, using his ears to picture and place the sellers and the buyers who were dealing beyond the wall of wooden shipping crates piled up at his back. He heard another voice too, tinny and electronic, and though he knew it was somehow out of place he couldn't figure why, or make out what it said, just that it was wrong, and anything wrong meant trouble ...

The headlights that suddenly stabbed out to pin him against the crates seemed almost tangible, freezing him in place as he heard the engine roar and the gun like a backfire and Starsky's wild shout of warning at the same time as his right leg exploded ...

Ken Hutchinson jerked awake soaked in cold sweat, both hands grasping the remembered agony that wracked and cramped the muscles of his leg, the echo of his own cry escaping through clenched teeth. Then other hands caught the pain and kneaded the knots away, and Denise's voice finally penetrated.

"It's all right! Ken, you're all right, it's okay, you're okay, just relax, it's okay, it's all right, shh, it's all right ..."

He felt a stab of resentment at being reassured like a child; then the comfort penetrated and he let out his breath in a series of shuddering gasps as the contorted muscles in his scarred leg slowly relaxed and released their jaws of pain. Denise shifted her hands from his leg to his shoulders, rubbing in a soothing circle, and then drew him back to lean against her as she sensed the fear and the pain ebb away. She said nothing, but her hands continued their gentle stroking, their message calm and reassuring. He felt his heartbeat gradually slow from panic down to shame.

"I'm, uh, I'm sorry ..."

"Don't be."

"I'm supposed to be too old for nightmares," he offered, trying for a lighter tone, and she gave him a shake, then pushed him down against the pillows. The silver moonlight pouring in through the high windows was bright enough to see by, and although it leached away the colors and left everything in muted shades of grey, the concern on her face was plain to read.

"If people got too old for nightmares, all my clients would be kids." Her eyes slid back from his face to his leg, which the rumpled sheet left exposed. He didn't bother to follow her glance; after fifteen years, he had no need to look to see the ugly patchwork of scars that ran from his knee halfway to his ankle. She saw the refusal in his eyes, and moved one hand to touch the scars.

"That wasn't just any old nightmare, was it? You were reliving this."

He shifted uncomfortably under her hand.

"Look, let's not talk about it, okay? It's over."

Her hand caught his chin, forcing him to meet her eyes.

"If it were over, you wouldn't still be dreaming it."

He pulled free of her and sat up, turning away to swing his legs to the floor as he snatched up and pulled on the bathrobe from the chair beside the bed. The cane leaning against the chair clattered to the floor, and he grabbed it up for support as he levered himself to his feet.

"Look, I'm not one of your patients, and these aren't office hours. Just leave it alone!"

"I can't! Ken – I can't turn off what I know and what I am just because I love you – any more than you can forget what hurt you so badly." He heard her get up after him, but didn't turn around at the rustling of her robe or even her tentative touch on his shoulder.

"It was a long time ago," he said finally. "Fifteen years. In a different life, a different place. I haven't even had that dream for years."

"So why now?"

Her quiet calm could not be avoided, and something in that even voice inspired truth.

"I think – because I'm going back. Next Tuesday."

"The summer term in L.A.?" The question was full of surprise. "With a reaction like that, I was expecting 'Nam, at least. But ‒ L.A.?"

The silence held, and when he continued to say nothing, she stepped in front of him and reached up, putting her left hand on his shoulder and cupping his cheek in her right hand.

"Ken, if you really don't want to talk, I'll stop pushing; I promise. But whatever it is, it hasn't healed in fifteen years of silence, and probably won't in fifteen more. Maybe - it's time to try talking it out?"

Her gentle patience undermined the walls he'd built to withstand more direct assaults. He drew a deep breath and closed his eyes, but memories filled the blankness and he couldn't turn them off. When he opened his eyes again she was still waiting, still silent, still there; and her eyes were somehow easier to face than the memories.

"I used to be a cop," he said slowly. "I spent almost ten years on the force, mostly plainclothes. I had a partner closer to me than any brother could have been. It was what I knew, most of what I wanted – and then one night some two-bit drug dealer nearly shot my leg off with a magnum. Starsk broke cover to try to get to me, and the bastard nailed him too. I saw him go down, then our backup arrived and I passed out. When I woke up a long time later, I found out Starsky was okay and I was a crip. Hell of a twist: I got my partner back and lost him, all at the same time. A career and a partnership, shot to hell and gone."

"And?" she prompted softly.

"And what? There's nothing more to say. I didn't fit there any more; I sure as hell couldn't do the job. I moved North, took my degree, came out a teacher, and here I am."

"And your partner?"

"I don't have a partner!" He almost shouted the words, and the violence seemed to surprise him as much as it shook her. He forced control with a tangible act of will. "Look, that's a special kind of relationship; it took abilities I didn't have any more. They gave Starsky someone who could do the job, and I left. What else could I have done – hung around and been pitied? I made the break clean, and I never looked back."



She looked at him steadily for a long moment, searching his eyes and his face for what lay behind them, and then dropped her glance and took a couple of short steps away. When she turned again, her movement was very deliberate, and he caught the fleeting edge of some internal debate in the quick play of unreadable emotions that crossed her face. The expression that settled was one he couldn't quite decipher, some mix of reluctance and determined compassion.

"You're a lousy liar, Ken, even to yourself."

Rage flared up and he dropped the cane as he took one long limping stride and grabbed her wrists. She twisted her arms against his thumbs and broke his hold, slid sideways, and in the same move grabbed his arm, twisted his wrist, and put a reverse lock on his elbow, forcing him to hold still or risk having his arm broken. Her right leg was suddenly just behind his, in position to sweep his leg out from under him.

"Practical self-defense," she said in his ear. "You taught me those tricks yourself, remember? So tell me; if you never looked back, why are you so angry? And are you angry at me, at your partner – or at yourself?"

Her words and his humiliation hit like icewater, dousing rage in bitterness and shame. His throat closed on it, and all he could do was shake his head. She cautiously released the pressure on the hold and changed her grip from restraint to comfort, but he knew that she could reestablish control with blinding speed. Her words were fists, and he felt every punch.

"My guess is, not a day goes by that you don't think of him. For ten years, you depended on each other for your lives; that's a bond closer than marriage. You had to invest too much of yourself in that relationship to turn it off like a light. I'll bet that you still see things and instantly wonder what he would think of them; and I'll bet that every time you hear about something bad happening to a cop, you wonder how he is, and it aches your heart not to know; and you've been chewing on that every day since the day you left."

The strength ran out of him and he slipped to his knees and wound up sitting on the floor; she caught his right side as he went down to cushion the impact on his bad leg, and knelt beside him. His shame only increased when he realized he was crying.

"I couldn't carry my end any more," he faltered. "Partners are equals, and I wasn't equal – he acted like nothing had changed, like we could just go on even though – even though I couldn't back him up, couldn't do anything for him, just – just take, and take, and never give, never do my share ..."

"You mean, never leave him in your debt, the way you were in his? Too much pride for your own damn good: the curse of being male." The words were sardonic and cutting, but the tone was gentle. She put her arms around him and held him close, drawing his head down against her shoulder, rubbing his back and his neck to ease the tension there. She said nothing for a long while, but let him recover, using her slow hands to speak instead of words. When his breathing had steadied a bit she stroked his hair and then shifted his head back to meet his eyes.

"You haven't had any word from him, in all these years?"

He shook his head, and his lip quirked in a shaky imitation of a smile.

"I didn't give him much of a chance. I – said some pretty unforgivable things, just before I left. Now – I wouldn't know what to say. Fifteen years – I don't even know him any more."

"I wouldn't bet on that." He looked at her like a drowning man at the hope of a sail. "Bonds that strong don't break so easily. I've seen them between war buddies in combat units, and I've seen vet reunions after twenty years that would make skeptics believe in telepathy." She essayed a smile of her own and looked him straight in the eye. "When it comes to competing with life and death partners, mere wives and lovers don't stand a chance, and we get jealous as hell. He may stand years and a few hundred miles away, but I'm still in his shadow, this – Starsky? – of yours."

He snorted quietly, and for a while they just sat there on the floor, calming down in a companionable silence. There were too many thoughts in his eyes to make room for words, but eventually he cleared his throat.

"He's still alive, and he's still a cop." She cocked her head in question, and he looked sheepishly away. "I've seen his name in a few stories in the L.A. papers over the years." His voice got even lower, embarrassed. "I saved the articles."

"I'd be surprised if you hadn't," she said, and he looked up, startled. She actually laughed at his expression. "It's not something to be ashamed of, you silly nit. I know that men will never admit it – not to women, anyway – but love isn't sentimental foolishness, and love is a large part of what you had. That, and the very special trust that comes only from surviving things that could have killed you, and doing it together."

He thought about that for a moment, but it kept bringing him back to the same wall.

"So – what do I do now?"

"That's up to you. You could just pick up a phone. Or – you could wait until next week, and just walk up to him on the street. 'Course, both of you might drop dead from heart attacks, but I think you could survive."

Panic tried to surge, but he clamped down on it.

"I couldn't use a phone; I'd freeze, I wouldn't know what to say." For the first time, when he looked at her, his eyes were clear, and he gave a shaky laugh. "I'll probably freeze if I see him, too, but at least then he'd have more to react to than dead silence on the line."

She leaned forward and kissed him lightly.

"That's the spirit. We'll stage an ambush."


"Well, you don't think I'd let you walk into this alone, do you? Besides – or have you forgotten? – I'm part of this seminar series too."

He looked at her, grateful beyond words for her calm and smiling strength, and then he framed her face with his hands and kissed her long and thoroughly. When they both came up for air, he stroked her cheekbones with his thumbs, and smiled.

"Is this how you treat all your patients?"

"Clients, my dear. And no, I don't usually wind up kissing them while I'm sitting in my robe on a very cold floor, but I'll make a special exception in your case."

He laughed and pulled her close, and only then did he notice that the floor really was cold, and his bad leg had stiffened.

"I don't think I can get up," he admitted, and she grinned.

"Come on, old man." She pulled and he pushed, and he surged up and tottered erect. She fitted herself under his right shoulder like a crutch and aimed them back toward the bed, but he stopped her before they could actually move.

"He might just tell me to go to hell," he said, and she met his eyes squarely.

"He might," she agreed. "But you don't really think he will. And you'll never know until you try."

"Neese, don't you ever get tired of being right?"

"Nope," she said cheerfully. "And neither would you; if you ever were, that is. Now, will you get back to bed before you fall over, and take me with you?"

"Take you with me falling over, or take you with me back to bed?"

They were close enough; she gave him a shove, and they wound up on the bed.

"What do you think?" she said, and he pinned her beneath him and gave her a kiss.

Some time later, she propped her head on her hand to watch him sleep. Despite the relaxation of slumber, the lines that pain had etched still furrowed his face with shadows in the moonlight. She brushed stray hairs lightly off his forehead, and he stirred.

"Awright, Starsk," he muttered, and smiled, but did not wake.

She bit her lip and looked up through the windows at the silvered night sky.

"Don't let me have called this one wrong, okay?" she whispered.

"Here's the latest on that second campus murder – killer must be a real psycho, they could get a movie out of this one, if we ever solve it – these four are the convenience store robberies, here's the Dawson kidnaping, damn – where'd the Cutler file get to? Oh, never mind, it's here somewhere ..." David Starsky, Chief of Detectives, Violent Crimes, pawed through the stacks of manila folders piled haphazardly on his desk, and Detective Consuela Hidalgo, her arms already full of files, started to laugh.

"I'll find it faster than you will, given your wonderful filing system. I'll take care of it. You'd better go, boss. Your wife will really skin you if you're late tonight, and I promise, the place won't fall apart while you take off for a few hours. Go on. Hey – you owe her some consideration. How she stands you, I'll never know."

"Wanna walk a beat again, Detective Hidalgo?" he mock-growled.

"You need me too much where I am – covering your administrative butt. Sir." She grinned. "In case you've forgotten, your reservations are at Fazio's ..." She watched him as, struck by a sudden thought, he began desperately patting his various pockets, and laughed again. "And you put the ring in your top right drawer this morning."

He glared at her as he yanked open the drawer and took out the small velvet box, opening it – like a small boy – to be sure of its contents before slipping it into his right suitcoat pocket.

"Detectives who spy on their chief are asking for trouble," he warned ominously.

"Chiefs of detectives who stand up their wives on their anniversaries are asking for more," she said sweetly, and he shook his head in disgust.

"That's blackmail, detective."

"You bet."

He pulled out his keys, but stopped again in the doorway, looking back.

"Look, on this campus thing, if anything develops ..."

"... We'll get you on the cellular in your car." She shook her head. "What's with you, chief? You already married her, so it can't be wedding jitters, and you know damned well we can hold down the fort – so what gives?"

"I don't know," he said, and as quickly as the words came, so did calm. "I just – have this feeling. Something's coming. Something – I don't know."

"Next thing we know, you're going to be breaking into songs from 'West Side Story,'" Hidalgo teased in feigned disgust. "Trust me, if it comes, your phone'll jingle. Now get out of here!"

He raised his hands in surrender, and left. But the itch stayed with him; something was definitely coming. He'd been a cop long enough to know when to trust hunches, and this one was insistent. Mulling it over, he drove home on automatic, and only really shook the feeling off when he pulled into the driveway to see Cheryl already walking toward the car. He looked furtively at the clock on the dash as she opened the passenger door and slid in.

"Oh, don't look so guilty – you're not that late. You missed Kenny and his friends, but they were so eager to get off on this lake camping trip with the Scouts, they left an hour early." She leaned over to kiss his cheek before buckling the seat and shoulder belts. "Mmm – and I've got you all to myself, for a whole week. I feel definitely wicked ... and at least fifteen years younger, all of a sudden."

He feigned panic.

"Does that mean we have to go through the whole wedding thing all over again? Maybe I ought to reconsider ..."

"Just you try, mister policeman, just you try!"

He grinned and put the car into reverse, backing out of the driveway and heading for the restaurant.

"Well, I don't feel fifteen years younger. I mean, hey – the clothes are wrong, the house is wrong, sure as hell the car is wrong ..."

She patted the dashboard of the dark sedan as if it were a dog's head.

"Don't worry, boy – he's just never lost his taste for the trashy, sporty look." She gave Starsky a sly sideways glance. "For a while, there, I thought every car we would ever own was going to be fire engine red and have only two doors."

"Hey!" Starsky did the hurt look to perfection. "A man's wheels reflect his soul."

"Ahh. So this car means that bright lights and sirens are still hiding beneath that perfect bland bureaucrat's disguise?"

"What is it with you women today – you all got it in for me? First I'm gettin' it from Hidalgo, now from you: hey, it's harassment! I can bust you for that, lady."

"Oooh, kinky."

He shook his head.

"It's gonna be a long night," he said.

Despite the early snide comments, dinner was perfect, recapturing the days of candlelit romance before children and other obligations. Starsky and Cheryl lingered over coffee, and when he felt the moment was just precisely right, Starsky fished in his suitcoat pocket, and presented the velvet-covered jewel box.

"Happy anniversary, honey."

"Dave!" She opened the box and caught her breath. The ring was a golden flower of tiny diamonds, and she knew without counting that there would be fifteen of them. With great care she removed it from the box, but instead of putting it on, she admired it for a moment and then held it, and her right hand, out to him.

"Will you do the honors?" she asked, and he slipped the ring onto her finger. She held it out and rotated the hand to see the jewels flash with reflected fire from the candles, and then she reached to take his left hand in both of hers, raised it to her lips, and kissed his fingers. "It's beautiful, Dave. Thank you."

He ducked his head in embarrassed pleasure, smiling. She squeezed his hand, and her expression changed to impish delight.

"I have something for you, too."


She released his hand to fish in her purse, and came up with a small box about three inches by two, about an inch and a half deep, wrapped in red foil paper with a thin white ribbon. She presented it to him with a flourish.

"I guarantee, you have no idea how hard this was to find, but I was determined not to give up. 'Course, I had to tell the sales clerk that it was for my son, not my husband, but, well ..."

He stripped off the paper to find a bland white cardboard box, and opened the box to reveal a die-cast metal model car – a perfect miniature copy of a 1974 Ford Gran Torino, candy-apple red, with white racing stripes slashing boldly down both sides and leaping up the rear pillars to meet across the back of the roof. It rested on his palm like a tangible memory, and he froze, staring at it, suddenly adrift in buried years.

"'A man's wheels reflect his soul,'" she quoted gently, smiling, and she cupped his hand with the little car in both of hers. "Bold and flashy – well, maybe just a bit tacky – but nothing held back, everything right out there in the open for everyone to see. I only had to see that car to know exactly what I was getting in a husband. Truth to tell – I kind of miss it."

"Yeah." He found his voice at last, and was surprised to hear it so rusty. He ran one finger lightly along the tiny vehicle's roof. "So do I." That little red model carried more ghosts than just the spirit of a long-gone car; the smile he tried touched only the corners of his mouth, and never reached his eyes. "I missed it more than I thought, I guess."

She reached across to lift his chin, breaking his fascinated gaze off the little toy to meet her understanding eyes.

"Hey." Her tone was gently teasing, but her eyes were serious and steady. "I always knew that I came second. I never grudged that prior claim. After all – it kept you alive, long enough to meet and marry me. I guess I figure – I owe it something, too." They both knew she wasn't talking about the car.

He trapped her right hand against his cheek, and turned his head to plant a kiss on her palm.

"You are one special lady," he said. "I love you, Mrs. Cheryl Starsky."

"Take me home and prove it?" she challenged, and he rose to the occasion, standing up to hand her out of her chair.

"Your wish is my command." He bowed gallantly, and without looking at it again, he slid the little red car into the pocket that had so recently held a ring. All chivalry, he escorted her out of the restaurant and back to the plain dark sedan. He held the door for her; once she was belted in and her door closed, he skipped around the hood with an echo of his old spirit and dash to bounce into the driver's seat. He fired up the engine, and then – with a quick little sideways leer to make certain she noticed – he deliberately revved it. She laughed.

The car's cellular phone shrilled over the music of her amusement, and he grabbed the receiver with an irritated, apologetic glance at his wife.

"Starsky." He listened for a few beats. "Okay. I'm on my way – we're only about ten minutes from the campus. Who's the officer in charge? – Good. Tell him I'll be right there."

"Not another one," Cheryl said, before he even had a chance to hang up the phone. The resigned dismay in her voice was clearly for the situation, not for him, and Starsky gave her a grateful look as he switched on the unmarked car's siren and the discreet flashing lights hidden behind the grill.

"'Fraid so. Someone's really got it in for college professors; this is the third murder in less than two months. Look, this won't take long – Harris is running the scene, he's good, but I just want to see for myself, get a feel for the case. I promise, we'll go straight home from there."

"It's okay. I'm used to it by now." She smiled wryly, and he spared a hand from his driving to capture her fingers and give them a quick kiss.

"You're better to me than I deserve."

"Just you remember it!"

Denise tapped the remote control, and the slide projector clicked onto a blank screen.

"Lights, please?" she asked, and the lecture hall lights came up as the projector light dimmed. She scanned across the rising sea of faces and seemed to address everyone at once, even those up at the back of the auditorium-style hall.

"So – what we'll really be exploring this summer is how all these various pieces and disciplines interact to influence and control policy- and decision-making. Psychology, sociology, economics, history, the various facets of scientific and technical development: they all play significant roles and influence and shape each other, as well as the way we see ourselves and our world and make our decisions. We'll be doing a lot of team-teaching," and she gestured across the stage at the other seven professors, including Ken, who shared it with her. "I warn you, we academics hold stubborn and often diametrically opposed opinions and we defend them ferociously, so you can expect some knock-down, drag-out, no-holds-barred intellectual fights – and maybe even some real ones." The audience chuckled, and the amusement actually seemed real, rather than just polite. She glanced at Ken, and he picked up his cue seamlessly.

"That's it for tonight," he said. "Be sure to read the consumer and political case studies before the Thursday night session; whether you volunteer or not, you may find yourself playing one of the roles, and you'll really feel dumb if you have to ask the opposition what position you're supposed to take. Unless any of my esteemed colleagues disagrees?" He turned to run a glance across their lines, raising an eyebrow, but none of them raised an objection. "Ladies and gentlemen, you are dismissed."

The hall filled with the sudden commotion of a hundred people all standing and talking at once, most heading for the doors at the back of the hall, and Ken took the opportunity to cross to where Denise was retrieving her slides from the projector.

"Nice job," he said, and she flashed him the radiant smile of an actor on an audience-fed adrenaline rush.

"You too," she agreed. "I think this bunch'll challenge us, keep us on our toes." She finished loading the slides into a small plastic box, and slipped it into her shoulder bag. "God, I'm wired; nothing like playing to an interested captive audience, eh?"

"How about stopping for a late cappuccino on the way home?"

"Make it iced and you'll win my heart."

"I thought I had that already."

"Figure of speech, love."

Another of the professors bustled over, a tiny black woman who nearly danced with energy.

"I knew this multidisciplinary approach would catch them," she crowed. "And you two are going to be dynamite, I can tell."

"Thanks, Holly," Denise said. "I'm glad you invited us to be part of the show."

"So am I," the woman confided. Some of her bubbling cheeriness abruptly disappeared. "Look, I know you two are a pair, and I just wanted to say – stick together while you're down here, okay? I don't know whether you've heard, but two professors were murdered, right here on campus, within the last six weeks. From what I've gathered, the police haven't a clue; the best they've been able to do is advise us never to walk alone and to always be on the lookout for anyone suspicious." Her eyes recaptured their twinkle. "Of course, that includes virtually everyone in the Poly Sci department, but you never know. Just – a word to the wise."

"We appreciate it," Ken said, but Denise could see his mind was elsewhere. Faintly, over the gradually dwindling human noise of the emptying lecture hall, she thought she could hear sirens; looking at him, however, she wasn't sure whether the sounds were real or only in her mind.

"Thanks, Holly. We'll keep our eyes peeled and our backs guarded."

The black woman patted her arm and left. A bit more somber, the two of them followed the escaping students toward the late evening air.

As they emerged into the tail end of summer's long twilight, they found that the sirens had not been imaginary. The physics building across the parking lot was awash in flashing colored lights from squad cars and unmarked units. The commotion drew them as it drew others, but as they walked closer Denise studied Ken's face rather than the disturbance. There was something there, some indefinable sense of yearning and loss, and he walked as if drawn more by hunger than by simple curiosity.

One uniformed officer had just finished roping off an area, wrapping bright yellow tape around the tree trunks by the walking path. Accompanied by a black man who managed to project dignity despite wearing ratty blue jeans and a paint-stained t-shirt, two men in jackets labeled "Coroner" carried a sheeted body on a gurney toward the police line, and were halted by a dark-haired man in a grey suit.

Starsky squatted beside the gurney and lifted the sheet. The dead man was probably in his mid- to late sixties, with a craggy, lived-in face and dark hair graying elegantly at the temples. Starsky turned the man's head with one hand to be able to see behind his left ear, and grimaced. He looked up at Vedette, who waited wordlessly with the coroner's wagon crew.

"Don't suppose I really have to ask," he said, and the black man shrugged.

"Won't know all the gory details until I do the autopsy, but yeah – this is definitely number three in the series: all the same holes in exactly the same places. This is one seriously sick dude, Starsky. When are you poe-lice boys and girls going to nail him?"

"When you cutters give us enough to go on." Starsky stood up, and gestured the other two men and the gurney on their way. He looked the coroner up and down, taking in the beat-up old jeans and paint-spattered shirt. "You guys adopting a new dress code in the M.E.'s office?"

"Fat chance. No – I just made the mistake of asking to be called if the campus killer struck again. At this rate, I may never finish adding that den onto the house."

"Keep trying, Vedette." He glanced after the body being loaded into the wagon. "How long 'til you can give me something?"

"No, I'm not going to stay and do it tonight, just for you – but you'll have it before noon tomorrow. Promise."

"Yeah, well, Cheryl would kill me if I headed back to the precinct tonight anyway, so maybe it's just as well." He clapped Vedette on the arm. "See you tomorrow, then."

"Bet on it."

Vedette headed across the police line, stopping long enough to let the coroner's wagon pull out, and then was lost in the eddying currents of spectators gawking at the scene. Starsky shook his head and looked around for Harris. He'd check that one base, he decided, and then get back to Cheryl, waiting patiently in the car.

Denise felt Ken stiffen at her side in sudden shock. She started to speak his name and just as quickly stopped; all of his attention was focused on the dark-haired man, and he stepped forward and away from her as if mesmerized, clearly forgetting everything except the target of his fascinated gaze. The two men's paths nearly intersected about forty feet away, between the yellow tape and the massed police vehicles. Ken stopped in the shadow of a tree, no more than a long arm's reach away as the dark-haired man paused to give some instruction to two other cops, one uniform and one plainclothes, and then turned away toward the cars while the cops headed back to the roped-off zone. Ken took a half-step into the light and cleared his throat.

"Starsk?" His voice was hoarse and tentative, half in disbelief, half in fear of a rebuff; he wasn't prepared for the speed with which Starsky spun around, surprise and wonder racing across his face.

"Hutch?" The two men just looked at each other, both of their faces studies in emotion too complex to translate. "Hutch." Satisfaction surprised a smile on Starsky's face, and Hutch closed his eyes and released a long, shaky breath in a momentary excess of relief; then Starsky yanked him forward into a rough bearhug, staggering a little under the increased weight as Hutch's damaged leg faltered under the abrupt move. The years fell away as they came together, pain and joy too intertwined to tell the two apart; the embrace was as fierce as a wrestling hold. They both pushed back at the same time to look at each other, but the connection between them remained. Starsky kept both hands on Hutch's shoulders, his fingers flexing and kneading unconsciously, and Hutch's left hand did the same, while the cane in his right dangled almost forgotten.

"God, you look good," Hutch said finally, and the grin that had been trembling on his lips broke over his entire face. Starsky gave him a shake and grinned wickedly back.

"Better than you, man; want I should put out an APB on your hair?"

"You never did fight fair," Hutch complained, then grinned again. "Good to know that some things never change." He took in the conservative suit Starsky was wearing and shook his head, shifting his left hand to tweak the lapel. "But what happened to your wardrobe?"

"Politics," Starsky shrugged. "They made me chief of detectives, violent crime, would you believe it? What about you, hey?"

"Oh, college professor; very sober, very boring, very staid. Just what you'd expect."

"Yeah, right. Dull." Silence stretched again, but there was no discomfort in it; the old telepathy flowed as if it had never been gone, eyes exchanging messages of acceptance and regret.

"God, Starsk – I've missed you," Hutch said at last, almost a whisper.

"You too, partner." Starsky blinked misting eyes, then grinned again. "But boy, was I ever glad to see the last of that crummy car of yours!"

"Yeah, well, I never missed your stupid striped tomato, either."

Mock-growling, Starsky tossed a light punch at his upper arm, and Hutch swung his left in an automatic block, catching Starsky's wrist; both of them smiled. Starsky flipped his hand free and shook his head.

"So – what brought you back, to land in the middle of this?" His gesture and glance took in the yellow warning tape and the squad cars with their flashing lights.

"Coincidence. I was invited to teach a seminar during the summer."

"You didn't tell me you were coming."

For the first time, Hutch broke eye contact, ducking his head away; then he resolutely turned back.

"I wasn't sure you'd welcome me back. I – pushed you off pretty hard, way back when."

"'S okay." Starsky shrugged. "It took a while, but Cheryl made me realize you needed to make a clean break. Forget it."

"I can't. That may have been what I thought at the time, but I was wrong, Starsk. When I finally figured that out, I was afraid it was too late to come back, so I never did." One corner of his mouth tugged back in a wry smile. "Dumb, huh?"

"Yeah, well, you know what they say about blondes and brains," Starsky offered, and the awkward moment dissolved. Hutch switched his cane to his left hand, and held out his right.

"Friends?" he asked, and Starsky smiled as he extended his own hand.

"Huh-uh – partners." Starsky clasped his forearm instead of his hand, and after a fractional second Hutch returned the grip.

"Partners," he agreed softly. They stood for a long moment oblivious to their surroundings, until a teasing female voice intruded.

"Are the two of you going to stare at each other all night?"

Hutch flushed and fumbled in sudden embarrassment, but he didn't break contact with Starsky as he turned to include Denise in their little group.

"Neese, I'm sorry – I didn't even think ..."

"It doesn't matter," she said, and they could hear her smile as well as see it. "The show has been more than worth the price of admission."

"Don't mind him," Starsky said, stepping smoothly in front of Hutch and reaching out to take her hand. "Hutch always gets tongue-tied with the ladies. I'm Dave Starsky."

"Denise Bay," she said, shaking his hand with a firm grip. "Pleased to meet you." She glanced past him at Hutch. "Hutch," she said experimentally, trying out the sound, and smiled again. "Hutch. I like it. It suits you."

Hutch insinuated himself between them and liberated Denise's hand, then drew her to his left side. She slid her arm around his waist.

"Doctor Bay," Hutch said portentously, stressing her title, "is with me. We're both guest-lecturing for the summer term."

"So why did all my teachers look like you instead of her?" Starsky grinned, then kindled with a sudden idea. "Hey – Cheryl's waiting for me in the car. What say we go back to our place, catch up on old times?"

"Cheryl – Cheryl Davison? The researcher, from the DA's office?" Hutch asked, and Starsky nodded.

"Cheryl Starsky, now. We got married, oh, about four months after you left. Fifteen years ago today, as a matter of fact."

"I didn't hear," Hutch mused. "Kids?"

"Two, boy and girl: Ken and Terry." A shadow passed over his face, but he steeled himself and went on. "Terry – was killed by a drunk driver, two years ago."

"Starsk." Hutch's voice came thick with unshed tears, echoing other days of shared grief, and Starsky closed his eyes against the pain in it that rekindled his own. "I should have been here," Hutch whispered. "I didn't even know; didn't guess – I'm sorry."

With an effort, Starsky made himself shrug, trying to wall off the memory of hurt and recapture the joy of the moment.

"It's over." He took a deep breath to shut the mental door, and raised an enquiring hand. "What about you? The two of you ...?"

"Yes – no," Hutch fumbled, changing mental gears. "I mean – well, I was married, it didn't work out; I've got a couple of daughters in Colorado that I don't get to see. Neese and I – well ..."

"We've been together for a year," Denise said. "We're still learning."

"Yeah." Starsky cocked an eyebrow and, picking up on her effort to lighten the conversation, found a suggestive smile. "I can see that."

"All right, all right, don't rub it in," Hutch grumbled.

"Hey, come on, Cheryl won't believe this – " Starsky grabbed the arm that Hutch had curled around Denise's shoulder and tugged the two of them after him. The sedan wasn't far, and as they approached, the passenger door opened and Cheryl got out, stunned and delighted surprise evident on her face even in the changing and uncertain light.

"Hutch?" she called, before Starsky could say a word. "Oh my God – Hutch, is it really you?"

"In the too, too solid flesh," he admitted, and he pulled free from Starsky's grip to take her right hand in his left while he bent to kiss her cheek. "I understand belated congratulations are in order – or do I mean commiserations?"

She kissed him firmly back.

"Congratulations, and nothing but. And apologies from you, you beast! – why did you ever stay away so long, and never even a word?" She smiled even as she scolded, and his tone stayed light.

"I plead stupidity and cowardice. Forgive me?"

"Before you ever asked, you fool." Her eyes tracked to Denise, and the other woman smiled and offered her own hand.

"Denise Bay," she said, and suddenly grinned. "Significant other," she qualified, with a sly look at the two men. "At least, I think that's what we just figured out."

"Cheryl Starsky, wife." The humor was infectious. "We figured that one out fifteen years ago – well, all except for big blondie, here."

The two women sized each other up over the handshake, and each liked what she saw; the clasp lasted a moment longer than it had to merely for politeness' sake.

Starsky snaked one arm around his wife's shoulders and the other across Denise's, landing that hand on Hutch's near shoulder.

"What do you say we all head to our place and play catch-up?"

"That sounds – " The enthusiasm in Hutch's voice suddenly slipped, and he broke off one idea entirely to come back in a much more diffident voice. "But hey – it's your anniversary. You've got plans ..."

Cheryl reached out and recaptured his hand in both of hers.

"You are the very best present we could have gotten; don't you dare think of running out on us now. I won't hear of it." Her sincerity was unmistakable, and there was something close to entreaty on Starsky's face.

Hutch stole a quick look at Denise, to find her watching him with grave, accepting eyes, not pushing one way or the other, just waiting for his choice. He took a breath and met his partner's eyes.

"So – where do you live these days? Not the same old apartment!"

"Try a real house, with a yard and everything. I even have to cut the grass."

"Since when?" Cheryl interrupted. "Don't believe him; he doesn't know what yardwork is. We're on Crescent Way, about twenty minutes from here, number 537."

"Blaine's old neighborhood, Hutch – remember?" Another look, another memory shared, and Hutch nodded slowly.

"Couldn't forget it," he said. He glanced again at Denise, and she nodded and smiled. "Look, we'll meet you there, okay? Our car's in the faculty lot."

"Just – don't get lost," Starsky said.

"I did that once a long time ago, Starsk – but I don't think you need to worry about it any more. I remember the way."

"Good to meet both of you," Denise added. "See you again in a bit." She waited a beat, then nudged Hutch to get him moving. It took an almost physical effort for him to break eye contact with Starsky, but he turned with her and started away, though with many a quick backward glance. Starsky stood and watched until the night swallowed them, and then still stood watching where they had gone until Cheryl laid a hand on his arm.

"At this rate, they'll get there before us, and figure they've got the wrong house when nobody answers."

"Huh? Oh. Sorry." He saw her back into the car and got in himself, but his eyes drifted off toward the blank dark where Hutch and Denise had disappeared, and the spot filled with memories.

"Zebra Three to Central." Leaning in through the window of the Torino, Starsky kept his voice deliberately low and turned down the gain on the radio; sound carried especially well over water at night.

"Central. Go ahead, Zebra Three."

"Request backup west side of the warehouse on pier nine. We have a drug buy going down now , eight to ten suspects involved, suspects all armed. Request response code two, repeat, code two – no lights or sirens."

"Acknowledge response code two, Zebra Three. Stand by." He heard the brief crackle of the radio frequency shift, and then the dispatcher's voice sounded on the broadcast channel. "All units, all units vicinity pier nine. Respond code two, see the officers, four-eighteen in progress, west side of the warehouse, eight to ten suspects, suspects are armed. Respond code two ..."

As quickly as that, it went into the dumper. He heard an abrupt flurry of confused noise from the stacked crates beside the warehouse, and suddenly heard the dispatcher in tinny stereo – "respond code two" – and realized he was hearing a police scanner in the same moment as a pair of car headlights flashed on to pin Hutch, hiding waiting for him beside the crates, in twin spotlights, and he screamed Hutch's name as a gun thundered and Hutch cried out, spun around, and fell, clutching a right leg that turned suddenly red.

"Zebra Three, ten-thirty-three, officer down, officer down!" he yelled into the mike, "They're monitoring your frequency!" and he threw the mike back at the car as he drew his gun and ran for Hutch, dimly hearing sirens start, very close, and from some place he never even saw a flash of brilliant white hit him across the right temple like a glancing fist and knocked him sprawling on his back, and he was deafened by sirens and guns and he couldn't move and couldn't see, and later when he could he almost wished he didn't.

Still dressed in surgical scrubs, the young doctor from the emergency room stepped through the swinging doors with the surgeon. Starsky launched to his feet, ignoring the sudden dizziness and the protest from his bandaged skull, and the young doctor turned to him as the surgeon, with one quick irritated look, departed.

"Doc, my partner – how is he? Will he be okay?"

The young doctor hesitated, and the compassion in his tired face rang alarms in Starsky's mind.

"He's gonna be okay – right, Doc?" Starsky felt rather than saw Captain Dobey looming up behind him, a wall of strength.

"He'll recover. You'll be able to see him in a couple hours if you want, just for a few minutes." The doctor hesitated again, and Starsky felt his heart sink. He couldn't speak; it fell to Dobey to gently prompt the doctor to continue.

"But?" Dobey asked, and the doctor took a breath, finding it easier to meet Dobey's eyes than Starsky's.

"There's something you should know. The bullet didn't just break the bone; it shattered it, like a bomb, just below the knee. We saved the leg, but the damage is permanent. Oh, he'll walk again – you don't have to worry about that – but he'll probably need a brace or a cane for the rest of his life." The doctor's eyes flicked over to meet Starsky's, and fled the void they found there. "Therapy's going to take time. He'll need a lot of support from his friends."

"He'll get it," Dobey promised when Starsky remained mute, and the doctor nodded.

"He's in recovery now; they'll take him up to his room in a couple of hours. Once he's settled, you'll be able to see him, just for a bit; he'll still be pretty foggy, but I think it would do him good." He looked at Starsky's face, pale under the bandage at his forehead. "He kept asking about his partner right up to the minute we put him under. Knowing you're okay will probably do more for him than anything else, right now."

"I'll see him," Starsky husked, and from the look on his face, the doctor guessed that he already was. Unable to do more, the doctor simply nodded and left. Starsky stood frozen. Dobey waited him out, watching the blankness of shock in his eyes slowly melt into pain.

"Hutch runs every damned morning," Starsky whispered at last. "Whether he's got a hangover or it's raining or the sun's broiling, he runs. Damn fool actually likes it. Running. Go figure."

Dobey put his hand on the younger man's shoulder and squeezed hard, blinking back moisture from his own eyes.

Starsky breezed into Hutch's hospital room without bothering to knock, and found him balancing on his left leg, leaving the cane lying across the bed, stuffing the last of his belongings into a small duffel bag. The metal brace on his right leg looked like a cage. An orderly with a wheelchair stood patiently waiting.

"Hah! You thought you could sneak off without me? Your red chariot awaits, partner!" Starsky bowed with a flourish and made shooing-away motions at the orderly, taking his place behind the wheelchair.

"Damn it, Starsk, don't call me that! What are you doing here, anyway? Aren't you supposed to be on duty?"

"And what duty could be more important than escorting my partner back to his abode and seeing him into the lap of luxury, I ask you?"

Hutch spun around so rapidly that he staggered, and Starsky leaped to grab his shoulders to keep him on his unsteady feet. Hutch shook him off and snatched up the cane instead, trembling with emotion and effort.

"Stop it, Starsk – I'm not your partner! I can't be your partner! Stop treating me like nothing's changed!"

"Nothing has," Starsky said softly. "Nothing really important, anyway."

"Nothing really important." Hutch's voice dripped bitterness. "I'm a crip, but that's not important. All I qualify for is a desk job, but that's not important. I'm not your partner anymore – and that's not important!"

"Hey – you're still my partner. You'll always be my partner."

"What does it take to get through that thick skull of yours? I'm not your partner, damn it! Partners help each other. Partners back each other up. Partners rely on each other."

"Yeah, like you can rely on me. So?"

" You can't rely on me !" It was almost a shout, and the naked despair in it stripped Hutch bare. His eyes glittered with tears that wouldn't fall, and he tore his gaze away from Starsky's face to look at anything else, anything at all. His knuckles clenched white on the handle of the cane. "I'm no good to you any more, Starsk – don't you see? I can't back you up. I can't be your partner. Hell, I can't even be a cop. Desk sergeant, evidence clerk – that's not a cop, that's a fake, that's a pity. That's not me."

"I never said it was."

"Well, your partner's not me either. It's the guy you're riding with now; the guy you have to count on like he's counting on you. Somebody you can trust to be at your back – somebody who can keep up with you to be there when you need him." His eyes touched Starsky's for one short grieving second, then dropped away again to the hand locked on the head of the cane. "I can't do it any more, Starsk," he said, and his voice grated like broken glass. "I can't keep up. I wouldn't be there. If you needed me, you'd be dead." He looked up, and this time didn't flinch away. "And I couldn't live with that."

The moment stretched to unbearable length, and neither seemed able to move. Finally, Starsky cleared his throat.

"So. What do we do now?"

They eyed each other, each for the first time in years uncertain about the other's response.

"I don't know," Hutch admitted, and then cocked an eyebrow and twitched a lip in what might otherwise have been a smile. "Say goodnight, Gracie?" he suggested.

"Goodnight, Gracie," Starsky parroted obediently, and waited a beat. Neither laughed, but the room seemed somehow lighter. Starsky shrugged and jiggled the wheelchair. "You still need to check out and get home, and I'm still here with a car. Whadda ya say?"

"Goodnight, Gracie?" The effort was lame, but both of them smiled, and Hutch limped to the chair, leaning heavily on the cane. While Hutch grimaced and awkwardly settled his braced right leg, Starsky retrieved the duffel from the bed. When Hutch looked up, Starsky feinted at a nonexistent basket, then tossed the duffel in an easy pass to Hutch. As Hutch yanked it across his lap, to hold along with the cane, Starsky grabbed the wheelchair handles and started to push.

"And they're coming down the court ..." he mock-announced as they started barreling down the corridor, and a surprised nurse darted out of the way. His voice wasn't entirely even, and Hutch sat too stiffly for comfort, but it was a start.

"Hey: Earth to Starsky, anybody home?"

Cheryl's voice and her hand on his arm jerked him back to a silent car and a night lit by flashing police lights, and he took a deep breath and shook his head.

"Sorry - I must be more tired than I thought." He turned the key in the ignition, and then, on a thought, reached down into his pocket to bring out the almost-forgotten little red car. He looked at it a moment, and then finally chuckled and handed it to her.

"I think you'd better hide this. Hutch always did hate that car."

End of Act One