There's nothing like an early Saturday morning.
John Blaine stretched contentedly and lazily scratched his stomach under his boxers' waistband. Saturdays were what Maggie called her "vacation days", the only day of the week she would sleep later than seven o'clock. On those Saturday mornings when he wasn't on shift, Blaine enjoyed having the kitchen to himself for a couple of hours. He could make the coffee as strong as he liked it, slather as much butter on his toast as he wanted, spread the morning paper all over the kitchen table in any order he felt like reading it. Sometimes he felt guilty about this secret sense of freedom. These early Saturday mornings alone could feel too much like a stolen pleasure, but he always told himself that having an hour or two of free time away from each other once a week was probably good for both of them.
He poured himself his first cup of coffee and leaned against the kitchen sink, looking out across the back yard as he took his first sip. Darker and more bitter than the way Maggie preferred it, that first taste always gave him a jolt that was both stimulating and comforting.
He grinned. He was the only cop he knew who actually liked the acrid, half-burnt crud produced in the station's coffee machine.
The overtime he'd put in lately showed in the neglected state of the garden. The raspberry canes needed cutting back, and dandelions and foxtail were overpowering the carrots and Swiss chard by the back fence. It wouldn't hurt to mow the lawn, and get the hose and sprinkler out.
So much for reading in the lawn chair. Looks like I've got my Saturday planned out already.
He grinned and stretched again. It felt comfortingly normal to be worrying about something as mundane as gardening, instead of the gritty harshness that made up so much of his life. Just like any other middle class suburban guy.
Normal. There were times when that was an over-rated quality—Maggie's coffee being a case in point—but on the whole, it felt good.
Whistling quietly, he got down the frying pan and sliced bread as thick as would fit into the toaster slot. Just as he turned from the refrigerator, hands full of eggs, bacon, butter and jam, there was a quiet knock at the kitchen door.
For a moment, he felt a flare of resentment, followed by the prickly touch of unease that always accompanied unexpected visitors at the house.
It can't be the job. If Captain Wilson wanted me, he'd have called. So who the hell is it at twenty after six in the morning?
Dumping the food down on the counter, he crossed the kitchen and took a cautious look through the narrow window beside the door. When he recognized the young man leaning against the frame he yanked the door open a little more forcefully than necessary.
"Dave? What the hell are you doing here?"
Dave Starsky jerked upright and nearly teetered backward off the stoop. He recovered his balance with an ease Blaine envied, and held out a hand in greeting.
"Mornin', John. Didn't get you up, did I?"
"Not on Saturday, you know that." Blaine gripped Starsky's arm. "Come on in, kid. Coffee's made. We can have some real breakfast before Maggie gets up. "
"Thanks. Coffee sounds good." Starsky went to the cupboard, pulled down a mug, and filled it with an appreciative sniff. "Smells good too. Better than that swill we get over at the academy in the mornings."
Starsky settled in one of the chairs at the kitchen table, resting his feet on the neighboring chair.
Blaine shook his head. "You'd think Maggie swatted your feet often enough to break you of that."
Starsky looked guiltily toward the door. "She's still asleep, right?"
"Lucky for you. How many eggs you want?" Blaine turned back to the stove, and plopped a dollop of butter into the frying pan.
When Starsky didn't reply, he repeated the question a little more loudly.
"Huh? Oh, yeah, sure."
Something in Starsky's voice made Blaine turn and take a closer look. Starsky was hunched over the table, hands wrapped around his mug, eyes focused somewhere past the wall beside the stove. Now that he had a minute to pay attention, Blaine could see unmistakable signs of strain on Starsky's face. He hadn't shaved, there were dark circles under his eyes, and his hair was rumpled. His clothes looked as if they'd been slept in, maybe even more than once.
Blaine turned the burner to low, and pulled out a chair for himself.
"Dave?" When there was still no response, he snapped his fingers sharply. "What's wrong?"
Starsky started. "Wrong? Nothing's wrong."
"Come on. Pull that one on somebody who hasn't known you half your life. What's happened? Something in your classes? Your mom?"
Starsky shook his head, and took a sip of coffee.
"I told you. Nothing's wrong."
Blaine had heard that stubbornly defiant tone often enough in Starsky's younger days. With a sigh, he raised his hands. "Suit yourself. So how many eggs?"
Starsky shook his head again, and gave a rueful little grin. "Better not have any. I'm testin' on the obstacle course this morning. Can't run on a full stomach."
Starsky seemed about to refuse again, and then shrugged. "What the hell. Gotta have some energy to burn. You wouldn't have any cinnamon rolls, would you?"
Blaine shook his head. "You know Maggie. The only thing she worries about more than her waistline is my blood pressure."
"John. John. You are so pussy-whipped."
"Hey!" Blaine's outraged expression was only half-faked, but he was pleased to see it brought a normal laugh from Starsky. He shook his forefinger, trying to keep a stern look on his face.
"You wait until you've got a wife. See how much you get away with." Starsky laughed again. "Seriously, Maggie has to put up with a helluva lot, being a cop's wife. So what if I have to sneak out when I want some Danish, it won't break the bank."
Blaine turned back to the stove. By now the butter was sizzling gently in the pan, and he broke in two eggs, and added three strips of bacon. Topping up his own cup, he raised the pot and glanced questioningly at his guest.
Starsky held out his mug and accepted the refill in silence, his attention once more on the far wall.
While Blaine turned the bacon, basted the eggs with grease, dropped the bread slices into the toaster, and got out plates, he kept half an eye on Starsky. The kid's unusual silence and thousand-yard stare worried him. The military had calmed Starsky down some, given him a self-discipline that neither his uncle Al Rosenberg nor Blaine himself had been able to drill into the boy during his teen years, but still . . .
He never just sits. What did you get yourself into, Dave? And why did you pick me to dump it on, instead of Al or Rose?
When the toast popped up, Blaine brought it over to the table, and set the plate in front of Starsky. The only reaction was a vague nod. Starsky didn't even move while Blaine filled his own plate from the frying pan and generously salted and ketchuped his eggs.
"Hey." Blaine sat down again and nudged Starsky's elbow. "Eat up before it gets cold."
Starsky obediently took two bites of his toast, and then put it down with a grimace and picked up his coffee mug again. Blaine had finished nearly half his breakfast before Starsky finally spoke.
"John?" His voice was hesitant, and he didn't look up from the mug. "You ever, I dunno, liked a guy? I mean a lot?"
Blaine froze. The eggs and bacon he'd been enjoying suddenly formed a hot bitter lump in his stomach. Starsky still hadn't looked up, and after a moment, Blaine carefully lowered his fork to the plate.
"Well, sure," he said, trying to keep his voice casual. "I like your Uncle Al. Harold Dobey, Elmo Jackson. Like you, too. Even with your taste in muscle cars."
Starsky snorted, and raised the cup, but lowered it without taking a swallow. After another silence, Blaine prompted him.
Starsky finally looked up.
"It's, um, about Hutch."
"You know, my roommate. Ken Hutchinson. I call him Hutch."
The memory came back to Blaine, from his first visit to see Starsky at the academy.
Oh, shit. Mr. Looks-Like-He-Was-Brought-Up-In-A-Crystal-Box. Shoulda known he'd be trouble.
"He giving you a hard time? I might be able to put in—"
"No! It's not like that. And if it was I wouldn't want you doin' nothin' for me. I told you I was gonna make it through the academy on my own, and I meant it." He set the mug down with a thump, his eyes fierce.
Blaine shook his head. Damn touchy kid. Too much pride for his own good.
"I didn't say—" He stopped the angry retort. Matching Starsky's temper had never been the way to deal with him. He gentled his voice and tried a different tack.
"Look, I wasn't going to march down there like I was your mother going to tattle to the principal or something. But if this guy is giving you a hard time for any reason, you don't have to take it. Everybody starts off in the academy on the same level."
"It's not like that," Starsky repeated. "Hutch's a good guy, and we get along great. I mean, he's got some, you know, quirks, I guess, but hey, he says I do too, so I guess it all sorta evens out. He even helped me some with my writing, when we gotta write practice reports, stuff like that." He took a deep breath. "This is something different."
Starsky fiddled with the coffee cup again, and then pushed it across the table, out of reach. He squared his shoulders as if preparing to report to a firing squad.
"Last week, we were doin' one of those outdoor exercises. You know, the one where the class gets split up and everybody has to chase each other around that fake town set up?" He looked up and Blaine nodded encouragingly. "Anyway, Hutch has allergies, did I ever tell you?"
Blaine shook his head. "No. What's that got to do with it?"
"So we're all out there, hidin' behind buildings and crawling around in the dirt, and there's a whole buncha ragweed out. Well, Hutch lets out this great big sneeze. I could hear him, and so could mosta Bay City probably. He might as well have stood up and yelled 'Here I am, come and get me.' Everybody started movin' in on him. But I'm the one that got him. He's real sneaky for a country boy." There was definite pride in Starsky's voice "He managed to get away from the rest of them, but I kept listening for those little noises he makes when he's tryin' not to sneeze, and I got him."
Starsky fell silent, and went back to staring at the wall.
"And?" Blaine prompted, when it became clear Starsky wouldn't continue on his own.
"He was down on the ground behind some barrels, getting set to make a run for it, and I came around behind him. He looked up at me and—" Starsky suddenly broke out in a grin. "His eyes were all red and puffy, and his nose was runnin' and his face was all dirty where he'd tried to wipe himself and got dust all mixed in. He just looked like total shit." Starsky stopped again, and put his hands over his face.
Despite his concern, Blaine felt a wave of relief sweep through him.
It's Hutchinson's problem. Not Dave.
"Dave? Come on, tell me. What about Hutchinson? Was he really sick with something? Did he get hurt?"
Starsky's reply was too muffled to make out.
"What was that?"
Starsky lowered his hands. "I felt . . . I wanted . . ." He jumped up and took two strides toward the door, then turned back. "I . . . shit! I wanted to kiss him! I looked at him and . . . I just wanted to kiss him. I mean, bad." He dropped into the chair and put his head back in his hands.
For a moment Blaine sat dumbfounded and then found his voice.
"Don't tell me that."
Blaine slammed his hand down on the table hard enough to rattle the plates.
"Don't tell me that!" he snarled. "Don't tell me you've thrown away everything—"
"I didn't!" Starsky's voice rose as well. "I didn't do nothin'! I stood there looking down at him for about three seconds and then Colby snuck up and popped both of us. I didn't do nothin'."
Blaine felt the knots in his stomach ease. "So what's the big deal? You got distracted for a few seconds in an exercise. Doesn't mean a thing."
Starsky's smile was bitter. "Except I haven't been able to stop wanting to." He reached over for the mug and drained it.
Blaine blew out a long breath, and rubbed his forehead. The lump that had settled in his stomach seemed to be moving up through his chest, and he swallowed heavily, trying to force it back down.
"Okay, Dave," he finally said. "This is what you're gonna do. Drop out of the academy. You can give them some bullshit, maybe you need to go back to New York, look after your mom for a while, something like that. Then you can reapply next year. With your military record, and your entrance scores this time, you won't have any trouble getting in again."
And you'll never have to set eyes on Hutchinson again either.
"No." Starsky's voice was flat and uncompromising. "I've wasted enough of my life already, between Nam and all the screwing around I did when I was kid. I let go of this now, I'm finished. I might as well go back to the old neighborhood and hook up with Joe Durniak."
"Then stay away from Hutchinson. Get another roommate—doesn't matter what you have to tell them, just get transferred to another room. Hell, another wing. Don't study with him, don't partner with him in exercises. You've been spending too much time with him, gotten too close. Hang around with some of the other guys. You get along all right with the Colby kid, don't you? And those two guys from San Diego? And find a girl to go out with, maybe two or three."
Starsky laughed without amusement. "Jesus, John, you think if I could fuck this outta my system I wouldn'ta done it already?"
"Well maybe you should try harder. You won't think it's so goddam funny when the vice boys bust you in some public john."
"What?" Starsky looked honestly bewildered.
"Come off it! You did pay attention during the California Penal Code classes, didn't you? You know what the penalty is for public indecency?"
"I didn't do nothin'!" Starsky's voice was close to a scream, and both men instinctively glanced toward the door leading to the hallway.
"Keep your voice down."
Blaine held his breath, but there was no sound from elsewhere in the house. He got up and brought the coffee pot to the table, giving Starsky time to calm down while he refilled their cups.
What can I say? I shouldn't need to explain real life to him, not at his age.
"You're right," he said eventually. "You shouldn't have to drop out. You've worked hard to get as far as you have, and it isn't fair to ask you to give it up. But, Dave, you've got to face facts. You can't be a faggot and be a cop. Even if IA doesn't bust you out at the first rumors, you'll be in a hell of a mess if it gets around."
"But . . . I don't think I'm a faggot." Starsky sounded almost plaintive, like an unjustly accused child. "I mean, it's not like I wanna go around kissing any old guys. Just Hutch."
"So you stay the hell away from him."
"But we're friends," Starsky whispered.
"Oh, yeah, right, some friend you've got there. Turns you queer—"
Blaine broke off. Starsky was on his feet, leaning across the table, his face set and harsh. "Hutch hasn't done anything. You hear me? He didn't look, he didn't touch, he's never said a word, not one word, to make me think he'd do anything expect belt me into the middle of next week if I made a move on him. He's married, for Christ's sake!"
"He must have done something. Rose and Al raised you right, and you've always had plenty of girlfriends. Nothing like this." Blaine paused. "Was there?"
Starsky shook his head.
Blaine rubbed his forehead again. "I don't know what to tell you, Dave. Except you've got to make a choice here." He settled back in his chair, took a sip of coffee. "You know, they talk about 'the thin blue line'. Talk about how cops are like a closed society, and how we always stick together, no matter what. How it's 'us and them' and the civilians are 'them'. Now, there's good and bad to that. The good part is that you've always got people to get your back. No matter what goes down, you're not alone. But the bad part . . ." He shook his head, and met Starsky's eyes. "The bad part is, inside 'us' there's no room for outsiders. It's been tough enough getting blacks accepted on the force, and there's still some guys out there who won't ride with a black man, won't take the backup call if they can help it. What do you think will happen to you?"
"Nothin'." Starsky leaned back, suddenly looking more relaxed than he had since he'd come in the door. "'Cause I haven't done anything and I won't." He reached for his toast, and took a bite, washing it down with a swig from his mug. "See, you're right. Being a cop matters to me. I wanna get a chance to show I can be a good one, and I'm not gonna fuck it up. And even if I didn't care about my own future, I sure wouldn't play games with Hutch's."
"So you'll stay away from him?"
Starsky shook his head. "Nope. In fact, we've been talkin' about tryin' to get partnered up once we graduate. Or at least once we get outta uniform."
"You're crazy." Blaine rocked forward. "Didn't you hear anything I said?"
"I heard you. But, see, we're friends. I . . ." Starsky stopped, and then said firmly, "I love him. So, okay, I won't get to love him the way I maybe want—hell, I don't even really know what I want. But that doesn't mean that what we've got right now isn't good. And that it isn't enough."
"And when it isn't enough any more?" Blaine leaned closer and lowered his voice. "When what you need is more important than what you feel?"
Starsky shrugged. "Ma always said: 'Don't borrow trouble, you'll get enough of your own just by being alive.' So I guess I'll worry about that if it happens." He chuckled. "Hutch'll be my best man someday, and we'll probably end up naming our kids after each other, and make our wives crazy always comin' over to each others' houses. We'll go on holidays together, and drive our kids nuts tellin' stories about the good old academy days. And we'll probably end up a couple of old shot-up farts playin' checkers at the retirement home. And if I never get anything but that, it'll be good and it'll be enough. How many guys get a real best friend like that anyway?"
"You're crazy," Blaine repeated. "You'll wreck your life and you'll wreck his."
"Not gonna happen."
"You think you know so much about it? Then why'd you come to me?" Blaine abruptly pushed back his chair and stood up. "If you won't take my advice, why'd you come to me?"
Starsky stood up as well, and looked down sheepishly. "I guess . . . I guess, just once in my life, I wanted to say it out loud to somebody. Uncle Al would probably have a stroke, and it's not somethin' I could talk about to Aunt Rose, know what I mean? I sorta figured, you've seen the real world, you know? It wouldn't be such a shock to you." He shook his head. "Guess I was wrong." He turned toward the door.
"Wait, Dave." Blaine gripped his arm. "Look, I know you think I'm being hard here, but I watched you grow up. You're pretty close to being family. I just don't want to see you get hurt. I think you're making a big mistake. I think you're going to ruin your life. But for what it's worth, I'll back you as much as I can."
Starsky smiled. "It's worth a lot." He looked over at the kitchen clock. "Oh, jeeze, I gotta go. Obstacle course." He grabbed Blaine's hand and shook it. "Thanks for everything, man." He snatched the uneaten toast off his plate, and stuffed it into his mouth as he headed out the door. A few seconds later, Blaine heard the sound of a car engine roaring to life.
Moving stiffly, Blaine gathered up the plates and cups to take them to the sink. He didn't realize his hands were shaking until one of the mugs slipped out of his grip and crashed to the floor, spraying coffee and shards of pottery all over the room. He looked down at the mess and his shaking hands, and for a moment the urge to vomit almost overcame him. He gagged and choked, and managed to push it back.
"John?" Maggie's voice came from the hall. "Who were you talking to?"
Blaine pulled in a huge gasp of air, and forced himself to set the dishes on the counter. For one terrible instant he wanted to hurl what was in his hands against the wall, and then start on everything else in the cupboards. He gripped the edge of the sink hard enough to make his knuckles ache.
"You must have been dreaming, honey," he called back, amazed at how steady his voice sounded. "There wasn't anybody here."