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A Continuing Education

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First Day.
Bright and early Monday morning.
Sandburg

 

"Oh. Shit."

The young giant looming next to him leaned over a little more. "Sum'thin' wrong, Sandburg?" he asked.

"Schedule problem," Sandburg said quickly. Here he was, just walking in the door and already. Obfuscating. Already, a problem to deal with. He sighed and put away his schedule.

"Yeah?" the other man said uncertainly, unfolding his own piece of paper. "Whoa, we start at six a...m. Exercise before breakfast. Man. Sucks." He didn’t sound all that distressed, more like he thought complaint was expected of him.

"Yeah, twelve weeks of getting up at five in the morning,"Sandburg agreed. Or in his case, four in the morning. And locker rooms, communal showers, meals in the mess hall and all the joys of Academy life. Of course, this being California, at least the weather was better than home. Sunshine all over the place. Normally a positive, but at this point, he could foresee a lot of sweat in his future.

Not to mention possible fallout from the major ethical dilemma that had just dropped into his lap. "Look, Jon, you go ahead. I need make an appointment at the front desk."

"Right." Jon, who would never have admitted he didn't want to go on alone, said, "Or I could wait."

"Sure. I'll meet up with you at the gate where we came in." The man at the table there at the gate had handed each person a packet as they came into the compound There were chairs there.

"Okay."

Sandburg walked through the big glass door and up to the reception desk. "Blair Sandburg. I need an appointment," he said to the man who sat at the computer there. "With the Captain. At his convenience but as soon as possible."

"What shall I put on the subject line?" the man asked, typing in the name slowly.

Huh. "Put...health question."

"Health question?" the other repeated, blinking. His fingers, curled above the keyboard, did not begin to type.

"Important health question."

"And it's important?"

Sandburg forced himself not to roll his eyes or let his opinion reach his mouth. "I know everybody's gathering in the commons area and he's not available now. An appointment today would be good, however."

"Okay. You'll be notified as soon as the time is confirmed, but I have you down for right after lunch," the receptionist said, as the fingers began to type again.

"Thanks," Sandburg said, and hefting up his duffel bag, he headed down the corridor. Jon was waiting at the gate, as expected. They'd met on the shuttle from the airport, and struck up a conversation. The big young man had been really happy to find that they were heading for the same place and had stuck to his side like glue all the way here.

Now that they'd checked in at the front gate and got their schedules, they had to find their rooms, leave their luggage, and then report to the gym. Sandburg was in no hurry to get to the gym part of the agenda. For that matter he wasn't much looking forward to any part of his Academy experience. Getting out alive and with the right hunk of paper was his only goal.

He and Jon headed out to the dormitory. The exterior of the long building was sixties architecture done in pale yellow brick. Inside, worn lino and beige walls, last updated in 1980. Jon's room was clear at the end of the corridor and he was frowning as he realized that Sandburg was not next door, or even nearby. It was clear to Sandburg that Jon Anderson was a herd kind of animal. He was big and seemed calm and he could at least carry on a conversation. Probably do extremely well with the right kind of partner. He needed.....

Oh, god. He was thinking like an administrator. He forced himself to stop. That sort of thing could lead to–well, administration.

They dropped Jon's stuff off first and then found Sandburg's room. Oh, please. The beds were numbered. He hoped he could have the bed he threw his stuff onto, because the light was best there. Hoped that the guys he shared with wouldn’t be total assholes. Yeah, that would be good.

Together the two of them went down to the gym. The place was filled with hearty young men and women sitting on hard wooden bleachers. All of them were leaning forward, eyes ahead, eager for it all to start, like greyhounds seeing Sparky. Two men, one with a clipboard, were behind a table at the door, checking the names off the list, handing out two t-shirts, a sweatshirt, and another packet of papers to each cadet as they came through. It was going to be a very monochromatic couple a months. Black with white lettering around the Academy logo. White with black lettering around the logo. Grey with white and black lettering around the logo. Heavy thread count, nice quality. Should last forever. It was a vaguely distressing thought. After all, the Academy might turn out to be something he didn't want to be remembering for the rest of eternity.

He sat on the hard bleachers at the edge of the crowd and listened hard. Jon sat beside him, also intent on the speaker. Twelve women, sixty-eight men. Most of them younger than he, although he wasn't the oldest here. Maybe. Possibly the shortest, however.

It was going to be such a long two months.

If he didn't get asked to leave today.

Opening remarks. Welcome and yada yada. Dos and don'ts. Slide show, not even a PowerPoint, an old fashioned slide show, narrated by a middle-aged man with a raspy voice. Somebody needed to update, big time. Then a short break for the bathroom followed by another speaker, this one focused on doom and gloom and then, rather unexpectedly, an almost-funny skit about keeping your room clean. Pigs aren't pigs? Even Naomi would have laughed. An hour later, they were directed to jog to the mess hall for lunch. The mess hall was a very ugly room, dim, full of echoes until it filled up with chattering cadets. Lunch was uninspired. Salad, of the limp leaf variety, followed by chicken-fried mystery meat with white gravy, next to a big mound of green beans straight from the can, and a little square of chocolate cake. Sandburg forced himself to eat it all. Fuel for the body and all that.

He was the first out the door when they were dismissed, but ended up sitting in a hard green plastic chair outside the Captain's office for ten minutes before he was called in. The Captain stood up and held out his hand. "Cadet Sandburg. There seems to be a problem?"

"Could be," he replied, firmly returning the handshake.

"With your health?" the other asked, looking him up and down, then at the note in the appointment book.

"No, I just said that because I didn't want to cause fatal curiosity, or shock, to your front office staff." Blair sat in the chair at a wave from the older man. "It's...personal. Something I think you should know."

"You going to confess about your dissertation?" the man asked with a shrug, "’cause we looked into that when we got your application." He picked up the cup of coffee which sat at his elbow and took a deep swallow.

"No. And I was honest about that on the application." He worked hard keeping his voice even.

"Just didn't mention any pesky details?" One dark brow arched up.

"You didn't ask for details, pesky or otherwise. I didn't do anything wrong. In fact, I had my life's work stolen from me, by idiots who presented it in an altered form to the media, who then did their usual exploitative and inaccurate job of delivering it up on the six o'clock news. I trashed the whole thing rather than try to fix it, because it couldn’t really be fixed.. They don’t make band-aids that big."

"You admitted to fraud."

"Had to. Had to put the publisher in an untenable position, convince them to abandon the whole idea, not try to salvage it and publish something similar under someone else’s name later. I had to kill it publicly and I wanted it dead, not rising again in a few years to haunt me. Not to mention I saved the city millions of dollars. Literally. Look, this is not what I wanted to talk to you about."

"Yeah? So, talk," the man ordered, with a shrug that suggested the alternative was to take a hike and quit wasting his time.

"I need to know something first." Sandburg drew a deep breath and asked, "Where's..uh, Hutch?"

The man hesitated, and then said, "Home now. Came home yesterday from the hospital."

"Hospital? What’s wrong with him?" Sandburg asked, startled into leaning forward. "He's okay?"

"Going to be. Knee surgery. What I can't figure out is why you're askin'. Do we know you? Hutch know you?"

"Long story. And I didn't know if I should bring this up or not, only I didn't want to be accused later of keeping it from you. Didn't want something stupid to happen if it came out later. But I also didn't want to put you in a bad position."

"Spit it out, kid. There's got to be a point to all that."

"I just want to say that if it's a problem, I'll leave the Academy now, apply somewhere else. I don't want to...."

"Dammit, will you just say whatever it is you're trying to say?" barked Captain Starsky impatiently.

"The thing is. Sir. According to my mother? Either you or Ken Hutchinson? Is my father."

Timing is everything. The captain had just taken another big swallow of his coffee, and the spray as he reacted covered most of the desktop area. He started to choke, but as a worried Sandburg rose out of his chair he held up one hand to motion him back, while with the other one he covered his mouth until he was done coughing.

"Want to try that again?" asked the man hoarsely. He took a cautious sip of his coffee to moisten his throat and then gave part of his attention to the answer as he pulled out a paper napkin he'd found in his drawer. It got soggy fast.

Sandburg loosened his grip from the arms of the chair, wondering when he had grabbed hold so hard. Relax. Deep breath.

"I never knew who my father was. Mom, she always sort of evaded the answer when I asked. I thought she didn't really know, and when I got older I just learned to avoid asking. But when I decided to become a cop, she pulled me aside and said maybe it was time she told me about it. Frankly, I think it took her thirty years to come to terms with it. And this explains her attitude toward cops, too."

The look he got caused him to hurry on with his story. "My mom was a hippie. Her own version of it, anyway. She left home in her teens and went wandering around, ended up in California in sixty-eight. She'd had a bad relationship which caused her to split from the group she had been with, swear off men for a few months. Then she found herself with a bunch of beach squatters sharing some cabins and shacks. End of the summer-long party, and groups were breaking up and reforming as most of them started to work their way south for the colder months. She's hangin' on because she's waiting for a sign to show her which way to go.”

The captain was absently wiping up the last spots on his desk with his clean handkerchief, head down but still listening intently.

“One night, she meets a guy on the beach and likes him. He's older, makes her laugh, has great eyes. Buys her a huge dinner, so she takes him home to her room, all hers because the three people she's been sharing with have taken off that morning in a converted bus for Texas for the winter. Has a wonderful night and makes plans to see him the next day. Only the next day, he doesn't show up. But another man does, good looking blond hunk, charming, with great eyes. She always did have a thing for eyes. This new guy says the first guy can't make it, apologizes, offers to make it up to her. She falls for it, but hey, she was only sixteen, so...are you all right?"

The man had made the mistake of trying for another mouthful of coffee. "Sixteen?" he choked, as he dabbed with the hankie at the coffee splotches now liberally spread across his shirt.

"Sorry, but yeah. Not like she told you, huh?"

"Sixteen...." He sounded horrified. Maybe a little pissed, too.

"So she goes to dinner with the other guy. I figure food was sort of haphazard in the communes she'd been in and hey. Two days in a row of decent food. So, she ends up in bed with this guy, too, and has a great night, and the next morning...."

"The next morning," groaned the man, at the memory.

"Yeah, well, the first guy shows up and all the sudden there's a huge fight going on in the kitchen, screams, blows, beating the hell out of each other sort of thing. He really lays into his friend, who'd sent him on some wild goose chase while he moved in on the lady himself and they're screeching at each other about their friendship and calling each other idiots and in the course of it she finds out that they're cops on vacation, which as she never asked it wasn't as though they lied to her, but cops had like, really given her grief, beat up a friend of hers until he almost died, and she really hated cops at that point in her life.

"She's trying to get to the door so she can run away, and yet she's sort of fascinated because they're rolling around on the floor screaming about partnership and lies one minute and the next minute, they're kissing."

"Oh, jeez," mumbled the older man. He was now clutching his head with both hands, his eyes closed. The memory was obviously coming back to him in excruciating detail.

"And they're apologizing to each other and saying things that make it utterly clear that they've loved each other for years but never could get past the macho guy shit until now, and she says that later she thought it was sort of cosmic that she was the catalyst to something that was so meant to be, but at the time all she felt was that they'd both sort of used her, not only physically, but in that weird game they'd been playing with each other where they moved in on each other's women.

"So she runs out and goes down the beach and when she comes back they're gone, and so she gets her stuff and leaves with the next bunch out. Off men again. Six weeks later she discoverers she's pregnant and she decides this is her baby to raise on her own. Because she knows it doesn't matter which of the guys it is, he's a cop and she's not having her kid around cops. And besides, most likely he's in a committed relationship now. She respects committed relationships. No space in it for us, and she can't stand the idea of settling down in one place anyway. So she just goes on."

"Oh, crap."

"Tell me. I decide to be a cop, so *then* she finally tells all this to me and I'm stunned. Not to mention thirty years old and more than a bit upset because she could have mentioned any of this at any time, what was the big secret, anyway? And, I mean, cops? There are worse things, let me tell you, and I’ve imaged most of them. Drug addicts, petty criminals, married lovers. Makes you wonder about fate, of course, but it isn’t exactly the big mystery she always made it out to be.

“She told me she can't remember the last name of one of them, but his first name was Dave and maybe the last name started with an S or a Z, and the other was Ken Hutchinson, called Hutch by Dave. And I open up my schedule this morning and there's a list of the faculty at the top of it and here are two certain names and I had really strange moment. Only no classes are listed for Hutchinson and so I thought before I started talking I'd better make sure he hadn't just dropped dead or something. So...uh. You two are together? Thirty years?"

"Thirty years of mostly in the closet."

That was a warning as well as information. The questions rose in the silence between them, unasked, but obvious to each of them. The quiet stretched out for almost a full minute.

"Hey," Sandburg said quietly. "I don't believe in blackmail and don't want any favors because of this. That's why I offered to drop out now, if you want me to. Don't want any questions raised later about my record, my honesty. Or yours. I can't afford any more black marks, and we both know it."

"You don't want to drop out?"

"No, I don't. Captain Banks picked this place out for me personally. Plus, I have a partner back in Cascade who's mostly going to be riding a desk until I get back. This was the fastest way to get the minimum certification I need to be a probationary Detective. I can do it back home or somewhere else, but it will take longer. Not to mention I don't know what your refund policy is, and I'm mostly broke. But if it makes you uncomfortable or there's an ethical objection, I'm outta here."

"Huh. Look, I'm going to have to talk it over with some people." Captain Starsky was rubbing the side of his head with one hand.

Sandburg nodded. "Yeah. Whatever you need to do."

"Okay. I'll get back to you. Probably tomorrow or the next day. You go on, follow the program, see how it goes. And don't worry about the refund. If you have to leave, maybe we can even get the tuition transferred."

Sandburg stood up. "Thanks, man."

"Oh, and Sandburg? Keep your mouth shut about, uh, this. Until we work it out."

"Right, Captain."

Sandburg nodded and left. Felt really strange not to...well, what did he expect, a hug from dad? Another handshake? What?

But now that he wasn't face to face with the maybe-dad, he wondered. What had Naomi seen, thirty years ago? Not this man, who was what, over sixty? Almost retirement age, and that was a strange thing. He'd always imagined his dad as being the same age as his mother. Had been thinking of dad as being a stupid teenage boy who didn't have the price of a condom to his name. His mother had said that back then everybody was more focused on not becoming a parent than the possibility of STD's and the solution to everything was making sure the girl was on the pill. She'd not been taking any pills, couldn’t afford them and also she had been so sure that she was off sex forever. He remembered her commenting to a friend later that a baby in her arms had been better than any pill for reminding herself and her potential lovers of the consequences of carelessness.

Strange, though, to think of his dad as about the same age as Jim's. There were deep lines in the face he had just studied. The short more-salt-than-pepper curls were about the only thing he could think that he might have inherited from the guy. The face was not really coarse, but it was drawn with a broad pen, the nose was a little big for the face and obviously had suffered a break or two, or three, through the years. It was a tanned face, and maybe some of the lines around the eyes and mouth were laugh lines. The rest of them came from what, thirty, thirty five, forty years as a cop?

He wondered what the other man looked like. The blond partner. Hutch.

And then he went up to his room, put on the official t-shirt and went to join the rest of his class in the lecture hall. Good thing Jon was the type to take notes, and share them.

Chapter Text

Monday night.
At home.
Starsky

"You look beat," Hutch said as his lover came through the door. He didn't get up from his place on the couch, but lifted his face for the kiss he knew was coming his way. "And you got away on time for once."

"Yeah." Starsky hung up his jacket and went over to give a smacking hard kiss to his lover.

"Oh, like that, is it?" Hutch grinned, shifting his leg to let Starsky settle into place beside him.

"No. I mean, yes, later, but right now, no. Ken...."

Hutch lifted his head. "Ken? This is serious, is it?"

"Could be. You remember how we got together?"

"How could I forget. The embarrassment of suddenly realizing it's you I want, you I love, we tear off our clothes right there on the floor, and then I couldn't get it up." Which was why he'd been the one to first....

"Because you'd screwed my girl the night before. And at midnight. And at dawn."

"Hey, you made the mistake of bragging that you'd made her happy twice the night before. We were competitive."

"We were idiots. Look, remember back. Did you use any protection? Any of the three times?"

"She was on the pill," Hutch replied.

"She say so?"

"Good god, Starsk, how the hell would I remember! Thirty years ago!"

"Yeah. I don't remember, either. How old do you think she was?" Starsky persisted. “Did she look eighteen to you? I thought she was eighteen.”

"You know, I was going to suggest we order dinner, but maybe we should just put you to bed early."

"Later. Just...think back."

"Starsk. I’m hungry."

"Fine. Okay, fine. Where should I call? Luna Tuna? Dominos? Taco Heaven?"

"Not Taco Hell. Pizza. Anything to get the taste of hospital food out of my mouth. You know, hospital food is one area where there has been no advancement at all during our life time. The food might be scientific now, and it's healthier, but it's still..."

"Pizza on the other hand, only gets better. Pizza it is," Starsk said and reached for the phone. After placing the order – and after 30 years together he didn't really have to ask what Hutch wanted on it – he came over and sat down next to Hutch. "Do you remember the meeting where we were going over this quarter's applications? And do you remember this guy?" He tossed a folder at his partner, who caught it neatly and flipped it open one handed.

"Oh, yeah, the guy with the headlines. Great letters of recommendation, great grades, but that fraud confession. I'm still not sure we should have okayed him. Even if he aces the course, he's got that hanging over him."

"Talked to him today."

"He look anything like his picture?"

"Well, he looks a little younger. Hard to tell with all that hair. And he's a good looking kid, bright blue eyes and lots of personality."

"Oh, yeah. The hair." Hutch shook his head. "And he wants to be a cop? Makes it hard on himself, doesn't he?"

"Huh. Comes by it honest. He comes in today and says he has something to tell me. If it's a problem, he offered to switch to a different school. See his birthday?"

"Starsky?"

"His mom isn't sure who his father is. One of two cops. Beach cottage? California?"

"Holy...!"

"He knew details only she would know. The birthday is right. I..."

Hutch drew a shuddering breath and one hand clutched the back of his neck. "Is he yours? Or... mine?" He went scrabbling to find the photograph in the file.

"Can't tell by looking. Hair, curls, those could be mine. Eyes blue. Could be either. Nose looks more like yours. He's short. Five seven. Takes after mom's side of the family there, no matter what. Although, come to think of it, I do have a couple of cousins who are short. He's really smart, though, and you were always the brains of this outfit. Mostly he probably looks like his mother. Didn't she have brown hair?"

"More red."

"His is sort of goldy brown. Looked dark in the photo, but it's not."

"God."

"Yeah. I want to go back and read those articles about that whole mess he was in. And don't we know somebody in Cascade?"

"Not any more. Roberts, remember? He retired."

"Might call him anyway, he might know somebody. Anyway the kid was respectful, just wanted us to know, not imposing or trying to get something from us. Didn't assume anything, came across as solid." Honest.

"You liked him."

"Yeah. The question is, how do we treat him? Tell him to go? Ignore him? Invite him out for Sunday dinner? And afterwards? I know already I'm going to have to have somebody else grade his papers."

"Well, look at it this way. You hate to grade the papers. That's one less."

"He used to be a teacher. In a better world, I could have HIM helping me grade the papers. Bet he's great at it."

"Dream on. Starsk?"

"Yeah?"

"He's good looking?" Hutch was studying the photograph, which wasn’t big enough for much detail.

"Hutch, I gotta say, our boy is beautiful."

"Shit." Hutch still sounded stunned.

"I want to be able to tell him the decision tomorrow. Talk to you tonight, then have a short faculty meeting in the morning. Good thing Jefferson's girl went through last year and we have precedent for how to treat faculty kids."

"Is he taking my classes? Yours?"

"Two of yours. The second part of the firearms class and the Defense and Aggression module. All the basics, so I'll have him twice, too."

"I think we need to have a long talk with Jefferson."

"No shit. We also have to think of what to say, exactly. Get the stories straight...I mean, why go through the whole explanation about his mom and everything. I think we should say he's yours."

"Why me?" Hutch asked, tilting his head so that he could look directly at his lover. He wasn't objecting, only curious.

"He looks more like you. Unless...there's that fraud statement. Maybe you don't want.... Okay, so lets say he's mine."

"Hey. Starsky. It's fine. Look, I was married once. Maybe if it turns out you have a son it will keep the rumors at bay."

"For another two years and three months, until we both retire. Ah, crap, Hutch. Thirty years we've been playing this game. How many people are fooled? Only the strangers. There's sometimes when I think what the hell. What are they going to do to us? It's a new damn millennium. Let them deal."

"You don't want to come out. You know it. We decide the same thing every year, or every time we have this conversation. Besides, think of the kid. All that crap of his own and then his dad comes out? He doesn't need that shit," Hutch said.

"Nobody needs that shit. Remember how hard we worked to keep it a secret those first years? Dates, double dates, weeks spent apart."

"Took ten years for us to even move in together. Ten years of sneaking in and out of two places."

Starsky leaned his head against Hutch's. "Remember waking up next to each other that first time? Sleeping through the night in each other's arms every night and what a miracle it seemed?" Hutch reached out and took Starsky's hand.

"Hutch? I don't mind being Blair's dad."

"Blair. I gotta tell you, Starsk, with a name like that. I mean, Blair Starsky?"

"Like Blair Hutchinson would be so much better? Sounds like a Breck girl. Let's face it, Blair is the sort of name you get stuck with when the mom gets to choose the name."

"Hell, he's just lucky it wasn't Starshine or Blue Sky or something like that. Good cop name, Starshine." Hutch snickered.

"Hey, you read this file again. It's interesting."

"You finished the file before you headed home, didn't you?"

"You know it. Read it, we'll eat. Then not long after dinner I'm going to lure you to bed. Because you fell asleep on me last night. And it's been almost two weeks, Hutch," he complained.

"I bet neither of us can get it up."

"It won't be for lack of trying, let me tell you. Just wish your knee was healed."

"Couple more weeks. We'll get there," Hutch said soothingly, and then he slid his reading glasses out of his pocket and opened the folder again.

Chapter Text

Tuesday morning. Sandburg.

They snored. All three of them snored. At their age. These were seriously flawed young men. All three of them were younger than he was, bigger than he was and on top of that, none of them were Jags fans. Last night they all introduced themselves and then conversation sort of dragged. They compared brands of beer. That night, everybody went to bed a little after ten. Sandburg discovered he was the only one who wore boxers. It probably meant something. He got up at four in the morning so that he could shower and get his hair something like dry before the rest of the guys got up. Communal showers. Gotta love ‘em. Nobody else had thought of getting up quite that early so he had it all to himself, although a couple of guys came in as he was leaving. So here he was dressed in black shorts and a t-shirt, putting on his shoes and watching dawn break over the parking lot.

Alarms went off. The guys woke up. Sanchez first, Stoltz next, and finally hulking big Smithson, grumbled and farted and crawled out of bed. At least he could now turn on his light. They were all back in the room in various shades of damp when Sanchez asked him the question obviously on the top of everyone's mind.

"Hey. What's with the hair, Sandburg?"

He didn't even have to answer.

"Undercover. Has to be," Smithson offered. "Vice or Drugs?"

"Who, me? Just a disgraced college professor trying to get by, guys. Honest."

Smithson snickered. "Do you really think that lame story is going to work?"

"What?" asked Stoltz. He was running his fingers through short spiky black hair. There was an entire ocean of gel somewhere with the man's name on it, judging by the amount he was slathering on.

"You saw his press conference, didn't you?" Smithson said to the others.

"Where he said he was a fraud? Only it was for some stupid ass thing nobody could believe. Superman or something like that. You should have had them make up something else. Something believable," Smithson advised. "The bad guys aren't all dumb, you know."

"Hey. All out of my hands," Sandburg said, honestly.

"And then they send the guy to a police academy out of state right after? Of course somebody's setting something up," Smithson went on.

Well, it was better than the scenario where they all beat him up in the showers for the next eight weeks for being a liar and a fraud. "Is it time for breakfast yet?" he asked, obviously changing the subject. Knowing grins were traded around, but at least they dropped the subject.

Only before there could be breakfast there were the jumping jacks and jogging and push-ups. Outside. They came back in and had a half hour for breakfast and no time for a second cup of coffee. And the first cup was disgusting, although, come to think of it, good practice for that time in the near future when these cadets would be drinking actual cop-type break room coffee. Time to dig out the portable coffee pot he had brought along. Although on an empty stomach and before exercise? Maybe not.

Classes started right away. They were scheduled in modules of one, two or four weeks and each lasted two hours each day, if you included the ten minute passing time. Very industrial looking classrooms: whiteboards, a VCR in the corner, rows of desks. Two classes before lunch, two after lunch, then a required study hour, then dinner, then on your own for studying or practice during the evening hours. Library and gym closed at nine. Gates closed at ten so that the parking lot and campus could be locked up for the night.

He sat on the left side of the classroom, about halfway down, as he had for most of his academic life. Books were furnished as part of the tuition and handed out at the beginning of each class. You only paid for a book if you wanted to take it with you when you went or if you lost one, or damaged it. Hell of a lot better than fighting the campus book store for hours, although he missed the wheeling and dealing and trading. He’d been good at that. He rested his arm on the pile of books, feeling the familiar angles and edges.

The instructor kept looking at him. Because of the diss or the dad or the hair? He had been happy when it turned out there was no regulation about hair length at the Academy as long as it was kept tied back, but they did warn you that departments around the country set their own standards. Jim had already showed him rather graphically what happened when somebody used hair as a handle. Jim had been helping him get ready for the Academy, teaching him some counter moves. No doubt they'd demonstrate more of that to him here, too.

State Law. A four week module. They were given a big binder for each state they had requested on the registration form, and a big packet of questions to answer by looking it up in the big binder. Well, *that* was inspired teaching. Not that it wouldn't give you the basics.

Nobody asked the question at the top of his mind.

Well, he'd always told his students that there were no dumb questions. He raised his hand.

Mr. Dore looked down his nose at him and said dryly, "No, you can't go to the bathroom."

"Okay. But can we work on these together?"

"Mr. Sandburg, every class, cadets do. Sometimes they cheat and copy the whole thing from somebody else. Every time, somebody flunks the class because they collected all the answers but they didn't learn the material. Unlike high school, or even college, these answers can mean the difference between life and death, and more importantly, between having a job and getting your ass sued off. Does that answer your question?"

"Do your own work. Do it right. And double-check everything. Got it."

It was fun watching Dore swallow back the words he obviously really, really wanted to say. Abruptly he turned to the chalkboard. "Have it finished to page 20 by tomorrow. Work on it now until the end of the hour."

So they did, and after that was firearms training, where they began by doing basic safety out of a book, and then lunch. Lunch included salmon patties, and fruit cocktail from a can, something he hadn’t had in years. He poked it over but found he didn't have the cherry. Forced himself to eat it all anyway. After lunch there was "Police and the Community," and in front of the class stood Captain David Starsky, in dark pants, blue shirt, blue tie.

He didn't so much teach as just tell what he knew, spicing the narrative with personal anecdotes and flat statements of advice that came directly from years on the street. The man carefully did not make eye contact with him, which wasn't the best of signs, but he didn't ignore Sandburg either. He assigned reading and ended the class with, "Sandburg, I need to see you after class."

He could feel the stares of the others as they filed out. He went up to the front.

Starsky started abruptly, "The faculty says you stay. We told them you're my kid, to keep it simple. Hutch says come to dinner on Sunday." Starsky said it low and fast, knowing Sandburg had to get to his last class. "Dinner for him means noon."

"Thanks man, but transportation's a problem."

"No it's not. I'll pick you up on the north corner by the bench, at eleven."

"Okay. Casual?"

"Yeah. Got anything you can't eat? You're not a vegetarian, are you?" the older man asked suspiciously.

"Not at the moment."

"Thank god. Hutch is halfway there. Has been for years. Always on or off one healthy-eating kick or another. Currently on again. Just warning you."

"Thanks, but that won't be a problem."

"Get going. You'll be late."

Sandburg went, but he didn't see the corridor, hardly heard what was going on around him. For some reason, it hit him hard. One stupid little phrase. Get going, you'll be late.

Something a father might say.

Hey.

He had a father. Somebody had officially claimed him.

What a really strange feeling.

It hadn't been real, when Naomi had told him. Having the field of "maybe" narrowed down to two unknown strangers was really not much different from not knowing at all when there was no mental image to go with it. But now the concept of "dad" was starting to have a face. That man had told his colleagues Sandburg was his. Claimed him as a son.

Strange. Never really felt the need for a dad, although it would have been handy, having a second parent. Naomi had made sure he hadn't lacked for male role models, although he had to admit some of them were a little out there.

So now.

Dad.

How had they decided?

What was this Hutch like?

How weird was Sunday going to be?

Turns out being late to class meant twenty push-ups. Damn. But rather than complain or explain, he just gave it his best shot, with everyone looking and counting off, and then gave his attention to the teacher. Apparently it was the right thing to do. Although somebody did shout that he did girly pushups. He ignored it.

After class he went and checked out the library, which was borderline inadequate. They'd never heard of Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress; the books were shelved more or less by class or subject. Cheap tables crowed up against each other. There was no librarian manning the desk. Three-year-old machines lined up against the wall in the computer lab next door. Good thing he had brought along his laptop and printer. Good for writing reports, but unfortunately there was no use dreaming about high speed connections or wireless modems. He sighed and went to dinner.

Jon Anderson, he noticed, was eating with his roommates. His own roomies weren't sitting together. He joined a table that had plenty of seats available, greeted those nearest to him amiably, and ate quickly. He went to his room afterward, and finding himself alone, he dug out his phone and punched in a number

"Ellison."

"Ah, the voice of sanity."

“Sandburg. Hey. Something wrong?"

"Let me put it this way. It's all about as strange as usual, but at least no one is shooting at me."

"How strange is it? Sandburg strange?"

"Relatively speaking. You know, before she left, Naomi dropped a little surprise on me."

"Another one?" Ellison asked dryly.

"Up yours. Seeing as how it looked like I was going to be a cop, she decided to finally explain something about my previously anonymous father."

"Sandburg?"

"Two cops? Partners. She had them one weekend. Sequentially, not at the same time. It's one or the other. Ellison. Stop laughing."

"I'm not. I'm...not." But those faint gasping sounds gave him away.

"Hell you're not. So anyway...."

"Are we entering or leaving the Sandburg zone?"

"Entering."

"You've got a brother in your class? There's TWO of you?"

"Fuck off. It's worse than that. They're both on the faculty. I confessed all yesterday so I don't later get accused of fraud or something, and Sunday it's dinner with the dads."

"Dads?"

"They live together. They've been together since the day I was conceived. A couple. Ellison? How about I call you back when you can breathe again?"

"No! Blair! Sorry! Really, wai...wait!"

"I'll hang up and call the paramedics."

"Naomi...one night of Naomi turned them gay?" Peals of laughter. It could only be described as peals of laughter.

"No, you asshole. They just realized at that particular moment that they were playing games by sharing girlfriends, stealing them. Sublimating what they really felt."

"So what are their names? And which one is it?"

"David Starsky. Kenneth Hutchinson. I haven't met Hutchinson yet, he's coming off knee surgery so he's not been at work. We're having dinner Sunday. Their place."

"Only you, Sandburg. Which one is it?"

"Only DNA will tell, I guess. Apparently I don't look enough like either of them to be sure, but I'm officially Starsky's, according to what they told the rest of the faculty. Look, I gotta watch my minutes, but I'll call you Sunday night and tell you how it goes. Maybe by that time you'll stop snorting."

"I can't wait to tell Simon this one."

"Don't let him damage himself," Sandburg said morosely. No use telling Ellison to keep the news to himself, so he asked, "So how is everything?”

“No zones, no excitement, no action. Court tomorrow. Also Wednesday. Classes okay?"

"Beginning stuff, most of which I already know. Oh, and I expect to have real bruises tomorrow."

"Legitimate bruises, from self-defense classes?"

"Yes." He could tell Jim relaxed when hearing that. Hell, it was good news to him, too. He'd been expecting the worst, but so far things had just been sort of neutral.

"Keep moving." Ellison advised.

"Right. Look, I'm going to go pretend I'm one of the guys. Probably call you again in a couple days."

"Right."

"Later."

He hung up. What he really wanted to do was to stay on the phone. Just...talk. He'd seen Jim only yesterday morning, but it seemed like days, somehow.

He was heading towards the library, but found himself passing the lounge where the TV held court, and he decided to do some male bonding over college basketball. As usual, a few pithy comments and appropriate witticisms and boom. Instant camaraderie. He stayed for an hour before he went back to his room and settled down with the big red binder of Washington state laws. Slog, slog, slog. Homework done by nine-thirty and still no sign of his roommates, one of whom had been down in the TV lounge and was probably still there.

He had the definite feeling there were going to be guys asking for favors around here when they realized they weren't doing too well. Which he was not going to be granting. Well. Not exactly.

He went to bed early, before the others were back. Four in the morning came too damn early. Fifty four more days to go. God.

Chapter Text

Wednesday. And Thursday. And Friday. Sandburg.

Amazing how quickly the days took on a pattern. Studying was studying, he was good at this, knew his limitations and his abilities. Just has he had suspected, the physical side of the Academy sucked. He'd never minded sports as much as he minded the repetitive exercise that didn't take you anywhere. Which, of course, was how he now started both his morning and his afternoon. He actually found himself looking forward to obstacle courses. Well, until they were actually doing them.

And it turned out, self-defense did hurt.

Well, yeah. After his first two hour stint, even breathing hurt. He skipped dinner, knowing there was granola in his bag if he got hungry, because all he wanted was a hot shower. The problem with the hot shower is that the effects lasted exactly fifteen minutes. Then he started to stiffen up again. He studied all through the dinner hour but was ready for an interruption when Don Sanchez came back to the room. Sandburg took advantage of the fact that they were both alone and put down the book.

"Hey. Sanchez. Ask you a question?"

"Yeah?" the other man asked cautiously.

"So, tell me the truth. You and the guys? Don't hang around. In my paranoia, I wonder if it's me. Or not me, and they just study somewhere else, or if they're not studying at all. Or both. Or either."

"Uh....."

"Because if it is me, well it is, and I'm not holding any grudges, but if it's not me and they've not settled down to it yet, I gotta tell you, it's going to be a loooong two months, with nothing to show for it in the end when they flunk out."

"Well...."

"I can take it."

"It's not you, man. I mean, except they...nobody...it didn't seem your sort of thing. Going out for a beer. You know. It wasn’t your sort of bar."

"Possibly you would be surprised. But I take it you guys are going out for a beer until almost time for the gates to be closed, them coming back and...?"

"Hanging around in one of the rooms or the TV lounge. Where the lady cadets also happen to be."

"Oh, yeah? Now the truth comes out!" Sandburg grinned.

"Hey, not me. I'm married."

"Okay, gives *you* an excuse if you're pining away for your wife. But nobody else is studying, either."

"What's with you and studying?" Sanchez said, sitting down on his own bed.

"Okay, I have a confession to make." Sandburg put aside his book and assumed a serious expression.

Sanchez looked distinctly uneasy at that.

Sandburg leaned forward and dropped his voice. "For the last four or five years? I've been..." he took a deep breath and confessed, "a teacher."

Sanchez looked suitable horrified.

"Yes, part of the time I taught at the university and part of the time I had ride-along status and worked with the police. Which I liked and which I would now like to do full time as a cop. So that I can get paid for it, which, I gotta tell you, I didn't as a police observer. I figure if you're going to be shot at, trapped in elevators, or driving after felons, and doing paperwork until midnight, you might as well get some compensation, not to mention good insurance. Which is a little off the subject, but not really, because I am telling you from experience that you *need* the stuff you are going to learn here, that it can be your life you're risking if you don't know it and know it well."

Sanchez just sat and blinked at him, so Sandburg went on. "So I'm half way between pissed off that you guys aren't taking advantage of the chance to study, cause there sure isn't any time later, and irritated at the thought that someday my back-up is going to be some jerk who coasted through the academy doing the absolute minimum it takes to get through."

"Hey! It's just, you know. Not much to it right now and there's the weekend. Lots of time." Sanchez was squirming.

"Sure. I understand that. Only remember, speaking as a former teacher, I remind you that teachers start with the easy stuff and the review. It's going to get harder. And I am NOT going to be conned into taking a lot of time to help all of you in a couple of weeks when you are in deep shit and are screaming for help. I am not going to get typecast here, play the nerd. So I'm saying, *you* take a leadership role, help me get them settled down. I figure you for the pivotal player in this. They'll follow your lead. You're older than them, right?"

"I dunno. No, that's not the...man, they wouldn't...wouldn't...."

"They would."

"I'm not that great at studying. In high school...."

"Different world, man. If you really want to be a cop, it will be easy studying for it because almost everything will be stuff you need to know, stuff that's interesting to you, and that kind of knowledge goes in better than, say..."

"Algebra."

"Yeah, algebra. And if you can talk it over, that helps the material sink in, too." Sandburg said. "Plus, I gotta tell you, it helps your scores if you're a little gung ho. Discuss in class, ask intelligent questions. All that. To do that, you have to be up on the reading, on the assignments."

"I figured that out." Sanchez sighed and added, "You sound like my wife."

"Oh, man, that is harsh!" Sandburg grinned.

"No, man. Harsh, that would be my mother-in-law."

"So what does your wife think about you wanting to be a cop?"

"She thinks it's stupid, except for the fact that I'll be bringing in a better paycheck. So do her brothers. Including the one in jail."

"Should make future family reunions interesting."

"Oh, shit. You had to say that."

"Oops. Sorry." Not very, but hey.

"So what does your family think? About you wanting to be a cop?" Sanchez asked. He was sitting in his chair now, feet up on the end of Sandburg’s bed.

"Mom survived apoplexy at the very thought and now merely has mixed feelings." He hesitated, and then said, almost to himself, "Dad was a cop. I haven't asked directly, but I just assumed he'd be okay with it." He sat up as he considered that, and then added, "Ah, crap."

"What?"

"Just the bruises. I'm going to go stand under a the shower again, hot as I can stand it, and then I have this stuff I picked up a few months ago that I want to try. One of those oriental essential oils mixes, like Tiger Balm, only this is supposed to be better. The thing about it is, it stinks, so I haven't used it yet."

"It makes a bruise feel better?"

"So advertised."

"Can I try some?"

"Sure. Only do a small test patch first, make sure you aren't allergic or something. And for god's sake, don't get it in your eye. The stuff doesn’t just sting, it sort of burns, plus there is no cachet to an emergency room visit. Take it from someone who knows."

"Like I'd get it in my eye. Maybe I'll take a shower, too. This stuff we were doing gets you across the shoulders," Sanchez admitted.

"And the back and the neck and the thighs, and the...." Sandburg stopped his list when the other man started laughing. They went down to the shower. Not as bad as he had feared, the communal shower thing, less intimidating when there was the pain to focus on. And oh, that glorious heat. He bundled his hair up to keep it as dry as possible, but the splash off of his shoulders and face got it pretty damp anyway. He stood, head bent, worshiping the heat and the beat of the water against his muscles.

He was lost in it, celebrating the it's-not-going-to-run-out-no-matter-how-long-I-want-to-stand-stand-here delight of it, when Sanchez said, way too loudly, "Shit!"

"Wha?!" Sandburg jumped and turned, back to the wall and slightly crouched, looking right and left wildly.

"Shit, man, were you *shot*?"

Sandburg forced himself to relax. "Hell, man, scare me to death. Where? No, that? No that's just from a spear, when I was still a teenager. A stupid-ass kid, who was not me, I might add, decides to learn to throw like a native. The natives about died laughing when he missed and got me. The bullet hole is up here."

"That's a real bullet wound? It looks funny. Not this one?" An inquisitive finger poked into a dip on Sandburg's arm.

"No, that's a spider bite. Worse than the bullet wound, I swear."

"The spider hurt worse than the bullet?" Sanchez frowned, rubbing his hair absently his with his towel as he thought about that. "Where did you get bit by that kind of spider?"

"Right here in the good old USA, believe it or not. Brown recluse. Florida. I did the spring break thing there once. Hey, those beaches are dangerous!"

"So why did you get shot?"

"Told you I was a police observer? One who forgot to stay in the truck. Turns out they tell you to stay in the truck for a reason." He hurried to dry off and get into his clothes, hoping he had said enough to distract his buddy from the fact that he hadn't actually told him anything. He managed to change the subject, and they headed back to the room, shirts slung over shoulders and only in jeans. Once in the room they tried out the little tin of salve, rubbing the pungent yellow stuff on to every bruise they could find.

"What the hell stinks in here?" asked Smithson and he and Stoltz came in an hour later.

"Stuff for bruises that Sandburg has. Works great," Sanchez added, looking up. He was sitting, propped up by his pillow, reading one of the textbooks.

"You can try it if you want," Sandburg asked, from his own bed. He was sitting cross-legged, his books and papers spread out in a circle around him.

"We're just here to pick up our jackets. You coming?" Smithson asked. He made it a general invitation, but his eyes were definitely on Sanchez.

"Not this time. Going to do Starsky's assignment."

"We're going to do it when we come back," Shultz said, although it was perfectly obvious that he had forgotten all about it until Sanchez mentioned it.

"It's not too hard, but takes time,” Sanchez commented. “See ya."

"Yeah."

The door closed behind them.

"That was pretty brave of him," Sandburg said.

"What?"

"Making that offer. Smelling like we do." They laughed and settled down to the community assessment assignment.

Chapter Text

Friday, evening. Sandburg.

It took a couple days and Sanchez's admittedly less than enthusiastic help, but on Friday night he actually had all three of his roommates sitting there, just after supper, books open. They had agreed to go out later as a group. To some bar. From the description the main attraction to the place was the cheap beer, and drinking bad beer was so not on the Sandburg agenda. Doing a little bonding with the guys was, however, and he was prepared to make the sacrifice.

His phone ringing brought all heads up. He dug around in his pack to find it and then answered as quickly as he could.

"Yeah? Oh, hi, Captain. What's wrong? Of course there has to be something wrong, you're calling me on a Friday night." He listened for a minute. "He did *what*? That asshole. That asshole, I swear I'm going to kill him." He listened with some patience but added, "I am too going to kill him. Was anyone else hurt?"

All eyes were on him, he suddenly realized. "I'll call him. Is he home, or still at the hospital? Okay. Thanks, Simon." Almost before he was done speaking he was stabbing in the new numbers.

When Jim answered Sandburg didn't even give him a hance to speak. “What the hell do you think you're doing? Yeah, I *know* most people say hello. Most people don't have a partner who managed to get hit by a flying – let's see if I got this right. A coconut? A fucking flying coconut? I'm gone for only one week, one week! And you managed this *how*?"

On the other end, Ellison winced, dialed his hearing down and said, "Hey. It was misplaced zeal on the part of Joe Public. Kid pushed the lady down and grabbed her purse. Guy behind me in line decided to play hero and threw his coconut. Terrible aim."

"You still got the perp," Sandburg said.

"Yeah, scared the hell out of the guy, too. You know how head wounds bleed. It was all over me when I caught up to him."

"How many stitches?"

"Just a couple. Did Simon call you?"

"How many stitches, Ellison? And of course he called me."

"Only a few. Eight."

"Eight. Dammit, Ellison!"

"Hey, it hasn't spoiled my good looks. It's up near the hairline."

"Hope you weren't counting on the hair hiding the scar. You know, for somebody who was supposed to be..."

"Keeping a low profile, at the desk, yeah, I got the same from Simon. I don't need it from you. From you I was looking for sympathy."

Sandburg snorted. "Like that's going to happen. Look, go rest, as I'm sure they told you to, and I'll touch base later. Try to stay in one piece until I graduate, okay?"

"Talk to you later, as in, when you're alone?" Ellison asked.

"You bet. Later."

Sandburg looked up to find three pair of eyes fastened on him ad he put the phone back in the backpack. "My stupid-ass partner went after a purse snatcher and managed to get hit on the head by a coconut. A damn coconut! In Cascade." He shook his head and grinned. "You guys have *so* much to look forward to."

"Partner." Shultz was about dying of curiosity.

"Not officially until I get out of here. If he manages to keep alive that long."

"So you're already on the payroll?" Shultz asked.

"Hell, no. That would involve paying me money, something the city of Cascade is putting off as long as possible. First I have to get through the Academy. Then they'll think about paying me." He opened his book again, not wanting to answer too many questions. "What's the answer to number five?" he asked. Not that he didn't already know.

They went out that night and he impressed his buddies by acquiring feminine companionship almost the minute he walked in the door. With his hair tied back, even. However, Devi, the lovely blonde, discovering that he was effectively broke, soon wandered off and left them all to commiserate and drink beer. The evening was fraught with other peril, however. When they started in on an informal and generally unflattering assessment of the faculty, he volunteered to go buy another pitcher. And when they got too politically incorrect for his still generally on the liberal side soul, he decided that an empty bladder was a laudable goal and headed for the restroom, because although it he enjoyed a good debate, even with cops or cop wannabes, it was stupid to waste time converting the inebriated. Even if you convinced them, they always forgot and woke up in the morning with their own misguided notions still firmly planted in place.

By the time he hauled the bunch of them all home and put them to bed he had come to an inescapable conclusion. He would really rather be at home in Cascade. Going out for a beer with Jim, or with the guys from Major Crime. Tonight had been so...pale in comparison. Drinking with guys you hardly knew was unsatisfying. Afloat in a sea of cliches, generalizations and beer. All he'd thought about, while he smiled and talked and swallowed pale beer, was how he really ought to be back with Ellison. The idiot at home, the one with a coconut-sized lump on his head, and stitches. Were his senses okay? Blair should be there, in Cascade. With the Sentinel. Which was stupid, because there wasn't one darn thing he could do for Jim that Jim wasn't probably already doing. It just all *bothered* him. He had the vague idea that if he had been there....

Guide away from the Sentinel, he told himself. Of course he was antsy about it.

Partner away from partner. Okay, that too.

But on top of that, or under it, was just the truth of Blair being away from Jim. Jim, hundreds of miles away from him. Although it wasn't Jim he was missing, right? The Jim he was missing was something generalized, idealized, something polished and transformed by distance. Absence may not have made the heart fonder, but it had erased some of the harsher lines of reality.

Not all that long ago, reality had been the pits. Ellison had really thought...had rejected him when he thought....Jim had actually believed that he would trade him in for money and glory and fifteen minutes with Letterman. And even though they worked it out, Jim had never really apologized for that, except in a sort of a joking way.

So, really, why did he want to be home so much? He’d only been gone one week. Less than one week. In fact, five days. All it had been was five days?

His roommates were all asleep. Very quietly, he crept out into the hall, a hall lit 24/7 with bright white lights, but at the moment, it was the most private place he could find. Sat down with his back against the wall and his phone in his hand. He punched the buttons with his eyes closed. One ring. Two.

"Oh good. You're still up."

"More or less. But not for long. I'm beat."

"Yeah. Any problems?"

"Just the headache. It'll go away."

"Me, too. Headache, I mean. Went out with the guys. Dark hole in the wall. Inferior beer. Do we know how to have fun, or what?"

"I take it the answer is, ‘what'?"

"You take it right. It's really weird."

"What is?"

"I miss you." Sandburg said it too quickly.

There was a long silence on the other end.

Sandburg laughed. "Wake up. You don't have to echo the sentiments, you just have to remind me that it's only a few weeks and I'll make it if I just hold on," Sandburg said.

"I miss you, too. The headache I have was there last night, too."

"Pre-coconut," Sandburg joked.

"I think I keep listening for you. It echoes differently in here, when I'm alone."

"Yeah, well. You could be sharing one room with three other guys. Talk about strange echoes. And you know what? There's a bed, tiny desk and a closet against each wall, so in the middle of the room is a space about the size of the Volvo, a rectangle shaped by the foot of the beds. Feet of the beds? You know what I mean. And I realized this morning that I have the bed on the north wall. I unconsciously picked the one closest to Cascade. Which is really pitiful, you know, what's a foot or two when you're hundreds of miles away?"

"Could just be coincidence."

"Yeah, I know. Still. And the food sucks."

"Of course it does. That's traditional. Do you get rubber jello?"

"Oh, yeah. And I didn't know you could turn pizza into actual cardboard."

"So maybe your dads will feed you something decent."

"I live in hope. Look, you need your rest. I have the outdoor range tomorrow, but just a walk-through where they go over the safety rules. Guess what I get to do after that, *next* weekend?" He put an artificial eagerness into his tone, way too enthusiastic and idiotic with it.

Ellison laughed. "Tell me."

"I get to ride along. With a real cop, Jim! For an entire eight hour shift."

"Anybody warn the poor guy?"

"No. But they are clear about what you can do and not do. It's right up there in red print at the bottom of the outline sheet. Unless asked to participate by the officer, the cadet is expected to,” Jim chimed in and they finished in unison, "stay in the car." Then Ellison cackled his head off.

Sandburg held the phone away from his ear. "That is *so* not an attractive sound for a grown man to make."

"Up yours, Sandburg. I'm going to bed."

"Hey, I hear you. Good night."

"Good night, Sandburg. Talk to you Sunday."

"That your way of saying don't be calling up every day, asking how you feel?"

"Because I'm fine. Night."

"Bye." Sandburg folded his phone slowly. He felt better now that he had talked to Jim, but still. He sighed, slipped into the room, and went to bed.

Chapter Text

Sunday, shortly after noon. Sandburg.

Well. This was a surprise.

He was nervous. Remarkably so, considering that he hadn't been. Not all week, not this morning. Sure, sort of excited. Looking forward to going and seeing his...dads. How they lived. Everything. Heck, just getting away from this place for awhile was enough to cheer a person up. At least he got to sleep in this morning. Sunday was the one morning they didn't get you up at dawn and have you trot briskly around the track eight times.

But hey. Dad. And Dad.

Typical Sandburg luck. First, no dad at all, and now, two. Somebody was going to make that two for the price of one joke, he just knew it.

He'd spent the morning doing his laundry, studying while leaning against the warm rumbling washer. Reminded him of his undergraduate years. He folded his clothes and went and put them away, and he got dressed in the clothing he had been wearing when he arrived on Monday. Tied his hair back, shaved again, and finally left early because he couldn't even pretend to study. Besides, it was nice outside. Warm. Yellow sun and a light breeze. He stood on the corner, knowing he wasn't exactly being unobtrusive, wondering if he'd get run in for loitering. He was happy when the red car pulled up beside him and Captain Starsky leaned over from the driver's side, opened the door and shoved it wide.

"Get in." The guy wore jeans and a t-shirt, and his hair was tousled because he drove with the window down. He was also grinning. "You're on time."

"I was early. Nervous," Sandburg confessed.

"Yeah. Us, too. Hutch changed the menu three times. And guess what? In honor or you? We get dessert."

"What?" Sandburg grinned.

"Apple crisp with ice cream."

"I like that. I assume dessert is on the list of evil things avoided in the name of good health?"

"And low weight. There were years, decades, when it didn't matter what I ate and then suddenly one day. Pow. So we gave up desserts."

"Being a role model and everything."

"Yeah, well, everything. So we get dessert four times a year. And also today, because as Hutch said, it's a little late to be handing out cigars. Besides, we gave those up a few decades ago, too."

"Hey. I'm honored to be the excuse for dessert."

"And I gotta warn you. You might get hugged. Once or twice." His voice was a little tentative, as if he wasn't quite sure how Sandburg would react.

"I'm tough. I can take it," Sandburg joked, reassuring him.

"Yeah, I figured. We lucked out. Got a kid who won't freak out if his gay dads...."

"Hug all you want. Just as long as you know. I could hug back," he warned.

"Fine. Uh...fine." Starsky seemed out of words. His gaze was firmly on the road. That was okay. Time to change the subject. "So," Blair said, "have you told anyone besides the faculty? And what *did* you tell the faculty. Because Mr. Dore keeps looking at me like he expects me to grow horns or something."

"Him? He's just a little–it's just Al. He's like that."

"His name is Al? Al Dore?"

"Yeah, he's heard more vice president, environment, and candidate jokes than is good for his disposition. Word to the wise."

"Presidential references will never cross my lips."

"Smart. We're in the middle of this block." He pulled up into the drive of a stucco house, white with red trim around the windows, on a lot circled by trees in the back, although none were close to the house or the fence. The struggle between privacy and safety also showed in the decorative grills of black iron over the windows. They got out of the car, Starsk locked it, and they walked along the curved sidewalk to the front door. An assortment of pottery jars filled with lush greenery and flowering plants clustered on the edge of the step. Looked nice.

There was a tall man with silver white hair standing in the doorway, holding the door open for them. He had sharp features and bright blue eyes framed with deep crow’s feet. There was a dish towel tucked into his waistband. "Hello, Blair," he said, when they were all inside. As Starsky put the hook on the door, the other man held out his hand. "Welcome home."

The hand Blair shook trembled slightly. Sandburg managed a smile and then said, "I was warned there might be a hug. I've been known to hug." Half a second later he was caught up in powerful arms and crushed up against a broad chest.

"Ah, kid," Hutch said, when he let him go.

Starsky shoved Hutch aside and said, "Go check your pot roast," and then he gave Blair a one-armed hug himself. "Come on in," he said and ushered him further into the house. "Coffee, cola, beer?"

"Beer would be fine." Sandburg said.

"Have a seat and I'll go get it, and then give you the grand tour."

"Okay." Sandburg sat and looked around. It was so...well, middle class. And 70's. Lots of plants by the window on wrought iron stands that had been painted white. Sofa and matching loveseat in brown, tan and white, and two brown recliners. Neutral carpet of the wall to wall version, end tables and coffee table, unremarkable but well polished. On one end table stood a gaudy vase of Mexican pottery, orange and red, with little mirrors set in bands around the wide neck. One wall had an entertainment center with large screen TV and VCR. The wall at right angles held vintage stereo equipment, including a turntable and shelves of old records. There were a couple of pictures on the wall, one of a restaurant or bar. Probably taken back where they had been cops, because the neon looked slightly dated. Against another wall was a big curio cabinet, filled with a very strange assortment of mementos, trapped safely behind glass so that they did not need to be dusted.

A beer appeared, dangled before his eyes, and he grabbed it happily and got up for the tour of the house. Was he just a tad too happy to see the beer? He’d never wanted to end up dependent on alcohol. Subject might need some thought. But not right now, when he was getting the grand tour and needed his amazing brain to come up with appropriate comments about each room.

Bathroom done in white and dark blue. Guest room across from it, cream walls, and a bright orange spread over the double bed. Master bedroom with king sized bed across from a big TV, flanked by matching dressers. The walls were blue, the curtains grey and blue in a big blocky print. It had an attached bathroom, with a sink, toilet, and shower.

A small office next door, with desk, computer, file cabinets, and a couch. Large closet, filled with file boxes. Then the kitchen, bigger than he expected, with a pantry, and next to that a door to the backyard. Hutch waved a spoon at them from the stove as they went through to the back yard. Oh, yeah. Deck. Hot tub, screened in on two open sides by lattice, up which crawled enthusiastic vines.

"Okay. Envy," Sandburg said, pointing toward the hot tub, currently empty of water.

Starsky laughed. "One of Hutch's better ideas. But waiting for some minor repairs right now. It’s got a small leak somewhere. Since he was gettin’ minor repairs too, I haven't nagged the guy who said he would fix it last Thursday. Suppose I'll have Hutch give them a call tomorrow, since he’s still off for a week."

"He’s taking advantage of my poor bum knee," Hutch said from the doorway. "Food's ready."

"Good. I'm starved," Starsky said.

"You were born starved," Hutch pointed out. "Go wash your hands."

Starsky confided, "Forget just once, just once, and forever after...."

"Quit bitching and hurry up," his lover said.

A few minutes later they were sitting down to a fantastic meal. Well, maybe it was merely good, but to Sandburg it gained points automatically because it wasn't cafeteria food. "God, this is good," he confessed after the first bite. "Am I allowed to say something disparaging about the food at the big A?"

"Hell, it's better now than it was a few years ago. And the cinnamon rolls aren't too bad." Starsky told him.

"Not too good, either," Hutch said. "You only think they’re good, because of the frosting they put on them. You're not supposed to be eating them." He eyed his partner suspiciously.

"Once a month," Starsky protested. “I only have them once a month.”

"You are such a liar," Hutch said, shaking his head.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, I've heard it. Broken record. If you're just going to play it again, I'm turning on the game."

"Jags game?" Blair asked.

"Hell, kid, no! Don't tell me you're a Jags fan. You just don't tell me that!" Starsky moaned.

Hutch laughed. "Well, that proves it right there. You're not his kid. You're mine. Due to your superior taste in basketball teams," Hutch said, "not to mention your good looks."

"In your dreams, Hutch. He's got my hair, admit it."

"My eyes."

"My ass."

Sandburg said, "Before we go much further along this path, I think it only fair to tell you you’re approaching dangerous territory, here. I don't think dads are supposed to talk about their kid's ass.”

"Yeah, not in the middle of dinner," Starsky agreed.

"And maybe never." Sandburg said it firmly, but was pretty sure that neither one of these guys knew the meaning of the word quit.

"You know, youngster, you're no fun at all. Do you play poker?" Starsky asked.

There was a long pause.

"Last time I saw a grin like that it was on a shark," Hutch observed thoughtfully, staring at Sandburg’s reaction. “He plays.” Then he added, “He plays against cops. And wins. And he thinks that’s funny. He *is* your kid.”

"I bet you do innocent better with the hair not tied back," Starsky guessed. "Are they going to be putting you undercover?"

"Not much. Far as I know. Why?" Sandburg asked. He reached up and pulled off the hair tie, and shook out his hair before tucking the tie in his pocket. Both of his fathers studied this new look for a moment. At least they didn't seem to disapprove of what they saw.

"Don't get him started on his opinion of undercover jobs," Hutch warned.

"Because," Starsky decided to answer the 'why' and ignore his lover. "Most of the departments do it for the wrong reasons, using stupid cover stories, and most cops make lousy actors. Do they bring in outside men? No. They decide some officer who has eight hundred years on the force, and is known to every candy-grabbing crook in five states, can play some Mafia hit man or something. They put the guy under for weeks and then pop him back in his job like nothing happened.”

“That sounds like personal experience,” Sandburg said.

“We were never really good at it, is the problem,” Hutch said. “Successful, but not good. Ask him about Las Vegas some time.”

“Only if you want to die,” Starsky said sweetly.

“Well, we’ve gotten away with it a few times, but I don’t think we’re that good at it either.” Sandburg said.

“We meaning you, and Jim Ellison.” Hutch inquired.

“Yeah.”

“And you live with him? Have for a few years?” Hutch went on as he casually reached for the salad.

“Yeah. I was renting a lousy place that turned out to be next door to a drug lab. It blew up. So Jim said I could live there until I found another place. Never did,” Sandburg reflected.

“But you’re not gay. And not sleeping with him?” Hutch asked. “Just want to make sure,” he explained. “To avoid the faux pas possibility.”

“No problem. Not sleeping with him.”

“Which means we could actually have grandchildren some day,” Starsky said, rolling the idea around, trying it out for size.

“I suppose it could happen,” Sandburg agreed, but he said it cautiously, thinking about the problems of balancing family with Sentinels, with a cop’s lousy hours and the other drawbacks of the profession. No, something in him said it wouldn’t work. “I gotta tell you, it won’t be soon, if it does.”

“See? I told you,” Starsky said obscurely to Hutchinson.

“He’s young, yet,” Hutch replied.

“Anything could happen. Look at us.”

“Don’t frighten the kid,” Hutch advised, half joking.

“Thirty years later, and he still can hardly believe any of this happened,” Starsky said, shaking his head. “For years he thought your mother had slipped us magic mushrooms or an aphrodisiac.”

Hutch nodded. “It took Starsk a long time to convince me it wasn’t just some temporary insane fluke.”

"Took more than that, Romeo.” Starsky said sharply. Then he explained quickly, “It wasn’t that he went out on me, it’s just that he kept looking over the fence and thinking he *ought* to go back to how it used to be.”

“Dessert now or later?” asked Hutch, just a little abruptly.

“After the game?” Sandburg asked. “Or do you want me out of here earlier?”

“Stay as long as you want to stay. I’ll get you back to the Academy on time.” Starsky made the promise with a grin.

“Wow, I almost forgot, I’ve got a curfew and everything,” Sandburg said, shaking his head. “That is so strange. I don’t think I’ve had one for...what, twelve years?”

“Didn’t pay a lot of attention to it when you had it, did you?” Starsky predicted.

“I did! Had to, I was sixteen when I entered college. They practically put a tracking collar on the youngest ones.”

“How did you manage that?” Hutch asked. “College at sixteen, I mean.”

“Naomi had somewhere she wanted to be–without me. And I was intellectually ready for it.”

“So that meant you graduated before you were twenty,” Hutch was doing the math aloud, “and went right to work on your M.A. and then?”

“Got it and went on a few digs and expeditions. Also took time off to decide what to do about my dissertation, and to save up a little money. I couldn’t have what I wanted and was trying to find the best second choice. Also there were some girls....” He trailed off, caught in a memory. Apparently a good one.

“And then you went for your PhD and spent your time teaching, and...?” Hutch encouraged.

“Found a subject, started collecting data, discovered something better and changed, finally went back to my first idea, then spent the last three years doing the cop thing, the dissertation thing, the student thing, the teaching thing, the going crazy trying to balance it all thing....”

As they talked they had cleared the table, stuffed dirty dishes into the dishwasher and leftovers in the fridge. Hutch was seated at the table with his leg propped up, directing Blair, who was pulling out a big pan of apple crisp from the oven where it had been staying warm, Starsky was head deep in the freezer looking for the ice cream. The doorbell rang.

“Get that, will you Blair?” Hutch asked, with an apologetic motion towards his bum knee.

Sandburg put down the pan and stepped to the door, where he looked out the peephole first and decided that the woman standing on the porch didn’t look all that dangerous. He opened the door. “Hello,” he said, politely.

She blinked at him, obviously surprised. “Uh. Yes. Is...I came to see...to.... Are Starsky and...are Ken and Dave home?”

“Oh, sure. Come on in.” Blair held the door open, taking a good look at the woman as she walked in. Practical shoes and white socks, strong legs in khaki pants, a square blocky figure, mostly muscle. Brown hair with a lot of grey in it, steady brown eyes.

She knew which way to turn towards the living room. So she had been in the house before and was probably a friend.

There had been some small clues, and Sandburg suspected that at least one of his dads was burdened with a rotten sense of humor. It really was unfortunate, but that characteristic had definitely been passed on to the son.

“Dad!” he called loudly. “It’s for you.”

The woman stopped so suddenly that he caught the edge of her foot on the door he was closing. She caught herself with a hand to the wall, halfway to her knees. “Oh, man, sorry. Are you okay?” he asked, looking down and holding out his hand. It just didn’t take all that much to break a toe and they were a pain in the ass to deal with.

“I’m...uh...fine,” she said, straightening up slowly, ignoring the hand.

“Hey, Beth!” Starsky said, as he came out of the kitchen, “You’re just in time for dessert. Apple crisp and ice cream!”

“Sounds good but....” She looked from Starsky to Sandburg. “What are you up to?” she asked suspiciously.

“Me? Nothing. Honest.” For some reason, Starsky was lousy at looking innocent. “Introductions are in order. This is our son, Blair Sandburg. Blair, this is an old friend, Beth Haggin. Beth is a cop over in Thorpe.”

“Hello,” Sandburg said, and put out his hand again. She shook it absently, her mind obviously focused on the surprise of his announcement.

“Blair’s a student at the Academy this quarter. Usually he lives in Cascade.”

“If I lived in Cascade, I’d come to the Academy for some peace and quiet, too,” Beth said as she moved into the dining room. “I hear that place is a crazy magnet. No offense, Blair.”

“None taken,” he assured her.

“Have you lived there long? When did you graduate?” she asked.

Shit. Did she think he was just out of high school? Starsky’s eyes were bright with the laughter he was holding in.

“I got my Master's in Anthropology a few years ago. Decided to give up on the doctorate recently.” Sandburg said as he closed and locked the door again. “Going to be a cop instead.”

Starsky looked really disappointed that Beth took the news calmly. Beth turned and said to him, “Dave, I know damn well you’re trying to get a rise out of me. Knock it off. I get enough of that shit from the guys at work.”

Hutch set a stack of plates down by the apple crisp pan. “Beth. What have you got for us?” he said, deftly turning the conversational ship back towards safer waters. He was balancing on one leg as he served up the dessert.

“Seeing as Hutch is sitting around with nothing to do, I brought you a lovely problem. Unidentified body down by the lake. Nice and old. They found it under a little hill of dirt that has probably been there for most of a decade. But since you’ve got company, we can do it another time. The body’s been sitting around awhile so you can’t say there’s any special hurry.”

Hutch said, “Might as well take a look at what you brought. We can be thinking about it all week, then get together next week to talk it out.”

Starsky said to Sandburg, “Beth lets us keep our hand in by talking over cases with us. We get to be consultants,” he bragged.

Hutch socked Starsky in the shoulder and grinned. “The unpaid kind.”

“Hey. I know the words to that song,” Sandburg said with a little laugh. Starsky had served the first huge plate of dessert to Beth and now handed him one. “Thanks,” he said, rather in awe of the hill of apple crisp with its leaning tower of white ice cream.

“So, who are you, really?” Beth Haggin asked as she picked up her spoon.

“Our son. Really,” Hutch said.

“This tastes great,” Starsky said, around his mouthful of dessert.

“You just found him under a cabbage leaf, eh?” she snorted. “And just forgot to mention it for the last, oh, ten years that we’ve known each other? And what’s with that ‘our’? Because I warn you, even if you say one of you had a sex change operation, I’m not going to believe you.”

Starsky caught Sandburg’s eye and his expression begged the younger man to let him tell the tale. Sandburg smiled and gave a slight nod, since now his own mouth was full.

“See, we know he’s either mine or Hutch’s but we don’t know which. And we never got around to the DNA thing.” Starsky spoke as if they had known Sandburg all his life instead of just for a few days.

“I’m not going to ask. I am *not* going to ask.” Beth forked in some apple and chewed.

“Naomi, my mom, was sort of a free spirit,” Sandburg explained.

“Hutch and I decided that it wasn’t really important which one of us it was because the poor kid was going to be dealing with the pair of us no matter what. And we both like the idea of the dad thing.” Starsky told her.

“But we let Starsky claim him at the Academy. Easier.” Hutch added.

“So you really are at the Academy?” she asked.

“Yeah. Real interesting so far,” Blair said, neutrally.

“I went through there,” she said. “Not the best experience in my life, but then, I knew what to expect going in. Women cops weren't as common. ”

“So far so good,” Sandburg said cautiously.

“It’s a little better for women and minorities now, but back then I was the only woman in my class to make it through to graduation.”

“We have twelve women in our class. Most of them are doing well,” Sandburg offered. She must have been in her late twenties or early thirties when she went through. He wondered why she had chosen police work at that point in her life.

“Then I got hired on at Thorpe, but only because they were desperate and paying shit. I've done okay, but there’s always been an odd number of cops on the force and so everybody has a partner except me. I fill in on the rotation if one partner is sick or something. Like a substitute teacher.” She made a face.

“Yeah, and so if something was solved, she never got credit for it, the regular partnership did, even if she substantially helped the investigation. And having a zero solve rate didn’t look good on her record. Every year there was a honors banquet at the city, and all the other officers got praised for their closure rate, but she barely even got mentioned. So they got tired of hearing her bitch about it and gave her a case of her own,” Starsky explained.

“They gave her a four year old robbery case. A big one, but totally cold,” Hutch added.

“And she came to us for clarification on something she’d learned at the Academy and we all tackled it. Hutch and me, we’d been missing being on the street. We all ended up working on it for months, but Beth actually solved it. Ever since then she brings something by once and awhile and lets us have a shot at it.”

“Keeps us focused on the reality of police work,” Hutch said.

“Thus avoiding that ivory tower pitfall of forgetting what it's really like. Although in your case, the Academy would be more of black and white tower with flashing red and blue lights on top?” Sandburg suggested.

“You know, kid, it is amazing you grew up, the mouth on you,” Starsky said, but he was grinning as he said it.

“Yeah, yeah. So, do I get to play, too?” Sandburg asked, indicating the leaning stack of manila folders on the table.

“You really want to?” Hutch asked.

“Sure. I’m not exactly new to it, after all.” Sandburg sucked in a bite of ice cream. “I work with Major Crimes in Cascade,” he told the woman in an aside.

“Knock yourself out,” the lady said with a wave towards her folders. “Just not until you’re finished eating, because these are not the sweetest photos I have ever seen. Wouldn’t want to spoil your appetite.”

“But you can tell us the basic facts,” Hutch said. “Have you been out to the site? Can you describe it?”

“Hey, that part is about as gross as the rest of it,” she said. “I bet Starsk laughs his ass off, in fact. So you know Red Arrow Lake north of town? They call it Thorpe Lake on the books but all the locals call it Red Arrow. It’s been a park for almost fifty years and it's so...worn feeling. Any wild went out of it years ago, because of all the generations who have used it as a picnic spot. Not much fishing in the lake, trash fish took it over, so mostly it is just a picnic spot. There’s a picnic table every thirty feet or so around the edge of the lake, a few bigger tables and groups of tables up the hill for reunions and such, two playgrounds, one at each end.

"We bust a kegger up there every few nights during the summer. It’s the place the boys and girls use for a lover’s lane, too. It’s a city park, even though it is outside of the city limits. We inherited it from a nice little old lady who said that we could have it if we used it for a park for the citizens. If the city decides it doesn’t want to use it as a park, the will says they have to auction it off and the proceeds will be given to benefit the poor. So every once and awhile they talk of getting rid of it and everybody starts screeching and they decide not to.”

“Is it a big lake?” Sandburg asked.

“No, more a big pond. Covers maybe five acres if you include the wetlands on the east. Used to be bigger. Not very deep. Run off and water from a few small springs keep it going, but it's just a touch stagnant so nobody goes swimming except kids with a death wish. Anyway, the nicest spots for making out are the ones with lots of tree cover, halfway around the lake from the kiddie areas. There was one that everybody liked a lot because it had this sort of grassy knoll among the trees and...”

“Eww. If you don’t mind my saying so. I had a sudden flash on where this is going,” Sandburg said, his mouth twisting.

“Huh. So there’s this kid illegally fishing and illegally drinking beer who decides to bury his suckers and carp instead of hauling them home, and he scoops a hole into the side of the little grassy hill to bury them, and its metatarsal time. There’s a skeletal hand reaching out of the side of the slope, like some B movie. He freaked. So he dials 911, who calls county, who calls us and we take turn guarding the spot until they can get the team in, which was two days later. Which is why I spent a Thursday night with no sleep about two weeks ago. Then we had to interview dozens of residents to figure out when the mound of dirt appeared there. I got to do that for two days. The answer is, sometime in 1980 or maybe 81 Could be 1982. Or even 1983. But definitely there by 1987 because I took some statements from people who remember making love there early in the spring of 1987. People who are now seeing a mental health professional because the idea of making love about two feet above a dead body....”

“Has wigged them out?” Sandburg offered.

“Uh. Yes. But nothing came up that would really tell us who this is. It didn’t match any of the missing person reports from back then. There didn’t seem to be any clothing, no watch conveniently stopped at the time of death. Hell, not even any shoes.”

“Drowned, skinny-dipping?” Starsky suggested facetiously, wiggling his eyebrows.

“I don’t think so. What'd he do, bury himself? According to the reports, which I have brought to you, every one of them, this is a male, mid thirties, with no dental work except one filling, but the teeth look good so it’s probably not some poor guy who couldn’t afford a dentist.”

“Who’s been missing fifteen or more years, without anyone noticing,” Hutch observed, shaking his head.

“Hand it over,” Sandburg said, holding out his hand.

“Why do you get it first?” Starsky complained.

“Because I read faster,” Sandburg said in a reasonable tone.

“How do you know?” Hutch asked.

“Because I read a little faster than most people. Having spent half of my life in school, it’s a skill I acquired. I also skim, scan, and upon occasion, I look at the index and skip the entire thing.”

“Hand him the file,” Starsky advised.

Haggin handed him the file.

Hutch was last in the line, but he didn’t seem to mind. He said he was supposed to move every hour and stretch his leg a little, and he started to clear the table, turning down the offers to help. He moved awkwardly and slowly and Sandburg noticed that Starsky kept a good eye on him. Hutch turned on the dishwasher and came back just in time to pick up the first folder when it landed at his place. For the next hour, there was little sound except the turning of pages and the rattle of enlarged photographs. When Hutch was done with each file, Beth picked it up and looked through it again, even though she’d read everything there a dozen times already.

“Got some good work from that Torres fellow,” Starsk said. “He writes a good summary."

“And he knows it, too. Ego on two feet,” Beth snorted. “Also his partner is going to retire next year, meaning if I get any promotion at all, I may be riding with him, if I can stand to be Tonto. I’m pretty sure he’ll expect to be the Lone Ranger. I’m not looking forward to playing second banana to that young snot.”

“Would he be senior officer?” Hutch asked.

She gave an unhappy snort. “He’s been on six weeks less than me, but with Jakes gone he’d then be senior partner in a partnership that had a good closure rate. He has lots more street time. So yes, I'm sure he and the head honchos think so.”

“So, that’s okay. You have a year to set it up so it falls your way. Just got to apply some thought to it,” Sandburg said. “Although are you sure you want him in the number two spot and resentful? Maybe he can be talked into a true partnership. If you started working on it now. Figure out his strengths and weaknesses, then plan some extra effort to be strong in the area he’s weak. Become comfortable with your own parameters. Then...”

“So, Starsk,” she interrupted. “Hutch. Have you explained police work to your kid yet?” she asked. “The real world part?”

“Hey,” Sandburg warned, but he didn’t sound upset.

“Don’t worry about the kid. He’s got what it takes to be a cop,” Starsky said.

“You, of course, are not prejudiced in any way,” she counted.

“Hell, no,” Starsky agreed.

“I know the coffee sucks, the guys fart in the elevators and the women steal my pencils,” Sandburg said. “What else is there to know about police work?”

“Just wait,” she predicted.

“I’m from Cascade, crime center of the northwest. I have been riding along for three years. I have seen everything,” Sandburg intoned.

“Right.” She shook her head sadly.

“According to an old friend we called–he is right,” Hutch said. “Something about being shot at, at regular intervals, not to mention some bizarre tales about drugged pizzas, hostages, stadiums and helicopters.” Starsky exchanged a look with Hutch and grinned.

“I was a ride along. Observer,” Sandburg said quickly.

“You were one half of a team that had, for one three month period, a 100 percent closure rate. Every single case that came across the desk. After which something went wrong because the rate fell to 92 percent for the next quarter.” Hutch gave a sad shake of his head. “Terrible, falling down on the job like that.”

“Well, he *was* doing it in his spare time. While holding down another job. Give him a break,” Starsky said.

“You shits are bragging,” Beth pointed out, obviously fighting back a smile.

“Dads get to do that,” Hutch observed in return. His grin was a flash of white in his face.

“Proud much?” she asked.

“Strangely enough, we are,” Hutch said. “It’s a funny feeling,” he shook his head.

“I like it,” Starsky added.

“Don’t get too fond of it,” Sandburg said seriously. “I also went on national television and said I was a fraud. It turns out that’s a hard thing to be proud about,” Sandburg told them, with a quick sideways look at Beth to see how she’d take that news.

“And when you’re ready, you’ll tell us about that. And we’ll tell you what our friend in Cascade said about it. Meanwhile, let’s get back to the case.” Hutch dismissed problem with a shrug of his broad shoulders.

“Let me see the file of photos again.” Sandburg said. “I keep wondering why he was buried face down like that.”

“You think he should be face up?” Hutch asked.

“Most cultures bury the dead face up or face sideways, although there are exceptions,” Sandburg said absently. “People unconsciously follow cultural patterns even during a criminal act.”

“We wondered if it were some cult thing. Buried naked and all.” Beth shook her head

“Maybe, but it doesn’t feel like that to me. Doesn’t fit any profiles I know.”

“How about the ones you don’t know?” she suggested dryly.

“I’m an anthropologist who has specialized lately in urban cults and pseudo tribal structures. You’re pretty safe when I talk about the ritual aspects. Unless the case involves a ritual someone just made up their own, which actually happens more often than you’d think. Even then they usually base them on cultural traditions. But look at this. Not in a sleeping position, or on his back. No special placement of the hands. It looks like he was just tossed on the ground on a pile of dirt, and more dirt was dumped on top. Wonder if you could get the soil analyzed after all this time and tell where it had come from. You were there,” Sandburg said to Beth, “It wasn’t dug out from a hole nearby, was it?”

“No. No hole you could see ten years later, anyway. Not from nearby land and probably not taken from the lake shore. The dirt was a different color, more red than the local dirt. Anyway,” Beth said thoughtfully, “It would have taken hours to move that much dirt by hand. Yet heavy equipment couldn’t get up there without being noticed or heard. Maybe it *was* just dumped on top of him. A pickup load. A pickup,” she repeated thoughtfully. “Unfortunately, everybody and his brother has a pickup out here,” she added with a sigh.

“I have another question,” Sandburg said. “After the body was removed, how deep did they go under it? How much dirt did they excavate? Did they do it by hand?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t been up there since they took the body out. I’m assuming they took enough to determine if there was anything under his body. They were looking for his clothing, I know.” She wrinkled her brow and looked at him. “Why?”

“What’s the water table that close to the lake? How far down do you have to dig to hit water? I think that’s how far down the crime team should have gone.”

“Because?”

“Because there’s still a little slope there in some of the pictures. They’ve taken off about five sixths of what I'm going to call the burial mound, but they didn’t go down to the original surface level. I think they thought they did, but because of the slope, they didn’t. And I’m a suspicious man. I’m thinking maybe the perp tried to bury him and realized they couldn’t get a hole deep enough. That close to the lake, maybe water filled the hole while they were trying to dig. But then if the killer brought in some dirt to cover him, why wasn’t he at least partly in a hole or down there at the dirt level? Why is he about a foot above that?”

“You want to look under him?”

“For at least six feet. And not just for his clothing.”

Starsky looked at him sharply. “You think there’s something else under there besides clothing?”

“I’m thinking of what she said. About people being not sure exactly when the mound showed up. But what if it were done in stages? Some dirt dumped, then, later, more? Then more than one person could be correct about when it showed up, which would account for the disparity of the answers.”

“Or it could be that people just don’t remember. Sometimes they don’t,” Hutch said flatly.

“I know. How did they locate the people who knew it as a favorite place?” Sandburg asked.

Beth shrugged, but looked thoughtful. “They ran an article in the paper asking for help. So you think...?”

“On the excuse of looking for clothing, I’d dig down as far as I could,” Sandburg said.

"I'll say I asked a consultant at the Academy and got that recommendation," she warned. Everyone nodded in agreement.

“So, crime of passion?” Starsky asked.

“Maybe," Blair said. "Not a ritual killing, partly because of the lack of artifacts or ritual objects. And the position. Not a hit. I'm thinking, because there is no sign of trauma to the body or bullets or anything at all. No ropes left at the hands or ankles. Not even any sign of a struggle. I’d say he might have been drugged and buried and I so hope not alive. Drunk and passed out?”

“Okay, that’s disgusting,” Beth said.

“True. I bet he wasn’t a willing living sacrifice though. Anthropologists used to think sacrifices in many cultures went voluntarily, just because it was culturally expected, but new statistics suggest not. Some recent studies from several ancient cultures have shown sacrifices were routinely drugged before they were killed. So it would look to the populace that they were, if not willing, then at least not struggling actively. Those children they found a few years ago up in the Andes look like they’re just asleep, and they probably did just die in their sleep, but they had chemical help. The cultures that didn’t drug had more straightforward sacrifices, usually tied them up and killed them without much fuss. I was there when they opened a tomb in Norway, where the slave girl the clan elders thought they’d killed to serve the guy in the afterlife woke up some time after the tomb was sealed. Gave most of us on the dig the shakes and the nightmares. You know they often raped the sacrifices before they killed them, and she had a lot of anger as well as fear, there in the dark. You should have seen what she did to the...what?”

The other three were staring at him with varying degrees of wary uncertainty.

“Oops. TMI? Bad habit of mine, Jim tells me. Come to think of it, so do Simon and Megan and....”

“So you think we’ll get more clues if we dig down?” Beth asked, shaking her head and getting back to the subject.

Sandburg said, “No, I’m saying you’ll eliminate the possibility of missing any. I keep thinking that there’s hot anger, and then there’s cold revenge. This whole thing seems just a little tidy to me. Planned. But why haul a body out to the lake just to bury it in that particular spot?”

“Want to bury him where he’s been happy?” Starsk suggested.

“Too happy? Lover’s lane spot. Maybe he went there with the wrong girl?” Hutch suggested.

“A girl who left with his wallet and everything else. Because if he was in his middle thirties what’s he doing at a teenage make-out spot?” Starsky added.

“Making out with a teenager?” Beth suggested. “Maybe her dad caught them.”

“His wife?” Hutch asked.

“Or maybe it was a picnic gone wrong. He criticized the fried chicken and that was the end of him.” Starsky nodded, his smile getting wider. Hutch fake punched him in the shoulder.

“Too bad the water is so close. And the damp soil over and under him, in direct contact. He really returned to the elements,” Sandburg said. “I bet...huh,” he finished, shaking his head as if rejecting the idea he’d just had. “When are you going to get a chemical analysis of the soil?”

“I have no idea if they even ordered any. The budget is...uh, limited.,” Beth said. “At least we can get DNA from him, but what are we going to compare it with?” Beth started collecting her files. “Well, it’s a place to start. And I’ve taken up enough of your time,” she said, with a glance outside, where it was getting dark. “Do you need a ride?” she asked Sandburg.

“Hey, I get to drive him back,” Starsky said, also standing up. “After all, I never got to drive him to baseball practice or anything like that.”

Sandburg laughed. “I might have been lucky about that. I already figured you out. You’d have been the dad coaching. And yelling at the refs during the game,” Sandburg told him, and then they all had to wait until Hutch stopped snorting and laughing.

“So?” was all the rejoinder that Starsky supplied. “Come on, kid.”

“Jeez, Starsk, he’s thirty years old!” Hutch shook his head.

“Hey, if the parents can’t call you ‘kid’ who can?” Sandburg asked philosophically. “It was good to meet you, Beth.”

“You too, Blair. See you next weekend?”

Was he invited? Before he could think of something neutral to say, Starsk said, “You’re both coming for dinner. I’ll fire up the grill.”

“Sounds good to me, guys” Beth said, and tucking her stack of folders under one arm, she headed for the door. “Oh, and thanks for dessert,” she called over her shoulder as she disappeared out the door.

“You sure?” Sandburg asked, looking from Hutch to Starsky.

“Yeah,” Starsky said seriously as he grabbed up his jacket. “You want to come help me drive him back, Hutch?”

“Yes, but I’m going to put the leg up instead,” Hutch said ruefully, rubbing at his knee.

“Starting to ache? Damn, I told you we shoulda had me cook.”

“Hell, Starsk, I thought you *liked* the kid!” Hutch teased.

“I’ll have you know I barbeque a mean rib,” Starsky said to Sandburg, pointedly ignoring his partner.

“But how are you with ostrich?” Sandburg asked. Two equally shocked pairs of eyes fastened on him.

“Take him home,” Hutch said firmly.

“Right away. The kid obviously needs his rest.”

“Besides, I have homework,” Sandburg added. “ My teachers are so mean.”

“You could keep the smart ass stuff up all night, couldn’t you?” Starsky asked as they went down the walk into the dark.

“It’s a gift.”

Chapter Text

The climbed into the car and Starsky deftly pulled out onto the road, not speaking until they were well away from the house. “So. Straight up. How’s it going?” Starsky asked quietly.

“Jim’s sending me more of the stuff I got for bruises. The guys in my room went through the whole tin in three days.”

“These would be bruises from....?”

“Normal everyday you-forgot-to-duck bruises from the self-defense classes. I can now get out of a choke hold and stomp an instep with the best of ‘em.” Sandburg absently rubbed his arm. “I broke down and bought a bottle of aspirin, too.”

“We don’t have much problem with bullying and hazing here, but Hutch 'n I, we weren’t too sure about your situation.” Starsky made a turn with a certain amount of flair.

“My strange situation is one reason I volunteered to go out of state for Academy training. The other thing being the time factor. You can’t leave *some* folks on their own for long. Somebody hits them on the head with a coconut the minute your back is turned,” he said darkly.

“This is for real?” Starsky asked.

“Oh, yeah. Guy tried to snatch a purse in the market and Jim managed to get his head in the way of a lobbed coconut. They took him off until Monday. If I were there, we could have gone camping or something, kept him busy. You have to keep Jim busy. Now he’s sitting around the loft with nothing to do. God knows what he’ll think up. Jim says I’m the one who gets into trouble when left on his own, but I’m starting to compare the stats, and the truth is closer to the other way around.”

“Camping? Did you forget it’s cold up there?” Starsky said, then he added, “God, you *are* Hutch’s. What’s with camping, anyway? It’s bugs, bears, freezing your ass off and burned food.”

“You must have had some bad camping trips.”

“In a contest of bad camping stories, I could win hands down, even if they threw out my top two entries.” Starsky added an artificial shudder.

“No. Not so. Bet my camping stories could beat you stories.” Sandburg challenged.

“I’d tell you to put real money on that, but I remember you saying something about being broke. Which reminds me. Hutch and I discussed it. How broke are you?”

“Broke enough to enjoy the free meal, and not broke enough to need a loan,” Sandburg assured him.

“You know who to see in an emergency. Well, no you don’t. It’s not me. I leave the money stuff to Hutch.”

“Okay. Only thing I might borrow from you is some rounds of ammo – or money for same. Turns out there’s extra sessions of target practice if we pay for the ammunition–which you must know, duh.”

“You need the extra practice?”

“Guns were never my thing. There was a time when I couldn’t even touch one. Didn’t have toy guns as a kid, of course, given Naomi’s pacifist beliefs, and I still have a philosophical problem with shooting people. But if I’m shooting, I’ll be shooting to protect Jim or me or someone innocent. I decided that if I have to shoot, I’m going to be shooting as accurately as I can. If I’m going to be in trouble for a bullet I shot, I want to be in trouble for what I did on purpose, not what I did accidentally. I got some basics from Jim before I left so I won’t look like a complete doofus out there, but there wasn’t enough time to do much.”

“So maybe I get the opportunity to coach anyway.” Starsky sounded terribly pleased about it.

“I'll take any help I can get, and grateful for it,” Sandburg said honestly. “We just won’t tell Naomi.”

“Speaking of telling your mom....did you?”

“No. I probably won’t for quite awhile. It’s....a mess.”

“A mess.”

“Mess. As is total fuck-up. We're not quite talking yet from the last big surprise in my life.”

Starsky have a short bark of a laugh and then remained quiet, urging more revelations by his silence.
“First, I don’t even know where she is. I’m going to have to wait until she surfaces, and she went off to find her center again, so it could take awhile. She has some negative karma to deal with, too. Mom was the one who sent my finished-but-not-ready dissertation to her friend the editor and caused the whole chain of disaster which lost me...everything and sent me here. Someday she’s going to tell me it was all meant to be, because thanks to her I found you two. But you know, if she’d mentioned your names I could have found you at almost any point. You’re not hiding.”

“Well, one year we weren’t in the phone book, but that was because there was a serial killer after us.” Starsky said helpfully.

“I could have found you.” Sandburg made the statement without pride, but firmly. “I don’t think Naomi did it deliberately, but her timing telling me about you really stinks, because she may see me getting close to you as rejection of her, at a time when she feels I already have a good reason to be mad at her. So she may stay away for months. A year or two, maybe. And that’s a good thing, because it’s going to take that long to discover who the new me is. What I can do. What I have to do.”

“So. Who is the old you?” Starsky asked curiously.

“What part? Student, teacher, anthropologist, ABD, or....”

“Or?”

Sandburg shrugged in the dark. All the things he couldn’t mention. But also, “Shaman.”

“Shaman? That’s like a–a witch doctor thing?” Starsky’s voice was uncertain.

“Yea and no. Another thing that’s hard to explain. Mostly right now it means I'll be reading a lot of books and when I start pulling a paycheck I’m going to be investing it in some EMT training.”

“As long as you’re not boiling up explorers in the soup pot.”

“I have some stereotypes to overcome here, don’t I?” Sandburg suggested dryly.

“We got time. Ever think your mom might be right? If you had found us some other way, we wouldn’t have these eight weekends to get acquainted.”

“I wouldn’t mention it to her.”

“She hates cops that much?”

“Well, she’s had some time to get used to Jim and the guys at Major Crimes, and she was dissembling real well last time I saw her, but yeah. Oh, hell.”

Starsky slowed. “What?”

“Nothing, I was just going to call Jim before I came home. I have the cell, was just going to find a quiet place to talk without getting interrupted.”

“Huh. So I was going to drop by the market on my way home. Why don’t I stop now, and you can call from the car while I’m inside the store, or you can take a walk or something.”

“You sure?”

“No problem, as they say.”

Sandburg was already letting his fingers fly over the buttons. “Hey!” he said into the phone as Starsky pulled over into a turn lane. “Yeah, Dad’s driving me home. Starsky.” He said, “Sure. Idiot! No, not you. This guy passed us too closely.”

“Never a cop around when you need one,” Starsky said with a grin.

“So how’s your head?” He listened to Jim make the usual remarks about not fussing and everything okay. Starsky pulled into a parking spot and left the car with a quick wave.

“Yeah, he’s in the store now. I was going to call you from their house but forgot.”

“So tell me about them.” Jim said.

Sandburg did, all about the apple crisp and the house and his observations about his dads’ relationship. He told about the Beth Haggin and the case she brought over, and Jim being Jim he asked about that. It seemed almost no time at all before Starsky was rapping smartly on the window to get his attention, stowing a half dozen plastic carrier bags of groceries in the back seat and then sliding into the driver’s seat with a lithe grace that belied his age.

“Gotta go. Call you later,” Sandburg said, and then tucked his phone away.

“So how’s your partner?”

“Fine. He says. Apparently he’s taking apart the dishwasher and cleaning components."

“To each his own.” Starsky’s tone implied that it wasn’t his thing.

“He’s good with details.”

“You, too?”

Sandburg laughed. “Different details. Look, can I change the subject totally and ask you a question?”

“Maybe. What is it?”

“About your graduation rate. At the Academy. After only one week, I gotta tell you, I don’t see about half of the guys making it. Some of my fellow students lack...there’s got to be a way to put this politely.... ”

Starsky blinked at the sudden change of subject and favored the young man with a long look. “It’s nothing we don’t know. Almost one third of the students who enroll in a short course don’t make it through to the end. But, we do better than any other short program given at an institution of our size," Starsk said defensively. "We also supply faculty or extra courses for the two year program at the community college over in Thorpe. They lose up to twelve percent of each class over there, and that's with remedial help and special tutoring programs.”

“So for this short course you get a lot of guys who think they want to be a cop and sign up for the shortest course they can find, but bail when they hear about what’s involved. Like actual work.”

Starsky nodded. “And integrity. Guess that’s the word to use. Some of them are just trying to see if they can get a shot at the public trough. Some of them don’t plan on police work at all but think it will help get them bodyguard work, or security jobs. In Hollywood.” Starsky did not sound like he thought much of Hollywood wannabe cops.

“I hear you. Because the three guys I’m with? Only one of those has any chance of making it as a cop. They’re not interested in study, or in the subject. Doing the very minimum to get by, and in two cases these guys are going to be startled when it turns out they underestimated the effort needed to pass.”

“One year we lost almost forty percent,” Starsky admitted. “And you want some real fun, you look at the stats on how many of our graduates last through the first year as cops. And we’re rated in the top thirty percent of police training facilities in the western United States.”

“That sucks. The stats, not the rating, which is pretty cool.”

“One way of putting it. And there is a desperate need for cops, but too many places underpay, so the good candidates sometimes go on to find other careers.”

“It’s that way in the teaching field, too.”

“Yeah, well, the jobs are similar in quite a few other ways, too.”

"So, do you like teaching?" Sandburg asked.

"It's not my favorite. Given a choice, I'd have stayed on the street. But being an old cop is even harder than starting a whole new career, and as Hutch pointed out, we could make a difference this way."

“So do you recruit? I mean, at Rainier, the police departments each have a booth at the job fairs and at Career Day every spring, and in the fall they put up a table at the library for a week and hand out brochures. The idea is valid, but the execution is weak. Do your recruiters get into the classroom?”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve been thinking. Do you target specific schools of study? Departments at the universities? You need to raid them, man. Target them. Take anthropology, for example. I use lots of my anthro skills on the job with Jim. I know that every year the schools graduate more anthropologists than there are positions in the entire world. The top twenty to thirty percent of the graduates get jobs in the field and who knows about the rest, about what they end up going on to do. What you need to do is target four or five areas of study that can be considered police related. Psychology, and maybe the sports programs, because they graduate more than they have jobs for too. Anthro, of course and hell, maybe the English majors, because god knows half the cops we have couldn’t fill out a succinct report to save their lives. What you need to do is arrange with the teachers of 400 level courses in those areas–students who will be graduating soon–and present a little reality to the students. And give them police work as an option if they don’t find work in their own chosen field. If you approached the teachers right it could be a legitimate part of the lesson–I mean, as an undergrad I would have enjoyed listening to somebody tell about how anthro could be applied to police work.”

“Take a breath, kid!” Starsky laughed. “I’ve never done the recruitment part. Hutch says it’s because I was never a very good role model for young cops.”

“Oh, don’t tell me. You were a young hot shot? Didn’t follow the rules?” Sandburg was grinning again.

“Made up our own, sometimes, kid. Couple of time I thought Captain Dobey was going to have a coronary, and God the lectures we used to have to listen to. Different world then, of course. You want me to let you off at this corner or the next?”

“Not so different, maybe. You should hear Captain Banks.” Hell, they were back. Sandburg wasn’t really ready to let the evening end, and reluctantly put out a hand to open the door. Before he could push the latch, Starsky reached out and gave him a crude, hard one armed hug, which lasted only a few seconds. Then Starsky reached behind the car seat and handed over a bag. “Some fruit and stuff. There’s one missing from the Little Debbie package because Hutch never lets me have them.”

“Let me guess. He objects to a tasteless and high calorie combination of preservatives and sugar?”

“That *is* pretty much what Hutch says. Hell, if you don’t like them, feed them to your roomies.”

“Hey. Thanks. Too bad Jim’s not here, he’d take care of some of them. See you tomorrow,” Sandburg said. He scooted out of the car and stood watching it as Starsky drove away. He tied his hair back again and began walking.

When he arrived at his room he wasn’t surprised to find it empty. He poured out the contents of the bag onto his bed. Oranges, apples, corn nuts, little coconut frosted cakes, a six pack of bottled water, a two liter bottle of cola, a bag of jellybeans and a small bag of taco flavored chips.

Hell, probably some of Starsky’s favorites. He took note of them, because after all, he might have an occasion to buy something for the old man. Father’s Day.

And Christmas, and he had to find out their birthdays. Weird to have dads to buy presents for, but not know their birthdays. Maybe they’d buy him a present some time. A present from dad.

Major strange thought.

He stored away his oranges and water, left the other stuff out on his bedside table while he thought about presents and giving them. About how Jim never got anything from his dad. Odd to think he might be luckier in the dad department than Jim. Although he had pretty much thought that even back when he thought he had no dad at all.

He climbed into bed early, long before his roommates came back. Each night, he tried for six hours of sleep, forced himself to do it rather than let himself fall into old patterns of studying most of the night. Four in the morning came early. At least now as he lay in his bed, his mind didn’t drift back to the dissertation fiasco, or his other losses. It went to thinking about his dads, his classes, and after that, to worrying on the problem of the body by the lake. For awhile. And then he wondered how Jim was, and how much damage a coconut could actually do and if Simon....

Chapter Text

Monday Morning, Week Two. Sandburg.

Oh, boy. The track at dawn. Followed by two cups of coffee at breakfast and something that was supposed to be eggs. Dore assigned a three page paper and gave them a whole week to do it, and the way the class moaned you’d think he was ordering appendectomies with dull knives. They were all measured after lunch for Academy uniforms. They were to wear them to classes. To get used to looking and acting professional, he surmised. Some of these guys lived in sweats or shorts. Plus, apparently one could wear the Academy uniform to job interviews. Shirt, pants, tie. Now *there* was something to look forward to. With luck, he would only have to interview once after graduation. With real luck there would never be an interview again.

Lunch was hideous. Chilled tuna-loaf with pickle and...water chestnuts? Mysterious translucent crunchy things, anyway. Jim would know. Sandburg gave thanks that he had apples and oranges in his room and left the meal early for some library time.

Supper was hamburgers. The patty was thin and dry and not all beef. Okay, possibly no beef at all, but nothing tasty and veggie, either. The sort that made you long for Wonderburger. He ate and retreated to the library to finish his paper and work on his state law notebook. When the library closed he went back to his room. Because he had been buried in the research and writing, he hadn’t been aware of much of anything. He caught a few odd looks on his way to the room, enough to have his curiosity activated by the time he got there. He tossed his knapsack on the bed. Sanchez was the only one in residence.

“So, Sanchez, why am I getting funny looks *this* time?” he asked as he kicked off his shoes.

“How should I know?” Sanchez asked, but he didn’t look up from his text, and Sandburg knew from experience that usually anything that distracted him from having to read was enthusiastically embraced. So. Sanchez did know and didn’t want to say anything.

“Ah, don’t do that. You owe me, I gave you corn nuts this morning. I can start asking around and find out eventually from somebody, or I can nag you for a few hours. Either way, I find out, so save us some time, man.”

The man did not look convinced.

“It’s just, I hate being blindsided, and I haven’t DONE anything to get me into trouble unless you count dropping the gun on whatisname’s feet. It was an accident.” Well, it was. And he wasn’t going to tell Jim about it, either. No more teasing the guy about how hard it was to hold on to a gun when it turns out that they were sort of hard things to hang on to.

“Well....are you gay?”

“What?” Sandburg asked, amazed.

“Are you gay? Everybody says you’re gay.”

“Everyone sure has a big imagination. What started this particular revolution of the rumor mill? Who’s passing the gossip?”

“I dunno. Hopkins was the one I heard it from, at lunch.”

“So I go see Hopkins,” Sandburg found his shoes and pulled them on again. “You coming with me?”
“Uh....”

“You know, so you can find out what’s going on. Hear the end of the story. Come on.”

Sanchez did not want to come on. His expression said he wasn’t quite sure what got him up and following Sandburg down the hallway.

“Do you know what room Hopkins is in?”

“No.”

“Somebody will know in the lounge.” He leaned in and interrupted several conversations and a Martial Law rerun. “Yo! I need Hopkins! Where’s his room?”

Three or four voices answered him. “Thanks,” he said, and headed down the hall again, Sanchez trailing along behind, and several people were coming to the door of the lounge and staring at them as they left.

Sandburg knocked on the door -- pounded actually, and a surly young giant came to the door. “Hopkins?”

“No, man, that’s Hoffman,” Sanchez said helpfully.

“Oh, hi,” Sandburg said, elbowing his way inside. Everybody home. Charming. “Hopkins, what’s this shit you’re saying about me?”

“Uh....” He could tell who Hopkins was by the deer in the headlights look he was assuming.

“Come on, spill. Cut the crap and get right to it. Why did you start a rumor about me?”

Blink. Cough. Swallow. Good. Got him on the defensive.

“I mean okay, this hair, and I’m short, and I’m cute, or so the ladies tell me. Of course I’ve had to put up with this particular shit before, and it’s not like I don’t know how to handle it. But why start it up now? I’m a little sensitive about my reputation at the moment. I can drowned in my own disasters, don’t need anybody importing some for me.” Not that there was anything wrong about being gay, but this was so not the time or the venue.

“Er...”

“If you’re going to be a cop, you’re going to have to be a little more articulate. Not to mention responsible, but hey, your problem, not mine. So. What’s the story?”

It wasn’t Hopkins who answered, but one of his room mates. “We all heard it this morning. Somebody said you...they saw you....last night....”

“Just spit it out,” Sandburg said, and that caused him to grin because yeah, here he was, sounding like his dad.

“This guy, he saw you come back from your date with Starsky.” The man’s face flushed red.

“A date. With Captain Starsky. No, what he saw was Dave Starsky letting me out of his car. At what, eight at night? Little early to get back from a date. If you’re going to be a cop, get the facts, and be damn careful of your conclusions. Now, who said it?”

“I don’t know.” Heads nodded or shook all the way around the room.

“Uh huh. Who does?” Sandburg asked.

“I don’t know. Westkoff was there,” Hopkins said, after thinking about it for a moment.

“And his room is?”

“I think it’s the same as Paul Treadwell,” said one man.

“Yeah, across the hall from you, Sandburg,” said another.

“Let’s go see,” Sandburg said amiably. All of Hopkin’s room mates took this as an invitation to troop along. They waited, whispering and shuffling, as Sandburg rapped hard on the door. It was opened by a very confused looking man.

“What?” he said.

“Looking for Westkoff,” Sandburg said.

“Found him. Now, what?” growled the man.

“These guys say you know who started some idiotic rumor about me and Captain Starsky.”

“What?”

“Who told it to you?”

“Oh. Paul.” He turned and yelled, “Hey, Paul! Who told you about Sandburg and Captain Starsky?”

Treadwell, an intense dark man with a red snake tattoo up one arm, said, “Nobody, I saw it myself.”

“So you decided on your own to ruin a few reputations. Uh huh.” The scorn in Sandburg’s voice was a beautifully insulting thing.

Treadwell bristled up. “Look, shrimp. You can’t deny it. I saw how the two of you said goodbye and everybody knows about Captain Starsky. So....”

“So, you’re an asshole. And what kind of a cop are you going to be if you jump to conclusions like that?” Sandburg’s tone was very reasonable. His expression wasn’t.

“You can’t deny that....”

“But if you add the *facts* into it, it changes the picture entirely. Such as yes, I went to *Dad’s* for the day. Their friend Beth was there too and I had a nice time, thanks. And yeah, he drove me home because I don’t have my car here. And he gave me this stupid little half hug when I got out, and a bag of snacks, which, I admit, considering the food here, I really appreciate. Even if he did keep one of the Little Debbie coconut cakes for himself. Now, maybe *your* dad doesn’t give you those dumb masculine shoulder-crunching hugs when he says goodbye and you know, sorry, but that’s your problem.”

“He’s your dad?” asked Treadwell weakly.

“Yes. Not that we advertised it. In fact, it’s nobody’s business, is it? Because, frankly, I’m illegitimate and always have been, and I don’t care to explain events that happened over thirty years ago to people I met just last week. Does he treat me differently in class? No. He’s professional. His private life is nobody’s business and my private life is nobody’s business and you know what? Your private life is that, too. And the next lesson you need to learn if you want to be a cop is if you screw up, fixing it is the right thing to do. So I expect you to talk to everybody you talked today and tell them you screwed up, but then tell them the truth, which is even more interesting. Tell them Starsky is my dad. Tell them we don’t want to make a big deal out of it. He told me he has someone else grading my papers and tests, so nobody can accuse him of jacking up my grades. And tell them that if they have any questions they can bring them right to me and if the questions aren’t too stupid, I’ll answer them. Does this sound reasonable to you?” he asked in a friendly, encouraging voice.

“I...sure. I guess.”

“And I think we can count on these guys to help get the message out.” he waved at the group behind him and then said, “I won’t keep you from your beauty sleep. Good night.”

The group drew around Sandburg in the hall.

“He’s your dad?” asked Hopkins.

“I think that’s been established. And so far, the only advantage of that is a meal not generated by our cafeteria. Have I mentioned I hate the food here?”

“Yeah, me too,” said one of the others. “Look, if your dad is on the faculty, can’t he *do* something about the food? Has he ever tried to eat that crap?”

“No good. He has a cast iron stomach and can eat anything.” Sandburg and the group began moving down the hall. “But you’re right. We have *got* to figure out how to get some decent food, cheap.”

“There’s rules about hotplates in the rooms,” one of the guys in the back reminded them.

“But not about little fridges and microwaves. We need a microwave. How about we find somebody who will make lasagna or something and deliver it ready to heat up,” suggested Hopkins.

“I hate to do that when we’re paying the room and board fee, but shit, you are so right,” Hoffman said.

“Let’s start asking around," Sanchez said. "Ask if anybody has a microwave or a apartment fridge we can borrow. Maybe we could get one for the lounge, or one per room.” Making plans, they went to the lounge, where Sandburg made sure his version of the Sandburg gossip got shared around. And then everybody bitched about the food some more.

He got away in time to call Starsky at home and tell him about the gossip and what he had done to eliminate it. Turned out Starsky could express himself at length on the subject of human stupidity and throw in some words and phrases new to Sandburg as well. He agreed that Sandburg had done the right thing and said he’d bring it up at the next faculty meeting. Sandburg forgot to mention the food.

Jim wasn’t home. Or he wasn’t answering his phone.

Didn’t mean anything. No reason for Jim to *have* to be home. No reason to worry.

But he had a hard time getting to sleep that night.

Chapter Text

Tuesday Morning. Sandburg.

“Alchemy is possible. I think we’ve discovered how to turn eggs into rubber. And in these convenient round forms, too,” Sandburg observed, testing with his fork to see if his breakfast was as dead as it looked. The problem with this particular group of peers was that nobody really got the alchemy reference and so his jest lay there, feebly waving its legs like a beetle after Raid. He took a drink of coffee from his first cup. He'd taken to grabbing two at once so he didn't have to go back for more. The cups only held three swallows each.

“If they bought lots of boxes of breakfast cereal and some milk and sugar, we could at least fill up,” Sanchez said. “It would be cheaper for them, too.”

“Now that’s an idea. A breakfast bar.” Sandburg looked at Sanchez with respect. “They could put out some toasters and loaves of bread along with it.”

“With butter and jam and honey,” the guy across the table said, closing his eyes to savor the memory of toast past.

“Bagels and cream cheese,” Hopkins suggested. “Some canned fruit or orange juice.”

“I want some decent coffee,” Sanchez sighed.

“This calls for investigation,” Sandburg said. “First we find out what is wrong with the kitchen. Low budget, bad purchasing, inadequate training of staff, whatever. Then we work up some proposals to deal with it.”

“And then you take it to your dad and ask how the best way to get what we want is,” Sanchez told him.

“So that we have a chance of making the changes we want and don’t waste time on the things that can’t be changed. Sanchez, you’re brilliant!” Sandburg said, and grinned as Sanchez flushed at the praise.

“Yeah, and with luck we can get the changes as soon as possible.” Hopkins picked up the triangle of cold toast that decorated his plate. “Maybe we can get them to do something radical like buy margarine. You wouldn’t think margarine would be a luxury, but have you ever looked at this? Whatever yellow stuff they put on this, they squirt it on. You get nothing at all on most of the bread and a squiggle of soggy stuff in the middle. I’d rather butter my own.” Everyone looked at their toast and assumed various expressions of non-appreciation as the truth of the statement penetrated.

“Let’s meet during the study hour,” Sandburg said, then looked at the clock. He stopped to peer into the kitchen as he dumped his tray. Three middle aged women were loading a huge industrial dishwasher. They didn’t look that happy. Had to find a solution that would not cause any employees to be let go, and one that would not add to their work. All he had to do was....

Classes at the Academy lacked a certain level of challenge for him. So, sitting in class a few minutes later, Sandburg was doing three things at once, tolerably well. He was making notes for the food project, following Mr. Dore’s lecture, and doing some mental math when a change in the teacher’s tone alerted him that something was wrong. He watched as Dore sat down on the chair, his hand going to his side as a puzzled look came across his face. The red in his cheeks went white and he started to slump to the side.

Sandburg was reaching into his bag even as he stood up. He tossed his phone to the guy next to him and ordered, “Call 911,” and to the guy sitting at the end he said, “Get somebody from the office. Starsky or one of the admins. Now. Run.” He lifted his voice and said, “Anybody who knows first aid or CPR, get down front now.” He reached Dore just as the man gave a little sigh and started to slide off the chair.

Thirty-two minutes later as the last of the paramedics disappeared out the door, he looked around at his fellow students and figured there was only one thing left to do. So he did it.

Chapter Text

Tuesday night. Starsky.

Hutch was staring at him. “He did what?”

“Saved his life. More or less. Had 911 called before I even got there. Everything organized. I went out to the ambulance and made sure it got off okay, came back to take over the class and he was teaching it.”

“Teaching it?”

“My god, Hutch, teaching it. And you should see our kid teach. He doesn’t just sit still and talk. Striding back and forth, gesturing, waving one hand in the air. He makes teaching an Olympic sport. He had them participating, and I mean all of them. He had two of them writing on the board while he got the others to say what to put down. He was pacing in front of the class, practically bouncing when somebody came up with another thing for their list, and the way he reacted made the students – I mean, he’d just say, ‘yeah, man,’ or ‘definitely a possibility, write that one big,’ or something and they’d just sort of perk up. He had them eating out of his hand.”

“So you let him teach until the end of the hour.”

“Hell yes. Not like *I* wanted to do it, was it? I didn't have Dore's notes or anything. The cadets were doing a review by bringing up things that had confused them in the reading. Blair assigned them *homework* and not out of the book! And they went out talking about it. I have to figure out a way to keep this going tomorrow.”

“Yeah, or you’ll end up having to teach it yourself. So how’s Al?”

“Second strange thing of the day. We all thought he was having a heart attack, but it was some sort of low grade long term blood infection thing affecting all of his organs, and as soon as the infection is under control, there will have to be some other tests to find out the source, and the extent of the damage. Sort of explains why Dore was a grump this last month, you know, and complaining about being tired. Think he’d know better, too.” Starsky shook his head at general human folly and ignored the fact that most of the guys he knew would have shrugged off the symptoms the same way Al had.

“Well, the kid can’t take a class from himself, but that’s the beauty of the modular system. We can find somebody to finish out the mod. Oh, and Starsk, make sure somebody puts Blair up for an Academy commendation, too. Look good on his graduation certificate, and he deserves it.”

“Oh. I guess you or I shouldn’t be the one, huh? Besides. He’s in the middle of the group rebelling against the food, according to Lil. He’ll probably end up starting a food riot or something.” Starsky half laughed. Then he paused for a moment before speaking again, in a more serious voice. “How about we contact Cascade and see if what's-his-name. Ellison. See if he's available. He’s tied to a desk right now anyway, they can spare him and I bet he’d be glad to get away. See if he can come down and teach one the classes. We’ll move some things around if we have to because surely there’s something he can teach. He can stay here. We could put him in the spare room. According to Blair, his partner is just sort of waiting for him to get back. We can trade Cascade PD some free training for the use of him.”

“You don’t know a damn thing about the man. Maybe he can’t teach,” Hutch protested.

“I don’t care if he can teach. I just want him to sit around lookin' good, and role model like crazy. I looked him up. A cop’s cop, man. Big handsome brute with brains, training and drive. Army experience, and Cop of the Year a couple of times.”

“Uh huh. You just want to get a look at him. Figure out what sort of man partners with our kid.”

“You know you’re curious, too,” Starsky pointed out.

“I think he’ll be down sooner or later anyway. Eight weeks is a long time. Could you and I have stayed away from each other for eight weeks?”

“Yeah, but you know that’s different. We were hiding some really heavy stuff from ourselves.” Starsky leaned over and brushed a kiss along the line where Hutch’s hair met his neck.

“I think the longest I was ever able to stay away from you was...twenty six days. Voluntarily,” Hutch added. “I’m sort of interested in how long Ellison can stay up north. I don’t want you to give him an excuse to come down here. I want to see what he does on his own.”

“Uh huh. Hutch?”

“I’ve got a feeling about this.”

“What kind of feeling?” Starsky wanted to know.

“Just...I think partner is a term with a lot of different meanings. It means something to Blair that puzzles me. I’ve been thinking about it.”

“Go on,” Starsky encouraged.

“You and I. Partners. It was like brothers, at first. Remember?”

“Sibling rivalry and all. Yeah, I remember.” Starsky grinned, “And then it became something else.”

“Yes,” Hutch nodded. “But Dave, this thing with Blair. It doesn’t say ‘brothers’ to me. Brothers means you start with something in common, somehow. I think they started from further apart.”

“And?”

“It’s the ‘and’ I keep thinking about. I think Ellison will show up. I don’t know what that means, to him, or to Blair, but I want to see.”

“Okay, *after* he shows up, I can recruit him?” Starsky asked.

“Do you know how bad that sounds?” Hutch asked, laughter in his eyes. “Gay guy – talking about recruiting?”

“Hey. Remind me to tell you some ideas Blair has on recruiting. Not that kind, you asshole,” Starsky laughed as Hutch's eyes went wide. “For the Academy.”

“Sure.”

“There’s something else I’ve been wondering about. I mean, okay, I’m prejudiced already, but look at our kid. Ya gotta admit, he’s somewhere between good looking and pretty. And it’s not just the damned hair. He’s put together well and he’s got great eyes. Lips. Brains, sensa humor, the whole package. You know. The kinda guy who could resist that would have to be one hundred percent pure hetero. The straightest ruler in the bunch. Only you know what? The straightest ruler in the bunch doesn’t invite another guy – a guy who looks like our kid – to share his home. For three years.”

“Three years?”

“Closer to four. It’s on his application. Where you list the addresses you’ve had for the last five years.”

“So you think Blair and this partner have something going on?” Hutch asked.

“No, I don’t. Not yet. Doesn’t feel like that when they talk. But it does sound like....they know each other. The way we did after a few years.”

“So you think that they’re not. But they could be.”

Starsky nodded.

“And you don’t see that as bad. So you are. Recruiting. In more than one meaning of the word.”

“First time for everything.”

“You think Blair is the type to swing both ways?” Hutch asked.

“I don’t know. I just know he looks like he could. You know?”

“You’d wish that for them? Even after...?”

Starsky nodded. “Even after all the shit and heartbreak, it’s been worth it, Hutch.”

“You know what? They came and fixed the hot tub today.”

“You mean we could have been having this conversation while soaking in hot bubbling water? You dipshit.”

“Hell, if I’d mentioned it before we never would have had this conversation. Or any other. Once you’re in the water, all you want to do is....”

“So the water is hot? You filled the tub and got everything ready?”

Hutch leaned forward. “What do you think?”

Chapter Text

Saturday morning. Officer Bill Kirkland

“Hi. I’m your ride-along, Cadet Blair Sandburg. *Please* tell me you don’t have any regulations about coffee in the squad car,” the man said, holding out one of two big Styrofoam cups of coffee.

Bill Kirkland took the coffee and looked at the man standing in front of him. The guy was neatly dressed. White shirt, black pants, cadet ID badge on the pocket. Neat nails, clear eyes.

But. Ponytail.

And he was short.

Kirkland sighed. He’d pissed off somebody for sure. Probably by insisting that he never have one of the women cadets ride along again. He’d pitched a bitch about the useless chunk of fluff he’d been assigned last time and this was the revenge. Crap. Well, fine. At least his car wouldn’t stink of Opium - or whatever the hell smell that was - for a week afterward. This one wouldn't keep leaning on his shoulder, patting his leg or breathing in his ear in some sort of weird reverse harassment thing. And the cadet had brought coffee. Kirkland took a cautious sip.

Good coffee.

“Bill Kirkland,” he said, and gestured to the car. “The rule about coffee is that you can’t drink it while the vehicle is in motion. Also, it has to be in the holder and have a lid.”

“Lid,” Sandburg repeated, nodding at the lid on the cup he had handed over.

And at least this one looked awake. There was that guy last year who actually slept through some of his ride-along. “First thing I do is go over some rules. Then I show you some procedure, talk about what we do and why we do it.”

“Yes, sir,” Sandburg said. Strange the way he said it. Not that it wasn’t respectful, but it made Kirkland feel old because he was sure that tone was an inflection that wouldn’t have been used if the officer Sandburg was riding with was a younger man. He frowned.

“The rules about the ride-along cadets are simple. Don’t touch anything unless I say so, if things get busy or tense, shut up. When there’s an arrest or we do a traffic stop, you stay in the car. Is it simple?”

“Yes.”

“Is it clear?”

“Yes.” Sandburg added, “But I never was very good about that stay in the car thing.”

“What do you mean by that?” Kirkland demanded.

“I had ride-along status for three years with a unit up in Cascade.”

“Huh. We probably do things differently here. And you stay in the car. Okay, I start the shift by looking the car over. The car gets checked over and cleaned up after every four shifts. Each car gets sixteen hours use out of every twenty four, so if it is coming off a use, I look it over even more. Especially for flat tires. And for signs ‘ve tampering. Then we get in. Fasten your seatbelt,” he said, even as the cadet started to do it. “It stays on. Holder for your coffee is here.”

“Hey, you’ve got a computer.”

“We’re not hicks out here,” Kirkland protested.

“No, I know, but lots of places don’t have them yet. Not one like this. Is it one of those GeneSys units? Man, I read a report on these. You can drop them onto concrete and they don’t break.”

“Different brand, same sort of deal.”

“Fujitsu?” The kid was practically standing on his head to look for the logo.

“We’ll get to that. Pay attention here. I’ll tell you things as we go, because some things get done on a schedule. First thing we have on the agenda is the schools. A unit is assigned to each building for a patrol circuit before school, after school and at lunch. We’re assigned to Pearson Elementary, which is pretty good. Not much trouble, not like the junior high and high schools. We drive around the block the school is situated at and monitor the kids and the traffic from 8:10 to 8:30. We do this on the weekend, too, only then we look for signs of vandalism instead of parents letting their kids off in stupid spots. Then we have an hour along the business section. We sign off for lunch early because we need to be on the streets during the regular lunch hours. We have paperwork after we complete every routine function or after every incident.”

“I’m good at paperwork. About the schools? What kind of problems? What's your biggest problem?” Sandburg asked.

“Gang wannabes, mostly,” Kirkland said as he started the car and pulled out onto the road. “Here, we’re looking for vandalism, tagging, things like that. And drugs, of course. Always looking out for that.”

“In elementary schools,” Sandburg said with a sigh.

“That’s the way it is. Now I’m going to give you instructions on the radio, the codes, and the computer. Listen up.”

And damned if the cadet didn’t do what he was told. He already knew the radio basics and they discussed the differences in the police codes they had worked with. Cascade had a hell of a lot more numbers, plus some of them were really weird. Who had terrorists so often they had a whole range of numbers just for those references? Cascade, apparently.

Then there was the computer. Hell, the man was fast. And accurate. He did well on the radio, too. Good clear voice, and the dispatcher was pleased with the pace and clarity of his words.

At the school they called animal control about a dog on the lawn, and checked a cracked window. They stopped at a fender bender and Kirkland wrote a ticket for following too close. The cadet was real good at calming people down. Of course, he didn't stay in the car to do that, but seeing a need and helping out got him points. The old lady was about to have a meltdown over the scratch on her car. By ten, Kirkland was grudgingly impressed but not saying so. The coffee was long gone.

“I stop here for a pitstop and sometimes a bagel if I think I'm going to miss lunch,” he told the cadet as he pulled into a diner at the edge of the section he patrolled. “The owner lets us park in the reserved space here next to the handicapped zone at the end. Since we only stay a few minutes. Here’s my first piece of solid cop advice, son. Piss when you get a chance. It helps to have a bladder the size of a football, but hell, all the coffee we drink, you still need to stay empty. Full slows you down. That’s also the reason you don’t eat a big meal in the middle of the day. In fact, some days you want to start light, too.”

“You ever try algae shakes?” Sandburg asked as they got out of the car and locked the doors. He was explaining the health benefits as they walked up to the entrance.

Kirkland had opened the door, stepping back to let Sandburg go first and he was a step inside when realized that the guy behind the counter was shoveling the money out of the cash drawer. It happened fast. The guy looked up, yelped when he realized there was a cop at the door, and turned to run out the back. Sandburg grabbed up a dirty plate from the table nearest the door and, Frisbee style, sent it flying at the guy. It clipped him on the edge of the shoulder. The remains of a short stack with butter and syrup flipped up onto the perp’s face, blinding him. Perp smashed into the wall, cussing a blue storm, but this slowed him enough for Kirkland to come up. The guy was cuffed within seconds. Read his rights. Escorted to the car. Sandburg observed it all, and it was sort of funny to watch the cadet, because he’d open his mouth to say something, and then make a visible effort to shut up.

Now they had to make a trip to the station, sullen man slouched in the back, and the maintenance crew was going to bitch about the sticky back seat. At least they both had the chance to use the restroom at the station. Then they settled down to the paperwork. Kirkland was not too happy because tossing a plate at somebody came under the definition of unusual force used during an arrest and it meant three more pages of paperwork. He let the kid know how much he appreciated that. Not.

At the same time, next week when he passed the time with the guys he was going to have a story to tell. Cadet stories usually took the form of stupidity-of-the-week tales. Nice to have one a little different. By the time they were done with everything it was time to eat. They went down the block to Ramon’s and had the Mexican buffet. Kirkland ate it, anyway. The cadet had talked the whole time and still managed a second trip through the line.

The Mexican buffet at Ramon’s always had a busy lunch trade. The cadet headed for the restroom as Kirkland joined the line to the cash register but two seconds later the cadet was motioning for him to come to the men’s room. Puzzled, Kirkland left the line to see what the guy wanted.

“Check this out. Something’s not right,” Sandburg whispered, and then led the way into the restroom. Sandburg pointed to a stall, then opened and shut the door as if they had left. They waited, breathing lightly, and eventually two men come out of the stall. At first Kirkland thought it was sex that was being sold, but it was drugs and dammit, the bigger guy dashed for the toilet and tried to flush the stuff but Sandburg hit the floor and rolled, yanked the stall door into his path and knocked the guy off his feet. Kirkland had to call for backup as he struggled to hold the other man. And damn if he didn’t find himself filling out a second set of “unusual force” paperwork thirty minutes later. For use of a door.

“Police work isn’t usually this lively,” he told the cadet after they had finally finished the paperwork. And had a chance to use the can.

“It isn’t?” asked the cadet, clearly surprised.

“No,” he said firmly.

“I’m from Cascade,” was all the cadet said. “Is that guy in the Ford weaving?” He was already typing in the plate number. The guy in the Ford was wanted in Oregon for fraud and assault. The sight of a black and white coming up fast from behind must have spooked him. He floored it when he spotted them, and it was lights and siren time. Sandburg called it in, and soon they had a ten-mile-chase with Kirkland on the man’s tail the entire way, and two other cop cars behind them, sirens wailing. They stopped him at the county line with a roadblock, but the guy got out of the car and took off running.

He was young and fast and would have gotten away, only Sandburg, who was also young and a little bit faster, cut him off. Didn’t touch him or try to stop him physically. Just ran him down and looked him in the eye, and talked. Well, gasped out words, anyway. Sandburg ran about ten feet to one side, parallel to him, pacing him with a relentless intensity, and suddenly the guy gave up, slowing down and finally leaning against a fence, breathing hard, glaring at the cadet. Sandburg just stood there and grinned as Kirkland cuffed the man and walked him back to the road.

“That wouldn’t have worked if he had a gun.” Kirkland warned. Then he added, “ You didn’t stay in the car,” He guided the guy into the back of the squad car.

“Uh. Sorry. I told you I had a problem with that,” Sandburg said with a sigh.

“Huh. You do. Uh. Thanks.”

They went back to the station. More paperwork. At least this time Sandburg hadn’t whacked somebody with a dirt clod or something. And it was too late to go out again so he gave Sandburg a tour of the building and the garage. Answered about a hundred intelligent questions and five really weird ones. At the end of the shift they shook hands and the Academy van took Sandburg away.

It seemed real quiet now.

Chapter Text

Saturday night. Sandburg on the phone.

“You didn’t stay in the car.”

“How did you guess?” Sandburg laughed. God, it was good listening to Jim’s voice. Sandburg was on his bed, his toes under the blanket, his pillows behind him. None of his roomies were in. Great for the privacy of his phone call, even if it boded ill for the career prospects of his peers. “Only, guess what he said, after it was all over. He said, ‘You didn’t stay in the car,’ and I said, ‘Sorry,’ and he said–are you ready for this? He said, ‘Thanks,’ is what he said.”

“Did he?”

“Yes. You should have seen this guy. Poker-faced dour guy, about fifty-five. Been a cop twenty six years, I think he said. Obviously just luuuves hauling cadets around. And he still, I point out, said thanks.”

“And your point is?”

“You know what my point is. How about a gruff little ‘thanks,’ once and awhile? I’ll get Officer Kirkland to show you how it’s done.”

“Chief, I don’t need to know how it’s done. Far as I can tell, once you’re a cop I’ll never be able to order you to stay in the truck – or car – again. And you never listened to me anyway. So why should I take up a useless habit?”

“Saying thank you is a useless habit?”

“Under certain circumstances.”

“Most of which seem to involve me.”

Ellison laughed. “I noticed that.”

“Hey, you’re not too old to learn new tricks,” Sandburg told him.

“You just called me an old dog?”

“Did not.”

“I refuse to argue with you long distance. So, going over to the dad’s tomorrow?”

“Right. Looking forward to it, even.”

“Since that’s the closest thing you’ve had recently to a night out?”

“And how’s *your* love life, Romeo?”

“Megan took me out to Wonderburger,” Jim said smugly.

“Woohoo. Not that Wonderburger doesn’t sound good at the moment. Although I’ll deny it if you ever use that against me. Why did Megan take you out for Wonderburger?”

“I helped her on one of her cases.”

“And she was grateful. About $5.95 worth of hamburger grateful. You know, Jim, I hate to tell you this, but....”

“Sandburg, I had the burger. What did you have for dinner?” Ellison asked sweetly.

“Prick. Actually, we talked the van driver into stopping for hamburgers too. An establishment not up to Wonderburger quality, but then, still ten times better than Academy food. Mostly my mind is on tomorrow.”

“Barbequing with the family.”

“Sounds kinda nice, doesn’t it?” Sandburg said softly.

“Yeah. Actually. We, on the other hand have rain. No barbeque for Cascade.”

No barbeque with his family for Jim, but neither of them mentioned that. Instead Sandburg said, “So where do you think I could find some really cheap microwave ovens?”

“Depends on how big you want them, how many, and by the way, how’s the wiring there?”

“Crap,” Sandburg said and wrote, ‘Check Wiring and Outlets’ on his list. Then he added, ‘#?‘ and ‘Power bars?’ and shook his head.

“So. Have you started...uh, how’s the firearms? Training.”

“We have been shown guns. We have taken apart and cleaned a gun. After we labeled all the parts of the gun on the diagram and had a pop quiz on it. We don’t shoot one until next week. When we officially get our nifty little blue shirts and black pants. Just to add a little pepper to the stew, the dads are going to help me get in some practice. Assuming there's time in everybody's schedule.”

There was a small silence as they both didn’t speak about the potential problems which might crop up in the process of teaching Sandburg to shoot.

Ellison said, “You got a postcard today, but I can’t tell who it’s from. Nice picture of Niagara Falls, but postmarked Atlantic City. Can’t read the message because the post office ran over it with one of those machines. Or a truck. And there is no signature.”

“Can't you use your sight to....”

"I looked at it every way I could. It still looks like chicken tracks covered by black smudges."

"Who knows. I filled out one of those cards to forward my mail, but it looks like you're still getting it. Can you send it along? Stick it all in a big envelope and I'll pay you back the postage."

“Yeah,” Ellison agreed. “Well. Talk to you tomorrow. You can tell me how it went.”

“Yeah, okay. Take care. Avoid the coconuts, Jim.”

There was a very rude sound and Jim hung up. Sandburg laughed as he heaved himself up off the bed. Still a few things to do before he could go to sleep. He reached for his backpack.

Chapter Text

Sunday at noon – Starsky

There he was, waiting on the corner. Blair had a backpack slung over one shoulder and his hair was hanging down his back. His shirt was unbuttoned and worn over a tight t-shirt. He put out his thumb and pretended to be hitching a ride.

“Would anyone really pick you up?” Starsky asked, eying the three earrings and the weird necklace thing Sandburg was wearing. “With the intent of merely providing transportation, I mean.”

Sandburg tossed his pack in the back seat and grinned at him. “And just exactly what are you implying?”

“Mostly that you inherited my good looks. You’re looking....”

“Well rested. My body is in shock. It got ten hours of sleep last night.”

“On a Saturday night. I take it that’s not your usual pattern?”

“Yeah. Who knew the police Academy would be such a restful place.”

“Restful?” Starsky snorted. “I hear you’re the one keeping it stirred up these days.”

“Mere rumor. I’m fostering a sense of community and developing leadership.”

Starsky laughed. Then he glanced over and said slowly, “You’re not kidding.”

“Not entirely. You’d be surprised who’s got leadership potential in that bunch. I’m locating the leaders, then stepping back and letting them run with it.”

“And what do you get out of it. Besides a better breakfast?”

“Hey, breakfast is enough. Although lunch and dinner will be good, too.”

“You do that often?” Starsky asked.

“What?”

“Give an answer that doesn’t answer. Not a lie, just a....”

“Obfuscation?” Sandburg flashed a quick smile. It made him look ten years old. Made Starsky wonder if he could have handled raising him as a boy. The kid probably got into interesting trouble.

‘Hell, you have a word for it, so yeah. So jump back and answer the question. Why do you do it? What do you get out of it?”

“Too hard to explain. You’d think I was nuts. Plus you’d get a dose of Anthro 101.”

“I survived college.” His glance warned the kid that he didn’t appreciate the assumption that he was stupid.

“It’s not that. Not that I don’t think you could handle it intellectually, it’s just that some of it is pure theory on my part. Theory and a lot of complex interconnections and even some technobabble. Now if you want I’ll go into all the background, and I’m sure that....”

Starsky interrupted again. “Cut to the chase.”

“Right. I so don’t want to go there because I think it’s a shaman thing. And talking religion is one of those things that..." He shrugged.

“Religion? We were wondering if you were Jewish.”

“Ethnically. Mom left the religion behind when she left home and didn’t pass it on. Well, she did, but just as one set of beliefs among many. From her I got lots and lots of gentle vague advice. New age find-your-own philosophy stuff. Did my own research later and the religion of my ancestors is something I respect, but it’s not what I am. You?”

“Also something that got lost a generation ago.”

Sandburg nodded. “I figure these things happen for a reason. If I’d had strong religious orientation then I would have had some hard choices when the anthropology thing came along. Plus, I’m not sure how people with strong religious beliefs handle being a cop. What sort of mental adjustments you have to make.”

Starsky nodded. “Probably a good thing not to have too much religion if you suddenly find yourself gay, too. Hutch had some moments of doubt. They weren’t bad moments, really, but he had t’ think it all out.”

“I hear that.”

“Okay. So. Have a good week?”

“Not bad. Got a date for Tuesday, with one of the cadets.” The kid buffed his nails on his shirt and flashed one of his grins.

“Which one of the ladies is it?” Starsky asked.

“Mallory Carleton.”

“Yeah?" It was said admiringly.

“Hey, don’t let the pretty exterior fool you. She’s bright and has excellent ideas. Not to mention solid career goals. We’re going to be working on our shooting together. She’s worse than I am, which is, of course, a boost for my ego. She has a lot of drive but not much natural ability on the range. She can however, fill out a form.”

The double meaning caught Starsky by surprise and he gave a sort of snorting laugh.

“Hey, filling out a form is important! There’s nothing like watching two months of hard work go down the toilet because some Negligent Person didn’t do their paperwork right. Also the looks you get if anybody even suspects it was you who screwed it up!”

“Yeah. So you and Carleton are going....”

“Some place close enough to walk, as neither of us have a car here. This is going to take real creativity. I’m still working it out.”

“Dating’s changed.” Starsky shook his head, glad enough that Hutch had taken him out of that scene before it got all weird.

“Yeah. Even since I was young.”

Starsky’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. Damn. It was hard enough getting used to the idea of being a dad, but every once and a while he was reminded that the ‘kid’ was a thirty year old man. Thirty years. He knew how long that was. Thirty years with Hutch. Some sort of cosmic balance. He didn’t want to think about it. “You any good with gardening?”

“I know a little. Why?”

“Hutch’s working on the back yard. I want you to get him talking, make him take a break and get him to finish it later. Otherwise, he’ll over-do it, and besides, the steaks will be done and he’ll still be outside hollerin’ at me about just five more minutes, and we’ll end up eating cold beef at midnight.”

“I can do that. Maybe he’ll let me help him for a few minutes first.”

“He’d like the help, but he gave up on me years ago,” Starsky confessed. “I kept killing the wrong ones. Never did understand the relationship he had with plants. He had an indoor jungle at one point, but when we moved here he cut back, gave some of them away so he’d have time for the outside too. Don’t tell him, but I wasn’t exactly heartbroken over it.”

“Does he do herbs for cooking, and vegetables?”

Starsky grinned. “Yeah, the whole nine yards. Rosemary for the fish, a zillion kinds of stuff for salads.” He pulled into the drive, and they went in together. Starsky pointed out the back door to where Hutch was, got a cheerful thumbs up from the kid and as Sandburg headed out, Starsk went to the fridge. He pulled out his marinating steaks and poked them a bit, then found the asparagus which he washed and cut up. He looked up occasionally, his eyes searching, tracking to Hutch because that’s how it was with them, and after his eyes found Hutch he next looked for Blair.

Looking out the window was like watching TV with the sound off. Blair, down on his knees, watching as Hutch’s long fingers tugged out the weeds, was intent. Then Blair was moving down a few feet and starting on his own patch, his fingers quick and sure, his hair all bronzy in the sun. Blair stopped to shrug out of his shirt, his t-shirt tight across his shoulders, hair flying. The shirt had been hiding sturdy looking arms, even some muscle. Blair, sitting back on his heels as he fixed his hair tie, and then just sitting there with his eyes closed, his face up to the sun. Hutch, looking at Blair, was smiling and whatever he said made Blair laugh and get to work.

Funny. Starsky had decided long ago that he wasn’t gay, and was probably barely bisexual. Of all the men, it had only been Hutch who attracted him, and women were still his default definition of beauty. He’d never found other men attractive. Well, not very often, and when he did it was because he found some aspect of the guy that reminded him of Hutch. But this kid, he just had something. He was good looking, right on the edge of beautiful. 'Course, maybe people just automatically regarded their kids as good looking and talented. He looked again. Their kid. It was like he couldn’t get enough of looking at their kid.

Starsky stepped out to start the grill. Too easy now. He remembered hours of nursing charcoal briquettes and cheerful arguments about whose method of creating the red bed of coals was the best. Now he just turned the knob and let the propane do its thing. He listened to the rise and fall of Hutch’s voice, of Blair’s, sounds just a bit too far away to be understood as words.

He couldn’t really remember what Blair’s mother looked like. It was embarrassing. If you made a kid you really ought to remember more of the details about the lady you made him with. He wondered, sometimes, if there were any others out there, women he or Hutch had spent one night with.

He’d read once that condoms had a 99 percent rate of success. Sounded great, but it was scary math. One percent failure. With a condom, failure meant baby, all too often. Back then, women insisted on condoms when the danger of pregnancy was greatest, sometimes didn’t bother when it was ‘safe.’ It all meant that if you had sex a hundred times, at least one of those times was a Russian roulette. And he’d sat down and figured out how many ladies he had probably made it with in the fifteen years during which he’d been sexually active with women. Not too much over a hundred, he figured. He hadn't always scored, no matter what he'd told Hutch. Some of them he’d gone with for awhile, had an active sex life with. Do it at least twice; show her a night, and a man, she’s never going to forget. His compete-with-Hutch attitude. Figuring the same number of ladies for Hutch, and at one baby for every hundred times, taking out the ones on the pill but adding up the times he and the lady had risked using nothing at all. Between them, statistically, he and Hutch ought to have five or six kids out there somewhere.

Shit, he hoped there was only Blair. Not sure he could take it if they started stacking up on the doorstep. If they did, Blair would be the youngest. The very youngest, to the day, because after he’d had Hutch there had been nobody else, and it had been the same for Hutch. The oldest of these imaginary kids could be, what, 40, almost 45? You could be a grandparent at 45, a great grandparent at 60. Him. A great-grandpa. The thought made him uneasy. He looked up again, finding Hutch and then looking at Blair again.

Seemed ironic that his last act as a heterosexual male, or Hutch’s, would be to create something like Blair. Talk about a swan song. Quittin’ at the top of your game. There was the kid, brilliant, beautiful and, as far as he could tell, one of the good ones. The kind of guy who saved the whales or something. It would have been the pits to have found a long lost kid and have him be a criminal or fool or....

He heard a knock at the door and went to let Beth in. She arrived with a big bowl in her hands and a stack of files under one arm.

“Grandmother’s Strawberry Surprise,” she said, lifting up the Tupperware lid to show it. “Angelfood cake, Dreamwhip, red jello and strawberries.”

“Dessert,” Starsky breathed happily. Dessert two weeks in a row. And no way for Hutch to suggest they put it away until later. “Y’know it’s sad when the high point of your week is an unexpected dessert. It looks great.”

“This is one of those things you can’t make for yourself, because you end up eating it for a week and getting sick of it. I love this stuff, though. Besides, it’s a reward.”

“Reward?”

“For Blair. Is he here yet?” she asked, handing to bowl to Starsky.

“Out back with Hutch. They’ll be in soon or you can go out.”

“Okay. Anything I can do?” she asked.

“Want to make a salad?” he asked hopefully.

“A real salad or one of those really odd combinations Hutch keeps coming up with?” she asked.

Starsky grinned. “Gee, why if he came in and found the salad all done....”

“You are an evil old man, Dave Starsky.”

“Heh heh. Make the salad, Haggin.”

“Right away, Captain, sir!” she danced out of the way of his feint and headed for the kitchen. They were almost finished with the salad when Hutch and Sandburg came in, and while they were washing up in the bathroom Starsky went out and threw the steaks on the grill.

He leaned his head back in and shouted, “How do you like your steak?”

Luck. One liked rare, one medium rare, one well done. No matter how they came out, somebody was bound to be happy and think he was a culinary god. He waved his long fork around and sniffed in the rich aroma sizzling off the meat.

“Hey, you made the salad,” Hutch said as he stepped out and closed the sliding door after him. Inside, Beth was getting out the steak knives and plates.

“Beth did it.”

“I was going to have Blair do it. He was telling me a way to do cress that cuts the bitterness.”

“Sorry. Are you going to kiss the cook anyway?” Starsk asked, puckering up.

“You idiot,” Hutch said, but kissed him. Fast. Hutch and he had never been much for public displays of affection. Even in front of old friends. Hutch gave Starsky a quick questioning look before he turned away and Starsky had to shrug. He didn’t know why he needed that kiss. Or did he need somebody to see it? Beth or Blair?

Starsky shrugged. He flipped the steaks and yelled “I need the first plate!”

The ate outside at the table on the patio, laughing, talking, teasing, and lingering over the light, sweet dessert.

It didn’t feel like friends. It felt like a family.

They cleared away the dishes, filling the dishwasher and getting cold drinks before they settled around the dining room table.

“So what do you have for us today?” Hutch asked Haggin, passing Starsk a tall glass of ice tea.

“Same thing as last week. With a few more layers of confusion on it. I made myself very unpopular Monday, insisting they go back and dig deeper at the site. Made them use up 27 hours worth of personnel time out of the maintenance budget and tied up some of the city’s small equipment.” She scrunched her face up and pretended to cower with the shame of it.

Starsk knew by the way her mouth turned up that there was a punch line. “So? What happened?” he asked impatiently.

“Well, for about three hours, absolutely nothing. Take off six inches, inspect, take off six inches, inspect. They wanted to stop when they got down below ground level but I wouldn’t let them. I got called several unflattering names,” she added.

“And then what?” Sandburg wanted to know.

“Then we went down about a foot, and then....”

“And?” Hutch asked, as even he gave in to curiosity.

“And this,” she said, tossing a stack of glossy photographs into the middle of the table.

“Well, that’s a little different from the last one,” Sandburg said, eying the photograph in his hand. “Female, young?” he guessed, studying the bones.

“Not too young, but yeah, twenty to twenty-five, five foot three, medium build, long brown hair, Caucasian. Signs of trauma on the body include broken bones, damaged teeth, and that hole in her head. Coroner thinks that hole was done with the shovel after death. Maybe the other breaks, too. Nice and fresh at the time of burial.”

“No clothes with this one either?” Hutch asked.

“Found one button. Blue, nothing special about it. Plastic.” She shrugged, then said, “Some malformations of the feet, from high heels and other bad shoes. Brown hair about two feet long, although there’s not much left of it. Dental records already being checked, although it’s sort of hard with the teeth being smashed around like that.”

“Someone was angry.” Sandburg was studying the photo, his hand running up and down the side of it at he focused on the black and white image. “Can they tell if this body was buried at the same time as the first one?”

“Not yet. They say it could be weeks until they get the information because the lab is backed up again.” Beth shook her head. “I keep thinking that this spot, for somebody, was the *traditional* place to bury people. Also, if we should dig up the entire campground, what would we find? Anyway, they went down another three feet under this one and didn’t find anything. I didn't even have to ask them. Total mess, with the lake coming into the hole the whole time; the pump couldn’t keep up.”

“So we have somebody angry enough to whack a dead body as they bury it,” everyone ignored the possibility that she had not been dead, “but later, not so angry, because the second body wasn’t damaged,” Starsky said slowly.

“Statistically there’s a good chance that at least one of these bodies was related to the killer,” Sandburg said. “And as there’s two people missing to account for, we have double the chance to pick something up and figure this out. Now’s the time for the big guns. Now’s the time for,” Sandburg paused dramatically, “major gossip.”

“Gossip.” Hutch said.

"Twenty year old gossip?" Haggin asked, frowning.

“Yeah, I like nursing homes or senior centers for old gossip. I did a paper on it. You wouldn’t believe the memory on some of the older folks, considering memory loss is associated with.... Well. Anyway. At nursing homes you go find the relatively younger residents who are lucid and bored, and you bring up a subject and just let them talk. Oh, and make sure they're not alone. You get two or more together so they get competitive. It takes hours, sometimes. But it is so worth it. On the plus side, you bring some excitement into the lives of people who are a little short of it.”

“That was always my goal,” Hutch murmured. Starsky hit him on the arm and ducked the return swat automatically.

“Thorpe has two...no, three nursing homes. Plus there’s the surrounding communities,” Beth closed her eyes and added, “Well, I suppose. Not like I *have* a social life.”

“If you come get me I’ll go with you.” Blair volunteered.

“Not to sound too traditional and parental,” Hutch said. “But can you afford to take time off from your studies?”

For some reason this made the kid happy. “No problem. I’m up with everything. Except for the shooting practice. That’s going to take a little time anyway. I managed to hit the target a couple of times yesterday. The coach said I’m trying too hard, so I’ve been meditating before I shoot. Bizarre, man.” Then he said, “Could we go today?”

“I suppose I could find out what's nearest, call and see what the visiting hours are,” Beth said. She looked up. “Do you two want to come?”

Starsky looked over at Hutch. “Sure,” Hutch said. “We had nothing else planned for this afternoon.” Which was how they ended up an hour later over in Thorpe, at the Hilltop Retirement Home.

Chapter Text

Sunday Evening. Starsky.

They split up into two teams, Hutch with Sandburg, Starsky with Haggin. Starsky found the whole place depressing as hell. Knowing you were only ten or twenty years away from this. Walkers and wheelchairs, and rolling beds. The oddest thing, to his mind, was the way the older ladies gravitated to Hutch. Maybe with his all white-gold hair he looked older, more their age. Or maybe they liked slightly younger men and hell, the man still looked virile. He bet Hutch was the best thing some of these people had seen in months. He was all charm with them, explaining that the police had asked for their help and joking about it.

Starsky watched the kid, too. Blair's hands waving in the air as he was laughing and leaning forward to hear what someone had to say. Starsky had to force himself to tear his eyes away and pay attention to what he was doing. Keeping it all on topic was almost impossible because the flow of information went off in some pretty odd directions. Made him realize how seldom he used the old skills. Made him sorry, again, that they had ever left the streets. Not that the handwriting hadn’t been all over the wall, at the time. Or, rather, all over their hides, traced in scars.

The staff gently encouraged them to leave at dinner time, and they found themselves out on the sidewalk together. “I have an idea,” Beth said. “How about I take you all out to eat, and we can sit and compare notes about what we heard,” Beth said.

“Someplace light. We don’t eat a heavy meal at night any more,” Hutch said.

Starsky pouted but didn’t say anything because he was the one up at night with the heartburn most of the time, after all, and that meant a whole night of Hutch up too. Combined with the, ‘I told you so,’ every few minutes it was not really not worth it. But it was the principal of the thing.

“Where’s a good place with a soup and salad bar?” Sandburg asked.

So there they were at the Express Bar and Grill, going over their notes after dinner, and it was probably a good thing they were off in the corner because anyone casually listening in would have thought they were nuts.

Cops knew, better than anyone, the depths of scandal in the world, the number of sordid tales per square block in the city. But the amount of dirt those folks at Hilltop could recall was amazing. That these little disasters were remembered in such detail and passed around twenty or thirty years later bothered Starsky a little. People who remembered when you were stupid. They told complete strangers about it, three decades later. Not exactly a comforting thought.

“So what do we have?” Sandburg asked, flipping open his notebook. “You guys go first.”

Starsky exchanged a look with Haggin and began,“Well, twenty years ago, Myra and John Hoppel disappeared right ahead of the creditors. Just left their house as it was and disappeared with fifty thousand dollars from John’s job. And she was way younger than he was,” Starsky added. “And Mr. Humford left his wife and ran off with his secretary not long after that. Nobody saw either of them again, and poor Liz had the hardest time and lost the house. Liz was the wife,” he added. “We also have Noe Delgado who ran off with Emily Peterson and that won’t count because he was about 20 and she was 45 if she was a day. I quote.”

“Hey, I think we heard that one, too. The TV repairman,” Sandburg said.

“Yeah. Oh, and Bill Ford ran off with a go-go dancer when he'd only been a widower for two months, only no one can remember when that was,” Starsky ended, closing his small notebook with a flip of his wrist.

“Right,” Sandburg nodded. “Well, we had Tally and Mary Lorenson who went for a month’s vacation and never came back, but maybe they just moved and didn’t tell anybody because they were embarrassed to be declaring bankruptcy, even though everyone knew they had. Then that horrible Laura something vanished but no one did anything but celebrate because she was such a bitch. Everybody agreed with the bitch part, just not when she went missing. We also had that man who lived over on Wolshire who left without even canceling his newspaper. He was supposed to have a girlfriend, but no one remembers if he broke up with her or not, and the police never did anything so there must be something nobody knows. Maybe he went to jail. Oh, and one of the ladies said it had to have been summer when the bodies were buried because that was the only time the greenery was thick enough to hide anything like body-burying at the lake. She remembered going there since the fifties. There have been several cycles of trees growing and then being cut back, and bushes that got out of hand and then trimmed. I think she remembered every single one.”

“So I know what I’ll be doing this week,” Beth sighed. “More questions. Still, it’s something. I’ll match each story with the official reports. Be interesting to see how much of a correlation there is.”

“If any," Sandburg pointed out. "Look, I want to go ask the kitchen staff a question about the salad bar. I’ll be right back,” Sandburg said, and then vanished between the stainless steel swinging doors.

“Our kid, the food revolutionary,” Starsky said morosely.

“So are you going to back him up? Beth asked, picking up her cola. “About the food at the Academy?”

“Yeah,” said Hutch. “Up to the point the financial office screams soprano, anyway. He’s right about the food there. Staff and faculty get free meals, if we want it, but how many faculty members do you see taking advantage of it? Besides the human garbage pail over there,” he said, flicking a thumb in the direction of his beloved. “I don’t think I’ve eaten there in a year.”

“And it’s morally wrong to serve crap you wouldn’t eat yourself?” Starsky asked. “You’re going to make them put wheat germ on the menu, aren’t you? And those nasty bran things you keep trying to get me to eat.”

“You eat bran in muffins,” Hutch said.

“He tricks me,” Starsky confided. “By putting honey on them.”

“There’s no end to that man's perfidy is there?” Beth asked, and she was obviously trying not to smile.

“Ya gotta watch him,” Starsky agreed.

Sandburg arrived back at their table. “Do you know how much one of those things *cost*?” he asked in mock outrage, waving a hand in the direction of the gleaming stainless steel salad bar. “You can get a car for that. An almost new one, even!”

“That one’s pretty fancy,” Haggin agreed. “Maybe you can get one second hand. Some restaurant going out of business. There's auction companies that deal with that sort of thing.”

“Must happen all the time,” Sandburg agreed, making a note in the back of his notebook. They were walking out to the parking lot, where they had left the cars. They'd come in two vehicles so that Beth didn't have to drive so far to get home. “What if you made your own?” He looked intrigued.

“You’re something else,” Starsky said, shaking his head.

“Should have seen me four years ago,” Sandburg said, apparently seriously. “Before I settled down.”

“Settled down? So if going to full time school, helping out on a police investigation, and organizing justice and a better breakfast for all is the after, what was the before?” Beth asked.

“I used to also have two or three major writing projects in the works at the same time, plus the writing and research for the dissertation, plus I was teaching and writing grants and sometimes tutoring to pay the bills. Plus the cop stuff. In comparison, this is like, relaxing. Peaceful, almost, and a lot less hassle than I expected.” He had a funny look on his face as he added, “I sort of miss some of the stuff that used to drive me crazy.”

“Like my sister misses her ex-husband sometimes,” Beth said. "Until she remembers why she divorced him in the first place."

“Yeah, probably like that,” Sandburg agreed. Then he looked up at Starsky and said, “Almost time to take me back.”

“Yeah.” Starsky turned to Beth and said, “The rest of your dessert is still back at the house.”

“Just keep it, finish it off. I’ll pick up the bowl next week,” she said.

Starsky managed to keep his elation off his face. He hoped. He knew by Hutch’s expression that his partner knew what he was thinking anyway. Beth laughed and said good-bye, and they waved to her before climbing into Starsky’s red car. Sandburg was in the back, because of Hutch’s bad knee.

“Could we do a grocery stop again this time?” Sandburg asked, as they pulled out of the parking lot. “I got a list from some of the guys, not to mention their cash.”

“Sure. Want me to drop you at home first?” Starsky asked his partner.

“No, I haven’t been to a store in over a month. I’ll ride the damn electric cart,” he added when Starsky opened his mouth to say something.

“He hates it,” Starsky said.

“Makes me feel old.” Hutch grumbled. He and Hutch argued over the radio station for a few blocks. They made the mistake of asking the kid his opinion and didn’t have the chance to get a word in edgewise until they pulled into the parking lot.

And Starsky thought shopping with Hutch was bad. Now there were two of them taking things out of the basket as he added them. Or Sandburg said things like, “Oh, thanks, yeah, that’s on the list.” and he knew he’d never get a bite of *that*. They ended up with half the back seat full of Sandburg’s purchases, and Starsky helped him carry it in. They dumped the groceries on the bed. Sandburg went back out into the hall with him.

“Thanks for everything,” the kid said.

And Starsky said, “You want to borrow my car for your date?” and then stood, kind of stunned that the words had come out of his mouth.

“You sure?” Sandburg said, eyes cutting up to his suddenly, as if he knew Starsky was half regretting saying the words.

“Yeah. See, I got a meeting that night and I’m behind on some of my grading. I could stay here until ten-thirty. You’d be back by then, right?” He'd have to be, due to the curfew.

“Sure. Yeah, I could do that, and I’d have my phone, so if you needed me to come back early you could just call. It’s be fantastic, man, thanks!” Talk about seeing somebody’s eyes glow.

“At least I know you can drive a stick, because you’re not signed up for the whole auto course, just the pursuit basics and defensive driving.”

“Yeah, Remind me to tell you about driving trucks for a living sometime.”

“Got a lot to catch up on. But Hutch is waiting so we’ll do it later. You coming next Sunday?”

“Yeah? Yeah, cool! Thanks.”

“See ya.”

With a wave Starsky turned and galloped down the stairs. He had groceries and Hutch in the car, so he hurried.

Chapter Text

Sunday Night - Sandburg

It took an hour to parcel out everybody’s purchases. Some of the people didn’t want their change or only wanted the bills and not the coins, so rather to Sandburg’s surprise, he made about twenty bucks on the deal, not counting his own small bag of survival rations. Just as well, because he had that date, which took on an whole new aspect now that he had wheels for it and a little more money. Decent of Dave to offer the car, too. Hey dad, can I borrow the car? Talk about a cliche. The faith in him was warming, though.

He was alone in the room again, a stack of carrot sticks beside him–fuel for later. He grabbed his phone.

“Ellison.”

“Hello. Sandburg here, and how is it in jolly old Cascade?”

“Wet. Surprise. And how was your day?” Ellison asked.

“Amazing, actually. Second body found at Thorpe, and Beth and I are going to be checking out some more nursing homes for voluble oldsters who know all the dirt on everybody. And I found out what a salad bar table costs. You would not believe. And the dads are fine, thanks. Beth took us all out to dinner. Hutch is coming back to work this week. Oh, and I have a date.” First one in almost six weeks.

“A date. Just as big a surprise as rain in Cascade.”

“Hey, the real surprise is that Starsk is loaning me his car. Nice red wheels, man. I get the feeling that pre-Hutch, the man was a God’s gift to women. Hutch, too, but in a different way. They have a picture of them that must have been taken about the time I was born, up on one of the shelves in the living room. All seventies jeans and attitude, and they were both good looking men. Think what they gave up, just to have each other! It couldn’t have been easy. Making a major change like that.”

“He’s going to loan you his car?” Ellison dragged the conversation back

“Hey, it’s not like you with the truck.”

“If you say so. Are you going out with Beth?”

Sandburg blinked. “Huh? Beth? Oh. No. One of the cadets. I’m going out with Mal Carleton.”

There was a long, long silence.

“Jim?”

“Mal? You’re going out with one of the...guys?” Jim asked, and he sounded bewildered. Also, maybe a touch angry.

“No. Idiot. Mal. Mallory. The girl kind of Mallory. And I accuse you of not thinking outside the box sometimes. Way to go. What did you think, that I got the dads to fix me up?” he laughed.

“It could happen. I’m never surprised by the things you get up to. Not anymore,” Ellison insisted.

“Yeah, well, I guess the dads are living proof that people can make some radical 180 turns, but it would take one hell of a man to put me into that much of a spin. And I’m safe because you should see this bunch. I never realized before, but Major Crimes, hell, all of the Cascade cops, are a good looking group, and not only that, they’re extraordinarily intelligent, too. Because on the whole, the cadets here are, like, not. There’s got to be a paper in this somewhere. I mean, do some guys decide to be a cop to compensate for a lack of physical attributes? And do better looking guys rise in the ranks more quickly? Ditto the smart ones, I assume. And are the rules different for the women?”

“Sandburg?”

“Oh. Right. I forget. It’s really strange. Sometimes I don’t remember that it’s all gone for good. On a completely different subject, I wonder why I didn’t think of Beth and dates. I mean, she’s not much older than I am, ten years, maybe. She’s interesting. So how can I not see what’s right in my face? Maybe it’s not having a car, combined with being younger. Being the one who has to be picked up and everything, I probably felt threatened. Or I considered her generation-ally on par with the dads. I may have to examine some of my masculine tropes, here.”

“Uh. Look. Did you say you’re getting your cadet uniforms tomorrow?”

“Yeah?” The patented Jim Ellison subject change. He was grateful for it.

“If they take official pictures, I want a copy. If no official pictures, I still want one. I want to see what you look like in the hat.”

“How did you know about the hat? And I know you want to show it around to the guys so they can laugh themselves silly, but I’ll see what I can do.”

“Uh,” Ellison hesitated, which meant it was true.

Sandburg laughed and changed the subject. “Your senses all right?”

“Mostly. Feeling the cold a lot today, but the thermostat says the weather's warm. Don’t really understand why.”

“How much colder?”

“Not much, I just...have to keep adjusting every few minutes, so it’s noticeable.”

“You’re not coming down with something, are you?”

There was a short silence. Then Ellison said, “Maybe that’s it.”

“Hey, man, zinc, garlic, orange juice, and the herbs in the purple jar. Hot bath and a good night’s sleep. Maybe you can head it off.”

“Yeah. Maybe.” Ellison said. “Okay.”

“I’m going to hang up so you can get started. Call you tomorrow and see how you are.”

“Fine. Goodnight.”

Sandburg nodded. “Goodnight, Jim.” He hung up, a little worried. Didn’t like it when Jim got sick, his reactions were so damned idiosyncratic. Definitely had to call him tomorrow. Meanwhile, he pulled out his stack of books and picked up a carrot stick. Time for a few hours of study before bed.

Chapter Text

Monday Morning Sandburg

“How do I look,” Jon asked, stepping back.

Like you never learned how to tie a tie, Sandburg thought as he tightened his own. A tie. A navy blue tie. He had to wear a tie. Sixteen hours a day for the next six weeks. All the time, except in activity classes. Even when he was teaching, he had avoided wearing a tie. Religiously. Except on evaluation day. But he did know how to tie one. Apparently it was a skill that not everyone acquired. He spent twenty minutes making sure that Jon had the basics, noting the surreptitious glances from guys on both sides as others took advantage of overhearing the instructions and managed to save face at the same time. Then he took one last look in the mirror and went to line up. Alphabetically.

The man who had looked back in the mirror was...someone else? Hair pulled back and tied. Unsmiling face. Crisp blue shirt with the Academy logo on one breast and one shoulder. A knife sharp crease in the pants. Sandburg deliberately put the thoughts aside for later. Time for the heads up, shoulders back, uniform inspection.

Academy life changed overnight, although not in any obvious dramatic way. Paradigm shift. Turns out it *was* the uniform and the badge and the whole pseudo-military atmosphere and lord if he had only known it years ago, there was probably a dozen papers, a book and a dissertation in there. Be interesting to talk to the dads and see if this was something the Academy had done deliberately or something that happened accidentally and then kept because it worked. As he understood it, if you stuck through the first two weeks of basics, then you got the reward of the spiffy uniform. They’d lost, what, six people the first two weeks who couldn’t take the mild settling-in process and the academic work. Which your average eighth grader could have handled. No doubt the administration was now looking for other little problems which would be revealed by the process of adapting to the stricter regime and the uniform. The cadets didn’t notice, caught up in the new atmosphere. A cadet ‘belonged’ and now the Academy could start building the cohesiveness, the mutual customs and jokes, the unity of purpose that would later be transmuted into the closed society of the police force. If he were designing this himself, then this next stage should weed out the guys who got off on the power that came with the uniform and authority, the jackboot thing.

In other words, if anyone was going to start to get macho and offensive, it would be now. Now was the time for the bullies to identify the uncertain and the weak and turn on them? Oh yeah, great. Oh, shit.

So the thing to do now was go a bit colder. Harder. Sure, channel Jim, right? Don’t take any crap from anybody for a day or two. The old question. The same old choices. Perpetuate the dumb stuff or field a few bruises.

But for now, he went out and listened to the orientation. How to wear a hat and when. They had to practice holding it as they said the pledge of allegiance. He heard careful explanations of what was appropriate to do while in the uniform and what was not. How to carry or display the badge. Conduct becoming an officer. Laundry instructions.

They had spent the morning doing the usual. Exercise, breakfast, class, P.E. and then lunch. After lunch, the uniforms had been handed out. After the uniform orientation, the afternoon classes were set aside in favor of training films. Back to back. Basics. Which they were expected to role play back to the instructors.

And why did he always have to play the perp?

Well, sure, besides the hair, the stature and Jon’s plaintive, “But we need the practice more than you, you had all that ride-along!”

So he tried out some of the things that had been pulled on him, that he had seen pulled on Jim, and he let out his inner brat. It was kinda fun. Except that he was accumulating more bruises. On top of bruises. The spiffy new uniform was sweat-soaked and would need a wash tonight. And they were expected to iron their shirts.

So later he organized a washing unit with his roomies so they wouldn’t all be wasting five quarters to wash one shirt and he taught two of the guys how to iron that evening after supper. Demonstrating on his own shirt. He did not let himself get conned into ironing all the shirts, but oh, how the guys tried. Ironing was one of the many under-utilized skills Sandburg had acquired on the road with Naomi. As he bent over the hot iron, he longed for the simple days of flannel but was aware that when he picked up his detective badge, he was going to be picking up a lot more than just a chunk of metal. There was ironing in his future, the grey ghosts of flapping laundry. Detectives didn’t wear uniforms to work, except under certain specified conditions, most of which were depressing or boring. Detective uniform for the rest of the time was mid-America office. Then there were the slightly better clothes you wore to court, and to official hearings. And the ones you wore to funerals and department meetings. Lots of ironing.

He forgot about clothes as he sat, hunched over, in the quietest corner of the laundry room and talked to Jim on the phone. Ellison was not feeling better. They discussed honey and lemon and he tried to explain the exact combination of herbs that would make the best tea for someone with the beginnings of a sore throat--but who knew if Jim Ellison would actually brew the stuff the right way. Although sometimes resistant to Sandburg’s concoctions, when he did help mix herbs together he had a tendency to have a heavy hand with the scoop or spoon. And his pinch and smidgen were on the generous side as well. Although that could just be big hands.

At least Jim seemed to be eating right. Broiled chicken, he’d said, and fresh strawberries with just a touch of cream.

Agh. Long distance jealousy from the guy who had dined on grey meatloaf and canned plums. Not that he wasn’t developing a sort of appreciation for canned plums. They filled in the corners, and the challenge of the occasional overlooked pit was not to be scoffed at.

So he sent Jim to bed and crawled into his own. His date was the next day, and he decided to go for the extra sleep. As much as you could with three other guys tramping in and out at all hours of the night.

It was strange to wake up, shower, run around the track, shower again, dress in his uniform, and go to breakfast. A breakfast with everybody sitting taller, trying not to get drips on the new shirts. A couple of the guys even sported new haircuts. On the other hand, some of the cadets looked like they had lost the morning battle with the new clothes. You wouldn’t think it would be that hard to be neat, but it was apparent that it was a monumental struggle for some of them. Although come to think of it....

Well, damn. Who would have imagined that three or four years with an anal clean freak would pay off like this? He hadn’t realized it, but he was holding himself to Jim-standards because he was in a Jim-environment, and because of Jim, he was taking everything pretty much in stride. He stopped for a minute and tried to think if he still had his own standards. Thought about the way the inside of his knapsack looked and the way his dresser drawers looked and yeah. He was still his casual self. So. Situational. Blend in with the natives.

Though, he really was much more competitive than he had ever thought. Poor Naomi, with her cooperative games and the hours she had spent instilling her values, and all down the drain. Here he was, playing his own version of the pissing contest.

By the end of the school day, he’d decided that the game was damn exhausting. He’d successfully met all the challenges which had come his way, but he was tired. Tired, and he was supposed to go out on a date with Mal. Who was probably tired, too. He quickly revised his plans. By five, he, Mal, and dad’s car were on their way to a picnic by the lake. He’d briefly toyed with going all the way up to Red Arrow Lake and look around, but visiting a crime scene on a first date? Might impress her at that, but it was too far away for the amount of time they had. So they ate decent food from a deli Hutch had recommended, and sat quietly on the picnic table and watched the sun go down. It was great to relax. Talk about things that had nothing to do with the Academy.

Before they left, they took a walk around the park lake, talking and laughing, and she told him about her goals and what she wanted to accomplish in the near future, and he was an attentive listener, offering few opinions or details in return. She was his height, the curves and muscles giving her a healthy look, and she was pretty, her dark hair pulled back in a French braid which emphasized her dark eyes. She laughed at his jokes, was fairly smart, and....

The sizzle wasn’t there. They both knew halfway through the meal that this evening wasn’t going to end up in the back seat of the red car.

Which on one level he regretted. Except for the times he’d been in the hospital, he’d seldom had a stretch of celibacy like the one he’d endured for the last couple of months. Not since he'd hit twenty-one, anyway. Of course, destroying your life can do that to you, and then he’d come here. Three roommates and darn little privacy. You’d think he’d be frantic for it.

There would have been a time, and not that long ago, when he’d have taken full advantage of a back seat in a red car, and a pretty woman. Was he getting too old for the back seat? Maybe, or maybe it was the cop thing. Supposed to be busting folks for doing that in the park, not doing it yourself.

Anyway, he and Mal had a good time and parted at the dorm door with a friendly kiss, and Blair took the keys back to Starsk, who looked up and grinned at him and asked how it had gone. It was weird talking to his dad, handing over the keys, sitting on the corner of his desk, hands flying as he made a good story out of a simple picnic. Strange because Starsk wanted to know if he had scored but was careful not to ask outright, and when, just as indirectly, Sandburg conveyed that he had not, there was disappointment in Starsky’s eyes. Living vicariously through others? Because of his age, or his lost heterosexual opportunities, or maybe he was just a bit of a dirty old man? He probably pinched the backside of a waitress on occasion, and flirted with the check-out girls.

And what did Hutch think about that?

Sandburg went up to his room, and spent some time studying, and talked with Sanchez for awhile. He went to bed but could not settle down after he crawled under the thin blankets and punched up the flat pillow. The minute he lay down the door opened and the light came on again. Roommates were hell. He had more sympathy for Jim’s idiosyncrasies now. Spend a decade or two sharing space with various inconsiderate guys, then leave them behind, get used to it being nice and quiet in your own home, and then, boom. Anthropologist time. No wonder Jim was testy about it.

He wondered where the ex-wife, Carolyn, figured in. Worse or better than the guys? Naturally considerate or just expecting dispensation? And why as he lying here, thinking about this?

The room was both too light and too noisy, with the breathing of two other men – Smithson being still down in the lounge – loud in his ears. He turned onto his back, staring up at the ceiling.

When you lived alone, there were options. Nothing like a bit of solitary vice to flush out the tension and send you off to sleep, right? And nothing like having occupied beds a few feet away from yours on almost every side to put a spike in that idea. It was worse than having Jim upstairs. He pretty much knew when Jim was asleep, knew when he could indulge himself. Jim snored. Just a little. In fact, for a guy, it could probably be considered a delicate snore. Not bad at all. And damned useful, too.

Sandburg knew he himself didn’t snore much. Jim would have mentioned it. Repeatedly.

So if he wanted, he could go find the john and the stall with the good latch, and if nobody came in then he could give himself one of those too-fast, joyless hand jobs, and then maybe he could sleep.

It sounded like too much work, so he just pulled his hands up under his head and stared up at the shadowed ceiling. Too much work? Sex of any kind was too much work? And he hadn’t tried with Mal, either.

Damn.

Maybe he *was* getting old.

He thought about it.

Nah.

But maybe it was poor nutrition that caused his reaction. Or lack of reaction. Although you wouldn’t think only a couple of weeks of total all-American crap calories would do that to you. Refined flour and lots of preservatives, man. His algae shakes, sprouts, fresh vegetables and crushed-not-ground wheat flour, replaced with canned corn and mystery meat patties.

Although tonight he and Mel had scored. Fresh bakery bread on the sub sandwiches, and lots of crunchy veg that was not iceberg lettuce.

And he was stretched out here thinking of the food and not the woman.

Was that sad or what?

The squeak of the door, and his last wayward cadet crawled into bed without brushing his teeth. Sandburg slept better once they were all back, mostly because they always woke him up when they staggered in. That was another thing about Jim. The man never woke you up when he came in late. Not that he made a habit of that. Of course, night was a clear as day to the Sentinel, but still.

Chapter Text

Wednesday morning: Sandburg

His alarm went off and Sandburg did his zombie impression down the hall and into the shower. Nice and hot. His eyeballs deigned to open. He thought of coffee. He dressed in his sweats, joined the trickle of men and women moving out the doors and onto the track. Ran, bent, squatted, leaped. Back for the next shower. Then he dressed in his cadet uniform and headed for breakfast.

Joy. It was French toast morning. If you could call the little prefab rectangles by that name. They were swimming in a lake of genuine imitation maple syrup. Pure corn syrup, a lake of orange poison. He'd skip it and fill up on the plain toast, he decided. He poured himself two cups of coffee and sucked back the first one almost in one inhalation as he walked to the table. He was putting the second to his lips when he realized that the kitchen had reached new lows this morning. To describe the coffee as bitter was an understatement. It had officially reached the level of nasty.

There was a clatter at the kitchen door as it swung open. One of the kitchen ladies - he never could quite call them cooks - was standing sideways, her ample body holding the swinging door open as she shouted back into the kitchen. Then she had turned and was running towards the tables, building up a rather respectable speed for one of her years and general physical condition. She was shouting, or maybe it could be called screeching. Whatever she was saying was lost a chorus of inquiring make voices chimed in, and her own screaming frenzy rose as she attacked the table. Her arms swept plates, saucers, cups to the floor, adding the crash of breaking crockery to the din.

Cadets ducked for cover or sprang up to restrain her, getting in each other’s way as they grabbed at her failing arms. Maybe because she was a woman, and older, or maybe because each person was expecting another to take control, or perhaps it was because she had a kick like a mule, but they didn’t manage to stop her and she started on another table. Sandburg’s cup was caught at just the right angle to send a sheet of brown liquid arcing out. Eight crisp blue shirts were instantly converted to demerit status. Sandburg had leaped to one side, avoiding the coffee but not the solid shove from Jon’s elbow as the big man dove past and wrapped one big arm gently around the lurching woman.

The ‘gently’ was a mistake. She bent him over her hip and tossed him into the next table over, and Jon and the dishes came down together. Now half a dozen cadets had managed to get their act together and they converged on the cook. Sandburg was moving forward, opening his mouth to apply a little logic and calm advice to the situation, when the first cramp hit. In seconds he was on his knees. He wasn’t alone down there. Several other cadets were sinking to the floor, arms clutching at stomachs, grey faces contorted.

“Oh, shit,” was all Sandburg had time to say before his first cup of coffee made a return trip. Like a chain reaction, two of the others on the floor responded to the sight by following his example. By now there were a heap of cadets on the cook, so many people joining in that it looked like a cartoon, and staff members were showing up, and there was Starsky, yelling into the phone he carried.

“Jim?” Sandburg whispered softly, and fell forward onto his face.