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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.

Chapter Text

Wednesday morning Jim Ellison

Bad night. All of Major Crimes had been pulled in to help with the biggest narcotics bust of the year. Went like clockwork. Simon Banks had kept Jim Ellison in the van the entire time, assigning him to communications and making sure that he helped coordinate the movement of over sixty men. And stayed well away from the action.

Jim had arrived home at two in the morning, with instructions not to come to work before ten. So on Wednesday morning, Ellison was sleeping in.

Or he was until he found himself wide awake, sitting up, trapped in tangled covers, screaming “...Aaaair!” at the top of his not inconsiderable lung power. Sweat was forming on his shoulders, neck and hair, his hands were trembling and his head was killing him.

Scrabbling himself free of the sheet he swung his legs over and sat on the edge of the bed, his two hands clutching his head and his panting breaths loud in his own ears. He’d gone to sleep in boxers, a habit he had picked up when he had married. Carolyn had a few quirks about that–didn’t like an unexpected touch of penis against her skin when she was half asleep, especially if there was dampness involved. So now he found himself staring at the checkered pattern of the worn soft cloth and trying to figure out why Carolyn had come to mind when what had woken him up was one hell of a bad dream about Sandburg in danger. Someone trying to poison his friend at the Academy. One hell of a.....

Dream.

Only it didn’t feel like a dream. There was a stabbing pain in his head and an insistent feeling in his chest that told him he was going to have to call, that he would get no rest from his own growling instincts until he knew for sure that Sandburg was all right. So grabbed his phone from the bedside table and started dialing.

No answer from Sandburg’s phone. He called the Academy. Busy signal. Tried again two minutes later. Again two minutes after that. Then he and the phone went downstairs to make a pot of coffee and to try again. With each failure to get through, his nervousness increased. What the hell was keeping the phone lines tied up at this hour of the morning? He had a bad feeling about that.

He took a two minute shower and tried again. Tried Sandburg’s phone again. Dressed. Tried again. Thought a moment, went looking for the home phone number of Starsky and Hutchinson. No answer there. Spent a few minutes trying to remember the name of that lady officer Blair had mentioned from Thorpe. Called Simon Banks instead. He wasn’t at his desk yet.

Called the Academy again, and then...well, he knew Sandburg. He called information and got the number of the hospital nearest the Academy. Premonition had him trembling as his big fingers stabbed at the numbers.

Yes, they had a Blair Sandburg admitted this morning. No, they were not allowed to give out other information over the phone. Would....

He cut her off in mid-sentence because he needed the number of the airport.

Chapter Text

Wednesday, noon. Hutchinson

He’d had a lifetime of experience at this, Kenneth Hutchinson thought as he eased into the uncomfortable chair beside the hospital bed. Of course, usually it had been Starsky lying on the white sheets, dark hair sweat-plastered to his brow, and tubes going in and out. It was no easier when the sweaty man with the pale face was Blair Sandburg. At least he knew the kid was going to be okay, that they had pumped his stomach and the prognosis was excellent, according to the chipper little baby-faced doctor who had been in a few minutes ago.

Sandburg wasn’t unconscious, but sort of half there and awash in his muzzy discomfort. He was drifting in and out of sleep, muttering a few words before becoming quiet again, and Hutch didn’t bother him with talk. The patient was allowed water and every ten minutes Hutch braced Blair with one arm and held the straw to his lips. Strange to have his arm around a man who wasn’t Starsky. Strange, too, how comforting the body warmth was against his arm and shoulder. It said Blair was alive. Blair was all right. The relief of it sang through him.

And strange how fast Sandburg had become important, how a sense of family changed the way you felt about someone. Our child, our child, and he’s going to be okay. Be released tomorrow after twenty four hours observation. And he wasn’t going to go directly back to the Academy, they’d already decided to bring him home for a few days. Feed him decent food.

There was a sound at the door and he looked up as Starsky came in. “Got it sorted out?” he asked his partner.

“Well, they’re still doing the paperwork, but yeah. Including Blair we got four cadets in here for overnight, eight more that were checked and sent back to the dorm to rest for the day. Mrs. Salton is in a room down the hall because it looks like one of our over-enthusiastic cadets bruised her kidneys or something. Mrs. Koverly is in custody, and hasn't stopped crying.”

“So does anyone know why Koverly poured the pesticide into the coffee?” Hutch asked as Starsky pulled up the other chair and sat down, his feet going up to rest on the edge of the bed.

“No, she’s still being questioned, but it looks pretty straight forward. The doctor says she’s not really the sharpest knife in the kitchen drawer, and she did didn’t think her plan out.”

“Fear based response,” Sandburg whispered, his words slurred. His eyes didn’t open, and his breathing evened out again after a few seconds.

“He’s half asleep, isn’t he?” Starsky chuckled, watching Sandburg's restless movements. “Spur of the moment anger; the woman probably regretted the impulse the minute she realized what she did or she wouldn’t have told the other cook almost right away. I have a....”

Starsky broke off as the door to the room burst open and a large man came barreling in. Big man, angry. Both Starsky and Hutch were standing in an instant, and one of the chairs slammed against the wall as it was kicked back. They were between the intruder and the bed but it didn’t mean much as he shouldered between them. The situation was on the edge of violence, with Hutch’s fists up and Starsky’s big hand closing hard on the man’s shoulder, pulling him around with a jerk.

“Jim?” a wavering voice came from the bed.

Jim? As in Jim Ellison, Blair’s partner? The two older men paused, still on the brink of defense, but the man didn’t seem to see them. Blair was blinking up at the guy and smiling.

“Hey. Jim.”

“Sandburg, what the hell happened this time?” Ellison asked, shaking off the hand on his shoulder and going to the bed. Then Ellison was touching Sandburg, the back of his hand against his forehead checking for fever and the other hand running up one arm and then down his side.

“Hey, no biggie. I’ll be out tomorrow. I’d be...out now but they need a few more tests,” Sandburg said, giving a rueful smile and pulling himself up to a sitting position. “They need to check my pee.” He winced and his hand went to his stomach. “It’s like the third day of the flu. Sore.”

“What happened?” Ellison demanded. Or maybe growled would be a better word.

“You know my campaign to improve the food at the Academy?” Sandburg asked, reaching for his water. Ellison sat down on the bed, reached over, snagged it up and stuck the straw up against Sandburg’s lips. Hutchinson exchanged a glance with Starsky as they returned to their chairs. “You know how I always say how important communication is? Turns out I was right. I guess we weren’t talking enough to the people in the trenches. The cooks heard that we were unhappy with the food and trying to do something about it. One lady thought we were a threat to her job. Anyway, she poured something into the coffee.” Sandburg took another pull of water and then waved it away.

“So were you the target, or was it aimed randomly at all the cadets?” Ellison asked, putting the water back on the table.

“Good question.”

Starsky spoke up. “Both.” All eyes turned towards him. “Only it turns out that was mostly because you were the only one she can always recognize. The one with the hair, she said. So you were the one she pinned her anger on. She says something just snapped. She was mad and you were one of the guys who have a habit of grabbing two cups of coffee rather than going back in line for a refill and that had been bugging her. So when she got the impulse to poison something, she went for the coffee.”

Ellison’s hard mouth softened for a moment. “Your hair did you in?” He broke down and laughed, a short bark with not quite enough humor in it.

“Hey, the hair rocks. Countless women would sign an affidavit to that affect.” The joke would have gone over better if he hadn’t gasped and grabbed his stomach in the middle of it. “Whoa,” he added. “My guts are seriously mad at me.”

“I’m seriously mad at this cook of yours,” Ellison said. He turned towards the other two men. “Is she in jail?”

“She's in custody,” Starsky said, standing. “By the way. Dave Starsky,” he held out his hand.

“And Ken Hutchinson,” Hutch added, also standing. Ellison had a good handshake, only a shade too firm. One of those men who didn’t let anyone else intimidate them with the shake.

“James Ellison. Cascade PD.”

“Dads. My partner,” Sandburg said.

As if they did not know. Hutch sat down again, his knee was giving him fits. Absently, he rubbed it.

“What happened.” Ellison demanded, his gaze shifting from one man to the other.

“Pretty simple, really,” Starsky said. He propped his feet up on the bed and laced his fingers together, resting them on his stomach. “There are two cooks and one assistant on duty for breakfast. This morning the head cook, Mrs. Salton, remembers talking with Mrs. Koverly, our perp, about the rumors they’d been hearing about how the cadets had convinced the administration to fire them and get in one of those management companies to run the kitchen.”

“Hey! We never said anything like that!” Sandburg protested, but subsided as Starsky held up a hand.

“That part of the rumor was from last year, when it *was* discussed. Some of the board members wanted to try it back then, but they got voted down. What they call outsourcing. Or something. Anyway, it turned out to be more expensive than doing things in-house, so they voted it down. I wasn’t at the meeting,” he said.

“He never is. Always volunteers to be the man on duty down in the office,” Hutch explained, unable to hold back the grin and ignoring the non-verbal editorial comment he got in return from his partner.

“So since she isn’t the one with seniority, and was afraid, because she’s only a couple of years away from retirement and thought she’d be unable to get another job, she panicked and poisoned the coffee. Just tipped the contents of the can in on impulse, didn’t plan t’ kill anybody. Wasn’t thinking at all because lots of people getting sick would be a *sure* way to make us look at the food program again and maybe change some things. But she saw you walk in and knew you drank coffee and,” he mimed pouring.

“But Mrs. Salton, who is the head cook, knew right away there was a problem because the lady was crying when she came back into the kitchen from taking out the urn, and in only a minute or so the woman confessed to her friend. Probably only two, maybe four minutes max, since the coffee was put out, which turns out was a good thing since not much of the stuff in it had a chance to dissolve into the coffee. Most of it had sunk to the bottom of the pot, see, but the bottom of the spout is about two inches above that, and so the real bad stuff was at the bottom, thank god, and the rest was diluted.

“So Mrs. Salton sees that some of the cadets already have coffee and she starts yellin’ at them not to drink it, only she’s so upset the words are garbled and she starts shoving the cups off the table. This makes everybody think she’s gone nuts and the cadets jump her. Too bad the restraint class is next week.”

“With our luck she’ll sue us for the injuries,” Hutchinson sighed, running one hand through his hair.

“She was nice about it when I talked to her. We'll be okay unless some lawyer gets to her later. I figure what we need to do is to have some sort of ceremony, give her a medal,” Starsky said. “She pretty much deserves one. Anyway, some of the coffee drinking cadets had been feeling a little queasy and leaping up set it off, and the guys went down about as fast as they’d jumped up. So we had half a dozen people barfing their guts out, a dozen more dog-piling an old lady, and 911 rolls for the second time in two weeks with our address on the screen.”

“Sounds like life in the Sandburg Zone,” Ellison said, with a nod.

“Hey!” Sandburg protested again, poking a hard finger into Ellison’s side.

“So what did they do to you? Pump your stomach?” Ellison asked.

“God yes," Sandburg groaned. "But I threw up all over everything first. Not a whole lot, because I hadn't actually had breakfast yet, but still. There are a couple of paramedics I will never be able to look in the face again. Not that I got a good look at them at the time, but they were the ones who had to go change their uniforms, if you know what I mean. Cadet Carter and I got to have a barfing contest, which I have to admit he won. But he had two cups of coffee in him, and he'd eaten some of his eggs. The cups they have at the Academy are those thick heavy ones, don’t hold much, so some of us have got into the habit of grabbing two. Imagine what would have happened if I’d had one of our usual Major Crime mugs.”

“Long term effects?” Ellison asked briskly, looking at Starsky.

“They aren’t sure,” Starsky admitted. “Not sure how much was absorbed, and don't know yet exactly what it was. They might by now, one of the teachers managed to find the carton and get it into the lab. The hospital did the stomach pump just to be sure, but so much of it came back up pretty fast that they hope it didn't get much into any of the guys' systems. They made the guys drink a couple quarts of some chalky stuff and then pumped them out again. Blair and Juan Carter were hit the worst. Everyone else just took one sip and realized that it was undrinkable.” Starsky shot Sandburg a grin. Sandburg managed a wan smile in return.

Starsky went on, “According to the doctor Blair and Carter need at least a week off from exercise and then to build up slowly. Liquids and light food for several days. If he has any symptoms tomorrow morning he’ll have to stay here longer, but the doctor seemed to think that not much got into any of them, thanks to the fast work of the paramedics, not to mention the initial barf defense in the lunch room, which according to the janitorial staff made the biggest mess in Academy history. Couple of the guys who hadn't had coffee barfed too, just smellin' it and seeing it. Anyway as they reacted to the barfing with contributions of their own, it sort of domino-ed. So Blair’ll have to have some tests later, and if there’s trouble they’ll maybe stick a scope down and look at his stomach. Or one up the other end, depending on where the problem seems to be. We’re to look for pain, increase of the cramping, vision problems and diarrhea. A little bit will be normal, but if it lasts beyond 24 hours or is bloody, or gets worse instead of better, he'll need more tests.”

“I am SO not wanting to go there,” Sandburg murmured.

The door opened and a nurse came in to check blood pressure and pulse. They all fell quiet until she was done and had left the room.

“So. Ellison. Did you come directly here from the airport?” Hutch asked. When the man nodded he added, “You’re welcome to stay with us. We're putting Blair in the spare room, but we have a hideabed sofa in the office, too, so we can make you comfortable. Long as you want to stay, you’re welcome.”

Ellison paused, then gave a short nod and said, “I’d appreciate it, thanks.”

“Hey,” Sandburg said from the bed, “Me, too.”

“But meanwhile, we have to get back to the Academy,” Hutch said, standing up. “I assume you’ll be staying here with Blair for now?” he asked Ellison. Ellison nodded again. “Okay, we’ll be by at dinner, see how the kid is doing, make sure you get something to eat. You can follow us home when visiting hours are over, at eight. Will that work for you?”

Ellison nodded again. Sandburg said to him, “You sure you won’t want to go with them now? I think I’m going to be sleeping in about ten minutes. Twelve minutes, tops.”

“I brought some work.”

It was plain the man intended to settle down for a long stay, so Hutch and Starsky said good-bye and headed out.

“So that’s Blair’s partner. Big son of a bitch,” Starsky said as he unlocked the door of his car.

“He is that,” Hutch agreed as he lowered himself carefully into the passenger seat and eased his bad leg inside. “Good looking, too.”

“Noticed that, did you?” Starsky said mildly.

That made Hutch laugh. “That man would be noticed anywhere.”

“Yeah, even his muscles have muscles. You know, before, I sort of suspected that their great closure rate was due to our kid’s brains, but Ellison looks like he has a lot to contribute, too.” Starsky looked both ways and then pulled into traffic.

“Noticed that, did you,” Hutch echoed back.

“The man leaks testosterone. He’s got that air, you know? The look in his eyes that says don’t mess with me.”

“His eyes don’t tell much else.”

“Yeah, but did you see what his body language says?” Starsky asked. “When he bent over that bed? The way his hand touched Blair’s head and then smoothed back his hair?” His eyes were narrow with speculation, his hands tight on the wheel.

“Partners and friends. Don’t make any more of it than it is,” Hutch warned. He knew his partner. Once he got an idea in his stubborn head.... Okay, he knew what to do. Change the subject to food. “So do you think we should bring some dinner along tonight, all eat with Blair instead of leaving him alone? Or would that be too impolite, since he can’t have any of it?”

“Yeah, I was thinking one of us could take Ellison down to the dining room, and the other stay with Blair, but your idea is better. We can bring along some tapioca or something for Blair. We can call the doctor and ask if he can have something like that. He’s got to be starved, no breakfast or lunch.” Starsky must he having sympathy pains, he was leaning over, rummaging through the glove box for the granola bars he kept there. Used to be chocolate, but they had compromised a few years ago. Starsk got his snacks, but they were low sugar and high fiber.

“Sandburg Zone. That’s what he said,” Hutch recalled. He wasn’t sure he liked the attitude. Was Ellison saying that things were a little strange around the kid, or that Sandburg fucked things up somehow?

“Hey. You gotta admit. Things have got lively since Sandburg arrived. You read the report on the ride-along he did last week? Poor cop hadn’t seen that much action in months. And there was that thing with Dore.”

“No way that was his fault!”

“Not saying it was. Opposite, in fact, he was right there doing the right thing the minute it needed doing. But he's always in the center of the crap-of-the-day. Remind you of anybody? Or two anybodies?” Starsky was grinning, in between licking the crumbs off his fingers.

“So you’re saying that with the three of us in one house....”

“Four. I bet Mr. Ellison brings his own brand of chaos with him wherever he goes. We’re going to be there, though. We can balance them out, like algebra.”

“The frightening thing is, that makes sense.”

“Sure. It’s going to be a nice family visit.” Starsky nodded as if saying it so made it so.

“We need to get to the store then.”

“Hell yes. Buy a couple dozen eggs. Omelets are good for sick people, aren’t they?” Starsky’s hopeful eyes turned towards him. Hutch kept eggs to one morning a week.

“We need to ask Blair what he wants,” Hutch said, neatly avoiding having to agree.

Starsky reached into his pocket, pulled out his notebook and handed it over. “Start the list.”

Chapter Text

Mid-afternoon, Wednesday, Ellison

Breathing. Sleeping. Alive.

Ellison watched his friend sleep, as he half-listened to the hospital around him. It was in his nature to need to know his environment at all times, to seek the sounds of a new place so that he would know what was normal and later be able to judge the deviations which would mean danger. So part of his brain was listening to a dozen televisions on the same five channels, and low voices of the nurses and doctors, and the thick undercurrent of pained breathing and the struggle for life. But above that all was the sound of Blair Sandburg’s lungs, and Blair Sandburg’s heart and the unhappy gurgle of Blair Sandburg’s abused digestive system.

Cramped seats in the plane and now this equally confining refugee from the 70's, with the chrome arms and the orange upholstery. He eased out of it silently and took a turn around the room, keeping the blood moving, staying alert. Staying on watch.

Sentinel.

A nurse’s aide came in. He watched as she checked the other bed and table, drew the curtain and bustled out. A few minutes later she returned as the vanguard of a small parade. A gurney, a doctor, a nurse, and two aides installed an official roommate for Sandburg. The man they brought in had a cast on each leg and was out completely. They hooked him up to a monitor and other equipment and trooped out, except the nurse who stayed and checked the vitals one more time before she left. Sandburg didn’t wake up. Maybe that was good. He needed the rest.

He did wake up half an hour later when the nurse came back and took his vitals. Temperature, blood pressure, pulse. Sandburg lay and drowsed, smiling faintly in response to her friendly voice, but not making an effort to rouse until she was gone. Then he looked around and noticed the curtain.

“Fellow sufferer?” His voice was rough, and he cleared his throat several times.

Ellison nodded. “Came in not long ago. He’s sleeping now, but he wakes up and makes some noise every few minutes, then drifts off again.”

“Probably snores,” Sandburg said, with a genuine sigh. “I’m getting tired of sharing quarters with guys who snore.”

“So you’ve said,” Ellison said. “Water?” Sandburg sounded so normal. It was good. Sandburg nodded his answer and neither of them said anything until he had sucked up about a pint of cool water.

“You look tired,” Sandburg said. Made Ellison smile, because it was mutual then.

“We took the Merchant system down last night. I got in late.”

“Oh, man. They shouldn’t have called you,” Sandburg sighed, shifting a little so he was higher in the bed. Ellison got up and helped him sit. The warm body under his fingers, covered with the thin layer of ugly hospital gown, wasn't running a temperature. The white cotton blend with little blue flowers was not Sandburg’s sort of thing at all. He decided not to call attention to it, though.

“Nobody called me. Had a dream or something. Woke up knowing you were in trouble.”

“Oh, wow! Can you remember anything about the dream? Did you....” he slowed down as he caught sight of Ellison’s face. “Heh. Sorry.”

“No. I don’t remember anything about it.” Not enough to put into words, anyway, and Sandburg wasn’t in any shape to listen to anything complicated anyway.

“Yeah? Well. I was glad to see you. It was nice to have the dads but....” He yawned and closed his eyes.

“Me, too,” Ellison said. More than glad. He’d felt a great relief when he saw Sandburg again, a lifting of something that had come off his chest and the back of his neck, letting him stand taller, letting him breathe in the scent of his friend. Safe. It was only then that he'd realized how much he'd missed the guy. He knew he had been feeling his absence, but now here, in Sandburg’s presence, he realized exactly how much. With Sandburg gone he’d been....

Lonely?

Not the right word.

Alone.

Still not quite right.

Less. Guide-less. Yet he’d had little trouble with his senses. In fact, they’d been kinda muted, but that might be the cold he had finally fought off.

And here with Sandburg, suddenly, smells were sharper, colors brighter, sounds were better.

Huh.

It had been so quiet at the loft. Quiet at night. Quiet even at work, even amid the activity of the police station. One voice gone, and all other noises don't register?

At least he’d had time to think.

Time to regret a few things, anyway. Figure other things out. Try to work through the agreement they had made the day Sandburg had climbed onto the plane for California.

Time had let the pain fade. His own. He wondered if Sandburg’s pain still kept him up at night, the way it had just after the fiasco. Ellison still thought about what Sandburg had done. Remembered it every day. How hard it must have been to stand up in front of the world and call yourself a liar. Shoot your career right through the eye. Shoot two of his careers, maybe. Some time, some where, were they were going to lose a case because of what Sandburg had said about himself? He could hear the mythical prosecutor now. ‘But why should we trust what you say, Mr. Sandburg? Isn’t it true that you lied about....’ and the jury was going to tilt the other way and...blam. It was going to hurt him all over again when it happened, too. Although Sandburg had said he had a plan to take care of that.

Ironic. Truth being so important, when the truth would never be known. Thanks to Sandburg. A whole huge truth, being kept safe by a lie.

Sandburg was asleep again. Drowsing, anyway, now that he had turned on his side, seeking a comfortable position. Turning moved him a bit further away. He looked hot; Ellison reached out and touched the sweaty forehead. It was a little warmer than it should be. Ellison unconsciously lifted his hand to his face, breathing in, analyzing. The moisture from his Guide was bitter.

Touch him again, his instincts said. Grab him up and hold him safe. Primitive stuff, he thought.

The man in the other bed groaned. It wavered into a genuine moan. Ellison reached forward and pushed the call button. Wait, that was Sandburg's button, he needed to push the other one so they'd know who needed help. He got up and went around, slipping through the opening the curtains and pushing the man’s call button twice. Eventually a nurse in cheerful pink and purple scrubs came in, checked the man, adjusted the IV, wrote a lot down on the chart and looked over at Sandburg, but seeing he was asleep, she left the room. Ellison went and got his bag from the car and dealt out his paperwork onto the tiny table near the window. He had been filling in the little boxes with his most precise printing for about half an hour when the visitors started.

None for Sandburg, which was just as well. Let the man sleep. But, the coming and going at the next bed made Blair restless, woke him up again and again. For no good reason, because the man over there was entirely out of it. All the fussing aunts and concerned co-workers were trying to talk to a man who was drugged to the gills and wouldn’t remember their visits anyway. So Ellison eventually stationed himself outside the door and firmly told everyone who arrived that the patients were sleeping and couldn’t be disturbed, and everyone nodded solemnly and tip-toed away obligingly. He got some more work done sitting there in the hallway.

Later, he took a break, pulled out his phone and called Simon, giving a short account of Sandburg’s condition, promising to fax the reports he was working on tomorrow and asking for an extension of his time off. Simon said yes and ordered him to get back to him with any news.

Ellison moved back into the room when the orderlies began bringing out the food carts. For supper the nurse brought Sandburg apple juice, a tiny bowl of cream of wheat, and a small carton of skim milk to pour on it. They woke him up so that he could eat it. It took a few minutes for the patient to blink himself back to awareness. He sat up, yawned, and then looked towards the bathroom longingly.

“Need some help?”

“No. No, it’s just that I know, just know, it’s going to hurt. Standing up, walking, peeing. Some of which I have to put in a cup. Joy. Psyching myself up for it. Agh.” He straightened very slowly and then just as slowly stood up. Snails could have beat him to the bathroom. He finished and came back at the same pace, sliding into the bed with a grateful sigh.

“Hey,” said a voice from the door. “How’re you feeling?” Starsky was there, takeout boxes in both hands.

“Shit. You guys are going to eat that in front of me, aren’t you?” Sandburg said, as his nose caught the wonderful smells wafting from the boxes. “You fiends,” he added as Hutch appeared behind Starsky, his hands also full. “You went to the deli. You went to the deli and I can’t have any!”

“Hey. Would we do that to you? I’ll have you know one whole box of this is for you.” Starsky said as he led the way in. Hutch handed over the very smallest box.

“Pudding. As per doctor’s direction, three ounces each of two different flavors. Tapioca and lemon.”

“But you guys are eating,” Sandburg peered to look, “meatball sandwiches. And corned beef on rye. And a turkey club with fresh tomatoes,” he practically moaned.

“Worse n’ that. You’re missing out all round. Seeing as how there aren’t any cooks at the moment, they’re having pizza brought in at the Academy, so you're missing pizza, too,” Starsky said, unwrapping a sandwich and saying to Ellison, “What kind do you like? We got them cut in half so everybody could have more than one kind if we wanted to share around.”

“Half the turkey and half of the meatball,” Ellison said.

“Hand over the pudding,” Sandburg said with a sigh. But he lasted only halfway though the first cup before he was nodding off. Everyone finished eating quietly.

Hutch took the pudding cup out of Blair's hand, eased him down onto the pillow and said, as Blair roused a little. “We’re taking Jim home for the night. You just get some sleep.” He pulled the blanket up around Blair’s shoulders.

“Night,” Sandburg said softly, his eyes falling shut again.

Starsky collected up the wrappers and threw them in the trash while Hutch packed the leftovers into a bag.

Hutch asked as Ellison picked up his carry-on bag, “Anything you need help with?”

“This is all I brought in.” He looked back at Sandburg, reluctant to leave but not being able to think of a good reason to give for staying. And the kid was out like a light.

“Good, lets head home.” Starsky led the way to his red car. “You want to go turn your rental in? You can have Hutch’s car to drive while you’re here. He’s not up to driving much right now with his leg, so it works out. I gotta warn ya, though. It’s a piece of....”

“It’s paid for,” Hutch pointed out with a hint of smugness. “And it’s not like we could haul fertilizer or cement in *your* car, now could we?”

“Thanks, but I’ll keep the rental. Got a good deal on it,” Ellison said.

Starsky nodded. “Okay, so you follow us. Most all the turns are right ones, and if you lose us just give us a call,” he waved the cell phone, but it was Hutch who handed over the number.

Ellison followed the car, his eyes fastened on the red of the tail lights but his mind back at the hospital. He pulled up in the drive next to the red car and then took a quick look around the front of the house as he followed his hosts up the walk. Nothing alerted his senses. The porch light flicked on and he flinched a bit and eased his eyes back to normal as he stepped inside.

Other people’s houses always felt strange to Ellison. This was probably an average American home, but actually, it was the sort of place he had never really become familiar enough with to be comfortable in. His own childhood home had been full of tall vistas and elaborate furnishings, more like living in the pages of an architectural journal than in a real house. He’d gone from there to dorm rooms and later an apartment shared off campus. From there to the army, mostly barracks. The months living in the jungle had made even the concept of a modern house alien. Then, when he was a civilian again, it was a series of small apartments until he found the loft.

So he looked around with cautious interest as his hosts showed him to the small room he would be using, pointing out the bathroom, the room where Sandburg would be, and their own room down the hall. He got the five minute tour and then was sitting at the dining room table making awkward conversation with the two older men. He found he was looking into their faces, trying to see Sandburg in either of them. Seeing him in Starsky’s curls and Hutch’s shoulders, but knowing it had to be one or the other, not both.

Hutch apologized but turned on the news, saying he wanted to see if they made the evening broadcast, and sure enough, there was an aerial shot of the school and a the overly dramatic voice-over taking two or three thin bare facts and dressing them up in drama and speculation. No one was mentioned by name, and his hosts seemed grateful for that.

“Could have been worse,” Starsky said, turning the TV off with a stabbing gesture of the remote. “What have we got around here for a snack?” he asked Hutch as he tossed the remote down and headed for the kitchen. “Huuutch,” he added plaintively a moment later.

“It’s in the bottom drawer in the refrigerator,” Hutch said calmly.

“No it’s....oh. Here. !” Starsky emerged victorious, yogurt cups in hand. “You want chocolate, lemon, strawberry or key lime?” he asked Jim.

“Lemon.”

Starsky tossed the little plastic container in his direction, lobbed the strawberry Hutch-ward with an underhand flourish and appropriated the chocolate for himself, dropping the key lime back into the drawer. He brought spoons over and handed them around, saying, “I gotta tell you, Hutch used to get the most disgusting white yoghurt and try to get me to eat it. It didn't come flavored back then. If anybody had told me in 1973 that I’d be eating this stuff three times a week....” He stopped talking to start spooning it in his mouth.

Ellison ate his snack. Starsky wrestled the couch in the office into its bed form while Hutch locked up, and half an hour later Jim was punching up the two pillows and missing his own big bed. He's slept on worse, he reminded himself as he got as comfortable as he was likely to get. He stretched out and cautiously let his senses extend out, needing to know his environment before he could sleep here. The smell of cut grass came in through a window, which was opened a crack. The neighbors on both side had dogs.

Raccoon in the trash a few houses to the north.

A group of giggling teenage girls coming home, walking down the middle of the street, shouting out to each other.

Some scents he couldn’t identify, but at least they were floral and natural. The lingering smoke from a half a dozen barbeque grills, including the one in this back yard, haunted the breezes A bird landed in a tree outside the window. The rustling as it hopped from branch to branch eventually stopped.

He shifted his attention to the inside of the house, inhaling the mix of smells that made it unique. Voices. He didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but his attention was caught by his own name.

“...Ellison?”

“Starsk, we already had this argument,” Hutch pointed out. “He didn’t come because he was already going to, he came because the kid got sick. So you don’t know.”

“Well, he’s here now.”

“He’s not going to stay. He’ll probably go home after a day or so,” Hutch said.

“But maybe he’d like to stay. Won’t know until we ask him, huh? Besides, he’d like to have an excuse to stay. I can tell. He was really worried about the kid.”

“The man has a job, Starsk.”

"Yeah, but...."

Hutch interrupted him with a kiss. There were the quiet sounds of lips on skin, moving over the face.

"Ah, Babe," Starsky breathed out, eventually, "Not gonna happen, huh?"

"I'm sorry." Hutch said, and he moved. Rolled over onto his back?

"It's just too early, too soon," Starsky said evenly. "Remember, the doctors said it could be weeks."

"It drives me crazy."

Sounds of hands, rubbing on skin. "I know."

"At least I can...." Hutch began.

"Not tonight, love. I'm savin' it up," Starsky explained.

"We used to do it every night," Hutch muttered, and there was almost a whine in his tone.

"Yeah," Starsky said, with a laugh. "But...look, doing it with someone else in the house. It's weird. So it's okay if we can't, y'know?"

Jim felt his cheeks grow warm.

"Since one of us is a screamer," Hutch agreed, the humor coming through clearly.

"Only one? I've made you hit the high notes a time or two, blondie" Starsky reminded him. There was a soft chuckle and then the sounds of two bodies shifting, trying to find the most comfortable position.

After a few minutes, the breathing became slower and his hosts were asleep. Jim turned in the bed. He shifted his hearing, listening to the highway which was about a mile to the east, the rumble of tires on the road. Trying not to think about anything so that he could fall asleep, he forced himself not to turn over again. He was tired, he reminded himself. He gave up on the sounds of the road and tried some of the relaxation techniques Sandburg had taught him.

Eventually he did sleep, but he was awake before dawn. He got out of bed, and wandered outside, where he sat in a lawn chair and watched the sun lighten the sky. The trees kept him from actually watching the sun come up, although he could see slices of clouds and bits of sky if he concentrated. His senses flittered, first making him aware of the coolness on his bare skin, then the scent of earth made sharp with the damp and dew, and then the twitter and fuss of birds, courting in the branches. To anyone else they would have been invisible, but he amused himself tracking the flash of the little grey bodies among the leaves.

He stayed out there two hours, until he heard sounds of movement in house. Easing aside the sliding door, he stepped back in. It was only then that he realized he was wearing only the pajama bottoms he had put on last night. Hutch, who was holding a glass coffee carafe, looked up at him and said hello, his attention mostly on getting the pot into place in the coffee machine. He was balancing carefully, one arm resting on a lightweight aluminum cane.

"Need help?" Ellison asked.

"No, thanks, this is all ready. It's half decaf, so if you like full strength, I'll start another pot."

"No, that's fine," Jim said.

"If you want a shower, go get one now. Starsk is hell on the hot water."

"Thanks." Blair was the same way. He glanced at the clock. Seven fifteen. Too early to go to the hospital anyway. So he showered, pulled on fresh clothing and came out to be greeted by a cup of coffee on the table, and Starsky at the stove, scrambling eggs and dancing over to the toaster as it popped up.

"Wheatberry toast. Hope that's okay?" Hutch greeted him from the other side of the table.

"Fine, thanks," Jim said, and sat down.

"We're wondering who to call to say Blair's okay," Starsky said. "Hutch is making a list. Do you think we should...you should call his mom?"

Jim shook his head. "No. Sandburg and I decided to call Naomi only if he was dying. She took off, didn't want to be disturbed while she cleared her head or something..." he shrugged, having forgotten exactly what she called it.

"Thank God. I have no idea what I would say to her," Hutch said, scratching a name of a list. He reached over for the phone book and looked up a couple of numbers, and then finished off his coffee. Jim had emptied his cup as well, and Starsky refilled it, but not Hutch's. Into the blond's cup he put hot water and a tea bag. Starsky snuck the last half-inch of coffee, drank it down and then filled his own cup with hot water. He snatched Hutch's used tea bag for his tea, which he dunked in and out of the water, trying for the darkest color he could create.

They had eggs sprinkled with cheese, salsa on the side. Starsk was the salsa fan, Hutch not so much. It was good salsa, but Jim used it sparingly and still had to dial his sense of taste down a little. When they were done eating, Starsky filled the dishwasher, and then drew Ellison over to the TV to watch a morning news program while Hutch went to the phone with his list.

The clock said eight. Finally. "Do you know what time they admit visitors at the hospital?" Jim asked. Although the sign at the entrance had said nine. He was hoping it was an old sign, out of date.

"Nine." Hutch said, coming into the room. "We thought we'd head out soon, go the dorm and get a change of clothing for the kid. Pick up anything else he might need, hit the grocery. Do you want to come with us or go there on your own?"

Need to see him. "I'll go there, see when they'll let him out." He was standing up, his hands going to the keys in his pocket.

"Good plan," Starsky said.

"See you at the hospital," Ellison replied with a nod, and was out the door.

The drive to the hospital took longer than he expected. He had to backtrack when he missed a turn. The stuff the rental company used to clean the car made his nose itch. Didn't work, either, he could smell, under the floral scent, the dirty socks and suntan oil and the smell of sex. Somebody's beach vacation, maybe. Or they'd used sunscreen for lube.

He parked in the far lot, the way Sandburg did. The extra walking was good for the heart, Blair said, and it left the nearer spaces for those who were sick or elderly. In this case it didn't add much to his commute and it was still not nine yet when the automatic doors slid open for him.

But as no one was at the nurse's desk, he didn't stop to ask permission. He walked cautiously down the hall and into the room. The man in the next bed already had visitors too, three women and a teenage boy who was sitting sullenly in the corner on the floor, since all the chairs were being used. Jim wondered if they had taken all the chairs that had been in Sandburg's half of the room. The TV was on, but no one was watching it. The man in the bed had his eyes closed. He might have been sleep. Jim stepped through to the other half of the room, remembering with gratitude the times Sandburg had talked hospital staff into single rooms for him.

Sandburg was asleep. There was one chair. Ellison slid into it and stared at his friend. The kid would want to wash his hair once he got out of here. It looked limp, and was tied back with a plain rubber band. It looked dark against the white pillow. A clink of a cart in the hall announced that breakfast arrived. The nurse paused in the doorway. He could smell her anger as she addressed the group around the other bed.

"Now, you should not be here! A crowd! I won't even be able to bring in breakfast with all of you here in the way, and it isn't even visiting hours! I must ask you to leave," the nurse said. There was grumbling and complaining as the women hauled themselves out of the chairs. The teenaged boy beat them to the door. The TV was snapped off. It woke Sandburg up.

"Oh! Hey. Jim." Sandburg turned over on his back and smiled at him. Ellison stood to help him sit up, making sure the pillows were comfortable behind his back. The nurse looked around the curtain.

"Going to make me leave, too?" Ellison asked, with his most charming smile.

"No, this is an entirely different case. You, I'm going to put to work. Pull that tray into place," she ordered, and as he did so, she brought a bowl and a glass of water.

"Oatmeal?" Ellison asked, because it faintly smelled of that.

The nurse smiled. "Cereal blend. Or, as we call it, cereal bland. The itsy bitsy little packets have syrup, butter and jam. Here is the toast which goes with it. If you need anything, I'll be right there," she pointed with her thumb to the other side of the room and then retreated. They could hear her coaxing the man to sit. It was evident she was going to spoon feed the poor bastard.

"I'm starved," Sandburg said. "So starved I am actually going to eat this." His spoon dipped into the cereal. "What did you have?"

"Scrambled eggs."

"Envy in my heart, man. Everything okay?"

"Yes. Your dads are stopping by the Academy to get you some clothes."

"Good. I am so ready to leave."

"So you feel better?"

"More or less. Had to get up a couple times in the night with the runs, but haven't had to go for the last four hours, so I think it's easing off. Feels like the second day of a fast, now." He cut his glance towards Ellison in the way that told the older man there was something more to the story. He waited. Eventually, Sandburg said, "I think I had some visions, last night."

"What kind?"

"Bizarre ones, of course. What other kind are they? Garden. Flowers. Panther drinking from an ornamental pond of some kind. Wolf, hunting birds, splashing after them in shallow water. Sort of strung together, hard to remember. Every time I tried to move closer, it went farther away. It was all blue." He glanced at the other man again.

"You know what I said. You know I'll...try." Ellison said it firmly, to make it true. He might not have liked that mumbo jumbo stuff, but he'd promised. If Sandburg would become his partner, a cop, then he'd do the Sentinel thing all the way.

"I'll need to try a spirit walk. But not here."

"At your dads' place? How are you going to explain it to them?"

"I already brought up the Shaman thing. You could tell they didn't have a clue what I was talking about." Sandburg scooped up more of the white gloppy stuff, his spoon dabbing hopefully along the bottom. Apparently there was nothing exciting to discover there. He scraped up another bite but it seemed like a lot of effort.

"Sandburg? Hey, man."

Sandburg looked up at the giant young man approaching the foot of the bed and said, "Jon! Hey, yourself! Jim, this is Jon Anderson, my first friend at the Academy. Jon, this is Jim Ellison. He works Major Crimes up in Cascade."

Jon traded a quick handshake, but his attention was on Sandburg and he said, "How you doin', guy?"

"They're going to let me out today. If I'm lucky. But how about you? You were in that scrimmage in the lunchroom, I hear.”

“Got some bruises, man. An some real respect for old ladies. She flipped me good.”

“Might be the most important thing you learn at cop school, eh? Glad you're not damaged. What can you tell me about how things are at the Academy?" He set aside his bowl, picked up one of the triangles of pale toast and tried a bite.

"We don't have classes today! So a couple of guys and I came over to see everybody here. Only it turns out that most of 'em were released before we got here. Bob Chester brought us in his car, but he's still parking. I'm here first 'cause Smithson stopped to talk to a girl," he explained.

"So not surprised," Sandburg told him. "What did you guys have for breakfast?"

"Cereal and milk. All you can eat, too. They even had some Cocoa-puffs."

"You are so lucky. I have cardboard toast, here," Sandburg said sadly.

"Sorry I didn't bring you anything," Jon said sincerely, frowning and glancing at the door.

"It's okay, if I'm not out of here by lunch, Jim's going to go buy me something good," Sandburg said firmly, catching Jim's eye. Ellison nodded, but didn't actually agree. Even though he knew he would, indeed, go out and get lunch if asked.

On the other side of the room, more visitors had arrived. Or, rather, re-arrived, Jim thought, recognizing two of them from before. The TV went on again. He flinched and dialed down.

"So what is everybody else doing with their extra day?" Sandburg was asking.

"Same thing they do if it was a Sunday, except, your roommate, y'know, Sanchez, he has a study thing organized for this afternoon. Anybody can go. He said you were going to run it, only since you can't, he's stepping in."

"Wow! He is? Fantastic. It would be so easy to get behind. Are you going?"

"Uh. Sure. If I don't go to the range. That's still open. Uh...what's wrong with the guy next to you?" There had been a strange wavering moan, almost soprano.

"Two broken legs and relatives. They won't let him alone to rest." Jim said, and then he went to do something about it. The nurse who had given out breakfast had finished this corridor and gone, so he headed down the hall. At the nurse's desk he asked for the supervisor, and then told her about the moans and the breathing problems and the visitors from hell, and that the TV was bothering his friend. She smiled at him, noted the official complaint with the sort of grimace which said she had been dealing with this type of problem for years, and then she put a look of firm resolve on her face and marched off down the hall. He waited until she had cleared the room to go in again. Unfortunately, it looked like Jon had been swept out with the rest, but then, the man had other Academy students in the hospital to visit and Jim didn't bother to regret his absence.

Sandburg was sitting up. "I want some rice pudding," he said, "with raisins. And hot tea, but not one with fruity herbs. And maybe bacon. Why am I craving bacon?"

"The salt," Ellison suggested, settling down into the orange chair.

"I hope."

"Do you really feel good enough to go home?"

"I can feel rotten anywhere. Why not at the Dads' house? How did it go last night?"

"Good. Got about five, six hours sleep. The neighborhood isn't bad. Quiet."

"Yeah. I keep thinking of the lawn chair in the backyard, about stretching out in the sun. And the hot tub. Did you see the hot tub?"

"Smelled it, first. The chemicals."

"Do you think it would bother you?" Sandburg asked, worried.

Ellison shrugged. Probably. "You should eat more."

Sandburg chomped down hard on another piece of his toast, forcing himself to eat it even though it made his stomach shift unhappily. He munched away on it steadily, abandoned the crust like a four year old, and made another trip to the bathroom. He was just settled in bed again when Starsky and Hutch arrived.

Having them walk into a room was like turning on the overhead light in a room that had been lit with table lamps. Everything seemed brighter, with a light that gave a different illumination to everyday things. They were both dynamic men, although Starsky was the louder. They joked with Blair, making him laugh even while he clutched his stomach and reminded them that he was in no shape to do it. Eventually they settled down around the bed in a half circle, allowing Jim the coveted position closest to Sandburg. They had stolen back their chair from the other side of the curtain, and one more besides. Stark sat on his backwards.

Ellison settled back and just enjoyed the show. Both of the men were looking at Sandburg with a professional eye, judging his health and his ability to function. He could see them relax as they saw that Blair was better. They were both using the opportunity to fuss over Blair a little bit.

Not that Ellison blamed them. He, too, checked Sandburg's heartbeat continually, and his stomach and intestines, too. The man's insides gurgled like a drain, but he sounded better than yesterday. Just before lunch, the doctor came in. He listened to all the sounds as well, nodded, and said, "Well, how would you like to go home?" He seemed rather startled by the shout of universal agreement, and had trouble discussing the details with Sandburg, what with all the interruptions and enthusiastic suggestions.

Chapter Text

Sandburg Thursday Afternoon and Friday Morning

Blair let the others make the arrangements. He was just glad to get out of the hospital. The sun felt good on his face as he was pushed out of the building by a hefty male nurse who was trying not to grin at Starsky's semi-lewd patter. Blair was popped into the back of the car, the one which belonged to Hutch, brought because it had the most room. Jim followed behind in his rental, and the glance behind which Blair gave showed that Jim's eyes were firmly fastened on them. He was probably listening to everything being said. Probably more than Sandburg was. Blair was starting to feel like crap and wondering if the trip home was such a good idea. He blacked out for a second, he was sure, and came to, to find himself slumped against the window. It felt cool on his cheek, so he stayed there. Nice warm day. He floated in the fuzzy state until they pulled up in the drive way.

Starsky and Ellison helped him out and supported him as he staggered up the walk, and Hutch held the door open. It was cool inside the house. He shivered.

"Straight to bed," Ellison ordered. Sandburg was too tired to argue with him. Soon he was between soft old sheets, a pillow beneath his head. "Thanks," he mumbled, and then he was out. Once, Jim woke him to have him drink a glass of water, but he was asleep the moment his head hit the pillow again.

He woke up hours later. The sounds and smells of cooking drifted in through the almost-closed door, the clank of a pan lid, the scrape as a drawer was opened and then shut. The curtains were drawn across the window and it was dim in the room. He wondered what time it was. He felt the need to turn over and did it with care. His stomach ached, but he wasn't sure if it was hunger or something else. They'd left the hospital just before lunch was served.

The clatter of a dropped spoon was followed by a muttered curse. The oven door was opened, bringing the rich warm smell of cooking food. He sniffed. Some sort of casserole? Smelled so good. He heard his name, and wasn't surprised when the door to the room was pushed open a few seconds later.

"You awake?" Starsk whispered loudly.

"Could be," he admitted, reluctantly.

"Dinner's ready. Want some here, or do you think you could come to the table?"

"I'll get up. Bathroom?"

"Across the hall. Need help?"

"Nuh." Well. Maybe. He got to his feet cautiously. His stomach muscles cursed him but he managed the few short steps to the door and over to the bathroom. Damn cold sitting on the toilet, but it felt great to empty himself. He looked longingly at the tub, but forced himself to finish up, wash his hands and stagger to the door.

Jim was there to lend a shoulder, and he was glad the man was so solid. He was eased onto a chair at the table.

"Little bit of vegetable soup, noodle casserole, and then ice cream for dessert. And some garlic bread, if you can handle it," Starsk was saying. None of it sounded good, really. Except for the ice cream. But he needed to eat, so he tried to generate some enthusiasm.

"Just a little of each." Jim was bringing him a big glass of water, and Hutch a cup of hot mixed-herb tea. He was thirsty and drank the water down, then started on the tea. He managed a bite of everything, and half his ice cream before Hutch whisked it away and said he could have more later. Then they all retired to the living room where everyone else watched the Jags and he slumped, eyes closed, just listening. Sometimes.

They put him to bed before the game ended; the feel of Jim's shoulder and the heat of the big body was reassuring but he only slowly realized it meant he was being moved, first to the bathroom and then to the bed. He remembered the feel of sheets pulled up against his ear.

He dreamed. It was a blue dream, with running water and tangled jungle. In the dream, he was looking for something. Something on the ground. There was the faint sounds of the jungle and also dripping water, but in odd dream discontinuity, the floor of the jungle was more like a desert, with stunted grasses and sharp-edged rocks. He kept looking, and not finding. Someone was nearby, he knew, someone not-Jim. Sometimes he felt he was looking for the someone, and sometimes for the...plant?
He saw the plant, finally, tried to get a good look at it and all he got was a smell, and wasn't that weird. Like he was piggybacking his senses like Jim. He pulled the plant up by the root and it melted away.

He woke with a jerk, his heart pounding, mouth dry.

Jim was beside him a second later, looming over him, a patch of dark against the faint light from the open door. He sat down beside him on the bed. "What?" he asked.

"Dream," he said. "Just a dream."

Ellison waited patiently.

"I have to think about it some more," he finally said. Jim nodded. "What time is it?"

"Eleven. You need help up?"

""No. Go to bed. I'm going to go back to sleep, too." He hoped.

"If you're sure."

"Yeah. Thanks." He felt the big hand pat his shoulder once, and then Jim moved almost silently out of the room.

It was the last thing he remembered until he woke up at about five in the morning with a bladder that was cursing his name. He staggered up and to the bathroom, where he sank down on the toilet because his bladder's complaints were suddenly drowned out by a louder imperative. His body seemed to be in a rush to get rid of everything it had inside. It seemed like he was going to spend the rest of his life in a flush and wipe routine.

But this was a turning point, too, he realized when he finally stood up. He felt better. No where near one hundred percent, but better. After a cautious stretch he eased himself into the shower and washed himself down well. He could almost feel the nasty toxins coming out of his skin, and his hair really needed a wash. He scrubbed and washed and let the hot water pour over his closed eyes as he rinsed the soap away. His hair wrapped in a towel, he pulled on his pj bottoms and slid back to the room he was using, where he lay down--just for a second--and woke up two hours later when the front door opened and shut.

His pillow was damp. Unwinding the towel from his head, he went looking through is pack for a brush. He was working the last of the tangles from his hair when Jim knocked and walked in.

"You look human!" Ellison joked, but his smile was genuine.

"I feel better. Breakfast?" he asked hopefully.

"Your dads went to work. They decided we can feed ourselves. You want cereal, or eggs? Toast, orange juice, and milk?"

"All sounds great. Maybe not the juice. Eggs, maybe?"

"One Ellison omelet special?" Jim asked, one eyebrow up.

"With toast and coffee?"

"Doctor said avoid coffee for a few days," Ellison reminded him.

"Yeah. Tea, then."

"You get dressed and I'll get things started," Jim said, and he vanished. By the time Blair made his way out, the food was on the table. Blair was munching on the whole wheat toast even before his butt was in the chair. But he stopped after one slice.

He felt full long before he was through with his eggs, and so he sat in the sunny kitchen, sipping tea and watching the dust motes dancing in the beam of light which slanted in from the kitchen window. His stomach felt queasy again. His felling-better sensation of earlier was fast leaving him. He made a sudden decision.

"Jim?"

Jim gave the sort of affirmative sound one made when one's mouth was full.

"I need to do that spirit walk."

"Okay...." Jim's enthusiasm was definitely not engaged. "How do you want to do it?"

"Outside, in the open air. I'll start with meditation." He wasn't yet sure what he'd go on to next if that didn't work. They'd discussed this before he left Cascade, but hadn't ever actually done it. He got up slowly and walked towards the sliding glass door to the deck. He was hunched over just a bit, his body trying to protect his stomach, he decided. Not wanting to distress the digestion system which had been so horribly abused seemed like an excellent idea. Blair stood in the fresh air, taking breaths that were as deep as he could manage, but not really deep at all. He closed his eyes; he felt like crap.

"Maybe..." Jim began hesitatingly. "Hutchinson told me the hot tub was fixed and it's full. Do you...would it help to do it in there?"

Sandburg imagined it. It would feel good, but would it be too good to let himself go? "You couldn't join me?"

"The chemicals are pretty strong," Jim looked the setup over. "I could sit outside, on the edge, close enough to catch you if you went under. We could try it."

"Okay. We try it." He sighed, because he was regretting breakfast. Too much, to soon, even if it had tasted so good. He went and changed into his swimming trunks.

The hot-tub idea didn't work. Dammit. The water had felt great, his muscles had appreciated it, but his brain wouldn't settle down. Half an hour later, he was sitting on the steps of the deck, the breeze cooling the water off his body, the warmth of the sun on his skin, and for some reason, that did it. He felt his brain disengage just a little, felt his body fade away enough so that he made a different connection inside his head, someplace gold and white and brown. He reached out to it by letting it come, not chasing, but allowing the visions to reveal themselves.

Totally make-no-sense images, with the essence of connections not there, almost like it was under something, that there was another layer that existed that he couldn't breach, but he could sense. There was a man. Good man. The man from his dream, he realized. And rocks. Lots of rocks, brown, greenish, tan. Stripes or layers. Sandburg was holding a rock in his hands, before it was gone, and his empty hand stretched out. Searching. For a plant. The image of it came to him, and he remembered looking for it. He could smell the crushed leaves, feel them under his fingers. That plant. The man? Had to find the man. Had to go looking...had to go...had to....

Chapter Text

Friday, Early Afternoon. Hutch.

 

"Blair? Blair?"

"Don't touch him!" That was Ellison, looming up suddenly, frowning and his stance defensive. Hutch drew back his hand carefully.

"Let him come out of it on his own," Ellison ordered.

"Out of what? Is he okay?" Hutch asked, worried. The kid was sitting Indian style on the edge of the deck, kind of slumped and his face was slack. It looked like he had passed out. He was thinking about calling 911 when the kid blinked, saw Ellison, and smiled.

"How long was I gone?" Blair asked Ellison.

"Twenty three minutes."

"Felt like less, but then again, it feels like hours," the young man said, cautiously stretching out his limbs.

"That makes sense. It shouldn't, but it does. "You scared the hell out of your Dad," Ellison said, gesturing to where Hutch was standing to one side.

"Oh, hey. Sorry man." Blair sent him a smile. It was clear that he was still a little disoriented or confused.

"Are you going to explain this?" Hutch asked. He kept most of the worry out of his tone, he hoped.

"Well, see, I...I went looking for something. That I didn't know. Not what I expected, really, but it never is."

"Sandburg!" Ellison said impatiently.

"Yeah. Right. I told you guys I was a shaman in training, didn't I?" He looked up anxiously, his body language saying he was not at all sure how this was going to go off.

"Not in so many words, no," Hutch told him. "Unless you told Starsk and he just didn't mention it?"

"No. I've...I wasn't sure how to talk about it. Kind've a lot to take in getting a new son, you didn't really need to hear he, you know. Had this going on as well as all his other problems."

"Is it a problem?" Hutch asked.

"Mostly just because I don't know what I'm doing yet. See, a...shaman who died...he told Jim that he passed the way of the shaman on to me. So I could help. But after we got that sorted out, I never really looked into it enough, explored it. The Shaman thing. Things kept happening. So Jim and I sat down one day and worked out what we were going to do after that huge fuck-up that ended my...career. We wrote it all down, made this huge chart. Decided what we had, what we wanted, where we wanted to go, what we wanted to be." He stopped and glanced at Ellison, as if he was not quite sure how far to go, how much to say. Ellison gave a tiny little twitch which was probably supposed to be a nod, and Blair went on.

"We decided I would go ahead and go to the academy, see if I really could make a cop out of an anthropologist and teacher. Later, after that, I planned on getting some medical training, and last, some help on how to be a Shaman, since I've just been winging it so far. So if the cop thing didn't work out, there'd be options. But, see, I have the start of the shaman in me, I know...well, just enough to get into trouble, more or less, but it's there, and I had some dreams while I was in the hospital which I want to follow up on, but apparently I have to do something else first."

"What?" Ellison broke in, beating Hutch by just enough that Hutch felt a little annoyed by the echo as he held back other words and waited to hear what Blair would say.

"If I'm reading it right, yeah, it's right, I have to do some sort of purge or cleansing. I think it means more of this stuff inside me needs to get out. The hospital got some of it out, but...I'm supposed to go find a man, and a plant. Or plants? Not necessarily in that order, it's...not clear. Some things. I think the guy's local, I don't have to jet off to Peru or something, and I'm glad, let me tell you. But it's so vague!" he said, with a little resentment in his voice that caused Hutch to smile because it gave a hint of what Blair must have been like as a small, frustrated kid.

"We need to move on this right away," Ellison said firmly. "Were there any clues at all about where to find this guy?"

"Of course not," the kid grumbled. "Flying by the seat of my pants, as usual. But here's what. Part of the vision was smell. It's a plant I need to find and I know what it smells like when it's fresh and when it's cut. I even kinda know what it is supposed to look like. So what I want to do is go to some places with a wide variety of plants. I figure, some natural foods and herbs places, some gardens or something? Start asking around. I don't expect to find it there, just someone who knows who the guy is and where the plant might be.”

“I know of a farm market or two. Lots of specialty items for international cooking, as well as the usual vegetables. And a health food store. Would that help?” Hutch was squinting as he spoke, obviously trying to think of other sources.

“Yeah. It would.” Blair tried to stand up, and failed. He sat back down again, hard.

“You, son, are not going anywhere. Can you draw?” Hutch asked.

Blair frowned. “A little.”

“So draw us a picture of the guy and write down everything you know about him. Then draw the plant. Jim and I will go take it around, see if anyone recognizes either one. You,” he ordered, “go back to bed.”

There was a long silence and then the kid sighed. “Paper?” he asked. Hutch went and got the drawing supplies that he pulled out of the closet every five years or so. He hoped the kid had inherited something better than his own wanna be skills. He watched while Blair leaned against the veranda rail and began sketching. Yeah. The kid was better, although it was a good thing he wasn't trying to make a living at it. He sure had trouble with noses, he changed it five times. It took over an hour and at the end the plant came out way ahead. It was even shaded and from two views. The man was rough and weathered, his face bland and square, and his eyes hard to see because of a permanent squint. He looked sketchy, in more ways than one. In the old days he would have run a check on him just on general principles.

Hutch reached into his pocket for the keys. “You coming?” he asked Ellison.

“I'm driving,” Ellison said with a pointed look at Hutch's knee. “You navigate. Hope you're better at it than Sandburg.”

“Hey! I'm not THAT bad,” the kid yelled at them as they moved away. They waited for him to go back to bed before they were in Ellison's rental, heading downtown.

Ellison wasn't the chatty sort, but finally he said, “Where first.”

Hutch said, “Closest is the High-line market.”

So they went to the market, a crude sort of outdoor assemblage of cobbled together stalls, pick-up trucks with their tailgates down, fruits and vegetables on display, and a couple booths of 'herbs' of questionable freshness. They showed the pictures around. Hutch bought yellow squash and onions.

Their next stop was indoors in an old warehouse. The lighting was dim but at least it was cool. Items here were mostly in bulk. Nobody knew the guy or the plant, but several of them seemed to know Hutch, who bought some carrots and a ten pound sack of quinoa.

At O'Henry's Natural Foods they once again got head shakes over the plant, but considering looks over the picture of the man. 'He looks familiar,” was a common, if not all that helpful, response. Hutch bought red lettuce and mushrooms. Ellison was starting to look at him funny. At least he wasn't laughing outright.

“Next?” Ellison asked as they got into the car again. He was efficient and focused; this was probably what he was like when he was working. Maybe Starsky's idea about parading him around the Academy wasn't so bad. Instead of ride-alongs, send them out with Ellison on an investigation. Show them the side of professionalism that was hard to teach.

“The health food store co-op. Last stop for today. Everything else is out of town. This one is more of a community center. Eight blocks, then turn right. After that it's a straight shot to the edge of town. It's got a big bulletin board, and about a dozen young co-operative members around most of the time.”

“Sandburg's going to be sorry he missed it. He's going to be sorry he missed this whole trip, in fact.” Ellison said as he turned into traffic.

“It does seem to be his sort of place.” Or his mom's, actually. Hutch rubbed the back of his neck in a Starsky gesture he'd picked up years ago and said, “It's bigger. You want to ask together or split up?”

Ellison tapped on the wheel. “Together, at first. Depends on how long it takes.”

More silence. Eventually he said, “Turn left. Two blocks down on the right.”

Ellison nodded. They parked in front of the long, narrow building with the colorful awning over the primitive frame of natural logs which made a sort of porch around the building. Four cars out front. It wasn't too busy today. He led the way inside. Ellison paused just inside, eyes scanning the room. On the far end the store were the ecologically bottled, packaged, and bagged ingredients. On one long wall bins and boxes of bulk ingredients, some with scoops dangling on hemp cords. Down the middle, vegetables and fruits, and on the short wall the bulletin board. They moved towards it. Four black lines divided the huge cork board into Things to Sell, Services, Everything Else, Farm Fresh, and Music.

Hutch left Ellison reading steadily through it and went to find somebody who knew what they were doing. He got sent back to the tiny office at the other end of the building. Ellison was suddenly at his side. Damn, the man was fast. Moved like a cat. The door was open.

The woman behind the desk looked up from her paperwork and did not introduce herself but just said, “Problem?” Her hair and eyes and shirt were grey, her jeans well worn. There was a moment as Hutch wondered if Ellison would speak or if he should.

Ellison stepped up. “We are looking for a man, and a plant which we were told the man might know about.” He presented the sketches. She looked them over silently, glanced up at them, then back down. “Don't know the plant. I've seen the guy. Could be. Couldn't tell you his name. Alice is here. Small lady with a red hat, usually. She might know.”

“Thanks,” Ellison said, taking back the drawings and turning to leave. Hutch gave a nod and followed the bigger man out. They went looking for Alice. No Alice. Every once and awhile Ellison would stop and tilt his head just a bit.

Like he was listening.

They finally found Alice. She went to ask Nohan. Nohan suggested Amir. Amir wasn't in.

Ellison went to the bulletin board and looked it all over again, then pulled a pen from his pocket and made some notes in precise square printing on the back of the picture of the man, and then printed a message on the front of the picture of the plant, which he posted in a prominent place.

Then he tilted his head towards the car and they went out and climbed in. With the door safely shut,
Hutch straightened up his shoulders and asked, “What did you hear?”

There was a silence that went taut between them.

Ellison looked at him for a full moment before he said, “The manager called a friend, said someone was looking for John. Asked what to do. The person on the other end said they'd talk to John.”

Ellison looked away. Hutch knew he'd been offered a secret. One that he would keep. He didn't know what to say. So he said, “Thanks. What did you copy off the board?”

“A list of Johns.” Their eyes met and then Hutch snorted as he held back a laugh and Ellison grinned. The expression changed Ellison's face, made him look younger and more human.

“So, next step?” Hutch asked.

Ellison frowned, then nodded as if to himself. “I'm trying to think like Sandburg. So. We go back in and see if absolute truth will get us what we need,” Ellison said decisively, and was out of the car in one smooth motion. Ellison led the way inside an back to the office again. He knocked politely on the edge of the door, which was this time closed, and then opened it.

The lady looked surprised. Okay. Pissed. Before she could speak, Ellison said, with a stiff formality, “A shaman has asked us to find the man and the plants in order to do a healing for some poisoned students. It is important to find him soon. Would you have the man get in touch with this number when you find him? Ask for Blair.” He took out his pen again and wrote it on the bottom of the picture of the man, tore off the scrap and set it down on the desk.

“Yes. Alright. If we find him.” The lady did not pick up the paper, and was staring at him, hard.

“I left the picture of the plant on the board.” Ellison gave a polite nod and left. He closed the door on the way out but then stood quietly for a moment, then shook his head. “Can't tell what numbers she is dialing,” he said quietly, then began moving away. But his head was tilted just a bit to the side again. They went out slowly. “She gave Blair's number to whoever she called, anyway.”

“Does it freak Blair out when you do that?” Hutch said as they got into the car again.

“Hell no. He takes it in stride. It's me that.... But I'm learning to deal with it.” They headed home, Ellison driving with his attention on the traffic. Eventually he said, “Can Starsky keep his mouth shut about...me?”

Hutch said, “Probably. He's kept a few secrets in his day.”

“Tell him to keep this one.” It was clear that the man had been in the military and had been in command.

“The problem is,” Hutch confessed, “is he'll want to ask questions.”

“I don't listen in on people if that's what he's worried about. I have to focus hard to hear through all the noise no one else notices. To do it really well, I need Sandburg to help me focus. The one that will catch me off-guard lately is smell.” He hesitated.

Hutch made an encouraging sound.

Ellison grinned. “Let's just say that all the things you bought were fine, but don't ever get stuff from the man in the blue shorts at High-line market.”

“As Starsk would say, 'duh.' Even I can tell his bathing habits are dubious at best.”

“That's one way to put it.” They pulled into the driveway as the automatic light went on in the side garden. As they were loading up to carry all the bags and boxes into the house, Ellison grouched, “We didn't need to go to all of those places, did we? You already knew where the best chance for information was. You just wanted to shop.”

Hutch wasn't going to admit anything. As they approached the door, he thought he caught the scent of cooking meat.

Ellison said happily, “Hamburgers on the grill!”

Handy man to have around, Hutch thought. What vegetable went best with hamburgers?

Chapter Text

Starsky, Friday, evening.

“You sure I can't put one on for you?” Starsky said, his blue eyes concerned. He waved the long spatula at Sandburg as if that would bring attention to the lovely burgers he had just doused with his secret sauce.

“The stomach just isn't up to it,” Blair said sadly. It didn't look like he was all that sad, actually. Maybe he had completely filled up with liquid. He'd been drinking water and diluted juice all day and running to the bathroom every hour. Blair's phone rang, so the kid politely took a few steps away as he answered it, but Starsky listened in, of course.

“Hello? Yes, Blair Sandburg. Uh-huh. Yes, and one of them is me. We got doused with an insecticide, a small dose they tell me, but it's sitting in me like a spider. Yes, still. Yeah, the plant. I know the drawing isn't good, but...uh huh. I walked for that. Quechua. Yeahh. Yes, I did. No. No... Not at all? So it's high altitude? No, that makes sense. That far? Yeah, but...you'd do that? Oh. man, that would be amazing, considering you don't know me at all. Oh. I...don't know what to say, because I probably have just as much to learn from...yeah, there is that. Did you really? Oh, man, I have always wanted to...uh huh. Without a doubt.” Blair paced back and forth a few minutes, listening intently and nodding to himself.

“Right. Right. Seven of us, I think, at most. I don't know haw many I can talk into.... My gods, yes, whatever you feel like.... Yeah, I can get that. Not grated? Because I could buy one.” The gleam in the kid's eye was getting gleamier. He went inside, got a piece of paper and a pen, sat down at the patio table and was writing something down. It was so much that he turned the paper over and wrote on the back. He was nodding again. He got up and went inside again, and when he came out, he had a small cup of Hutch's tapioca pudding.

“Do you want some?” Blair asked, poking with his spoon back toward the kitchen.

“No, thanks. Glad to see you're eating something, even if it's only half a cup of goo. Hutch will be sure to ask.” Starsk was wondering if it was too early to flip the burgers on the grill. “You could get me a beer, though.”

“I could,” the young man agreed, but cocked an eyebrow at him.

“Okay, okay, okay, I'll save it for later. You're worse than your dad,” Stark grumbled. He flipped three real burgers on the grill. He was allowed one real and one veggie burger, so that's what he was cooking for each of them. The veggie ones cooked faster and dried out a bit, so they were didn't take as long. He'd once tried to fool Hutch by slipping him both veggie burgers. Proved the folks who said you couldn't tell the tofu stuff from the real thing totally wrong with that one. Anyway, if you put on the veggie one's on second, they at least picked up some of the flavor the real ones had left on the grill. He prodded the real ones into place with intense precision, then scooped them up a few minutes later.

“Worse than both of them, I'm sure.” Blair flashed a grin and sat down again. Winced a bit. Still hurting, Starsk noted to himself. Then Blair lifted his head. “They're back!” he added, and a minute later Starsk heard it, too. The engine shutting off, the car doors opening. Starsk pulled the veggie burgers closer, getting ready to slide them on. Hutch didn't mind if he made the veggie ones a bit bigger. Made up for the veggieness of the damn things.

As Hutch and Jim stepped out onto the deck Blair welcomed them by saying, “You rock! I already got a call!

“John?” Jim asked, sliding onto the deck chair next to Blair.

“John, yep. He called just a few minutes ago. John Tulomus. A self taught botanist who has studied heritage plants and their uses. He has a greenhouse. He makes his living providing plants for practitioners and foodies and is pretty open minded. Anyway, he knows what I want, which tells me he's a lot more than he has actually said at this point. Not tha' I blame him.” Blair said around a spoonful of the pudding, “Cause, yeah, I know some of the verses to that song. Anyway, he volunteered to go get the plants for us!”

Hutch took the chair nearest Starsk and peered at the burgers. Sheesh. Do it once, just once, and ever after....

“So he knows were to find them?”

“Right. See, he says there is network of plant people who each have some land,” Blair paused as Starsk interrupted.

“Plant people? That anything like pod people?” He wiggled his eyebrows. The others rolled their eyes and Hutch gave him a shove on the non-spatula holding arm.

“Let the kid talk,” he ordered. Starsky sketched out a sarcastic bow and the kid cheerfully flipped him the bird and continued.

“So, say there's a shopping center going in on some vacant lots. The person in their group who lives nearest goes and inspects it and if there are plants that are endangered or a bit different, they go raid them, just take what they want because the bulldozer is going to wipe it all out soon anyway. Though, I guess, sometimes they ask permission. If they have the right biospace at their place, they go and replant some of it, and if not, or if there is a lot of it, they call one of the others and give them some. They have fundraisers and try to buy new land to plant on sometimes, even got one with water rights, too, once.” He paused to shove a bit of goo into his mouth. Ellison found the glass Blair had been using and passed it over.

Blair nodded his thanks and took a long drink. “So he says about ten years ago, some of that plant I was looking for got distributed to about five people and the specimens he got died—too dry at his place, he thought. But he knows the lady who ended up with most of it and hers did real well, so he is going to go drive over one hundred miles and see how much she will let him have. If she doesn't have enough he says it's another seventy miles to the next guy who might have some. He'll get it to us tomorrow.”

Why would the man do that, Starsky thought as he flipped the veggie burgers one by one.

“He thinks it's the right plant?” Hutch was frowning.

“He says I can check when it comes to make sure. But meanwhile, I need to collect up the stuff we need to process it. It has to be chopped up, then soaked in pure water eight hours, and then pounded, then another 8 hours soaking in the same water, only hotter. Then there are some things he says to add to buffer it, because it's harsh on the stomach. So I need some really sharp knives and some rocks. Said it should be pounded between two rocks. I bet mineral content gets increased that way. Also, it takes about four plants per person so he's going to try to get about 35 plants.”

The kid stopped for more water. “Then we need eight hours in a sweat lodge.”

“A what now?” Starsky asked as he pulled the last burger off the grill. He handed them around. Blair was shaking his head when Starsk tried one more time to offer one.

“A steam room would do. From what John says it's basically steam, pee, drink, for hours while the toxins sweat out of you. Not much exercise, and no other food. Then at the end, something fairly bland like eggs, maybe a little rice or toast. He says if it isn't effective at first you should continue it, but you can't eat until you're done.”

Blair didn't seem bothered by the others eating while he talked. It let him wave his hand and bob his head in emphasis. Starsk didn't know how he stood it. Watching them eat and not taking any. His stomach must really hurt.

“You want the others who were poisoned to do the regime as well,” Hutch said, considering. “I have a list of the students who were in the hospital or who were checked out and sent home. Also, I'll check and see who's had to visit the clinic, find those still not feeling well.” He glanced at his watch. “It will have to be tomorrow.

“Yeah, but what do we tell them?” Starsky asked. Mumbo jumbo stuff never went over well anyway.

“That this is a totally voluntary party for those drank the coffee and who still feel like shit,” Blair said. “If they feel like I do, they're not doing anything else at the moment except curling up in bed—being told it will make them feel better ought to help sway them.”

“I know how to build a sweat lodge,” Ellison offered. “But...here?” he looked out across the lawn dubiously.

It sounded like the sort of thing there were ordinances about. Starsk said, “I have an idea 'bout that.” He turned to Hutch. “Remember the gym I was going to about four, five years ago?”

“That firetrap?” Hutch narrowed his eyes.

Starsk hurried to say, “It looked bad outside, sure, sure, but it was okay inside and it had one of those old-fashioned steam rooms.”

“I thought they condemned the place,” Hutch said.

“No, it's just that Mick, the guy who owned it, he had some health issues and had to close it, which is when I switched to your gym. Which I still say costs too much. He was always going to open it up again, but by the time he was feeling better that place over on Hillcrest opened up and he couldn't compete so he has it on the market.”

“Tons of folks beating down the door to buy that wreck?” Hutch asked.

“Bite me. He actually had someone interested, so he went in and spruced it up a little, tested things—and by things I mean the steam room, scrubbed up the place. Which he could have saved himself the bother because it turns out the guy who wants to buy it, wants to tear it down. My point is, it's got a steam room, and he hasn't sold it yet.”

“What's it like?” Ellison asked, leaning forward.

“The steam room? It seats about 12, and I only used it once.” He turned to Hutch. “Remember, when I overdid it helping Mike Proctor move and did my back in? It helped, let me tell ya.”

“So you know how to get hold of this Mick and see if we can rent it for, I guess, Sunday? Maybe Sunday and Monday, just to be sure?” Sandburg had pulled out his pad of paper from somewhere and was making notes again.

“First thing tomorrow. Not sure even of his last name, but I know some guys I can ask.”

Sandburg was nodding, still scribbling away. “Towels,” he said, almost to himself. “Ask if he still have towels or do we have to find some?”

Starsk said,“Okay, this John guy is bringing the plants, we might have a place to do it, and Hutch is going to find the guys...wait, what if one of these guys is a girl?”

Blair rolled his eyes. “We all wear shorts or swimsuits and the guys behave themselves or I offer to kill them. Simple.”

A bit of general laughter and then Hutch said, “The women were all too smart to drink that coffee. And I told you before, you've got to stop calling the female cadets girls. You don't call the men boys, do you?”

“I call them idiots, more often than not. I”m trying,” he explained, looking between Jim and Blair. “But I have a problem with remembering to be politically correct.”

“Uh huh,” Hutch said.

“Okay, I'm old. It's one of the ways I know I'm getting old, is how much of a headache it is trying to keep up with things like that. Sheesh. The older you get, the faster things seem to change. It pisses me off. What I was trying to get at before was, is there anything we're forgetting? Everyone can come here afterward for the eggs and bland stuff. Like, a picnic. We could make, maybe, a buffet, so tomorrow we should be cooking stuff, getting ready. Buying more of the the low-acidic juice we been feeding the kid, eggs. Bread. Rice. We need to make a grocery list.”

“Good idea,” Hutch said. “Borrow about 5 tables and some chairs from the Academy, like Bob did for his wedding. Invite Mick and John and everyone who helps us. The buffet idea is a good one.”

“Yeah,” said Starsk. “Make sure there's food for the rest of us, too, that's not the bland stuff.”

Ellison was frowning. He said, “I'll pay for renting the gym. I need to see it before we use it.”

“We?” Blair asked. “Heck man, you don't have to....”

“I do. Have to be there. To watch...out. Make sure it doesn't malfunction.”

Blair nodded, “Yeah, okay. John might want to be there, too.”

Starsk nodded as well. “Hutch and I stay here, get the place ready for the afterparty. Hey! We can invite Beth, too. She can catch us up on the case.”

“You just want another body to help with the work,” Hutch accused.

“She won't mind. We're entertaining to watch, she said so once, remember? And she gets a free dinner out of it, so that's fair.”

“And you hope she brings dessert again.” Hutch's sly took caused Starsk to poke at him with his fork.

“So what if she does?” It was really the pits when someone knew you quite this well. Besides, he hadn't thought it out quite that far but yeah. She might!

They sat talking another half hour, then everyone moved inside and helped with the clean-up. An hour in front of the TV and they all gave up and went to bed, even though it was barely ten.

Chapter Text

Late Friday Night, and early Saturday morning. Ellison

The house was silent. More or less. Starsky snored, Hutch was a restless sleeper, turning over every twenty minutes or so. Sandburg was also not sleeping as well as he usually did. He got up every hour or two to hit the bathroom. Jim dozed, his brain alert enough to wake him whenever Sandburg got up. Jim hadn't said anything, but he didn't at all like the way Blair smelled. This idea had better work.

There was a time when it would have bothered him, even being involved with one of these woo woo things Sandburg came up with. In this case, though, he was all for it, really wanted it to work. Worry for his partner was a low, steady hum inside him and he really wanted to be able to...to be over it. Wanted the kid back to normal. Or as normal as things were ever going to be again.

He was up early again, before dawn, walking out into the yard, then out around the block. Then two blocks. Then three. It was all quiet. All normal. He could hear too much. He'd thought it was bad in Cascade, with all the sounds and smells of so many people, but it did blend together. Here, he could hear a shower coming on from five blocks away. The lady was singing in the shower, now.

For something to do he went looking for stones. For pounding herbs. There weren't any. There were decorative rocks in yards and borders, none of which were right even if he had wanted to take them. Small sharp-edged chunks of quartz around a tree, gravel up a drive. He was thinking about how modern man had changed their relationship with stone. It served man or it wasn't there. Covered up, taken away, turned into statues and garden cover. Never there, in the place nature had put it, in the form nature had given it. He thought about telling this to Sandburg. The anthropologist in him would like that. He wouldn't tell him now. Blair had too much on his mind at the moment.

It was still early. He went in and found the phone book, several years old, which was a good thing. Found the gym listing, memorized the address, went out to the car and drove around until he found it. A noble wreck of a building, faded brick outside. He sat in the car and let his senses gather what information they could. The smells weren't too bad, sounds....some creaking from the rear, but nothing structural, just the usual sounds of aging wood. Wood was never totally silent.

He leaned his head back, closed his eyes and took in the sounds from the nearby buildings. Again, nothing to cause any alarm. He let his lips turn up a bit as he thought about what he was doing. If he ever couldn't the job of a cop, perhaps he should become a building inspector. Damn good one. Must remember to tell Sandburg, who would get a kick out of it. After the dissertation fiasco they'd been brainstorming one day all the jobs a sentinel could do. A new one for the list.

Every once and awhile he thought about it. What would happen if, despite everything, Blair couldn't be a cop. They'd made an agreement. Blair would give it his best shot, Jim would try his best to be a Sentinel, and they would reevaluate if the cop option didn't work. Jim was suing the ass off the publishing company and Sid, although he hadn't exactly told Blair all the details. The publishers would get off lightly if they swore to certain statements which, added to the spin Simon was giving things, would result in a file which would be presented in court if Blair's integrity was questioned during a trial. He figured after the first one or two lawyers tried it and were shot down, it wouldn't come up again. His legal team hoped to manipulate it so that the first challenges didn't happen during an important trial or in the hands of the sharpest lawyers. It might even stay out of the newspapers.

But it might still go wrong. So. Building inspector. Realtor’s used them, too, if he couldn't work for the city or county.

Damn, it sounded dull.

He drove off and started thinking about the car he was driving. The leg room could be better. How long was he going to stay, anyway? Until Sandburg could go back to classes, at least. Then he'd go back to work and wait out the next month or so.

That sounded...well, like a long wait.

He thought about breakfast. If he made it, it would, at least, be something he wanted to eat. The problem with being a house guest is that the host more or less was in charge of the food, and luckily, Hutch had a really light hand with the spices. The food wasn't bad, it was just different. But he couldn't make any of Blair's favorites if the man couldn't eat it. So it had to be something he himself liked but Sandburg wasn't wild about. But not something Hutch would say no to.

He let himself in. Dawn was lightening the sky quickly. He listened for Blair. Still asleep. Without turning on the lights, Jim started assembling the ingredients for a breakfast casserole. The one Carolyn had liked. The one Blair complained abut because Jim always doubled the cheese. He included three florets of broccoli, chopped fine. It made the dish look healthier than it was. Nobody in this house was going to be fooled.

He started coffee and boiled some water for tea. He actually drank a cup of the tea while waiting for the casserole to bake. He was pouring a cup of coffee when he heard the shower in Starsky and Hutch's room come on. He even knew, from the sounds that it was Starsky, not Hutch, under the water. Starsk began humming under his breath and he could confirm it. Hutch was moving around the room. No sound from Blair. Good. Let him sleep.

Starsky was delighted to see breakfast and served himself a generous portion even before he headed for the coffee. He was halfway through it before Hutch arrived. Hutch rolled his eyes, made himself tea and took his somewhat smaller portion to the table.

“Sage?” Hutch asked, after his first taste.

“Half tea-spoon. No onion or garlic.” In case Blair wanted to eat any of it.

“What are these green thingies?” Starsk wanted to know, poking one with his fork. “Broccoli?” He sounded scandalized.

“Maybe.”

“Well, at least there's cheese. Naked broccoli is...” he cut his eye towards Hutch and shoved another bite into his mouth instead of finishing the sentence.

Jim nodded. He was no fan of naked broccoli himself.

They were almost finished when Sandburg staggered in. He, too, went for tea, got himself a yoghurt from the fridge, and then served himself two spoons worth of egg casserole. Okay, it wasn't much, but at least it was food. Blair had lost about ten pounds since he'd left Cascade. Most of it probably this week. His stomach and intestines were also still making more noise than usual.

“So what's the schedule for this morning?” Starsk asked, scraping the last of the cheese from his plate.

Hutch said, “I'm going to the Academy, you're getting hold of the guy with the gym. Don't forget to ask about the towels. If you have time, you can be sharpening the knives, finding the canopy thing you insisted on buying ten years ago, and start putting it up out by the tree, and then de-pooping the front yard.”

“Someone's dog keeps using our front yard as his personal potty,” Starsk complained. “If I ever find out who....”

“Saw her this morning. It's a bitch. She lives in the red house,” Jim said. He had to stop and figure out how he knew where she lived. Scent. Oh. The owners didn't clear their own back yard of the dog's leavings either.

“I was right!” Starsky shouted. “I knew it! That little black dog with the beady little eyes.” When Hutch looked at him he said, “What? I'm not going to go arrest them or anything, am I? But I will be dropping by next week to explain a few thing,” he added darkly.

“Just don't start World War Three,” Hutch warned. “After I get back we can have lunch and then go to the store.”

Starsky said, “The kid will be resting.” It was practically an order. Blair rolled his eyes. “Jim?”

“Which one of you needs the most help? Do we have to load the tables and chairs at the Academy?” Jim asked.

“Yes,” Hutch said. “How about this. We take my car and your rental. We load the tables into mine and the chairs into yours. Or rather, I have you do that while I hit the office. Then, we go over to Blair's room and get him some more clothing. What else do you need?” he asked Blair.

“My laundry soap. I need to wash some of my stuff and Jim's, and, no offense, but yours would make him break out in hives.” He made a little, 'I'm sorry,' gesture which made Jim blink. Blair had made that a lot during the last few weeks. “Oh, and my laptop and books. Might as well study.”

Hutch nodded and got up to deal with the dishes. Everybody pitched in except for Blair, who went and spent more time than Jim liked in the bathroom, before he went to stretch out on his bed. They left Starsky muttering to himself and went outside.

Hutch's car turned out to be elderly, well-maintained, and big enough to haul tables in. Jim followed it to the Academy, through the gates and over to a garage. Hutch had the keys and opened it up. Inside was a well maintained storage space. The six foot folding tables and black folding chairs were just to the right of the door.

“So, five tables and twenty chairs?” Hutch suggested, measuring the furniture with his eyes.

“Sounds right,” Jim said.

“I'll be in that brick building when you're done. Thanks for this, Jim. I'm not sure my knee is up to it yet.”

“It's fine,” Jim said and started to pull out the first table. It was more than fine. Jim was just glad to do something that felt like doing something. Hutch said thanks again and left him to it. The exercise felt good and it didn't take all that long. When he was finished, he went into the brick building and followed his nose to Hutch's office. It was a neat, tidy space. Hutch was writing a list on a pad of yellow paper.

“Got the list of cadets,” Hutch began. “I also checked faculty, because a couple of these guys are macho enough to not mention if they feel like shit, but it looks like none of the men on this list were eating that morning. No surprise there. Now....”

“Now you collect them all up in one place.” When Hutch shot him an inquiring look, he said, “I'll be able to smell them—they'll smell like Sandburg does if they need the same treatment.”

“That works. Okay, so I'll show you Blair's room and you can get his stuff while I round up the men. There's a lounge on the same floor as his room, so we'll meet you there?”

“Sounds good. Room locked?”

“Probably not. He has three roommates. Someone is probably in, since it's the weekend.”

Jim followed Hutch up to the dorm room. It made Blair's little room at home look palatial and homey. A man was hunched on one bed, laboriously filling out a form. He looked up.

“I came to get some of Sandburg's stuff,” he explained. “Ellison,” he said as an after thought.

“Oh. Sanchez. That's his bed, there. He keeps most of his stuff in the drawers under the bed.”

“You don't seem too concerned about a stranger coming in for Sandburg's things?” Jim asked, not moving.

“Well. He told us about the coconut,” Sanchez said helpfully. “And you've got...on your head. A mark, right? So I decided, must be okay.”

Jim rolled his eyes. Of course he told about the coconut. Of course.

“So, is he okay?”

“More or less. Being Sandburg, he's decided that more of the toxins need to come out of his body and so he's arranging a steam room.” It was the simplest explanation. No reason to go into the woo woo stuff.

“Well, knowing Blair, who else has he roped into it?”

“I dunno, we're still issuing the invitations. Everybody who drank the coffee.”

“Well, I sure hope he invites Hammerstein. He can hardly get out of bed and his roommates say he moans a lot. Oh, and Juan Carter. DeWayne Wright, too. He's black, you know, but he looks kinda yellow at the moment.”

Ellison made a mental note of the names, and began collecting up the things Blair might want, packing it neatly into his bag.

“Tell Blair we hope he gets better soon. Oh, and we actually have people coming to our study sessions. He might like to know that.”

“He would. Thanks,” Jim said, and followed his ears to the lounge, where eight young men were seated on worn but comfortable looking couches. Hutch was perched on the arm of one couch.

Looking at the group, Jim was able to pick out Hammerstein and Wright just on sight. They looked like shit. Smelled a bit like it, too. He took a deep breath and looked at the rest of them.

Hutch stood up. “Gentlemen, this is Detective Jim Ellison from Cascade. Mr. Ellison, these are all the cadets on record as having drank any of the coffee that morning.” He paused expectantly.

Jim nodded. “Cadet Sandburg,” he began slowly, “has traveled all over the world and has a lot of...odd knowledge. He says that one way to get the toxins from the poison out of the body is to sweat it out, but not through exercise. He's renting a steam room. Anybody who still feels like hell might benefit from it. You are all invited. We'd transport you there and back again. There will be food that evening, something mild on the stomach, Blair says. This will take all day. We have permission for you to miss Monday's classes if you need to.”

That was, of course, news to Hutch, but he kept his mouth shut and didn't contradict Jim.

“If you're hurting right now, you should come. If interested, be at the gate at eleven in the morning. Don't eat anything tomorrow—nothing after midnight. Keep it light tonight. Pack a bag with swim trunks or shorts if you have them, a change of clothing, shampoo, but nothing with a strong smell.” That was for his own benefit. So was, “Take a bath or shower tonight.” A couple of these young men had been neglecting their hygiene.

He took a deep sniff, trying not to make it obvious. He pointed to Hammerstein, Wright, Carter and a hefty man in the corner who didn't look a day over 12. “You guys look the worst.” Smelled the worst. “You,” he pointed to a man hunched on the couch, “Come here, please.” It was his best cop voice. Of course the young man came. He was holding his arm across his abdomen.

Jim pretended to look into his eyes, taking his thumb and pulling down the lower one, peering as if he saw something interesting there. He didn't. He was going by smell again, but getting close and obviously sniffing a guy wasn't anything he wanted to be seen doing. “You have all the symptoms of a bad appendix, or some other abdominal inflammation.” He looked at Hutch. “He doesn't need Sandburg's steam, he needs a doctor, maybe a hospital. Today.”

Hutch said, “Right.” He turned to the young man and said, “Mr. Lee, why don't you go to my office and have a seat. I'll be with you in a moment.” He looked worried as the man went out, hunched and walking slowly.

“Any questions?” Jim asked the group. They all exchanged looks but didn't have any. “Tomorrow,” he said and glanced at Hutch, who gave a short shake of his head. “Dismissed.” They milled around and then left.

Hutch grimaced. “Damn. I don't think we're ever had as many hospital visits in one year as we're had in the last two weeks. Is this emergency stuff? Should I call an ambulance or just drive him in?”

“Not sure.”

“How about I meet you at home? This will take an hour, longer if I can't find anyone else to take Lee to the hospital and have to do it myself.”

Right. They split up. Blair was going to be proud of him, he thought. About diagnosing Lee.

Chapter Text

Saturday, Noon, Starsky.

Things had finally gone their way. Mick, whose last name was Harte, was willing to let them rent the gym, and was only charging them a hundred. Not great, but sure could be worse. Complete with Mick on hand to operate the steam room and hand out towels. When he got back from seeing Mick, he went in quietly in case the kid was asleep, but Blair was in the shower.

It was close to noon, so Starsk threw together the ingredients for tuna fish sandwiches. Leaving out the pickle relish. And the onions. His theory was, folks who wanted it could add it themselves. The onion wasn't peeled or chopped and the jar of relish was just plopped down on the counter. His timing was excellent and Ellison was pulling into the drive just as he was done.

“Where's Hutch?” he asked, holding the door open.

Ellison explained about Lee.

“Well, crap,” Starsk said. “Lee's one of our best students. How long does it take to recover from one of those operations, anyway?”

“Doesn't it depend on if you get it out on time?” Ellison was leaning against the wall, arms crossed, casual. “We had an officer out with it a few years ago. Two weeks?”

Well, damn.

“I brought the folding chairs. Do you want to unload them now or wait?” Ellison asked.

“Now, or Hutch and the kid might offer to help. Kid's back asleep again,”Starsk added.

So they hauled the chairs through the garage and out to the back, propping them up near the hot tub. And since he had Ellison right there, they put up the canopy. In record time, too. Ellison was real good with tents. Then Starsk suggested they eat and not wait for Hutch, because who knows how long blondie would be at the hospital. That turned out to be good advice. It as three o'clock before Hutch drove up.

Jim helped Dave unload tables while Hutch wolfed down a sandwich and a big glass of water. Blair came out and joined him, but he only ate about a tablespoon of tunafish mush without even putting it on bread. Starsk caught Jim's eye. They both stared over at Blair. Who rolled his eyes, sighed, and took another spoonful.

Blair was looking more animated after he finished a cup of tea. “John called! He got the plants and he's heading back. Should be here for supper if we have it a little late. I asked and he says he'll eat about anything. Do we have to go to the store?”

Hutch said, “I was going to do fish but then Starsk did tuna for lunch and there there wouldn't be enough so we'll save that. Anybody have objections to ham?” Hutch towards Blair.

“I'm going to be fasting, just juice and water,” Blair said. “But you guys go ahead.”

“Potatoes, salad, green beans?” Hutch went on.

Starsky inwardly high-fived himself. Potatoes!

“But, yes, we will have to go to the store,” Hutch concluded. “Anything you want me to pick up, put it on the list on the fridge. Meanwhile, what else is on the list of things to get done?”

“I still have the front yard,” Starsky said sadly.

“I need to run an errand,” Ellison said, in the tone that did not encourage questions. “Anybody need anything from the hardware store?”

“I dunno. Are we grilling tomorrow?” Starsky asked hopefully.

Hutch shook his head. “Be kind of cruel to those who are on the bland diet, don't you think?”

“Would ice cream be easy on the stomach?”

“Maybe a little would be okay,” Blair said, giving him a wink.

Starsk went over to write it on the list. Coming back he got a good look at Hutch. “You should rest your knee,” he suggested. He knew he was right about the knee when Hutch didn't argue, but went to the couch and eased down.

Ellison grabbed up his keys and said he'd be back an hour or two and Starsk watched him leaving, which led his eyes to the front yard, which reminded him. He sighed and went to the garage for the scooper. After he was done, maybe he should get the hose and spray it all down. God knows what the smell of old dog poop was like for Ellison, but it couldn't be all that good to be a super-smeller around crap of any kind.

Chapter Text

Saturday Afternoon, Ellison.

Okay, Ellison was more aware these days when his sentinel instincts flared up, but this was ridiculous. He was being prodded to go out and look for rocks. Rocks, dammit. Blair would probably say that, since there wasn't much he could do for his guide, he was doing something to compensate, but rocks?

The first hardware store he found annoyed him for several reasons. Badly designed parking lot, for one. Any hardware store that didn't have convenient parking for pick-up trucks was run by idiots. Not too many shoppers there, going by the number of cars in the lot. He drove on by.

The next store seemed right. He went in and browsed. Picked up a small hooded gadget for the BBQ that would fit Starsky and Hutch's grill. It was supposed to help with the things that needed indirect heat. He also picked up a folding table the right height to use next to the grill—theirs was too low. It would be useful tomorrow night, too. More working and serving space.

Then he went to the garden center and investigated the landscaping materials. Yes. Rocks. None of them were the right rocks. He went and looked for the youngest looking employee.

“I need some rock, but I don't see what I need here. Do you know a place that deals in rock?” he asked.

The young brow furrowed. “are you talkin' rock or something like concrete pavers? There's a builder's supply north of town, but it's more like, garden statues, and gravel for paths. What kind of rocks?”

Ellison shrugged.

“I know where there's a rock shop for things like, you know, collectors rocks and rock tumblers and things like that. If you needed, like, different kinds.”

“Maybe. Where is it?”

“One mile south on Grant. Grant is a couple of blocks east,” he pointed.

“Thanks,” he nodded, and went to pay for his purchases.

It was actually almost two miles south on Grant and was tucked away off the street in an old car lot which took up half the block. The fence was new, and so was the gate, which was closed. He parked and walked in. Piles of rock everywhere, some in buckets and bins. He wandered around awhile, rather startled by the fact that different types of rocks smelled differently. Sandburg was going to love this. He closed his eyes and tried to get information about them without his sight. Yeah, Sandburg was going to love this. There were tests in his future.

It took him two hours. The middle-aged lady who ran the place came out and asked him if he needed help three times. She was starting to look at him funny. In the end, he had three big rocks he liked, all with a slight depression in the middle. He picked up smaller rounded rocks which matched. He also selected a chunk of striped rock about the size of his head because he liked the pattern of it, a rusty red and a creamy white. For the back yard, where his hosts had a line of rocks along the edge of the patio.

When he got back, both cars were there, so everybody was home. He unloaded his rocks into the back yard and then came in through the back door. Starsk and Hutch were putting away groceries. The shower was running. Sandburg was up—good!

“Hey, man!” Starsk greeted him. “We're having a snack, since dinner is going to be late an' everything. Strawberries! And crackers and cheese.”

“Sounds good.” He went to wash his hands. The shower had stopped, so he went into the bathroom. Sandburg was toweling down. They'd never been modest around each other, just polite, so after a quick look to make sure there was nothing wrong with his partner physically, he turned his eyes away from Blair and soaped up at the sink. He became distracted by all the new small nicks and scrapes on his hands.

“You all right, man?” Sandburg asked, from under the towel he as applying to his wet curls.

“Fine. You sound...the same?”

“Exactly. Unfortunately. But at least a little rested.”

Good. I...uh. Got you rocks. Outside.”

“Oh, god, how many?”

The kid was laughing at him. He didn't mind. The corner of his lip turned up as he fought the smile. “Three.” Sandburg waited. “Sets.”

“Good. Bet we need 'em.” He went back to drying his hair. It turned dark when wet. Odd that it dried so much lighter. All that red in it. Got it from his mom. There wasn't any red in Starksy or Hutchinson's.

“There's food. Can you eat some?” As he asked, Jim listened to Blair's intestines. Maybe they didn't make as much sound because there was nothing in them? “If you're going to be fasting, maybe you need something now?”

“Something,” the kid said. Promised? They went out to the table and sat talking and nibbling for most of an hour. Waiting. After they cleared the table, Blair started collecting everything he thought they would need for the preparation of what Starsky was calling their 'potion.' Starsky was dancing around singing, “Love Potion Number Nine,” while using a wooden spoon as a make-believe microphone. It was good to hear the laughter and even better to meet Blair's eyes and know he, too, was remembering when they met. Neo hippy witch-doctor punk, wasn't it?

The doorbell rang. They all paused. Starsky put down his spoon and went to answer it.

Chapter Text

Starsky yelled, “Blair, John's here!” rather unnecessarily as they had all followed him to the door. John was big, maybe five ten, but rather broad. In fact, his shoulders were wide enough to make his legs look small. He was wearing a plaid shirt and brown pants, heavy boots and had a pair of gloves hanging from his belt. Tanned face and hands, dark hair scraped back and tied, brown eyes.

Despite Starsky's invitation to come in, John remained on the front step. He was looking beyond, looking, Blair decided, for him. So Blair pushed to the front and said, “Welcome. We are glad to see you.” He reached out and took John's hand, giving it a firm shake. John did not let go of his hand at once, but held it and stared intensely.

Blair didn't mind, and stared back, trying to see with something other than his eyes. Beyond the general impression that this was one of the good guys, he sensed... Huh. Something. But how long could you stare at someone before everything got uncomfortable?

John finally spoke. “Glad to be here. Got the stuff in the truck.” Jim stepped out, saying, “I'll help. What do you need me to carry?”

When they came back, Jim was toting a heavy box with leafy tops trailing out of it. John had another box almost as big. They carried it to the kitchen, while John said, “We need to get started right away.”

Jim put down his box and pulled out one of the plants, taking a deep whiff of it, rubbing a leaf between his fingers. He held the plant out to Blair. “Is it the right one?”

Blair brought it up to his nose and inhaled deeply. “Yes. This is it.” He turned to John. “Thank you so much.” John gave a shot nod and a smile that wrinkled his face, making him seem older. It was hard to pinpoint how old he was anyway and the smile didn't clarify anything really. But it wasn't important, after all.

“Do you want to eat now?” Starsk asked, “Or do we do the plant thing first?”

“Plant thing right away. Production line,” John said. “We want one person at a trash can, rubbing off the dirt and picking off all the brown leaves and dead stalks. Next guy at the sink washing the rest of the dirt off. He shakes it to get most of the water off the leaves, then passes it off to the next guys, who chop it up. Leaves and root and all, about quarter-inch slices. We put it in this big enamel pan I brought,” John said, pulling a large blue-speckled pan from his box. “We might need two. Did you get the water?”

“Six gallons distilled. Is that enough?” Hutch asked.

“Yes. I brought some too, from a spring near where the plants grew, just in case.” In case of what wasn't clear.

Rather to Blair's surprise, Jim volunteered to do the washing and Starsk to do the preliminary dirt removal. That let the rest of them to set up the chopping boards and the knives. Hutch showed them were the knife sharpener was on the counter. Good thing. These little things were stringy. Tough.

Starsky brought out a trash can from the garage and set up his cleaning station near the sink, to be able to easily pass each plant to Jim. Hutch and John chose to stand at the counter, Blair sat at the table, with Jim bringing him plants as soon as he had the first few done. The heady smell of it, astringent but a bit cloying, made Blair's nose wrinkle. God knew what it was doing to Jim, but his Sentinel didn't complain.

John was good to work with. With Hutch, he encouraged smaller slices with kind words and a demonstration. He nodded and hummed as he checked Jim's work. Respectfully. Yeah, that was the right word. As if he knew what Jim was. They hadn't had any time for long conversations, for getting to know each other. John seemed real. Blair found himself reaching out with all his senses, inner and outer. Trying to know more of the man, to see him through both physical and shaman eyes.

Blair had long experience in deciding who was real or not. As he grew up with Naomi, he learned who was putting on an act just to get into his mom's pants. Who was genuinely seeking enlightenment and who was superficially just trying out a role. Whatever John was, he was genuine. He didn't say much, but he grinned at one or two of Starsky's jokes, and noticed when Hutch's knee gave him a twinge. Hutch eventually joined Blair at the table.

With that many people working they were done in under an hour. The green piles were divided into John's enamel kettle and the family soup-pot, a gallon and a half of water poured in to each, a rock and plate to hold the floaty bits down in the water, and the lids securely on. They cleaned up. Jim made everyone wash their hands twice; his nose kept twitching. Should he go help Jim get the dials down? Jim seemed better after a moment. Man, he'd come so far!

Talk was general during dinner. Blair sensed John wasn't much of a talker. He caught the man looking at him intently twice, and at Jim, once. And at the dads a couple of times, too! He'd probably have questions later. It was nine o'clock before Starsk slid the last plates into the dishwasher.

“How hot does that thing get?” John asked suddenly.

Hutch and Starsky exchanged glances. “Pretty hot,” Starsk said. “You can burn yourself on the silverware if you don't let it cool down awhile.”

“See, I brought some quart canning jars. Was going to boil them later to get them sterile, but this might work. See, I was thinking, if we gave each person their own jar, it would be easier to monitor how much each person drank.”

“Good thinking, man!” Blair said, beaming at him. Brilliant. You could even drink right out of your own jar, not have to worry about glasses or cups. He could mark up the side of the jar with a grease pen or marker to indicate the dose.

“I need to see the jars,” Jim said. Well, ordered, really, but it was nicer than his usual ordering-around mode. They unpacked the jars, Jim inspected them and set two aside for some flaw that only Jim could see. They lined them up on the counter—12 of them, to be run through the machine after the dishes were done. Hutch found a marker and left it near the jars.

Hutch was wondering aloud if they could catch the early news. John caught Blair's eye, and it looked intense. Like he had something to say.

“You guys do that, John and I are going to go out and talk shop.” Blair said, waving a hand out at the patio and led the way. It was abruptly quieter when the door slid shut behind them. Five guys actually made quite a lot of noise. It wasn't so dark that they couldn't see each other, but the night blurred the details. Blair was pretty sure that the dark and the plants around them would put John more at ease. They made their way over to the lawn chairs and sat down.

“Thank you, man, for doing this,” Blair started, but he was interrupted.

“NO, I'm the one who should be thanking you. A hundred times. I was starting to think I was crazy.”

Been there, done that. Blair smiled. “What particular crazy was it?”

“The whole shaman thing. I've been looking all my life and have never come across a single genuine actual, living shaman. I started looking when I was a teenager.”

Blair nodded. “I know what you mean. I've met...four, I think. Real ones. And lots more that only thought they were. But all of the real ones were from another country, except one. He was Native American, but he didn't want to talk to me. Got the impression he didn't want to find a kindred spirit in someone quite this shade of pale.”

That made John huff out a laugh.

“But you are one.” It was said with such certainty.

“I'm learning to be one, I hope. I have so far to go.” The more you learned, the longer the journey became. It never ended, he suspected. The wisdom probably came last, because he didn't seem to have much of it yet. “Strangely enough, I think it's a fluid definition. I think it's a scale, with some people having a little and others more, of what it takes to make up a shaman. Or having only one aspect of it that is strong, and only a little of the other qualities.” He could have gone on about that for awhile, but restrained himself. It as rather like what he had discovered with his search for sentinels.

“Can you do the things they talk about in the books? Spirit walks and seeing into people's minds and curing people?”

“We're working on the curing people even as we speak.”

“Right. I want to learn it. All of it. As much as it's in me.” Intense. True. Blair could feel it.

“You're doing a good job. You know, traditionally the herb and plant lore was passed on from generation to generation, often by the shamans. Modern society lost that. But you've found it again. I'm hoping you can teach me some of it. What is it you most want to learn from me?”

“I never have figured out how to meditate. How to reach the spirit planes they talk about. Find my spirit guide. None of the books help!” Frustration rolled off the man. Blair made a small soothing sound and tried to project calm. John said, “I'm just me, and I want to be more.”

“You should come with us to the sweat lodge tomorrow and we can talk about it, see if we can make it happen. I think we can do this,” Blair said, and actually believed it. “I'm going to be in the area for almost two months more, and if it doesn't click this time, we can get together weekends, we can work on it.”

“We can do this,” John agreed.

“And, you know, I've recently learned that things don't work out, but that another path can open and another way becomes clear. You may not end up where you think you're going.”

John gave a small chuckle. “Yeah?”

“And if nothing else, hey, it's always good to make a new friend.” A friend, perhaps, that he could stay in contact with. All his life Blair had been making friends but somehow not keeping many of them. Even before the dissertation mess, he'd moved on, or they had. School was like that, everyone cycling through and then leaving to find their future. Maybe life was, too. But becoming a cop was choosing to stay in one place and break that cycle? Huh. He'd have to think about that more.

Blair suddenly remembered something he was going to ask. “You are staying here tonight, right? There's the couch, if you don't mind that?”

“Yeah. Okay. Catch a nap before we have do the next step. Is everyone going to get up in the middle of the night and help?”

“Probably. It might be hard to sleep through pounding and scraping. I don't want to take it outside, it might wake up the neighbors.”

“It should only take an hour with everyone helping. Hour and a half? So maybe hit the hay, then sleep again for a few hours after we've finished?”

“Sound like a plan.” Blair stretched out his legs. He was just generally tired, and he was unhappy with the dragged down and stomped on feeling he'd had since that damn coffee.

They sat in the semi-dark quietly for a few moments. Just listening to the night. Blair was beginning to drift off a little, so he roused himself and stood up. John followed him as they went in.

Chapter Text

Blair could be bossy when he wanted to. Reminding them that they would be getting up in six or seven hours, he got them all preparing for for bed. It took longer than usual with everyone needing a chance at the bathroom. Hutch spared a thought as to the probable water bill next month. Not that he begrudged anybody a shower, it was just the sort of thing he kept track of in his head automatically.

He noticed, too, that Blair had offered John...what was his last name anyway? Offered him the couch. Without consulting anyone, but that meant Blair was treating the place like his own, which generated a warmth inside when he thought about it.

Half an hour later he was in bed, his arm draped over Starsky's waist and his nose buried in the exuberant curls. They usually started the night that way, separating later into their own comfortable positions. There were still a few sounds echoing through the house as the others settled down. He probably wouldn't be able to sleep until it was quiet.

Starsk's hand closed over his.

That was the last he knew until he heard the toilet flush. His eyes went to the alarm clock. Two fifty six. He sighed and heaved himself upright, one hand reaching out to flick the alarm off. Starsk was stirring beside him. Without speaking or turning on the light, they got up, shrugged into clothing and made their way to the kitchen. Blair was there. He'd made tea and was scrubbing a sink-full of rocks. In the dishpan they kept under the sink, thank god. Not everyone knew what dirt like that could do to plumbing. Blair had the table covered in plastic and towels and as he finished with a rock he placed it on the table as if he were setting the table for dinner. One large rock, one small at each spot. The juxtaposition of rocks and the modern setting hit his funny button, and behind him he could hear Stark having a similar reaction.

John came in, surveyed the table and said, “Pretty sturdy table. Should hold up.” The man had serious bed-hair at the moment, but was running his fingers through it, settling it down. “Those rocks are just right. Where did you find them?”

Jim was last, coming in from the back yard. “Rock shop on Grant,” he said.

John was running his hands over each of the rocks, nodding. “Wash your hands before we get started,” he said, with that half apologetic way people had when they weren't used to giving orders.

“After some tea,” Blair amended, grinning over at Jim, who made a face. The kid was way too cheerful for this hour of the night... morning, and especially in the face of Mr. Grumpy there. Starsk hardly looked awake. Tea inhaled, hands washed, they gathered around as John used a big slotted spoon to serve each of them a portion of plant on rock. It took about five minutes to reduce it to sludge, at which point one scraped it into the bowl in the center of the table—his big glass salad bowl he noticed—and went back for another heaping spoonful. They took turns at the three stations,

As soon as the first kettle was empty of everything except water, John put it on the stove and let it start heating up. When John sat down, Starsk got up and started to unload the dishwasher. Without having to be reminded or nagged. Damn, that was amazing. Even more amazing, when he was done, he loaded it up again with John's jars and lids, set it on the hottest and longest setting and started it. Hutch wasn't going to bring it up in front of everyone, but there was teasing in Starsky's future.

There wasn't much talking as they worked. Aware of the darkest part of the night outside, Hutch wondered if the others were feeling the odd atmosphere, the feeling of being somewhere else. Somewhen else? He was remembering long stake-outs, when this part of the night was the worst to get through.

John brought the water to a boil, turned off the heat. Ten minutes later he added half the sludge. By the time the second pot was boiling, they were finishing off the last of the rubbing, grinding and pounding. John used the water he had brought to rinse the rocks, saving the rinse water, which was eventually added to the pots. He also added the water used to rinse out the bowl. He gave each mixture a last stir, put the lids on, and looked at the clock. So did everyone else.

Four ten. Everyone shuffled off to bed again.

The alarm went off again at eight.

Hutch hurried through his shower and was out in fifteen minutes, to find a deserted kitchen. Starsk was in the shower now. And a glance out the back door showed John and Blair in earnest conversation. Jim wasn't around. Out prowling the neighborhood, the way he did every morning? Later, the front door opened and closed. Starsky in his old, tatty robe, was getting the morning newspaper.

He hadn't expected Blair to eat breakfast, but John and later, when he came in, Jim, turned him down as well, so he didn't cook; he and Starsky ate raisin bran. Starsky stole his last four milk-soaked raisins. As usual. John was checking his concoction. He even tasted it once. He nodded, but his mouth screwed up as if it tasted bad. He then added a teaspoon of sea salt to each batch, stirred well, and put the lids back on.

They had a war council around the table. It was decided that Starsky and Hutch would take their vehicles to go pick up the Academy students and deliver then to the gym. John would bottle up his brew and then he would go to the gym with his own car following Blair and Jim in Jim's rental. Starsky would call Mick Harte and make sure he was getting the steam room ready and would be there to let them in. Then after seeing everything in motion, he and Starsk would go shopping for few forgotten items, and be back home when Beth showed up at about three. They'd set up the backyard, get ready for their odd party. Blair would call when students needed a ride. Back to the academy or to the party, their choice. It was clear that Blair, John and Jim would close the place down and would be the last to arrive back.

Nice to have a plan. This plan had a couple of hours of waiting in the middle of it. But just as Hutch was going to ask what everyone would like to do while they waited, Jim asked Starsky, and then him, to go to their bedroom. Jim followed them there, closing the door. He held his finger up to his lips, gestured towards the window and pointed.

Starsky made an enraged sound. From here, they could clearly see the little black dog desecrating their lawn. Jim said, “I've figured out the pattern. They must let it out after dark, and also about this time every day, after you've gone to work, which is why you never see it. I've got a suggestion.”

“Let's hear it,” Starsk demanded.

Jim said one word. “Supersoaker.”

You could almost see the diabolical glee blooming in Starsky's blue eyes. The big kid had always wanted one of those huge squirt guns. It wouldn't hurt the dog, but it sure might discourage it. He had a mental image of Dave, hair tied back like a mercenary, bursting from the bushes, shouting like an entire war band and dashing forward, while the plastic gun shot burst after burst, getting water over everything. Including Starsk.

The vision was on the sexy side, actually. Of course, Starsk would want Hutch to play, too. So they'd have to get two of the giant guns. Hutch glanced at Jim. Maybe four. Although something told him that Jim's aim was probably even better than his or Starsky's. He could imagine Starsk now, suggesting that Blair might even benefit from some non-serious shooting practice. But would Blair approve of super-squirting the dog? He seemed the earth-loving animal-loving type. Maybe they'd just get the damn things for fun.

“Thanks,” Hutch said to Jim, using the tone which clearly implies the opposite.

Jim flashed a grin at him and said, “You could get another one for self-defense.”

Yeah, ahead of you there, soldier. Just wait until next weekend, when everyone was feeling better.

And then Starsk said, “But what does Blair think about it? Soaking dogs. Would he, ya know, be upset?” He looked genuinely worried about upsetting the kid.

Jim said, “Sandburg says it's all about intent. If you were being mean or tracking it down just to squirt it, or if you were overly aggressive and were too happy about hurting it, then it's bad karma and bad stewardship of the land.”

Hutch and Starsky looked at him in unison, with identical what-th'-fuck expressions.

Ellison shrugged. “We had almost the same conversation a few years ago. About a squirrel.”

“Do I want to know?” asked Starsk.

“No,” Jim said. “I'll tell you about the Sandburg zone some other time.”

Chapter Text

Blair couldn't tell if it was nerves making his stomach ache or if it was just more of the same upset he'd been dealing with for a couple of days. John had held a tasting of sorts for their brew. It wasn't quite into the category of undrinkable, but there were definite overtones of swamp. But maybe that was because of the murky green-brown color. That said, Blair had a vague memory of having tasted something similar once before. When? He must have been pretty young because he thought Naomi held his hand, only allowing him a sip.

They poured the mix into the jars, filling them all about three quarters full and screwing the lids on really tight. Twelve was way more than they would need, but both of them were being extra careful, wrapping the jars in towels and packing them into two different sturdy boxes. Then, loading the car and then carefully locking up the house, they headed for the gym.

Mick Harte was waiting for them on the sidewalk, a jovial man on the other side of seventy who was bald and had the look of a former boxer whose nose had been broken at least twice. He waved them towards the parking on the north side of the building and had the doors open by the time they arrived.

It was clear why there weren't a lot of buyers lined up for the place. The linoleum on the floor had one been turquoise, but was now mostly scuffed gray, which was also the color on the walls. Everything needed repair, paint, or a blazing match, according to Jim, who was at least polite enough to only say it privately to Blair.

Mick gave them a short tour. “Sold out my equipment last month,” he said. “Didn't get much for it. Everybody wants those Bowflex doohickies. And swimming. No pool here. Not even one of them hot tub things.” All for wimps, his tone implied. Blair stayed to look at the steam room, which was ready to go. Square, plain, benches on two sides, seating about ten. Towels were already padding the wooden benches. Jim, when he came back, sniffed, shrugged and nodded reluctantly. It probably got a D on the Jim-scale.

But it seemed to work. There were dials on the inside and the outside, and the door had no lock. Good. He could imagine too many scenarios that involved getting stuck inside....

There was a clatter towards the front of the building. Showtime. He went out to greet the students. Five men and a...woman, stood in the small lobby. The men each had a duffel or carry bag in hand, and the young woman had an enormous purse in one hand and a huge cup of coffee in the other. Jim was behind them all, closing the door.

“Thanks for coming,” Blair started. “This is a friend of mine who is helping, John, and the owner, Mick Harte.” Mick and John, these are students at the Academy. DeWayne Wright, Juan Carter, Fred...Hammerstein, isn't it?” Fred nodded. “Gonzo Chambers...sorry I don't know your actual first name,” Blair added, and Gonzo didn't give it to them, either. “and, damn, I was doing so well, but I don't think I know your name,” he said to the last man. “I do know you usually sit to the left of me in class.” And if the guy asked questions or participated more, Blair would have known his name.

“Brian Beyher. And this is my girlfriend, Bridget Collins.”

“Hi,” she said. “Sorry I crashed your party, but I wasn't going to let him come here without me.” She cast a suspicious eye over the place and he thought he saw her repress a shudder, as if her fears were totally justified by this first glimpse. Her black and blond hair was pulled back in a low pony-tail and she was dressed casually in shorts and a halter top, with a filmy beach shirt over everything. She was tall and well-muscled, with high cheekbones in a lively face. Arms crossed. She expected opposition, so Blair didn't give her any.

“I think it's great you're being supportive in this,” Blair enthused. “Let's get everybody over here on the benches and I'll explain what's going on.” He and Jim were soon passing out water bottles, which everyone opened. Blair explained about being hydrated and had everyone take a drink.

Then he nodded when they were all down and said, “I came up with this idea to help me with the crap way I feel. Not just like I drank the worst coffee I have ever had in my life.” They all chuckled. He nodded again. “But I couldn't in good conscience do this sort of cleanse and not offer it to anyone else who was suffering from the same thing. I'll explain what I have in mind and you can participate in as much of it as you want to.

“We start with four people in the steam room. After 12 minutes those people will come out and the next group will go in. The men coming out will shower, drink at least two cups of water, drink a half cup of this,” he picked up a jar and waved it, “if you decide to try that part, and rest for 20 minutes before going in for another round. This stuff may cause you to pee or shit, and so the toilets are over there. Four stalls, no waiting, which is why I picked an initial group of four. If you do get that reaction, I want you to monitor your liquid intake, make sure you are getting enough to replace what is coming out. Any actual pain should be mentioned. Drink at least two cups of water before you go in, three or four is better. You don't want to dehydrate.

“For the next round, if you had no trouble with the first one, you can expand your stay five minutes, to 17 minutes. My friend Jim here is going to be in charge of keeping an eye on everyone, and on the clock. If he comes in and pulls you out, you go with him, no questions. Oh, and this stuff tastes like swamp water. Stop it any time you want, no harm, no foul. If you feel faint, start getting a headache, or need to use the bathroom, come out. Steam can clear your sinuses, improve your circulation, help clear your skin, but it makes you sweat. Sounds gross to say, but try not to drip on anyone. Kleenex just outside the door.

“After three cycles, Jim checks you over.” Not going to say that Jim would be checking on them all constantly. “He was a medic in the army,” he added. “Because this is dehydrating even if you drink a lot of water, four or five cycles is the max most of you should do. Exceptions can be made if Jim okays it, but on the whole, that's it. When you've done all you want of this, or if Jim thinks you're getting physically stressed, I call Mr. Starsky or Mr. Hutchinson and one of them comes and takes you back to the Academy or to their house, where you will get to sit around in the back yard and have the lamest picnic you'll ever go to because there will be no beer,” he waited for the groaning to stop, “no fried foods, nothing that will upset your stomach or irritate your insides. If you have allergies, tell them going in.”

“Food's still got to be better than what the Academy was giving us,” Juan Carter joked.

“Possibly, possibly,” Blair agreed, grinning. “We'll get you back long before curfew, anyway. Any questions?” None. “So, each of you makes a station for yourself at the benches or table, with your stuff, your water bottles, your jar if you're doing the cleansing. Did I mention how bad it tastes? Towels are here,” he pointed, “dirty towels go there, toilets there,” always repeat the important stuff, “and there should be plenty of toilet paper, but flush after you've used a few, Mick says the pipes are old and can't take a lot at once.”

Blair took a deep breath. “John and I are going with the second group and we're going to be talking about meditation, out of body experiences, things like that. If you're interested in that sort of thing you can join us. One of you will have to anyway. If no volunteers, I just pick somebody.”

He took a deep breath and said “Mick? Any advice?”

Mick straightened up. “Yeah. Wear shorts and a t-shirt, but don't wear underwear under your shorts. If you have flip flops or sandals, you can wear them. Best if you take off any jewelry. The sweat can make a ring slide off, and I've had guys with piercings complain. I have band-aids, cover up open sores. Don't spit on the floor. Or anywhere else, eh?'

Blair nodded. “Okay, let's do this.”

Chapter Text

John, Sunday Afternoon.

Strangers and crowds always made him nervous, so John felt better once the first four men were in the steam room. Now there was just the lady, who had settled in the corner with a coke and a paperback, both pulled out of her big bag. And DeWayne Wright, looking a bit uncomfortable, was bending over a book, too. He never should have mentioned he was behind in his class reading. Blair had been carrying some of his textbooks in his knapsack. No surprise there. He seemed to be prepared for almost anything.

Jim and Blair were seated at the table, packing away jars of their drink so that the only ones out were the ones being used. He was rather surprised that all of the Academy students had volunteered to do the cleansing as well as the sauna. They must really feel like crap. Now there were six jars with six names on them in magic marker standing in six different locations around the room, each with the first dose missing. He watched as Jim got up and went outside, then he looked over at Blair again.

John had been trying not to stare at Blair. He was always trying not to stare at Blair. A shaman. A genuine, fuckin' real shaman. His holy grail. He'd looked everywhere, so it was amazing that in the end Blair had been looking for him. Of course, he'd always sort of imagined a Native American elder with gray braids and a wise old face. Instead, here was this bouncy guy, younger than he, not very mystic or mysterious.

Who turned to him and said, “Now, we have some time. Tell me about how you get ready to meditate? Do you meditate indoors or out?”

“Uh. I've tried both.” With poor results each way.

“Fine, yeah, do you wear loose clothing? I suggest taking off belts and socks and shoes. If you're outside, put your feet in the dirt. Oh, and before you start, take a shower. The ritual washing traditions developed for a reason, man, even if it's only to clear your pores. So while they're in there, you and I will take a shower—you, too, DeWayne? Then we can put on our shorts and be ready to go. Decide if you want to wear a shirt. Helps soak up the sweat, but can also be irritating, Jim tells me.”

Wright was one of those men who didn't offer much in the way of conversation, and he seemed willing enough to leave his reading. They showered, not talking much, dried off, got into their shorts and went back to the table.

Sandburg was looking at Wright and he said to him, “DeWayne, I hope you have a high tolerance for the weird. John and I are exploring how to access the spirit plane, which I know is sort of woo woo for a lot of people. If we go into a trance, don't try to shake us out of it or anything. Just tell Jim if anything happens that seems too unusual.”

“Okay?”

Sandburg went on, “See, my access to the spirit plane has always been in emergencies or under a lot of pressure. I want to learn to be in control, I guess, learn more about how it works. John wants to learn how, too, and he's starting sort of from the beginning. Having a spirit animal really helps. I have a wolf connection.” He turned to John and said, “Do you know what yours is?”

“No.” One more thing he had never figured out.

“Good, another goal! So, first, we're going to get comfortable over here on the floor and practice breathing. Just deep breathing, from here,” he patted low on his chest. “We'll be doing it in the steam room, too, so this is just practice. Now, I want you to....”

So they breathed for ten minutes. Wright looked to be better at it than John, to John's inner dismay. What if he was just one of those people who couldn't do this sort of thing? Just wasn't built the right way? He tried to fight back the negative feelings, sure that Blair would say they didn't help. He was glad when Jim came in and said it was time to let the others out.

The men came out sweaty and red-faced, talking and comparing experiences, carrying the towels they had been sitting on. Mick showed them where to toss the towels. All of them went to the toilets first, then the showers. Jim and Mick were handing out dry towels and advice to the guys coming out as John, Blair and DeWayne filed into the steam room, carrying their own towels to sit on. The heavy door shut out all the sound.

“It's like a jungle in here,” John said as they got settled.

“Pretty much, yeah,” Blair agreed. “But I've been in jungles in both Africa and South America, so I can say there are differences. The sights and scents aren't here, and even jungles can have breezes and temperature changes. But it means there's not much to distract us here, which is good. Let's start with the breathing again, and then some simple meditation.”

So they did that, and hardly seemed to be started before Jim was opening the door and letting them out.

“You sure stink!” yelled Beyher. His girlfriend punched in in the arm for inadvertently yelling in her ear. Well, it was true, but it was mostly Blair. His skin seemed almost oily. They each used a lot of soap in the shower. Toilet, towel dry, drinking water, and for the other two, another dose of the tea. More water. They were all thirsty.

John said, “If everybody is drinking that much water, I think the dose is getting watered down too much. Better have everyone drink a double dose of our stuff this time.”

Groans, shouts. But good-natured. The group going in quickly drank a second half cup. Jim said, “Beyher doesn't need the second.” The guys were still teasing Beyher as they filed back into the steam room.

Blair cocked an eyebrow at Jim, who said, “He's not as sick as the others.”

“Well, damn, that's good news,” said Collins, lowering her book. As soon as her boyfriend had left she had retreated to her corner. She was about half done with the book, too.

“So should he stop after this next time?” Blair asked. He was retying his hair, getting it off his neck.

“Up to him.” Jim said. Blair nodded.

“Okay,” Collins said. “So, about this picnic thing?”

“You both ought to come,” Blair said. “Just a relaxing time, kick back and enjoy the day, you know? Besides, if you're there, Beth won't be drowned in a sea of testosterone. I hadn't realized until just now that she'll be the only woman there.”

“She nice?” Collins asked. She didn't look like a Bridget to John.

“Yeah, but she's a cop. There might be lots of shop talk,” Blair said apologetically.

“I probably need to get used to it,” she sighed. “I wasn't too thrilled when Brian decided to be a cop. He wants to be a K-Nine officer. He really likes dogs, but there's too many people in the dog business, you know, training and all.”

“K-Nine sounds good. Has he investigated what sort of extra classes he needs?” Sandburg asked.

“Yeah. And they got him a ride-along with a K-Nine team next week and he's really looking forward to it.”

“I did my ride along a few days ago over in Hollister.” Blair said.

“You've been riding along with me for three years,” Jim countered.

“Yeah, but that was Major Crime. I needed to see what the normal cop experience is like.”

“Normal. Right.” Jim's lips twitched. John wondered what the story was behind that.

When Mick yelled from the next room that it was time, and the steam door opened, the four who came seemed tired and subdued, but they still looked good, if a trifle red in the face. The smell of their sweat was more intense. This was working. John felt a swell of pride. Jim was calling for pickup for Brian and Bridget while the men showered and John led the way into the steam room again. It seemed hotter.

The second round was much like the first. John kept an eye on Blair, who was looking a little...draggy, maybe? Blair kept his eyes closed most of the time. Wright didn't say anything, and Blair didn't say much, just led them through the breathing exercise and the pre-meditation routine. Both Blair and DeWayne were sweating harder than he was, and when it was time to go, John gave each of them a hand up. Blair stared at his hand, nodding to himself.

Oh, the shower was pure joy. So was the much cooler air outside. He had to blow his nose twice before it seemed to be operating again, which made the air even better. Until he got a whiff of his companions. Well, it was working, that was the best you could say about it. He watched as the other group went in for the third time, and no time at all seemed to pass before they came out again. Blair and DeWayne had spent most of the time in the toilet, and showered after John was already finished and seated at the table. They all exchanged a few words and then Jim held the door for them.

Familiar with the routine now, they filed in, got comfortable on their towels, did their breathing, and Blair was talking him through the centering, the slide into meditation which actually seemed to be happening the way it was supposed to and John fought not to let his excitement throw him out of it. Right when he was afraid he would lose it, he felt Blair's hand on his knee. He felt vaguely in the back of his mind that this was the sort of thing one should worry about, only it was Blair, but the vague worry was overwhelmed by the sudden realization that this was...Blair was...a shaman, and that he could feel...power?

He opened his eyes in a blue desert. Somewhere else, unworldly because it seemed there were stars but it was daylight. Blair was standing beside him, looking around with interest. And on his other side was DeWayne Wright, with an expression on his face that was beyond description. There was shock, but also, now John knew what they meant when someone said 'his eyes blazed.' Something had been lit inside him. John wondered if he looked like that, too.

DeWayne looked at Blair, then at John and said, “This what you're tryin' to do?”

“Totally!” Blair said. He lifted his arms up over his head, as if feeling for the air, for something. He lowered them, looked around again. “Walk a little,” he told them. Like wading through clouds, but then everything was changing, in front of them, behind them, and they now stood on the edge of a high cliff. It was almost a jungle now, but the plants had receded as they advanced and seemed packed up on the edge of the universe. And the edges still looked...like desert?

“A new place for me. Might be a good thing,” Blair said. “Oh. Hello,” Blair said as a wolf appeared, leaping up to him, tongue out. “It's good to see you again,” he told the animal, one hand going to rest on the furry back. “Would you help me?” he went on. “Are there spirit animals who would help these two friends?”

John's heart almost stopped as the wolf circled them, once, twice, three times. The wolf sat and stared into his eyes. Was there something he was supposed to do? He yearned for a spirit animal, for all it represented, but he knew, deep in his heart, that he didn't feel worthy of it. Didn't feel deserving of it. He drew a deep breath....

And found himself flat on his back with a furry nose an inch from his own. “Guh?” was all he managed to force out of his lungs as the wet nose smashed down onto his. There were teeth. Teeth. Gentle, maybe, but still long sharp teeth, closed around his nose. It was ridiculous, but he was afraid to disturb the... He crossed his eyes, trying to see. It was sitting on his chest and weighed a ton.

“Wow, a Norwegian Forest Cat!” Blair was impressed, and it was a good thing he had a view of it as all John was seeing was brown fur and yellow eyes.

“I thought spirit animals were wild animals?” DeWayne said, and John realized that he, too, had thought the same.

“Well, the domestic cats are all wild if you go back far enough, and this guy doesn't look all that domesticated. He seems on the big side.” Blair's voice was admiring.

Yeah. And it was getting hard to breathe. John brought a hand up, let it settle on the back of his...friend, and then used his other arm to push up to a sitting position. Fuckin' huge cat. He watched a feline smile curl up on that very furry face, as if it had read his mind and was pleased.

“That's some cat,” DeWayne echoed, and John could hear a sort of humor in the guy's voice.

John looked over and said, “Yeah, sure and you've got a bird heading in for a landing. Brace your...wha...are you all right?”

DeWayne was on the ground beside him, the most astonished look on his face. On his shoulder, clutching with talons that would have looked perfectly at home on a dragon, was a big...bird. Black and white and grey and for all it's size it probably had only half the mass of his cat. Still, DeWayne was sort of hunched as if it weighed a ton.

Blair was saying to the animals, “Thank you for coming. Thank you for your gift of friendship and aid.”

John turned to look at the cat and echoed the thought. “Thank you.”

The cat nodded, and...vanished. DeWayne's bird closed it's beak on his ear, nipped it and then took off again.

“Why'd they leave?” John asked, while his eyes searched to find the cat again.

“Time's different here,” Blair said. “They know things. Right now, you need to reach down into yourself and...figure out how to anchor here. How to know this place enough to be able to return. Reach down in your...self, feel through your bones, know it...know it...know it....”

The sound of his voice was drifting away, and John was looking around in panic as, quite abruptly, he was back in the steam room and Jim was standing in front of Blair saying, “You're been in here too long, Chief. Come on out. You, too,” he added, putting one hand under John's elbow, helping first him and then DeWayne to stand. They all three staggered like drunks. Blair was wearing the biggest, stupidest grin on his face, and Jim was smiling at him almost indulgently, and for a moment, John could see a black panther in Jim's eyes, a flash and then it was gone, and he wondered if he had seen it at all, or if he had developed Sight. His heart soared.

Chapter Text

im, In the late afternoon. Sunday

Jim said, “Into the shower.” His nose twitched. They all needed it, but Blair really, really needed it. The other two were out in a few minutes, but Blair was scrubbing and scrubbing and not getting all that much better smelling. But all the time he was telling Jim, in a voice so soft only sentinels could hear it, all about how they had done it, and John, and DeWayne, and oh, god, spirit animals and oh, this water was wonderful, and DeWayne! Totally unexpected! There they were standing in a blue place together and it wasn't the same blue place he'd been to before and it wasn't all that blue, and then how surprised John has looked, but not like DeWayne, who was totally shocked. And for the first time Blair not been panicked and could sorta think while he was there and.... Just damn amazing. Jim shook his head and handed the guy a towel.

It was only as he was drying off that Blair looked around and said, “Where's everybody?”

“It was sort of a group decision,” Jim reported. “Three rounds was enough for a couple of them and nobody wanted to do round four alone, so we called Starsk and he came and got them just a few minutes ago.”

“Okay. I still need one or two rounds. Do I smell better this time?” he asked.

“No.”

Blair snorted out a laugh. Then his eyes turned to look at the other two men at the table and he said, “It was so cool, Jim.”

“Wright is a surprise,” Jim said.

“Best kind. Meant to be, I guess. The spirit animals...and it was just so...less random than before. Not like I was pulled along by some bizarre tide of,” he waved his hand, “but just more just instantly there, man. Maybe it was because I wasn't alone. I had two other walkers with me, even if they were new to it. I gotta hit the books again, see what's out there about that.” He got up, paced a few steps. “How can I have people to teach if I don't even know enough about it myself?”

“Remember when that professor died and they surprised you with that class on archeology and you were studying like mad to stay ahead of the class?” Jim asked.

“Oh, just exactly like that.” Blair rolled his eyes. It hadn't been easy.

“You got through it.”

“You said if I ever did something like that again you'd hang me up by my hair.”

Jim grinned. “Things change.”

“No kidding. Where's my jar? I gotta get my swamp water in me before I forget.”

Jim watched Blair measure, pour, drink. The long column of his neck, the tendrils of damp-darkened hair plastered to his skin. The lashes of his eyes spiked against his cheek. With just a towel around his waist he looked like he had lost a layer of civilization. His chest and torso showed more definition than when he had left Cascade. Jim could imagine him as a village shaman, crouched down around a fire. The flames would flicker on his bare skin and send his face into mysterious shadows.

Jim looked at the other two men, also only in towels. They were sitting, heads together, maybe comparing notes—he didn't bother to listen in. Sandburg was talking again.

“I told them to anchor themselves to the spirit plane, so they could find it again. Where did that come from? Don't remember reading it, sure hope it works. Sometimes I wonder...what exactly Incacha passed on to me, since there weren't words involved. Continual surprises man, and no idea what triggers it. Now I keep wondering how I can find other teachers, in case I can't help John and DeWayne enough.”

“You don't have to do it right this minute,” Jim reminded him mildly.

“Yeah, yeah.” Blair grinned and drank a little water. “I'm actually feeling a little hungry, which I haven't been for days, so this is good. Do you think you'd be good at drumming?”

Jim gave him a look. The one he always gave Blair when the guy switched conversational horses in mid-stream and left him floundering on the shore of 'what the fuck' land.

“I think the whole steam room thing worked but if I don't have access, I was thinking traditional drumming would be the next thing to try.”

“I could do that.” He even remembered drumming from his years with the tribe, and he still didn't have many memories of that time. But that drum beat. He heard it sometimes in his dreams.

“We have a plan!” Blair stretched, bobbing forward, back, then side to side, loosening his muscles again. He glanced towards the steam room.

“Ten more minutes,” Jim said, firmly.

“Okay, okay, I gotta talk to the guys anyway.” Blair stood up, towel now around his neck, and headed over, sliding in beside John and saying, “Besides helping John, my own goal for today was to see if there was something on the spirit plane that would give me a clue in a cold case. So if we're on the spirit plane, you might not find yourself with me next time. It might take you somewhere that you need to be, you know, for your own journey. Or you might find yourself with me, and we can figure out if there are things we can do as a group that can't be done by just one. So don't be upset either way, there seems to be a need to know component in these walks. You'll never get any direct answers with this stuff, just...you know, guidance or insight or just,” he waved his hands in a vague circular pattern towards his head.

The other two men nodded.

“You can do that?” Wright asked, intrigued. “Use this to help on the job?”

“It won't help much on the street.” Jim said. “Never take your attention off your surroundings when you're working. You could do it on your own time, at home. For god's sake don't do it in the squad car or at your desk.”

The man grinned back at him. “'Cause there's no way that can't go wrong.”

“Jim's right on that one. Plus, not all partners are going to be willing to entertain the idea of alternative methods of information gathering,” Blair said, his eyes dancing.

“Don't tell them anything at all.” Jim advised.

“He's right on that one, too. Not too many cops willing to go there. But even if you had the right partner, by the book is how you get it done, you have to be able to document and provide a clear chain of evidence.” Blair ducked as Jim swatted at him.

“Who are you and what have you done with the real Blair Sandburg?” he asked.

“You just don't tell them what sparked the idea that sent you looking for your evidence,” Blair went on, ignoring Jim. “Besides, mostly the spirit world doesn't interact with the job. A spirit animal might warn you if there is danger near or something, but it's not anything you can depend on, so you just sort of be mindful of it. Maybe it's possible to evolve beyond that to a true....”

Jim snorted. “He does that—wanders off with his own train of thought. It's... There's this attitude you have to acquire, about this...stuff. You can't take it for granted, you cant make it do what you want, but you do have to...let it be there for you. Solidly there.” Jim was thinking that there was a lot that he didn't realize he knew about this shit.

They were both looking at him, puzzled.

Blair took over. “It's like your gun. When you have to pull it, you'd better have a good reason and a clear idea of what you want to accomplish. You won't be using it very much, but it can save your life. You have to practice at it enough to be able to use it. But also, you have to learn enough about yourself. The meditation and the spirit walks are pure education, man. You do it for yourself, as well as the edge you get from it, but on another level you do it for other people.”

“So what happens if you get selfish and start just using it for you?”

Blair shook his head. “Nothing good, I suspect. But I don't know enough. You could study this all your life and never know enough.”

DeWayne laughed. “Sucks when your teacher says that.”

“Hell, I wonder about the tests. There's always tests, you know?” Blair said, and his smile was a little weak. “Not paper tests, not a test from me. It's like the universe is testing you.”

“Time.” Jim said, glad to have a chance to change the subject. “You ready?”

“We're ready,” John said, standing up. They filed into the steam room again and Jim was alone in the grey room for awhile, until Mick came in.

“Going okay?” he asked Jim. The man was automatically picking up a stray towel, checking the dial outside the door, looking in at the three men, nodding. Jim knew the man was experiencing a bitter sort of enjoyment in doing these things one last day. When he sat down across from Jim, though, he asked about the Cascade Jags, and they talked basketball for way longer than Jim was really interested. He kept an ear out for anything being said in the steam room but it was quiet in there. Just breathing.

In unison. Breathing.

Chapter Text

DeWayne, late Sunday afternoon.

It was the oddest, best, worst thing he had ever have happen to him. It turned his world on end and robbed him of words. Not that he much of a word person anyway. But here he was. On the spirit world or plane or whatever. Blue and green. A huge bird was standing on his bare feet. Shadows were wavering in front of him.

Moving. Moving around him, slow. Like a dance. Shadows which were thicker sometimes, almost turning into human forms, shifting away into mist and formless grey and then out again. Thickening. Seven of them. Slowing. Stopping.

Faces solidified, while the bodies were only dark columns. He wondered if these were his ancestors. Men and women, they were looking at him very very seriously. Eyes so dark, but with flashes of diamond in the depths, glinting. Their hands came now, out of the black columns, with hardly any arm, just hands, large, medium, small. Pairs of hands, holding...shadows. They stepped before him, stepped away, as if they moved to music he could not hear as they circled him.

He focused hard on what the hands held. A cup of water. A spear. A basket of greenery. A clay jar. A rattle made of a carved and painted gourd. An iron gong with two bell ends, the handle wrapped with colorful yarn. A length of woven cloth, the colors vibrant against the darkness behind.

“You have two hands,” said a ghostly voice, male, rough, old.

“Two hands, and you must choose.” The second voice was a woman's, sounded just a little like his mother's.

“What am I choosing?” he asked.

“What are you not?” the woman replied back. Damn frustrating.

“What am I choosing?” he asked again.

“The future. The way. The path,” said another male voice, one of those rich warm voices that rumble through the ear and into your spine.

“What are my choices?” he asked, but not the circling figures had nothing to say to him. On impulse, he reached out and took the spear. It was solid in his hands. The shadow which had offered it vanished. Six now. His bird shifted, the claws cutting his feet, so that a bit of blood welled up and slid between his toes. The items floated before him, each in turn. Finally, he reached out with his other hand and took the gourd.

It was quiet. The forms blended into darkness, like a wall of night. He was alone.

He wondered what Blair had chosen. Or John. Or were they offered anything?

What should he be doing now? He looked down at his big bird.

It said nothing at all, but the beak reached up and bit down into his leg, and as the blood flowed, the vision escaped him and he opened his eyes to a steam room. To Jim standing in front of him, holding out a hand. He stood up. No blood. No spear or gourd rattle, for that matter. Jim opened the door and let him out.

Chapter Text

He didn't think he could do it again. It was still difficult, everything felt stiff, including his brain. But he eventually found the way back to the place he had been with Blair and DeWayne. Neither one of them was there this time. Just him, in an impossible place with a desert on one side and a jungle on the other. He was almost afraid to move, and only stood motionless, looking around. Until a sound in the grass ahead alerted him. He was not at all surprised to see the furry cat which slid out from the tall blades and padded up to him.

“Hello,” he said. The cat nodded at him and then turned towards the jungle side, looking at him inquiringly over one sturdy shoulder. So he followed. Soon the greenery surrounded them, made a canopy above them. It was darker and darker, until they came to a little glade. There were flowers growing there. A trumpet vine in full flowers, with ants parading up and down the stem. Moonflower, thick and coarse, with a large green worm gnawing away on one leaf. Some low growing plant with yellow flowers that he did not quite recognize. The cat sat down among them and looked at him. He looked back. Eventually, he crouched down and then sat, legs crossed. The cat came and climbed over his legs to stand, one back paw on each leg, the two front one's against his chest.

He reached out and touched. Softness. Roughness. As warm and solid as he was himself, here. His arms came around, holding it loosely. The purr that began was...sinking into him. Louder. In his ears, but he could feel it through his skin, into his bones.

Oh, he thought. And held the warmness close.

Eventually, he felt it turning to smoke in his arms. He opened his eyes to see Jim, motioning for him to get up. John was reluctant, not wanting to leave, wanting to go back. But as he stood, he knew that he didn't have to be afraid of leaving anything behind. It was sitting inside him now. Right there.

Chapter Text

Blair was not at all surprised to find himself without companions when he stepped out into the blue jungle this time. He stood, trying to orient himself, trying to know this place in a way he had not known it before. There was a drumming sound, like a human heartbeat, in front of him but hidden from sight. He walked, the path opening before him, closing behind. His wolf loped up, flicked an ear at him, fell in beside him on the left. There was a place on his right side where a Jim shaped nothing took up space. Not here with him, but not gone, either. They walked forward until the branches parted.

Incacha was there. Paint left streaks faintly on his face, the colors deep inside the wrinkles and scars.

“Teacher,” Blair said respectfully.

“Teacher,” the man said back, just as solemnly. He wasn't speaking English. They weren't speaking anything. Just...talking.

“Can you help me with the two who came with me before? They need....”

“To learn. You will all learn. Not always together, but...sometimes. We are glad your feet have found the path.”

Blair smiled slightly. “Took awhile. Sorry.”

The man shrugged, as if there was nothing to say to that, as if the apology was for something he didn't understand, or didn't want to hear.

“But what should I do?” Blair went on.

“What can anyone do? Help them find their way. Give opportunities. Don't stand in the way when they must take another path. You know all this.”

“Do I?” He felt a little helpless. The thing was, in academia, there was always the framework, the structure for learning. A process helped along by those who had designed and perpetuated the cycles of university life. Here there was no school. And yet....

There was a pool to one side now. He went and stared at it, knelt, drank. The wolf lapped beside him. He tuned back. The old man was sitting down now, his finger drawing lightly in the dirt in front of him. When Blair sat down, he realized they were dressed alike, in only a loincloth. He felt the warm earth under his thigh.

“What can I do about the puzzle I seek to solve? The murder of two people, years ago?”

“Can it be important, after all these years?” It was a question about his motives. His intent.

“I...think it is. It feels like...like it needs to be done.”

“Then it does. You will pick up broken pieces. They can not be put back together. Only gathered up in one place and put away to rest. You can do that. Your friends will help.”

“Friends to help are good,” Blair said absently, still trying to make sense of it all, to work it into something he could understand and move forward with.

“There is a garden. Look for the garden. But I did not have to tell you that. You already knew it,” Incacha said, and vanished like a Cheshire cat, only in his case, only his eyes remained at the last, looking into Blair's.

Then Blair opened his eyes, and Jim was there, smiling at him, giving him a hand up, pulling him out of the heat and into the cool, sweet fresh air.

Okay, fresher air. This time even he was startled at how he smelled. Thick, sort of acidy bite to the scent. John didn't have it, but he and DeWayne were a total reeking mess. They both showered for the longest time. They didn't talk until they joined John at the table. They drank their tonic and John drank two full bottles of water and didn't say anything because Mick was there at first.

When Mick finally left with a basket of wet towels, Blair turned ans said, “Did you walk?”

“I walked with my ancestors. They gave me...” DeWayne looked at his empty hands, “a spear and a rattle.” He looked over at John.

“I was with my spirit animal.” He shook his head. In wonder of the words coming from his mouth? Smiling, he shook his head again. “We were in a garden. I touched him. Heat over muscle, so strong....”

Then they were both looking at Blair.

“I spoke to Incacha, a teacher who has...gone before. I asked him my question about the murders. Look for a garden, he said.”

“There's gardens everywhere,” DeWayne said doubtfully.

“I'll find the right one,” Blair said. He got up and started to do some stretches, getting the blood flowing usually helped his thinking. He flashed back to a hundred, a thousand nights of getting up from his chair and doing these same stretches, letting his body un-kink and his brain loose from the tasks he gave it. After a moment, DeWayne also got up and stretched, bending down, bouncing a bit, before lifting his arms up.

When he turned to see if John was going to join them, he saw that John had fallen asleep, his head on the his arms, his stubbly jaw slack.

“Should I wake him up?” DeWayne asked.

Jim said, “Let him rest. He's done.” Exhausted. Jim listened to him, and then shrugged. “Last time, anyway, isn't it?”

“Yeah,” Blair said, taking a last drink of his green stuff, screwing the cap on to the empty jar. “After I go to the bathroom. Again.”

“Yeah,” DeWayne echoed. “Good idea.”

Chapter Text

The party was starting to look like a party. Hutch had put them all to work. So they were spreading plastic tablecloths, made from totally recycled material, as per Hutch's usual shopping parameters.
One of the guys was harvesting lettuce from Hutch's patch and looked like he knew what he was going. Damn, that was going to be a healthy salad. Fortunately, Starsk had already made his favorite white buttermilk ranch dressing. Slather enough of that stuff on anything and you could make it taste good. He dipped his chicken in it sometimes, ignoring the look his partner gave him.

The doorbell rang. It was Beth.

With another big bowl, covered with plastic wrap. He looked down through it to see something colorful, and canted an eyebrow at her as she passed him on the way to the kitchen.

“Is it that thing with the little colored marshmallows and the coconut and the pineapple?” he asked hopefully.

“It's got other fruit in it, too,” she reminded him. “I went light on the coconut,” she added, knowing his opinion of it.

“You are the best,” he said. “Ran out of room in the fridge so we can put it on the counter.”

“Lots of people?” she asked, looking out the window.

“Four cadets and a girlfriend, plus Hutch and me, so far. John, Dewayne, Blair and Jim will still be about an hour, Jim says. They said also invited Mick, and he said he could come, he's the guy who has the gym. Guess we can start eating even without Blair's group. Then later, Hutch is going to grill bananas.”

“This fruit salad it sort of a dessert. And grilled bananas....”

“Two fuckin' desserts! Sweet!”

“Don't ever change.”

Starsk laughed. “How's the case coming?” he said, changing the subject.

“It's not. We got some of the tests back but not the big ones. You will not be surprised to find that after the initial work, the chief thought about it and gave the case to me. Without any help. I know we don't have many officers but the thing is, what he did was he wrote it off because he doesn't think there's much chance after all these years. So of course it's my baby. And guess how much time he's allotted to this double murder?”

“None at all?”

“Humph. Actually, it works out to four hours a week, right now anyway, which I am supposed to be doing at the main desk, some of it while covering while Alec goes to lunch. Which I usually do anyway, three days out of four.”

“Ever thought of moving? Blair says Cascade is nice, always needs cops.”

“I'm irritated, not crazy. Last week someone tried to rob a bank there by walking on a tightrope from one building to the next. At midnight. He fell and landed right on an officer as he was checking out a report of unusual sounds.” She eyed Starsk, saying, “That isn't funny. Guy's in the hospital.”

“Both of them?”

“Yes.”

“Yeah. Well. Still funny, but do you know the name of the officer? We can see if Jim or Blair knows 'em.”

“They'll have to look it up. My brain is refusing to cooperate.”

“Want something cold to drink? We got lemonade or tea without sugar; you add your own but it's Hutch's fake stuff that's half sugar and half something else.”

“I'll take my tea straight. With ice.”

“Coming up!” He went to work, glancing out the window as he passed. Looks like it was almost ready out there. “Go talk to the wanna-be cops about cop stuff for half an hour. Hell, tell them about your case. Might as well let them start learning how to be professionally frustrated.”

“You are a sad man, Dave Starsky.”

He laughed and watched he go out. He looked around, grabbed a spoon from the drawer and then peeled back the cling and scooped out a big bite of the gloppy, wonderful stuff, which he shoved into his mouth. Then he eyed the bowl, got out another spoon and smoothed the top carefully. Tucked both spoons into the dishwasher, covered the bowl again and went out to join the group which was now clustering around one table, with Beth at the center.

He pulled up a chair behind Hutch, since there wasn't much room beside him and propped his feet up on the edge of Hutch's chair and listened. Beth had a great way of summarizing the problem, presenting the facts. They'd had a sergeant in the old days who was just that way. What was his name? Davis? Davidson? Something like that. It really helped when you had someone that succinct spreading it all out for you.

He enjoyed listening to the conversation that followed. Ought to give them extra credit for this, the guys were participating much better than they did in class. Some of the ideas were straight out dumb, but Beth was doing a good job of saying so without saying so. Heck, some of the best ideas were coming out of the mouth of that Collins lady. He'd try to lure her into the Academy except that two cops in the same family was sometimes a recipe for disaster. Not everybody could take the double pressure. Specially if she turned out to be better at it than he was.

It was forty-five minutes before Hutch announced it was time to eat and they brought out all the food that wasn't already on the table, and were already sitting down with heaping plates when they heard the car drive up. Na. Two cars. Jim and Blair, followed by John and DeWayne, and then Mick, filed in from the house. They'd washed their hands in the kitchen, although after all day in the steam room, most of them were probably cleaner than they had been for years.

Greetings, chatter, getting their food. Seating shifted so everyone could sit down as one group. Starsk was starved and enjoying every mouthful, even if it was the weirdest picnic food he'd ever had. He had seconds of Beth's wonderful gloppy stuff to make up for the less inspirational offerings. Hutch gave him The Look. Starsk waved his spoon at him.

After eating, they all sat around, talking, as the sun set and the sky got darker. Hutch got up and turned the porch light on. Beth gave an account of their murder investigation again for the new members of their audience. The cadets asked more questions, got multiple answers, asked more. Probably got more out of it than they got in a full day at the Academy, but he couldn't figure out how to incorporate it into the classes.

Hutch came and sat down next to him and gave his side a nudge with his elbow. He pointed with his chin to the place where the outer edge of the porch light met the darkness. He snorted. There was DeWayne Wright, on his back on the grass, asleep. John was leaning against a table leg, nodding. Blair was leaning against Jim, waving one hand to make a point as he explained some of the problems connected with bringing in the media on high profile cases.

They exchanged glances, both remembering a party years ago which ended with the two of them, side by side on a battered couch, looking over a room full of wasted, passed out people. They'd helped each other up and staggered out together, laughing.

“About time to wrap this up?” Hutch suggested softly.

“Yeah.” Starsk heaved himself forward out of the chair, stretched, and called out, “Whose going with me?”

They got everyone sorted, and Starsk and Jim each filled a car and drove off. Mick left just afterward. Hutch and Blair were putting away the food, cleaning up as Starsk went out the door. John was stacking up the chairs. Were they the best or what?

Chapter Text

He made himself get up early. He made himself take a shower. He made tea and was sitting at the table drinking it when Hutch came in and joined him. Filling his own cup, Hutch sat down and said, “You going to go in, today?”

“I should. I feel better.” Blair smiled at him, “But, y'know, if I wait just long enough, I'll miss callisthenics.”

“You would, anyway. We have a doctor's note on sixteen of you—mild exercise only.”

Blair's head went back. “Thank god.”

“So you can go in with us. Do you think Jim will want to come, or stay here?”

“Come,” said Jim's voice from the doorway.

“You can sit in on classes if you won't be too bored,” Hutch said. “Or you can do an informal evaluation of the premises for us because I need something to put in a report to get an improved security system into next year's budget.”

“Now that,” Blair said, sitting up a little, “sounds like an interesting idea! Are you getting cameras or something else?”

“Something that will give us security without a couple hundred cadets screwing with it and setting it off every ten minutes.” Hutch shook his head and said, “We'll have to have a professional evaluation, but right now I'm just looking for talking points. Ammunition.”

Jim said, “I can do that.”

Blair grinned. Understatement of the day.

“Eggs okay with everyone?” Hutch asked, getting up.

It was. While he was scrambling them, John came in, rubbing his eyes. He didn't have much to say as he ate, but afterward he said thank you for letting him stay. He still looked tired, but also a little anxious, as if he wanted to be on his way soon.

“I should be thanking you,” Blair said, even though John was protesting and saying it was all the other way around.

Hutch said, “We liked having you. Next weekend were hosting our weekly 'Solve-that-Crime' session if you want to come. Just a back yard BBQ with Beth and the kids,” he said, with a gesture at Blair and Jim. Jim about choked at being referred to as one of the kids and Blair laughed, flashing a look of appreciation at Hutch. Starsk sure wasn't the only smartass in the family.

John said, “Don't know how it's going this week. I told a friend I'd go help her sort out a situation in Oregon. One of our planting spots for Native American medicinal plants? Someone has stuck their marijuana grow in the middle of it. Got to sort out if it's one of our guys gone rogue or someone who just found a place with good soil and water and decided to take advantage of it. We might have some plants to rescue.”

“Don't get yourself arrested,” Blair advised.

“Nah, we're done this before, believe it or not. Got regular Park service guys and Ag guys we deal with. Just need to do it by the book on these things. It might get done before the weekend. Okay if I call you?” He was looking at Blair, who nodded. They exchanged a few more phone numbers. Then John took them up on the offer of a shower. Jim and Hutch loaded up chairs into the back of Hutch's old car. Starsk finally staggered out, ate all the leftover eggs and went back to finish getting dressed.

They all left together, Starsk and Hutch in Hutch's car, Jim and Blair in the rental, John in his battered four-wheel drive. John turned left at the corner, one hand out the window in an abbreviated wave. At school, Jim dropped Sandburg off at his dorm and went to help the other two with the chairs, promising to touch base with him later.

Blair went up to his room, dressed in his only other set of their pseudo-uniform, and wondered what had happened to the clothes he was wearing when he took that last fatal gulp of coffee. The room looked different, and that's when he realized that one of the other beds was stripped down, the cover folded neatly on the bare mattress. He studied it as he sorted through his things and packed his knapsack for the day.

He slid into the seat next to Sanchez in class and whispered, “What happened to Smithson?”

“Left. He said he got a job offer too good to ignore, and maybe he did.” Sanchez didn't think so. Blair didn't either. Maybe he got a look at his scores, which had to have been somewhere between the toilet and the basement. The class started and Blair found he hadn't missed much. He'd been studying ahead as usual. As he left he got a chorus of, “Good to see you're still alive,” and “Hey, you're back!” which was kinda nice.

Jim met up with him at lunch. They went through the sandwich buffet line. He tried not to have flashbacks, but his stomach clenched a bit anyway. Boy, this lunch thing still needed work. The bread was cheap and squashy and white, the green things to put on it were limp lettuce and pickle chips. Still better than before, of course, but where did they buy these apples? Red rocks, man, and practically tasteless.

Their table soon filled up. Blair kept the introductions simple. Jim Ellison from Cascade. He didn't have much he could say directly to Jim with everyone around, but he had a few minutes after they dumped their trays.

“Having fun?” he asked Jim. He leaned on the wall and waited, keeping his face from showing how funny but good it was to have Jim here and watch him fight back his reactions.

“Not even you would think so.” Jim leaned on the wall, his face wry. “There's a leak in the sewer system that's going to take out the parking lot when they repair it. At least half the teachers aren't using password protection. Somebody's smokin' in the basement and it isn't cigarettes.”

“And you've only been on the job a few hours!”

“Smart ass. Hutch is right about the security here.” Jim shifted, standing straight. “What do you have next?”

“The shooting range,” Blair said, knowing Jim would be coming along. “Those of us who are on restricted exercise are getting extra hours on the range.” It was a fun class this time, which was something he had never expected to think about shooting guns. The instructor agreed to Jim's participation and Jim's little hints were awesome. When Jim was shooting, everyone was glancing sideways, watching his form, checking out his scores. Which were good, but he knew Jim was frowning because he had expected them to be just a little better.

Jim sat through Community Policing without comment and settled down with a battered John Grisham novel while Blair, who had planned on doing a little homework, found himself touching base with the guys working on the lunch committee, and gently turning down the woman who invited him to a study session of two later that evening, and getting Jon Anderson's help on an assignment he had missed.

They went to supper as a group, and Jim said, as they finished, “This is the new, improved menu?” There was a chorus of agreement around them which made him lift an eyebrow.

“Much improved,” Sandburg agreed.

Jim shook his head sadly.

“You're going to Dad's and having leftovers, aren't you?” Blair accused.

“Wouldn't you?”

“In a heartbeat,” There was some silence. Then Blair admitted, “Wish I was going with you, but....”

“You have to get back in the swing of things here, I know.”

“So, tomorrow?”

“I'll come in again. Going to help Hutch with his classes a bit.”

“Good.” He was well aware that he felt better when his Sentinel was nearby. They walked out to the parking lot and Jim drove off. Blair found himself staring at the red tail lights until they vanished before making his way back inside.

In his room, his remaining two roommates were there, but so was Starsky. “Glad you showed up,” his dad said, as if he were late for a meeting.

“Something up?” Sandburg said, with a nod towards the clipboard in Starsky's hand.

“Huh. You could say so. You know how you lost a roomie over the weekend?”

“I did notice that,” Blair said, waving the man towards a chair and sitting down on his bed. He was feeling a bit tired.

“So, if someone leaves, we try not to play musical chairs, but at this point we usually change some bad combinations around. It's useful. We change a guy out who seems to be trouble and he's still trouble in the new place...”

“Valuable information right there,” Blair nodded.

“So usually we just do it in the office from the request slips that have come in. Smithson leaves and boom. Do you know how many people have volunteered to move into this spot?” Starsk asked, waving at the empty bed.

“Three?” suggested Sanchez.

“Try nine. Including DeWayne Wright and Jon Anderson, who are both your friends, right? Here's the list,” he said, passing it to his right. “Anybody have any objection to any of these individuals?”

Blair was pretty certain that the choice usually wasn't given in these circumstances.

Stoltz looked at the list and said, “Well, not Hobston. He's pretty much an asshole.” He passed it to Sanchez.

Sanchez looked at the list nodded. “If there was a prize at the end for biggest butthead, he'd be a contender. This other guy, Warner, is sort of a racist. Not, you know, because he hates people of color, but I think he's from some white suburb and he always sort of hesitates when he talks to you, or if he has to touch you in self defense class. Well, with me. Maybe he's not comfortable around his bunkmates, Wright and Womaki.”

The list has gone around to Sandburg who looked it over and said, “If we took Hobston all three of his current roommates would buy us a beer.”

“Not worth it!” Stoltz chimed in.

“Well, Wright and I got along well, but that's partly because we were talking about meditation and woo woo stuff and I don't know if these two are up for that.” Blair said, looking directly at Starsk.

“With you here, it couldn't be any weirder than it already is,” Sanchez teased.

“It's just, it would be good for me, and DeWayne, but you gotta think of the greater good.”

“I got the greater good sorted out,” Starsky told him. “We're moving five people today, one of them Wilson. Be interesting to see what would happen in Warner's quad with just the two guys, though. Maybe he'll open up to his roomie, get some things worked out in his own head,” Starsk said thoughtfully. He pursed his lips. “I'll move Wright in here,” he said. “I'll go tell him so he can move in tonight if he wants. Thanks,” he added, getting up and heading out.

“There must be a real problema in the W's,” Sanchez observed after a moment to make sure Starsky was gone.

“He's not going to be a good cop if Warner has that kind of reactions to us. How's he going to be with the public? Does he have a problem with crowds, too? With women? Maybe I'll half a talk with him,” Blair said. He frowned when his roommates laughed at him. “What?”

“Did you ever meet a problem you didn't try to solve?” Sanchez threw a pillow at him. Blair ducked, caught it one handed and tossed it back.

A few minutes later Blair looked in his drawer and said, “I should have hit you harder. All my raisins are gone!”

“You said you couldn't eat them. So we took care of them for you,” Stoltz told him.

“Ah, man, it wasn't like they were going to go bad!” Blair bitched.

“Actually,” Sanchez said, “they can. I once opened one of those little packs and found way too many white worms wigging around in there.”

“That's gross!” Stoltz informed them.

“Probably very healthy for you, protein and all,” Blair teased.

“You'll be happy to know your raisins were worm free,” Sanchez told him. “But that's all we liberated. Got hungry last night.”

“Ah, well. In a good cause then,” Blair replied. “I'm off for a shower and then I'm going to sort out my uniform and then study.”

“Reminds me. You got some clothes delivered just before you came in,” Stoltz waved towards a package on the floor by Sandburg's bed.

Huh. Full uniform, right down to the socks. The dads or Jim? At least he wasn't going to have to do laundry every night. Tomorrow, though. Blair stifled a yawn and headed for the shower. All that lovely hot water....

Chapter Text

Jim. Monday night. Tuesday.

Jim talked to Simon after dinner. The meal was good: brats and beer and leftovers. There were a lot of leftovers. His hosts moved to the TV to watch the game and Jim excused himself to call his boss.

“When are you coming back?” Simon demanded.

“Missed me?” Jim asked sweetly.

“Not a bit, but everybody else is complaining because you're not here to do their paperwork.”

Right. He'd been at his desk since the coconut. “Good to be missed.”

“Ha. How's the kid?” Simon sounded actually concerned.

“Better. Still looks like he was run over by a truck, but back at school today.”

“Good, good. You're coming back when?”

Jim signed. “Thursday?” He'd been going to extend his visit over the next weekend, but he could already tell from Simon's tone that that wasn't going to happen.

“Earlier, because they moved the Twinsdale hearing up to Wednesday morning.”

“Damn. Okay. What time?”

“Nine. So you should come in evening before, have time to make sure your paperwork is all in order, look over your notes.”

“Right.” Jim said, again.

“Sorry to do that to you, but if Sandburg's okay....”

“You're making me miss next weekend's family BBQ,” he pointed out, trying for humor, because he didn't want his boss to hear disappointment in his tone.

“I'll take you to Ricky's,” Simon said dryly.

“Hold you to that, sir,” Jim replied,and he meant it, too. “I'll go see about my flight. I'll call you if there's a problem.” Simon, he knew, expected that there would be no problems. After he hung up, Jim went out to tell his hosts they would be Ellison free in less that twenty-four hours. He was putting off calling Blair, but finally had to do it.

“Aww man!” Blair bitched into his ear. Then he dashed into some story about getting Wright for a roommate and talked about the food and then thanked him for the uniform, but didn't say how he figured out it was from Jim and not the dads. It was pretty clear that he didn't want to hang up, that he wasn't very happy about losing Jim. He even spent some time talking about the Twinsdale case, which was good because it jogged Jim's memory on some important details. Blair told him where to find Blair's own notes on the case.

After hanging up on Blair, he was on the phone about flights and times and tickets. Only flight out that would work was mid-morning. There would be time to go to the Academy and join Blair for breakfast if he didn’t stay too long. He thought about just going to the airport but decided on surprising Blair with donuts. He smiled as he thought of the jokes Blair was going to make.

He ended the evening in front of the TV with Blair's dads. In the commercial breaks they talked about the schedule for the next morning, and Blair, and the Academy, and Blair.

His own father would have talked about golf and business and maybe a few words about how his brother Stephen was doing, but not the way these two talked about their son. He was glad Blair had that with his dads. A little jealous, maybe. He imagined his own father being introduced to them. Yeah. That would be a riot.

He was feeling a little pensive, a little down. He went to bed. His sleep was solid, but it was over at about four in the morning. He went for a run, had a shower, finished packing. Made breakfast for his hosts. Starsky's appreciation at finding hot French toast on the table was almost embarrassing. Hutch just laughed. Jim thanked them and left early. He needed to buy donuts.

Rush hour in a town you didn't know well was annoying. Not traffic by the standards of Cascade or another big city. Still. He had never liked the feeling of being slowed down, kept from what he needed to do. Some of the patience he'd learned in the military had ebbed away through the years.

He picked up a dozen mixed donuts and a bear claw for himself, which he ate in small bites, thinking about the taste as he drove.

There had been a time when he couldn't have done both things at once. Now he could drive, and eat, and scan the area around him for trouble. Could take hearing in and out. Harder when driving to do that with sight, because if he focused on something far, then he had to rely on his other senses for to compensate. Always, always always blocking out engine sounds.

He pulled into the Academy parking lot and listened, then got out and made his way up to Blair's room, where the men were all in various stages of dress, all talking. They called out greetings, but all of them except Blair were mostly focused on the yellow box he held. He put it on the desk and stepped back.

“You are now officially the favorite,” Blair told him as he managed to snag a plain cake donut.

“So it appears.” Jim smiled and tilted his head towards the hall.

Blair, donut in hand, followed him out, taking a bite while looking up at him curiously. “Nothing wrong?”

Jim shrugged. “How are you feeling?”

“Better this morning. DeWayne, too. I'm going to touch base with the rest of the guys. But I think it's all going to be okay. If the plumbing can stand it. We are producing heroic amounts of something green, man!”

“Too much information.”

Blair smiled and took another bite of the donut, careful not to get crumbs on the blue shirt.

“Don't know when I can come back.” Jim said.

“When you can, man. The dads said you should turn up any time you can get away.”

Right. Jim watched the last of the donut disappear. Smelled the herbs and not-quite-healthy gut on Blair's breath. He took a deep breath. “Try to have a spotter, if you and DeWayne practice your,” he waved a hand rather that verbalize it.

“Good idea. I wonder who won't freak out too bad?” Blair said it wryly, already thinking.

“Well.”

“Yeah. Guess you gotta go.” Blair straightened up. Blair was a hugger, but even he wasn't going to be hugging good-bye in the hall of the Academy.

“I'll call,” Jim said and turned away.

“Yeah. Tell me how the Twinsdale thing comes out.”

“I'll call,” Jim said again, and walked away. It was harder than it ought to be.

Chapter Text

Covid-19 sort of hovers like a cloud whenever I write, because I know that at my age, weight, blood pressure and blood type, should I catch it, I won't be writing any more. So I am torn. I feel pressure to be hurrying and not doing as good a job as my own standards want so that I don't leave folks hanging. I could post chapters that are rough, to move things along faster, and come back and fix it later if I have time. Would that be okay? This will have the effect of producing a few small plot holes or minor continuity mistakes, which you will all point out, right? I feel guilty but I think I have to do this.

Chapter Text

When your library didn't have an actual librarian, inter-library loan was kinda difficult. Turned out the local public library was half a mile from the Academy and had awesome librarians. He got a card but had to use his dads' address, which he got by asking Starsky who said, 'Sure, whatever, get the damn things back on time.' Just like a real dad. And he loaned the car, too, which made carrying the books back easier.

He'd gotten some basic texts on anthropology, cultures, and Shamanism for DeWayne, explaining that he didn't think DeWayne should read all the way through them, just the bits that seemed interesting. DeWayne was relieved. For himself, Blair got some books on plants, the latest Tony Hillerman and a book on food services. He'd put in eight loan requests, knowing from experience that two or three of them wouldn't be available or would come weeks after he wanted them. But hey.

He also stopped by the store and got some more fruit and some granola packets. He wasn't sure abut the granola, because the carbs were pretty high and he wasn't sure what his body would do with actual fiber, but if it turned out he couldn't handle them he was pretty sure he knew what to do with them.

Dinner, which was another less than inspired sandwich, had chips, which he embarrassed himself by eating way too much of before he realized it was mostly the salt he was craving. It left him feeling bloated and fuzzy. After dinner he and DeWayne did some catch-up of work they had missed, with Sanchez there to guide them through it. Stoltz finally wandered in and joined them for the last half hour before everyone hit the sack.

It was a surprise when he got up at 5:30 am to find DeWayne joining him for his early routine. They were exempt for the group calisthenics but did some simple stretching while chatting about meditation and shamanism and all the places Blair had been. They were still talking as they went to breakfast and through the buffet line. Eggs, toast, and Blair avoided the coffee. DeWayne skipped the coffee too.

Back to the routine. Mr. Dore welcomed them back with even more make-up work. In Starsky's class the man kept looking at him, and then checking to make sure the other cadets who had been sick were holding up. Juan Carter looked like he wasn't getting enough sleep, and Blair watched as Starsk made himself a note about it.

Blair skipped lunch for some alone time. In fact, he took a forty minute nap and felt better for it. He would have slept longer, but DeWayne came and checked on him.

That evening after dinner there was a meeting of the committee working on the food, where Blair was supportive but didn't take the initiative. They were doing okay and he wasn't at his best. He went to bed early and got in an astonishing nine hours of sleep.

His dreams were odd, though. Gardens. Paths through greenery. Petals on water. There was a theme, but nothing at all helpful or even all that restful, and you'd think it would be.

At least he had someone he could talk about it with. DeWayne didn't say much about the dreams but he listened quietly, frowning sometimes but not giving him a hard time about it.

“I had a girlfriend once...well, truthfully, I've had more than one like this,” Blair told him.“They insist on telling you their dreams. And it isn't about understanding the dreams as much as it was about the need for attention and or a need to analyze ones self or a way of exploring or understanding one's own creativity but it's also freakin' annoying. Because it tends to be so one way, man.”

DeWayne had laughed at him and said, “Hey, you dated my cousin? That woman drives me insane with that shit.”

“I suspect it's universal. A lot of Mom's friends were into dream messages and I grew up with just enough information so that if I tried to help some people with the dream interpretation it all went wrong. You get into the position where if you know more than they do they resent it and if you show too much interest they try to teach it to you.”

“Uh huh. You gotta stop goin' out with those kinda women, you know that?”

“Words of wisdom, man, words of wisdom.”

Chapter Text

Hutch was grading tests. With this canned program they had bought, this meant putting the template on top of the multiple choice form, putting a red check through the answers that were wrong, counting them up, writing it on the top of the form and then sorting the pages with the highest score at the top and the lowest on the bottom. The ones on the bottom got to re-study the material and re-take the test.

It wasn't his own class he was grading, because of Blair. He traded grading with three other teachers now. Which was actually mildly more interesting than just grading his own. But he made inquiries. He knew whose paper was on the top of most of the stacks.

The phone rang and he picked it up, his eyes still on the papers. “Hutchinson.”

“Have I reached Yoga Central?” asked a familiar voice.

“Palmer? How are you?” Last they'd heard, Don Palmer was down with a hip replacement.

“Back at work and just now taking a break and reading The Blue. You know, the police blog?”

“Oh, god, what now?” He only checked it a few times a month, but mostly kept up by listening to the younger instructors talk about it.

“Word is that your Academy is now teaching yoga to the trainees! A real modern educational institution, I hear.” The mocking was friendly, mostly.

“Oh, that.”

“Half the time, your place is The Topic of conversation lately.”

Hutch sighed. “Everybody telling us how they could have done it better?”

“Hell yes. That and wondering how you managed to make food so bad the students poisoned one of the cooks.”

“They got that backwards. One of the cooks took out half a dozen of the students.”

“Just because they got it wrong is no reason not to spread a good rumor far and wide. Want me to set it straight?” Palmer asked, seriously.

“If you can do it without making us look even worse.”

“Hey, the truth is also a good story,” Palmer agreed. “But I called about the yoga. What the freakin' hell is going on over there?”

Sandburg, actually.

“What are they saying?” Hutch asked, cautiously.

“That yoga is now a required class in the morning and you've got meditation in the afternoon.”

“Well, the yoga in the morning is partly right. The students who were poisoned are off P.E. and morning turn-out for a week or two. So one of our students volunteered to teach basic yoga and stretching during that time period so they wouldn't be hitting the track after two weeks completely off.”

Hutch wasn't going to mention the meditation, which in three days had gone from Wright and Sandburg in their room to a dozen people on the mats in the gym at eight pm. Sandburg was also giving mini lectures on handling stress on the job. There was already some of that in the curriculum but it turned out to be much more effective coming from Blair, who always illustrated his stories with real life examples and then told about breathing techniques and coping strategies.

“You have a student teaching yoga.”

“He had a certificate. Apparently has taught it before.”

You could almost head Palmer shaking his head sadly.

“He's keeping up with his grades, so it's no problem. I forgot to ask you, how's your hip?”

“Better, better. Heard you were off a few days for the same sort of thing?”

“Not a hip replacement like yours, just some work on my knee, but I can already tell it helped. I may have to have a knee replacement eventually. Do you recommend it?” And then all he had to do was go back to grading, pausing to make a sound of continued interest once and awhile. His health was one of Palmer's favorite subjects and his chatter was also about something that Hutch knew might be in his future, so he was even a little interested.

When he hung up the phone he went back to wondering who was feeding Academy info into the blog, and why. He was going to talk to Coopersmith, the fire-arms instructor. He kept up with that sort of shit. Get him to monitor it and report during the faculty meetings. And then he wondered if Blair had joined. And if he was posting.

He needed something to drink, so he got up to make some tea. He gave his leg an experimental stretch as he stood. It was definitely better. Maybe he could avoid the damn knee replacement.

He realized a bit later that he'd never told Palmer about Sandburg being their son or being the one teaching the yoga. Just as well, really. They'd still be on the phone and apparently it would have been all over some blog by noon.

Chapter Text

Friday Noon & Evening. Sandburg.

There were times he was his own worst enemy, Blair realized as he scooped up some canned plums onto his tray and stared at the eggplant casserole. He'd wanted change, inspired change and now.... Someone in the kitchen had also been inspired by all the changes and possibly had obtained a book. The kitchen had started offering a few interesting sides along with the standard buffet choices. While it may have had some vegetables in it, the casserole looked like there was a lot of cream sauce and potato in there, too. And mysterious flecks of yellow. He decided to take a small scoop just to try it.

It was actually rather good, if your definition of good was enough carbs to maintain a sumo wrestler for a day. He hadn't at first realized that Wright had also put some on his plate and so had several of the others behind them in line. God. He was a role model. So they discussed the new food for awhile. Many of the guys had never tasted eggplant before. They all listened while Blair told them a dozen things you could make with it (that would taste better than this, but never mind that now—he didn't want ANY of his opinions to get back to the cooks!) and how it was called aubergine or brinjal in other parts of the world. He stopped himself before he started in about the potassium and fiber.

After dinner, an hour of study in their room. All of the roommates were actually studying hard - peer pressure had finally caused to Stoltz to join them- and it was really going well. The other two didn't go down for the meditation when Sandburg and Wright left. They actually kept studying!

There were nine of them in the group this time, including two of the women cadets. Mal turned out to already know some yoga so he had someone to use in his demonstrations that actually understood the directions. She hadn't joined the morning yoga class because she was having to run around the track at that time of day. So she'd brought it up after the meditation session and the group had done some yoga to round off the session.

Blair was still tired at the end of the day, but not the total exhaustion he'd been dealing with all week. His phone call to Jim was really short, and he crawled under his covers as early as he could.

Too bad he didn't actually get any rest.

The dreams were just bizarre. The girl crying was the worst. She just...cried. A low, hopeless sobbing. As if she didn't want anyone to hear. It was a relentless background to pinwheeling images, some unique and some repeated. The garden bits were the most common. Digging, digging digging, and sometimes raking, planting, harvest. After awhile, Blair even got a sense of the size of the garden and what was being planted. Vegetables, potatoes mostly, but also flowers. Against a house, which needed painting. The paint was flaking. In his dream, Blair wondered if there was lead in the paint. If he was supposed to find the house and warn the family.

Not that there was a single clue about where the house was. Except...just as he woke up, he saw the way the vine with the orange flowers had up the trellis, over the doorway, and down the other side. Behind it, a door.

Ah.

He woke up.

Chapter Text

Blair had invited DeWayne to the Sunday at the Dad's because he and John wanted to work on the shaman things. They'd neither of them mentioned it in front of their other roommates as to not make them either curious or jealous. Starsk had left his car for them and had gone home with Hutch on Friday night. Although not without some mild complaint, Hutch pointed out when they were all seated out on the patio. He got the finger as a reply. Everyone laughed.

There was time before lunch so Blair and his two friends retired to a spot under the tree for their meditation. It was like watching paint dry. DeWayne and John sitting cross-legged and head down, Blair in the same position but with his head tilted up this time. The yard was quiet. Hutch wandered over and began doing something with his garden. Knowing Hutch would be there to keep an eye on things, Starsk went inside to shuck the corn. He'd gotten a full dozen ears. Hutch was going to roast it on the back of the grill.

The front of the grill was going to be cooking turkey burgers. Big sigh. But well seasoned turkey burgers on real bakery bread.

The doorbell rang. Shit, he'd forgotten to unlock the door for Beth. He hurried over to let her in. She carried a big yellow bowl. “Dessert?” he asked hopefully.

“Potato salad,” sh said, which didn't exactly break his heart. “Made with grandma's recipe. Miracle Whip on warm potatoes—she always insisted they had to be warm. With eggs, bits of celery and onion, a little mustard, and salt and pepper.”

“You are a goddess.”

“I know. Everybody out back?” Beth put her bowl in the fridge. She was dressed very casually today, in shorts and a t-shirt.

“Meditation Central. I think Hutch is harvesting something. So we may accidentally have something green.”

“Are you mocking fresh greens right from the garden?”

“Hell yes.” It made her laugh. Blair was probably going to swoon with happiness, though. Dave got out what Hutch would probably want for a dressing and left everything in a little group on the counter.
Beth had sat down at the kitchen table and he joined her.

“So, how's kicks in the big city?” he asked, lifting an eyebrow and waggling it. She snorted, both at the eyebrow and the suggestion that her small town could be called a big city.

“As interesting as it was the last time. We have a big graffiti problem at the moment, with two taggers going at it, trying to outdo each other. I'm always afraid they're going to be shot spray painting some old man's fence. The Second Baptist Church is offering free paint to victims and teenage boys and girls to paint it over.”

“No way that can't go wrong if somebody takes offense at their great art being covered up.”

“One of these guys—or, to be fair, maybe it's a girl—has a lot of potential as a muralist. The other one has good lettering but a potty mouth. Or finger. Whatever. Anyway, we have to document each and every case, even if the landowner doesn't report it. So we can see patterns, you know?”

“Yeah. Hope nobody else decides to be competitive.”

“All the stores say the paint isn't being sold locally, so it's a bit of a mystery where all this spray paint is coming from.”

“Next time bring pictures.”

“You're going to see if your son can deduce anything about them?”

“Got it in one.” He smirked. She rolled her eyes.

Hutch came in with his greens, said hi and went to washing them. Three times, thank god. Nothing like a little grit in your healthy stuff to make you put the thumbs down on vegetables. There was a sound from outside and Hutch looked out the kitchen window. “Looks like they're done,” he said. “No, wait....

They all three watched out the window as DeWayne and John leaned over Blair, who was still seated. Blair shook his head twice before the other two men helped him stand. Blair made his was to the patio and sat in one of the deck chairs. Before the kid knew what was happening, there were five people clustered around.

“Whoa, man. Just a bit of dizziness, no problem.” Under the relentless stare of four people he added, “My own fault. I keep thinking that I'm having a break-through just as I'm on the edge, between, and I keep mentally grabbing at something that is leaving me faster than I can chase it. Makes a sort of thud when I get dumped back.”

“Weren't you the one telling us not to force it?” John asked.

“Oh, he was the one,” DeWayne nodded. “Not that I blame you. All I got today was an old lady telling me what to do. Only I never understood what it was.”

“I had dying lettuce.” John told them, almost apologetically.

“You win,” Blair said. “I vote we eat and talk about it later, after it sort of seeps in.”

“Or creeps away?” DeWayne suggested.

“Food will only take as long as it takes to grill the burgers,” Starsky said, looking at Hutch pointedly. So they all got busy getting the food out and the potato salad was great. They sat around talking afterward, with Beth filling them in on the progress with the Mystery of the Two Bodies (none) and everyone else providing gossip about the Academy until it started to get dark. Then Starsk noticed how the kid was flagging a bit and DeWayne wasn't looking much better and so they sent the kids home. John left at the same time, and Beth shortly after that.

“You know what I missed today?” Starsk asked as he used his hip to shove shut the dishwasher. He'd added the soap and started it, and flipped Hutch off when the man grinned at him for remembering.

“Jim.”

“Yeah. You know, for a guy who's fairly quiet, he takes up a lot of space.”

Hutch chuckled. “Wonder how he's doing up there in Cascade. Did you see the weather report? High wind and rain and possible snow!”

“That was in the mountains, not in Cascade itself.”

“Right. But it's got to be colder than shit up there.”

“I can see what you're doing there. Jim isn't going to bail on Cascade because of a little weather.”

“We have sun AND Blair AND better company!”

“If we had company I wouldn't be able to screw you into the mattress tonight,” Hutch told him.

“So. You're knee feeling that good?”

“Guess we'll find out, won't we?”

Starsky smiled a crocodile smile, all teeth.

They went to bed early.

Chapter Text

“Are you even listening to me?” Captain Banks asked Jim Ellison with that silky calm which meant he was starting to get just a bit pissed.

“Twinsdale. Also the possibly related explosion this week. No leads yet. A faint implication that you want me to go pull a miracle out of my ass. But, Simon, there isn't anything there. I've walked around the block, I've sniffed everything there is to sniff. I even got that drone footage and looked it over twice. There was no gas leak or sewer gas or chemicals. There's no smell of explosive, or dynamite or even drugs. There is the smell of one dead body but we know about that. It was some sort of structural failure but I haven't a clue what. I'm not an engineer.”

“A building doesn't just fall down when it's eight years old.”

“Right, but what I'm saying is you need to find some engineers to go over the original plans, look for structural weaknesses.”

“Being done, but so far, nothing. We've checked for minor earthquakes, fracking and solar flares. Big fat nothing.”

“So I go back to the Burling murder?”

Banks nodded.

“I'll talk to Blair. See if he has any ideas.” Pain in the butt having to wait until tonight, but cadets weren't supposed to answer phone calls during class time.

“Wish he were here. Not that I ever thought I'd hear myself say that.”

“It's his perspective. He looks at things sideways,” Jim said. At least that got a snort of almost-amusement from his captain.

“Kid doing okay?” Simon asked.

“Still sore in the abdomen, but getting better each day. He ate a full meal for the first time at the weekly cook-out at his dad's. He'd been doing small meals, seeing what his body would put up with, but he said he even ate the potato salad with some onion. Onion, spices, that kind of stuff wasn't going down well,” Jim explained.

“So, you going down again next weekend?”

“I hope. If nothing breaks on any of the cases. Not that I'll have a peaceful weekend.”

“How's that cold case Sandburg's working on, how's that doing?”Simon asked. He seemed honestly interested. Jim had decided that Simon didn't need to know exactly how Sandburg was going about his investigation.

“He hasn't said. Mostly he's been talking about the driving course. On a fast-track program like that, they only spend two days on defensive driving and the course. Keeps asking if I want to come down and implying my driving could use a brush-up.”

Simon snorted but only said, “They finally cleared that last 103A of yours. You'll be glad to know the vehicle in question did not need to be totaled out.”

“It had a dented fender!”

Simon smiled. “Oh, yeah. It was the one before that had to be completely replaced.”

“It wasn't my fault, either. The little old lady hit ME!” Jim protested. His boss was having entirely too much fun, so it was time to go. He stood up. “I'll keep you posted,” he said, and left. He could hear Simon's chuckle as the door closed.

He went back to his desk and diligently made phone calls and checked data bases until five. It was with profound relief that he got up to go home. It wasn't Friday, so he didn't stop at Wonderburger. He'd more or less promised Sandburg that he'd keep the fast food down to once a week. Which was actually working out to twice a week, but he wasn't mentioning that to the kid. So that meant a grocery run. He picked up grilled chicken at the deli and more milk and bread. And bananas. And a package of frozen peas. Just so he could tell Sandburg he'd actually eaten something green.

He usually waited until Blair called, but tonight he took a chance and phoned at ten.

“Jim!” Blair exclaimed happily. “Good timing!”

Jim settled back onto the couch, putting his feet up on the coffee table. He leaned back and just listened, because once Blair was off and running, the first ten minutes of any call was an info dump. He paid attention, though. What Blair was talking about was usually important, on one level or another. He didn't talk just to hear himself talk—even if Jim had implied that more than once. After he had caught Jim up on all the Academy news, he asked about Jim's day. He even had some advice on the explosion problem. Check the basements of every single building adjacent to the site, see what shape they were in. And he reminded Jim of a case they worked on a couple years ago where substandard building materials were being sold as better quality than they were.

The buildings had been inspected after the collapse of the neighboring one, of course, but Blair suggested Jim do it personally.

Which should be eight or ten hours of work. Jim wondered how he was going to sell it to Simon. Besides saying, “Blair suggested....” Which might be all that was needed, actually. Simon was mellowing a little when it came to Blair's odd ideas. A little.

They said goodbye. Jim got ready for bed early because he was going to the gym at five to work out.
It was so very very quiet in the loft. He fell asleep listening, as he did each night, for sounds that were not there.

Chapter Text

The crack of dawn came with a bizarre dream about papery thin bits of ribbon floating in the breeze. It was almost seductive, laying there in bed, the scraps of the dream like the paper streamers threading into his waking up. He sat up, trudged his way to the shower, where DeWayne was already in the good stall, turning on the water. Blair chose the second best one, and turned on his own water. Oohh. Nice.

DeWayne said, “I finally got something. In a regular dream. Figured out what the old lady is trying to tell me.”

Blair made a totally supportive sound. Words didn't come out when you were face up to the spray.

DeWane said, “So, she's some sort of elder or grandmother. Weird mix of clothing, accents and her face keeps changing.” It sounded like that made him uneasy.

“So maybe it isn't just one entity talking to you. Maybe it's a,” he paused, trying to find the right word.

“Voice of the tribe?” DeWayne supplied, uncertainly.

“Like that,” Blair agreed. “What's she say?”

“Three things?” There was the sound of washing, then, “Send out the warriors to search.”

“Okay,” Blair said, encouragingly.

“Listen to the watchman. Have the watchman listen?”

“Either is good,” Blair said, realizing that it might be time to talk to DeWayne about sentinels. Damn.

“Eat more plants.”

Blair spluttered into his spray and then stuck his head out. “You're being contacted by the spirit world to tell you to eat more fiber?” He was laughing when a washrag came flying over the partition to splat against the side of his head. He scooped it up from the shower floor and lobbed it back.

“Laugh it up, asshole. I bet she meant for you, too. Get that shit out of our system.”

“Damn, you may be right.” He finished rinsing and stepped out, grabbing his towel and rubbing vigorously. “I'll tell you about the watchman stuff next time we go out to dad's. Too complicated for this early in the morning,” he said. Not exactly true, but somebody could come in at any time and he wasn't comfortable about that.

Yoga helped settle him and his head was in a better place when they headed down to breakfast. They were among the first down. The hall would fill up fast, because if you wanted too long, the cereal selection was winnowed down to cornflakes and the weird banana flavored one. There was oatmeal in packets. He'd read the back of them. Not good. The dry cereals were the best bet for fiber and he took the flakes and almonds mixture. “I'd better get dad to take me to a health food store. Get us some real oats and bran.”

DeWayne, who had taken the same cereal as Blair, poured milk on his and with no enthusiasm said, “Right.”

“Hey. It was your spiritual grandma who....”

DeWayne raised his middle finger and said, “At least mine is doling out advice.”

“Right,” Blair sighed.

His phone,which he was carrying technically against regulations--he would have to take it back to the room before class—rang and he apologized to DeWayne and ducked into the nearest restroom to answer it.

“I'm coming down the this weekend,” Jim said without wasting time with a greeting.

“Glad to hear it. Anything wrong?” Blair could hear the shrug through the phone. It made him grin.

“Panther keeps popping up and staring at me. In the shower, even,” Jim bitched.

Blair realized he'd been talking about Jim...well, watchmen, in the shower this morning. Huh.

“I put in too many hours already this week so Simon says I can take off Friday, too.”

The rush of feeling left Blair leaning against the wall, smiling.

“Are you going to rent a car or should we pick you up at the airport?”

“Pick me up, if that's okay with your dad...dads.”

“No problem. We'll all be glad to see you.” Understatement. , at least on his own part. “Look, I think I have to tell DeWayne about the...thing. His spirit adviser told him to listen to the watchman. Or have the watchman listen. And....” he paused.

“You think he can be trusted.”

“Yeah. Look, do you think we should tell John, too?” They'd decided months ago that they'd both have to approve it before anyone was told.

“Okay.” Not overwhelming approval there.

“Maybe I'll make them promise on the spirit plane.”

“Okay. Look, I gotta go.”

“Me, too. Call me with your arrival time.”

“Will do.” Click. Blair smiled and tucked the phone away, just as the door was opening. Time to start another exciting day.

Chapter Text

Flying messed with his senses. He was tired after a long day, but glad he hadn't waited until the morning to get away from Cascade. Okay, truth time. Not as much away from Cascade as closer to Blair. He missed his Guide in ways that were starting to irritate him.

It also irritated him that Blair had a freaking curfew and couldn't come pick him up. Starsk was there, greeting him loudly, offering to take his bag. Jim rolled his eyes at him and kept a firm hand on his luggage. They were into the red car and onto the highway quickly. Jim held back from making any comment on Starsk's driving. He did it well enough, it was just that Jim's superior eyesight could see things in the dark that Starsk could not, and it made him tense up until it was clear that his host could now also see the potential danger. He'd relax until it happened again a minute later.

It was nice to get to the house, be welcomed in, given a beer. Good to be able to unwind with cops, and with men he didn't have to hide anything from. He thought about his own father. How Jim felt walking into the house he grew up in, tense, waiting for whatever shit would be hitting the fan. Feeling the steady, wary disapproval battering against him, even when things weren't all that bad between them. Better lately, but still.

Blair had an extra dad here. Maybe he'd loan him one. The thought made him smile into his beer.

They went to bed at eleven, Jim settling into the guest room since Blair wasn't occupying it any more. It smelled like Blair, albeit a sick Blair. Jim just lay beneath the sheets and soaked in the Blair-scent until he fell asleep.

To his surprise, he slept later than usual. A quick shower, and a breakfast that was something that wasn't all eggs...extra egg whites, that was it. Healthy stuff like Blair was always pulling on him. Good thing there was plenty of toast. They went off to the Academy in two cars, Jim following in Starsky's red one.

Blair was going to be busy with classes, and the original plan was for Jim to shadow Hutch, but when the receptionist didn't show up, Jim found himself volunteered to man the desk until the man arrived. The job was both dull and interesting. There was a cheat sheet of most frequently asked questions which he got to use twice in the first ten minutes. Apparently the Academy mailed out information to prospective cadets continually. There was a form he filled out for each request. Since there were a dozen forms filled out on the corner of the desk it looked like yesterday's batch hadn't hit the mail. Only the fact that he hadn't a clue as to the procedure kept him from finding the literature and stuffing envelopes.

The receptionist dragged in shortly after nine, looking like hell and surprised to find Jim in his seat. You could see it on his face, the panic that he had been replaced. Jim turned it over to him gladly and left. From the front door of the office building he found he could home in on Blair's heartbeat. He followed it across the parking lot and into the Burke building. Wondered why Burke got a building named after him. Blair would know.

Blair was arguing with his instructor in that friendly way he had when he was just arguing for the sake of making a point and not to win. Jim settled down on the chair outside the doorway and just let the sounds of Blair's voice flow over him.

Class let out. Jim was just a bit startled to see the cadet uniform on Blair. He'd seen it before, but when he had been listening to the class, he'd sort of imagined Blair in his usual causal get-up. Blair's posture was a little different now. All cops learned to hold themselves up in order to present the largest, most authoritative persona. Odd to see it happening to Blair, king of the informal non-threatening posture.

“Jim!” Blair said happily as he skidded to a halt beside the chair. Jim grinned up at him and stood. “You're just in time. They have a guest speaker for us. A man from a security company is going to talk about,” he paused and looked around, “how they have a need for Academy graduates, I guess.”

“You could skip it.” He watched as Blair considered that.

“Okay,” he said at last, and led the way in the opposite direction of the flow of cadets. “Not like I need it. Just don't like to role model skipping class, you know?”

Jim nodded. Blair said, “What do you want to do instead? Because I could run over to the public library, they have some books for me.”

The public library it was. Jim still had the keys to the red car and they headed out, Blair driving because he knew the way.

Felt right, in the car with Sandburg again. Listening to Blair. Smelling him. Hearing his heart beat. He smelled better. Jim found he had the impulse to lick him, see the kind of toxins still in his body. That was weird.

Librarians everywhere loved Blair, so it wasn't a quick in and out. They were barely back in time for Blair's next class. Jim audited, sitting in the back. Listening to Blair's voice because of course he was one of the students who asked and answered questions. When the cadets were working on their notebooks for the last ten minutes of the class, Jim read one of the books Blair had picked up for DeWayne. It was about different shamanistic cultures and interpretations. Actually almost interesting.

Lunch. For some reason, some of the students were sprinkling a mixture of oats and flax seeds on their food. Which apparently they got from Blair, who was handing out small baggies of the stuff from his backpack. Jim took some and sprinkled it on his salad, just to show solidarity and not because he actually wanted the stuff. Blair beamed at him approvingly. It made his face look...well, maybe there wasn’t a word for it.

Hutch came and got him for the class he taught on procedure and restraints. He was using Jim as a model because his own knee wasn't quite up to some of the stress. It was fun. Jim didn't make it easy for anyone, letting them have some true experience.

Blair wasn't there, he was off at a class of basic vehicle identification and procedures. Which he could probably have taught, Jim thought, listening in. It was amazing how little some of the cadets knew about cars. The instructor had about ten vehicles, including the cab of a semi truck. After they looked at engines of all the cars and trucks, and climbed in and out, talked about glove compartments and places where items could be concealed, the cadets were taught how to approach a vehicle, how to access damage, and signs of an unsafe vehicle. Jim remembered taking two weeks of his own Academy course on these points. He understood that each of these procedures would be reinforced in future lessons, but was reminded again about how bare bones this particular course was. There were handouts. He hoped to hell the cadets were actually reading them.

Late in the afternoon, Hutch came by to ask if he wanted to go home with them at 5:30 or stay for dinner with Blair. When he chose dinner with Blair, Hutch smiled and said, “You've got the car keys,” and left him to it. So Jim had spaghetti with the cadets. Blair was showing the guys at his table how to eat it the “Italian way,” which apparently was Blair-speak for doing it without getting it all over your uniform.

The study session after dinner was well attended. Jim found himself answering questions, helping steer the group towards the answers which were wanted, but occasionally giving his own opinion if he didn't totally agree with the party line. Then there was yoga and meditation and then it was time to go so he could get out of the parking lot before the gates were locked.

It was quiet in the car. He drove the darkened streets, thinking. Thinking hard.

It was plain to his nose that his hosts had used the time before he arrived to have some fun. Starsky was a little hyper with it, bouncy. Hutch was stretched out on the couch, looking like a drowsy lion. Jim chose the chair when they watched the news, just to watch them next to each other, knowing that if he was not there they would be leaning up against each other. Cuddling, maybe. He went to bed early, leaving them skooching closer as he left the room.

Chapter Text

The first thing Blair noticed was the rocks they had used to grind up the plants had been incorporated into the garden border in the backyard, with the fancy red and white rock Jim had brought for the dads at the end. He felt good looking at the rocks, liked the way part of the life they were sharing together was being integrated into the landscape.

After a bit of discussion, he and Jim had decided to tell John, DeWayne, and also Beth about the sentinel stuff. They did it outside, after their usual cookout. Beth had brought the corn on the cob, a special bi-color, extra sweet variety. She had brought a dozen ears and said she regretted not bringing more. Hutch chopped up the cobs for compost when they were done.

After they cleared away the food, Blair had stood and began explaining Sentinels. And Guides. He left out most of the part about his mother and how she tanked his career. But he saw his dads exchanging glances during the part where he told about how his dissertation got disseminated without his knowledge. Hadn't he told about that part before?

God, it was hard. He sat on the bench, leaning forward, holding the seat to keep his hands from waving about.

Blair kept checking for reactions. DeWayne just looked blank-faced. John, on the other hand, glowed. Beth looked skeptical. He kept at it, carefully explaining until the very end. How it was a secret. How Jim used his senses in the job. How careful he was to make sure that there was accurate supporting evidence so that they didn't have to lie in the reports (too much). Secret. All about the total disaster which made it all not a secret and the extent they went to walk it all back.

Jim just sat there, unemotional, shrugging once when Beth said, “Really?” directly to him. Then he nodded.

Blair was done. They all sat, silent.

John had tears falling from his eyes. Beth was frowning. DeWayne was still glassy-eyed. But then he blinked, focused on Jim and said, “How the hell do you stand it?”

Jim said, “I can't do it without my Guide.” He seemed surprised as the words came out of his mouth, but then he nodded, almost to himself. He gave a short small smile in Blair's direction and then went back to his usual expression.

“Because, man, everything would stink!”

Jim said, “That, you get used to. Organic stink, anyway. It's the chemicals that are worst. They're everywhere. People spray things on themselves, and in their houses, and on their farms and in their elevators. Everything stinks.”

“And Blair helps you filter it out?” Beth asked. She had a calculating look on her face that just just a bit disturbing. “How good are you?”

Jim didn't answer so she said, “Could you smell paint on somebody who'd been tagging?”

“Sure. It last for days.”

“You get bored, you can come help me sort out a graffiti problem.”

“That might only work if you have some suspects already,” Blair said.

“Oh, suspects we have. But catching them at it has been a bust so far.”

Blair said, “So you'd have to retro it like we do. Jim would point you in the direction, but you'd be the one checking garbage cans for empty spray cans and trailing suspects until you got usable evidence.”

“I can do that.”

DeWayne said, “What happens if you're wrong?”

“Then I feel really stupid,” Jim said dryly. Blair noticed he didn't say that lately he was almost never wrong. Which was true. Or that Blair spent a lot of time talking really really fast to cover their ass. Which was also true.

Blair decided that he was going to change the subject just a little, give them something else to think about while they absorbed it.

“Anyway, here's the thing. I think there is an element here that a Sentinel can help us with on the weird things we're getting on the spirit walks. First, I need a confirmation. Does everyone think this shaman stuff is connected with Beth's two unknown bodies? I found I was just assuming this, but it could be two different problems.” Or more.

A quiet moment passed.

Blair said, “Go with your instincts, here, guys. Don 't worry about basing it on facts, just go with your gut.”

“Yeah. It does,” DeWayne surprised them by being the first to speak.

John was nodding uncertainly. “That's the feeling I was getting, too.”

“So, how woo woo is this?” Starsk asked. They looked at him. “Well, is this the sort of problem that needed three of you,” he asked. “Or is it just sort of an accident that you met these guys now and jump-started them?”

Everyone was now looking at Starsk with various versions of shock, approval, and amazement. Blair nodded, mumbling, “I should have seen...I was thinking it was some sort of long range effort,” he said. “Setting up a network, helping in the future. I didn't think enough about immediate problems. Could be both, of course.”

“So maybe it means we need to all work together to get this resolved,” Hutch suggested.

“So maybe everything we’ve been seeing is important?” John suggested.

“Yeah, man, we just need to figure out a ranking, a way to organize information. Damn, I wish I had a chalkboard. Got some paper?” he asked Hutch. “And something to write with?”

“Reams. It's next to the printer. I'll be right back,” he said, and when he returned he had a handful of pens, a stack of paper, and the ice tea pitcher out of the fridge. Everybody filled up their glasses while Starsk distributed a wad of paper and and a pen to each.

Blair said, “Okay, go with your gut. Everybody write down what their instincts are telling them about this case. The guys and I will be thinking about our visions and writing down every little thing we can remember, even if it seems dumb. Then we're going to brainstorm this out.”

With some of them getting to the job slowly, somewhat dubious, Sandburg began writing right away. Dave and Ken were done first and went in to fill the dishwasher and talk about it together. Blair knew they were by the way Jim slanted his eyes towards the house once and awhile. Beth was done next, but then she just slumped in her chair, obviously still thinking. When everything was done, Blair took the entire stack and began reading. When he finished a page he passed it to Jim, who passed it to John, who passed it to DeWayne, and on down the line. When Hutch and Starsk came back, they joined the end, with Starsk being the last to read. Then Blair spoke.”

“I'm going to start with DeWayne's dream. The old woman told him, 'Send the warriors to search. Let the watchman listen. Eat more plants,' and he's also got a lot of images which are a lot less clear.” DeWayne nodded hard.

“John's got plants in his dreams and his walks. Three in specific.”

“None of 'em got obvious fiber,” John said with a grin.

“Fuck you,” DeWayne said amiably.

Blair pointed to John.“You can talk? You've got dying lettuce,” and then pretended to duck as everyone laughed. “I've had a certain flower, some other garden images, and a crying person. Child, maybe a young woman. Also some fuzzy things, not clear at the moment, like everyone else.” He paused. “Jim thinks there's a connection, so does Starsk, Beth and Hutch aren't sure one way or the other.”

“So we need to find the plants?” Starsk asked.

“We need to find the location,” Jim clarified, “where the plants are.”

“Which we do by sending out the warriors?” DeWayne asked.

“Right. I'm thinking cops. Beth can look in her town, which is closest to where the bodies were found. We can look here. I did my ride-along with a cop who might be able to check in his community, which is about halfway between there and here, and relatively small. Then there's two other towns, also small, in the area.”

“Huntville and Emerson,” Beth added for him.

“Right. Which we can spend next weekend checking out. We can have a picnic, maybe,” Starsk suggested.

“We go to the scene of the crime first,” Hutch suggested. “See what Jim can...sense. Then we work our way out and down towards home.”

“Makes sense,” Beth said cautiously.

“Meanwhile, the guys and I sort of sketch out what some of our garden and plant based images were, and I draw the one I have in my head with the orange flower.”

So it was a little like being in first grade, with everyone leaning forward over their drawings, faces showing determination and a bit of frustration. Mostly silent. Drinks appeared on the table, and some chips and dip, and sandwiches. When the light started to fade Blair collected the papers all up and said they would look at them the next time, with fresh eyes.

Everyone went home. Starsk took Jim off to catch is plane. Hutch drove DeWayne and Blair back to their dorm. Blair fell into bed, slept like a stone until dawn, and did not dream.

Chapter Text

Cops, Hutch decided, always have a stack of cases sitting in the back of their brain, and any down time they had was usually spent thinking about one or another of these. He hadn't realized that when they became teachers, it wasn't cases in the back waiting for a few moments of his time. It was students and lessons. So it was a funny feeling,to realize that he was thinking about murders instead of grades, and graffiti instead of the parking lot.

Blair had worked up a flyer to pass around to various law enforcement agencies in the two county area and was running them off on the school copy machine out in the hallway. At least he didn't want them in color. The kid had got it all typed up, with pictures even, and had it ready in less than an hour and it looked good. Hutch wondered how many posters and flyers the kid had done in his life. Probably thousands. They'd decided to ask on the poster that the information be given to Beth, as the actual working cop in their group and the lead on the case. Weird wanted poster. Asking if anyone knew where these three plants grew in one location.

He shifted in place at the thought, easing his knee and pulling up his time sheet. And Starsky's, filling them both in at the same time. Hutch was the type to fill the little boxes in every day. Starsk waited until the end of the month and then spent too much time trying to reconstruct what he had been doing each day during the last thirty days.

Blair was pinning one of his posters up on the bulletin board near the door. Then he turned and with a “Yo!” and a cheerful wave, was out the door and off to class. The phone rang and Hutch reached out to answer it, tucking it under his chin so he could talk and work at the same time..

“Captain Banks, Major Crimes, Cascade,” the man on the other end said after Hutch's greeting.

Hutch sat up a little, “Captain Banks. Blair's mentioned you,” he said cautiously.

There was a sort of muffled snort from the other end. “I'll bet. It was brought to my attention that you might have a use for my cop-of-the-year- but-currently-not-worth-shit-sitting-at-his-desk officer.”

“Could be. What do you have in mind?” How had Starsk's idea gotten up to Cascade? Jim himself?

“Got him busy this week on an explosion, and he has a court date, but after that, I can loan him out. We talked about it, and Jim says he doesn't want to take his vacation time right now, he wants to be on active status if he's down there. Something about the double murder you have. He's thinking maybe two weeks of his time, and rather than being loaned to one of the police departments there he wants to be tagged to the Academy and then offer assistance to several local departments. Maybe as part of your community program.”

This had Blair's fingerprints all over it. Hutch made an encouraging sound.

“He'd be still on our books, but we'd need a letter requesting an officer, make it vague but important sounding, special emphasis on how much you feel this would benefit the cadets, yada yada.”

Blair was going to be writing that letter, Hutch decided. “I think we can work that out,” Hutch said.

“Thank god. He's driving me nuts. Keeps reaching for the phone, then stopping. Keeps turning to talk to the kid who's not there. Staring off into space. His work's okay, but he's starting to make me twitch.”

“So you're sending him down here. Thanks a lot.”

“Don't mention it. Just keep him busy. Really really busy.”

“We can do that,” Hutch agreed, shifting back in his chair, a grin forming on his face despite the special meeting of the board that was in his immediate future.

“Yeah, yeah. Got another proposal. Find out how much it would cost the Police Association here to sponsor a scholarship to your Academy? We want to offer a scholarship as part of the outreach program this year.” There was a clink in Hutch's ear as the officer on the other end put down his coffee cup and said, “We're hoping for a discount, because we can do a bit of advertising for both of us with this, put your name on the literature and all.”

And Hutch found himself saying, “I can get back to you on that. Full scholarship?”

“Yeah, and not the twelve week course you have Sandburg on. No offense, but if I hadn’t needed to turn Sandburg into a policeman in the shortest time possible, I wouldn’t have chosen the short course.”

“Don’t blame you. Not that anything really gets you ready for being a cop on the street.” Hutch knew his real education had been mostly from older, experienced cops, and part of that had been learning to do the opposite by watching a bad example.

“Ain’t that the truth. How long will it take to set up the scholarship?

“It will take a week to get it before the board, two weeks if they okay it right away, more if not. It has to be used within three years or renegotiated, are you fine with that? Give me your contact information and send the details in writing?” His pen was out. After a few minutes he put down his pen, hung up and gave a small laugh.

Starsky was not going to shut up about how his great idea was being used and they'd have a house guest for a couple weeks but damn. His brain was already busy. He was going to hint to the board that Jim was undercover here, rather than admit to anything like, “they dumped him here so they could save their sanity,” but that could have some pluses too. Now, how could he arrange it so he and Starsky got first dibs on Jim's time?

Well, second dibs. Blair had first.

Chapter Text

Mr. Dore had returned to teaching a changed man. He obviously felt much better. Not only was he standing taller, moving more, gesturing more, he had also started to be...funny. For a version of funny at least a generation behind that of any of his students. Blair was successful at choking back his own reactions, but the other cadets were groaning or blinking in confusion at most of his comments. It made class more interesting, but they were taking longer to cover the subjects. On the plus side, there were more questions, and more discussions.

Here, as in most classes, the cadets often kept an empty seat between each of them. The person who had ordered the seats originally hadn’t seemed to realize that those sitting in them would be grown men, many of them bigger than average. Blair’s friend John, for example, couldn’t even get into the chairs that were too close to the wall. If you wanted to use the inadequate little pull-up desk tops, you needed extra room for your stuff, your elbows and your general comfort, and that meant taking over another seat.

The class was in the middle of a discussion about jurisdiction when DeWayne, who usually now sat one seat away on Blair’s right, made a flailing motion and half slid off his chair.

“What exactly might the problem be, Mr. Wright?” asked Mr. Dore mildly.

DeWayne seemed unable to answer. He was half-crouched, one hand in the air as if to ward off something. After a second in which he glanced wildly at Blair, he said, “Thing swooped at me.”

“I saw some wasps near the door when I cam in,” Blair said helpfully. Truthfully, too. Even though he knew there wasn’t a wasp involved.

“Well, then, Mr. Sandburg, would you like to be the current guardian of our classroom defense against the buzzy?” Dole asked, groping around under his podium until he came up with a ratty looking pink fly swatter.

The class laughed. DeWayne groaned as he settled himself back into his chair. Blair said, “I’ll take charge of it, sir,” and trotted down to accept it, waving it above his head triumphantly as he returned to his seat. As he passed DeWayne he said under his breath, “Hang in there,” and when he sat down, the swatter was placed between them on the empty seat. When DeWayne flinched again Blair made a show of picking it up and gazing around alertly. They managed to make it to the end of class without further disruption. After returning the official class defense object, Blair joined DeWayne, who had gathered his things slowly and thus allowed everyone else leave ahead of them.

“So?” Blair asked when they were out of hearing range of the others.

“Damn thing swooped over my head. I felt the claws in my hair!” DeWayne answered, scowling.”And I know what you’re going to say, bur that wasn’t some otherworldly message. It don’t mean a dang thing except the fuckin’ bird’s being an asshole.”

“Okay. So has he been doing this all along?” Blair asked.

“Yesterday once, And just now, in class.”

“It has to mean something. Maybe the teacher was saying something significant.”

“Stupid way to go about it, since it totally derails my concentration,” DeWayne huffed, and said, “Next time you go to the library, pick me up a birds of the world book, A really big one. I can’t find anything in that encyclopedia in the library room here.”

“That’s because the encyclopedia is a 1979 edition designed for middle school. And it’s missing two volumes.”

“Ye-ah.”

“Well, it’s a predator of some kind. I’ve been to South America and to Africa, but I can’t place it. Do you need a name?”

“I need something to call it.” At Blair’s look, he shrugged. “I just...do.”

“Which may be why it’s being a bother. Huh. So my wolf, I don’t think of him by a name. Just ‘wolf,’ but as if he isn’t just one wolf, but...hum. Let me think. Something about acknowledgment, or identity. How do you think about your spirit animal?”

“Bird, I guess, like you say. But what, he wants a name? Polly?”

“I wouldn’t go there exactly,” Blair murmured. “Can you close your eyes and picture him? Clearly?”

“Now?” They were heading down the stairs.

“No, we’ll try some things tonight. I’m making a library run tomorrow. You could come with me. We’ll go at lunch, pick up something…”

“That isn’t Academy food? It’s a plan. Which car are you going to have? Hutchinson’s? Cause that thing—I’m embarrassed to be seen in that. It’s older than my grandpa.”

“It’s not even twenty years old! Besides, it comes with gas I haven’t had to pay for.”

“In car years it’s a dinosaur. But hey. I understand about the gas. Maybe we’ll have some time to stop at the store and stock up on crap food. Quality crap food. Cheetos or something?”

He did beggy-eyes really well, and Blair laughingly agreed. “You might as well get a list together from our roomies and collect the money. I already have a list and a twenty dollar bill from Anderson.”

“I could do that.”

They had assigned seats in the next class, so they didn’t get to continue their talk. Blair did do some thinking about DeWayne’s bird in between taking some notes. He wondered if Jim would know. He imagined Jim at his desk, the phone jammed up against his ear and held there by one shoulder as he jotted something down. Later he would pull a folder towards himself and open it with that little cut-back sigh he made when the paperwork was getting him down. In his mind, H was behind him, trying to get Jim’s attention. It made Blair smile. He missed Cascade. The guys. Jim.

It was weird because Naomi had trained him out of missing things while he was really young. According to her, it didn’t do any good to look back. It was okay to look forward, but it was best to just be n the now.

Now had driven him crazy as a kid. Thinking about Now. Which couldn’t be measured, one now bleeding into the next now and you couldn’t stop it. He kept trying to pin it down, an impossibly moving point that didn’t exist even as it existed and the now became tomorrow while still being now. Yeah. Kept him from falling asleep if he got focused on it, brought him out of sleep at night, screaming more than once. Meditation had helped. And keeping really really busy.

He jerked his attention back to class, because even thinking of it had cost him about four minutes of his attention. Sometimes he had these moments but kept taking notes automatically; he looked down to scan his notes. Huh. He’d written Jim’s name right in the middle of the list.

He packed up absently at the end of class. DeWayne was talking to the teacher so he gave him a wave and went on to his dorm room, dropped off his books and checked the chore list they had thumb-tacked to the wall. Yeah, his week on cleaning the bathroom started tomorrow. This week his job was the general area in the main room so he picked up, throwing things onto each guy’s bed as he went. He wondered if he should remind the guys to get their part done. They did try, but none of them had what you might call cleaning skills, and at the beginning he had sworn to himself that he wasn’t going to add that to the things he was having to teach them. He was trying to teach by example in this case. Ha.

He set out for the mess hall a little early. He found an empty table and sat down. Noticing one of the cooks peeking out at him from the kitchen he waved. She didn’t wave back but ducked out of sight. These new ladies—and one guy—were kinda skittish.

He tried to choose a different table each day. It broke up some cliques and also gave him some time to talk to cadets he didn’t know. He could mentally review some of his notes, get his questions ready for the afternoon classes. He was going to. But he ended up daydreaming about what Major Crimes was up to. And Jim.

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He thought about driving his truck down, but he was representing the department and his truck was...older. And Simon wouldn't let him have a city vehicle. The man had snorted and looked up to heaven at the very mention of it. Jim didn't want to depend on borrowing Starsky or Hutch's cars. So he rented a very sedate black SUV when he arrived late Saturday night. Called to let Blair know he had landed, drove the the dads’ and went to bed early. In this case, five minutes after his hosts had said goodnight.

Over breakfast he listened to Starsky and Hutch work out their weekend plans. Starsk apparently wanted to make their picnic into a major production, hauling out a cooler and a portable grill. Hutch had talked him into just a picnic by saying it made better use of their time if they spent less time on the food. Sandwiches and chips were the best option. Hutch had him at “chips. “

Friday morning they took all three cars to the Academy. It was too late for breakfast with Blair. Jim regretted that even as he told himself he couldn’t eat every meal with Blair. Stepping out of his rental, Jim took a deep breath and found Blair’s scent. It calmed him, as always. By nine in the morning Hutch had him typing up all the evaluations and observations Jim had given verbally in the weeks before. Then Starsky had him in class doing strange good cop bad cop scenarios where Starsky told a class how to do something by the book and then had Jim give an example to the class of how it could go very wrong.

Later, Jim got to demonstrate, on site at the driving range, proper police procedure at an accident. The cadet backing the car into position for the enactment accidentally put the car into the fender of the police car. The kid was okay but the car had to go in to the shop for a check. Due to superior hearing, Jim got to hear what most of the faculty thought of the accident. And the cadet. Starsky really did have the best invective rant on the campus.

Lunch was with the cadets. Tuna sandwiches and vegetable soup. Blair seemed to be his usual lively self. Smelled better, too. It was good to be watching Blair TV again.

In the afternoon Jim paid courtesy calls on three of the police departments and sheriff''s offices in the two county area, handing out Blair's posters, being cagey about what the details of the case were, and generally touching base, getting a feel for the area.

At his last stop he made points for Beth by asking for her by name and treating her with a blend of collegial respect and subtle deference in front of her fellow officers. You could tell she wasn't used to it. As the lead officer on a double murder case, he thought she should have been. But each department had a different culture. Not all of them good. Made him appreciate the crew back home.

He thanked her for already having their poster up and asked her for a short tour of the station. Part of the time he could tell she was trying not to laugh. They discussed her graffiti case and during her break he went with her to look at the nearest example. Somebody knew who Van Gogh was, he decided. He wished Sandburg could see it in place like this, and not just as a photo. He decided that the artist was short, flexible and fast, not that Beth hadn’t figured that out already.

So far, only one department had sent her a response to the flyers, and as she was tied to the desk she let Jim check out the location. It was a city park and the informant was completely wrong, but it was good to look for himself, to smell the air and work out what the different smells were in this part of the world.

He was getting acclimated to the increased sun and decreased traffic but it was still odd for his senses not to come up against the usual wall of background noise when he reached out. It turned out that each city or town had a different feel, a different combination of input to his senses. He was pretty sure with a little practice, he could tell generally where he was in Cascade blindfolded, if he’d known the place previously. He was keeping that thought in reserve for when he and Sandburg had more time, because it was going to take some experimentation. He thought about that on the way back to the Academy and as he parked and walked towards the mess hall. He actually missed the damn experiments.

Starsky met him at the door with an official instructor’s ID, which Jim clipped to his pocket the way the other instructors did. The picture must have come from Simon, it was the same one on his Cascade ID. Starsk left to go home, and Jim had dinner with Blair. Different group around Blair this time, and he found himself answering most of the questions he had already been asked. Some of them weren’t about police work. Had he ever been this unsure in during training? But he’d already faced his questions in the army, before he ever thought of being a policeman.

Blair had things to catch up on Saturday, and was not going to be able to get away until their picnic Sunday. Jim was surprised how sharp the disappointment felt, how reluctant he was to turn away and head for the car. He drove, one hand on the wheel, his mind blank. Once back, he had to make an effort to be reasonably affable to his hosts, and went to bed at eleven. He had to turn down his dials to get to sleep. Starsky and Hutch were doing things he did not want to hear. Again. Very quietly. But of course, not quite quietly enough.