This story is an amateur publication and does not intend to infringe upon copyrights held by any party. No reproductions without permission. Originally published in the Starsky & Hutch zine Intermission 2, in 1985 by Magic Carpet Press. Electronic scanning, typing and proofreading for the archive was generously donated by a longtime fan. Enjoy!

Too Close To The Ground

When the light hits your eyes
        In the morning
And the fight to survive
        Is breaking you down
You see a chance for an answer
        To fill the empty spaces
But you still don't know what to do
You're too close to the ground...

Even if someone had taken the time and trouble to ask, Ken Hutchinson could not have explained what had lured him to Los Angeles in that Autumn of 1969. Maybe it was the spirit of freedom that clung to the city, the promise that here at least was a place in which a man could see the realization of his dreams—no matter how unusual they may be. An illusion, of course, as elusive as the rainbow's pot of gold, but for a wanderer in search of a place to set down roots it was as good a starting point as any.

Start? Perhaps start over was closer to the mark. Once, in the recent past, he had thought his life settled, future assured; a good job, nice home, standard wife and two kids—Utopia, Hutchinson style. Looking back, it seemed that everything had fallen apart overnight; his choice of medicine as a career, rather than following his father into the army... Steven's death, and the anger and recrimination that followed... his father's subsequent decline... his own hasty marriage to Nancy. And now? Divorce, quick, clean and relatively painless. He wondered—had he ever really loved her, his sweet, Titian elf?

He glanced across at the man who occupied the passenger seat, wondering what he would make of it all. The sparse information he had gathered over the last twenty-four hours told him that Starsky—what was his first name? Was the type to only see things in black and white, leaving little room for life's subtleties. So, what would he think of the colonel's son, turned medic, turned college drop-out? Already he found himself envying Starsky. The man had freedom, self-assurance, a solid family background—all things that had hardly figured prominently in Hutchinson's life so far. The last he could do little to change, however hard he might try, but maybe here, in L.A., he would discover the key to the rest.

"You can drop me anyplace around here," Starsky said suddenly.

Hutch ran his gaze along the street. The houses were small—two or three bedrooms—but well-maintained, their walls gleaming white in the mid-day sun. Each was separated from the footpath by a wide strip of lawn and screened from its neighbors by evergreens. A far cry from the eight-bedroom mausoleum in which the Hutchinson brood had been raised.

"Which one's your uncle's?" asked Hutch.

Starsky pointed further down the street. "Four from the end, just past the hydrant."

The house was a clone of the others, a froth of white net billowing, sail-like through the open front window, almost as if the house itself waving a greeting. Hutch felt the constriction begin in his chest, spreading up to clog his throat. Even from this distance he could sense the love and pride, could see it in Starsky's contented smile.

"C'mon in an' have a beer? 'm sure Uncle Al's got a few put by."

Hutch knew he should refuse—after all, this was Starsky's family reunion—but this feeling of companionship was too rare to relinquish so soon. He accepted, and watched Starsky's smile turn to a toothed grin as the latter tumbled from the car, dragging the battered pack with him. Hutch held back for a moment, watching as his companion bounded up the path like an over-eager puppy, punching the doorbell with a flourish.

The woman who opened the door was tall and thin, her face angular, eyes hooded. Not a bit as he would have expected, if his new-found friend was an example of the Starsky clan. But then, he reminded himself, this was only Starsky's aunt by marriage. The blood line ran through his uncle, his father's brother.

Rosa Starsky's response was one of pure delight. Hutch could hear her squeals of joy from fifty feet away, as she flung her arms around her nephew's neck. Hutch recalled his last ever trip home, just before he pulled out of med-school. The icy stare of his father, his mother's cold, passionless peck on the cheek—sure signs that neither cared if they saw him or not. Only Carvin, the hatchet-faced house-keeper, had shown him any affection.

It hadn't always been that way. Long ago there had been a time when the house was full of light and laughter, when there were parties and picnics, long lazy summers on his grandfather's farm, and exciting trips to Europe. His mother was beautiful, full of life, doting on her sons, and on special occasions Father would take him and Steven into his private study, where finely-crafted miniature soldiers ("Never call them toys, Kenneth.") would once more fight out their campaigns on fields of rich green baize.

He became aware of someone calling his name, and looked up to find Starsky beckoning to him, one arm tight around the woman's waist. There was still time to leave, and Hutch knew that would be the most prudent thing to do, but already his feet were carrying him up the path.

"Aunt Rosa—Like you to meet a friend of mine. Ken Hutchinson. Hutch—say 'hello' to my Aunt Rosa."

Hutch swallowed hard. It was a long time since he had been introduced to anyone so warmly. Starsky was so open, it hurt. He took the proffered hand, finding it firm and dry, the fingers long and unusually strong for a woman of her build.

The trio moved into the house, to a bright, airy room full of sturdy furniture that seemed to match the woman for strength and character. Any lingering uneasiness ebbed away as Hutch relaxed in their company. The depth of affection between aunt and nephew was plain to see, in Starsky's frequent hugs, and in the way Rosa clung to his hand. Now that he was close to her Hutch could see that, for all the severity of her looks, Rosa was a very gentle, loving woman. The archetypal Jewish matriarch—all granite and marshmallow. Thick chestnut hair, winged with silver, was combed into waves around a face that was etched with the tell-tale sign of a happy life. How much of that happiness was from the young man at her side, he wondered.

"There's beer in the ice-box, Davey," she said brightly. "Your uncle's at work but he'll be home in time for dinner...perhaps your friend would like to join us?"

Davey. David—So that was his name. David Starsky. Hutch let his eyes follow the lithe figure as it vanished into the kitchen. David Starsky. Yes, he nodded, it suited him.

"That's very kind of you, Mrs. Starsky, but I can't intrude."

"You're not intruding," laughed Starsky. "Aunt Rosa always makes enough of every thing to feed an army." The blue eyes suddenly sobered. "Anyhow, I owe you one, remember? You sprung for dinner and the motel last night. Least we can do is feed you now."

Hutch accepted gratefully, as much out of respect for Starsky's pride, than from his own need for companionship. They sat for a long time, talking and laughing, Hutch adding the freely-given facts to the growing mental file on David Starsky. It didn't take him long to decide that here was a man who could fill his image of what a best friend should be, and that was a feeling he'd not known for a long time. Not since Jack...

The unhappy thoughts were driven abruptly from his mind by the arrival of Starsky's uncle. He walked through the front door, smiling broadly at the little group, and Hutch identified him at once. The man was unmistakable. Not over-tall, he had the same sapphire eyes, the same sweeping lashes, the same thick curls—though age had threaded them with steel.

"David!" Even the voice was the same; rich velvet, slightly nasal, though the accent here was more West Coast than Bronx. Before anyone could move he was across the room, pulling the younger man to his feet and into a bone-crushing hug. "You're really safe!" he sighed, " I told your aunt you would be, but—you know what these women are like."

"Don't you believe a word of it, Davey. Three rugs he's worn out these last two years!"

Husband and nephew—so alike that they could easily pass for father and son—laughed. Hutch, watching them, wondered again if he had been right to stay.

"Let me look at you..." Al ordered, holding Starsky at arm's length.

"I'm all here."

Al tugged a lock of the collar-length curls. "So I see... They don't have barbers in the army anymore?"

"I been out of the army since May! Wanted to see how the other half live." The thought seemed to remind him of Hutch's presence, because the blond suddenly found himself pulled to his feet and introduced enthusiastically. And once again he found himself moved by Starsky's openness. If this was a signpost to the direction his life here could take, then he must treat it with infinite care.

The rest of the evening passed in a comfortable haze of companionship for Hutch. During dinner the conversation turned naturally to family matters, both past and present. There was, Hutch discovered, a kid brother, named Nick, who was forever in and out of trouble. David, too, had had more than one brush with the law in his youth, but that his attitude had undergone a rapid change when his father had been gunned down for refusing to give in to the local mob. Now and then Hutch's gaze would travel to the two older Starsky's, acknowledging the strength and compassion that had helped prevent their young charge from becoming just another street punk. What was it about these people that made them so different from his own family? Surely it wasn't just a matter of money...?

He remembered the last time he had brought a stranger home for dinner. His mother coldly polite, not daring to over-step the narrow lines of etiquette, father hardly speaking, once he had discovered that Keith was totally against all forms of weapon and warfare, Breakfast next day had been comprised of one argument after another until, in desperation, Hutch had fled back to the sanctuary of college.

"Hey, Blondie! Ya fallin' asleep on us?"

Starsky's laughter jolted him from the sad daydreams, "Ah—No. Just thinking. Starsky—" he paused, wondering if he should ask, in the same moment pushing the hesitation aside, "...tell me some more about your father." They were alone at the table, the clatter of china from the direction of the kitchen telling him that Al had been shanghaied into kitchen detail.

Starsky leaned across to refill their coffee cups. "Whaddaya wanna know."

"Anything...unless y-you'd rather not. I don't want to pry—"

Starsky giggled, relaxed by the pleasure of homecoming. "Shit! Ain't no skeletons in this family's closet, Hutch. 'Sides, I like talking about him, y'know. Keeps the memory alive. What's that they say, 'bout a person don't really die so long as someone remembers him?"

Hutch took a sip of his coffee, too conscious of his own friendless state to dare relate that theory to his own life. Starsky sat back, cup cradled between his hands.

"Did I tell ya he was born here?" he asked suddenly. "Not in this house a'course. In L.A."

"How come he landed up in New York?"

"Went East to marry my mom. See, they met in a hospital during the war. She was his nurse. Fixed him up so well they sent him back, but—well, they kinda—ah—hit things off, if ya see what I mean." He paused, grinning, to sip his coffee. "Got one helluva surprise when he heard about me!"

Hutch found himself staring in wonder at the two pink pinpoints of embarrassment that appeared on Starsky's cheeks. For all his brash exterior, it seemed that there was still an innocence about the man, like a child hiding within a man's body.

"Didn't see me till I was nearly two, when the war finished an' they shipped him home. First thing he did was whisk Ma off an' make an honest woman of her."

"Before your grandfather made a corpse out of him!" laughed a voice from the doorway.

"He woulda married her anyway," Starsky protested, relieving his uncle of two cans of beer.

"True," the older man nodded. "Your brother was proof of that."

Starsky nodded sadly. "I just wish Nicky'd known him better. Maybe he'd be more settled now. Pa wouldn't let him get away with half the stuff Vic does."

Vic. A new name for Hutch to add to the list. Maybe another uncle? As if sensing his question, Starsky added: "Vic's our stepfather. Ma married him when Nick was eleven—that's why he never came out here the way she planned."

The older Starsky reached to squeeze the suddenly bowed shoulder, offering comfort. "She did what she thought was best for him, Davey. Nick was never independent—not like you. Always needed someone to wipe his nose for him."

"Still does. He's a regular Peter Pan—a kid playing grownup games, 'cept he never bothered to find out the rules. He needs someone to watch out for him, Al."

"But not you, Davey. You gotta take care of your own future first... Decided what you want to do, now you're finished with the army?"

And so the conversation was steered away from past to present, and Starsky's possible future. It was midnight before Hutch climbed back into the battered Ford, heading for the heart of the city, hoping that he could find a room. Two hours later he lay in the neon-suffused darkness of a cheap hotel room that gave the impression that it usually rented by the hour. Tomorrow he would have to start looking for something more permanent.

He found himself thinking about the last two days—days that had carried him back to a lost friendship. He hadn't realized, until this evening, just how much he had missed those days. Was it too much to hope that, with Starsky's help, he could win them back again?

As he drifted into a deep, dreamless sleep, he knew he owed it to himself to try.

* * *

John Blaine wound a towel around his hips and stepped from the shower stall. "You still work out, Dave?"

Starsky leaned against the locker and grinned. "Got enough exercise in the army. An' I useta think you were tough on me!" Glancing downwards, he patted his stomach. "Guess I'll have to think about it, though. Aunt Rosa's cooking's gonna put pounds on me."

"She's proud of you, Dave. We all are. You've grown up these last three years."

Starsky rolled a paper cup thoughtfully between his hands. Sure, Rosa and Al seemed proud—so did his mother. That didn't make the memories of things he had seen and done any easier to bear. "Glad to be away from it now," he confessed. "From all of it."

Blaine nodded. This was the first real chance he'd had to talk to Starsky since the boy had come home—almost three months ago now—but he had heard a good deal of the story from Al one night. It wasn't pretty. That David had survived with body and sanity intact seemed nothing short of a miracle.

"Decided yet what you're gonna do next?"

The dark head wavered. "Planned on comin' back an' settling down with Chris—but it looks like she decided she couldn't wait. Still lookin' for a job, but it ain't easy. Nobody wants to hire 'Vets' these days." He crumpled the cup and aimed a vicious lob at the waste bin.

Blaine sighed and sat down beside him. "I know somewhere you could put that jungle training to good use," he hinted.

"Yeah? Where's that?"

For answer, Blaine jerked a thumb towards the window. "Out there, on the streets."

Confusion, comprehension, and finally, astonishment, registered across Starsky's face. "Me a cop? C'mon, John!"

"Why not?... think about it—You can already handle a gun, you've got that sixth sense a street cop needs, you know the territory, and—" He paused, wanting to be sure that he had Starsky's attention, then; "You've got compassion, Dave. That's what separates the good guys from the bad, keeps you ahead of the rest of those punks." He gave Starsky's shoulder an affectionate squeeze. You'd make a damn fine cop, Dave."

But Starsky was already shaking his head. He knew that Blaine was trying to help—but a cop? He just couldn't see himself pounding a beat for the rest of his days, running down drunks and hookers and scared kids.

"Nah, thanks for the thought, John, but 's not my scene."

"That the only reason?" Blaine asked, reaching for his shirt.

Starsky watched him in silence, turning the suggestion over in his mind.

He recalled the first time he had met Blaine. He was just a scared kid, fourteen years old, lonely and homesick. John was twenty-five, freshly graduated from the police academy. He and his wife Maggie lived with Maggie's widowed father in the house next door to the Starsky's, so it was inevitable that they would turn to him when their young charge fell in with bad company. And Blaine, in his turn, had been more than willing to help, assuming a kind of surrogate older brother role which had eventually deepened into a lasting friendship. Starsky didn't like to dwell on where he might be now, had it not been for John's help and advice. Even so...

"For one," he began "I ain't exactly whiter than white. You know the kinda crowd I use to run with."

"All kids run wild for a time. You've been clean since you got out of school."

"An' that's another thing," said Starsky, grasping at straws. "I thought cops need a good education?"

Now it was Blaine's turn to show surprise. "You can't pull that one on me, Dave Starsky! I know you too well for that. Anyhow, these college kids...they're a pain in the ass. Always buckin' for captain—before they've even finished probation. Hah!"

Starsky sighed. It looked as if John had been planning this for a long time. He certainly had all the bases covered, finding an answer to any excuse that Starsky could think of.

Suddenly the older man sat down, one shoe dangling by its laces from his hands. "Look, Dave...I can't tell you what to do with your life, that's up to you. But it seems to me that you're carrying some guilt. Al tells me you didn't like what went down over there."

For a moment Starsky felt a spark of resentment that his uncle had been talking about him behind his back, but it faded quickly with the knowledge that he was only showing the same concern that he had always felt.

"Okay, so I didn't like it. What can being a cop do to change that?"

"Give you a second chance? You told me one of the reasons you joined up was to try and make the world a better place. Just because it's all gone sour over there don't mean you can't try again—Or don't you care now?"

Starsky had to admit that what his friend was saying made sense. He had long ago ceased to believe that he could change things single handed, but maybe, as part of a team... At the very least it was a job, another stab at independence.

"You really think I could do it?" he asked.

"I wouldn't lie to you, Dave. The potential's there—if you're willing to work at it. Waddaya think?"

Starsky met the challenge, hesitated one final moment, then; "Where do I pick up my uniform?"

* * *

"Well? What do you think, Ken?"

Hutch pivoted slowly, keen gaze taking in the yellowed paint work and the peeling wallpaper of the empty lounge. This was the fourth house they had viewed that day—he had long ago lost count of the total—and, from his wife's enthusiasm, obviously her favorite.

He had to admit the place had character, even though it would need a lot of work to make it habitable. At least it was close to the bank where he had been working for the last month, he wouldn't have to spend hours getting to and from work. And it was cheap, well within their self-imposed budget.

A second room led off the bow-fronted lounge, its sliding door hanging sickly from the runner. "We can make that the dining room," suggested Vanessa, "and use the smaller room at the front for your study."

Hutch laughed. "What do I need with a study? I'm a bank clerk."

"At the moment..." She responded with a smile, letting the rest of the thought hang in mid-air. "Let's look upstairs,"

He let her lead the way, aware that the decision had already been made. In the two weeks since the wedding he had come to realize that he could deny his beautiful bride nothing. He was in love—for the first time in his life. Really in love, not the way it had been with Nancy. That had been just a desperate bid for escape from his parents and the lifestyle they had imposed on him. Vanessa was different, she had made him want to stop running. And this time he was sure that it would work.

"This could be our room," she said, throwing open the door onto a west-facing room that was full of light, despite the grime-encrusted windows. Full-blown blue tea roses and lilac paint work assaulted his eyes and he pulled a wry face. "Whoever lived here before had great taste in interior decorating," he snickered.

A bathroom led off the bedroom, a second bedroom reached by a connecting door. Both displayed the same combination of neglect and lack of taste. He became aware that Vanessa was no longer at his side, and turned to find her leaning in the doorway of the third bedroom, a soft smile on her face. Resting his chin on her shoulder, he peered into the room. Butterflies and rainbows, in primary colors, greeted his gaze, interspersed with hand-painted Disney characters. Mickey, Pluto, Donald, Dumbo—all were there.

Hutch slid his arms around her, drawing her close. "Won't be easy," he murmured. "Have to save every penny...And that—" he nodded towards the nursery, "—will have to wait a while."

"We'll manage. We can do most of the work ourselves. And the summer collections will be showing soon. I'm sure Michael can get me a spot."

She turned within the circle of his arms, and he knew that he was lost. It was the same look that he had seen that first night. He kissed her gently.

"You really want this place, don't you?"

"Yes. It feels right, Ken. I know we can be happy here."

Happy. A few months ago he would never have hoped to apply that word to his life again. Then, one night, he had walked into a crowded room and everything had changed. Five weeks later they were married. Amazingly, his family had approved, despite the fact that Vanessa was not from the cream of Minnesota society, as they would have hoped. To them she seemed the ideal daughter-in-law. Intelligent, beautiful, educated, but above all, ambitious. She would be sure to coax their wayward son back to the right path, show him the error of his ways. Already she had persuaded him to find a good, solid job. Grandfather Willet had been a banker, and with Vanessa's encouragement, young Kenneth had taken a position in the family firm, which to Arthur Hutchinson was the next best thing to West Point. To Hutch, the situation smacked of betrayal, though he had insisted that if banking was to be his future, he had start at the bottom. The way Grandfather Willet had done...

"Okay," he said, and she hugged him close, the scent of her filling his senses. Maybe they really would be happy here, in their own home, with their own things around them. Their own life. "I'll call the agent when we get home. Get him to push things through as soon as he can." He ran his eyes over the aging decoration, wondering just how much extra work he had let himself in for. Then he laughed. "I think I know just the person to help us out with the heavy work," he said.

* * *

As a child, growing up in the immigrant melting pot that was New York, Starsky had learned at an early age the double delights that December brought. No sooner had the family finished celebrating Hanukkah, then Christmas would come knocking on the door, bringing with it gifts of candy and small toys from their gentile neighbors. His parents would shake their heads and mutter that they didn't know what the world was coming to, but on Christmas morning he and Nick would always find some small present beneath their pillows. Even Al and Rosa, once they had seen his enthusiasm, had allowed the festive spirit to permeate their otherwise orthodox home.

A year ago he had huddled in a mud-swamped hootch with six other guys too afraid to spare much thought for the festivities going on back home, except that, with luck, next year would be better. Only when next year came it was a far cry from what he had imagined. Sitting on a wooden crate, food and drink spread out on a door panel propped on two ladders, he found himself thinking of all the friends he had left behind. How many of them were home, sharing Christmas with their families? How many would never come home, except in a box? They had promised him, on the day he was discharged, that he would soon learn to forget. What they hadn't told him was how long 'soon' might be. Seven months on and the memories were as raw as they had ever been.

"More wine, Dave?" Her eyes were grey and wide, not dark and slanted like those that haunted his dreams. He gave himself a mental shake and nodded.

"Thanks." He held his glass out for her to fill. "That was a terrific meal, Vanessa."

"Thanks to you. The condition that kitchen was in when we moved in—If it wasn't for you—"

Starsky felt his face grow warm. He hated slushy, sentimental scenes, particularly when friends were involved. After all, he hadn't done that much, just a spot of painting and decorating to make the house look brighter. Vanessa's prediction about the fashion scene had come rapidly true, whisking her away for days on end to be filmed and photographed and paraded for the clothes-buying public, while Hutch had been enmeshed in the usual pre-Christmas rush at the bank. It was obvious they wouldn't have time to put the place straight in time for the celebrations. He, on the other band, was free until the end of the month.

"Call it a late wedding present," he said " Can't have my friends spending their first Christmas in a dump, can I?"

"Even so, we're really grateful, Starsky." Hutch picked up his own glass and tipped it towards their guest. " Here's to a dusty Colorado roadside, and the friend I made along the way."

Starsky winced. This was getting awful soapy. He wished they'd remember he wasn't used to all this open sentiment; it was embarrassing, and he got enough of it from Aunt Rosa. Time to change the subject.

"How's things going at the bank?"

For a moment Hutch looked taken aback, then understanding dawned in his eyes and he smiled. "Okay. Hard work at times. Guess it'll be a while before I reach the president's office."

Vanessa leaned across and patted her husband's cheek. "But you'll get there one day. Show your family you really can make it without their help."

Hutch laughed. "Behind every successful man..." he quoted, but the laughter didn't reach his eyes. Starsky felt sorry for him. He knew how much it had cost Hutch to abandon his freedom for what he felt as a ball and chain. He would be forever grateful to Al and Rosa Starsky for letting him go his own way.

"How're things for you, Dave?" Vanessa was asking.

"If ya mean did I find a job yet... I got the letter yesterday." A little bubble of triumph turned his smile into a broad grin.

"You've been accepted?" Hutch demanded eagerly.

"Uh-huh. Dunno how or why, with my record. Don't think John pulled any strings."

Vanessa was looking from one to the other, obviously confused. "Accepted where?" she asked at last.

"The academy... L.A.P.D."

"The police?" If Starsky had expected her to be pleased by his news he was mistaken. Her smile was quickly replaced by a look of shock, then horror. "Are you crazy?!"

"Van!" There was a warning in Hutch's voice—the first time Starsky had ever heard him talk harshly to her. "Leave it."

"Leave it?" She rounded on her husband, eyes blazing. "I thought he was your friend."

"He is—"

"Well you don't seem very concerned. A cop? He might as well save everyone the time and put the gun to his own head now. A cop... Dear God—"

She looked away, shaking her head as if she found the news too much to comprehend. A tense silence grew between them all, wiping away all thought that this was the season of peace and goodwill. Vanessa twisted her hands in the damask napkin; Hutch's face was stained with embarrassment. Starsky looked from one to the other, wondering if it would be better to apologize and leave—though he couldn't for a moment think what he had to apologize for.

Swallowing the remainder of his wine, he whistled softly. "Somethin' tells me I shoulda kept my trap shut. I'm sorry, Vanessa, Didn't think you got hangups about the cops."

Hutch got to his feet and wandered across to the empty grate, leaning against the mantlepiece. "'S not your fault, Starsk...Van's father was with the police department up in Sacramento. Couple of years back some acid-brain killed his partner and left Harry with a bullet in his spine."

"Shit!" Starsky ran a hand through his hair, tugging angrily at the curls. "Van, I'm sorry, I didn't know..."

"Don't be a cop, Dave," she whispered, turning tear-filled eyes to look at him. "If you can't give it up for yourself, do it for your family. Don't make your mother go through what mine's suffered since the day Dad first pinned on his badge."

"Just because it happened to Harry doesn't mean Starsky's any more at risk," objected Hutch.

She nodded. "I know that, Ken. It's a gamble, the way it's always been. But what about his family? Sitting there, waiting, day after day...seeing him go off to work every morning, wondering if he'll come home that night."

"I can take care of myself—"

"I know. You did it in 'Nam, you can do it here—" There was anger in her voice, and pain. "That's what Dad said after Korea. Well the bullet that put him in a wheelchair for the last five years wasn't the only one he caught. And every time they took him to the hospital I watched my mother die a little with him. I watched her grow old, Dave. Is that what you want for your mother, or for Al and Rosa?... Is it?"

He felt crowded, unsure of his ability and his motives. When Blaine had given him the tour of the precinct, shown him some of the work of a detective, he had suddenly found himself really interested in what the future could hold. It seemed right, somehow. A way of compensating for all the waste he had been a part of. But now?

He thought of the last time he had seen his mother, before he left for the war. She had cried a little—they always did—but underneath the wrench of separation he had sensed a very deep pride, that her son was doing something that he believed in. The independence that she had so desperately wanted for him had come to fruition, and if it all went wrong she would still be proud of him for trying. And he thought of the night, just a few weeks after his return, when he had finally broken down and told her all the horrors, feeling the strength of her arms around him, her own tears hot against his forehead. She had cried for his pain, that he had tried and failed.

In that thought, he had his answer. Better to try and fail, than to back away because the scales seemed tipped against him.

In the background the radio switched again to music, the rich harmony of Simon and Garfunkel counterpoint to the seven o'clock news. To Starsky, that said it all.

* * *

Thin January sunlight struggled to penetrate the early morning smog that hung over L.A., too weak yet to burn away the pollution.

He stood alone by the academy gates, his bag on the ground at his feet. Blue eyes followed the parade of faces as they passed by, all of them betraying the same nervous tension as his own wondering what the next few weeks would hold for them, wondering if the horror stories they had heard were true. The age range and basic physical characteristics were about the same, but in actual looks—coloring, as well as social and ethnic backgrounds—a wider variety of American manhood would be hard to find.

A quick glance at his watch told him there was less than an hour to go before they had to assemble in the main hall. An hour in which to change his mind. Was he doing the right thing? It seemed like a good idea, but how about deep down? Did he really have what it takes to be a cop? Assuming, of course, that he could make it through academy training.

A cab pulled in to the curb and a familiar face stepped out, waving across to him. He quickly catalogued the changes, few that they were. Shorter hair, black pants and casual jacket, a shirt and tie...

"John's idea," Starsky explained, seeing the direction the gaze was taking. "Said they always take a harder line with the scruffs." He ran a hand over the shorn curls, close-cropped to his neck.

"You look like a sheep," grinned Hutch, grateful that his own trip to the barber had not produced such drastic results.

"I'll survive." His face became suddenly serious. "How were things this morning?"

"If you mean, did we have another row—Yes. Like yesterday, and the day before. Like every day since I told her I quit the bank." He sighed, scuffing at the ground with the toe of his high-polished shoes.

"You knew from the start she wouldn't like the idea—what did you expect her to do?"

"She could try to understand how I feel. But all she can see is how I've wrecked her life. Know what she did the other day?...She painted out all the pictures in the back bedroom."

"The one she wanted to keep for the nursery?" Starsky asked.

"Yeah. When I asked her why she did it, she said if I was set on being a cop I could forget about starting a family. Said it wouldn't be fair on them. Can you believe that?"

Starsky stared at a spot somewhere about the blond's left shoulder. "I can see what she means," he confessed. "Cops shouldn't have families. I talked to Maggie Blaine the other day, an' she told me the same things Van told you. Like it or not, Hutch, she could be the one to get hurt most."

"Not if I'm careful. Lots of cops never even get to draw their guns the whole time they're on the force."

"An' a lot of them end up dead. You gotta be realistic, pal. You walk through those gates and sometime, someplace, you're gonna end up puttin' your life—an' whoever gets stuck with you as a partner—on the line. Can you do that, if you're worryin' about leaving a wife an' kids to make it alone?"

Hutch couldn't meet his companion's eyes. Didn't dare, in case Starsky read the sudden doubt. He knew that Starsky was right, but he also knew that Starsky felt the same way about this as he did. He wasn't sure when the seed had been sown, just that one day he realized that he was tired of sitting around, waiting for other people to change things. The move from Duluth to L.A. had been in search of independence, the need to build his own life. Vanessa had been part of that plan, yet in a way it seemed that making her his wife had drawn him back into the safe, conservative lifestyle of his parents. He was beginning to feel trapped again. Maybe his decision to join the L.A.P.D. had been the cause of the recent trouble between them—or maybe it was the post-wedding euphoria wearing off at last. Either way, he knew that he had to take this opportunity. If he didn't get out of the rut now, he never would.

"It'll work out," he said softly. "Give her time to get used to the idea. Kids can wait a while, till we're more settled. Once she sees it doesn't have to be the same for us as it was for her folks—" He picked up his bag and pushed a hand through his hair to tidy it. "Ready?"

"If you're sure. Last chance Hutch..."

"I'm sure." He grinned, patting Starsky on the back. "C'mon, Supercop. Don't wanna start out by being late."

Starsky stared at him a moment longer, as if trying to decide did Hutch really understand what he was getting into? Then he shrugged and hefted the battered pack—the same one that he had been carrying on that dusty road in Colorado—and nodded.

And, as Ken Hutchinson turned and walked through the gates of the Los Angeles Police Academy, David Starsky fell naturally into step at his side...