Prologue

April 2014

Los Angeles

Before he felt the pain, Starsky remembered the sounds.

They filled his head as soon as he opened his eyes. Sounds he'd not only heard but also felt as they crashed into him. So real were his memories of those sounds that, as he woke, he felt sure he was still hearing them.

He'd heard a scream, a shrill scream that ripped through his pounding head. Before that, pleading shrieks had echoed so clearly, he struggled even now to twist toward them.

Then he remembered the other sounds.

The ones that came just before the avalanche of pain. One deep and thick, a sickening thud of metal on bone and flesh, all squelch and crunch and guttural grunt. The distinctive acoustics of blunt force injury. Cruel and brutal.

Other noises had come just before the savage blow that knocked him out. They were just as violent, but tidier and compact, short sharp, whipping cracks. Like bullets released in rapid succession. His ears were still ringing from the resonance of that blast of gunfire.

Struggling to make sense of time and place, he turned his head to the side, and then quickly shut his eyes. He wasn't ready for the heart-stopping shock of what was next to him.

If this was a dream, a nightmare, then his pain shouldn't be so real, the sounds too would have faded. When he opened his eyes again, reality would shape up differently.

He sucked in a lungful of air and took another look, opening his eyes and squinting hard.

The reality was worse than any nightmare. It was lying beside him, just as it had been the first time he'd looked. A pair of wide-opened eyes, glassy and still, stared right at him.

A woman's eyes that were still beautiful even in death.

Chapter One.

Three Days Earlier

Starsky wondered what the hell was going on? He fixed his gaze on the wall behind the head of his bed. That wall had seen a lot of action go down on this bed and more so of late. Also of late, he'd been spending an inordinate amount of time focusing on that wall while he tried to force his body to do the job it was designed to do. The job it should have the decency to do when he was sharing his bed with a woman as sensual and willing as the one beneath him. In the shadowed light, he appraised her body and face objectively. She really was quite stunning - she had it all - everything he found sexually appealing in a female, and she was obligingly wrapping every bit of that appeal around him as they lay tangled on the bed. .Petite and yet well rounded in all the places that mattered, her sensual appearance was coupled with a healthy appetite for vigorous sex.

Squeezing his eyes closed then quickly reopening them, Starsky half expected that instead of the dancing night shadows he and his lover made, he'd see an emblazoned WTF glaring at him.

WTF exactly...

Well, the bedroom wall would just have to wait for an answer. He sure as hell didn't have one. In fact, he didn't have a lot of a lot of things lately, and the answer to that particular question was just one of them. Right now, he was sadly lacking in what it took to give his writhing lover what she was crying out for. Her throaty moans of "Give it to me now, Dave," were doing nothing to inspire his less-than-hard cock.

Since when did David Starsky suffer from soft-cock syndrome? That just didn't happen to him. His sexual repertoire had always been varied and plentiful but never had a soft cock been part of it. He couldn't recall it ever being an issue. Not until the last two months, anyway. Since then, his slow-to-warm-up symbol of manhood - in spite of the company of a procession of beguiling women - was becoming an alarming habit.

Maybe that was why he was trying harder to stay with this woman a little longer than just a couple of dates. Explore the potential they might have together.

Yeah, sure. He could almost hear the bed head creaking with laughter along with the wall at that shoddy piece of self-denial.

Okay - so he had nothing but the shallowest intentions toward this woman - sexy, nimble and hot blooded as she might be.

If he was honest, he was using her as a distraction like all the other women he had bedded in recent weeks. To pull him away from the self-indulgent fantasies he could no longer resist, and the hopes he feared would forever be unrealized.

Another purr beneath him and a forceful scratch from her long set of nails spurred him into action. Her smooth hand closed beseechingly on his semi-erect cock. He jumped at her touch. Suddenly, he needed to finish this lukewarm session before it turned stone cold.

If he wanted to perform for his lover, he'd have to do what he'd done several times before. Shifting his inner focus, he let his imagination take over, giving in to the sensual images in his head. Closing his eyes to shut out the distraction of feminine flesh and silky thighs, his mind took him to a different place, the same bed, the same physical setting, but with a different body. The body that electrified his senses, driving the blood to his cock and pitching his lust to a fever point. Within moments, he felt the reassuring heat in his groin; his breath hitched as the fantasy dragged him toward orgasm.

Growling now with fresh hot need, he reached too roughly to roll the pliant body over, urging her quickly to her knees. Forcefully, he dragged her rounded ass toward him. He had the grace to look at the bed head and wall where his own damning jury of self-recrimination perched from its vantage point. Watching him, condemning him, while he conjured up the glorious feast in his mind. A long-limbed golden body, hard and muscled, smooth and damp with sweat and pre-come, pushed against his groin, inviting him, insisting he plunge deeper and harder into its tight warm flesh. Then, with the fantasy exploding in his head, he was finally able to give the woman beneath him what she'd been asking for. Her escalating cries and soft laughter told him he was finally fulfilling her needs as well as his own.

Later, spent and drained, he rolled his sweat-slicked body off hers, collapsing heavily beside her. He lay panting, the cries from her exuberant orgasm ringing in his ears. Half-listening to her talk, already beginning to doze, he jolted when she ran her nails through his damp chest hair, giving him a sex-glazed smile.

"Oh my God, Dave," she said, panting. "You sent me over the edge three times! That's a personal best for me!"

'Personal Best.' Jesus. What is this? A competition?

What was she rating here? Him? His performance? His caliber as a lover, a stud?

Alarming images of his sexual exploits being plastered all over her Facebook page filled his head.

Shit.

He could almost see her post, a graphic depiction on her Facebook wall, maybe with a liberal dash of winking emoticons flashing beside the entry, peppered with anagrams and tawdry comments.

"Spent another night with the cop I've been seeing... OMG, he might be slow to warm up but once his engine heated up he sure went the distance and sent me flying."

Wanting to groan at the thought of his bedroom prowess (or lack thereof) becoming social media fodder, he summoned up his best crooked smile and ran his finger lazily around her still-tight nipple. He could feel his body starting to fade with the aftermath of the marathon. "Glad to be of service, Ma'am."

The first pull of post-coital pleasure tugged at him, a sense of floating somnolence as he lay where he had fallen across the bed, imagining another scene where he settled down beside the long hard form of his equally spent lover.

His flickering eyes tracked to the wall again. If the woman beside him weren't so wide-awake and watching him intently, he would have given the wall the finger. Let it know that he still had the famous Starsky endurance, even if he needed to be kick-started by his secret lust-filled fantasies.

She leaned in close, nuzzling him. She wanted more.

He would have told her he had no more to give, but he fell asleep before he heard her sigh in disappointment.

SHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSH

The sounds and light coming from the closed bathroom door penetrated his sleep. It took him a few moments to come back to the present. His hand brushed through a wet spot beside him and that, with the scent of perfume and fresh sex, reminded him that he had company - company who was still in his bathroom.

Why the hell couldn't women just roll over and go to sleep like men did? This constant need to get up, shower, and preen before slipping back into bed annoyed him tonight more than it normally would.

She came out of the bathroom and crawled in beside him. Her smooth legs wrapped around his heavily haired ones in a sinuous twist. The warm water vapors still wafted around her. As she leaned over to stroke his chest, her bare breasts lightly brushed his shoulder. "Hey, you're awake. Good. I was hoping you hadn't crashed for the night."

"Only half awake," he corrected, knowing it to be a lie. If anything he felt so tense that he had considered taking a cigarette out onto his beachside balcony and blowing out the left over frustration in his lungs. "Heard you in the shower. I guess it woke me up."

"You could have come in and joined me. I was lonely in there - but now you're awake; we can snuggle." The purr of her silky voice was an irritant in his ear.

A thick sweep of golden blonde hair was in his face as she molded herself to his side, her lips brushing against his stubbled cheek. He pulled back enough to communicate his disinterest. He could sense that she felt it.

He conjured up some explanation to ease the bite of his rejection. "Sorry - I'm wiped. Need to get up early in the morning."

"Oh?" Her disappointment was heavy in that one word, and he felt his guilt rise. Still, he couldn't feign something that wasn't inside him.

Undeterred, she reached over and pulled his hand against her face, threading their fingers together. "I was hoping we could just lie here for a while - and talk."

"Look - ah - look Cla - ah - honey -"

For one panicked moment, he could not remember her name, and almost slipped by calling her the name he'd been trying hard to forget for weeks now. With her face half hidden in the curtain of her hair, he couldn't be sure she had caught his stumble with her name. Frantically, he sifted his mind for a clue to spark his memory. The names of women who had shared his bed over the past month or more since Clare had exited his life, came to mind. However, none matched the face in front of him.

Shit, this is bad.

What kind of a bastard was he? He couldn't even think of her name, and he had just screwed her? And then to make it worse, he had come close to calling her the name of his last lover.

All at once, the bed seemed too small, her proximity too close, and his own his nakedness too intimate. Rolling to the side, he swung his legs over the bed and leaned down to retrieve his jeans from the floor.

"Dave, what's wrong?"

"Nothin's wrong..." and then it came to him, "Lydia." He added her named smoothly, hoping she hadn't picked up on his earlier lapse.

The recall of her name occurred at the same time that he realized he was already over her. Already over himself, and this repeated situation of casual sexual interludes. "I told you, I'm beat, and I need to get some sleep. Let's just - "

He levered himself into his snug jeans commando style and headed for the bathroom, acutely aware of her eyes following him as he fled.

Using the john and splashing his face with water, he took a little time to collect himself before going back into the bedroom, wishing that he didn't have to face a needy woman. The flashing light on his cell phone caught his attention as he walked back to the bed. Absently, he checked the missed call.

It was Hutch's number and he'd rung twice in quick succession about twenty minutes earlier.

Lydia watched him frowning at the cell phone. "It rang before when you were asleep."

"Why didn't you wake me?" He tried to keep his tone neutral, but he heard the irritation in his voice.

"Why would I wake you?"

"Because I'm a cop, for Christ sake, and cops get called."

"You let the calls go other times - I've seen you. You can always call back. What's the big deal?"

"It was my partner." He said it as if that was all she needed to know. The flitting of quick resentment across her face displeased him more than her not waking him.

"I know that," she said. Short, emphatic. "I recognized his ringtone. Hell, I should know it by now," she said with a scowl that he didn't miss. "That's why I didn't wake you. It's just a social call anyway."

"What the hell do you mean by that? You knew it was Hutch, and you left it? Hutch doesn't call at two a.m. for no damn reason at all." Part of him knew he was being unreasonable but the condemnation was there anyway.

Hitting the callback, he listened to Hutch's cell ring, and then turned away from Lydia when he heard Hutch's quiet voice. "Starsk?" The way Hutch said his name already had him worried.

"Hey, what's up? I just saw you called about twenty minutes ago. Is everything okay?" Even as he said it, he knew it was a stupid question. Of course it wasn't, he'd already heard it in the tentative nuance of his name.

"You're - you've got company?" Hutch's flat response was filled with disappointment, and Starsky could hear the need creeping down the phone.

"It doesn't matter. Is everything okay with you?" he repeated.

"Starsky... I shouldn't have called you this late. I rang before I realized the time and remembered you were seeing someone tonight - I'm sorry."

"You sound terrible," Starsky said, brushing off Hutch's apology, more worried about the way his friend sounded and what was behind the call. "You sick? You want me to come over?"

"No - no, not sick. I'm fine. No - " Hutch paused, took a breath. "I'm not fine. Shit. Look, it's okay - really. Go back to bed. We'll talk in the morning. I shouldn't have woken you. You know me. I have this reflex habit of calling you whenever -" His voice trailed off.

"You didn't wake me, okay? Now help me out here, because I can hear something's not right. Tell me now or I'll come anyway."

Hutch paused, and then finally blurted, "It's Van."

"Van? Your Vanessa?" The mention of Hutch's unlikeable ex-wife was something Starsky hadn't expected.

"Yeah - my Vanessa, if you want to call her that."

"You know there's a lot of things I could call Vanessa, but I'm just tryin' to cut to the chase here, partner. Is she - she - okay?" The level of quiet distress in Hutch's voice continued to concern Starsky.

"She's okay. Well, at least she is now. I'm the fuck-up when it comes to her." Hutch sounded desolate.

Starsky reached for his shirt and scanned the room for his Adidas. Noting the time on his wristwatch, he pinned the cell phone between chin and shoulder as he shrugged into the shirt and pushed his foot into the shoe. "I'm comin' now. Should be able to get there in a few minutes at this time of night." Since he'd moved to the beaches close to Hutch's Venice apartment, it made situations like this so much easier for them both. Neither of them missed the races across town through traffic to get to the other's place if there was some pressing need to get there fast. Uncertain why exactly, Starsky only knew that Hutch's sad tone immediately qualified this as one of those times. He couldn't stand to hear his partner sound so low, and the need to get to him as soon as he could was strong.

"I - I - " If Hutch was about to protest, his intention fell away with a relieved sigh. "That'd be good, Starsk. I feel like, well - I just want to see you." He finished, whatever else he might have said left unspoken.

"Hey, Hutch?"

"Yes?"

"Whatever it is we'll work it out, okay?"

"Where Vanessa is involved, I don't think I'll ever get it worked out," Hutch said helplessly.

Hutch's dejection had Starsky ramming his phone into his front jeans pocket and cursing his partner's ex-wife. He turned to meet an accusatory glare from Lydia.

"You just got through telling me that you were tired and needed sleep," she said with a touch of snipe. "And now you're getting dressed?" She was sitting up, the sheets pulled up to her breasts as though now that she was pissed with him, she was no longer going to allow him to see them.

"I'm sorry, but I need to go."

"You mean to tell me you're leaving? Leaving me here?" She seemed astounded. Starsky couldn't be sure whether she was genuinely surprised by the fact, or incredulous that he would go.

"Lydia, you heard most of that conversation so you must realize I'm worried about Hutch. Something's happened, and I want to go check on him." He was a little brusque, but he was annoyed with her dumb act when he knew she had heard what he'd said to Hutch.

"But it's the middle of the night! And we - we-" she blustered a little before trying to make him see reason. "Why the hell would you need to go over there now when he's just upset? Can't you leave it till tomorrow?"

There was little point in trying to explain it to her - his and Hutch's connection - and he found he had no interest in doing so. He shouldn't have to explain it to her. He rarely attempted to explain it to anyone.

"You can stay here; spend the rest of the night. If you'd lock the door behind you, that'd be great. There's fresh milk in the fridge for coffee." He strapped on his holster, grabbed his jacket and wallet, and bounced his keys in his hand. Mentally he was already out the door and on his way.

Lydia had different ideas. "You're seriously going to walk out on me in the middle of the night?" Now she was angry.

"Honey, I've already given you all I had in me for tonight." And anything else we had is well and truly over.

She didn't need to hear that last thought, so he pulled back from hurting her with it. He kept that locked inside the hardened center of him where he stored all his bitter resentment. She didn't deserve to get the backlash of his recent pain.

"You're treating me as if all we had between us was sex." There was anger and hurt in her voice. He knew he was coming across like a heel, but she was pushing his buttons.

Midway into shrugging on his jacket, Starsky stopped and sighed. "Lydia, don't complicate this. We've seen each other what - two, three times - "

"Three weeks. We've been seeing each other for three weeks." She said it as though the time represented some sort of attainment.

"Look. I've said I'm sorry. We've had a good time. Can't we just leave it at that? I've really got to go. Hutch is waiting..." Starsky felt impatient. He should already be on his way.

"Of course..." She sat back in the bed, defeated but not surprised. Her face had a petulant look.

"What the hell does that mean?" He felt immediately defensive.

"Your tone changes completely when he calls. It's no bother to go running over there in the middle of the night. But you can't take the time to do the right thing in our relationship." She spat the words at him.

She had breached his level of tolerance as soon as she made a judgment call on his loyalty to Hutch. "That's it. I'm outta here. Either stay or go. Don't matter to me. But let's get one thing straight. We don't have a 'relationship'. We have sex. You wanted it; so did I. And it was nice. But now I've got other priorities. Don't make this into somethin' more."

Her slap cracked him hard across the cheek. The shock fuelled his anger, and he pulled back in surprise. Turning, he started to leave.

She railed at him. "You selfish, self-centered prick! I'm over your haughty hard cop act. You think I enjoyed sleeping with someone who looked bored most of the time, and has trouble getting it up?"

At the bedroom door, Starsky stopped and walked back. Without a word, he picked up her clothes, shoes, and bag. Striding to the bathroom, he flung everything inside the door. "Get up. Get dressed. Get out." She had gone too far; if he didn't leave soon, he would say more to her than he should.

Snatching the sheet from the bed, she twisted it around her nakedness and stormed into the bathroom.

She was out of the bathroom quickly, dressed in record time, yet he was still impatient as he waited at the apartment door.

She walked right up to him, so close he could see the fire in her eyes. "Go - run off to your partner. I hope he wants you, because you sure as hell don't deserve me!"

He let her sweep away with a blaze of hurt and resentment lingering in her wake, and wasted no time in using the fire escape stairs to descend to the apartment block's garage. With quick strides, he crossed the garage floor toward his motorcycle with Lydia's last words in his head.

She was right, of course. He didn't deserve her. He couldn't disagree with that. But it was the first part of her sentence that stuck in his head. In fact, it had been stuck in his head for a long time now.

The part about hoping that Hutch wanted him.

SHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSH

The heated exchange with Lydia cut into him. He wasn't proud of how he had been with her, but guiltily, he also knew his mind was already elsewhere - worrying about Hutch. Donning his motorcycle helmet and unlocking the chain, he threw his leg astride his silver 2012 Ducati road bike. Cranking the bike up and controlling the throttle released some of his tension. By the time the motorcycle roared up the main beach road, he could feel the knot that had been inside him since his call to Hutch unravel just a little, the speed and air on his face calming him.

He'd purchased the Ducati at the same time he'd found his apartment in Santa Monica. The guy selling the older 70's apartment had the Ducati in the garage when Starsky went to scout out the parking facilities for his prized red 2011 Mustang. He fell in love with the motorcycle at the same time he fell in love with the ocean-side apartment. Starsky liked to call the bike the 'Silver Beast'. Hutch liked to call it the 'Silver Death Threat' and was never happy with Starsky opening up the engine on the open roads. Modes and styles of transport was a constant bone of contention between them. Hutch had an aversion to riding anything that didn't include a full metal frame and seat belts.

At two-thirty a.m. he had the road to himself and made short work of getting to Venice Place. Parking his bike alongside Hutch's latest junkyard car - yet another amorphous beige/brown/tan/rust Ford ensemble from the turn of the twenty-first century - Starsky held his helmet under his arm and headed to the door.

Leaning against the buzzer, Starsky pushed his flattened curls off his forehead. What had Hutch so agitated? Why was Vanessa coming back into his life after all this time?

When he heard the soft click of the electronics, he pushed open the door and took the stairs two at a time. He wasn't surprised to find Hutch's door ajar. Waiting for Starsky's arrival.

Hutch was sitting bathed in the half-light of a table lamp. The muted glow picked out the metallic in his hair, a different spectrum from the pure white blondness that the natural light of day brought out. In the subdued light, his close beard and moustache (more like a heavy five o'clock shadow than beard) looked darker than its usual dirty blond, creating a contrast with the halo of lightness around his head.

Hutch had been wearing the short beard for over a month now, but Starsky was still getting adjusted to the closely trimmed goatee and moustache. It was so shortly cropped that Starsky had taken to taunting him about simply having forgotten to shave. Despite his ribbing however, Starsky liked the layering the darker facial hair gave to Hutch's character. It provided just enough disparity with the dramatic white blondness to save Hutch from classic masculine beauty. Not that it was ever Hutch's intention to avoid this; Starsky knew his partner was largely unaffected by his own physical beauty. However, the facial hair lent him just enough of a grittier edge to distract the beholder from what would otherwise be faultlessly, breathtaking good looks.

He looked up when Starsky walked in, and despite the warm pleasure on his face at seeing his friend, Starsky didn't miss the deep groove of his vertical forehead frown line - a sure sign that Hutch was in a deep funk. There was a nearly finished bottle of Corona in his hand and three empties lined up on the table. Two wine glasses and an empty bottle littered the table as well, one of them tainted with a lipstick smudge. It didn't take much to figure out who'd been sharing a drink with Hutch. The social symbolism of the shared wine suggested a degree of civility at least to Hutch's ex-wife's visit.

Scanning the familiar living areas of the apartment, Starsky could see nothing out of the ordinary - no signs of a fight or a physical tantrum.

Unlike the exterior of Venice Place, which still retained many features of its original architectural charm, the apartments had been modernized to a certain extent. However, the polished wood floors, plush rugs, plastered walls, and country kitchen all helped keep it casual and relaxed like Hutch preferred. It was just the right balance of homey and modern, masculine and comfortable. Whenever Starsky walked into the small apartment, he thought instantly of "home" in the true sense of the word.

"Beer in the fridge," Hutch said without getting up. It was as good an opening as any, given the drawn look on his face.

"Bit late for beer," Starsky said, "but what the hell?"

He tossed the helmet on a chair and shed his leather jacket before walking toward the small kitchen. Enough street light illuminated Hutch's small, semi-covered terrace that he could see everything seemed as it should be out there also. No broken pots or upturned planters. Hutch's pride and joy, his beloved plants, seemed to be all intact.

Starsky knew he was thinking the worst, his less than charitable opinion of Vanessa coming into play - imagining her having gone on a rampage, smashing pot plants at random and hurling them dangerously at Hutch's head.

Returning with two fresh beers, he levered off his bottle cap and threw the opener on the table. Sinking heavily onto the far end of the couch, Starsky took a closer assessment of his partner. "So, I'm here."

"So, you are. What did you leave behind to get here?" Hutch's smile was soft and Starsky heard the two separate messages in his few words. The relief that Starsky was now at his side and the guilt he felt at having needed him there.

"Nothing of note. She's gone now." It was the truth, not said purely to lessen Hutch's guilt. "I didn't leave a good impression. She called me haughty and hard." Starsky considered his own words before taking a long slug of frosty beer and then another straight after.

"You've been excelling at leaving that sort of impression for a while now. Too long. Haughty and hard isn't your normal way, Starsk." Hutch frowned with worry. "You need to look at what that's about, buddy."

"Maybe. Perhaps." Starsky thought about it as he drank more beer and made an attempt at self-derogatory humor. "Not sure about the 'hard' bit though. I can tell you, Hutch, I was anything but earlier tonight. It's getting more and more difficult for me to come to the party for these self-absorbed bitches."

Hutch winced at the caustic note in Starsky's voice, and looked at him. "'Self-absorbed bitches?' You sure it isn't the other way around? You've been pretty self-absorbed yourself for a while now." He bumped his foot against Starsky's calf. "You ever thought, Starsky, that screwing a string of women could have something to do with why you can't get a hard-on at command? Maybe your dick is just plain worn out, partner. What number was this one?"

"Number? Shit, I don't know. I could barely remember her damn name. Don't matter anyway. She's gone. Pissed off that I left her when she wanted some deep and meaningful afterglow chat. Jesus - women."

Another swallow of the beer and he poked Hutch's leg with his foot. "Now - enough about my sexual conquests, what about you, buddy?"

Hutch snorted into his beer and shook his head "Sexual conquests? More like sexual minefield. The rate you're going, you'll have screwed every woman in a twenty-mile radius of Santa Monica by next month, and every one will be an unmitigated disaster. Don't you think it's time you take yourself off the one-night-stand circuit, and look at why you're doing what you're doing to yourself and every woman you meet?"

"Hey, I'm thirty-six-years old, for Chris' sake, and in the sexual prime of my life. Why shouldn't I play wild for a while?" Starsky had heard this same spiel from Hutch several times over the past couple of weeks. It was getting harder to deflect Hutch's penetrative comments and his constant fault finding with his wayward behavior.

"I'm glad you used the word 'wild'." Hutch said with a stern face and a jabbing index finger. "By the time you're thirty-seven you'll have either killed yourself with too much fucking, smash and burn on that two-wheeled silver death machine, or smoke yourself to death with those daily packs of cigarettes you think I don't know you suck behind my back."

Starsky pushed Hutch's wagging digit aside. "Oh, come on, Hutchinson, that's rich. You talking to me about gratuitous sex? And your problems with the Ducati are just your hang-ups about motorcycles. I'm no more likely to die on it than speeding in my car and you know it. And who are you to talk about lapsing into smoking? I can remember plenty of times I've been on your case for falling back into the nicotine habit."

Hutch sagged back on the couch and looked defeated. "Very sporadically and you know that. You've been hard on the cigarettes for weeks and weeks now. It's not like you're just having a smoke here and there with a coffee. I can already hear it in your breath when we run up the stairs - and the other day when you tried to chase that loser down the alley near - "

"Hutch!" Starsky interjected, cutting off his tirade. "Seriously. Forget worrying about the smoking, will ya? It'll pass."

"It's not just the heavy smoking, Starsky. I don't like watching you grind yourself down over another bitter experience with a woman, so you can prove to yourself that all women are like Clare. Hurting them doesn't change what she did to you-"

"No." Starsky cut in firmly again. "We are not making this about Clare." Starsky was determined not to let Hutch turn this into another therapy session. "Not now. Not now, okay?" It came out with a desperate edge; he hated hearing the weakness in his voice. "Besides, it's not just because of Clare," he admitted. "I'm just in a bad space at the moment."

"Then why don't you share some of that space with me? Don't you think it would be better than what you're doing to yourself?" Hutch rationalized gently.

Starsky felt uneasy. These sorts of introspective conversations with Hutch were becoming too dangerous for him. Hutch was edging closer, every time, to the issues that Starsky knew were at the root of his recent emotional turmoil, and it was becoming more difficult to hide the truth from his insightful partner.

"Listen, you think I rode over here at nearly three a.m. to hear you lecture me about my aberrant lifestyle? Hell, I could've just waited 'til morning for that. You'd start on me as soon as you climbed into the front seat - as you usually do every morning," he snapped, hoping to deter Hutch.

"Starsky-"

"Look, shelve it, will ya?" Starsky yelled and quickly modulated his voice. "Hutch, I don't want to talk about all of that same shit again. I'm not here because of me. Or damned Clare. I'm here, buddy, because you called me, remember?"

Hutch looked contrite and backed off. "I know that. Still I can't help being worried about you, and what you're doing to yourself. I promise to shut up about it from here on in - or try to at least." He reached out and patted Starsky's thigh affectionately. "I'm glad you're here. Did I tell you that yet?" He smiled fondly at Starsky.

That was all it took for Starsky to lose his anger. "You sounded like hell on the phone. I didn't like the idea of leavin' ya' alone." Now that the spotlight was off him, he could relax again. He felt sorry for lashing out at his friend.

Hutch rubbed at his temples, letting his long lean body slide down further on the couch. "I'm glad because I didn't feel like being alone..."

"So let's have it. Vanessa paid you a late night visit? Well, at least she seemed to have spared trying to make you wear creeping ivy and a pot of fertilizer on your head. I seem to remember another time when - " Starsky brought himself up short and peered at Hutch's profile, his mouth tightening. "Wait just a moment. What the fuck is that?"

In the soft light falling across Hutch's cheek, Starsky saw raised red skin and the dotted line of dried blood that ran into his beard. Even beneath his facial hair, the vivid scratch was hard to miss. Starsky leaned across the couch and gently grasped Hutch's chin, turning it even more toward the light.

Hutch pushed Starsky's probing hands away, and jammed his beer bottle in his mouth.

Starsky sat back, his eyes narrowed. "This where you tell me you cut yourself shavin' again? Not that you do all that much shavin' these days," Starsky said, the accusation made softer by his touch on Hutch's jaw.

"It's nothing," Hutch muttered as he ducked his head.

"Oh, it's somethin' alright. It tells me a lot. So I see she's still wearin' those long talons she loves to flash around, particularly in your direction."

Hutch looked down at his lap, the defeated hopelessness on his face so characteristic of how Starsky so often saw him in the early years of their friendship, when Hutch was still married to Vanessa. Starsky had always been shocked by how that woman could affect his strong partner, as though her very presence demeaned and disempowered him.

Starsky took a moment to collect two more beers before returning to the couch, this time perching opposite his friend. Touching Hutch lightly on the knee, he finally got him to look up. "So what's goin' on, buddy? What went down with you and her tonight that's got you so upset?"

Hutch accepted the fresh beer and frowned at the cold bottle. "She just walked back into my life, Starsk. Just like that. Knocked on my door at around ten and walked right in. No phone call, no email - not that she'd even know my contact details - just showed up in person. Said she'd just arrived on the late evening flight from New York. Caught a taxi straight here from the airport. God. She was just standing there. Standing there looking like she always looked. I tell you, it just rocked me." He fingered the deep scratch unconsciously.

Starsky was worried by the confusion and self-doubt creeping into Hutch's face. "So she just arrives here for no apparent reason, after what - it must be five years since the marriage ended, isn't it?" Even to him, Starsky's blunt question sounded too pragmatic - but any attempts at sensitivity regarding Vanessa were impossible for him. For Hutch's sake, he'd have to tone down his natural antipathy toward the ex Mrs. Hutchinson.

"Actually, she tells me it's been four years, six months, and twelve days. How do you like that? She had it down to the exact day." Hutch looked thoughtful.

It failed to impress Starsky, but he merely shrugged. Hardly like Vanessa to have been counting the days since she lost her loved one - since she was the one who single-handedly destroyed the marriage. She'd severed her commitment to Hutch, rejecting her young cop husband for, it seemed to Starsky, all the wrong reasons. The memory of what Hutch went through in those first weeks after she'd left him could still make Starsky's blood boil.

So, no, he didn't believe for a moment that Vanessa had come back in some love-frosted sentimental moment to re-unite with her one true love.

Clearly Vanessa had other motives.

Trying to keep his bias out of the equation, he prompted his friend to continue. "And so? Is there a reason she sought you out? After all, how did she know you were living here now?"

"Van's a smart girl. She might not have had my phone number or email, but she found out where I was living." He looked around his small homey apartment and smiled ruefully. "I don't think she was too impressed with my humble abode - probably even a notch down from the canal cottage that she also despised."

"Hey whata' you talkin' about - Venice Beach is damn prime real estate now, and you happen to live in just about the trendiest street. Gentrified zones add a lot of worth to property, and this street is a prime example of it. Does she know how much real estate goes for around here these days? Jeez, you're a veritable property tycoon, Hutch."

"Starsk - I rent, remember?" Hutch rolled his eyes, but Starsky was pleased his comments brought a small smile. "I'm not the one who went out on a limb for a mortgage. Anyway it's hardly what Vanessa is used to, and this small apartment is too bohemian for her standards."

"So what? Who cares what she thinks? That's her problem, not yours. It's not as though your station in life has changed so much in the past five years that you can afford to live in Beverly Hills. What did she expect on a sergeant's income? A penthouse?"

"Oh, I think she expected that I might have finally relented and cashed in some of my trust fund and be living the high life. Maybe she thought I'd have grown out of playing the role of struggling street cop with my scruffy longhaired sidekick. Mind you, she hardly seemed surprised when I told her I was still partnered with you." Hutch paused and looked at Starsky directly. "In fact, I got the feeling she expected it."

"Hey, mind your mouth there. I might be a little longhaired for a GQ cover shot, but I ain't scruffy. You're the one with the facial hair confusion, not me."

"Facial hair confusion, Starsky?" Hutch shook his head. "Where did you coin that term from?"

" 'S like ya' can't quite decide whether to grow a beard or not. I'm clean-shaven and smooth. You, on the other hand, look like you've just misplaced your razor every morning. Also, for your information, these jeans are fresh on yesterday, and that motorcycle jacket over there is one hundred percent Italian leather - made in Milan. That's the fashion capital of the world, in case you don't know." Starsky followed his comments up with a kick to Hutch's leg.

Hutch snorted into his bottleneck, and Starsky was pleased to see that he seemed more relaxed. "Oh, you mean the jacket that you picked up for a song at the local Saturday market from Lou Pattini's cousin. The one who runs the pizza stand at the markets and is always peddling other merchandise because his pizzas don't sell. And, he probably got it off eBay before that..." He smirked and then stopped. "God, Starsky. I just had a thought... Wait 'til Van finds out you tear around on a motorcycle as well as a revved up hot rod..."

"You think she'll finally see what she's failed to appreciate about me? That I'm so much more than she ever pegged me for? Fast, furious, and classy?"

"Ahhh..." Hutch pretended to take the time to think. "No."

"No?"

"Maybe fast and furious - but you can forget the classy bit."

The comic relief lasted only a second before the lightness left Hutch's face. "I don't know what she wants from me, Starsk. Two hours she was here. The first hour it was - well, it was good. Good enough, I guess. We talked, shared some wine, and found some common ground to explore. Managed not to argue or bite at each other - oh, for at least that first hour." Once more, he reached up to touch his jaw and throat, the vivid scratch a personification of her presence. "Then, by the end, we were back to how we always were."

Like she always was, Starsky thought. Back to being the cold-hearted bitch with a sharp temper and flying hands. Once again he reserved comment, and waited for Hutch to go on. He knew there was more. Something had caused the distress he heard in his partner's voice on the phone.

"She says I never loved her," Hutch said softly. "Never understood her. Never tried to see her perspective, how she felt being married to a man who chose a profession that put his life on the line every day. Never thought about what it would do to her if I died. Said I'd dragged her out to California, away from everything she loved and valued, and tried to force her to adopt my chosen lifestyle, my dreams. That I simply pushed her needs to the side in pursuit of my own. I was brash, she said, full of myself, selfish - and too young to appreciate how destructive it was to our marriage."

He stood and walked toward the kitchen, then turned and came back. "For the first time tonight - with the distance of all the pain and anger we went through behind us - I thought about what she said, Starsky. I heard what she said, like I hadn't heard it five years ago, or hadn't wanted to hear it then. And, even though she's still resentful about it and angry toward me for doing it to her - I started to hear what she was saying."

The pain was back in his face, the lightness of their shared banter already losing out to guilt. Hutch allowed guilt to get the upper hand with him too often, so Starsky knew what was coming.

"Hutch," Starsky said when Hutch seemed to finally wind down. "You've been through all this with her before. It's the same agenda, the same accusations. Vanessa's lifestyle choices against yours. She left of her own accord. She made the decision to leave you so she could get all those things she so desperately thought she had to have to make her life complete. None of this is new for you. Her unexpected visit has just taken you off guard."

"But it is new, Starsky. It's new, because now I think maybe I was too immature, too hell-bent on my cop career to see what I was asking her to give up. I always thought she was the selfish one. Maybe... Maybe it was me. Could be that she's right."

"Right about what? You were right about following your dreams to be a cop. Don't you get the chance to make yourself happy and complete in your own way?"

"Starsky..."

"No - just shut up, will ya'? You think I don't know what you went through with her? You think your ex-wife is justified in the way she treated you because you created a new life for the two of you? If your plans for life didn't match hers then the time to do something about it was before she put your ring on her finger. She chose to marry you, and then, when it didn't go her way, she ditched you." Starsky could feel his cold resentment rising as he remembered how Vanessa destroyed Hutch's confidence. "Didn't just ditch you, buddy - she damn near annihilated you. Now, one late-night visit makes you believe it was your fault her life didn't turn out how she planned. That's bullshit!"

"You always saw the worst in her," Hutch said despondently.

Vanessa Hutchinson's worst, in Starsky's estimation, was how she dismantled her husband. That was the thing he could not forget. "And you were always blinded by the best in her. You still are."

"What does that mean?" Hutch asked, defensively.

"I think you know, Hutch," Starsky said quietly. "She still as attractive as ever? As glamorous, stylish, and classy? She still got the moves to twist you up in knots?"

"You think I'm seduced by her appearance?" Hutch's tone was challenging.

"You're only human, buddy."

"Starsky, if you were anyone else, I'd take you down for that comment."

"Why? It's a statement, not a judgment." And yet Starsky knew in many ways it was just that, and he felt bad for needing to clarify something for himself.

"I didn't sleep with her," Hutch snapped, "if that's what's worrying you."

Starsky looked down at his hands quickly, hoping that Hutch didn't pick up the relief flickering across his face.

"Not talkin' about that, Hutch. I'm talkin' about seductive ways, not just in the sexual arena. She's pulled you in again. One short visit and she's got you doubtin' yourself and carrying a heavy load of guilt. That's her forte."

"Well, I sure can't make anything better for her now," Hutch said, looking upset. "She's sick, Starsk."

The 'Ah-Ha' moment finally hit Starsky. So this was why he got the SOS from Hutch at two in the morning. "What are we talking about here?"

"She's in LA for tests and possibly a procedure. They found some sort of breast lump. When she found out, her boyfriend left. Just didn't want to deal with it." Hutch was sitting down again and looking at Starsky like he was trying to measure his reaction.

Starsky chewed the inside of his mouth. He tried to say something safe. "That's tough for her. Sounds like she's well rid of the creep."

"Sure, but it leaves her floundering. She seemed so scared. Alone." There was wistful sympathy in his voice, and Starsky was again worried about how deeply Hutch was affected by what sounded like one of Vanessa's performances.

"And that's why she's come to you? Because she lost her boyfriend?" Starsky asked, trying for neutrality but missing. "Are you supposed to suddenly become her support? Step into his shoes? Your commitment to her is over, Hutch."

"I owe her something," Hutch insisted. "I can offer her help when she needs it."

Starsky suspected Hutch had not in fact made that offer, which is why he was wallowing in guilt now. Vanessa must have reached out, and Hutch couldn't offer her what she really wanted.

"So, how did you deal with it? With what she was asking?" Starsky said, not even sure himself what it was Vanessa might have been asking for.

"Badly. She accused me of not caring before I even had a chance to figure out how I felt." Hutch sighed wearily. "Then the discussion got ugly, and I didn't get a chance to handle it at all."

"Hutch," Starsky said gently, exasperated for his partner. "She just can't walk back into your life and lay all this need at your feet."

"I feel - like I should do something, feel something at least. I only felt confused about it. Ken Hutchinson may be the prize bastard Vanessa always accused me of being."

"Because you can't solve her medical problem?"

"No. Because I can't even pretend to care about helping her. She used to be my wife, for Christ's sake! What sort of man does that make me?"

"It makes you a man who's been so hurt, you can't trust easily again. You need time to process all this."

"Vanessa might not have that time, Starsky."

"You don't have the whole story yet. Now, come on. It's late, you're wiped, and so am I. Women have run us both ragged tonight, buddy."

"Damn, Starsky, I shouldn't have called and laid all this drama on you. It's not as if it couldn't have waited - I just felt - -"

"I know when you're hurtin', partner. Just like you'd know for me. That's where Van's so wrong. You care - you care a whole lot for anyone that matters to you. Don't let her make you doubt that about yourself." Starsky moved closer to him and reached out.

Hutch stood and clapped his hand on the Starsky's shoulder. He gave a ghost of a smile. "I don't think she'd consider my relationship with you as proof of my empathy. She's always known you get that from me no matter what." His voice was heavy with emotion.

"Yeah, well, the way she treated you at the end of your marriage forfeited her right to any empathy. You're a kind and decent person, Hutch. Sometimes too kind and decent for your own good." He grabbed Hutch's hand where it rested on his shoulder and gripped it hard. "Now - I don't wanta' hear anymore about this tonight. We'll solve the world's problems tomorrow." He looked quickly at his watch. "Make that later today. I'm crashin' here. I'll ride back home in the mornin'." He gave Hutch a playful swat to his rear. "So move your ass away from my bed, and throw me that blanket. We've gotta' be up in less than four hours."

SHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSH

Starsky burrowed deeper beneath the blanket and groaned at the intrusion into his senses. Something was dragging him from sleep. It was far too early for that. Who the hell was knocking at the door at this time of the morning?

He'd only been asleep three hours - at least, that was what his watch told his bleary eyes. Turning over, he realized he was half-sprawled off the familiar confines of Hutch's narrow, lumpy couch. The knocking was now insistent.

About to bellow for Hutch and make it his problem, he heard the distinctive sound of the shower. Hutch had beaten him, as usual, to the bathroom. The knocking was now his problem. Or, he could just ignore it.

"Go away, will ya'?" he said, as he fumbled around for his discarded jeans and pulled them on over his naked body. He stumbled toward the door. As he flipped the lock and turned the handle, he was gearing up to deliver a mouthful of abuse to whoever might be on the other side. And stopped dead. He stood face-to-face with a woman he had not seen in years. One he would rather have never seen again.

Vanessa.

Still half asleep, he was at a distinct disadvantage. He missed interpreting her initial expression, but he didn't miss the glint of cold contempt she revealed in the first stunned second when they saw each other.

He stepped back.

Vanessa was as beautiful as ever. Impeccably dressed, her make-up appropriate for the morning, her long hair shiny, and her posture regal, she oozed class like a Royal and yet threw off sparks of sexuality like a sex siren. She had matured perfectly into her early thirties, like one of those expensive French wines that Hutch enjoyed blowing his salary on.

She spoke before he had a chance.

"David. What a surprise," she said, but her cool tone told him his presence was anything but a surprise. "I didn't pass any modified sport car as I walked in. Are you driving something more sedate these days?" Her eyes traced a path from his toes to the top of his head and then centered on his lower midriff.

"Hello, Vanessa." His voice was husky with post-waking throatiness. He was disconcerted by her frank assessment as he stood, sleep tousled, at the door. "No - I still drive a car, but I rode over on my motorcycle."

"Oh? You mean the big silver one down there outside the restaurant? Well - it fits your image, I guess. " Her voice was languid as she took in his bare chest, disheveled hair, and unbuttoned jeans. Her eyes lingered a while below his waist, and she smiled tightly.

How did she do that, he wondered? Sound coquettish and malicious at the same time. Then, he wondered about where her eyes were focused and if he might be partly exposed with a half-mast zipper and no briefs. Surreptitiously, he swept his hand down to find he was decently covered.

"It's been a while," he said, hoping like hell she couldn't sense his discomfort about his state of undress, but suspecting she was enjoying it.

"A while? Yes, it has. Years in fact, but things don't seem to have changed much." She looked toward the bedroom. "You're here early - or should I say - late?" She glanced at the scattered beer bottles on the coffee table behind him, then at the blanket on the couch.

"I dropped in for a late beer," he said simply and immediately resented that he felt the need to explain why he was at Hutch's.

"And then stayed - as you always do. Like I said, not much has changed." The venomous nuance was there and he didn't like it.

He headed for Hutch's small kitchen. He'd have to wait to use the john. Normally, he'd just barge in on Hutch when he was hogging the bathroom, but not with Vanessa there.

He sensed her behind him as she walked into the apartment as if she owned it. She laid her handbag down and followed him toward the kitchen, and he felt immediately trapped, as if she were closing in on him.

Starsky retreated behind the fridge door and pulled out a carton of juice. Splashing the liquid into a glass, he downed it in one long swig. Fortified, he turned to Vanessa. She leaned against one of the kitchen chairs as though ready for a photo shoot, her perfectly manicured hand resting under her chin, watching him with her big grey-green eyes.

"Hutch is in the shower," he said unnecessarily, the sounds emanating from the bathroom clear evidence. "You want some coffee?"

"Um...depends. I prefer freshly ground beans."

Even that irked him. "Nope, these are pre-ground. I'm putting some on for Hutch and me anyway."

"For you and...Hutch." She rolled the phrase around slowly while looking at the apartment, studying it. "Very domestic."

That irked him even more. As he set the coffee to percolate, he was relieved to hear the bathroom door open.

Hutch walked out, towel around his waist, rubbing another one over his damp hair. "Bathroom's all yours. Hope you've got the coffee ready for - " His last words died on his tongue as he took in the sight of his ex-wife in the kitchen. "Vanessa?"

She tossed her hair lightly over her shoulder, and then rolled her wristwatch around her slim wrist. "Ken, good morning. We did say quarter to seven, didn't we?" She lifted one arched eyebrow in question.

Immediately, Hutch looked contrite, his fair cheeks flaring with a flush of color. "Seven? Yeah. Yes - we did. Look, I'm sorry, but we, ahhh - we - I mean I - I overslept."

Starsky winced at Hutch's stutter, which only emerged under pressure or emotional distress.

"He didn't oversleep. In fact, we barely had enough. We were up late," Starsky said as he moved closer to Hutch to support him.

Vanessa looked pointedly at the beer bottles on the coffee table, and then once more at Starsky's bare chest and ruffled hair. "So I gathered."

Taking the opportunity to exit the scene, Starsky left the kitchen. "I just put the coffee on, Hutch. I - um - I'll be in the bathroom."

He brushed Hutch's shoulder before he left and felt his tension. "You get any sleep?" He spoke quietly, but knew Vanessa was taking it all in.

"Some." Hutch said. "You?"

"About three less hours than I wanted. Make me a coffee, will ya? I need it." He left the two of them there, Hutch in his towel looking like he was with a woman he'd never met before, and Vanessa with an expression of mild disdain on her flawless features.

When he returned five minutes later, the atmosphere was still strained. Vanessa, perched on the edge of the sofa, sipping at a glass of juice, gave him a tight smile when he snagged his discarded shirt from beneath the coffee table. Hutch was on the single chair opposite her. As he handed Starsky a steaming mug of coffee, he gave him an apologetic look.

Starsky gulped the too-hot coffee and busied himself with buttoning his crumpled shirt.

"Starsk," Hutch said, "I'll - um - I'll be late to work this morning. Not sure how long I'll be. Could you let Dobey know? I - ah - I need to take Van in for an appointment - a medical appointment."

"That's fine," Starsky said. "I'll let him know. I'll have to go back to my place to get the Mustang."

"Okay." Hutch sounded strained. "Just give me five minutes to get dressed, Van, and then we'll hit the road. What time did you say you had to be there?"

"By eight - but with traffic..." Her tight mouth softened, and she relaxed on the sofa. "Look, it doesn't matter. I'm sure I'll have to wait anyway. Don't rush - I'll catch up with David if he has a few minutes."

Starsky hoped his expression didn't show his distaste. He took another swallow of coffee and nodded at Hutch. "Go on - get yourself ready. I gotta finish this cup before I can hit the road."

Vanessa waited until Hutch left the room before she turned to Starsky. "So, you and my husband are still just as close as ever?" She left the juice on the coffee table and sat forward again.

Starsky said in a measured tone, "Your ex-husband and I are still as close as ever."

She gave the barest of smiles. "Oh sorry. You're right of course. - My ex-husband. Old habits..."

"Been five years. Not such an old habit anymore."

"Yes, time moves on, doesn't it? So tell me, Dave. Are you still happy being a detective?"

Where is that coming from? "Me? I'm happy enough. We have our days - doesn't everybody?"

"I know that it must be hard for you sometimes - well - with the sort of life you had back east." She waited, suddenly looking flustered.

He said nothing. He wasn't about to help her out. Where is she going with this?

Suddenly she changed tack, as though trying to backtrack. "I guess - well is it different from what you thought you might have done with your life?"

He gave up trying to work out what she was on about and shrugged. "Who knows? I went where life took me - Being a cop, it's what I do, what I am." He finished the last swig of his coffee. "What 'bout you? What brings you back here? Kinda outta the blue to drop in like this, ain't it?"

"Drop in?" She seemed affronted. Back to her prickly self. "You make it sound as though I need an invitation to visit Ken. I was here last night 'til after one a.m., and arrived bright and early this morning to find you basking here like some big dark cat. I thought perhaps after all of these years your - um - mutual obsession with each other might have dimmed."

He could see the jealousy in her face and knew they were treading on old ground. "Same ol' Van," Starsky said with a brittle laugh. "Circling for a fight."

"Same David," she said arching one beautifully shaped eyebrow. "Standing between me and my marriage."

"Your marriage ended years ago," he shot back, feeling the old hostility rise up. "Hutch has a whole new life now, so why come back?"

"That's none of your business. It's something between Ken and myself."

"Anything that affects my partner is my business, lady." He was almost pleased to see her pull back at the cold menace in his voice.

"I'd almost forgotten what a bastard you can be. You were always ready to show me your dark side."

"When someone messes with our life, it brings out my threatening side."

"Listen to you! Our life," she said disdainfully. "You talk as though you're a couple!"

For a second, her observation knocked Starsky off guard. He hadn't even realized he'd referred to them in that context.

"What happens in Hutch's life, impacts my life." Starsky quickly recovered, bringing the focus back to Vanessa. "You still haven't answered me, Vanessa. Why are you here?"

"You mean Ken hasn't shared that with you? "She laughed lightly in disbelief. "You two who share everything?"

Starsky nodded. "He said you're here for some kind of treatment."

"And you don't believe that, obviously."

"I'm not Hutch," he said. "I'm on a different playing field where you're concerned."

She shook her head. "Or maybe where I'm concerned you just jump to the wrong conclusions."

He decided to be completely honest. "It's true, I never trusted you, and I'm not likely to start now, especially since you sprang up outta nowhere. But I'm prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt. Why does Hutch have to take you for a medical appointment? I'm sure you've gone to plenty of them over the years without his help."

She looked cornered. "Again - that's between Ken and me."

He laughed lightly, shaking his head as he shrugged into his leather jacket. "You haven't changed. Still pushing Hutch in front of you instead of dealing with your own issues."

Her eyes flashed angrily. "I came here to see Ken, but as usual, you're standing between us. I came to LA to talk to him about some personal matters."

He moved in a little closer to her, speaking quietly. "Hutch might be an easy target for all the misplaced guilt you've put on him, but there's nothing wrong with how I see things. Think about that."

"You think I care what you think, David? Seriously?" It was her turn to laugh.

"Probably not. That's your main problem, Vanessa. The only thing you care about is yourself."

"Starsky." Hutch's soft voice was suddenly behind him. He'd obviously heard at least some of the conversation.

Starsky turned and looked directly at him, seeing his silent plea to leave it alone.

Picking up his helmet and keys, he nodded, acknowledging Hutch's unspoken request. "I'll catch you at work, buddy. Good luck this morning, Van." Starsky said it without making eye contact with her.

He wasn't surprised that she didn't honor him with a reply as he closed the door behind him.

SHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSH

It was nine o'clock when Starsky settled at his desk with a cup of departmental sludge masquerading as coffee. He had just commended himself for his streak of rare productivity with paper work. Clicking the keyboard with a flourish, he saved two outstanding reports that his captain had been harassing him for. Telling himself his admirable work ethic was worthy of reward, he leaned in closer to the computer screen.

Opening his browser, he skimmed images of chrome exhaust fittings for his Ducati. His silver baby deserved to sound a little throatier, and a new exhaust pipe would do wonders for the Silver Beast's image. It couldn't hurt his self-image either. He'd been off his game and needed something to pick him up.

A familiar voice outside his cubicle distracted him. He looked up to see Hutch through the glass partition, standing a few cubicles down, greeting another officer. Hutch didn't linger but made his way to the work bay they shared.

Starsky pushed his chair back and put his feet up on the desk as Hutch entered the semi-private work area.

"So what's this?" Hutch asked, one blond brow arched up. "Not even nine o'clock and you're kicking back? I hope you've got some of those overdue reports finished."

"I'm a lover, not a writer," Starsky quipped.

Hutch groaned. "Bashing out case reports is hardly a literary pursuit. Besides, being a 'lover' is half your problem. If you used your bed for sleeping some of the time you might be more productive."

"As a matter of fact, I've been applying myself diligently since I got here. My hands are cramped from typing and my eyes are strained from staring at the screen." Starsky flexed his fingers and squinted.

"Yeah, sure. More like you've been surfing the net looking at new exhaust pipes for that silver death machine." Hutch's eyes dared him to deny it.

The guy knew him too well. Starsky took his legs off the desk, deciding evasion was the best move. "Hey, I thought you were gonna be later than this. You decide to bail on Vanessa?"

Hutch turned away. Starsky knew it was to hide his embarrassment and frustration. "No, I took her." He paused, as though he was going to leave it at that. "She had an appointment at White Memorial in the Specialist Center."

"You didn't stay with her?" Starsky was surprised. He hadn't expected to see Hutch for hours. Nothing happened fast in the medical system, even outpatient specialist appointments.

"She didn't want me to," Hutch said simply.

"So she comes all the way to LA, gets you to take her for a test, and that's it?" Starsky couldn't help but sound incredulous. "Hell, she could've just taken a cab."

Hutch shrugged, obviously confused himself. "I know, I know. It doesn't make sense, but she didn't want to talk about it." He poured some coffee. Starsky could see he was deep in thought.

Starsky hoped Vanessa's foray back into their lives might be short-lived. "You think she'll try to contact you again?" He tried to make the question casual.

"I really don't know, Starsk. But she seemed damned tense when I dropped her off. Maybe she doesn't want to discuss it until she knows something further." Hutch walked to the desk. "Now, weren't we going to check out leads on the Reynolds case? Samford runs an import business near the docks, doesn't he?"

Sensing that Hutch wanted to veer away from Vanessa, Starsky changed tact. "Yep, that's what Dobey said." His gaze drifted to Captain Dobey's glass-walled office. "Speaking of the Cap, he looks busy this morning. Think he's opened that email we sent him?"

"That you sent him, Starsky. Keep me out of this."

"Did you or did you not sit beside me when we 'borrowed' that PC downstairs?"

"Starsky, I didn't even know what you were doing," Hutch protested. "I was trying to find the roster before that dragon lady from Human Resources found us at her desk. How the hell was I supposed to know you were sending him a link to People's Magazine's freaking 'Diets of the Stars'? God, the trash you fill your head with never ceases to amaze me."

"Light entertainment. You should try it some time. Better than National Geographic issues from 1989. Anyway it was a link to the Kardashian's Diet - 'How Kim lost thirty pounds in fourteen days.' With photos."

"Between the drivel you read and the crap you eat, you'll end up rotting your brain as well as your gut. And just as aside, it's physically impossible to lose thirty pounds in two weeks."

Better, Starsky thought. Back to their usual banter. Their own form of therapy. Far better than looking at Hutch's worry lines when he talked about Vanessa.

"Ssshhh - here he is." Starsky smiled congenially as Dobey entered the squad room and approached their cube. "Hey Cap' - my other half is not as late as he thought he'd be, so we can head down to the docks now."

"Hutch," Dobey said, ignoring Starsky, "Starsky said you needed some personal time, something medical concerning a close relative? Hope everything's okay."

Hutch threw Starsky a quick look of gratitude. Starsky had tried to keep Vanessa's name out of it when he covered for Hutch. "Thanks, Captain. I - well - we don't know for sure yet."

"Let me know if you need any more time." He turned to Starsky, who was giving his captain an almost clinical appraisal, and scowled. "What are you gawking at?" Dobey's broad dark face was creased in annoyance.

"Me? Oh sorry, Cap'n - I was just thinking that you're lookin' good. You been on some new diet we don't know about?"

Dobey preened a little. "I'm just exercising moderation and control, Starsky. Something you might do as well. When I was your age, I could eat whatever I liked, like you do now. You'll soon find out the party's over where the body is concerned."

"Cap'n," Hutch said, "with all due respect, I don't think Starsky's body will ever know the party's over." Hutch poked Starsky's stomach. Then he added for Starsky's ears only, "Or any other pleasures of the body, for that matter."

Starsky smacked Hutch's hand away. "Sorry, Hutchinson. It's the Starsky genes. Generations of pure bodily perfection. It means I can partake in many pleasures with little ill-effect." He gave Hutch a special half smile to ram home the double meaning.

"Well, Starsky," Dobey coughed, "your superior genes and - ah - other attributes aside - I suggest you get off your ass and start your working day. You two have been on Stamford's tail for a week now with little to show for it."

"All right, Cap'n. We hear you," Starsky said. "But - um - have you thought that perhaps this moderation and control thing is making you moody. You know, I've been reading about those Kardas - " The sudden warning on Hutch's face shut him up. Hutch's violent hand slice across his throat made sure of it.

"The only thing I'm controlling is the urge to give you both a double shift to make up for all the time you waste finding ways to irritate me, Starsky - the next time you decide to send me an anonymous email, cover your tracks a little better."

"Huh?"

"Mrs. Simpson in HR didn't take kindly to you two commandeering her PC. You're lucky I talked her out of putting in an official complaint." Dobey smirked. "And you call yourselves detectives..." He chuckled before entering his office.

"He nailed you, Starsk." Hutch grinned at the look on Starsky's face.

"Shut up, Blondie. He meant you, too."

Hutch flicked his hand lightly at the side of his partner's head. "Let's hit the street. The morning's half gone, and we've got work to do."

SHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSH

Starsky was halfway through his third taco when Hutch's cell phone rang. They were sitting in a small café catching a quick lunch after spending a fruitless morning questioning staff and notable clients at Samford's import business.

Hutch looked at the phone and put down his partly eaten wrap.

Starsky noted his unease as he recognized Vanessa's number. "You gonna' answer that?"

"Sure - sure."

He looked anything but sure, Starsky thought. Any mention of Vanessa seemed to transform Hutch into a completely different version of himself, a version Starsky hadn't seen for years. An uncertain, tenuous, always second-guessing himself version of Hutch.

Hutch picked up the phone and walked a few feet away.

The call was brief. Within moments, he was back.

"Vanessa?" Starsky asked.

"Yes," was all Hutch gave him back.

Starsky wondered at the power of a woman who could make Hutch looked so trampled emotionally after a sixty second phone call.

"So, how did it go with the medical thing?"

"She didn't say. I don't think it's something she feels comfortable discussing over the phone."

Starsky kept his skepticism to himself.

"Anyway," Hutch said, "she wants to have dinner tonight. She wants to meet me at some restaurant." He sounded almost detached as though he was still trying to make sense of the call himself.

"You okay with that?" Starsky asked carefully. He couldn't read Hutch well on this, and it left him feeling that Hutch was withholding something from him.

Hutch shrugged. "I just don't know what she wants from me. But - I'll go. Of course."

"You don't have to."

"Starsky, she's in town for medical tests. I think I owe it to her to have dinner with her."

"You seem to think you owe her lots of things, buddy. I think you owe it yourself not to let her drag you into something that's gonna make you uncomfortable. You've been fine all morning. Then, as soon as you hear her voice, you look like you're going to trial or somethin'."

Hutch shook his head. "This is just left-over shit from my failed marriage. A lot of people go through this when things end badly." He crunched up his unfinished sandwich in its wrapper and stood up. "You think I'm doing the wrong thing going out with her tonight, don't you?" The way Hutch said it left Starsky thinking Hutch might want him to talk him out of the dinner date.

Starsky sighed and gave up on his own lunch, wiping his face with the napkin. "I don't buy this whole mysterious illness. I think she has some other agenda. Go to dinner, if only to get to the bottom of it. Just be careful, Hutch. That's all I'm sayin'. Vanessa left you on the emotional scrap heap once before - don't give her the chance to do it again."

SHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSH

Back at Metro, Hutch turned to Starsky as the elevator opened on their floor, and they headed for the squad room. Starsky was watching him in a way that told him he was reading the uneasiness Hutch was feeling at the thought of dealing with Vanessa at dinner. Since the phone call, Hutch could feel his anxiety levels rising steadily, and by the time they arrived back at Metro he was already regretting agreeing to meet with his ex-wife that night.

Sure enough Starsky let him know.

"That organic wrap you ate for lunch have bad sprouts in it or is there somethin' else chewin' your gut?"

Hutch cursed his own transparency when it came to his partner.

"No - it's this damn case that's got me uptight. We're getting nowhere with it. If we don't turn up something soon, Dobey's going to be riding our backs."

It was immediately obvious to Hutch that he hadn't fooled Starsky. "Yeah - you're right, Hutch, the case is at a standstill. I'm gonna research the other import businesses Samford deals with on the West Coast. It's a one-man job and until we get somethin' else to go on, there ain't anywhere else we can go on the case so - " he took Hutch's arm to reinforce his suggestion. "Why don't you take off early? Get ready for your dinner date."

Hutch found himself over-thinking what Starsky meant by that simple comment. "Get ready? How the hell do I get ready?" Hutch bristled. "You mean relax, don't you? You mean I seem uptight?"

"Jeez, don't get all defensive. You seem pretty wound up about it so I just thought - " Starsky suddenly stopped short and muttered, "Shit!"

Hutch glanced up and saw what had caused his partner to stop in his tracks.

Two uniformed female officers stood by the water fountain. They were talking quietly together and laughing as they filled their water bottles.

"What the fuck is she doin' on this floor?" Starsky ground out in a low breath as he came to a halt.

Hutch stopped with him. Following Starsky's glare, he tensed. Hutch stood in front of Starsky, blocking his view. "Just walk on by, Starsk. Just walk by and ignore her."

The look on Starsky's face suggested he had no intention of doing any such thing.

The shorter of the two officers looked up as she stepped away from the cooler, her expression suddenly wary. Small boned and youthful, she had auburn hair that was pulled away from her face.

Hutch thought again how pretty Clare was, almost angelic. Such deceptive looks for what lay beneath.

Her eyes narrowed as she whispered something to the other officer. Apparently, Clare had seen them, too. She stared at Starsky unflinchingly

"What are you doing here?" Starsky hissed beneath his breath, moving closer to her. Hutch looked up and down the corridor quickly.

"We both work in this precinct, David," she said decisively. "Deal with it."

As Starsky closed the distance to Clare, her partner did the same. Hutch had no option but to flank Starsky's side.

"I don't want to deal with it, Clare! Or you, for that matter," Starsky said angrily. "You need to stay out of my face!"

Hutch quickly stepped between them before things escalated. "Starsky, let it go. Come on..." He gripped Starsky's arm and tried to pull him towards the squad room.

Starsky wrenched away and moved even closer to Clare. "You think this is a game? You wanna rub my nose in the fact that we work in the same building? You wanna twist the knife a little more?"

The other female officer, whose nametag read "Houghton," pushed herself between Starsky and Clare. "Back off, Starsky. Not everything's about you."

Starsky only then seemed to become aware of her. "Keep out of this, Houghton. Clare made damn sure that nothing was about me, didn't ya', Clare? How's Lieutenant Carlson anyway?"

Before Starsky and Clare could escalate the argument, Hutch moved close to his partner, gripped Starsky's forearm, and pulled him away. "Starsk. Enough."

There were now other officers watching them. A few had slowed in their activities to see the drama. Then, as though he finally realized how public the setting was, Starsky seemed to get control of his anger. He nodded at Hutch.

Hutch nudged him in the direction of the squad room; Starsky gave Clare one last withering look and walked away.

Clare watched him go before turning back to Hutch. "I don't need this attitude from him - or you, either. I know what you think of me. It's written all over your face."

Hutch lowered his voice as he confronted her out of Starsky's earshot. "What else do you expect after you cheated on my partner with Carlson? I suggest you stay away from this squad room. Coming up here provokes him. All of this is still way too fresh, and pushing yourself into his domain is just asking for trouble. No one wants a public showdown right outside the squad room."

"I'll go where I please! Here in this build or anywhere else. David and I are finished; he's just got to face reality."

Hutch laughed bitterly. "He faced reality when he walked into your apartment to find you screwing Carlson. That was the day after you told him you wanted the two of you to be 'exclusive.'"

Hutch could still see the shocked bewilderment on Starsky's face when he showed up on Hutch's doorstep late that night. Over the days and weeks that followed, Starsky's hurt had not diminished, but was simply buried beneath bitterness.

Clare squirmed as Hutch crowded her against the water cooler. Houghton looked surprised. Hutch supposed there weren't many people who got both sides of the story. Clare and Carlson had made a show of emotional commitment, and Clare had downplayed her relationship with Starsky. Only Hutch knew how deeply the act of deceit had cut into him.

"I fell for someone else," she said defensively. "I didn't plan it. It happens."

Hutch's mouth closed in a hard line. He couldn't trust himself not to say what he shouldn't say to another officer. "Stay off this floor. Even if my partner can eventually cope with you, I object to seeing your face." He turned and stalked away before he lost control.

If they weren't in such a public place, Hutch would've let loose with his real opinion of Clare and how deeply she had hurt his friend. However, it was neither the time nor the place, and it would do Starsky no real good. The damage was done, and Hutch was still trying to pick up the pieces for Starsky, because Starsky sure as hell didn't seem to want to try.

He didn't look back to see if she had left as he entered the squad room.

SHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSH

Starsky was waiting for him when he walked back in. "You didn't have to do that, ya know?"

"Yes, I did," Hutch said as he settled in their shared workstation and started looking through files. He was still bristling, and didn't want Starsky to know how much Clare had gotten under his skin, too.

"Not your issue," Starsky said quietly. "Not your fight."

Hutch stopped sorting through the files and looked at him. "It's my issue every day you remain in self-destruct mode, the way you have been since you found her with Carlson. You keep going at her like that in public, and she's going to bring you up on charges. It would be so easy for her to ruin you over this if - for you to ruin yourself - "

Starsky sagged boneless on his desk chair. "You're right, Hutch. I should be over her. I don't even know why it's still so hard to do that. It's just - I've got all this anger and I just don't know what to do with it."

"Oh, you're doing something with it, partner. You're turning it against yourself. Killing yourself slowly by degrees. And the worst of it, buddy, is that I can't seem to help you stop. I can't help you realize you're worth more than that. Far more. You deserve to find the commitment I know you're really looking for."

Starsky looked at him closely, so closely that Hutch was certain Starsky could see all the mixed emotions he was trying so hard to keep hidden. Emotions that had more to do with Starsky than just worry about his recent behavior. Much more.

If Starsky read anything else on Hutch's face he didn't let on. "I sure can pick 'em, can't I?" he said lightly.

Hutch relaxed. Lately, he was showing too much of something he was sure Starsky wasn't ready to see.

"Hey," Hutch said with a small smile, "make that 'we'. You think I have a better track record? Consider the current dilemma I face with Van...and all those that came after her."

In spite of his anger over Clare, Starsky grinned. "That's damn right. To hell with women. Fuck 'em all."

"Yeah," Hutch said, deciding it was time they talked about this, "you've been trying your best to do that ever since Clare."

"Smart ass. Always the smart ass, Hutchinson."

"You going to deny it? You've been going through women like water. From where I'm sitting, it doesn't seem that it's helped much."

Starsky looked away from his partner. "It hasn't. And I tell you, Hutch, I'm serious when I say I'm done with it." He said the next few words with more effort. "I'm done with their - their lies."

Hutch's response was softer, but his tone serious. "They don't all lie, Starsky. Doing the same to them isn't going to make the hurt Clare gave you any less painful."

"Maybe not." Starsky looked around the squad room and was relieved to see the other detectives engaged in their own tasks.

Hutch lowered his voice. "All I'm saying is, let it go. Let her go. For your own good. Okay?"

Starsky rubbed his face. "Okay. I got it. I hear ya'."

"So? No more one night stands? At least for this week?" Hutch's request had an edge of severity that he knew showed how concerned he felt.

Starsky looked up as if surprised by the seriousness of Hutch's tone. "Okay, I promise to have a few quiet nights in. Just for you, partner. Happy now?"

"Happy."

Starsky leaned in close and lowered his voice to the quietest of growls. "But that don't mean I still don't wanna' rip Carlson's face off if I get half the chance."

Hutch understood, but he was still concerned. He squeezed Starsky's arm, and answered in his own low tone. "That's why you've got me. To make sure you don't. I don't want you to make a rash move that will leave me minus one partner. You run faster than me, so I need you. Alright?" Hutch was already logging on to his desktop and pulling together some hard copy files.

"Is that the only reason you don't want to lose me? 'Cos I put a sprint on your marathon?" Starsky pulled a face, looking wounded.

"Well that - and a few other reasons." Hutch kept a straight face as he went back to the screen. "Now, let's get started on this backlog of paperwork or I'm going to be late for dinner with the ex. And - I sure as hell don't fancy anymore run-ins with pissed off women today."

SHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSHSH

Starsky had been home for around two hours. After a hot shower, a flick through his home emails, and a quick tidying up of his neglected apartment, he was starting to mellow out. Following Hutch's advice wasn't such a bad idea. It actually felt good to have a night at home by himself with nothing more to contemplate than a cold beer, some left over pizza, and whether to chill out to some music or watch a DVD. In fact, he couldn't remember how long it had been since he'd spent an evening alone, or just with Hutch, lazing back on his sofa. Without being out on some rushed date, after work drinks, and then inevitably - a lackluster experience in the bedroom.

It seemed forever, too, since the anger that gripped him had receded. Lately, he'd been pushing everyone away with his short temper, frayed nerves, and irritable moods.

Except, of course, Hutch.

Hutch was the buoy he swam to, the rope he clung to, the ledge he balanced on. But even more than that, Hutch was the force that stopped him from drowning, from falling, from tipping over the edge.

So even after he raged and acted out, slept around, drank too much, rode his Ducati too fast, and floored the crap out of his Mustang - Hutch was standing to the side waiting for him to get over it. Hutch remained undaunted and seeming unable to be used up no matter how much Starsky needed to take from him.

He carried his beer onto the balcony and breathed in the salty tang of the ocean, and wondered how Hutch was faring with Vanessa. He hoped for both their sakes he could get to the bottom of her problem, help her however he thought he could, so she could move her on with her own life. Hutch sure didn't need her dragging him down.

His concern for Hutch aside, this was the first time in weeks that he'd felt his tension ease. And he admitted to himself that the grayness smothering him was not all about Clare. In reality, his pride was bruised more than his heart.

The truth was, he didn't want Clare. And he didn't want any of the women he had been involved with since Clare. The truth was, he wasn't even sure that he wanted any long-term commitment to a woman at all.

Yet, he wanted something. Something elusive and just beyond reach. Something...too frightening to face. He didn't want to look too closely at the deep want inside him.

He remembered last night's unsatisfactory sex with Lydia, his unresponsive cock and his half-hearted performance. What the fuck was wrong with him? When he was with women, they did not satisfy him; when he was by himself, he had sullen moods. But he never - no, never, felt anything was wrong when he was with Hutch.

Something indescribable was radiating in the distance when the two of them were together. Lately, it had felt like it was coming closer. At times, like today, he felt it might be already upon them.

But at those times, he felt himself pulling back. Not yet. He wasn't ready. Or was he? Was Hutch?

The source was getting too close to hold back. If he weren't on guard, it would ambush him. This intangible and exciting something was not far away.

Perhaps it was time to prepare for it.

He was getting too tired of changing his linen every morning anyway.

To be continued: