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The Hardest Word

Written by Valerie Wells

What do I do to make you want me?

What've I gotta do to be heard?

What do I say when it's all over

And "sorry" seems to be the hardest word?

 

Hutch moved as quietly as he could getting ready for work so as not to awaken his wife. Their fight last night had been so bitter and ugly that he just wanted to get the hell out and get to work. Maybe by the time he got home tonight she'd be in a better mood.

At least at work, he knew who the bad guys were and why.

He didn't dare run the blender to mix his morning health shake, so he settled for a glass of orange juice and an apple. Grabbing his jacket off the chair, he opened the front door to go, but he had never left for work yet without kissing her good-bye and he couldn't bring himself to do it now. He slipped into the bedroom and leaned over her sleeping form, dropping a gentle kiss on her forehead. She stirred, but didn't awaken, and he left, feeling vaguely guilty without quite knowing why.

"You look tired," Starsky commented as he entered the squad room. "Didn't you sleep good?"

"No," Hutch answered, pouring himself a cup of coffee and sinking down into his chair to go over the day's hot sheet.

"How come?" Starsky asked, then added, lowering his voice, "Have another fight with Vanessa?"

Hutch nodded without looking up.

"Sorry, buddy," Starsky said, still softly.

"Me, too."

"Wanna talk about it?"

Hutch shook his head. "Not here."

"'Kay." Starsky let it go immediately and went back to the file he'd been looking at.

Hutch wondered why his partner knew just what he needed and when he needed it, but his wife didn't. Or maybe she didn't care to know.

 Starsky let him talk when he needed to talk, and shut up when he didn't want to talk. He was sympathetic when Hutch was troubled, but never pressed him if he chose to keep his own counsel. When Hutch was happy about something – like their recent promotions to sergeant and therefore plain clothes – Starsky was as delighted as a child for him and with him.

Vanessa...had not been.

"You're kidding. Tell me you're kidding," she'd said flatly when he'd announced his promotion to her a few days ago.

"I'm not kidding. Why would I kid about something like that? It's three thousand more a year, Van," he'd said, hating the almost-pleading tone in his voice. Be proud of me. Be happy for me.

"And it's one more reason not to look for a different career," she'd said.

"This is my career," he'd told her. "Police work. Helping people. Protecting people."

"Running around being macho with your gun and your badge," she'd added, rolling her eyes.

It hurt. Hutch admitted that to himself – and to Starsky – but no one else. It hurt that his wife couldn't be supportive of his job. Or of him. He loved being a police officer. Macho had nothing to do with it. It made him feel as though he could make a difference. Maybe not a big difference, but every time he helped put away a criminal who had hurt somebody innocent, every time, he felt good about his work. He'd been an instrument of justice. It sounded corny, yeah, but it gave him a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Vanessa didn't get it.

Starsky did. He felt the same way. Last week, they'd broken up a dope ring that was selling drugs to kids at a junior high school. Junior high! After work, they'd had a beer at Huggy's to celebrate. Starsky had crowed – there was no other word for it – at the thought that those innocent kids were safer now that the pushers had been put in jail. They'd laughed and clinked their beer mugs together in a toast to the good guys winning for once.

Van had been angry that he was late getting home.

"When are we going to get a grandchild?" his mother had started asking. He and Vanessa had been married two years. Obviously, his mom thought that was long enough to put off having kids.

But Hutch didn't know how to tell his mom that he was afraid to bring children into a marriage as rocky as his was. That he didn't want his children to live in an atmosphere of arguments and cold silences or with a mom and dad who were at odds more often than not. So he brushed her off with excuses. They were waiting until they could afford to buy a house. He didn't make enough money yet for Van to quit her job and they didn't want to put their kids in the care of strangers. So far, his mom had accepted that. But living hundreds of miles away in Minnesota, his mother and father didn't see the slow but steady deterioration of their son's marriage. All they saw was the bright faces Hutch and Van put on for visits home. All they heard were the cheerful weekly telephone calls when Hutch only had a few minutes to talk to each one and tell them everything's terrific, California's terrific, Van's fine, how are you?

Some days he wished he were still six or seven years old and could run to his mother and hide his face in her shoulder and sob out all his troubles so she could fix them for him.

But he wasn't six or seven. He was a grown man, and a grown man can't run to mama when his wife turns away and begins to hate the sight of him.

They'd driven for almost half an hour in silence before Starsky said, "Wanna talk about it yet?"

Hutch sighed and leaned his head against the car window, looking out at the street instead of at his partner, who could read him like a book. "I don't think we're gonna make it, Starsk."

"What happened this time?"

He shook his head. "I don't even know, to tell you the truth. We had supper – TV dinners – and we watched the news and some stupid sitcom, I don't even know what it was. I was reading the newspaper. She was watching TV. And after awhile I got hungry again and I went into the kitchen and was looking for something to snack on and – " He stopped.

"And what?"

"She got pissed and said I was just doing it to 'punish' her for making TV dinners. And then she started yelling about how she worked full time, too, and I never help her with the housework and I never notice how much she does and if she was too tired to cook and we had to make do with TV dinners now and then it wouldn't kill me and...." he sighed and rubbed his eyes. "I didn't say a damn word about the TV dinners, Starsk. I didn't."

"I know."

"I just wanted a snack," Hutch said plaintively. "And I do help with the housework. It's not like there's that much. The place is so small and we don't have much furniture to dust or anything. I did the laundry last weekend. She didn't like that, either. Said I shrank her favorite skirt. And I got mad and yelled and said then she could do her own goddamn laundry after this."

Starsky was silent, but Hutch could see by the expression on his face that he understood.

"We fight over every damn thing. We hardly talk without fighting. She hates my job, she hates the way I comb my hair, she hates – " Hutch stopped. He'd almost said too much.

"She hates what?"

"Everything," Hutch said, unwilling to finish. The fight last night had gone from "you never help with the housework" to "you spend too much time with Starsky" and from there to "I can't stand Starsky, he's crude and uneducated and you're beginning to act too much like him."

Hutch was not going to tell his best friend that Van had said such things about him. That's when it had really gotten ugly. That's when Hutch had quit trying to placate his wife and had become so angry he'd had to leave for a while to cool off. Attack my job. Attack me. But leave Starsky out of it.

Starsky was his only anchor in a sea of pain. And Hutch was not going to stand still for anyone, even Vanessa, saying cruel things about him. Starsky would never know; but it didn't matter.

Hurt my partner, and you've hurt me.

The worst part of it was, Hutch could remember better times. He could vividly remember meeting Vanessa and falling in love with her and how they'd laughed and had fun together. How tender their lovemaking had been. The tears in her eyes when she'd accepted his proposal. How beautiful she'd been at their wedding. The excitement of their first months of marriage. He couldn't get enough of her. He could hardly tear himself away to go to work.

What happened?

He didn't know.

She'd known he was a cop when they met, when they married. She'd made a couple of comments along the lines of "cops don't make much money" and "I'm going to worry so much about you, police work is so dangerous." But he hadn't thought that had meant his work would drive such a wedge between them.

Now that wedge had become a wall, so high and impassable that Hutch didn't have the strength to even try to climb it.

"I'm sorry, buddy," Starsky said after the silence had stretched for minutes. "I wish there was something I could do to help."

Hutch laid a hand on his shoulder. "I know. You listen. That helps. You must get sick and tired of listening to me bitch about my wife."

Starsky grinned and glanced at him. "Don't sweat it, Blondie. If I had a wife, I'd probably bitch about her, too, and then we'd be even. I'll get my turn one of these days."

"And I promise to listen to you bitching about her every day if necessary," Hutch said, grinning back and feeling better, just because he had Starsky to talk to. "It's the least I can do. What are partners for?"

Starsky reached over and patted his leg affectionately and returned his attention to the road.

Vanessa had brought that up, too. The way Starsky and Hutch touched each other. They were so comfortable together, so in tune, that such contact was natural to them. They punched each other playfully, touched shoulders and waists and arms and hands without thought.

"You got the hots for him or something?" she'd demanded only a couple of days ago.

"What?" Hutch had been drying his hair after a shower and had stopped dead in the middle of it.

"Your partner. Starsky," she spat the word as if his best friend's name left a bad taste in her mouth. "You guys can't keep your damn hands off each other."

"I don't know what you're talking about, Van," Hutch had said, trying to be patient, but the trying only made her more angry.

"Don't patronize me, Ken," she said, narrowing her beautiful eyes and glaring at him. "You know damn well what I'm talking about. You and Starsky are forever pawing each other. You got the hots for him? Or does he have a thing about you? Maybe it's mutual, huh? Some of those nights you're 'working late' have a little bit more than work action?"

"Oh, for God's sake, Van," Hutch had said, losing patience, not that he'd had much to begin with. "You gotta be out of your mind."

"You don't seem to have a lot of interest in having sex with your wife," she'd said. "So I started to wonder if you were getting it somewhere else. Since you never go anywhere without Starsky, I began to wonder if that's where you were getting it."

Hutch had thrown down the wet towel, so angry for a moment that he wanted to hit her. He'd never wanted to hit a woman before in his entire life. He'd backed off from that impulse immediately, appalled at himself and a little frightened, too, that he was capable of getting that angry. Taking a deep breath to calm himself, he'd said, "If we haven't had sex lately, Vanessa, it's because we go to bed angry almost every night. I can't make love to you when you're not even speaking to me."

"Then why are you always touching him?" she'd demanded.

"I'm not 'always' touching him," Hutch had said. "I definitely don't 'paw' him."

"You touch him with a lot more love than you touch me," she'd said, tears beginning to well up in her eyes. The sight should have made Hutch more angry, because he knew quite well that she could produce tears on demand when she wasn't getting her way about something, but his heart had melted and he'd gone to her, held her and assured her of his love and they'd ended up making love – better sex than they'd had for weeks – until the early morning hours.

Then last night they'd had another rip-roaring pitched battle.

When Hutch got home, the house was empty, but that wasn't unusual. Van did her errands when she got off work and she must've gone to the grocery store or the cleaners. Hutch went into the kitchen and poked around for something to make for dinner, determined to try to get along tonight. If he did the cooking, maybe that would help.

There wasn't much available, but he found enough ingredients to make meat loaf. By the time he had dinner going and had taken a shower, he was beginning to worry. Van should've been home by now, even if the grocery store had been crowded. He looked at the phone uncertainly, but scolded himself. It was only six-thirty. Maybe she'd gone out for a drink with friends from work or something. He checked the meat loaf, read the paper, watched TV and tried not to worry.

But when the meat loaf was done and still no Vanessa had arrived, he really began to get scared. He took the meal out of the oven and set the table.

Finally, he called his mother-in-law. Trying to sound casual, he said, "Have you seen Van today?"

"No, Ken, I haven't. What's wrong?" Vanessa's mother sounded as frightened as he felt and he didn't want to scare her.

"She's a little late," he said, giving a little laugh to make it sound like it wasn't a big deal. "I know she had some errands to run this evening and I thought maybe she'd stopped by. If she does stop by on her way home, just tell her I'm cooking, so she doesn't have to worry about making dinner, will you?"

"That's sweet of you," Van's mother said. "I'll tell her, if she comes by."

"Thanks, Jen. Talk to you later. I have to check dinner."

"Okay. Bye, hon."

Hutch hung up and sank down on the sofa. The meat loaf sat forlornly on the table, waiting and getting cold. He finally went to the kitchen and ate his own dinner, wrapping up the rest and storing it in the refrigerator for Van to warm up when she did arrive. He tried to watch some more TV, but he couldn't keep his mind on even the stupidest sitcom. He tried to read, to play his guitar, but every sound made him come to attention and listen vainly for Van's key in the door.

Feeling foolish for doing it, he called the hospitals to see if Van had been admitted. She hadn't. He called the dispatcher and asked if she'd been picked up for speeding or anything. She hadn't. He didn't know most of her friends – they were people she worked with, mostly, and he'd never met most of them. She didn't have friends she talked to on the phone or went shopping with or had lunch with like most women he knew.

At 11, he tried to go to bed. He had to get up early for work. But he couldn't sleep for worrying about his wife.

Where the hell is she?

At midnight, he gave up and got out of bed. He started going through the notes by the telephone and stuck to the refrigerator for clues. Had she left him? It looked like all her clothes were still here, though she had so many he couldn't be sure. Her hair dryer and cosmetics were still in the bathroom. She wouldn't have left him without taking those. Would she?

At 1 a.m., he called Starsky.

His partner's very groggy voice answered after ten rings.

"Starsk. Me."

"What's a' matter?"

Hutch sighed, feeling even more foolish. "Van. She's not home yet."

"Huh? She hasn't been home at all?"

"No. And I'm getting scared." Which was a lie. He'd been scared for hours.

"You call the station?"

"Yeah. And the hospitals. And her mom. No sign of her."

"Want me to come?"

Hutch smiled in spite of himself. If you even suspect I need you, you're there, without my having to even ask, buddy. "No, Starsk. I'm sorry I woke you. It's just...."

"Hey, don't worry about it, Hutch. What are partners for, anyway? You sure you don't want me to come? I could be there in ten minutes."

"No, buddy. Go back to sleep. I'll be okay."

"Let me know what happens."

"Thanks, Starsk." Hutch hung up and lay his head back. He was still sitting like that at 2 a.m. when he finally did hear the key in the door and Vanessa came in, dressed to kill and looking so beautiful that he didn't know whether he wanted to hug her or throw her out and tell her to never come back.

"What are you doing up?" she asked, as casually as if she stayed out until 2 a.m. every night.

"Worrying about you!" he shouted, suddenly so angry that it frightened him. "Where the fuck have you been?"

"Out," she said, dropping her coat and purse on a chair.

"I noticed." When she started past him, he grabbed her arm to stop her. "Where have you been? And with whom? I've been scared to death, goddammit!"

She yanked her arm free and glared at him. "Why should you care? Even when you're here with me, your heart's somewhere else. So I decided to go out and have some fun." She walked into the kitchen and he followed her.

"You been cheating on me?" he demanded.

She laughed, but there was no humor in it. "I go out one evening and suddenly I'm cheating on you. You spend all your time with your partner, and that's not cheating on me?"

"Leave Starsky out of this," he said, deadly calm in a moment.

"Oh, pardon me," she said with exaggerated contrition. "I'm so sorry. I forgot. Starsky is sacred. Your wife is not."

"I don't spend all my time with Starsky. I go to work and I come home. And we fight. Every goddamn night. I don't even know what we're fighting about half the fuckin' time. Are you gonna tell me where you've been or not?"

"I did tell you," she said, making coffee. "I was out. With friends. Want to know where we went? All over the place. We had dinner. We had drinks. We went dancing. I enjoyed myself. For a change!"

"And there were no phones at any of these places?" he demanded. "You couldn't be bothered to call and tell your husband you weren't dead or hurt?"

She shrugged. "I didn't think about it."

"You didn't think about it? It never once occurred to you that I might be worrying about you?"

"Guess not." She set the coffee to perk and went back to the living room, leaving Hutch standing in the kitchen, so angry and upset that he was shaking. He waited until he had himself a little more under control before following her again.

"Van," he began, then sank into a chair helplessly. He was beginning to wonder what the hell the point was.

"What?" She was reading the newspaper with great interest.

"Do you love me? At all?"

She peered over the top of the newspaper, eyebrows raised. "What did you say?"

"I asked you if you love me," he said steadily, though his heart was pounding and he was staying outwardly calm only with the greatest effort.

"What kind of a question is that?"

"A reasonable one," Hutch said. "And one which you haven't answered. We haven't gotten along for months. We fight constantly. Then this sh– this stuff tonight. I'll ask you again. Do you love me?"

"Oh, Ken, for heaven's sake." She rolled her eyes and threw the paper down. "I'm married to you, aren't I? I sleep with you and cook your damn dinner."

"Tonight, I cooked yours," he said. "Only you weren't here to eat it."

"I already ate."

She still hadn't answered his question. Maybe that was the answer to his question.

What was the answer from his end? Did he love her still?

He didn't know.

Van went back to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, and Hutch decided he couldn't cope with this tonight. He was tired, exhausted in fact, from worrying all evening. His head was beginning to ache with the effort to stay calm and not completely explode with anger and frustration. He went to the bedroom, threw some clean clothes and some shaving stuff into a bag, and returned to the living room. Van was back on the couch with the newspaper again.

Without a word, he stuffed his holster in the bag and put on his jacket. Finally she looked up.

"Where the hell are you going at this hour?"

"Out," he said and left, slamming the door behind him.

Starsky's apartment was dark; apparently he'd gone back to sleep. But Hutch knew where the extra key was and he found it under a flowerpot on the stoop. Very, very quietly he let himself in and shut the door softly behind him. And heard the click of a gun being cocked.

"It's me," he said.

Starsky turned on a lamp by the sofa. His curls were mussed and he was wearing pajama bottoms. "You really ought to announce yourself when you come into a cop's apartment in the middle of the night, buddy," he said, smiling with his mouth but not his eyes. His eyes were clouded with concern. "What're you doin' here? Or do I need to ask?"

"She came home a little while ago," Hutch said, tossing the bag onto a chair and sitting down. "She'd been 'out with friends.' We had a fight."

"She throw you out?"

Hutch shook his head. "I left. I couldn't take it tonight, Starsk. I can't – I asked her..."

Starsky waited, sitting next to him and putting a comforting hand on his leg.

"I asked her if she loved me," Hutch finished with difficulty. "She wouldn't answer me."

"Aw, Hutch."

"Can I stay here tonight?" He hated the way his voice sounded when he asked, but he couldn't muster the strength to do anything about it.

"You gotta ask? 'Course you can. Come on." Starsky rose and turned toward his bedroom.

"I'll take the couch."

"No, you won't. It'd be murder on your back. My bed's big enough for two and I promise not to steal all the covers," Starsky said, giving another grin and ruffling his partner's hair. "You wanna borrow my Superman jammies?"

Hutch gave a snort of laughter and followed Starsky into the bedroom. Starsky climbed into bed, gave a mighty yawn and slid down while Hutch took off his clothes and hung them over a chair. He'd forgotten pajamas, but he could sleep in his underwear. He got into bed and Starsky turned out the light and rolled over onto his side.

"Night, partner," Starsky said through another yawn.

"Night, buddy," Hutch said. "Thanks."

"Don't mention it," Starsky answered sleepily. In moments, he was snoring softly and Hutch lay and listened to him, a ghost of a smile on his face. Thank God for Starsky.

He looked up at the mirror over the bed – Starsky's whimsy – and watched his partner sleep from that angle in the dim light. He couldn't close his own eyes. His heart ached and his head ached. What the hell was he going to do? Leave her? Watch all his dreams go up in smoke?

He loved her. God help him, in spite of everything, he loved her. He loved her for what they had once had, even though it was misplaced now. Maybe they could get it back. Figure out why they fought so much and stop doing it. Maybe –

The phone rang. There was an extension on Hutch's side and he snatched it up before it could wake his partner.

"Hello?"

"So that's where you went," Van's voice said in his ear. "I figured as much, but I wanted to know for sure."

"Why?" he said bitterly. "You didn't seem to care that I was going crazy all night wondering where you were. Why do you care where I am?"

"I don't, really," she said, and her voice was cold, with no affection or warmth in it at all. "I was only curious. He let you in without a second thought, didn't he? Tucked you in all nice and cozy?"

"Van –"

"Are you coming home tomorrow?"

"We need to talk," he said. "We need to decide what's wrong with us. We need to –"

"We need to get a divorce," she interrupted. "I want out. It's over, Ken. Let's not beat a dead horse, okay? I have an appointment with a lawyer tomorrow. You'd better get a lawyer of your own. Who moves out?"

"Van – " His throat closed and he wasn't able to say more.

"What? You're going to say this is something we should talk about in person, not on the phone?" She gave a bitter laugh. "In person we'll only fight. It's better this way. I'll move out and let you keep this tiny little cottage. I've always hated living here anyway. You stay with Starsky until the weekend and I'll be out when you get back. He won't mind, I'm sure." She hung up.

Hutch lay there, still holding the receiver, stunned and hurt and afraid. She wanted out. She wanted a divorce. She didn't love him...

A warm hand rested on his hair and Starsky took the receiver from him and replaced it in the cradle. He slowly and gently stroked Hutch's hair, comforting without words, letting his presence and his concern speak for him.

For long moments, Hutch lay still and didn't speak or move. He couldn't. And Starsky kept silent. But all at once the implications sank in and Hutch raised his eyes to his partner.

"She's leaving me. She wants a divorce." His voice shook and he sat up.

"Aw, buddy. I'm sorry."

"She told me on the phone."

Starsky made a sound in his throat to indicate he'd heard, but didn't speak.

"How could she tell me something like that on the fuckin' phone?"

Starsky shook his head.

"Could you tell your wife you wanted a divorce on the phone? In the middle of the night?"

Starsky shook his head again. "Never had a wife, buddy. I don't know. Maybe she couldn't face you."

"She must hate me."

"No," Starsky said. "No one could hate you. It just ain't possible."

"Then why does she want a divorce?"

"Not wantin' to be married to you isn't the same as hating you."

"If she loved me, she'd want to be married to me," Hutch said, his voice shaking again, worse this time. He was desperately afraid he was going to cry. He didn't want to cry in front of Starsky. Starsky was his best friend, but there were some things he didn't want to ask even his best friend to see, and he hadn't cried in front of anyone since he was a child.

"Hey," Starsky said softly. "Don't try to pretend it don't hurt, babe. I know it does. I'm your friend. I want to help."

Hutch didn't know what opened the floodgates. Maybe it was the "babe." No one ever called him that. His parents called him "Kenny" or "son." Van – she always said "Ken" now, but once upon a time it had been "honey."

Whatever it was, his eyes filled and try as he might to hold it back, he lost it, covering his face with his hands and feeling ashamed.

But Starsky scooted closer, put his arms around him, drew his head down against his shoulder and held him, slowly stroking his back in silence for a moment before he said, "That's it, boy. Let it out."

And Hutch wrapped his arms around his partner and cried.

When he got hold of himself at last, trembling a little from the effort, he pulled away from Starsky and turned away, sitting on the edge of the bed and wishing he had a nice dark hole to crawl into. He couldn't believe he'd done that...

"Hutch." Starsky's voice was gentle, but firm. "You ain't feelin' bad about crying in front of me, are you? Afraid you don't look tough enough?"

Hutch kept his back to Starsky and didn't reply.

"Aw, buddy," Starsky put a hand on his arm and crawled across the bed to sit beside him. "You don't buy that macho crap that men don't cry, do ya? 'Course men cry. I'm your friend, your partner. We gotta stick together, pal. If you're in pain, I wanna help ya. And if you wanna cry, it's okay. Hutch – it's okay."

Hutch turned to look at him and saw only concern and love in Starsky's eyes – what he always saw there. Then he realized what he was thinking. Love. He saw love in Starsky's eyes. His partner, his best friend, loved him. In spite of all his warts, his failures, his moodiness, Starsky loved him. And that made it all right to cry. He smiled. It was a little shaky and damp, but it was a smile.

"What would I do without you?"

"I don't know," Starsky said, picking up on his lighter mood and giving a lopsided grin. "Go join the French foreign legion? Rob banks in Bolivia? Become a go-cart mechanic?"

By now, Hutch was actually laughing. He patted Starsky's leg. "You nut," he said fondly. "Go to sleep. We gotta work in the morning."

"It already is morning," Starsky said, trying vainly to suppress another big yawn. "It's almost three-thirty in the morning. Seven's gonna come mighty early, buddy."

"Then we both better try to get some sleep."

"Sounds good to me." Starsky crawled back onto the other side of the bed. "You gonna sleep, too? Or you gonna sit there and stare at my wall all night?"

Hutch got back into bed and realized how tired he really was. "I'm going to sleep."

"Good. Night, Hutch."

~*~*~*~

He went home after work the next day, in spite of what Vanessa had said, in an effort to try to talk to her. She'd been angry last night. So had he. You said things you didn't mean when you were angry.

She wasn't there, but she'd already begun packing her clothes, he could see. Two large cardboard boxes were in the bedroom, and the closet looked strangely bare without her things in it. In the kitchen, she had apparently split up the pots and pans – half left behind, half packed in more cardboard boxes.

Her makeup and hair dryer were gone from the bathroom.

Hutch sank onto the couch, looking around at his home, which suddenly didn't feel like home any longer.

And he heard her key in the door, and her voice as she spoke to someone else.

She came inside and stopped when she saw him. "Ken. What are you doing here?"

"I live here," he said flatly. She was with a man. A man he'd never seen before and didn't know. He stared pointedly at the man, who looked very uncomfortable.

Vanessa glanced at first one, then the other, and finally said, "Ken, this is Mark. He's...a friend from work."

"Really." Hutch stood, mentally gritting his teeth, and offered his hand to Mark. "I'm Vanessa's husband." Mark shook his hand but didn't speak or smile.

She had to have known he was home. His car was outside. And she'd brought this man in with her anyway. If he'd doubted she intended to go through with the divorce before, he didn't now. And now he knew why she wanted out.

"It's not what you think," she said, reading his mind.

"How do you know what I think?" he asked mildly. "I thought perhaps we could discuss this decision you've made and work out some of the kinks before it got all tangled up with lawyers. Maybe today isn't a good time."

Van glanced at Mark again and back to Hutch. "I'm not sure it's a good idea. My lawyer said –"

"He said you shouldn't talk to me? Let me convince you to do things that maybe aren't in your best interests?" Hutch inquired. "Suddenly I'm a stranger instead of your husband. I'm an adversary. Is that it?"

"Ken –"

"I think I should go," Mark said, breaking in. "I'll see you at work tomorrow."

Van opened her mouth, but didn't actually say anything. She simply nodded at Mark and he left. She turned back to Hutch. "I've made up my mind, Ken."

"I know you have," he said. "I came home tonight because I thought maybe you'd been too hasty last night. That maybe you'd said things in anger that you thought better of in the light of day. That maybe there was something left to salvage of us. I see I was mistaken."

"You're not being fair."

He laughed bitterly. "I'm not? I'm so sorry. I thought I was trying. I thought I was being a good – well, a decent husband. I don't know what went wrong –"

"You don't." She rolled her eyes and all but threw her purse into the nearest chair. "How about the strange hours you work? I can't plan anything because you might have to work late or at night or go on a stake out! Or how about the fact that I have to share you with Starsky? I'll bet you and he have some interesting discussions about me while you're driving around all day patrolling! Does he know about the sound you make when we're having sex? Has he heard that sound?"

Hutch forced himself to stay calm. He realized, suddenly, that her complaints about his closeness with Starsky weren't really about Starsky. They were about her. She wanted to own him. That's why she hated his work. It wasn't that cops didn't make enough money, though that was part of it. Vanessa did like money. It was that he loved his work and that part of him belonged to his job. She wanted all of him. She wanted his life to revolve around her. His affection – no, his love – for Starsky was another thing that took a part of him away from her. She didn't really believe there was anything sexual between him and Starsky. She just wanted to make him self-conscious and uncomfortable, so he'd turn away from his partner and give that piece of himself back to her.

But Hutch couldn't live like that. He couldn't be owned by another person. Not even his wife.

Or was it pain behind all this? Did some small part of her still love him and was she afraid she would lose him to his job?

"Van, come on. Sit down. Let's try to be calm and talk instead of yelling at each other, huh?"

She glared at him and did not sit down. "It's too late, Hutch. That's who you are now, isn't it? You're not 'Ken', you're 'Hutch.' It's who you are and it's who you want to be. That badge is the most important thing in your life."

"That's not true." He rose, too. He felt disadvantaged, sitting and looking up at her, angry and still beautiful. Still his wife. Still the woman he loved. "It's part of who I am, yes. I don't see why that's a problem. Isn't your job part of who you are? But it's not all of who I am. Part of me is Ken, your husband."

She shook her head violently and he saw tears in her eyes, tears that he didn't think were faked this time. "That part gets smaller every day. Someday it's going to disappear. And I'm not going to wait around to see that. I'm leaving, while there's still part of me left."

"Van, sweetheart –" He hadn't called her that for a long time.

She noticed. "I wish you meant that. I really do."

"I do mean it. I love you –"

"You love your job," she spat. "You love your partner. Starsky. Oh, I know you don't sleep with him. I know you're not gay. But you love him, don't you? Don't you!"

"He's my friend."

"Your friend." She rolled her eyes.

"This isn't about Starsky."

"No." She did finally sit down and she finally looked directly in his eyes. "It's not. It's about us. What we don't have any more. I don't love you anymore, Hutch."

She said the name the way she said Starsky's – as though it made her sick. And looking at her, at the vicious light in her eyes, listening to the tone of her voice, the actual hate in her voice – Hutch wondered where the woman was whom he'd once loved. There was no trace of her in this woman he now lived with.

"I'm not going to ask you to choose," she said, very slowly and deliberately. "I'm not going to ask because you already have chosen. You chose your job and your chose your partner and you chose 'Hutch' over me. I have to be number one in your life. If I'm not – and I'm not – then there's no point in it."

"What in the hell are you talking about?" he demanded. "You want me to hate what I do for a living? All right, some days I do hate it! I hate the misery and the pain and what I see people doing to each other day after day after day. But I gotta keep trying. I gotta try to help. Even a little bit. What is wrong with that?"

She stared at him for a moment and finally she said, "I can't live with that. When we got married, your job was only what you did. Now it's what you are. You don't see that? You don't see that you've become 'Hutch'?"

"Quit saying that as if it's ugly!" he shouted.

She rose, picked up her purse, and went to the door. "Good-bye." And she went out and shut the door behind her, leaving Hutch alone.

He sat on the couch for a long time, trying to figure out what had happened. What had gone wrong. How things had changed. And he didn't know. All he knew was that he was sitting in this place alone. His wife was gone. And somehow he knew she wasn't coming back.

~*~*~*~

It was a warm night. He sat on Starsky's stoop and tried to find the Big Dipper in the sky, but the city lights made it difficult. He missed Granddad's farm, where you could find all the constellations and you didn't even need a telescope. When he was a little boy, he and Granddad used to lie on their backs on a blanket in the yard and Granddad would point them out to him, until he learned to spot them for himself. And Granddad would tell him stories. And he felt loved.

Tonight he didn't. The pain went so deep and hurt so much that something in him recoiled from it. Some part of him stood aside, apart from the pain. If it hadn't been so, he wouldn't have been able to stand it at all.

He'd come here because here, with Starsky only a few feet away, he felt less alone than he had in his suddenly cold apartment. He couldn't sleep there, with the boxes half-packed and most of Vanessa's things gone. It was too barren. Too empty.

So he'd driven to the beach and walked for hours, until he was so exhausted he could hardly make it back to his car. And from there, he'd driven to Starsky's. It was late, too late to wake his partner and ask him to listen to him moan about his lost marriage. But he could sit on the steps and look at the sky and feel that there was someone nearby who cared whether he lived or died, even if that someone was asleep and didn't know he was there.

"Hutch?"

He turned, and Starsky was standing in the doorway, blinking and looking decidedly tousled and sleepy. "Hi."

"Hi." Starsky came outside and sat down beside him. Hutch scooted over to make room on the narrow step. "What are you doing? Why didn't you come in?"

"I didn't want to wake you up. I tried to be quiet...."

"You were quiet. I got up to go to the bathroom and saw you sitting here through the window." Starsky peered at him. "What happened?"

Hutch bit his lower lip and dropped his eyes. "It's over. She left. I think – no, I know – she's met someone else."

Starsky didn't speak, but he laid his hand on Hutch leg and gave it a gentle pat.

"I just couldn't stay there, Starsk. I'm sorry –"

"Hey," Starsky put an arm around his shoulders and gave him a one-armed hug. "Don't be sorry. Come on in, huh?"

"No, I gotta go home sometime. I'll see you in the morning." Hutch rose, but Starsky grabbed a piece of his jacket and kept him from going.

"It already is morning, buddy." Starsky grinned at him. "Sun'll be up in about half an hour. Come on, quit bein' noble, will ya? Come on in and fix some coffee and we'll give Dobey a heart attack when we get to work early. Okay?"

Hutch gave in. "Okay."

~*~*~*~

The papers came a couple of weeks later. He was home alone – alone for the first time in two weeks, because Starsky refused to let him go home by himself and had stuck to him like a burr – and he was trying to rearrange the furniture that was left to make it look less like half a home. There was a knock on the door and when he answered it, a deputy stood there.

"Kenneth Hutchinson?" he asked.

"Yes."

"I'm here to serve you these papers, sir," the deputy said.

Hutch held out his hand and the deputy put the envelope into it. Hutch didn't feel like saying "thank you" but he had to say something. "Anything else?"

"No, sir," the deputy said, touching his cap and turning away.

Hutch went inside and sat down to read the papers. It seemed straightforward enough. Vanessa had cited "irreconcilable differences," as he'd expected. That way they could part quickly and more or less amicably under California's "no-fault divorce" law. She wasn't asking for alimony, which surprised him. Not that he had much money. She didn't seem to want much of anything except the divorce itself.

She had said they had already lived apart for six months, which wasn't true, of course, but under the no-fault law, they had to live apart for six months before a divorce could be granted. Hutch was ready for it to be behind him, anyway, and he had no intention of disputing what she'd said. Waiting six more months wasn't going to change anything. He knew that now.

The hearing was six weeks away.

~*~*~*~

"You need a lawyer, buddy," Starsky said insistently as they drove through their district.

"What for? She's not trying to screw me. I'll give her that much credit. She just wants a quick, clean divorce."

"But you don't know nothin' about gettin' a divorce. Somebody's gotta watch out for ya. I know somebody you could use."

Hutch glanced at him. "How do you know a divorce lawyer?"

"He's a friend of Huggy's," Starsky said, somewhat reluctantly.

"Oh, for crying out loud, Starsk. A friend of Huggy's? He's probably a crook."

"No, he's not. I checked him out. And he owes Hug a favor, which Huggy's willing to give you. It won't even cost you nothin'."

Hutch shrugged. "What the hell. What's his name?"

Starsky dug into his jacket pocket and produced a business card. "Here ya go. Your appointment's at 10 tomorrow morning."

Hutch took the card and shook his head. "You already made an appointment for me?"

Starsky grinned. "Well, somebody's gotta do this stuff."

~*~*~*~

The lawyer looked over the paperwork and agreed with Hutch that everything seemed in order for a clean break. He advised him to have no contact with Vanessa until the hearing; if anything needed to be negotiated, he would do it. Hutch hadn't seen or heard from Vanessa since the papers had been served, so he didn't think that would be a problem. But he hated all of this. It seemed so wrong, for a marriage – a relationship – to end like this, with lawyers and court dates and legal wrangling.

The hardest part, however, was telling his parents. He'd put it off as long as he could. It helped that they were so far away. He hadn't called home since Vanessa left and finally one evening, they called him.

"Kenny? We've been worried about you. Is everything all right?"

Hutch sighed, glanced at Starsky, who was reading a news magazine across the room. Starsky seemed to understand and put the magazine down.

"Hi, Mom. I'm fine."

"You don't sound fine. What's wrong? Why haven't you called?"

"Tell her," Starsky said, very softly.

Hutch nodded, took a deep breath, and said, "Mom, I've got some bad news." He heard her sharp intake of breath, steeled himself, and finished, "Van left me. We're getting divorced."

"Oh, Ken." There was a long silence. "What happened, honey? Are you all right?"

"I don't really know what happened," Hutch said, a little bitterly. "She wasn't happy and she left. We've been fighting a lot for the last several months. I didn't want to tell you because I thought it would work itself out. It didn't."

"Are you all right?" his mom asked again. "Do you need us? We could catch a plane –"

"No, I'm fine." Hutch met Starsky's eyes and a look of understanding passed between them.

"Are you sure? I hate to think of you all alone."

"I'm not alone, Mom. I've got Starsky. He's been babysitting me." Hutch smiled at his partner.

"I still wish you weren't way out there," she said unhappily.

"It's okay, really it is."

"When...will it be final?"

"A couple of weeks. We go to court the twentieth."

"Do have a lawyer? Do you need some money?"

"No. I have a lawyer. Friend of a friend. He's giving me a break on the fee."

His mother sighed heavily. "I'm so sorry, Kenny."

"Yeah. Me, too."

~*~*~*~

Hutch thought he was prepared for the court date. He hated court, even when he was testifying on the side of the good guys, but it was worse when it was your marriage on trial. He and his attorney sat on one side at a table, while Vanessa and her attorney – a jackal in human form if there ever was one – sat on the other side at a different table. Starsky came, too, and sat behind Hutch.

The judge made it short and sweet. He asked each of them how long they'd lived apart, if they'd sought counseling, if they were certain they had tried everything to save their marriage.

Hutch wasn't certain, but he caught the look Vanessa gave him and he didn't want to drag it out or make it any more painful and ugly than it already was. He answered as his lawyer had coached him, kept his voice level, tried not to look at Vanessa any more than necessary, and in a few minutes it was over. The judge granted the divorce and banged his gavel.

Vanessa walked over to him as he was getting ready to leave the courtroom. "Ken," she said, a bit awkwardly, "I'm sorry."

"I'll bet," he said, more bitterly than he meant to.

"I really am." She hesitated and glanced at Starsky, who had stayed considerately out of earshot but close enough to be supportive. "I don't want you to hate me. Can't we just part on friendly terms and say it just didn't work out?"

"Sure," Hutch said, forcing a smile. "See you around. Nice knowing you. Have a good life."

She bit her lip and he saw the tears beginning to form. "You're angry."

"Well, what the hell did you expect?" he demanded in a low voice. "You divorced me. My wife. Sorry, my ex-wife. I'm not supposed to be angry? You want to tell me what I'm supposed to feel?"

"Regret, maybe," she said.

"Okay. I'll work on that. Maybe someday I'll even achieve it. Meanwhile, I'm leaving. I have to go rebuild my life." Hutch left without looking back, with Starsky following silently.

But before Starsky went through the doors, he turned and looked at Vanessa. The doors had already shut behind Hutch. "You hurt him, you know," he said quietly. "He really did love you. Still does, I think."

She didn't answer, but her eyes asked forgiveness.

Starsky didn't give it. He turned away.

The End

 

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