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Chapter 5: The Bells of Hell
A week later, Hutch sat in the dark office, shouting into the field telephone and finishing his second bottle. A third was supposedly on its way.
"Well, let the infantry get demoralised! No!" The door opened behind him, letting in a few strains of "Poor Butterfly" and a wave of longing that made Hutch swallow, staring hard into the fire and focussing on the call. "I can't put planes over them because I haven't got anybody left to fly them! No!" He glanced up, and his heart jumped—it wasn't Botts, it was Starsky, standing with his head bent in shadow, watching Hutch. "What?" he asked the telephone. "Replacements? Yes, six of them. All kids!"
Starsky shook his head, the slow uneven smile a whole conversation about the fools who thought seventeen-year-olds with under ten hours of training were worth sending up to fight. Hutch's mouth twitched too, and he explained to the telephone more moderately, "Von Richter's squadron has shot us out of the air. He's killed all our best men." Starsky frowned and shook a finger at Hutch, who reached out and grabbed for it, then let it slip from his hand. "Green kids can't stop him! He'll shoot them down just as he did the others." But he couldn't stop smiling now and he was afraid the caller would hear it. "Yes, I know I have my orders." There, that was sobering enough. More than enough.
Starsky sat down on the footstool which Hutch had thrust to one side, reached to the floor and picked up the bottle, shook it to find out that there was perhaps a quarter-inch left in the bottom. He frowned at Hutch again, then picked up the glass Hutch had been drinking from, poured the liquor, and drank it himself. "It'll be done," Hutch told the phone, "but I tell you they haven't a chance on earth. Yes. All right. Goodbye." He tucked the phone back into its pouch, on the floor beside his chair, and looked at Captain Starsky, trim in his uniform tunic and belt. Even his tie was neat these days, and he hadn't been drunk in the whole week Hutch had been Squadron Leader.
"Brass hats," he said to his friend. "Sitting up there in easy chairs. If I had any excuse not to put those green kids out there ... " He let the sentence trail off, knowing that Starsk knew, and then realised, "Hey, where's my new bottle?"
"You've had two today already," Starsky said. "Take it easy, boy."
"Easy?" Hutch sat forward, irritated. "What are you, a Temperance lecturer? Captain Starsky?"
Starsky was completely still for a moment, then put the glass down. "I'm sorry," he said and stood up.
"Wait a minute," said Hutch in something like panic, reaching out and taking the fabric of Starsky's trouser leg in his fingers. "Wait, I'm sorry. It's, God, oh, it's bad, isn't it? I'm as jumpy as the dickens."
By the time he was finished talking, Starsky was seated again and was holding the hand that had clutched at him. "All right. I get like that too." They just looked at each other for a minute or so, and then Starsky half-smiled again and Hutch felt relief run through him like a shot of liquor. "You know," Starsky said, "I can't get used to being up in front of that flight all alone. I miss you up there."
Hutch couldn't even say what it was like to wait down here for A-flight, count the planes as they returned, look out the door to see who was still alive. Instead of speaking, he pulled on the hand that gripped his so securely, and Starsk followed—Hutch slipped from the low chair onto his knees and Starsk was there, pressed close, his other hand warm and strong at Hutch's back. Hutch, held the curly head still, fingers buried in that rich hair, while he kissed the mouth that smiled and pressed back against his own. Starsky's hands held him tightly, then moved sensuously over him, and their hips rubbed back and forth as their tongues did. And Starsky said Hutch couldn't dance.
When their mouths separated, Starsky was slumped against the footstool and Hutch had one knee between his legs and the other snug against his hip. Hutch got up far enough to let the firelight paint Starsky with red and orange. Across the floor a draught of cold air from the door slid like a reminder, or a warning.
"I told Botts not to bring it," Starsky said as if Hutch had asked again. "Don't drink any more tonight, beautiful." And he reached up to rub Hutch's cheek.
"All right." Hutch turned his mouth into the palm and kissed it.
Through the door, they could hear a motor and singing voices. Though the tune was indistinguishable, the voices sounded young.
"Replacements." Hutch dropped back into reality. He stood up and pulled Starsky to his feet. "More lambs to the slaughter. Remember Blaine used to call himself the Executioner?"
"Poor old man—he was nearly half-witted when he left this place."
"Yes. It's a rotten job. But," Hutch smiled, "he didn't have you."
Starsky took Hutch's face between his hands and kissed him once more, gently, then stepped back and checked his necktie, pulled down his tunic. "Right. I'll go fix 'em up." A mischievous sideways glance. "Sir."
"Dismissed," said Hutch, smiling.
Hutch heard the boys come in still singing, "The bells of Hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling, for you but not for me, the bells of Hell go—" and then they broke off, and the gramophone stopped too, so Starsky must be doing his official Captain act.
Hutch left them to it, and checked a few details on the map and in the written orders that Phipps brought in. Signed the bottoms of forms that Phipps filled in with the names of the replacements. Couldn't put it off any more after that. He stood up, stomach tightening.
"Ready for orders?" Phipps asked rhetorically, then preceded him out to the mess as he'd now done six times before. Hutch stood in the doorway and watched as Phipps strode to the same old place in front of the stairs and called out, "'Tention! Right, lads, line up please—orders for tomorrow morning."
And Hutch walked out, seeing the faces that turned toward him, then faced forward—mostly unfamiliar, mostly too young. He and Starsky were really getting to be the old men of the squadron. In the week he'd been CO they'd lost fifteen pilots.
Starsky wasn't in the ranks before him, Hutch realized as he looked them over; then heard feet on the stairs behind him. Knew who it was—Starsk and somebody else. Presumably one of the new boys.
"Good evening, gentlemen," Hutch began. "There's no secrecy about these orders. GHQ has discovered that Fritz is making a big push the day after tomorrow. They've started minor advances already. You're to patrol the Manté Woods sector. That's opposite the German Sixth Army. You'll fly four patrols during the day, which means that every man will be in the air at dawn tomorrow." A few men nodded. Some looked apprehensive; others, especially the newest, looked excited and pleased. "As usual, you've got the dirty work to do—low flying, machine-gunning infantry, strafing supply trucks and any shock troops they try to bring up. You're flying directly below Von Richter's patrols, so you better—" write your wills, an unruly part of his mind shouted—"watch out," he really said, inadequately. "That's all." He turned to go, unable to look even at Starsky, but then a hand grabbed his arm above his elbow and he turned, saw a younger face than he'd expected, and he just stood with his mouth a little open.
"Hutch!" said the newcomer.
He was a little shorter and slighter than Starsk, with a Roman emperor's nose and eager dark eyes ... Hutch knew him. "Nicky! Nick Starsky, where did you spring from!"
"Hendon," Nicky said with an unaccustomed touch of modesty.
Hendon. Flight training school. "You're—" Hutch looked over the boy's shoulder at his best friend's face, almost unrecognisable for the stiff, shocked expression it wore. Looked back at Nicky. "You're one of the replacements."
"Yes," Nicky said. Hutch looked back at Starsk. The way they communicated silently had always made Nick nervous, so it was nothing new when the youngster moved farther into Hutch's line of sight and said, "I go up tomorrow, don't I?"
"Yes," said Hutch, still dazed, "you do."
Starsky stepped in front of his brother, and now his eyes were blazing. "Hutch." He took a breath. "You're not sending him up tomorrow. You can't do that."
"Every man goes up tomorrow, Starsk." There was suddenly no understanding in the evening-blue eyes, and Hutch turned away rather blindly himself.
Starsky caught his arm much more roughly than Nick had. "If you think I'm taking him up against Von Richter, you're crazy!"
"Oh, but listen, Davey, I'm an excellent fl—" Nicky sounded offended.
"Shut up!" Starsky turned back to Hutch again. "He's not going up!"
Couldn't Starsk see? Couldn't he tell that for Hutch this was like hurting himself, sending his own brother into that lion's den? Didn't he know that Hutch couldn't possibly have this conversation at all in the officers' mess?
If he didn't, there was nothing for Hutch to say. He spoke to Nick instead. "Be ready at dawn tomorrow."
"Yes sir!" Nicky said proudly.
Hutch got himself into his office. Shut the door. Walked over to the fireplace and leaned one hand on the mantel. Looked down at the flames that had danced over Starsky's face not an hour past.
He heard the door slam open and then shut without surprise.
"And you're the one who said Blaine was sending green kids up to get killed!"
Hutch went to meet his fate, stood looking down at his lover's angry face.
"Combat manoeuvres!" Starsky said with scorn. "Ground school! He got through it in four weeks, nine hours in the air! He doesn't know what it's all about—what chance does he have up there?"
This couldn't be the first time Starsky had wondered—could it? Really? "As much chance as any of the others." Hutch wanted to be gentle. He lowered his voice. "There can't be any exceptions, you know that." Then he tried coaxing. "Do you think I want to do this? Those are the orders."
But Starsky had always been so much better at coaxing. He put one hand on Hutch's waist, tilted his head to one side. "Oh, I know it's orders, Hutch, but give me three days. Two days. Then I can get him up in the air and show him a few basic tricks, and at least he'll have a fighting chance." Hutch didn't respond, so Starsky moved in even a little closer and went on, "He doesn't know anything, Hutch—he can't even do a half-loop and roll out. Do you hear that? He can't even roll out!"
Hutch took a step back and Starsky's hand fell away. This time, when he moved closer, there was nothing even faintly seductive about it. "What good is he going to be up there? Do you think he'll bring down any Bosche planes? No!" He gripped Hutch's shoulders. "They'll slaughter him, Hutch. Give me just a few days."
Hutch's throat hurt. He wanted to hold Starsky close, and he wanted to make him understand—and he wanted, oh how much, to give in, say 'all right, we'll wait a few days and train them all, these babies, and Nick we'll send home somehow' ... but none of it could happen. Generals far up the line were moving hundreds of troops before the sun even rose tomorrow. He spoke slowly. "Every man goes into the air at dawn. I'm, I am sorry, Starsk, but there it is."
"I won't take him up." Starsky's voice was low and his chin pulled in, his gaze level and cold. Hutch had seen him this way before, but not often, and it had never been Hutch that he'd been this enraged at.
"Those are the orders," Hutch said.
"I don't care. I won't do it."
Something rose in Hutch and he discovered it was anger of his own. "Those are the ORDERS!" he shouted right into Starsky's face, tapping an index finger just below his collar bone, poking. "Are you deserting? Are you running away? There's nothing I can do, you fool! Do you hear me?"
There was such a long silence that the last question almost ceased to be rhetorical. "I hear," Starsky said at last. "Major."
He turned and was all the way to the door before Hutch got out, "Starsk—"
"No," said Starsky, not turning or even looking back. Then he left.
When Hutch had moved into the CO's quarters, in a little room off the pantry-office whose original use he hadn't been able to figure out, he had stood for a long time looking at the bed. It was of course larger than the cots upstairs, but small for a real double bed, and the mattress was weirdly uneven. Hutch suspected straw or something in the bottom layer, and only hoped there wasn't much wildlife he had to share it with.
He'd grown used to his cot, and this mixture of hard, lumpy foundation and the soft featherbed on top was making him restless all night long. And anyway he kept thinking. Starsky always said he thought too much.
He stood now with one hand on the carved wooden footboard and just stared at the bed. He knew he wouldn't sleep and thought there was little point in even lying down on it. Wondered how many nights Blaine had really slept in it.
He did get onto the mattress, even between the covers, because there wasn't a chair in here, and tried to read a very dull old novel that someone had sent out to the house. Hutch wondered whether it had actually been a recommendation or whether it was just the only one in English anyone had come across. They ought to have sent Starsky looking for reading-matter; he would have found something better.
Hutch sighed and put the book down. He thought about Starsky too often at the best of times. Now the best book ever published couldn't have held his attention over the thoughts of his old schoolfellow, his devoted best friend, his gloriously passionate lover—the subordinate officer who had stalked out of his office as if they were strangers. "Oh," he said aloud, "Starsk," the syllables hoarse. He closed his stinging eyes.
He could cry here, if he wanted. No one would hear. He could indulge himself just this once. Be the stoic commanding officer tomorrow, the grieving lover tonight.
But he was afraid that if he started, he might not be able to stop.
He got out of bed and put on his clothes again, pulled the cloth coat from the hook and went out the dutch door.
He'd go and look at the planes. There might even be a mechanic or two burning midnight oil over them. Someone to talk to.
He stumbled a little in the yard, not sure what uneven ground or object or inattention had caused the lurch in his step. Then made his way to the barn that was now their main hangar and repair shop. He realised as he neared it that there was a light on in there somewhere, and a low sound that was—yes, a voice—Starsky's voice. Hutch was certain. But who on earth was he out here with, and for what purpose? Surely he wouldn't, so soon—Hutch strangled that thought almost unborn and crept to the door of the barn, eased it open and himself around it, as careful as if there were German spies in here.
He could see the glow of a lantern but not what it lit. Could hear Starsky's voice, intense and low but not particularly intimate. Walked silently in that direction, using the remains of the cow stalls as cover. They were at one of the planes, probably Starsky's own. The lantern was hanging from a wing-strut. Starsky was standing beside the plane. The person in the cockpit ducked his head, and Hutch saw it was Nick.
"No, don't look," said Starsky. "Just reach for it. Sit up again, do it over."
"Oh Davey," and Nicky was outright whining. "I've done it already—did it over and over at Hendon—what's the matter with you?"
"And they must have had their brains up their arse-holes, to let you out with these bad habits," Starsky answered grimly. "You're breaking them tonight. Now. You will not sleep until you can show me without looking how you'd pull out of a spin and throttle down. Goddamn it, if I could I'd have you in the air and the dark be damned!"
"At night? In the middle of the night, Davey? What bee have you got up your—don't look at me like that! You think you're the only one who can talk like a, a grown-up? You think I'm the only duffer in the new crew? Well, let me tell you, big brother, I held the record for kills at Hendon. The most they'd seen in the time in over a year!"
"Kills? At Hendon? What did you shoot at, sheep?"
"They were blanks, of course. Don't be sarcastic. I was good, I tell you, one of the very best. You don't think they let everyone out after four weeks and three days? You may be the big lad of the family and all that, but we're both in it now. Both going up tomorrow and both fliers. Drop the baby brother stuff. I am not a baby any more!" Nick was leaning out of the cockpit, his face near his brother's, weird in the upward-striking light and the blank goggles of his helmet. He grabbed the fur collar of Starsky's jacket and Hutch stepped forward involuntarily.
The movement caught Nick's eye and he sat back, pulling up his goggles; Starsky turned. They both stared at Hutch for a moment, and then Starsky turned away, slapped the side of the plane, and stood with his head down and his shoulders tense.
Hutch didn't try to speak to him. "A little late-night revising, Nick?"
"Davey's idea." Nick was sullen.
"He's doing his best for you." Hutch risked a look and saw the tense shoulders move, not really a shrug. He knew the bitter thoughts that movement held in, so he tried to focus on Nick. "And his best …. D'you know the last time I saw him do the trick he's showing you now? I was sitting on the wing, right here." He patted the spot.
"In a spin?" Nick looked at him with eyes narrowed.
Hutch nodded. "My bird went down and he came to get me. It was both our lives, Nick, and Starsk couldn't see at all, oil in his face, working only by where he knew things were and what I could tell him." Nick's mouth was hanging open. Hutch patted his arm. "You remember that. I'll never forget it. Watch your brother, Nick, and stick close to him. There's not a better flier on our side or theirs. You learn from him."
Nick looked at his brother's averted face; at Hutch's; back to Starsky's. "I will," he promised. "Tomorrow, Davey. I'll stick close, I really will. And you'll see. I am good. I can learn. You won't worry any more once you see me up there."
Starsky lifted his head and reached; Nick took his hand. "All right," said the older brother. "Now, I suppose you should get some sleep, hmm? Go on." Nick just sat for a second. "Go on," Starsky repeated.
Nick scrambled out on the other side of the plane. "Well," he said, "good night, then, chaps."
"'Night, Nick. Sleep tight," Hutch told him.
"You'll, er, bring in the lantern, Davey?"
Hutch stepped back as Nick slipped away, in case Starsky wanted to collect the lantern and just go. But Starsky was motionless, looking at the rough soil of the floor. The barn door shut with a thud.
"You should sleep too," Hutch said at last.
"I don't think I can."
"Oh, Starsk," and Hutch's voice almost broke, "Starsk, you can always sleep." He folded his arms in front of him to keep from reaching out. Looked at the floor himself, the line of shadow where the wing cut off the warm, yellow light.
"Hard on you too," Starsky said tightly. "I know."
In the silence he could hear the hiss of the burning oil-wick.
"Look at me, can't you?" Starsky whispered, hardly louder than the lantern.
Hutch raised his head. Starsky stared back, his eyes wide and so bright Hutch might even have thought they were full of tears.
"W-would it help to hold on?" Hutch asked.
"After tomorrow. I, I can't do anything, I can't, now—"
"Yes, all right, I understand, it's fine," Hutch blurted. "I didn't mean sex, you know."
Starsky rubbed his nose with the back of his wrist, and when he lifted his head there was a little curve to his mouth. "I know. I know that."
After another pause, Hutch said, "Go on in."
Starsky nodded, and unhooked the lantern. "Want this?" he asked.
"No, I'll just walk for a while."
"Take it. Take it, lummox, what if you put your foot in a foxhole?"
"I'd have to be a lot closer to the front lines for that."
Bad as the joke was, Starsky's lips quirked a little, and Hutch felt slightly better. He took the light and their fingers brushed.
"Sleep tight, Starsk," he said.
"Don't roam all night long," his friend answered.
Hutch was at his desk by 3.30. There was always paperwork to do. Rather than light the real lamp, he'd kept the lantern, which was probably dangerous with all that paper, but made him feel less lonely. Foolish but true.
The stern black-sided box clock on the mantel said nearly four when a knock made Hutch jump. "What? Yes?" he called, rattled.
"It's me, Hutch. Erm, sir," said Nicky, poking his head in. He was already in full uniform, only the flight gear missing.
"Oh, Nicky," said Hutch. "Yes, come in. What's the trouble?"
"I, oh, I know it's against all the rules and regulations for me to burst into your sanctum sanctorum like this, but ... could I have just one word with you, please, Hutch?"
He looked forlorn, and sleepy, and perhaps twelve years old, which was about the age he'd been when Hutch had last seen him for any appreciable time. Hutch got up and took him by the shoulder, shook him gently and then patted him, sat him down. "Of course you can, Nicky. Of course."
"Good old Hutch." Nick was clearly relieved. Actually they hadn't been getting along very well when Hutch had visited Starsky at home. Nick had trailed along behind the two of them, and it had been irritating for everyone.
Still, the last thing Hutch wanted at the moment was to be bad friends with the boy. "I'm glad you came. Now what is it?"
"Well ... you know, I do wish you and Davey wouldn't scrap over me like this. Honestly, I'm an excellent flier. I went through combat manoeuvres without a hitch."
"Combat manoeuvres, hmm?"
"Oh, now, don't you laugh too."
"It's not at you." Hutch looked at the fire for a moment, then back at the boy. "We went through Hendon too, Starsk and I. And then we came out here and had it all to learn again. And in those days, new men had fifty, sixty hours in the air before they had to learn real combat manoeuvres. Now you've had, what—"
Hutch looked at the flames again, swallowed. "Nine." Starsky had said so, but it hadn't stuck in Hutch's mind. He reached out blindly and took the living flesh and bone of Nick's shoulder in his hand once more, held it. "Nine."
"You think—" Nick said, a discovery—"and Davey thinks too, you both think I won't get back tomorrow."
And Hutch paused too long before he said, trying to be hearty, "No, no." Nick stared sullenly, and Hutch crouched beside the arm of the chair so his head was below the boy's. "You've always been a quick learner, Nick. Good reflexes. You just ... nobody can afford to be too careless or overconfident at first. It's like a game at school. You've got to be on your toes, watching everything, never forgetting anything you learn. You'll be all right." He got up, then, and turned to the desk, fumbled in the papers there for his packet of cigarettes. "You smoke?"
"Oh, yes sir," and Nick sounded such a boy then, and looked up with such gratitude, that Hutch almost couldn't bring himself to hand over the cigarette. But he did, and took the few steps to get a long match from the mantel and stick it in the fire, light his own Gold Flake and then Nick's. "Thanks, Hutch," Nick said, very sophisticated now, drawing on the cigarette and waving the smoke away. Hutch tossed the match in the fire again and stood, hoping the shadows hid his half-smile. "You know, I liked your comparison about this and a game at school."
"Did you? That's about what it is. A great big, noisy, rather stupid game that doesn't make sense at all. And we're making points for the brass hats in their easy chairs, looking on from a safe distance." He looked into the flames again. "A game. That's just about what it is."
"Mmm," said Nick, obviously out of his depth. "I see." He stood up. "Well, thanks for talking to me about it, Hutch. Major Hutchinson, I should say, shouldn't I?"
"Yes, you should," said Hutch, swiping at and deliberately missing the dark head. "Can't believe I've got two of you insubordinate Starskys here now."
"I'm glad I'm in your squadron. You know, Hutch, er," and Nick seemed uncertain all over again, fiddling with something in his pocket and looking everywhere, "you know I, I used to be jealous of you. And Davey. You know, such great chums, I felt ...."
"Only natural," Hutch told him.
"Well, I'm not now. I've made a few good friends myself, you know, close chums, in school, and now I ... just wanted to say I'm sorry I was such a little squib before. I was wet."
"You were just a kid," Hutch said. "I was too, come to that. It's not as if I'd hold it against you, Nick. Really not."
"Well, good, because ... well, I suppose it is possible that one might not get back. It has been known, hasn't it?"
"Yes." The weight was back in the pit of Hutch's stomach with that word.
"In that case, I, er, would you mind if I left this with you?" He pulled the fidgeting hand from his pocket and held it out. There was a glint of metal and something soft hanging from the edge of the outstretched hand. Hutch picked the thing up and discovered it was a round medal on a ribbon, engraved with something, but in the dim light of lantern and fireplace he couldn't begin to guess at what it said.
"What is it?"
"Something I got on a crew last year. Silly, but, er, it's rather important to me."
Hutch nodded. "I'll keep it for you," he promised.
"See you later," said Nick then, and Hutch nodded. The boy slipped out.
Hutch sat holding the rowing medal for some time, while the windows shaded toward perceptible light.
When the dawn patrol returned, both brothers were with it. While the planes were refuelled and given running repairs, the pilots had tea and stretched their legs, washed and chatted. Starsky was everywhere, bouncing, exhilarated; he came up behind Hutch in the barn and booted his rear to startle him as if they were both still fliers together, or even schoolboys. Hutch supposed he should have been a little official, but he just laughed. Starsky shook him back and forth by one shoulder, beaming.
Later, narrating the patrol in more detail, Starsky said, "Damn, we are the Chosen People," a kind of joke he very rarely made even in private. "Hutch, he really isn't at all bad. And he stuck to my tail like I had a tow-rope on him." He shook his head fondly. "He is a good kid, isn't he?"
Hutch felt as if his own face might split open, he was grinning so hard. "Yes, he is."
And Nick came back from the forenoon patrol too, though they'd lost most of the newest replacements by then, and Graham as well, who had been captain of B-flight. Hutch promoted Smythe, who had survived against all odds and was on his way to becoming a good, steady pilot, though he hadn't much flair. And still looked like a schoolboy, of course.
Starsky waved jauntily as they took off at 12.30, and Hutch waved back, thinking they might yet end this day without too much grief.
But, as he learned later, the day's third patrol got the personal attention of Von Richter.
Only two of A-flight returned, and Nick was not one of them. Hutch knew right away, and did not question his intuition; he didn't go to the landing field, wanting to hear this report in private. He leaned so hard on the ledge of the dutch door that both his hands were asleep by the time Starsky reached him.
As soon as both parts of the door were shut, Starsky rasped out, "He's gone." He swallowed with a little gulp that seized at Hutch's throat too. "He's gone. I really thought ...."
"So did I," said Hutch, standing within arm's reach but not trying to touch.
After a moment, Starsky went on, his voice thinner and thinner as he spoke, "Hunter's the other one who's back. I think ... I'll have a lie-down before we go again," and he blundered through the door, leaving Hutch aching to go after him but having instead to wait for Smythe's report.
Hutch thought of putting Smythe in charge of the day's last patrol, but it just wasn't a plausible choice, so once more Hutch took Starsky's salute, saw six planes take off, and then got on the field telephone to Headquarters to tell them to send replacements, more aeroplanes, and extra petrol for training flights. "If you're not going to really teach those boys to fly, I will!" he shouted, and sputtered so much at HQ's reply that Phipps took the receiver out of his hand and spoke soothingly into it. In the end they did get a promise for a few more tanks of petrol. They'd have to find the time to train themselves.
The fliers were late coming back. Hutch paced restlessly through the house, the empty officer's mess, the yard, the barn still busy with repairs, the house again. He was looking over the rough fence at Watkins' chickens when he heard an engine ... another ... a third. And that was all.
He ran out to the field and stood looking up as the last of the planes was landing. The engine was firing rough and part of the tail was gone, so it listed and wavered as it came.
Hutch knew who was flying it. His hands were fists, and he thrust them into his coat-pockets while he watched the kite come down, bounce, sway as if it might topple over—there was something wrong with the upper wing, too, on the same side as the tail damage—and, at last, stop. Starsky rolled out of it almost immediately, and then leaned on it while the other two pilots got out.
Hutch walked up, slowly, turning his head from side to side as if he could take in anything but Starsky, and hung on to one of the wing supports. "How'd you like it, Starsk?"
"That was a hot one." Starsky fiddled with his helmet, limp between his hands.
"Who'd you lose?"
"Smythe. Bannister. Lockley."
Now Hutch really did look at the other two pilots, making their weary way across the yard, and the swarms of mechanics descending on the planes.
"I think," he said, "we bear a charmed life."
Starsky's head snapped up and he pushed away from the plane, whirling on Hutch. "Charmed?" His voice rose. "A charmed life!" He threw the helmet on the ground, then turned away and rubbed his face with both hands.
"Or a cursed one," Hutch added quietly, picking up the helmet.
Starsky folded his arms and looked up. Hutch followed his gaze to the harmless-looking blue of late afternoon, only a few fleecy clouds to break it. After a minute or so, Starsky sighed and turned back, looked at the farmhouse for a moment and then began walking.
"There are pots and pots of hot water," Hutch said on the way. "Watkins has been busy." He paused, uncertain of his reception, but Starsky's expression was normal, so he said, "I'd bathe you myself, but I thought it wouldn't be good for discipline."
"Why, thank you for the thought, Major. I would very very much enjoy a creature comfort right now." But Starsky's voice was strained, exhausted, and Hutch let him go ahead into the mess before going round himself into the office.
Hutch needed to give Starsky the rowing medal, of course. He intended to. But he wanted privacy for it, and an unofficial atmosphere, and somewhere that they hadn't had sex, so there'd be no misunderstanding at the start. He couldn't even think of a place, not to mention a time.
When the first batch of replacements came, early the next morning, Hutch felt so foolish waiting in his office that he came out himself to greet them. Starsky seemed put out by that; after Hutch had taken the envelope of orders from young Keighley, Starsky said abruptly, "Come, I'll show you where you'll bunk," and led them away without looking at Hutch.
There were six replacements, which meant they had a flight's worth, and Hutch was apprehensive that they'd get a job, but the gods smiled on them or the paperwork was fouled somewhere, and for a wonder they didn't. The other two survivors of yesterday's four patrols were almost dead to the world, asleep most of the day and aimlessly wandering the officer's mess the rest of the time. Finally Hutch beckoned them into his office.
"Sir?" Hunter looked as if he thought he were going to be reprimanded for something and was frantic with the effort of remembering what it was.
"At ease, gentlemen. I just pulled you aside to ask you a favour."
Hunter stared; Jones raised dark eyes and kept his chin down, a gesture that for a moment caught at Hutch's breath, but he went on almost naturally, "W-we'll be getting a number of new men, as you know." Now there was a bright remark. "And you'll remember what it was like your first day or two here." He couldn't recall how long ago they'd arrived and hoped it wasn't only two days ago—but no, all the newest crop were gone. Along with Nick. "I'd just like to ask you to help them out a bit, you know, introduce them to Botts or play cards with them or show them where the bog is."
"Prefect at last," said Jones dryly, "Mum'll be so proud."
Hutch felt his lips twitch and looked down. Then thought, well, why not? Nobody had told him the CO had to be a humourless bastard. So he looked up again and let the smile come, and Jones grinned, and even Hunter began to relax.
"That's right," Hutch said. "In fact, B-flight needs a Captain, Jones, how about it?"
That surprised Jones. Then he grinned again, and again Hutch thought of Starsky, when they'd first arrived here, what seemed like a hundred years ago. "Isn't it just mad, then, this old war?"
Hutch agreed that it was.
Chapter 6: All's Fair
It wasn't that Starsky was angry, or blaming Hutch, or even grieving very obviously.
It wasn't that Hutch was taking his new rank too seriously, letting it separate him too much from the men, though they were almost all strangers to him now.
It wasn't that they had nothing to talk about any more. There was always something to say about the planes or the training flights or the patrols, what HQ was proposing that struck Hutch as absolutely mad or what Watkins or Botts or one of the young fliers had said that struck Starsky as funny.
They worked together, talked and joked, and on the surface everything was fine, but ....
Hutch realised that it had been many evenings since he had last heard "Poor Butterfly," and then it turned out to be one of the youngsters who was playing it, and burlesquing it for his friends. Starsky looked on, smiling gently, from the bar. There was nobody left but Hutch who knew how strange that was.
Very early one morning, Hutch had gone upstairs to tell Starsky about an emergency mission, and the piebald pyjamas were not in evidence. Starsky had gone to bed in old short-legged singlet underwear that Hutch would have sworn he didn't even own.
And though they'd kissed from time to time, held each other once or twice, especially when Hutch was particularly discouraged, they hadn't had sex for ... was it really since Hutch had been appointed CO?
Yes, it was.
Some of the new recruits were older, men who would have been rated C-3 and given only desk jobs early in the war, but who were now being accepted as volunteers. Also, Squires was sent back after his arm healed, and he took the captaincy of B-flight again. So at the end of the month there were a few people in the officer's mess who didn't make Hutch feel older than Ezekiel. Or Starsky, for that matter, which might have been why he didn't walk into Hutch's office so often these days, with or without a bottle.
He'd come tonight, though, with a bottle and a deck of cards, and Hutch was absurdly grateful. He'd also brought Squires and one of the new men, Jack Mitchell, about their own age but with a game leg. He'd been in a reserved profession, too, studying medicine, but gave it up to join the RAC. "I'm planning to go back, though, chaps—live through this—" Mitchell said as Starsky dealt, "so I got some experience for myself, learned what I could from a commercial pilot, before I went to Hendon."
"Good idea," said Squires, sorting his hand.
"Good luck," said Starsky. He didn't really seem to like Mitchell very much.
"Luck? And you my flight captain?" Mitchell grinned.
"Ah, well, 'men have died and worms have eaten them' in spite of my brilliant leadership."
"Never thought I'd see the day I'd hear you quote Shakespeare," Hutch said lightly, but by the glint of Starsky's eye and the lift of his eyebrow, he wasn't much amused.
Hutch also hadn't thought to see Starsky turn out such a fine poker player—at one time he would never have been able to bluff Hutch even if he could the others. At the end of the hand, Hutch pushed chips in his friend's direction and moaned, "There goes my leave."
He was joking and they all knew it, but Mitchell asked a few minutes later, "What does one do to get leave around here?"
"Getting shot worked for me," Squires said. "Raise."
"Fold," Hutch said. "I do request it. For any man who has served the regulation time without. Phipps keeps track, I sign the forms, GHQ refuses. It's some sort of ritual."
"What, no Mademoiselles from Armentierres?" Mitchell joked, but he did look disappointed as he laid another pair of chips on the table.
Starsky snorted, then half-sang, "'Pa-arlez vous!'" as he put down his own chips.
"What?" asked Hutch.
"Oh, it's a new song, or newish," answered Starsky. "The mechanics are always singing it, got about a thousand verses. 'Mademoiselle from Armentierres, pa-arlez vous,'" and now there was a discernible tune, and the other two joined in: "''Mademoiselle from Armentierres, pa-arlez vous! Mademoiselle from Armentierres, hasn't been fucked in forty years—hinky-dinky parlez vous!'"
Hutch waved his hands at them. "Keep your voices down, for pity's sake. I'm supposed to have a little dignity." Then he snorted himself. "That's about the joys of leave?"
"She seems pretty, hm, active in the other verses," Squires put in.
"Hinky-dinky?" Hutch asked.
Starsky smirked. "Maybe she says it to her clients."
"And that would be why they don't come back," said Hutch; then Squires asked for a card and they went back to the game. They were midway through the third hand when the field telephone rang. Hutch went to answer it. Starsky gestured to the others and began to clear away the game. When Hutch said, "Er, yes, sir, let me just write that down," Starsky hooked a piece of paper out of a drawer and handed it to Hutch, winking at him, and then the other three left.
He seemed all right, Hutch thought.
But when he was giving the next day's orders, in the brighter light of the officer's mess, he looked over at Starsky and was shocked by the worn, exhausted look on his face. He looked played out, and that frightened Hutch. At the end of the orders, he added impulsively, "Captain Starsky, let me show you the route on the map, in my office—" then, to the others, "Dismissed."
Starsky's eyebrows rose, and Hutch knew he wasn't fooled, but he did walk into the office as if the request were quite normal. He shut the door and then said, "What are you on about? I know that sector like the back of my hand by now. Somebody move the river while we weren't looking?"
Hutch put his hands on his friend's shoulders. "I just realised something. I looked at you and thought, he hasn't slept. How long has that been going on?"
"Oh, I sleep. Didn't you tell me? I can always sleep." But he was looking to the side and Hutch was too close to miss the lines in the corners of his eyes, the dark circles.
Hutch raised one hand and rubbed lightly where the lines were. Starsky's lips parted as if to speak, but then he didn't say anything, or resist when Hutch drew him closer, pulled his head down onto a waiting shoulder. "I was wrong," Hutch said softly, cradling the bent head and stroking the long back. Starsky took a long breath and put his arms around Hutch's waist, relaxing slowly.
It felt good, the curly hair against Hutch's cheek and jaw, the slight swaying movement as they breathed becoming a little rocking motion that soothed both of them, the calm warmth between their bodies. "Meet me tonight," he said after a while.
Starsky raised his head. He looked into Hutch's eyes, as if searching for something, and he seemed so hopeless of finding it that Hutch cupped the lean cheek and rubbed it—but Starsky didn't look comforted, though he didn't pull away. "You know what," he said at last, "I'm not even hard in the morning any more. I don't think ... I don't think I can."
"I want to see you sleeping," said Hutch. "More than anything else. I think now that was the best part of Amiens."
There was a spark of humour in Starsky's eye. "Not the best part," he said.
Hutch kissed his forehead. "I want to hold you," he said, coaxing, voice low, "want to feel all your muscles relaxing, and see the way you stick your tongue out just a little ...."
"I do not," said Starsky as his head settled on Hutch's shoulder again.
"Yes, you do. When you're really, truly, deeply asleep."
"Well, you snore."
Starsky snorted, and Hutch chuckled too. But then the strong hands settled on Hutch's arms and Starsky held him off, took a half-step back. "I can't," he said, "get up out of your bed, out of your arms, and climb into that plane. Can't do it."
It was a moment before Hutch could nod, a moment more before he said, "All right." He let his hands fall away, hang by his sides.
Starsky leaned in and kissed him, firmly, with lips closed. "It's got to be over some day."
And Hutch let him go out of the office, managing not to ask, 'Over how?' because he was afraid of the answer.
Hutch took a group of newer fliers up the next morning for training, while A-flight was out. The different roar of the plane when he was inside it, the lift and movement in the air, the edge of danger that was never gone and, in a training exercise, never unbearably acute, worked its usual magic and he felt a bit more alive than usual. These boys were shaping up, too, manoeuvring more fluidly, twisting around in the air as if they were beginning to enjoy it, sending themselves into spins and pulling out. Hutch grinned and waved at Keighley in congratulation, though any time he saw a plane pull out of a right-hand spin he remembered Nick. If only they could have done this together.
Though that might not have made any difference in the end. 'Men have died, from time to time, and worms have eaten them .... '
They landed, and Hutch swung quickly out of the plane so the mechanics could pull it out of A-flight's way: they were due back soon. Keighley sauntered over to talk to Jones, who'd been hanging about the farmyard watching. The others dispersed; Hutch talked to Richardson about petrol supplies and materials for repair, and got a list of their needs to pass on to Phipps.
He must not have made much noise coming out the barn door, though he hadn't been quiet on purpose, because Jones and Keighley were at the corner of the building talking, and went on as if he were not there. They were both looking out at the yard, side by side with Jones' hand on Keighley's shoulder.
"...glad to be out of it, that's all."
"There's no denying the Jew man's the better flier," Jones said, voice objective; "you've only to see them in the air."
Hutch froze, and eavesdropped without shame.
"Don't care, Squires is good enough. He does the job, he brings us back if he can ... he doesn't go after them the same way." Keighley rubbed his face. "It's like Starsky's, oh, I don't know, searching for one of them."
"All of them, more like." Jones rocked Keighley back and forth, like a shake but far slower. "It's his job, look you."
Keighley shook his head. "You know what I mean. Or searching for something that they have and we don't ... or something ...."
Hutch reached back, not wanting to hear any more, opened the door and swung it shut. Both men jumped and turned, and Hutch had a smile plastered on his face. "What's this?" he said, "You look like you heard a shell," and patted Jones' shoulder as he passed. Both of the youngsters grinned, relieved.
Searching for something that they have and we don't. Hutch hated the thought and could not rid himself of it. A-flight came back with only one casualty, and Hutch told himself that that didn't seem like recklessness, and there was nothing unusual in Starsky's eyes—if there were he would see it. Nobody else, nobody, knew Starsky so well.
But Keighley had seen him fighting when Hutch had not. Hutch sat at his desk though the afternoon's paperwork was done, staring at the wall and tapping his teeth with a pen.
Blaine found him there.
It had been so strange to drive up to the farmhouse again, in the sunlight of a warm autumn day, and though these fields bore no harvest the grass-seeds swayed ripely in the wind and smelled rich and good. He could hear the clank of repairs from the barn, and muffled singing and talking as well. There was a rooster on a barrel in the yard, and Watkins was stroking its neck and talking to it while Phipps looked on. Just as the car came up, the rooster crowed and Phipps laughed a little.
"Personality, sir, that's what he's got," Watkins said, "personality," and then they both turned toward the car.
"Blaine!" Phipps exclaimed. "Hello!"
"Hello, Phipps!" As the car pulled up, Blaine reached over the side and grasped the hand Phipps held out, broad and dry and warm as it had always been. Phipps was like bedrock, never to be eroded.
"You look like a new man," said Phipps then, and Blaine grinned. He knew it. Less alcohol and smoke and grief, more sleep, and even a little club he'd found where he could take some R&R ... they had made him feel all over again that life was worth living.
"I never felt better," he said, and it was only a slight exaggeration. "Hello, Sergeant Watkins, how are the chickens?"
"Top-hole, thank you sir, top-hole," Watkins said, rocking a little on his heels and blowing his moustache the way he always did when pleased.
"How's Hutchinson?" Blaine asked Phipps, and was unsurprised to see the round face cloud a little.
"Oh," Phipps said carefully, "he's inside."
"Right. Hop up behind if you like," Blaine told him, then patted the back of the driver's seat. "Go on, Hooper." The car drove the last dozen feet to the house; Blaine picked up the tin from the seat beside him, jumped out and went around to the office door.
The top half was open so he had a glimpse of the desk and Hutch slumped in the chair behind it, the pen moving evenly to his mouth and away like a metronome. Blaine knocked on the ledge of the door and Hutch jumped, then stared speechlessly as Blaine turned the handle and came in.
"Hello there, Hutch!"
"Blaine," he said evenly, and then with a little irony, "Do come in."
The fair hair seemed flat, and dimmer than before ... there hadn't been enough time for it to begin to grey, had there? Surely not. The younger man had lost weight. When he stood, the cloth of the uniform hung a little loose. They shook hands and Hutch picked up his chewed pen and resettled in the chair. Blaine perched on the edge of the desk and fidgeted with the square tin in his hand, tossing it in the air and catching it again.
"How are you?" Blaine asked.
"You're looking fine," Hutch responded.
"Couldn't feel better." Blaine looked around the office, which looked so exactly the same that he expected to find his own razor on the hook of the washstand, his own cigarettes and used glass on the mantel, his own signature on the papers. "Same old place, eh?" He twisted around to look at Hutch again, tossing the tin.
"Just the same. Could you stop playing with that?" And Hutch pointed at the tin with the pen he was still fidgeting with himself.
"Oh, sorry. Nerves, I know." And that made Hutch frown. Blaine looked down at the thing in his hand and recalled why he'd brought it. "Say, Hutch, you remember those Jiffy cork-tips you used to scream about? I, erm, found some in the mess at our place." He held out the tin and Hutch looked warily into his face, then at the thing in his hand, then took it. He turned it over, shifted it to his other hand, and looked at Blaine again.
"You brought these along for me?"
"Oh," said Hutch, "well, thanks very much. Um, have a drink or something."
"No, no, too early in the day."
"Ah." Hutch put the tin down and the pen too, folded his arms and tilted back in the chair.
"I say, Hutch, I hear Headquarters have been giving you a hard time, lately." Blaine felt awkward, so he attempted a jocular tone. He hardly knew the hard-eyed man who stared at him now, certainly not from his fantasies since he left here, and he felt very far out at the end of a limb.
"No, no, no," said Hutch, politely.
"The old man," Blaine tried to laugh a little, "says you've been kicking up the very devil."
"Does he?" Hutch rubbed his chin. "Well, you ought to know—you're up there."
Then, suddenly, Hutch sat up straight and put one hand on Blaine's knee, making him jump though the touch was wholly impersonal. "Come on, Blaine, come on, what is it? You're not here for the country air."
Blaine reached into his breast pocket and took out the envelope, clearing his throat. "Too important to telephone about."
Hutch opened it and pulled out the papers, unfolded them and began to read, then got up and carried them to the better light of the doorway. Blaine turned to watch him. The sunlight woke the colour of his hair again but outlined the little hunch in his shoulders and the lanky, ungraceful quality Blaine didn't remember him having before. Hutch shook the papers, moved the top one to the back, read some more. Then froze, got the first page on top again and reread, then folded the whole bundle again and strode back to the desk to wave it in Blaine's face. "That. Is. Insane. You know that, don't you?" He tossed it on the desk.
"Yes," Blaine admitted, "I know it is."
Hutch paced away, then back.
"The enemy are making their biggest push so far the day after tomorrow," Blaine said, not sure how much Hutch had actually read. "They've concentrated all their munitions and supplies at the Soulet railhead. You destroy that, you'll stop their drive."
Hutch was at the map now, where it hung behind the desk, and he looked up at it, then tapped the paper with one finger. "But look, Blaine, here's Soulet—it's crazy. Sixty kilometres! The entire German air force would be on our tails before we were halfway. The flight couldn't make it!"
"But one plane could."
"What do you mean, one plane?"
Blaine leaned forward and Hutch still stared. His pale lashes didn't even blink. "One plane," said Blaine. His voice dropped. "One man. At dusk. It's up to one man to go in alone. Have to take a chance at getting through before they can stop him."
Hutch blinked then, and recoiled. "Do you think I can ask a man to do a job like that? He'd be dead before he started!"
Blaine said evenly, "What can you do? You can't refuse."
In the silence that followed, Blaine thought about why he'd really come, the way General Barringer had sought him out and convinced him—because he'd have some influence, because Hutch knew him, because Barringer thought Major Hutchinson unstable and feared the delay if he did refuse the mission. There was no time for disciplinary action and the appointment of a new CO from a distance. Tonight was the only time this job could be done.
Hutch turned and leaned his shoulders against the map. "I'll go myself," he said.
"No, I'm afraid you can't do that," Blaine told him, and went on sympathetically as Hutch frowned again, "I know exactly how you feel. I had it myself, for months. Here at this desk, chained to it." Just remembering brought back the echo of it, and he sighed. "You'll have to ask for a volunteer. The instructions are all here." He picked up the bunch of folded pages again and held it out.
Hutch looked at it for a moment, then took it. "Right." As if he couldn't bear to think any more about it, he strode right to the door to the mess, opened it, went through. "Hutch!" someone called out, gladly—not Starsky—and the gramophone stopped.
Blaine went to the door. Another tall blond was at the bottom of the stairs, looking at Hutchinson as he crossed the room; Phipps had been at the bar with Blaine's driver but was on the move toward the staircase, and Starsky got up from the table where he'd been sitting with Squires—there wasn't another face in the room that Blaine knew.
"'Tention!" called Starsky. "Gentlemen!"
They all began to gather at the foot of the stairs, slowly, obviously puzzled: this wasn't the time of day for orders. "I have a job for you," Hutch said, prowling over near the bar, voice as casual as if he were talking about something to do with the chickens or the bees, and a few youngsters near Blaine visibly relaxed. Not all did, though. A dark boy with his chin tucked down, a Welshman by his looks, frowned; Starsky came to stand at Hutch's elbow, gazing at him soberly, then—eyes widening—at Blaine in the doorway, then back at Hutch. "This just came in from Wing, gentlemen." Hutch opened the folded packet and read from it: "'Enemy in the twenty-second and twenty-third sectors plan major offensive on entire front nineteenth inst' of ack emma.'" He looked up, across the faces turned toward him and mostly invisible to Blaine; Hutch smiled a little, almost fondly. "Day after tomorrow," he said, and glanced down. "'Munitions for the advance are concentrated in a dump at the railhead at Soulet.'" Up at the faces again. "Our squadron's been ordered to destroy it. Now, Soulet is sixty kilometres beyond the German lines. There's no chance for a flight to get through. But one man, flying low, hedge-hopping, might possibly succeed." He swallowed, raised his chin. "The chances are ten to one he won't come back."
Not a man in the room drew breath. Then Starsky said, "I'll go," as if they had been talking about a walk in the fields.
Hutch took a convulsive step forward without looking at Starsky at all. "I need a volunteer," he said, weakly, and then a few more voices said, "Major—I will—sir?—volunteer—" but Starsky gripped Hutch's arm, turned him slowly, looked into his face.
"There's no one else," he said. "You know it."
And indeed the room might have been empty, for all the notice Hutch gave anyone else now. He stared for a long moment, then held up the papers, and Starsky let go the taller man's arm and took them. "Those are the instructions. You leave at dusk," said Hutch.
"Three hours," said Starsky, nodding. He turned toward the staircase, paused with one hand on the newel. "Somebody—Phipps?— tell Evans to get my bird ready, will you?" He went up without looking back.
Hutch stood watching, his face very still. Blaine left the doorway and approached him. "Hutch," he said, not wanting to startle the man, but as far as he could tell, Hutch didn't even hear. Blaine put a hand on the tense shoulder, gripped it. "Hutch."
Hutch's head turned a little, paused, then the rest of the way. "Blaine," he said.
"It's done," Blaine told him.
"No," Hutch said, "it's not," but he did go back into the office. He looked round the dim room rather vaguely. "Have a drink or something, Blaine—sit down—" but Hutch didn't sit himself. He walked to the other door, looked out into the yard for a moment, and then went out without another word.
Blaine didn't follow.
When Hutch went back into the mess, stopped at the bar for a bottle and glasses, and then went up the stairs, Mitchell was the only one besides Botts who even tried to speak to him. "Hullo, Hutch!" said the blond flyer, as he had when Hutch had come out of the office, but fortunately Blaine didn't seem to hear and Hutch couldn't be bothered.
In the bedroom where about half the fliers slept, Starsky had cleared the little table and had the mission papers spread out there. On his bed was a bulging kit bag and a separate stack of things topped with a sealed envelope. He looked up as Hutch came in and gave the crooked smile that almost seemed out of place on his mouth, it had been gone so long. "Oh, good, hello," he said. "Look, the stuff in the bag—don't bother sending all that home. You know my sizes, you can see that the tunics and so forth do some good. The other things—well, anything you don't want, my mother will, probably."
Hutch stopped himself from protesting that there was no need for any of this as they'd be together again in time for supper, and also stopped himself from begging Starsky not, not to say that ... he just came in, went over to the bed, and stood looking down at the smaller stack of belongings. Starsky turned back to the papers. The bottle was still corked, so he put it and the glasses on their sides on the bed and picked things up one by one. The envelope said "Hutch" on it. He left it alone. Underneath were a book, a battered tin, the polka-dotted pyjamas ... he pulled the top out, squeezing the soft material. He could feel a kind of lump, so he spread the top out and felt for it—in the pocket—it was the cachet Flaherty had given them. Hutch had remembered putting it into the pyjama pocket but had only hoped it was still there. It was crumpled now, and had leaked a bit, but there was still a respectable amount in it.
Hutch looked over his shoulder at Starsky. Then he fiddled with the stuff on the bed, juggled the bottle, and in a moment reached over his best friend's shoulder with a half-filled glass.
"No, really, Hutch, I'll need my wits about me."
Hutch stepped around to face him. "One toast," he said, and didn't say 'last toast,' but knew Starsky wouldn't deny him. The familiar hand closed around the glass and Starsky began to raise it, but Hutch reached to cover the top. "Not right now. Tell me the details first—I didn't read it all."
"Well, it's certainly interesting," Starsky said, putting the glass on the table and tugging a map from underneath some other papers. "Look here." They bent their heads together over it. Hutch breathed deeply, the scent of Starsky's hair and skin headier than the liquor. "It seems that for about a quarter-mile here, there's hardly any anti-aircraft."
"Yes. That's where I'll cross. Then north to here, then fly low into the Louen valley—you know there's not much activity there either. The hills will hide me for these ten miles or so ... then, see, here's the railway. I can follow the tracks right into Soulet." Hutch, not really meaning to, moved a little closer, felt the brush of curls. Then he did mean to, and put a hand on Starsky's back. "Round here are all those ammo dumps and warehouses. I bet a hit anywhere there will set the whole thing off." He leaned a little into Hutch's palm. "Course the enemy High Patrol gets back around dusk, so ... I'll have to avoid them." He glanced up and then gazed, as if surprised to find Hutch so near.
"The whole area'll be alive with Archies," Hutch said to his lover's solemn gaze. "They'll call ahead if they spot you ... you'll run into barrages ..." He closed his own eyes and Starsky grabbed his neck and brought their foreheads together.
"I'll just have to, just keep going," he said. "That's all."
It was undoubtedly all, and Hutch tilted his head and captured Starsky's mouth before any more words could come from it. Starsky pulled back and said, "What if," but Hutch leaned farther and found his lips again, nibbled at them and sucked, and Starsky apparently decided that the risk of discovery no longer mattered to him either.
Hutch had always loved the way Starsky kissed him. His tongue seemed longer than Hutch's, slimmer, more agile, dancing and flirting. He tasted ... like himself, like the teeth Hutch traced with a tongue-tip, like honey and bread and fresh water, like the air they seemed to be trading, and Hutch tried not to think that this was the last time but couldn't help it, gasped, felt the sting in his eyes and nose—Starsky held his head and when their mouths parted, he pulled Hutch's face into his neck. The position was impossibly awkward and Hutch vowed he would not move.
"I'll find a way," Starsky whispered.
Hutch held on as tightly as he could.
"I will," his lover promised again, and Hutch took a deep breath and lied.
They parted slowly.
"Here's my suggestion," Hutch said. "Toast with me, then have a lie-down."
"I won't sleep, madman." Starsky smiled so tragically that Hutch had to look away.
"Humour me?" he asked.
"All right. If you promise to call me in time."
They gathered up the sheets of instructions and moved the kit bag and personal possessions onto the table; then Starsky picked up his glass and waited for Hutch to follow. "Do you have a toast?"
"Friendship," said Hutch, thinking of the champagne the night he'd thought Starsky dead.
They drank, and then Starsky plopped down on the cot, not even taking off his shoes. Hutch settled on the edge and stroked the curly hair, the ears, the warm pulse at the temple, the closing eyes ... outlined lips and stroked down the cheeks and under the jaw, down the long throat.
"Someone ... will come ..." Starsky murmured.
"No, they're all too embarrassed." Hutch stared down, imprinting the sight in his memory more carefully even than he had the maps.
"Oh ... all ... right ...." Nearly out. The eyes tracked under the lids, the mouth worked as he swallowed.
"Plenty of time," Hutch said. "Plenty."
Starsky's lips parted, slowly, just a little; his tongue pushed out, just the tip. Hutch's hand stilled. He waited a little longer before he got up.
Then he picked up the instructions, and put them into his left hand—fished in his pocket and got out Nick's rowing medal, which he put with the pyjamas and other things. Pulled Starsky's flight gear from the hook—loosely cut, it would fit well enough—and left the room, bundling it up around the papers.