Squadron Leader Major John Blaine stood on the doorstep and counted the planes coming back in from A-Flight. Like enormous versions of the bees in the old wicker hive in the farmyard behind him, the biplanes circled above, buzzing, then coughing, then sputtering to silence as the pilots guided them down into what had once been a wheat field. There was Captain Hutchinson's plane touching down, bouncing, and taxiing, while that must be Lieutenant Starsky's that took another loop before following; in the air behind them were three others. Five. They'd lost two.
Blaine's fists clenched; his broad shoulders hunched a little more; he turned back toward the farmhouse and went inside to brood and wait for Hutchinson's report. They'd lost sixteen flyers in the last fortnight. Headquarters kept calling with crazier jobs for them to do, and the replacements were younger and less experienced every time, fresh-faced babies who should have been shouting on a rugger field, not burning alive in the air. He sent them up, in old crates of aeroplanes held together by spit and glue, and every time a few of them came back. So he could send them up again. Blaine the Executioner.
These boys haunted his sleep, and not just the dead ones; the brighter their eyes, the sweeter their smiles, the more they seemed marked for death, and the more he'd dream of them. He dreamed of Hutchinson in ways he didn't like to think of, awake. Now he stole a glance through the dust-smeared window as the captain of A-Flight lifted his goggles and pulled off his leather helmet. The bright blond hair, matted to his skull, still glinted in the sun; so did his teeth against smoke-dirtied skin as he grinned at the mechanic and Sergeant Watkins, chatting with them as lightly as if he'd been strolling through a garden party instead of swooping through the air with machine-gun fire all around him.
Blaine turned away from the window, into the shadows of the room.
~ * ~
As Captain Hutchinson swung out of the plane, Watkins went on talking. "...beat the odds again this time, sir. Shrapnel?"
"Yes." Hutch remembered when he thought about it, the jar and noise and the moment's suspended breath while he waited for the engine's sputter or the smell of leaking petrol, or pain ... but none of it had happened and he'd gone back to firing at the Hun in his sights. Got him, too.
"Well, look here, sir, not ten inches from your seat."
Didn't the man think he knew it? But he made a show of looking at the ragged holes in the side of the plane, behind the cockpit. Straightening, he slapped his own buttock twice through the thick leather flight coat, saying jocularly, "I needed those ten inches, Sergeant!" and then got away. To Starsky.
The dark curly hair was all on end from his flight helmet, and he was leaning on the plane and chatting with his mechanic Evans. All in one piece—both of them were—the exhilaration bubbled up in Hutch and he did a foolish kind of dance step and slowly, showily, lifted one leg and kicked Starsky in that round posterior of his. Someone behind him laughed.
"Ouf!" from Starsky, also a put-up job as he didn't so much as turn away from the plane. Hutch leaned next to him, their shoulders just nudging each other. It wasn't what he wanted to do, but the best he could manage with all these people around them.
"How'd you like it, Starsk?" Their eyes met and they grinned at each other.
"All right." This, in the code they'd developed without ever consciously trying, meant that Starsky had seen Hutch's plane get aerated but had realised he'd make it, and that Starsky himself hadn't brushed as close to death when Hutch wasn't looking. "You intact?"
"Yes, I think so."
Evans had gone, and they now had a good view of a scene neither wished to see—Hollister standing under the wing of his plane, head bent, while his mechanic tried to cheer him up.
"That was a hot one, wasn't it?" asked Starsky.
"Pretty warm." Hutch hated to dwell on a patrol when it was over. He'd have to report to Blaine, and that was bad enough, in all conscience. But Starsky needed to unwind, to debrief, so Hutch let him.
"Who'd we lose?"
"Brand and Machen."
Starsky grinned meaninglessly and rubbed his grimy chin. "Well, we're going to lose Hollister too by the look of it."
It did look like that. Nearly a year of service under their belts, both of them could see the signs of a man who'd given up, and on a patrol, despair was as fatal as anti-aircraft fire. "Poor kid," Hutch said. "Machen was his best friend."
It cut too close. They had to move, or else think about it, and that was out of the question. Hutch ran around the tail of the plane and Starsky followed. Hollister's mechanic turned melancholy eyes on them. "I was tellin' him we all got to go sometime, sir," he said, twisting his cap in his hands.
Hutch left Starsky to respond and put a tentative hand on Hollister's shoulder. "Sorry, Hollister," he said, knowing it was nonsense, "but he went quickly—he didn't feel any pain—"
"Poor Machen," and Hollister's voice broke.
So did Starsky's patience, and his hand slapped at Hutch's arm, then grabbed it. "Come on, Hutch," and pulled him away.
It was true they couldn't do anything. They were alive, and they were the wrong ones, no comfort to Hollister. Hutch followed as Starsky ran between the planes, caught up, and passed him as they reached Woolsey and Selfridge, who began to run too. They whooped and slapped at each other in the sunshine, smelling the petrol and the dust of the yard. Alive.
~ * ~
He'd left Hollister frankly weeping over Machen's kit, still packed on the bunk that had been Niven's before him, and Hall's before that ... the kid hadn't even had a chance to unpack before they were stuffing him into a rat-trap plane and sending him up to be killed ... Hutch pounded down the stairs to the mess, where Starsky waited for him with strong drinks and foolish jokes. But Phipps was standing between them.
"Oh, there you are," said the older officer. "The CO wants to see you."
"He does?" Of course he did. "Right." He turned away, paced across the room to the door of Blaine's office.
Starsky said behind him, to Phipps, "Shall we step into a better world and speak of lighter things?" Hutch gritted his teeth with envy.
It was small, dim, and warm in the office. Once it had been the pantry, and a dutch door led to the remains of a kitchen garden. Blaine was half-seated on the lower part of the door with the upper half open. He was smoking, looking out, and he didn't move when Hutch came in, which made it certain that he knew just who it was.
"Yes?" The voice seemed indifferent.
Hutch took a parade stance, stared straight ahead at the lines on the wall where the shelves had been. "We got to the bridge." If he just said it he wouldn't have to think about it. "The bombers scored a direct hit and wiped it out." Wouldn't have to remember that there'd been an ox cart right in the middle, and the oxen had bellowed while the man had screamed, and the pieces of the cart and the bridge had fallen, burning, into the river.
Blaine threw his cigarette out the door and stood up, his eyes lambent with something that might have been triumph. "They did?"
"We lost two men." Also burning, falling. "Brand and Machen." His voice had gone soft, damn it, on the names. It wasn't true that they didn't feel anything. He'd been close enough to see sometimes—the grimace under the helmet, the way men fought to get the plane under control while it burned around them. Close enough to hear them shout. Scream.
Blaine darted behind, to the door—he could move amazingly fast for such a burly man—and slammed it shut. Stalked back across the office, pausing just behind Hutch. "Oh, you did. Lost two men."
A moment's pause, and then Blaine was behind his desk, and Hutch said, "Yes. That's all." He turned, strode to the door, opened it.
"Wait a minute, Hutchinson," Blaine said, like a trap snapping shut. Hutch turned slowly. Blaine's eyes blazed at him. "You were responsible for those new men."
Hutch closed the door very gently, walked four measured steps back to the desk, leaned over it, his fingertips light against the paper-strewn wood. "Yes," he said softly. "That's right. I was responsible for those two men. We ran into that Heinie nest on purpose." And now he was remembering, couldn't stop, and this was why he hated giving reports—the way Starsk had waved and pointed, the way the German planes had stooped like hawks out of the clouds, the way they'd dived and swooped and turned, the engines roaring and the guns rattling—"W-we sent the Huns an engraved invitation to come over and meet us!" Brand's plane had spiralled down with a long kite's-tail of black smoke.
"Yes?" was all Blaine said though he knew—he'd been a flier himself before he'd been kicked up in rank.
But Hutch would remind him if the CO needed a reminder. It was playing behind Hutch's own eyeballs now like a flickering newsreel, and he would share it. "We were outnumbered and forced to fly low." At the bottom of the sky ... all that space above like a weight on his shoulders. "We had to—to fight our way out."
"All right." Blaine was implacable. "Suppose you did. You could've been more cautious."
"Cautious!" Hutch's hands were fists now. "You don't think I enjoyed losing those boys, do you?" When had they moved around the desk? Their faces were perhaps six inches apart. He could smell the cigarette on Blaine's breath. "Getting them burned up, scattered all over France? Sending 'em up in crates that should've been on the scrap heap months ago!"
And Blaine actually smiled, or bared his teeth, and said, "That's right! Now tell me, tell me what's on your mind. That I'm a murderer. That I ought to be giving you better planes, older men, better fliers." He leaned even closer. "Say it, why don't you say it!"
Hutch took a deep breath. This was absolutely mad. He could feel the heat of Blaine's body and tension thrumming in the air. He drew back. Stood at attention again. "I'm not blaming anyone. Sir."
They stared at each other, Blaine breathing hard, and then he whirled and went to the fireplace. Leaned on the mantel. "Dismissed," he said, harshly, eyes on the fire.
Hutch didn't linger. He was out and halfway across the officer's mess before he realised that he couldn't possibly just lean on the plank of the makeshift bar and pretend to unwind. Not after that report. Starsky looked around and Hutch jerked his head and went straight through, out the door, into a sunlight as harsh and burning as acid.
He didn't know where to go. He paused at the gate, and Starsky caught up to him. After a moment, he felt a brief touch, and Starsky said, "Come on, you need a run," and took off, almost as fast as if he were back in his plane. Hutch followed.
They ran the other direction, away from the barn and the wheat field and the planes, away from the rest of the squadron and the clanking of the mechanics. Ran like boys across a tangled expanse of grass, and Hutch had no idea what had grown there—along the dividing line of poplars, down into a shallow bowl of earth and back up a low hill, down the smooth curve of the other side. They ran in silence until the farmhouse was out of sight and they were both blowing like grampuses.
They fell in the grass, rolled over on their backs. At the bottom of the sky, but just then it didn't seem heavy. Hutch lay breathing. Nothing in his head.
It was even unexpected when Starsky leaned over him. "You didn't even find the time to wash," scolded Starsky, who obviously had. "Such a pig."
Hutch reached up to feel the clean skin of Starsky's cheek. Circled his thumb at the corner of Starsky's mouth, feeling a little prickle of saliva and the dry edgy chapped lip. Down to the warmer throat, up again to the slightly rough jaw. Fingers reaching the springy hair. Starsky's eyes gathered the height of the sky, burning clear and crazily innocent. Hutch felt all the cesspools of his mind draining.
Starsky swallowed. Without looking away, he scrambled in his pocket for something, then pulled out a big white handkerchief, also fresh since that morning. He wet it with spit and scrubbed around Hutch's mouth; even though he might have complained another time, now Hutch just lay still and let his friend do what he pleased.
And was thoroughly kissed for his acquiescence.
~ * ~
It seemed Starsky could find anything: time, innocence, food, friends, wherever he went. Hutch never had understood how his best friend and lover always managed it, even though he'd been seeing it happen since they were both in school.
This afternoon, at the end of a very official captain's inspection of the A-flight planes (and then a very unofficial session sharing a flask with Richardson, the head mechanic, and talking about letters from home), Hutch came in to find Starsky and Watkins in the farmhouse kitchen nursing a pot on the fire. The smell caught him at the door and absolutely mesmerised him. Smooth and rough, sweet and bitter as Starsky's tongue had been, when they'd kissed in the field. Hutch's mouth filled with saliva until he could hardly ask, "Starsk? Chocolate?"
"Bullseye," said Starsky with a grin over his shoulder, but his hand never stopped stirring. "Now, Watkins, do you think some more of that honey of yours? Is there any left? Needs something to sweeten it a bit more, don't you think?"
"Yessir," Watkins answered. "Yes indeed, sir. I shall go and see if there might be any in the messroom, of what I had put up Weddinsday."
"Do," said Starsky. Watkins left the kitchen.
Hutch approached and looked over Starsky's shoulder at the deep brown sauce as it folded around the spoon. "Where did you get it? What are you doing with it?"
"Well, it's the sort one uses for cooking, too bitter to eat as it was. So we're making chocolate sauce with a little milk and the sergeant's honey. There had better be more honey," Starsky's forehead creased a little. "Do you remember, was it all used up this morning?"
"I don't recall." Hutch swallowed. It had literally been years since he'd tasted the confection, and though at home he'd rarely wanted it, now it was like a drug in his nose.
"Don't drool in the pot," Starsky teased. He lifted the spoon and let a drop fall onto the index finger of his other hand, then put the finger and the chocolate into his mouth, while Hutch watched every movement as if it were an enemy plane in his sights. The pink tip of Starsky's tongue flicked out and his eyelashes flickered, and Hutch swayed forward without meaning to move.
"Now? Here?" Starsky asked incredulously, but his voice was low and breathless, and Hutch didn't step back. His lover took a breath and said, "Hutch," which was little help if the goal were to discourage. Starsky did turn a little, shoulder raised, and fumbled a bit but then turned back and that strong left hand touched Hutch's mouth with hot thick wetness. "Careful," voice full of laughter and lust, "careful—Watkins will be back at any moment." Hutch's lips parted, and the chocolate-coated fingers slipped in.
They had a few seconds, he hoped. It was impossible not to tease the ends of Starsky's fingers with his tongue, suck them in deeper, chew them gently. Impossible not to feel himself harden as Starsky shivered. Hutch pulled in a deeper breath of chocolate and Starsky—and there was a scuffing sound on the flagstones outside the door. The fingers left his mouth, the whites of Starsky's eyes showed, and he turned his back, scrubbing his hand against his thigh. Hutch fell back a half step and said as casually as possible, "Yes, you're right, it needs more honey."
"And honey I have, sir," said Watkins' voice, "honey I have."
"That's wonderful, Watkins," said Hutch, hoping he wasn't overdoing the enthusiasm. "It would have been a terrible pity to waste the chocolate just because there wasn't enough honey left. Perhaps, Lieutenant, you'll learn to plan ahead better next time."
Starsky kept his back to them but glanced over his shoulder at Hutch. "I had a plan or two," he said, and Hutch couldn't allow himself to wonder what those plans had been. "Now do go away, Hutch. If I start talking to you I really will ruin this."
Hutch grinned and went.
~ * ~
Hutch had checked on Hollister but found him fast asleep, still draped over Machen's kit, and left him. Now, after dinner and an exceedingly strange dessert of oatcakes and chocolate sauce—the sauce being restricted to A-flight—they were drinking whiskey and talking, and Hollister was at last creeping down the stairs to rejoin the living.
Starsky was playing his favourite record on the gramophone he'd discovered when they moved into the farmhouse. Hutch didn't particularly care for "Poor Butterfly" himself, but then there wasn't much selection. He shook the elderly Times he was reading, to change how the lamplight fell on its creased pages, and registered that Hollister was sitting in a corner by the bar and that everyone was leaving him alone.
Done winding the gramophone, Starsky straddled a chair next to Hutch and began to read over his shoulder, then reached over and lifted the glass from his hand to take a gulp from it. Hutch grinned, lowering one arm to let Starsk see the newspaper better, knowing that he didn't really much like whiskey anyway and suspecting that he didn't want the liquor to catch up to him tonight. Hutch was all for that though he wasn't sure Starsky could manage not to get drunk. It was a rare evening either of them managed sober, here in France.
Squires, captain of B-flight, was on the other side of the paper, talking, not seeming disturbed that he had about half Starsky's attention and even less of Hutch's. "I say, Hutch, do you remember Briggs from the 37th?"
"Briggs, yes," said Hutch absently.
"He was killed the other day, down the line. Pulled the wings off an FE."
"Was he? I hadn't heard of it." And he didn't want details now, but fortunately Squires wasn't interested in giving them.
Starsky chuckled. "I'll never forget Briggs' first solo flight. Remember that time he pancaked on the top of that house in the early morning, and found himself hanging upside-down looking into the girl's bedroom?" He took Hutch's glass again.
Hutch laughed too, remembering Briggs' outraged face as he told the story. "Yes! And she opened the window and—" gesturing—"bashed him on the nose!" Now all three of them were laughing. Squires took a sip of his own drink, shaking his head.
The record ended, and instantly Starsky was on his feet. "Uh-uh-uh," and he was moving the arm back and grabbing the crank to start it over.
"Oh," Hutch complained, "you're not going to play that again, are you?"
"It's a beautiful thing," Starsky protested.
"No," said Hutch.
"Makes me want to cry," which was amusing, though untrue. Very few things made Starsky cry, and it never happened in public.
"Yes, me too," Hutch said, and Starsky grimaced at the sarcasm and went back to working the crank.
But Hutch wasn't the only one tired of the thing: a pillow flew from the other side of the room and jolted Starsky and the gramophone. Hutch did hope the record hadn't been badly scratched as he knew they'd be hearing it again anyway.
But perhaps not right away. "Who did that?" Starsky turned, picked up the pillow, and threw it back. "You do not appreciate good music!"
Thump as the pillow connected again against Starsky's ribs. It was a solid horsehair one and Hutch hoped it wasn't leaving bruises. Starsky threw it back again and followed it—maybe he was getting drunk—with the cover of the gramophone.
"Hey, hey," protested Hutch. "The furniture, the furniture!" The farmer and his wife would expect to find it all in one piece when they got back, and though that was unlikely, breaking it up for fun was definitely against regulations.
"I've got to deal with these people," Starsky said, but Graham, the original pillow-thrower, had clearly ceased finding the joke funny and was being barely restrained by his friend Lowry.
Starsky went over and hooked the pillow from his flailing hand. "I'll take that, I'll take—" and Graham, wild now, stamped on his foot. "Ow!" Starsky hopped away, trying to hold his own foot and move off at the same time.
Hutch, half-standing, had to laugh. "I told you you'd get hurt, now why don't you come sit down—" but by this time Graham and Starsky were on the floor bashing each other and rolling into people's legs.
"Starsky," said Squires, not moving, "Starsky—" which Hutch thought was pretty feeble since Graham was in B-flight. In any case this wasn't the time for verbal persuasion. He grabbed Starsky and hauled him up while Lowry got hold of Graham. Hutch instantly forgot him. Tucking Starsky into the chair, he shoved the newspaper into his hands and took a handful of hair to shake him by.
"Ouch," said Starsky but didn't struggle.
In the gramophone's silence, Bentham had begun to sing, from his perch on a big empty water-barrel. The first line was lost in scuffling, but by the time he heard the second, Hutch knew the song. It was one they often sang, its morbid lyrics and jaunty tune somehow fitting.
"...the walls all around us are bare,
They echo the peals of laughter,
It seems's though the dead are there.
So stand by your glasses steady,
This world is a world of lies,
Here's a toast to the dead already,
Hoorah for the next man that dies."
Lowry picked up the tune on that accordion of his, another find of Starsky's while shopping in the village—for just a song, he was fond of saying—and other men began to join in. Hollister, Hutch saw, was staring straight ahead with a haunted expression; this was hardly music to cheer him up.
"... the good have gone before us,
And only the dull left behind."
Now everyone at Lowry's table was singing, fumbling the words a little, and Bentham relaxed against the post behind him and let his voice drop during the chorus:
"Let's stand by our glasses steady,
It's all we have left to prize,"
Starsky was pretending that the spoon he'd picked up from someone's teacup was a piccolo, and was trying to whistle around it as he moved his fingers up and down the handle. Hutch, with another spoon, was marking time against glasses and, with a flourish, Starsky's head.
"The drunk are the de-ad already,"
—the office door opened and Blaine stood looking out at them—
"Hoo-rah for the next man that dies!"
They got raucous and silly on the last line, drawing it out. Blaine slammed his door at the end of it and Lowry played a little flourish as people began to talk amongst themselves again.
"Hoorah for the next man that dies," Starsky sang, quietly, not entirely in tune, and then got up to start the gramophone again. Hutch saw that Graham was out of protests, and picked up the spoon Starsky had abandoned, held the two back to back and beat them thoughtfully against the table, listening to the soft zinging noise.
~ * ~
Phipps was first out of the office, Blaine following, and that made the men who were still at all sober begin to gather even before they heard what Phipps said. "Turn that gramophone off, will you, Esmond? Thanks." Blaine stood on the lowest step of the staircase and the rest of them formed loose rows before him. "Quiet, lads, attention there, please .... Orders for tomorrow morning." Hutch was in the front row. There was a dead sort of look on Blaine's broad face and Hutch thought it was going to be bad.
He was right.
"A-flight," said Blaine, not quite facing Hutch. "A-flight on the early show, over Boulet sector. We're making an advance, five o'clock in the morning. We're to patrol four kilometres behind enemy lines. Strafe enemy reinforcements and munitions convoys. When the barrage starts—" yes, there would be a barrage, and it would be right around A-flight's heads— "then B-flight will cover our observation ships and artillery. You'll take up the details amongst yourselves later on."
Take up the details? Such as who would get A-flight's personal effects? What music to play at the funeral? Was Blaine mad? Had the generals back in their snug meeting rooms completely lost their minds? Hutch felt a heady cocktail of fear and rage and black humour mixing in his veins.
Blaine was looking at him now, but Hutch was damned if he'd give the man the satisfaction of knowing how he felt. He drew himself up straighter, forced the corner of his mouth up in a bitter curve. Blaine's eyes slid away.
"That's all, thank you, gentlemen, good night," he said.
Phipps added, "Dismissed, gentlemen," and the rest trickled away, but Hutch felt nailed to the spot by Blaine's evasive gaze. And Blaine didn't move either.
Then he said, as if the words were being squeezed out of him, "All right, what is it?"
"A-flight has only got five men," Hutch said mildly.
Blaine seemed to have fixed his eyes on Hutch's chin. "More replacements are on their way up."
And Hutch had thought tomorrow's job could not get worse. "More replacements?"
"Yes." Blaine pulled his shoulders back. "They'll be here first thing in the morning."
"You're telling me," Hutch wanted to confirm it, "that I'm expected to go out on a job like that with two inexperienced men."
"Those are the orders."
Hutch wanted to laugh. Knew he shouldn't. Swallowed, gritted his teeth, and smiled tightly. "Right."
Blaine's eyes widened as if Hutch had shouted. Hutch stepped around him, went to the little flight-roster blackboard next to the staircase, and did what he hadn't had the heart to do before—wiped away the names of Brand and Machen. He heard the CO walking away, the office door closing. His hand rose, the rag still in it, and for a moment he saw himself just wiping down the board, erasing them all at once and to hell with the roster. The drunk were the dead already, weren't they? And everyone in that list who wasn't dead was drunk.
But in the end he just put the rag down and went back to the bar. Squires was there, and had poured Hutch another drink. Hutch threw it into his mouth, swallowed without tasting it.
"I'm glad I'm not in A-flight," Squires told him.
A puff, half-chuckle, escaped Hutch even while his throat still burned. Then, after a moment, he said, "Speaking of A-flight, where's Starsky?" By the end of the question his voice had risen to a shout, but there was no response, and he looked around but couldn't find Starsk anywhere.
Squires answered, "Oh, he's down there," gesturing.
So the whiskey and the day had caught up with Starsky after all. He was snuggled up to the barrel where Bentham had been sitting, fast asleep with his cheek against the rough wood.
Starsky's instant-sleep routine always made Hutch laugh, really laugh, transporting him back to their school days and the very first time they'd drunk anything stronger than cider, or the nights revising together before exams. "Look at that," he said, and hoped the whole mess couldn't hear the tenderness in his voice. "End of the day and he's out like a light. Hey, Starsk," shaking his shoulder, resisting the urge to scoop the lax body up in his arms like a baby's. "Come on. Time for tucky-uppy, Master Starsky," mimicking his own old nurse. Starsky didn't stir. "No sign of life." He looked up at Squires, who shrugged, and then past him at a little jug on the bar. "Wait a minute ... here ...." The jug still had about an inch of water at the bottom, and Hutch poured it carefully into Starsky's forelock, so it ran down his forehead and dribbled off the end of his nose. "Come along now, Master Starsky, time for tucky-uppy."
Squires was laughing as well, now, as Starsky pursed his lips and blew through them, swiped his hand ineffectually at his face. "Rain, rain, go a-way," he murmured.
"Now come on," Hutch said, pulling him up by one arm and catching him when he gave at the knees.
Starsky got his feet under himself, swayed but didn't fall, opened his eyes. "Good morning, all," he said.
Hutch grabbed his head and turned it as if he'd been a big doll. "Say good night to the gentlemen, now—" pushing the head up and down as if nodding.
"Good night to the gentlemen," Starsky said docilely.
Hutch turned him and repeated the performance. "And to these other gentlemen."
"Good night to these other gentlemen." Starsky's voice was less slurred but he was still playing along.
Hutch said, "Good night, gentlemen," and hoisted Starsky across his shoulders. "Alley-hoop!"
And he was warm, and heavy, and squirmed a bit as Hutch held on, leaned forward, and started to climb the stairs. But the labour was worth it to touch Starsky now, hold his arm and his thigh, and smell his body beneath the liquor he'd drunk and the smoke from everyone's cigarettes. Voices called after them, still joking, "Say good night to the gentlemen ... good night ... good night ...."
If only there were any private space upstairs, but even Hollister's tears had been common knowledge. Any noise went right down the stairwell. And the only double bed in the house was Blaine's, because the room was separate and he was the Major. The rest of them all slept in two rooms, cots set in rows, less private even than a school dormitory.
Starsky's bunk was made up and his polka-dotted silk pyjamas neatly laid out on the pillow, but Hutch dumped Starsky unceremoniously on top of them and stood looking down at the tousled, candlelit figure. "Tight as an owl," he said, and didn't bother any more to even try concealing the depth of emotion he felt.
Starsky held up one hand and Hutch took it, held it, squeezed the firm flesh.
"Crazy like a fox, you mean," said Starsky in a perfectly clear voice—then tugged so hard and suddenly that Hutch fell onto him. He was all crooked on the bed, sprawled over Starsky almost as Hollister had been over Machen's bedroll and kit bag—and the brush of that mortal reminder made Hutch burrow into the warm living body under him, though this was even more foolish than their flirtation in the kitchen. As if Starsky had the same thought, they clutched hard at each other, just breathing. Then, gradually, Starsky's fingers moved in Hutch's hair, a palm angled across his back, and Hutch got up on his elbows and looked down at sleepy, dark-fringed eyes. Moved one arm awkwardly until he could brush the rough cheek with the backs of his fingers. Pushed a fingertip against the lower lip and then hooked it into Starsky's mouth.
Starsky pressed both lips against the finger and shifted his hips, then did it again. "Oh," said Hutch and dropped his head into the pillow next to Starsky's, forehead rubbing in the almost liquid softness of the silk pyjamas. Starsky must be drunk, after all, and Hutch must be too. He had to get up. His muscles didn't obey him and all the blood in his body seemed to be rushing to his groin. "I have spots in front of my eyes, Starsk," he said, which was the truth. White spots on a chestnut brown background.
"Well, what d'you expect?" Starsky nudged with his head, twisted his shoulders and hips and turned both of them on their sides. Hutch slowly, reluctantly, got up and sat on the edge of the bed, helping Starsky pull the pyjamas out from underneath him.
"These," said Starsky, holding the brown and white silk pants, "these," pulling out the top by the collar, "these were a going-away present from a little frou-frou."
The story of how Starsky had acquired those pyjamas was an ongoing saga, endlessly changing, in which the only consistent character was Starsky. "Who-who?" Hutch asked this time.
"Oh." Hutch twisted around, snagged a pack of Players from the crate that served as a bedside table, and pulled one of the cigarettes out.
"Frou-frou," Starsky explained to Hutch's back, "Frou-frou was sweet. My piebald pyjamas are a cherished souvenir. I will now discard the lower half as usual," and the silk dropped past Hutch's peripheral vision as he was lighting his cigarette at the candle. It flickered and a drop of wax slid down the side of the bottle that was their makeshift candlestick. The bed rocked as Starsky worried at his clothes. Hutch moved to the low stool on the other side of the crate, and began to smoke in earnest while Starsky got himself out of his uniform jacket and shirt, toe-heeled and kicked off his boots, then pulled on the pyjama top and fastened one button in the wrong hole. Then he fell back into the pillow as if too exhausted to do any more. His eyes were closed.
"You certainly look drunk," said Hutch.
Starsky didn't say anything, so Hutch lifted his chin and began to loosen the knot of his tie, unbutton his own jacket. He'd hung both jackets up and was over in front of the hooks on the wall taking off his shirt, cigarette hanging from his lips, when Starsky suddenly yawned widely.
"What's the matter with you, Hutch?" he asked, voice sleepier than his eyes had been. "You're moping about something."
"Oh, no," Hutch said, then took the cigarette out of his mouth. "No, I was just thinking about Hollister."
"It's pretty rough losing a best friend, isn't it?" Hutch snapped his fingers. "Poof, and he's gone."
There was a pause before Starsky spoke; his voice sounded firmer. "Go on, go to bed."
Hutch put the smoke out against the windowsill and tossed out the butt. Then he crossed to his own bunk, sat on it, took off one boot. "Machen ... he was just a baby. Couldn't have been much older than that brother of yours."
Starsky actually got up on one elbow. "Oh, Nicky," he said, nonchalant. Then, more seriously, "I hope this war is over by the time he gets out of school."
Hutch took off the other boot while Starsky's absentminded eyes watched him. Then Starsky flopped back down on the bed. "Ha, you know, I haven't seen him in so long, I probably won't even recognise him when I do see him." Another breath or two, and then he said, "Hutch, pull down the bedclothes."
"Of course I will." Hutch got up to push his trousers off.
"I mean, do it now."
He folded the trousers first, hung them over the pipe that served as the cot's headboard. Then he untucked the blanket and sheet and opened the bed.
There was a long wheat-straw there. Hutch grinned at it, recognising a far different code than they'd spoken beside the biplane. "Davey-boy," he said, since they were still alone, "you'll never do it. You're drunk. You're going to sleep through the night."
"If you wake up," Starsky said, then paused for another yawn, "try me."
~ * ~
Blaine had the best bed on the farm, and knew it—another little irony in a life too full of them. He rarely slept the night through. Often he never went to bed at all, writing condolence letters or filling out forms or just brooding over the fire in his office until fatigue took him, and he napped with his head on his arms on the desk or drowsed with his body curled into the hard angles of the armchair. Sometimes he spent half the night, it seemed, sitting on the lower half of the door and staring at the dark sky, smoking in order to have something to do with his hands.
Sometimes he left the farmhouse and prowled around like a watch-dog. It was neither more nor less useless than anything he did during the day. He listened to the quiet clucking of the chickens in their shed, the tick of cooling machinery, the rustling of fieldmice in straw. He saw how the night's greys and dark blues leeched out the colours that sometimes seemed too harsh and insistent during the day. He breathed air temporarily purged of petrol and smoke.
Tonight there was a full-faced moon, drenching everything in milk. A cloudless night, the kind he hoped they'd never have in England, to give the generals ideas about night flights. He walked around the near fields and the farm's outbuildings, then stopped in the yard and looked up again. The expanse of stars seemed impossibly deep and full. He stood under the sky and lost himself.
Then a sound jarred him, a man's low cry. It wasn't the first time he'd heard such a thing, though no one ever spoke during the day of whatever fear or sadness pushed those sounds out of sleeping throats. Blaine folded his arms as if to be sure his own feelings stayed silent, where they belonged.
The sound came again, a groaning undulation, and it sounded different than Blaine remembered hearing before. From the wrong direction, for one thing. There was a shed at the far end of the group of outbuildings, where seed had once been stored, and the sound must be echoing in some bizarre way, for what would a man be doing sleeping there? He took a step toward the sound, and then another one. He stalked it, silently, and told himself he did not recognise the voice he heard as it cried out again. And again.
Now he stood in front of the shed door, and he could see that tiny threads of light were coming through the cracks between boards, around the rough hinges. He cursed the melodrama of real life when he realised that a good-sized knot-hole pierced the door at about knee-height. He was not going to grovel in the dirt of the yard to see ... whoever was in the shed. He was an officer and a gentleman.
"Starsky," said Hutchinson's voice, hoarse, pleading. "Oh, god, Starsk," and Blaine dropped to his knees as if shot.
At first he saw only a confused welter of gold and brown, and then he gradually pulled the shades of colour apart and understood them. There was a heap of straw on the floor of the shed, and two fur-collared, dark leather flight jackets spread out on top. Across them lay Hutchinson, naked, limbs splayed, and Starsky bent over him, also naked. The blond's head hung down and the fall of his hair was bright as the candle-flame, where it burned in a bottle on the other side of the shed. The brunet's hands and head were moving, and his hips too; he straddled one of Hutchinson's legs and humped slowly as he sucked ... sucked Hutchinson's penis. Blaine could not believe his eyes.
The blond's arms were bent above his head, his back arched, his head rolling slowly to one side, then the other. Where Starsky's hands were, Blaine could not quite see, but obviously they were touching the other man intimately. Starsky raised his head and stilled, and both Hutchinson's hands flew up, reached for the dark hair and bronze shoulder. "Don't stop," he begged.
"Won't," said the other softly. "I'll never stop, never want to stop," and he bent again, licked the gleaming red skin with long strokes, moved his arms. Hutchinson squirmed.
"Oh not there, Starsky, no!" Even Blaine could tell that he was lying, that wherever Starsky was touching was exactly the right place. Starsky took the whole organ into his mouth at once, impossibly, his jaw wide-stretched and his throat working, and Hutchinson opened his mouth as wide but no sound emerged. His hands flailed, grabbed at the air and the straw and the leather of the jackets, and his whole body jumped and jerked as if lightning-struck.
Blaine found himself so aroused that he could hardly breathe, wanted some warm thing to rub against as if without it, his lungs would never work again. He reared back, knelt up, hands on his own erection as it throbbed and leaked through the cloth. He squeezed as hard as he could, hurting himself, trying furiously to see something else in his mind's eye beside gold and brown, skin and hair and leather and straw. He staggered to his feet, not even caring if the two inside could hear him, intent only on getting away.
As he closed the door into his office behind him, he groaned, unable to make it even to the armchair before he had to open his trousers, pull his wet length out, rub it hard and fast as he saw that golden head tossing, heard that desperate voice again. Don't stop ... not there ... . "No!" Blaine grunted through clenched teeth as he came, spurting through his fingers, spasms of release striking out through every limb. He leaned back against the door and shook for a long while afterward, before he could light the lamp and clean up his indiscretion.
He wondered if he could possibly, ever in his life, forget what he had just witnessed.
~ * ~