This story originally appeared in the SH zine, Code 7 #3. All 4 Code 7 zines are available again through Agent with Style. Her web page is: http://www.agentwithstyle.com, or you can email her at: email@example.com. Thanks to Tammy R for helping get this story ready for the web.
Even for England, it was an unseasonable August night. The rain had stopped, more or less, except where the wind drove it in sudden and unexpected gusts across unsheltered stretches of road. Hutch kept the wipers going, the rhythmic swipe mesmeric across the glistening black of the road unreeling ahead in the lights. The trees crowded on either side, a dark and impenetrable wall, endless.
His earlier suspicions had been confirmed--he'd taken a wrong turn outside Ringwood somewhere. He should have been back in Brockenhurst at least an hour ago, instead of chasing his own tail around unmarked Forest roads at midnight. If he'd had Starsk to map-read for him--if Starsk hadn't stayed behind instead of coming to Poole with him--if he'd had the sense to stay over instead of trying to drive back after the service--
Irrational and useless speculation. Starsky hadn't wanted to attend the family memorial service or the following legalities of the reading of the will, saying rightly that Hutch's great-uncle's funeral was a Hutchinson family affair. And to be perfectly honest, Hutch wasn't sure that he would have wanted Starsky there. Not now. Two days ago, he might have cajoled, coaxed, persuaded--not now. After the curve Starsky had thrown him yesterday, Hutch wasn't sure of anything anymore.
The terms of the old man's will had demanded his presence, and the chance of an expenses-paid vacation in his maternal homeland was too good a chance to pass up, as Starsky had pointed out--and sure he d come along, why not, if his partner was gonna be heir to the Hutchinson millions--
"Acheson. And who said anything about millions?"
"--whatever, I'm gonna help you spend it. What's a partner for?"
As it was, the bequest was small--a lump sum and a share in the family business, which he could easily sell to one of the cousins. The visit hadn't been a waste of time, though. He liked England--well, he liked the rural part of it, anyway. And up until this moment, he'd liked the New Forest. Yesterday afternoon, it had been a place of gentle beauty, and the Rhinefield Arboreum had pleased his aesthetic sense--the specified walks were woodsy and artfully natural without appearing contrived. He'd been enjoying it so much, in fact, that he hadn't really noticed just how preoccupied his partner had become. Hands thrust deep into pockets, Starsky had wandered the leafy rides, monosyllabic until they reached the pride of the collection.
"I come 5000 miles from California to see a redwood?" he commented rhetorically, a quirking grin taking some of the sting out of the words. Hutch regarded him with an air of exasperation.
"This is England Starsky."
"No shit?" Unfeigned innocence, gazed on the sturdy young giant growing in solitary splendor. Then, "Guess we've both come a long way to get where we're at. Hutch, can we talk?"
"Sure, Starsk." Outwardly calm, Hutch kept his voice steady. This wasn't unexpected--in fact, when he thought about it he was only surprised it hadn't come up sooner. Starsky was still officially convalescent after Gunther's hit, and working hard to regain what he'd lost, to get back on the force. But they had never talked about the alternatives--and as time went on, those alternatives were beginning to take on the shape of probabilities. It was time they faced facts.
"Okay." Starsky led the way down a graveled track into an avenue of beech. The sun gilded the green, glinted off the surface of small stream that wound summer-shallow between deep-cut banks over shoals of pebble. The footbridge was agreeably rustic, and Starsky leaned on the weathered railing. "The book says that trout come up here."
"Very small trout, then. That's no more than six inches at the deepest." The vista of woodland-and-water looked promising through the viewfinder of his Pentax--Hutch took a couple of shots, wishing he could paint it. Except that it would seem too chocolate-box to be true. "You should have brought your camera, you always get better shots than I do. So what do you want to talk about? You're worried about the job? You're gonna make it, no sweat." He hoped the words of false confidence didn't sound as feeble to Starsky as they did to him.
Silence, and only birdsong and the murmur of running water.
"What?" Hutch abandoned the view and looked at his partner. There was an expression on Starsky's face that he knew--a look of intense resolution, as if he were keying himself up to do or say something difficult. But the voice was soft and level, without tremor.
"No, it isn't the job. Hutch--we've been through a lot of changes, the last couple of years. Before the Gunther case. Things haven't run too smoothly for either of us, and I got to wondering why. Even thought I had an answer, until the shooting--an' that turned everything upside down. Whole new ball game. Had to rethink a lot of stuff--and God know I've had time, these last months. Worked a few things out."
"You've never said--"
"I figured you'd got enough to worry about," Starsky said. "And anyhow, I wanted to be sure...."
Hutch felt a chill of unease, at variance with the summer warmth. "Sure?" he repeated.
"Yeah. Of how I felt. About us."
"What's to be sure about? We're partners. We're a team."
"We were." Flat statement. "That's not what I mean, Hutch. I nearly died. Did die. Ever since then, I've been thinking...." He drew a deep breath. "Hutch, I love you. And I could have died and you'd never have known.''
It was instinctive to respond to the raw emotion in those words. "C'mon, Starsk--I've always known. And you know that I love you--"
"No, Hutch. Listen to me, willya? I'm not just talkin' buddy. Not friendship. Not even brother. I love you, dammit. In every way there is."
It had shaken Hutch, and he knew he hadn't handled it as he should, backing off, trying to regain a balance that had gone forever now. Nothing could be the same again--oh, Starsky wasn't about to push anything. He'd said his piece, and the next move had to be Hutch's.
Except that he didn't know what that move would be.
Starsky had given him space to think about it. He still hadn't come to any conclusions. He did love Starsky--the short period of time without him had underlined just how much the man meant to him--the steady, unshakeable comradeship, trust, understanding, that he'd come to take for granted. He couldn't imagine them gone, the other-self always at his shoulder suddenly not there.
But--a physical aspect to their relationship? A sexual intimacy as well as the almost sensual closeness they had had for so long?
I don't know, Starsk. God help me, I just don't know.
He did not see the tree fallen across the road until it was too late.
The bracken was waist-high, pale in the wash of moonlight, and pearled with water droplets. He became aware that his pants were soaked past the knee from brushing through the stuff. The forest was silent, still as a print in monochrome.
Where the hell did the road go? And the car--should have stayed with the car, waited for help--
There was no sign of either road nor car, nor could he remember exactly what had happened. Shock. He felt sore in several places, and there was a lump on his skull that was too tender to touch. I'm in shock. There was an odd sense of dislocation, of unreality, amplified by the eerie quiet of his surroundings. The wind had dropped completely--the sky, what he could see of it, was as clear as if the storm had never been, a deep silken blue, leaf-shapes etched against it in silver-limned black. He was standing on the edge of what looked like one of the cleared ridess--a grassy track beneath the arched graining of the trees--that branched from the road. Logically, if he followed it, he should get back on the road. But--which way?
I took the road less traveled by.
To his left, something moved, with a whispering rustle--he swung towards the sound and froze in amazement as the snow-white animal stepped out of the shadow into the chequering of moonlight;antlered head poised in eternal vigilance.
A white stag.
His rational mind knew it for a genetic freak, but an older atavistic sense saw beauty as rare as the unicorn, innocent and unafraid. For an instant man and beast regarded each other with what seemed like equal wonderment, then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the stag was gone, vanishing into the chiaroscuro of the forest night.
Hutch blinked, drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. Jesus, Starsk, I wish you could have seen that. Wish you'd been here with me. There had been an enchantment about that moment completely divorced from his present situation--a magical delight he hadn't felt since his earliest Christmases. And he wanted to share it.
Which he wasn't going to do standing here. Find the road, that was priority One. And when in doubt, explore all the possibilities.
The moonlight was bright enough to show him that the ride stretched unbroken for as far as he could see in both directions. He chose at random, striking out with the moon at his back, his shadow densely black in front of him. His ears were becoming adjusted now, he was picking up sounds, tiny rustlings, whispers, murmurs, as the creatures of the forest night went about their business. It was still kind of eerie, because he didn't belong here, but it was not frightening. Dreamlike, perhaps. Surreal.
Something that sounded like a distant baying made him pause. No, it wasn't wolves--there weren't any timber wolves in England outside the zoos. According to Starsky, with his packrat propensity for hoarding scraps of irrelevant information, the last wolf in England had been shot in seventeen hundred and something, when they didn't give a shit for conservation. A long time ago, anyway. The baying sounded again. Someone's dog, howling at the moon. And where there was a dog, there could be habitation, maybe a phone. He took his bearings on the sound, changed direction--
--out of the dark between the trees, something swooped, silent as death. He ducked instinctively, flung up an arm to shield his head, and got a fleeting glimpse of wide round golden eyes, curved savage beak, spread wings, before it was gone.
An owl. That's all it was. His heart slowed its hammering. Any more surprises?
The contrast of light and dark made it hard to pick a path now that he had left the ride. Distances were impossible to judge, and there was no way to distinguish dense shadow from denser obstacle until he hit it. Maybe this hadn't been such a great idea. Maybe he should backtrack and try again....
The ground went from under his feet in a rattling rush that drowned his yelp of surprise. He snatched desperately for support, caught a branch, only to have it ripped from his hand as be fell, in a sliding tangle of earth and underbrush to land with the wind knocked out of him in the heap of loose peaty soil he had brought down with him.
For some time Hutch lay where he was, half-dazed, the moistness of the disturbed earth under his cheek, the scent of it filling his nostrils. Can't just lie here. Move. Anything broken? Check it out.
He levered himself carefully to hands and knees with only a few twinges, and then, shakily, to his feet, seeing that he was at the foot of a steep bank, a fresh landslip where an overhang had collapsed under his weight. The bank had been eaten away by the winter ravages of the stream that now meandered in a shallow bed a little way off, and had held until now only because of the mat of roots. Everything seemed to be in working order more or less. All present and correct, Hutchinson. But his hand was stinging where the branch had cut into his palm, and the wound was clotted with dirt. He knelt on the pebbles where an eddy formed a deeper pool, and saw his reflection in a surface like a silvered jet mirror--face pale and smudged with dirt, blond hair bleached paler by the leaching moon, the light glinting on the fine chain and moon-and-star pendant at his throat. The image broke into rippling shards as he dabbled his hand in the coolness, letting the water wash the wound clean, thin smoky tendrils of blood uncurling in the clear flow.
Well, I'm not dreaming. This proves it.
He splashed water onto his face, then drank a little from a cupped palm. It tasted slightly earthy, but sweet, and refreshing. And it quenched a thirst he hadn't known he had.
He had forgotten about the reason for his change of direction until the baying came again--but close, now, not at a distance, and there was more than one voice in the oddly melodious ululation. Not a dog--hounds. A pack--and hunting.
His first thought was of the white stag. There was no second thought, only a gut reaction. He scrambled to his feet and ran, gripped by true panic, the unreasoning terror of the wild.
The rationality of "Why am I running?" was swamped by the irrational urge to run--the instinct of the hunted animal taking precedence over all else. The haunted night fled past in serried strides of blind black and surreal silver, while sweat burned and blurred his eyes, and his breath rasped raw in his throat.
He stumbled through bramble and hawthorne and gorse, clothing and flesh torn by the clawing thorn-thicket
a stream too wide to jump was a jetty rivulet soaking him as he splashed unheeding into it, the shifting bed uneven and treacherous underfoot so that he slipped and sprawled headlong, gasping at the shock of cold water on his exertion-heated body. He staggered to his feet, lurched for the bank
but they were almost on him now, he could hear the swift loping pad, their panting, the clear belling music of their call--and a glance over his shoulder showed him the sleek running pack, seven couple of milk-white hounds with dark ears, eyes shining
as they drove him, herded him, out of the close packed trees and down a slope onto a wide bowl of clearer ground where a single great oak reared out of the heather and gorse at its feet, roots humping out of the soil like the talons of a falcon gripping the kill. He could run no further. He knew it and so did they, and the pace checked as he reached the tree. They had done what had been commanded of them, bringing the quarry to the place of destined meeting. No longer the hunting-pack, but an honor-guard around him as he stood with his back to the reassuringly solid bulk of the ancient oak.
For what? The foremost hound raised its red-eared head and belled a triumphant summons, and silence fell again--an absolute silence, no other sound save the thunder of his own heart, his fight for breath.
He saw the antlers first, moonlight dripping argent over them, tipping each branch with white fire--then the figure on the lip of the rise, dark against the silver sky, head high-crowned with the pride of his horned godhood.
am I dreaming?
This was no illusion. Illusion does not leave footprints in the dewed grass, the soft earth--does not have a scent of clean male animal, sweat of the chase and the faint touch of forest smell, of green and growing life. The moonlight ran profligate silver over smooth rippled muscle, losing itself in the tangle of dark curls on the proud head, the dark pelt furring breast and groin. Like the royal stag, king stag, he had known trial by combat--the scars damascened his body. But the god dies to be reborn, immortal and victorious.
I'm not dreaming.
The Horned One was as real as himself, or even more so. Eyes like midnight, indigo-blue, fixed on him with grave intensity. The hunter, implacable, was face to face with his chosen prey.
The hunt is over, the quarry brought to bay.
Stretching out a hand to him, the God smiled.