Huge thanks to Marilyn Penner, my faithful, talented beta-reader, for all her wonderful 'pressies', for holding my hand or giving me gentle kicks in the creative butt, and for always providing sound, invaluable advice. Mistakes are mine, as I always mess with the chapter after she's seen it.

Many thanks to you, too, for your reviews and encouragement. Merry Christmas to you all, and a very happy New Year, too.


Chapter 39

Hogan lingered at the truck's bumper, trying to stretch his reunion with Tiger out a little longer. He looked past the rumpled blankets to a deep shadow at the back of the truck and crooked a finger, beckoning. Tiger obligingly glided closer, her seductive grin becoming more defined with her passage from shadow to light. Reaching the edge of the cargo area, she rested a hand upon his shoulder to maintain her balance and turned the full force of the smile upon him. Her low chuckle flashed goose bumps down his arms and he smiled against her lips.

"I've got to go."

Her hand wrapped around the back of his neck and pulled him into the kiss. He gave in with a quiet moan, thinking another minute or two could not hurt. When they broke apart, he slid his fingers through her short hair, tugged on one of the silky, brown curls, rolled the lock between his fingers. It would take some time to get used to her new look. But he liked it, mainly because the disguise gave her a better chance of evading capture.

"I've really got to go," he whispered, grinning. She nodded, somber and compliant, but fisted small hands in the front of his jacket and pulled him right back for another kiss. His laugh quickly cut off as she licked along his lower lip, then lightly nipped it.

A discreet cough came from the shadows a short distance away. Hogan and Tiger separated, flushed like teenagers caught necking on the porch. Tiger glanced past Hogan's shoulder at Marc and then met Hogan's eyes with a deep sigh. Her whisper and gaze were mournful.

"You've got to go."

He slowly nodded, cupped a hand to her cheek. Her eyes closed and she turned her head, nuzzled his palm, and then pressed a kiss to it. He made himself step back. She bit her lip, gave a small wave and retreated to the shadows deep in the cargo area. Hogan closed the doors, rested his hand against them a moment, then took a deep breath and turned to face Marc. The cobbler's expression was sympathetic as he moved forward and gently clapped a hand to Hogan's shoulder.

"I will see her safely back to her camp, Papa Bear."

Hogan was unable to manage anything more than a quiet 'thank you,' and immediately walked away rather than watch the truck - and Tiger – leave.

HH HH HH HH HH HH

Kinch looked up as the jingle of a small bell announced someone had just come through the stump entrance. Grinning, he went back to writing and was close to finishing when a voice tinged with mild irritation came from the doorway.

"I thought I told you not to wait up."

Kinch stopped writing and looked up, the picture of innocence. "And I didn't."

"Then your presence here at . . ." Hogan made a show of checking his watch. "0h-three-thirty-four is just coincidence?"

Kinch hitched a shoulder in a casual shrug and pointed his pencil at the stack of envelopes sitting on the corner of the table. "Couldn't sleep, so I thought I'd use the time to write some letters home. This," he added, tapping the pencil upon the sheet of paper lying before him. "Is the last one."

"Ah," Hogan replied, eyebrows arching. "My apologies for interrupting." He motioned to the paper as he passed by. "Finish your letter."

The hint of laughter in his CO's voice and the twinkle in his dark eyes were dead giveaways that he had not bought the excuse for a moment. Kinch dropped the pencil upon the paper and folded his arms, the grin returning to his face. Hogan swung a leg over the bench in front of his locker and sat, tugging his black sweater off. Kinch's grin turned to a frown and his eyes narrowed, taking in the matching sets of scratches across both shoulder blades. Realization dawned an instant later as all the clues surrounding the mysterious meeting came together.

Tiger was back. Kinch would have bet one of his momma's cream pies on it. He barely had time to kill his smile before Hogan slanted a quick look and smirk in his direction.

"You're not writing. Nothing left to say?"

"Plenty. But it can wait." Giving in to his inner imp, Kinch decided to have a little fun. "I want to hear about your meeting."

Hogan suddenly seemed to take an inordinate amount of interest in folding his sweater. His response was matter-of-fact.

"Nothing to it."

Kinch bit the inside of his lower lip until his grin was under control again. Putting just the right note of confusion in his voice, he said, "I don't understand. Marc said the information was important."

Hogan fussed with the sweater a moment longer, and then his shoulders slumped as he breathed a deep sigh. He turned, saw the smirk on Kinch's face and rolled his eyes heavenward.

"What gave me away?"

Kinch got up, sauntered across the room and fished O'Malley's tin of salve out of his locker. He lobbed the salve to Hogan, then motioned to his CO's back. "Better let me put this on those scratches, or they might get infected."

Hogan's gaze lifted from the tin to Kinch, and he burst out laughing.

HH HH HH HH HH HH

One month later.

"Robert . . . Where . . . are you . . . taking me?"

Hogan turned back, a wide grin upon his face. "You'll see."

Kurt plodded up the trail and stopped a few feet away. Sending his friend a look liberally laced with exasperation, he braced his hands upon his thighs and hung his head.

"You need to get in better shape." Hogan's voice held mild reproof.

Kurt's head flew up, scattering blond bangs over his forehead. "I am a doctor, not a mountain goat!" he shot back with as much force as his breathlessness allowed. Detecting barely a trace of sweat upon his friend's brow did not improve his mood.

Hogan offered his hand. The light from the full moon struck silver highlights off his hair and accented the devilment in his eyes.

"It's not much further, Herr Huff and Puff."

Straightening with as much dignity as he could muster, Kurt batted the hand away and gestured to the trail at Hogan's back. "Lead on, MacDumb."

Hogan tried hard to maintain a scowl. "That's 'MacDuff'."

"You say it your way," Kurt said, smiling ear to ear. "And I will say it mine."

They continued their trek up the steep trail, Hogan pointing out obstacles and places where the path got particularly treacherous. Kurt kept his ears open for warnings and concentrated on keeping his footing. Hiking was the last thing he had expected when Hogan had shown up at his parents' home and casually asked if he had plans for the evening. He had replied in the negative, thinking his friend had cards, chess, or fishing in mind. Certainly not a moonlight hike.

"Next time, ask questions," Kurt muttered to himself, yanking his head to one side to avoid a rock protruding from the side of the hill. His sour expression was quickly spoiled by a fond grin.

"This is it," Hogan called quietly over his shoulder. He stepped up onto a level patch of ground and turned to see if Kurt needed any help.

"Jah, jah," Kurt softly sighed, bending forward to miss getting whacked in the head by a low branch. Wiping a clump of sweaty hair from his forehead with the back of one arm, he climbed the last few feet to Hogan's side.

"What is it?" Kurt demanded, somewhat testily. He was hot, tired, sticky with sweat and a cramp had sunk painful claws into one calf.

Rather than answer, Hogan took him firmly by the shoulders and turned him to his right. Kurt's mouth fell open with an audible squeak and his eyes widened in wonder. He moved forward as if in a dream, drinking in the beauty of the silver and black landscape spread out below.

Hogan quickly snagged him by the arm. "Careful. Much further and I'll be scraping you off the rocks."

That got Kurt's attention. He looked down and blanched when he saw how close he had come to stepping off the ledge into oblivion. Hogan pulled on his arm, easing him backward.

"There's plenty of room to sit back here and the view's just as good."

They settled on the ledge beneath overhanging evergreen boughs, sitting so close their shoulders brushed when they moved.

Time went by while they sat without talking, soaking in the simple pleasures afforded by this secluded place. Kurt eventually realized that the tension that had been with him throughout the day had completely dissipated. The fight with Kumler, the grief and frustration of losing a patient that he had believed was recovering . . . For a short time, he had been free of it all. He shifted position and out of the corner of his eye, saw Hogan's head turn his way.

"You all right?" Hogan's mood had turned somber. Kurt found himself responding in kind.

"Very much so. It is truly beautiful here, Robert. Very relaxing. Thank you for bringing me."

"You're welcome."

"I can see why it appeals to you."

Hogan's lips twitched at the pun and he looked back out at the countryside. His voice was quiet; his words slow in coming. "I found it by accident about a year ago. It's a good place to think or relax and just forget about everything. I've been coming here a lot since Marta's death."

"It is very peaceful here," Kurt murmured, appreciating the pristine view yet again. "Everyone should have a place such as this."

Hogan softly cleared his throat. "That's why I decided it was selfish keeping it to myself."

Kurt cocked his head. "But in sharing it, you lose part of the very thing that draws you back here. The solitude."

"Yeah, well," Hogan sighed, flipping a bit of twig toward the edge of the ledge. "Solitude has its drawbacks."

Kurt's eyebrows flew upward. "I could not have heard you correctly."

Hogan chuckled. Resting his head against the rock behind them, he sighed softly, his eyes going half-lidded. Kurt looked up at the star-studded sky, sought and eventually found Orion's Belt. His gaze meandered over each twinkling jewel of light in the constellation, then moved on to the Big Dipper.

"Evangeline would have loved this place," he whispered, feeling a sudden wash of melancholy. "She loved nature and spent as much time outside as possible. Working in the flower and vegetable gardens. Reading. Walking. I used to tease her . . ." His breath caught momentarily, and he had to clear his throat before he could continue. His gaze lowered to the silver-limned treetops. "I used to tease her of having fairy blood running through her veins, and that our child would be born with little fairy ears."

Hogan leaned toward Kurt until their shoulders rested against each other. Kurt's mouth briefly curled upward.

"Kara could have had fairy ears and twelve fingers and toes and I still would have thought she was the most beautiful child on this earth."

Hogan smiled. "Even if she'd inherited your big feet?"

A watery chuckle surprised Kurt. He knuckled tears from his eyes. "Even then." Sighing, he looked skyward again, searching, as if hoping to catch a glimpse of Evangeline and Kara in the heavens. "Sometimes I try to imagine what our baby would have looked like. Her eyes would have been Evangeline's, her hair blond like mine, but with Evangeline's curls. She would have loved nature, and would have had . . ."

"Her father's stubbornness," Hogan interrupted. The slight curl to his lips vanished in the next moment. "His dedication and intelligence, his sense of fairness, and his loyalty to his friends."

Stunned by the rare, heartfelt declarations, Kurt struggled to find words. "There must be something in the air here," he murmured. "Both of us talking this way."

Hogan remained quiet a moment, then looked away and drew a deep breath. "Have you ever wondered . . ." he stopped, his expression showing some internal battle. "If you had known . . ." his jaw clenched and he gave a hard, abrupt shake of his head.

"Just say it, Robert," Kurt gently prodded, surprised to see his friend at a loss for words.

"Have you ever regretted marrying Evangeline?"

Kurt blinked, taken off-guard yet again. Slowly, he said, "Even if I had known of the terrible grief that lay ahead, I would not have hesitated to marry her. The days we had are --" he broke off, momentarily overcome again. Taking a deep breath, he plunged on. "Some of the most precious in my memory. Even if the future revealed that I would have only a day with her, it would not have made a difference. I would have grabbed that day." He turned his head, held Hogan's gaze fast. "Travel the road you are considering, Robert, and you will one day find yourself an old and very lonely man."

"Don't worry," Hogan said softly. "I've learned that lesson, too."

Kurt's lips twitched into a smirk. "No more trying to save us from worry for our own good?" His demeanor abruptly grew serious. "We choose our friends, Robert. And with those choices, take on all that goes along with them. The good and the bad." His head tilted, his voice turning quizzical. "Surely, after all we have been through together, you do not consider me and your men as good weather friends?"

A full-blown smile split Hogan's face. Suppressed laughter roughened his voice. "Nope." He gave Kurt a direct look. "Do you do that on purpose?"

The tilt to Kurt's head grew more pronounced. "Do what?"

"Mangle clichés." Hogan grinned. "Fair weather friend, primrose path, straw that broke the camel's back. That's what."

A devilish smile spread across Kurt's face. "Perhaps some day before I kick the pail, I will answer that. But for now, Mutter's the word."

Hogan groaned, buried his face in his hands and sorrowfully shook his head. Kurt reached over and slapped him on the back.

"Let's go, Robert. It is well past time for me to punch the bag."

Another groan issued from between Hogan's fingers. "No bones about it. I should have let sleeping dogs lie."

Kurt patted his back. Sympathy dripped from his voice. "The subject is a dead mule, Robert."

Hogan's head shot up. "Dead mule?" His brow furrowed in confusion. "What?"

"Stop whipping it," Kurt deadpanned.

Hogan did a near-perfect impersonation of the round-eyed look Schultz got when he realized he had fallen for something. "I've got my answer."

Kurt's devilish grin returned. "Have you?"

Hogan's spine straightened and his expression turned feral. He thrust a finger into Kurt's face. "Everyone thinks you're such a nice man. But I know better."

Kurt chuckled, but his amusement quickly ebbed from his expression. He searched his friend's face.

"Are you all right, Robert?"

A long moment passed and then Hogan's quiet voice broke the silence that had fallen over them.

"I'm getting there. The fact that I was responsible for killing Marta will always be with me, and living with it isn't easy. Some days are better than others. But . . ." he looked away, back toward the moonlit landscape. "The good ones are outnumbering the bad now. I'm doing what needs to be done, living instead of shutting myself in my quarters or going back home. Because either of those would be giving up and that would be no life at all. It'd be no different than if I put my gun in my mouth or walked off that ledge." He drew in a deep breath. "Taking each day as it comes." His gaze locked with Kurt's. "Just like you."

"Just like everyone," Kurt observed with a wry twist of his mouth.

"Yeah," Hogan agreed softly. "Just like everyone."


The End. Thank you for reading!