warnings: slash; angst; lemon

a/n: I'm very dissatisfied with this story but I've been working on it so long I just can't bear to do anything else with it. The ending is quite abrupt, I should warn you. It's far from being my piece de resistance, to say the least. That being said, I'm proud to say I'm one of three authors with a published Route 66 fic and I hope I don't completely offend the fandom with this story. And hey, while the metaphor doesn't really work, it makes about as much sense as a few canon episodes.

EDIT: also please excuse the glaring editing error near the end of the story. It will be fixed as soon as I get the chance.

It began one cold night in a shack somewhere in the middle of upstate North Carolina. The night's lodgings were the worst we'd had in a while, but they were free, along with a dinner of butterbeans and skillet-fried cornbread cooked by the gentle old Tarheel woman who took pity on us. She was the first person who had the courage to talk to us when we got lost in the strange little community deep within the Appalachian hills. For the longest time, we circled the Corvette over the rough dirt road, worrying we'd run out of gas while dozens of weary-eyed children watched us intently. It was chilling and humbling at the same time, because most of them had the same fair hair and freckled complexion as me, but instead of flushed cheeks and designer clothes, they bore sallow skin and filthy hand-made rags.

Thinking about the children again, I realize now that the scratchy cot and drafty walls I shivered on are what most of the hill people deal with every night; nonetheless, there was a spring frost settling outside and the damp coldness awoke a sorrow I managed to bury somewhere deep within myself up until right then. In the darkness, the first tear I let myself shed rolled down my cheek, followed by another and another, and I tried as hard as I could to silence my sobs. All I wanted to do was let it out once and for all, but I was too proud to acknowledge the painful loss still hanging over me like a dark cloud.

That kind of sadness is like the time I fell into a wild blackberry bush when I was a kid. The woody vines cut my skin with their sharp, jutting thorns, and the more I struggled to free myself, the more tangled up I became. Grief has a way of seizing you like that, and sometimes it's best not to thrash about if you don't want those thorns to bury themselves deep in your skin. But there are other times when you can't just sit there and wait for someone to come along and pull you out.

I couldn't have been older than three or so when I fell into that bush, and in my infantile terror, I screamed for help. My father found me and lifted me from the vines with his strong hands, and he wiped the blood from my face and arms with his clean, white handkerchief. To go from being so afraid to feeling so safe and stable—that kind of tenderness was exactly what I needed on a night as cold and damp as that one in North Carolina. But what could I do now that he was gone? Whose handkerchief would bear the brilliant red smear of my blood when I couldn't free myself from those thorny vines?

And so I fought that cold night, even if I had to do it alone. Weakly, I sighed and rolled over in my cot, trying to find some way to lie comfortably so I could get it out of my system before the sun came up. But then a voice shattered the stillness of the dark, reminding me that in all of my loneliness, I'm never quite alone.

"You can't sleep, either, huh?" it said.

If he hadn't been whispering, it might've startled me, but instead I gulped away the tears and replied, "It's freezing in here." My voice cracked and betrayed me, and a moment later I heard the clink of the hurricane lamp's glass cover on the table between us, followed by the sulfuric flicker of a lighting match. The flame leapt high and the burning wick filled the room with light, and as he replaced the cover he sat up in his cot and stared at me. The concern was as bright in those pensive, dark eyes of his as the lamp on the table between us.

"Your dad?" he asked, treading carefully on the touchy subject.

"Yeah," I told him, giving him permission to talk about it. But instead of talking, he stared at me silently for a long time, and then grabbed his blanket and crossed the room to join me on my cot. He sat me upright and wrapped the covers around my shoulders, and with his arm around me he studied my face like he was trying to figure out just how to approach what we both knew needed to be said. His dark lashes dropped from my eyes to my mouth, and I realized my lips were quivering as I struggled to keep it together. And I looked away because it's embarrassing enough to cry, but to be caught crying is a hundred times worse.

But somehow I knew that wasn't really why I looked away. I've never been ashamed around him, never afraid. There's always been something there, something beyond trust—and I was never sure of it until that night, because in that moment his other arm wrapped around me and pulled me close. Then his hand moved down my chest and over my stomach, and I still wasn't really sure of anything except that something about it was horribly wrong, and that I had no desire whatsoever to be right.

Soon his hands made their way around my back and he held me in a tight embrace like he never had before. The radiant warmth and the beating of his heart so close to mine did a great deal to soothe the wounds that decided to open themselves that night, and I was so caught up in the comfort of it that it took me a moment to realize what was happening when he nestled his face in my neck and kissed me softly under my jaw. When I finally caught on, I was so shocked I couldn't bring myself to do anything at all. Instead of pushing him away or even asking him what the hell he thought he was doing, I froze, solid. When he sat back to glance briefly at my face again before bending to plant a soft kiss on my lips, all I could do was sit there in silent bewilderment.

And then he tore himself away from me. By the low light I could see his face flushed and full of shame. Looking away, he lifted the bottom of his shirt and exposed his stomach to me. With his finger he drew circles on either side of his navel and said, "Go ahead. Pick one."

I stared at him, still somewhat in shock, and asked, "Your kidneys?"

"Yeah," he said. "I guess you can sock 'em both if you want to. After all, it's what I deserve."

He thought he'd taken advantage of me, I realized, and maybe he was right. Part of me almost wanted to laugh at his street-child's convoluted idea of retribution, but it was the tears that surfaced instead. Unable to stop myself from crying, I leaned on him again and let him hold me, because even if there was something else there between us, I knew that he was the only person in the whole world who could pull me out of the blackberry bush now.

He's the only person I'd want to.

Slowly, he let his arms return to me, and this time I was the one with my face against his neck, although instead of kisses it was tears spilling onto his shirt. Wordlessly, he rubbed my back and let me sort it out for myself, and sometime between then and the time the sun came up, I finally drifted off to sleep.

But when I woke up in the morning, alone on my cot with sore eyes, I watched him shaving over the basin of cold well water, waiting for him to say something—anything—about what had happened the night before. And he said nothing. When I wished him a good morning he nodded and smiled as if it was all a dream and nothing was different. But I knew it was real because I could still feel his arms around me and his lips against mine. I remembered exactly how it was to go from feeling so alone to knowing I were never alone; how it felt to be freed from the thorny vines of a blackberry bush no matter how entangled I was.

And so I told myself that if his silence was a solemn vow to never, ever ridicule me for the way I cried over my dead father that cold night in North Carolina, my own silence should be a vow to never remind him of the time he overstepped the boundary of friendship. But I wasn't sure I could ever keep that vow. I knew that something, somehow would drive me to break it.

The only question was when.

I didn't keep track of the time that passed since then, but eventually it all came to fruition as we were driving through Oklahoma one night. My nerves were completely frayed and I hated to drive like that, but we promised each other that we'd make it to a particular town in Texas so we could be there for its annual rodeo. Neither of us had seen a rodeo, but he found a pamphlet about ranching in a visitors' center and he insisted on reading it to me in the motel room after work.

When he came to the part about calf-roping, I said, "Sounds kinda savage, don't you think?"

He said, "Maybe the little calfies get a kick out of it."

"Animals don't enjoy being chased down and tied up. It scares them," I countered. "Makes them feel helpless."

"They're not people, Tod," he said in an oddly somber voice. Our eyes met and I wasn't sure what it meant, and maybe he didn't either, because he turned away and said, "Anyway, we'll never know unless we watch it happen."

So we found ourselves rushing to some little off-the-map town because someone who worked at that visitors' center told us that his cousin's brother's friend, or something like that, went to a spectacular rodeo there and it just so happened to be around this time of year. That was how it usually went, and even if it turned out that the town was all but deserted and they stopped having rodeos fourteen years ago because gypsies put a curse on the fairgrounds, we knew we'd always end up having some kind of adventure, even if we had to make it ourselves.

So despite our better judgments, we decided to drive all through the night just to get there by dawn. But the night can be treacherous and unpredictable—it was so dark on the highway, and the campy country music on the radio was so gentle and dreamy that I found it hard to keep my eyes open. At one point, and I wasn't entirely sure when, my head started to droop and my hands slipped off the steering wheel.

"Watch it, sleeping beauty!" Buz shouted beside me, but the way the car skidded across the road was more than enough to jilt me awake. With my adrenaline suddenly keeping me wide awake, I eased the Corvette onto the side of the road so we could both catch our breath. And then, there was no sound but the blood rushing past our ears and Patsy Cline's irritatingly poppy voice filling the car.

But Buz couldn't stand it and soon he spouted, "I always thought that bit about having your life flash before your eyes was something you only hear about in the movies."

"I didn't think I was that tired," I said, unsure whether I should apologize.

"For a moment there, I figured we'd never have to worry about waking up ever again," he said. "You know what I mean?"

"Yeah," I said, fully aware that I was risking his life as well as my own. So I cut the ignition. The music stopped and I looked at him sheepishly. "Give me a few minutes, okay?"

"You probably need more than a few," he said.

"Just a few," I insisted. I leaned back in the seat and folded my hands on my belly, but exhausted as I was, something kept me from drifting off to sleep. Opening my eyes so slightly he couldn't tell that I was still awake, I peered at him through my eyelashes.

He was watching me. It didn't surprise me, because I'm almost certain I'd be doing the same thing if I were in his place. What else is there to do sitting in car on the side of the road while your buddy sleeps, in the middle of the night no less? There was just something about the way he did it. His gaze moved slowly over my whole figure, with such intensity that I could've sworn I could feel my skin prickle where his eyes graced me.

Something I couldn't explain if I tried stirred deep within me, just like it did that night in North Carolina, only now that the blackberry vines didn't have such a tight grip on me, I couldn't ignore what it truly was. There was a certain hunger in his eyes, a yearning for something more than a friend's companionship, and I knew then that I myself hungered and yearned more than I could hardly say.

And I'm not stupid. I know better than to acknowledge that kind of thinking—the kind that's plagued me for as long as I can remember, even since I was a little child— but nothing can keep a guy from feeling it.

Finally the truth surfaced in my mind and forced me to acknowledge it: I knew that no gorgeous dame was enough to leave me sated, and I was almost certain that if I ever had a guy, there was only one I cared for enough to go against everything I knew to be right and wrong. Disgustingly, sordidly wrong.

"Buz…" My voice was weary, but it wasn't because I was so sleepy.

"Yeah?" he asked, almost like he expected what was coming.

"Hold me," I said, opening my eyes to peer at him.

He hesitated at first, staring at me like I'd asked him to punch me in the jaw. But after a while he placed a hand on my shoulder and leaned over the partition between the seats. As he pressed me to his chest, I wondered all of a sudden why I ever believed there could be anything wrong about this. And then, when he let his hands roam across my back, I wasn't certain I ever really did.

"Kiss me," I said, and I couldn't tell if I was ordering him or begging.

"Come on, you don't really want that," he said, although he never let go of me.

"Yes, I do," I insisted. "When did you get so many scruples?"

"When did you lose yours?" he laughed. "It's not scruples, Tod. It's not even laws. I can't tell if you're alright with it, that's my problem."

"Actually, I kinda like the idea," I said, and since he continued to stall, I knew I had to prove it to him. He's taller than any girl I've ever kissed, and I craned my neck as I brushed my lips feather-soft against his. When he didn't react I kissed him again, and then again and again, on his lips and all around his mouth. Finally, just as I was starting to get discouraged, he gave in and kissed me back. When he did, my skin was instantly covered with goosebumps, and I was trembling all over when he parted his lips, even though it was just to speak.

"We're buddies, Tod," he said, barely moving his face away from mind. "Aren't you afraid this'll ruin our friendship?"

"It's too late now," I said, surprised at myself for being so glib. "We can't pretend we don't want this."

"Sure we can," he insisted. "We're very good at lying to ourselves. After all, we have for so long. About as long as we've known each other, I'd say. Probably since the first day we met."

Wishing he'd stop talking and go back to kissing me, I shifted closer to him, slinging an arm over his shoulder and cupping his face with my hand. If he felt even half as strongly as I did right about then, surely he couldn't resist the way I breathed his name against his cheek.


And he couldn't. This time I was sure he was permanently silenced as his open mouth was on mine, engulfing me, taking the breath right out of me. His tongue fought its way past my teeth, and I let out a muffled sigh as it slipped hot against my own.

To finally kiss him like that felt good—so good that a burning knot wove in my gut and spread all throughout me. My own arousal frightened me, and it wasn't only because I was concerned about morals or laws like he said. What was unsettling was how aware I was that he could feel me pressing against him, and I knew it because I could feel him pressing back. All at once, I longed to do whatever it took for him to touch me, to have me, even though I wasn't entirely sure what that meant.

And suddenly, like it was too good to be true, he took me by the waist and urged me into his lap. But then it was over just as I managed to groan his name. He came to rest in the driver's seat, and pushed me into his place.

"Do you trust me to drive the rest of the way?" he mumbled before I could ask him what he was doing.

"What? Yeah, go ahead…" he was so serious all at once, that if it wasn't for the tightening discomfort rising in my stomach I'd have thought the whole thing was a dream. He started the car and turned off the radio, muttering something about pop music.

"I'll wake you when we get there," he said.

"As if I can sleep now," I said, slighted beyond words. "You really are worried about morals, aren't you?"

"Morals, no," he said, then after some thought added, "But I change my mind about laws."

"Do you?" I asked.

"Just what would we do if a state trooper found us out here and he figured out that at least one of us isn't a dame?" He laughed at the surprisingly terrifying image. "No thanks. I'd rather get busted for a more glamorous crime."

I couldn't argue with his logic. Driving in silence, I ached, not just because I was trying to suppress myself, and not just in my pants. I let myself steal a glance at him. He was watching the road intently, always overly cautious behind the wheel of my beloved Corvette, but I could see by the moonlight that his lips were still flushed red from the kiss. It was then that I finally knew once and for all that it wasn't just my body that ached for him. It was my heart.

Another thing I came to know right about then was how very much it was like that night in North Carolina. Given the opportunity, he would've been content to go on pretending it never happened. Something had to be done, to be said, or else we'd never get any farther than that—a forced kiss and nothing more.

"Tell me one thing," I began, leaning back into my seat and trying to ignore the ache low in my gut.

"What's that?" he asked.

"Do you want me?" I tried, gingerly trying out the words. "I mean really want me."

"Do I wanna… make love to you?" he said as if he thought it sounded incredibly stupid.

"If that's what it's called between men," I replied.

He thought long and hard about it before he answered. I found myself wondering whether I'd be more disappointed if he said no, or if he said nothing at all.

Finally he answered me. In a chillingly low voice, he said, "So much I can't even think sometimes."

"So what's stopping you?" I said. "Life's too short not to take what you want."

"Alright," he said softly. "When we get to Texas, I will."

It was a long, uncomfortable drive, but by the time we got to Texas, I somehow managed to fall asleep. I woke up alone in the passenger's side of the Corvette with the top still pulled up, and as I shook off the disorientation the morning sun was warm on my face. I sat up in my seat, wondering if the night's conversation was anything more than a dream. Somehow I knew it was— having heard him speak openly about what had been going on between us all this time served as reasonable proof. Had we really wanted each other since the day we first met? Even now, I'm still not really sure.

After a while I grew restless and got out of the car, sitting up against the hood and squinting at the bright sun as I tried to get my bearings. The street was hardly more than a run-down dirt road, but it was lined with a few little shops and seemed to be as bustling as a small-town main street could be. Buz had parked in front of a drugstore and through the window I could see him chatting with the clerk, laughing and leaning across the counter. It always surprised me, the way he seemed to either get along perfectly with the locals or rub them wrong from the moment he stepped out of the Corvette. It was always one way or the other with him; as aloof and detached as he always was, he could never keep himself from getting involved with the people we met along the way. And I always went right along with him. And sometimes I was the one getting us involved. It didn't matter which of us started it—we finished it together.

As I watched him continue talking to the clerk, unaware that he was being observed, I couldn't quite figure out which of us had started it this time. I wanted to say it was him, all the way back in North Carolina, but I was the one who'd insisted on bringing it up again. It wasn't really that important, I knew, because now we were in Texas, and remembering the promise he'd made I could hardly keep myself from getting all wound up again right then and there.

Right about then was when he finally looked up and saw me, and when he did he gave me a short nod and a smile like the ones he always gave every pretty blonde he ran into. I've convinced myself that he always went after the blondes because he had me in mind—I know I preferred brunettes for the very same reason. As he sauntered out the door toward me, I leaned back against the car and folded my arms, and lowering my eyelids I asked, "So, how about that deal we made?"

"Deal?" he repeated, tucking a brown paper bag carrying whatever he'd purchased under his arm and gesturing for me to follow him down the sidewalk.

"Buz," I replied. "We're in Texas. You know, why don't we, uh, find a room?"

"Oh, I took care of that already. I'm on top of my game, don't worry," he said, shrugging and smiling like he'd already forgotten everything. When I lingered by the Corvette, he grew more serious and added, "Come on, buddy, we have all day. Let's find something to eat first, okay?"

I couldn't think of anything particularly clever to say to him, so I wordlessly stood and followed him, knowing he was leading me even though we walked side-by-side. With the rising sun to our backs we wandered down the street, saying nothing to each other—although somehow I was sure that he had as much on his mind as I did. Maybe it was just wishful thinking, but I had to at least hope that he'd keep his word and that I'd be in his arms again, and soon.

"What do you think about that place?" he said, pulling me away from my thoughts, gesturing to a little place with the words "Big Jack's" hand-painted in the window.

"It's your choice," I replied, perhaps being more glib than I should've. "I'm not the one who's hungry."

"Well, if it's up to me, that's where we're going," he said, seeming to catch on pretty quick that I was impatient. Without waiting for me to say anything else, he shoved his hands in his pockets and marched up to the place, leaving me to follow him if I wanted to. And, having nothing else to do, I followed.

He settled into one of the booths and I sat across from him, becoming suddenly aware of how hungry I was as well. The hot, greasy smell of bacon and hash browns wafted throughout the restaurant and my gut started to rumble just as the waitress made her way to our table.

"Well, y'all must be new in town," she said, gazing out the window at the Corvette. "I reckon you're in town for the rodeo."

"I reckon we are," Buz said, the word sounding stiffer and far less quaint in his accent than hers.

"Hey, Jack!" the waitress turned and called toward the kitchen. "Why don't you whip up something for some more out-a-towners!" Then, turning back to us, she added, "You'll have to forgive us, we don't have much in the way of a menu. You'll like the breakfast, I'm sure."

"Whatever it is, I hope it tastes as good as it smells," I said, trying to distract myself from what bothered me, at least for a while.

The waitress's recommendation turned out to be just fine. Big Jack himself served us the best breakfast we'd had in a long, long time and then refused to take our money, saying we could pay him later by taking him for a spin in that fancy car of mine. He spoke with the two of us as we ate, and when we were done he brought us each a hearty slice of blackberry pie. Then he finally wandered off and left us to finish the dessert by ourselves.

Alone at last, I tried to make myself be patient. Trying to make conversation, I asked Buz, "What did you buy at the drugstore?"

Glancing at the other patrons, he handed me the bag, letting me open it and find out for myself. Nestled inside of it a glass bottle of mineral oil.

"What do you want this for?" I asked. "Castor oil's better if you're stove up."

He finished a bite of pie and wiped his mouth with his napkin, and then he leaned close to me and in a low, hushed voice he said, "That's not what it's for."

"Then what—," I started to say.

"You were so desperate to rush off to the motel? Well that's what it's for, alright?" he replied. Softly, he continued, "When you want to put something in a place where it doesn't belong, you have to go about it carefully. Do you understand?"

It wasn't hard to figure out what he was talking about. I kept my mouth shut and listened to what he had to say. The words he used were crude, which didn't bother me as I'd grown used to his rough vernacular long ago, but as he described in detail how he planned on using his purchase, I could feel the hair on the nape of my neck standing on end. I'm not as naïve as my boyish face and charming demeanor might make me seem, but to hear him tell me exactly the way it works between men gave me a tightening feeling in the pit of my stomach.

And soon, I realized that the feeling wasn't horror, it was intrigue.

I laid down my fork, unable to eat another bite of pie. My appetite for food was suddenly all but gone, and I pushed the plate away.

"You're not gonna finish that?" he asked me, completely straight-faced, as if he'd been talking about something like the weather.

"You can have it," I said. I watched him eat in silence, saying nothing and watching him twist his face around as he picked a blackberry seed out of a molar with his tongue.

He looked at me and said, "You're all nervous about it now." He worried the seed some more and then added, "Don't let it get to you."

"I'm not nervous," I said, forcing a smile.

His fork squeaked against the plate as he scraped up the last few crumbs. "Good," he said, "Because there's no reason to be nervous, okay?"

Jack returned to take our plates before I could think of anything else to say. He hovered at the table a moment longer and told us that he intended on taking us up on that ride in the Corvette.

"Let us at least wash some dishes for you," Buz said.

Jack considered it for a moment and said, "You know, I could really stand to have a couple 'a helpers around here while the rodeo's in town. Couple 'a strong young men might do. You boys wouldn't know anyone who's lookin' for work, would you?"

Buz glanced at me and said, "Well, we were hoping to find something temporary while we're in town," and before I could say anything Jack called out the waitress to give us a quick tour of the diner and an idea of the kinds of things he needed done. While we walked around the counter I noticed that Buz had left the paper bag on the table. I could see Jack peek into it and scratch his head. Suddenly I envisioned him rushing into the kitchen, grabbing us both by the collars of our shirts and throwing us out onto the street because he knew precisely what that oil was for. I imagined the townspeople watching us walk side-by-side with hate in their eyes, seeing that bag and knowing what it meant. When we got to the car, would there be a crowd waiting for us, armed with boards full of rusty tacks, ready to beat our heads in for even thinking about doing what Buz described?

But instead of any of that, Jack just shrugged and walked away from the table, and later on when we found our way back to the car, the people who saw us smiled and nodded instead of grimacing.

Nonetheless, I knew deep down inside that Buz wasn't entirely right about having no reason to be nervous.

With that sinking feeling sweeping over me, I glanced at Buz and the waitress, trying to soothe my nerves by watching him flirt openly with her like he always does with girls, however pretty they may be. When she giggled and shook her head at him, I couldn't help but smile right along with her. Somehow it seemed like everything that I should've been concerned about wasn't nearly as important as how much I wanted to be with him.

"So what do you fellas call yourselves?" she asked us, completely oblivious to how flustered I was.

"I'm Tod Stiles," I said, trying to keep a steady voice.

"Buz Murdock," Buz added, taking her hand. "And how about you?"

"Hattie," she said. "Jack's my old man. I don't know if he told you, but we run a tight ship around here." As she spoke, she folded her arms. "Now I know what you're thinking, that between the two of us there's no way we could do the kind of work we do around here. But that's how it is. For the first few days y'all are gonna be slow, but if you don't pick up the pace, Jack'll kick you outta here just like he kicked out my momma. She couldn't work, and if you can't either, he's got no use for you."

Buz shot me a quick glance while Hattie wasn't looking—the kind of glance that asked whether we were getting in over our heads. I shrugged and stood by while Hattie finished giving us the run-down. Her conclusion was to throw a clean white apron at each of us and send us on our way. For the first day, Buz would be washing dishes and I'd bus tables, and we'd switch jobs depending on how well we did our work. It wasn't too bad; we'd both gotten used to being thrust into work within moments of accepting a job, and as the clientele poured in steadily all day I found that the fast-paced work helped to keep my mind off what we'd be doing as soon as we found our way back to our motel room.

But despite my best efforts, even as I grew more and more tired, somewhere in the back of my mind the thought lingered all day of what it would be like with him. The way he'd described it, I could envision it as vividly as if I was watching it happen before me. It must've been that thought alone that pulled me through that first exhausting day, and kept me smiling even as the last patron left, the last dishes were washed, the last table wiped down. When our work was finally done Jack gave us our pay directly from the till and told us he expected to see us the next morning before the sun came up.

I was so tired I can hardly remember staggering out to the Corvette, but it didn't take much more than a glance at the brown paper bag sitting in Buz's lap to revive me.

"Hard work today," I said, smiling at him, urging him to talk to me.

"Yeah," he said, sounding distant as he told me the way to where he'd found us a room.

"Are you as tired as I am?" I asked, knowing how awkward I must've sounded.

"Mmmhmm," he muttered.

Needing to make conversation, eventually I tried, "Do you think Jack really kicked out his wife just because she didn't like to work as much as he does?"

"Do you think it's really any of our business?" he replied sharply. I could recognize the tone in his voice right away and I didn't want to get into it with him, so I didn't say anything else. After that, the rest of the drive to the motor lodge was completely silent.

When I parked the Corvette in front of the room, Buz looked at me for a long time and then finally said, "So, this is really happening, then."

"Is it?" I asked, not sure if he wanted me to make any moves, and not sure what I was supposed to do even if he did.

But it became clear soon enough that he was the one in charge as far as this went, and after a moment he leaned closer to me and hesitantly slid a hand over my knee and up my leg. I couldn't suppress a shiver because he'd never touched me like that, except once when we'd been wrestling and he gave me a horse bite. This time instead of digging his fingers into the tender part of my thigh he was dragging his hand up the front of my pants. This time, when my own hand made its way to the back of his head, it wasn't to yank his hair, it was to urge his face closer to my own. But I knew as well as he did that the parking lot still wasn't private enough, so when he pulled away I didn't fight him. We stared at each other for a short moment, and then he turned and got out of the car, grabbing his bags and wordlessly leading the way to the room.

The walkway seemed endless when I followed him and the lock took forever to open, but then when I stood beside him in the room, everything felt so rushed. Giving a stiff laugh, he slung an arm over my shoulder and kissed me on the cheek.

"You're nervous," he said.

"You keep saying that like you want me to say, 'Yes, I am,'" I replied. The truth is that I was nervous, but feeling him so close was more than enough to soothe my nerves.

"Are you sure you still want to?" he asked.

"Yeah," I said. "Don't you want to?"

He didn't answer me except to take my suitcase and throw it onto one of the beds along with his own. Then he glanced at me once more and began to unbutton his shirt.

"C'mon," he said to me. "I'm not gonna undress you or anything like that. It doesn't work that way, alright?"

"Alright." I nodded and moved to undo my belt.

To think that it was really going to happen, just like that, made my heart race so much I could practically feel it pounding against my ribs. A day earlier I'd have never guessed I'd be watching him peel off his shirt in front of me in our motel room. When he'd shucked it he sighed at me and said, "Fine, keep your clothes on if you really want to." And then he was there before me, edging me back toward the unoccupied bed.

Shaking, I held him by the shoulders and kissed him. Somehow he seemed distracted, and so I stopped and looked straight into his face, trying to tell what was on his mind, however impossible that might be.

He stared back at me in that moment, meeting my gaze, and suddenly I was consumed by the need to try to tell him about the feeling overcoming me.

"Buz," I tried—what else could I say? Suddenly words didn't seem like enough, and all I could do was mutter his name again. "Aw, Buz."

After a moment he winced and shook his head. "Maybe we shouldn't do this," he said.

"What?" I sputtered. "Why not?"

"What you said… about life being too short not to take what I want, well that's just it," he said, beginning slowly. "Life is short. There's no sense in getting comfortable where you are because you never know when everything's gonna change. Your whole world could turn upside down in an instant, and everything you thought you could count on isn't going to be there anymore."

"Carpe diem," I said and tried to kiss him again, but he shoved me away, so hard that my breath was knocked out and I fell back onto the bed. Horrified but driven by lust, I sat up and grabbed him by the wrist before he could escape me. Glaring at him, I said, "Make love to me."

"Don't say that," he snapped, his eyes taking on a particular furious glimmer that I've seen countless times before, but rarely directed at me. "It's not called that when it's between men. Between men, it's just fucking."

"Fine," I said, disconcerted but unfazed. "Then fuck me."

And finally he tore himself away from me, leaving me to sit there and wonder what went wrong. He avoided my gaze as he pulled his shirt back on, pacing back and forth a few times and then heading for the door just as he finished buttoning it.

Reeling, I brought myself to say, "Where are you going?"

"I gotta get outta here," he replied.

"Well, what about me?" I asked, still wound up.

"You're a clever boy, you'll think of something," he said. And then he was gone.

For a few moments I just sat there, still coming to terms with what had happened. And then when I had, I couldn't help but snarl out loud in anger. What had I done to make him run away? More importantly, did he really expect me not to be offended?

In my frustration and my pent up need for him I threw open his suitcase and picked out his newest pair of black socks, tossing one aside and keeping the other as I settled back onto my bed. I laid back and imagined him as I unbuttoned my pants and pulled down my shorts, then with my eyes closed I tried to convince myself I could really feel him laying beside me, touching me, wrapping his hand around me.

But as I eased the sock over myself and started what I needed to do, the only thing that really made me bite my lip and sigh was imagining the feeling of his lips kissing me, and his dark eyes gazing into mine. As angry as I was, as utterly confusing as everything he'd said and done was, just thinking about how it felt to touch him the way friends aren't supposed to touch one another was all it took.

When I was finished I lay back on the bed and held the sock to myself, letting its contents cool against my stomach, feeling nowhere near as satisfied as I'd imagined.

The relief was exhausting and my knees were still weak by the time I forced myself to stand up and stuff the sock back into his suitcase. My next move after that was to plunge into my bed. But although I was so tired it almost hurt, I couldn't make myself sleep. In the dark room I laid there, uncertain of how much time I spent alone until I heard the doorknob rattle, being unlocked from the outside.

Even in the darkness I knew where Buz had been. There was a stink to him that I'd come to recognize, on both him and myself. There were plenty of nights when one or the both of us would stagger back to the room stinking like the booze and cheap perfume that clings to a guy after picking up some barstool fixture, not unlike the invisible cloud of guilt that follows him for a time afterward. He lingered in the doorway hesitantly, surely knowing that I could smell him and tell right away what he'd done.

"I hope you didn't have to pay for her," I said, breaking the silence, hoping it would be a particularly stinging insult.

"And waste a day's pay?" he replied with a shrug, refusing to meet my eyes as he sat on the edge of his bed and pulled his shoes off. "Nah, even in Texas, all it takes is wink and a handsome face."

"For the girls," I sighed. "I've found that it's a little more difficult to talk a guy into your bed."

Pausing, he slowly turned his head and looked at me for the first time since he'd left, making no effort to hide the look of shame on his face.

That was the most stinging insult of all. "I suppose it's just as well you left," I told him finally, telling myself that it wasn't me who'd caused him to feel that way.

"Oh yeah?" he asked. "How come?"

"I was nervous," I admitted, hoping it would ease the tension.

"What's there to be nervous about?" he smirked at me like he thought something was funny.

"Plenty!" I insisted. "What about getting caught? Don't tell me you forgot about what you told me last night."

"Oh sure," he said. "But we were out on the road, then. Nobody's gonna catch us in a motel."

"Maybe not," I agreed. "I guess it was also because I wasn't sure what to expect. I mean, uh," I could feel myself blushing and I hoped he can't see it in the darkness, "It hurts, doesn't it?"

"You get used to it," he said, softly, avoiding a direct answer.

"I'll just have to take your word for it, as long you're just going to run away every time," I sighed. "You didn't mean it when you said you wanted to… to fuck me, did you?"

Suddenly, he seemed every bit as upset by the vulgar word as me. "I wasn't lying," he said, stiffly.

"Then what was that all about?" I asked. "Why'd you leave?"

He was quiet for a long, long time, but finally he took a slow breath and answered me. "I'm sick, Tod," he said, pointing to his head, "Up here."

"I don't fight you off," I said. "That makes me sick, too."

"Not like that," he said. "A different kind of sick."

"What other kind of sick is there?" I asked.

"The kind of sick where sometimes I don't care if I live or die," he replied solemnly.

It gave me goosebumps to hear him say such a thing. Perhaps it was a combination of the night's events, but he didn't have to say anything else for me to realize that the anxiety seizing me wasn't unlike that blackberry bush I fell into as a child. I wasn't fully aware of it at first, but as he spoke, a few tendrils begin to grow up out of the soil. The blackberry is a noxious weed, as any gardener will tell you, and it's almost impossible to cut it back so it won't return year after year.

When I couldn't bring myself to speak, he continued. "I'm tired but I can't ever sleep. I'm hungry, but food never fills me. I always try not to be like this, Tod, and having you by my side makes it easier. You really have no idea how much you mean to me." He sighed and added, "But even then, I can't begin to tell you what it's like to feel so down all the time."

For a moment, the vines sprouted white flowers—beautiful to look at, but beneath them the fresh green thorns were beginning to harden into long, sharp points.

I said, "You're not serious, are you?"

"Would I kid around about this?" he replied.

And what else could I say? The vines wound around my body, reaching for the sunlight. All along the way, they wrapped themselves tighter and tighter around me, and the thorns brushed my skin, tantalizingly close, making my skin prickle. Finally I cleared my throat and looked at him, and tried to keep my eyes from betraying me when I asked, "Did something happen?"

"What do you mean, did something happen?" he said. "Is it because of some dame, you mean?"

"Something like that," I said.

"No," he said, softly. Then louder, he repeated it and continued. "No, it's nothing petty like that."

"Then what is it?" I asked. His eyes softened and he leant closer to me, and while the vines were still there, the flowers wilted and the green buds of young fruit replaced them. "For crying out loud, Buz, if something's bothering you, tell me about it," I said, my voice hardly more than a whisper. The fruit whitened and swelled and I added, "That's what friends are for."

"I know," he sighed like he was frustrated all of a sudden. "That's why I left tonight."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"You're the best friend I've ever known, and I like to think that I'm yours. And I don't want you to go and get any more attached to me than you already are," he said. "You're the type of guy who wears his heart on his sleeve. Does that make any sense?"

"You think I'm gonna fall in love with you?" I smirked. After some thought, I added, "And what if I would? What's wrong with that?"

He said, "I don't want to make it any worse for you when I'm gone."

The fruit ripened just when I realized what he was saying. It was overwhelming, sickening, like I was trying to pick all the berries but I just couldn't get them all before they spoiled on the vine. The shock was blinding, and when I finally managed to ask the next question that knit itself in my mind, I could hardly make the words come out.

"Do you want..." I asked, "Are you going to hurt yourself?"

"Yes," he said without a moment's hesitation. "And maybe 'hurt' isn't exactly a strong enough word."

When the vines sank into my heart, driving themselves deep where it ached the most, I wasn't sure if the maroon stain was blackberry juice, or blood.

The morning came too soon, and with far too few hours of sleep it was all I could do to drag myself out of bed and make it to Big Jack's in time to start work. Even though we hardly spoke, it was easy to tell that Buz was just as exhausted as me. Following a long day's work with another was absolutely daunting, although I hoped that it would be distracting enough at the restaurant to keep my mind off of the things Buz had said to me.

With the sky just barely beginning to get a ring of orange hue in the East, I parked behind the small café and we stumbled in to find Jack and Hattie already at work in the kitchen

"You boys sure like to sleep in," Jack said, eyeing us warily as he handed us our aprons. "You'll have to work twice as hard to make up for the lost time."

Buz nodded to me, and when Jack was gone, he muttered, "So Hattie was right. The guy is a nut. A regular commandant."

"He's our boss, unless you can find us a different job," I replied, knowing I was being contrary just for contrariness' sake. "Oughta be a breeze in a town like this."

He rolled his eyes at me and ignored me for most of the morning, going out of his way to pay extra attention to Jack when he instructed us on our chores and to Hattie when she batted her eyelashes at him.

It wouldn't be a stretch, as a matter of fact, to say it was Hattie who brought Buz and I together. At least it was her actions that started it going again. As we slaved away in the kitchen, chopping and chopping, boiling meat, leaning over simmering pots of sauce, she watched over us, chatting all the time.

"Either of y'all have a gal back home, wherever it is y'all are from?" she asked us at one point.

Buz glanced at me for a moment and then looked back to his cutting board without saying a word.

"We're bachelors," I said, finally.

"That's too bad," she said. "Jack doesn't know it yet, but I'm gonna be a married woman soon." Unbuttoning her collar she reached into her blouse and pulled out a thin gold chain which bore an even thinner gold engagement ring.

"Congratulations," Buz muttered.

"Who's the lucky guy?" I asked.

"His name's Rodney," she sighed, enraptured even by the name. "He's gonna be in the rodeo. Jack doesn't like him all that much, thinks he isn't bright. That's why we haven't told him we're getting married. We're gonna wait until after the rodeo so's it won't be such a commotion. Well, that and we need the money Rodney's gonna win to pay for the wedding. He rides broncos, you know."

"Sounds like quite a catch," Buz said, smirking just slightly, but enough for me to tell that he was patronizing her.

"We'd like to meet him," I said, giving Buz a look, knowing he'd ignore it but hoping he wouldn't be so condescending to the locals as to cause trouble, as he often did.

"Oh, really?" Hattie asked, hardly able to contain herself. "I'll ask Jack if we can have a break after the morning rush. Oh, wouldn't Rodney love to see me ride up in that fancy little car."

Watching her sprint away to the front counter, Buz whispered without bothering to face me, "now why'd you have to go and do that?"

"You're the one who wanted to see a rodeo," I said. "Now you'll get to meet a real life rodeo star."

"Fantastic," he said.

At Hattie's insistence, Jack agreed to give us an hour lunch, smiling almost sadistically as he promised to let us clean the meat smoker when we returned. Trying not to think about what that entailed, we worked all through the morning, reeking of fried potatoes by the time the last breakfast was served.

Finally Jack let us go, and we drove to the fairgrounds with Hattie sitting between us, beaming all the way. Her joy was contagious, and I found myself smiling right along with her. And yet, at the same time, I envied her so much I couldn't stand it. That she was so content and so comfortable with her boyfriend, that she didn't have to worry about whether he was so volatile and touchy that he'd run off and leave her right when she wanted him most, the way Buz had done to me—it made me far more jealous than I had any right to be. I shouldn't have resented her because her boyfriend was stable and didn't have some completely convoluted idea of what was right and wrong. It was Buz I should've resented, I know. But I just couldn't bring myself to.

Anyway, it wasn't right to compare what was going on between Buz and me to Hattie and Rodney, because there was hardly anything in common. Hattie and Rodney loved each other. And as for us? There was no telling with Buz… and truth be told, I couldn't even say how I felt.

The fairgrounds were thriving with activity even though the rodeo didn't start for another week. Rows and rows of camper vans and horse trailers lined the dirt road, and as I searched for a place to park the Corvette, Hattie described to us who was who in the rodeo circuit, concluding that Rodney would one day soon join the cowboy elite and become as much of a household name as the best of them. It was quite clear how highly she thought of him, and her praise made it hard not to believe that he was the next Buffalo Bill.

When we finally parked and made our way to the grounds, we were greeted by a short, skinny, dark-haired kid who looked more like he was better suited for stable-cleaning than bullriding.

"You the fellas from back East?" he asked us. "Boy, have I been hearing all about you. You'd think y'all were the finest thing to come to town since they put an air conditioner in the general store."

"We could say the same thing," I said, eliciting a sheepish grin from Hattie.

Despite his shortcomings, it was easy to see why Hattie was so infatuated with Rodney. He was handsome, with sharp, angular features and pretty brown eyes, and his calm collectiveness contrasted her strange intensity perfectly. He walked us around the stables with an arm slung absentmindedly over her shoulder, naming the horses for us and telling us all about the upcoming events.

"What about calf-roping?" Buz asked at one point. "Like, is it really that bad for the calves?"

"Aw, hell, they don't even know what's happenin' to 'em," Rodney said. "They ain't like people."

The smart-assed look Buz gave me was enough to make me want to knock him upside the head, and at the same time, wish that his arm was slung over my shoulder like Rodney and Hattie. I couldn't stop thinking about it, even in the company of other people, and I wasn't sure what it would take to get my mind on something besides my own frustration.

That something came soon enough. We wandered a while longer, and just as Buz began to glance at his watch and hint about getting back to the restaurant, there was a loud commotion in one of the stables. Drawn by the noise, we ran into the stable to see that one of the broncos had torn free from his reins and was rushing his handlers.

"That's Old Red," Rodney said, pushing Hattie back toward us and taking a hesitant step toward the frightened horse.

"You stay back, boy," someone called out to him. "Let him simmer down 'fore you try catchin' him."

"I been tamin' broncos since before I lost all my milk teeth," Rodney scoffed. "Old Red ain't nothin' special."

In that same moment the horse reared up on his back legs and swung one of his unshod hooves at Rodney, kicking him in the chest and knocking him to the ground. Before Rodney had time to come to his senses and stumble away the horse was reared up again, his nostrils flaring wildly. And then he came down again, stomping on Rodney's back, driving him hard into the dirt and leaving him limp and motionless.

Everything seemed distant for a while as we watched the handlers rush after the horse before he could cause any more damage, and for once I understood what Buz meant about feeling numb. As Hattie shrieked and buried her face in my shirt I had to remind myself over and over that it was all really happening right there before our eyes. Still, I held her and let her cry on me, and everything about it brought back that night in North Carolina when Buz held me and let me cry on him. And I found in that moment that I did feel for her. I felt her grief and her terror, and soon my arms were tightening around her and holding her close so she never forgot that she didn't have to grieve alone. Even though we were really still just strangers, I hoped she understood that I wouldn't let her fight back the blackberry vines all by herself.

Finally after what felt like years, an aid car arrived to take Rodney away to the county hospital. Hattie stopped crying and watched the attendants lift the cowboy's limp body onto a stretcher.

Beside me, Buz said, "Hattie? Do you want Tod to drive you to the hospital?"

"What good will it do?" she asked, wearily.

When he couldn't give her an answer, she turned to me. I sighed and shook my head because I didn't have the answer either. Jack showed up in his truck just as the aid car started to drive away. He gave me a solemn nod and headed over to the handlers to hear them tell him how it happened, and when he was satisfied, he came and peeled Hattie off of me. After he helped her into the truck, Buz asked him if there was anything the two of us could do.

"Nothin'," he replied. "Maybe you can come in a little earlier tomorrow morning since Hattie might not be in any shape to help me set up."

"That's it? Your daughter's boyfriend gets smashed under a horse and you just wanna go on making barbecue sauce?" Buz spat, letting on that he was every bit as shaken by the incident as the rest of us.

"There's work needs to be done," Jack replied. "World ain't gonna stop spinnin' for one boy."

That night, neither of us could sleep. Buz sat upright in his bed, and by the sliver of moonlight coming through the window I could see him chewing up the insides of his mouth. Lying on my side, I tried to force my eyes shut, but every time I did, I saw either that horse's hooves burying themselves in Rodney's back, or Hattie's tear-stained face gazing helplessly into my eyes. The images were projected on my eyelids like movie screens, only I couldn't walk out of the theater when I decided I didn't like the picture.

So up came the blackberry vines.

"Buz," I heard my voice call into the night.

After a painfully long silence, the reply came. "Yeah?"

And I wasn't sure what it was I wanted to say to him. Perhaps I just wanted to hear his voice so I could be certain that I wasn't alone. He seemed to understand, because when I didn't respond, he said, "I guess Jack was right today. The world is so big and there's so many people out there, that one tragedy really means nothing in the big picture."

"Still doesn't make it any easier when it's somebody you know," I said.

"But think of how few people know us, Tod. Even you and me—we've met so many people on the road, and we'll meet so many more, but in the end, nobody remembers us when we're gone."

"Glory is fleeting, obscurity is forever," I said, unsure. It wasn't hard to figure out where the conversation was headed.

"Who said that?" he asked.

"Napoleon," I answered. "You want to hear it in French, too?"

"Doesn't hold a lot of weight coming from one of history's most well-known figures," he gave a brief, cynical laugh. "But the little guy was right, you know. If I were to die tonight, for instance, I'd be forgotten by tomorrow."

"I'd remember you," I said, trying to let him know how it upset me to hear him say such things. "I'd remember you for the rest of my life."

"You shouldn't waste so much thought on me," he said.

"Stop talking like that!" I snapped, the blackberry vines twisting around me so tight that I couldn't hide the emotion behind my words.

"Why? Am I scaring you?" he asked bitterly.

Settling down, I whispered, "Yes."

He was silent then, and I imagined it was because he was mad, but when he softly replied, "I'm sorry, Tod. That's not what I meant to do," I knew there was something else on his mind.

"So what are you trying to do?" I asked, slowly.

"What do you mean, what am I trying to do?" he repeated. "I'm telling you what it's like. How it is."

"Well, I don't dig," I snapped back. "You went on and on back in Oklahoma about how much we want each other, and now you're acting like you hate me."

"And just how do you figure we'd go about it, anyway? Being together?" he said, his voice beginning to grow harsher. "Keep going with girls everywhere we travel, and then when we drop 'em off after the movie and dinner we come back to the motel and have a go at each other?"

"That sounds about right," I replied, my frustration growing even quicker than before. "Did you ever consider what this is like for me?

"No, I didn't," he said. "Maybe I should, being as you're the only guy in the whole world who's ever been without something he wanted. You're not really used to that, are you? Whatever you wanted—a yacht, a pony, whatever—Daddy'd buy it for you, wouldn't he?"

"Don't," I snarled, my voice suddenly dropping before the full effect of his words set in, "bring my father into this."

It threw him off for a moment, because I'm sure he knew even then how tender the subject still was to me. Masking his shame, he rolled his eyes and shook his head, crawling out of bed to pace for a few moments before turning to point incriminatingly at me and say, "You don't even know what you'd be getting yourself into."

"What is there to know?" I spat back. Maybe he could throw his weight around with other people, but I was used to it by then and it didn't even faze me. "Even if you hadn't told me how it works, I coulda figured it out."

"I'm not talking about fucking," he said. "I mean, all the things that go along with it. You've been with enough dames to know that you can't keep yourself from feeling something. Like you start getting attached to a person, you know? I don't know how it works, it just happens."

"For someone who can't stop talking about buying the farm, you're pretty full of yourself, you know that?" I said, bitterly. "You really think you're so good that I'm gonna fall in love with you?"

"Would you take that kinda chance if it was up to you?" he said, and without waiting for a reply continued to pace.

I watched him, so angry that I couldn't speak even if I tried. He always had a stormy look around his eyes, but when he was mad it was that much more noticeable. When he was uptight about something, he didn't just fume, he smoldered. And yet somehow, his rage made him even more handsome, especially because I knew that behind those dark eyes hid a teaming, churning sea of thoughts that I couldn't even begin to understand no matter how simply he explained it. It always humbled me to hear him speak stream-of-consciously. Even if I would never admit it to him, I always knew that four years at Yale couldn't ever compare to a lifetime of experience like his.

Before I was sure what it meant, I said, "You're a little late."

Pausing, he faced me and waited for me to finish my thought.

"I mean, about whether I'd fall in love with you. There's not really any point in trying to prevent something that's already happened." It almost felt like my chest was tightening as I allowed myself to say the next thing that came to mind. "I guess I just figured it was a mutual thing ever since that night in North Carolina."

He gave me a look like I'd just slapped him across the face. I couldn't quite peg down exactly what it was that was going through his mind, but when he turned away from me and replied, I had some idea.

It was regret.

"It's all my fault, then, isn't it? Cuz I had to go and mess it all up to begin with." He shook his head and added, "I'm the one who put the moves on you when I shouldn't have. When I had no right to. Is that what you're saying? That I should've thought about the consequences a little more before I so much as touched you? Well, I know that. If I could take it back, I would." Pausing to shake his head, he added, "But what difference would it make, right? Because if you're really in love with me you would've realized it sooner or later anyway. I guess I shoulda just never stuck around with you at all. After your old man died and you sat and stared at the Corvette and said, 'let's get away, Buz, let's go find a place to put out some roots' I shoulda said no, huh?"

"Maybe you should've!" I replied. "Maybe when I take off this time you should just stay put."

Still fuming, he folded his arms and looked away, but then softly said, "I couldn't do that, Tod."

"Oh, really?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said. "And I know you couldn't, either."

At that, I couldn't bring myself to say anything else. And eventually, although I could never say when, I drifted to sleep.

In the morning, we returned to Big Jack's, early just like he asked. He sat us down before we worked and gave us each a cup of his molasses-thick coffee.

Somberly, Buz asked if he's heard anything about Rodney.

"He's alive," Jack said. "His brains are shot to hell, but that ain't nothin' new."

It was a relief to hear it, because I knew that if Rodney had been in worse shape, Jack wouldn't have been so glib.

"You heard from the hospital?" Buz asked.

"Mmmhmm. Damn nurse called about one in the mornin'," Jack said. "Hattie an' me couldn't sleep anyways. He came out of surgery just fine, but," at this his lackadaisical speech began to slow, "Doctors say he'll likely never walk again."

Buz looked at me, and I looked at him, and then we both stared into our coffee like it was about to boil over.

Jack continued. "Dumb boy. Did you know he promised Hattie he'd marry her after the rodeo?" he said. "Well, he's decided he ain't the marrying type anymore."

"Why not?" I asked, speaking my first words all morning.

"Oh, I can't repeat it exactly," Jack said, shaking his head. "Something about bein' a burden to her, making her life more difficult. The more she loves him, the sadder she'll be when she realizes what bein' a cripple's wife is all about."

I found, all at once, that I had a strange sort of empathy for Hattie. Maybe it had to do with the fact that I'd been in a similar situation myself. Like the one I was in right then.

Jack got up to pour himself more coffee and added, "Poor girl. She's gone down to the hospital to try and reason with'm. She don't care if he's a cripple. Heck, she showed me the ring he bought her and she told me she'd sell it to buy him the fanciest wheelchair she can find just so's she can push him all over town and everyone can see how purdy they look together."

"It's funny what being in love will make you want to do for a person," Buz said, trying to keep the pauses in the conversation from growing too long.

"Sure is," Jack agreed. "When you love someone, don't matter what's wrong with'm. You still want to be with'm.

"Even if he's sick in the head," I said before I could consider why I wanted to say it. But once it passed my lips, I found myself looking at Buz, and after a moment he lifted his head and looked at me. Forgetting where we were, I continued. "You're willing to be there for him and give yourself to him, even if it means it'll be that much harder for you when you lose him. He's right when he thinks it'll hurt you if you let yourself fall for him, but what he doesn't know is that it hurts you even more not to have him while you still have the chance."

"I reckon that's kinda what Hattie's thinkin'," Jack said, sounding a little puzzled.

Buz stared at you, seeming to forget where he was, too. He's hard to read sometimes, but I could see the distinct shine of welling moisture in his eyes as he said, "Rodney'll change his mind, won't he? When he hears what she has to say, he'll marry her after all, right?"

"Course he will," Jack said.

"Good," Buz said. "Cuz that's what I'd do, too."

The work seemed to go quickly, even though yesterday's tragedy still hung heavy in the air. It was the love between Hattie and Rodney that pulled everybody through. All the customers that came in asked about the sweet young couple, and when they heard Jack describe the image of Hattie pushing Rodney all over town in a fancy wheelchair, they couldn't help but smile through their grief.

Just before closing, Hattie rushed in, happier than anyone having just been in a hospital should be. I noticed that the ring graced her finger instead of hanging on the secret chain. With tears of joy in her eyes, she told us all about how Rodney's doing.

"He's just sore that he'll miss the rodeo, sittin' in a hospital bed," she said. It was so bizarre, I decided, that everyone could be so happy even though they knew that Rodney's still going to be a cripple for the rest of his life.

"Is that what you meant," I said to Buz when we returned to the Corvette after we helped Jack close, "when you said those things, about how your whole world can turn upside down in an instant, so you shouldn't get too comfortable with the way things are now?"

"Yeah, that's exactly what I meant," he said, and added as we got onto the road, "But I guess I said that without thinking about people like Hattie."

"Yeah?" I prompted.

"Yeah." He leaned back in his seat, closing his eyes and letting the wind mess up his hair. "I guess it didn't occur to me that there'd be people out there willing to risk a little of their own happiness for someone else."

"If you want to pull somebody out of a blackberry bush," I said, "You have to expect that you'll cut your own hands on the thorns."

"What does that mean?" he asked, laughing.

Smiling at his confusion, I said, "It's not worth explaining."

He didn't answer me, probably because he agreed, but I could see him glance at me from the corner of his eye all the way back to the motor lodge.

When I parked in front of the room, I got out of the car and headed in, leaving him to sit and consider what I said. It wasn't until I unlocked the door that I finally heard him follow me. But then when I entered the room, his hand was on my shoulder, turning me around to face him. By then I'd come to recognize that look in his eyes, and so I kicked the door closed and embraced him, kissing him and letting him push me against the wall.

Something told me that I shouldn't let myself get too hopeful, but somehow I knew that this would be the time, that he wouldn't deny me and run away again, and that I'd finally be satisfied.

Sometime after I came to this conclusion, he stopped and he said, "Tod."

"Yeah?" I asked, trying to prepare myself for what he was surely going to say.

He sighed and closed his eyes, and softly he asked, "Will you travel with me? Will you be there beside me no matter how rough and difficult the terrain gets? Can you forgive me if the road gives way beneath me and I leave you standing on the edge, wondering what happened?"

"…yes," I slowly answered to each of his cryptic questions. Feeling that bizarre, unwarranted joy that everyone in town seemed to have today despite how much his weird talk still scared me, I forced a smile and said, "I'll even let you do the driving."

"The Corvette?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.

"No," I said. Just so he knew exactly what I meant, I pulled him back to me and kissed him again, bunching his shirt in my fists, praying that it was enough to keep him there with me. When he kissed me back, his lips strong and insistent, I found myself sighing in relief and pressing my body against his, delighting in the way he pushed back against me.

It didn't intimidate me by now to be touched by another man; when he tore himself away, it was all I could do not to beg him to stay.

Despite how I bit my tongue I let myself whisper his name. "Buz," I said with a soft breath. "Please—,"

"Trust me," he replied, saying nothing else.

Slowly I stumbled to my bed and perched on the edge to pull off my boots, although it was hard to concentrate on myself as I watched him undo his belt and peel his pants down his legs. My breath caught to see him as I did then, heavy and hard, barely contained by his shorts.

He kicked the pants to the floor, followed by his shirt, and when I finished with my own he edged closer to me and met my eyes as he pushed me back onto the bed. He leaned over me and I brought my hands to his chest as he worked on my belt. I let him finish undressing me because I did trust him, and because the feeling of his fingertips touching me through my clothes set my skin on fire like nothing else I'd ever felt.

Finally, he tore my t-shirt over my head and devoured me with his hands, touching every freckle, making every strawberry-golden hair stand on end. Shivering, I wriggled up the bed and he followed me, and the twin-size mattress groaned in protest under our combined weight.

He gazed into my eyes before he settled on me and kissed me on the cheek—a tender gesture to remind me that we were friends first, and whatever we'd be after this could only be a million times better.

I gave as well as I got, holding him by his hair with one hand, the other sliding down the back of his shorts. I dug your fingers into the firm muscle and I pushed him against me, urging him and groaning when I felt his pulsing firmness press against my own.

He knelt above me and pulled off his t-shirt, revealing his narrow, smooth chest. I'd seen him naked dozens of times before, but never quite like this. Investigating, exploring, I ran my hands up his arms and then down his chest, reading his skin like braille. Despite his sheer masculinity, the hair didn't begin to grow dark and coarse until far low beneath his navel. Watching his face for a reaction, I brushed my fingers over that hairline, dipping beneath the waistband, easing the shorts down to see where it ends.

He let out a low, rumbling groan that emanated somewhere deep in his chest and his head rolled on his neck when you slid his shorts down to the thigh. All at once, it was too much—my hand hovered above him, longing to touch him, but for a moment all you could do was stare at what stood before me, knowing he ached for me.

Impatient, he pushed my hand away and finished what he started, pulling down my shorts and taking hold of me without the same awe and hesitation. His grip on me was rough and tight, and I groaned and bucked my hips to meet his dry palm. I trembled and I needed release so bad it hurt, and I almost thought it was over until he stopped and grabbed me by the waist to hold me down.

"Come on," I muttered, delirious. "Let me… I need it—I need you."

He leaned in and brought his lips so that they were barely grazing my ear. "Are you sure you want this?" he asked, softly.

"Yes, I'm sure!" I snarled.

"Then turn over," he sighed.

The thought of what was coming made me shake with nerves and anticipation. He left me long enough to retrieve the bottle from his suitcase. Kicking off my shorts when he returned, I did as he said and rolled onto my belly, bunching up my pillow and clutching it tight. My breath caught the next time he touched me. His hand ran up the back of my thigh, and he lowered himself onto the bed as he eased my legs apart.

"Aw, Tod," he sighed in delight upon seeing me like that. The hunger and yearning in his voice gave way to something almost more like gratitude, but I didn't spend a lot of time contemplating it because a moment later, he uncapped the bottle and poured a generous dollop of the oil between my legs, spilling it onto the sheets even though he struggled to catch it on his fingers.

He swore softly and muttered to himself. "Don't waste it all, pal," he said.

That's when I realized that he was just as nervous as me. It shocked me to think that a guy like him even had the ability to feel anxiety in a situation like that, but I twisted around and peered over my back to see his eyebrows knit together and the usual cool, calm look on his face all but gone.

For a moment, I was tempted to ask him if he really knew what he was doing, but I was too unsettled, and I wasn't sure if it was by the way he was touching me in such a sensitive place, or by his almost vulnerable expression.

So I turned away again and tried not to sound uncertain when I said, "Come on, Buz..."

He rolled the oil between his fingers and then spread me, and then pushed his finger in before I could consider the sensation of being entered for the first time in my life. By the time I got accustomed to it, he'd moved on to two, stretching me, readying me for him.

To think how soon he'd be there, covering my body with his own, gave me a hot, fluttery feeling deep in my gut. And then he pushed in deeper and tilted his hand, and the tip of one finger touched a spot that made me whimper and thrust against the mattress beneath me. I was just about begging him to make love to me, or to fuck me if that's what he insisted on calling it— anything to relieve the burgeoning tension in my every fiber.

He knelt between my legs, and when he withdrew his fingers, the sudden emptiness made me sigh. He took me by the hips and urged me to bend my knees a bit and I did, lifting myself, offering myself to him. I groaned with need as I felt the weight of him pressed against the crease of my thigh. He steadied himself and then he was there, forcing me open, making me throw back my head and cry out before I was aware of what I was doing.

It hurt even more than I imagined, but I tried desperately not to let on to it. I buried my face in the pillow and attempted to stifle the noises that escaped my throat, but then when he caught his breath and slowly pushed in further I couldn't anymore, and didn't. The feeling's like a knife driving into you, splitting you down the middle, but even that first time, I gritted my teeth and hoped he didn't know he was hurting me because being with him was more than enough to make me want to continue.

I wanted to call out to him, to let him know how it felt to have his fingers digging into my hips and his legs driving apart my thighs to make way for him, but I couldn't. The words wouldn't form and all I could utter was a strangled groan that gave way to a hoarse gasp when he pulled back and then plunged into me again.

Each slow, deliberate thrust sent a wave over me, making me struggle for breath and composure. Then when he bent over me and stretched his arms to run his hands up and down my chest, he said my name and it was all I could do not to finish right there.

"Tod," he breathed, kissing my shoulders and neck. "You're beautiful." Then he took me by the chin, turning my head to kiss me on the lips. He tried to continue, and for a few moments, his leverage was off. He was still long enough to hold me like that and kiss me, but the waves were rolling in faster, so I strained beneath him, pushing myself back on him.

And then he sat back up and dug his nails in so deep he left bruises. He sighed and thrust so hard that the sound of his skin against mine seemed almost as loud as the headboard against the wall. Each time his hips met mine the pain was dulled a little more, the tenderness numbed by the feeling of him within me and the kiss lingering on my lips. Struggling to maintain a steady pace, he released my hip with one hand to reach around and take hold of me, and suddenly it wasn't only pain anymore that seized me and made me writhe.

With that, the waves overtook me, and I shouted my completion as he forced it out of me with each increasingly violent thrust. He lasted only a short time longer, whimpering my name and crumpling over me, his body convulsing as he finished.

There was a sudden stillness in the room, as if even the walls themselves had been as boisterous as we were, and were catching their breath in time with us. I found myself wondering why it was so different this time, having been with him instead of some dame. Besides the obvious fact that I felt physically different, it also seemed that there was something else there, lingering, unspoken, between us. Perhaps it was just the strangeness of hearing him silent for so long. But as I glanced at him, lying beside me half-asleep, I could've sworn that it was something else.

Maybe he knew better than me. "I feel like Ganymede," I tried, hoping he wouldn't mind breaking the silence.

"Gany-who?" he chuckled softly at me.

"Ganymede. And you're the eagle abducting me from the mountains of Phrygia."

"Romans?" he asked.

"Greeks," I said.

He opened his eyes to peer at me and shook his head. "I don't figure I'll ever understand that kinda stuff."

"I never really understood it, either," I confessed. "The best part about studying Greek mythology was looking at the paintings in the textbooks."

He gave me a funny look and a short laugh, and then rolled closer to me and slung an arm over my shoulder.

"Tod," he said, curling up close to me, his voice low and serious.

hesitantly reaching a hand around to feel myself. Inspecting my fingers, I was surprised to find that it wasn't blood lingering on my skin. I could feel my stomach turn suddenly at the depravity of what we'd done. It must've shown on my face because he said, "Hey, don't get upset about it. Like, it's just something that happens, okay?"

I shook my head, searching for the right words. "I didn't expect it, that's all," I said. "I guess it's just something you get used to."

"Yeah," he glanced at me for a moment and added, "there's a lot of things you think you have to get used to."

"I've figured that out," I said, feeling the sharp sting of soreness within myself as I shifted to face him.

"I mean, in general, not just about this," he said. "You know, you take things for granted. When you spend your life in the street you get used to the dirt and the grime and the chill at night. When you're poor you get used to being hungry and cold." Giving a smirk he added, "Maybe you're not familiar with that one. Maybe for you it's more like, you get used to a big house and nice clothes. You get used to yachting in the summer and skiing in the winter. Isn't that how it goes?"

I shrugged, the ache low in my body hurting almost as much as the memories of the life I used to know. "So what are you trying to say?" I asked, probably sounding more defensive than I should've been.

"It's like I told you, Tod," he replied. "You shouldn't get used to anything because you never know when everything's gonna change. You shouldn't plan on being poor forever, or being rich forever, you know?" he paused to collect his thoughts, and then continued, "You shouldn't expect to be alone forever. You shouldn't get used to having nobody there for you when you're at your worst. I guess that's what you've been trying to tell me this whole time, huh? Well, it took me a while to realize that, okay?"

That's how it went between us. It was exactly how he'd said. There were plenty of girls—we couldn't help ourselves, and certainly for him more than me, they were usually more than willing. But when the day was over, when all was said and done, what we had, and what we really wanted, was each other. There were times when one or the other of us was down, and times when both of us were down, and even if it seemed like the whole world was against us, we always had each other. He was there for me and I was there for him. Our companionship was enough to get us through anything.

Or, it should've been.

I guess for some people it's harder to get along than for the rest of us. When you've lived a hard life like he has, when you've been through so much and seen so many things, it gets to you after a while. Or at least for him it did. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn't have done more for him. All the things he'd told me about the way he felt, I should've done something about that. But what else could I do besides be there for him? When he fell into his own blackberry bush, I was there to pull him out. I was there to wipe his blood away with my handkerchief. And until the end, he was there for me, too. Now that he's gone, all I have is the memory of him to pull me out of the vines.

But I forgive him for that. That's what friends are for.