The silence which followed the Sacred Lance's lethal flight was almost eerie. No more gunfire, no more explosions, no more death screams sounded, nothing but the hungry crackle of flame through the surrounding pines.
Hank Storm slowly released the breath that should have been his last. Marino'd had him cold. If it hadn't been for Buster, his father and brother would have died unavenged, the most holy of the Lakota Indians' relics would have remained in Marino's hands indefinitely, and Hank himself would have died on his knees before his most hated enemy.
"Hank! You all right, man?" Buster's voice was hoarser than normal as he crawled to his side.
Neither of them had had an easy night of it, Hank recognized. There had been losses on both sides. Mike Finch had been McHenry's friend.
"Hank?" The rising panic in that newly-familiar voice started him out of his stasis.
"The Lance," Hank whispered.
The flame on the spear's wooden shaft had consumed most of the ancient horsehair hangings and was starting to lick its way towards the weapon's stone head.
Hank shrugged off his jacket, then quickly scrambled to the burning treasure whose theft had initiated this blood bath. Smoke stung his eyes as he smothered the fire in the soft suede of his coat. He gripped what remained of the shaft in his uninjured right hand and pulled.
There was no give at all; the lance was buried so deep in Marino's chest, far deeper than the utterly inexperienced Buster should have been able to hurl the weapon. Hank tried not to see any significance in that fact, but as with so much that had occurred since the Lance's theft, the deeper meanings were thrust upon him. It was almost as if the spirits of his ancestors had risen up to claim vengeance by directing McHenry's throw.
Hank's father had lived in a reality riddled with such juxtapositioning of the spirit world and the white man's. As it had been since his earliest days, Hank found himself torn between the two. All his life he'd wished that he could be like his older brother George – Lakota to the bone, but not...different.
But Hank could hear the voices on the wind, could almost understand the message in the coyotes lonesome howl if he let his controls slip far enough. His dad always said that made him special, gifted, but in Hank's experience the word 'special' equated to <i>freak</i>. All he'd ever wanted was acceptance, but the abilities which made him unique separated him from the rest of his people, as his inability to accept his own differences had distanced him from his father – the one person who could have understood what he was going through.
Now, when he had at last found peace with his father, done something which the old man would have felt pride for instead of disappointment, this crazed white man had stolen his father from him.
Hank gave the Lance another, much stronger tug. It came free with a sickening, wet, slurping sound. Carefully not thinking about what he was doing, he cleaned the spear head on the corpse's sweater.
"Christ, we've gotta get you to a doctor." Buster again. The other man was cautiously investigating the wound on Hank's left shoulder where a bullet had grazed him in his kamikaze horseback charge for the Lance.
"lt's just a flesh wound," Hank dismissed. As when he'd punched his left hand through that glass display case in the department store, he couldn't feel the pain yet. He clutched the Lance close to his chest, trying to take comfort from this success. There was no joy to be had in its safe return, no solace in the knowledge that they hadn't failed. The losses were too dear for even this blood bath of a revenge to recoup.
"Can you stand?" Buster asked, drawing Hank's attention outwards again.
A mute nod and McHenry helped him to his feet. For all the other man's solicitude, Buster didn't look to be in much better shape than Hank himself.
"We've got to get to a phone. Call this in before the locals show up." Smoke-reddened blue eyes moved from his face to the Lance cradled in his arms. "They're gonna want this for evidence."
"No. The Lance has been defiled enough. I promised my father I'd take the Sacred Lance back to my people. That's what I intend to do." Hank spoke in his usual soft tone, none of the grief he felt seeping through. Would Buster and he fight for the Sacred Lance as they had for the gun this morning?
<i>This morning?</i> That rooftop battle felt centuries away, the bond between Buster and him more like one forged by years of interdependence rather than the few short days they'd spent together.
"How did I know you'd say something like that? Come on. We'll figure something out." Buster's supporting arm didn't leave him, nor did Hank shrug free of the unnecessary assistance as he normally would.
There still seemed to be corpses everywhere, their gory presence and that of the flickering flames still burning in the outer buildings of Marino's complex turned the suburban ranch into a hellish specter. Fortunately, the main house hadn't been touched by the explosion. A single spark and the entire log building probably would ye gone up in flames.
Buster quickly reloaded his gun, approaching the front steps in a battle ready stance. It was a testament to how far they'd come, that the cynical cop trusted him enough to cover his back.
Shifting his precious burden to his uninjured hand, Hank knelt beside the body blocking the entrance to relieve the large man of his weapon. He checked the cylinder to see that the gun was loaded, then followed his friend inside.
Buster was a born hunter, moving soundless as a passing shadow from one shielded position to the next. Even a Native American trained in forest hunting could admire his stealth.
They cased the entire ranch house, roomful upon roomful of furnishings luxurious enough to buy his entire county back home. All were empty of life.
"The phone's in the den," Hank reminded as Buster retraced their path into the back rooms.
"Yeah, I know."
The smoke-stained cop emerged from a bathroom moments later with a first aid kit in hand.
"Sit down," Buster ordered, pushing him towards an easy chair.
"I don't need...." Hank protested.
"Sit down," Buster cut him off.
Too tired to argue the point, Hank acquiesced. He sat still as stone while McHenry eased the blood-sodden work shirt off his shoulders. The medical treatment he received at his friend's hands was a far cry from the impersonal attention Hank had given the gun-shot man five days ago. Buster hissed and flinched as he worked on bullet graze as if those hurts were upon his own flesh.
"This needs stitches," Buster said.
"Just bandage it."
"Just bandage it."
The wound cleaned, Buster reluctantly followed his instructions. If Hank had learned one thing about his companion over the past five days, it was that Buster was a nervous talker. The chatter came almost nonstop as McHenry worked on him. To his complete astonishment, Hank found the verbal outpouring curiously comforting. What was even more surprising was the fact that Buster didn't seem put off by his own lack of input, the other man seeming to instinctively sense the silences that were so much a part of his nature.
"I'd better make that call," Buster said as he finished up.
Hank donned his cold, wet shirt. Half listening, he followed the one-sided conversation with Buster's captain.
The yelling on the end of the line died out after a few succinct, explanatory sentences, Buster speaking very calmly thereafter.
There was something about this man that made you want to believe in him, Hank recognized. He had felt it himself that first day when he'd dragged the wounded cop to that flea bag motel. There had been no reason to trust him, no reason at all – aside from Buster's attempt to draw his weapon when Marino had gunned down George at the exhibit. Hank had badly misjudged the other man, but Buster had yet to say, 'I told you so.'
"I've been ordered to hold off the locals until Capt. Blalock can get out here. Seems J.J. Williams – Marino's right hand hard case - was kind enough to leave his prints all over the gun we found at your sister's."
The gun that had sent his father to the Sky People. Hank looked away from those sympathetic eyes, perilously close to the breaking point.
All too soon the local fire department arrived, followed by the county sheriff. McHenry handled them all with a charm which would take him far in the white man's world of deceit and back-stabbing. That that charm was totally unfeigned made it all the more lethal.
The small town sheriff regarded them with the suspicion one would expect him to accord the only two men breathing in over an acre of corpses and burning buildings. Still, Marino's reputation must have been known to his neighbors. Or so Hank assumed from the fact they didn't end up in handcuffs.
Blalock, McHenry's superior, was far less easily appeased. While Forensics examined the waterlogged barn and environs, the captain grilled them both, separating them and going over their stories with a relentlessness which made the Hank suspect that the captain wouldn't mind putting Buster away for this mess.
In the end they were to be released on their own recognizance.
"Just be sure you get your ass into the station first thing tomorrow, McHenry," the tall black man barked. "Oh, and give that arrow to Pearson before you leave. The lab boys will need it to tie things up."
"No," Hank refused, clutching the Sacred Lance tighter to his chest.
"What?" Blalock demanded, visibly taken aback by this show of resistance from a hitherto cooperative witness.
"I must return the Lance to my people."
Buster stepped forward before the anger brewing in his superior's eyes could erupt. "Captain, the Lance is a sacred relic. Sort of like a holy chalice or Grail. Marino killed Hank's brother when he tried to protect the Lance at the museum. Hank lost both his father and brother getting it back – it's that important to his people."
The anger seeped from Blalock's face. "You know Forensics has to examine it, McHenry.'
"Yeah, but...they don't have to keep it long, do they?" Buster asked.
The pleading note in McHenry's tone was genuine. Hank had been around the other man long enough not to be startled by the depth of his perception. Buster made the request sound as if it were of personal significance rather than a favor for a friend.
"Give it to Pearson. Tell him I said to have it ready for your friend here in the morning."
"Thanks, Captain. I owe you," Buster said.
"Just get outta here, will you?" Blalock ordered.
The matter dealt with to his satisfaction, the captain turned his attention to one of his field men's questions.
"Come on, Hank. That's Pearson over there." Buster indicated a bespectacled individual sipping from a Styrofoam cup. "Hey, Johnnie. We've got a special package for you. The captain wants it ready to travel at 9 a.m."
"Get real, McHenry. This party isn't going to break up until noon," Pearson answered.
"Sorry, John. 9 am. And handle it with kid gloves. It's what started all this," Buster said.
"I thought the haul was six million in diamonds," Pearson said, demonstrating how quickly misinformation traveled.
"Just have it ready, John. Okay?" Buster asked.
Pearson deliberated a moment before grudgingly conceding. "Sure, Mac. 9 a.m."
"Give him the Lance, Chief, and let's get out of here."
"Buster..." Exhausted past the point of clear thinking, his bloodstained fist closed instinctively around what was left of the weapon's shaft. To just hand the Lance over to a stranger, a white man who could never properly appreciate its worth...
Buster stepped in close to him, covering his clenched fist with an undemanding hand. "Hank, they won't hurt it. If the Lance isn't ready by 9 a.m. tomorrow morning, I'll get it back for you myself."
Buster didn't say 'trust me,' but that was precisely what his gaze and manner asked of Hank. It was equally apparent Buster didn't expect him to agree.
Hank's mind flashed back to that same face telling him to get out of the burning barn while McHenry remained behind to give him cover. There could be no question of trust this late in the game.
Hank released his death hold, allowing the Lance to slip smoothly into the other man's waiting palm.
His concession was not lightly overlooked. The shock in Buster's tired eyes told Hank his companion fully understood how much it had taken for him to surrender the Lance. Buster's free hand rose to give his uninjured shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
Hank was very aware of Pearson's curious gaze following the strangely intimate exchange.
"Thanks, Hank." Then Buster broke the moment by turning to the forensics man. "Here, Johnnie. Guard ft with your life or you'll answer to me."
"Ah, sure, Buster. Good night."
Thankfully, there were no more questions as they made their way back to the car at the far end of the ranch. Hank sank almost gratefully into the passenger seat.
'What a night," Buster sighed, rubbing both palms over his face.
"I can drive."
"Nah, it's been even worse on you. I didn't expect it to go down like this, Hank." Buster's gravelly voice sounded oddly apologetic, as if he were somehow responsible for everything that had happened.
"Marino chose the path. We had no choice but to follow."
"I should never have involved you...or your family." There was no mistaking the guilt now.
"'You didn't involve me. Marino did, when he stole the Lance and shot George." He purposefully did not mention his father. That wound was still too raw for close examination.
"Yeah, well, anyway, I just wanted you to know that...I appreciate the backup. No one could have come through the way you did, Chief."
His whole life, Hank had struggled to ignore the opinions of others. Different, special, however they wanted to politely phrase it, the euphemisms had always boiled down to his being an outsider. Even among his family. A disappointment to his father, a mystery to his mom, an active threat to George, there had never been any true feeling of belonging, for all the pride he took in his heritage. Over the years, he'd inured himself to both praise and criticism alike, regardless of the source. Buster's words should have flicked by him like water off a mallard's feathers. Instead, they pierced him to the core of his lonely heart, penetrating like the beloved warmth of a campfire on the coldest and darkest of nights.
Swallowing past the painful tightness in his throat, he attempted to look away. But there was no breaking that steady gaze. After a moment's intense uneasiness, there was no reason to.
In the five days they'd spent in each other's company, Buster had seen more evidence of his unnerving abilities than most people experienced in years of contact. Yet there was no hint of the alienation or fear that usually accompanied such enlightenment in Buster's crystal clear gaze.
That same tenuous expression which had followed the revelation of McHenry's father's past flickered through Buster's eyes.
Realizing how difficult it must be for his companion to make such a disclosure to a man often accused of having all the responsiveness of an ice cliff, Hank attempted to reach back. "I could not have retrieved the Lance without you." The words lay there awkward in the open. It was only after he'd spoken that Hank realized that they didn't truly convey what he was attempting to say. "That is, what I meant was..."
"I know what you meant," Buster dismissed, turning the ignition on.
"You do?" Hank tested, having learned enough of the other man to know Buster's thick skinned cynicism hid almost as much as his own stone walling.
"Yeah. We make one damn good team, Chief. So where to? Your sister's?"
"Not without the Lance. I can't return to my people without it"'
Buster absorbed this in silence. Although Hank could tell that it disturbed his friend on some level, there were no intrusive questions.
"How 'bout I show you my guns, then?" McHenry asked with weary cheer. "It's kind of late to go looking for a hotel."
"Yeah, fine," Hank agreed, aware he was being less than graceful, but unable to rise to the occasion.
An hour later they were back in Philadelphia.
His spirit heavy with the night's irreparable loss, Hank followed his companion up the stairs to Buster's small apartment. The place was very much a reflection of its owner – comfortable, mismatched furniture, clothes strewn about with enthusiastic abandon, piles of records and books crowding all available level space, erratically cleaned kitchen area, on the whole very lived in and extremely cozy. Like Buster himself, there was something about the flat that made Hank feel very much at ease, despite his troubles.
"Sorry about the mess. Make yourself comfortable. Are you hungry?" McHenry asked while taking their jackets. He surprised Hank by actually hanging them up on a peg on the back of the door. Hank had half expected them to end up dumped over the back of chair.
"No." The very idea of food made him nauseous, even though it had been almost a full 24 hours since they'd last eaten. Breakfast with Nema, her husband, their two boys...and father.
"Yeah, I'm beat myself. Look, the bathroom's through there. Why don't you grab a shower and sack out?"
"Okay." Numb to the soul, Hank did as bidden, moving like an automaton into the bathroom.
Hot water revived him some, easing a little of the physical ache, if not the emotional bludgeoning.
"Be out in a sec." Buster gave a tired grin as Hank stepped naked from the bathroom, his soiled clothing a forgotten ball on the white tile floor. "Help yourself to some clean underwear if you want. Dresser, top drawer."
A pair of neatly folded briefs in hand, Hank eased the bureau drawer closed, stopping suddenly as he became conscious of almost familiar eyes staring out at him from an aged black and white photograph. Curious, Hank lifted the gilt frame. A middle-aged man in police blues, fleshier than his friend, similar of feature, but lacking that vital spark he'd come to associate with Buster, stood cuddling an attractive blonde woman whose affectionate smile was also familiar to Hank. Buster's parents, no doubt.
"Those were my folks."
The soft voice spoke from directly in back of him, Buster having gotten further behind his guards than even Hank had suspected if he could get that close without detection. Normally he would have sensed another person long before he saw or heard them. But he was tired, with other things on his mind.
He carefully replaced the photo in its place.
"That was taken before he got busted," Buster continued, speaking despite Hank's lack of prompting, almost as if Buster felt a need to explain himself to him. "They're both gone now. She died while he was inside – the shock of it killed her; the official report was cancer. He drank himself to death when he got out."
The shower-damp McHenry waited, fidgeting with the belt of his blue terrycloth robe, his gaze intent upon Hank, for all the distracting hand motions. Almost as if he were awaiting judgment.
The agony belied by Buster's matter-of-fact tone reverberated between them, his friend's hurt accentuating his own. So much pain. Not knowing what to say, Hank remained silent, hoping that Buster would read what words couldn't express.
"Most of the guys I work with think that bein' a bad cop runs in the family. You never asked me if I was dirty, Hank." The last was a question.
<i>And you never asked me if I were a witch,</I> Hank thought. What he said was, "I didn't have to."
"Why not? You didn't know me from Adam. Hell, after the way we met..."
He supposed believing Buster's claim of being a cop, the natural assumption most people would have made given the circumstances of their meeting would have been that Buster was dirty. Still, once Hank had accepted that the other man was, in fact, a police officer, there had been no doubt as to his integrity. Even when he'd considered Buster a fast-talking hustler, instinct had told him there were things McHenry simply wouldn't do. Like murder. But how to explain the source of his confidence without sounding a complete flake left Hank bewildered.
"Hank, why? I've gotta know, it's been so long since anyone's...."
<i>Trusted him.</i> Hank heard it as clearly as if Buster had spoken the words aloud.
Even if it were his habit, there could be no dissembling under that vulnerable gaze. So Hank gave Buster the truth, fully aware of the consequences of speaking openly of a thing even his own people had difficulty accepting.
"We walked the spirit path together. Yours is a warrior spirit. There was no evil or weakness in your soul." Just a crippling pain, carried so close to the heart its burden left Buster's spirit longing for release.
Hank waited for the withdrawal that automatically followed such plain speaking on spiritual matters, his bruised body unaccountably tense.
Remarkably, the curiosity only deepened in those pale blue eyes. "<i>We</i> walked the spirit path?"
"In the hotel room after I removed the bullet. Your guardian spirit had been much weakened even before the shooting. It fled when you were hurt. It was necessary to retrieve it, but..." <i>Deny anything long enough and even the most instinctive of drives becomes stunted.</i> "...I wasn't strong enough. Dad brought your guardian back to you."
"I don't remember any of that night. Just your father chanting over me in the early dawn," Buster said, his tone wistful.
"He was strengthening the bond between the guardian spirit and your own," Hank further explained, unable to believe that Buster was still listening to him, let alone believing what he was telling him.
"No shit." Though not exactly profound, the exclamation conveyed the other man's sense of wonder.
"You believe me?" Hank's voice didn't betray his incredulity, but Buster, who had a knack for picking up on his most deeply hidden emotions, seemed aware of it.
"After that Obi Wan Kenobi number you pulled on that rookie on the rooftop this morning I'd believe almost anything you told me, Chief."
"His will was weak." Storm shrugged off the significance of the event.
"Could you do that to me?" Buster didn't sound anything but curious.
"No," Hank's denial was instantaneous.
Buster's brow furrowed. "Just no?"
"Just no." Wanting nothing more than to erase the event as if it had never happened, Hank found that he could not leave it alone.
Bitter experience had told him that most men would balk at half of what Buster had witnessed today. Either they'd run or accord him such a respectful loathing that it would have made Hank physically ill. But Buster remained unchanged. If anything, the distance between them had lessened, McHenry treating him with the same irreverent affection Hank had come to consider the bedrock of Buster's character.
"Why doesn't what you saw frighten you? Even my own people fear the wielder of such powers." Especially those rogues who refused proper Wicasa Wakan training.
Smile lines crinkled the corners of Buster's eyes as the other man threw his own words back at him. "We walked the spirit path together, Chief."
"That isn't funny."
Buster sobered immediately. "It's not meant to be. It's just...I know you, Hank. You wouldn't – <i>couldn't</i> – hurt anybody that way. If that were your nature, we never would have had to take Marino down the way we did. All I've ever seen you do is track someone...and defuse potentially explosive situations without violence. Maybe I don't understand how you do it, but I think it's kinda cool. We still friends?"
Hank nodded mutely, too close to breaking down to trust his voice. No one had ever judged him like this before – empirically, by what he'd done rather than by what they feared he could do. He swallowed around the lump blocking his throat, and forced the word around it. "Friends." Spoken as though it were a lifelong pact.
The word seemed to linger in the air between them long after the actual sound faded.
"Good. You gonna wear those, or stand there holding them all night?" Buster smiled, a jerk of his chin indicating the borrowed briefs in Hank's hand.
Hank belatedly donned the underwear. Normally, he would have felt very self-conscious doing so under another's gaze, but after having his soul so closely examined, the exposure of his physical body seemed meaningless.
"If you have a spare pillow..."
"Sure, but I don't think you wanna take it anywhere. The couch is about six inches too short. You're welcome to try it, of course, but the bed's more than big enough."
Not understanding the source of the sudden tension crackling in the room, Hank nodded his acceptance, numbly moving towards the double bed. Behind him he sensed Buster removing his robe.
"How's that shoulder doing?" Buster asked as he climbed in beside him.
The bed wasn't nearly as large as it looked.
"Fine." He actually welcomed the constant ache, for it gave him something to concentrate on besides the sharper emotional hurt.
"Good. Sleep well, Hank." With that, Buster turned out the light, sinking back onto the bed with a weary r sigh.
Almost shoulder to shoulder, they lay in the darkness. Silver street light seeped through the slits in the blinds. Buster seemed almost as accustomed to its presence as he was to the constant, subdued street noise. But the country-reared Hank was very conscious of its presence, and highly aware of the body heat pouring off the man dozing at his side. He was not accustomed to this closeness, on any level.
After the trauma of the last 24 hours, sleep should have come easily. It certainly claimed the tired cop soon enough. Although Hank's entire body throbbed with exhaustion, he could not find the release of sleep. Once the lights were out and Buster's body and mind were quiet beside him, the memory of how he'd last seen his father came back to haunt him: the mighty Holy Man dying in a puddle of his own blood on Nema's living room floor, his father's half of the broken medicine stone slipping from his lax grip....
Had breaking the stone broken the old man's luck? And, if it had, had his father known what he was doing when he'd split the powerful river stone in half?
Hank shivered as he remembered the traditional buckskin burial suit his father had packed along for this trip. Hank hadn't known of its presence until he'd stumbled upon it while searching through his dead brother's clothes to replace Buster's bloody, ruined shirt. The presence of the ceremonial outfit had disturbed him greatly three nights ago. Now he couldn't get it off his mind. The burial suit had been laying not ten feet away from his father's body.
The old Wicasa Wakan had known. Before they'd even left home, his father knew he wouldn't be coming back. And so knowing, he'd still chosen to come.
Why? What could be so important that it would be worth the old man's life? And George's? The exhibit had brought some much needed money and attention to the tribe, but not enough to justify that kind of a sacrifice.
<i>You came back because you belong there.</i> His father's words, spoken in the seedy motel room as the old man replaced his herbs and feathers in his medicine pouch after healing the dying Buster, echoed eerily through Hank's mind, a conversation that should have taken place last year when the road had finally brought Hank back full circle to his starting point, with no more answers than when he'd left four years before. Was all this has father's way of showing him where he belonged? What he was?
Hank recalled his fierce <i>I am that shit</i> when Buster had dared scorn the ancient beliefs, the very beliefs Hank had spent the last ten years of his life running from. Had he ever so openly laid claim to the old ways? Or dared such profligate exercise of his unusual talents?
And they hadn't failed him. Those long accursed abilities, and the man at his side, had won through the quest, seen the Lance safely returned.
But at what a terrible cost – his father and George, both gone forever.
No. Even if the old man had considered it worth his own life to supply his prodigal son with the answers for which he'd searched so desperately, his father would never have sacrificed George. Whatever had prompted his father to bring his burial suit along, it could not have been anything definite. It just couldn't, for Hank could never live with the guilt if this were all for his sake.
He tried to banish the troubling thoughts from his mind, longed to rid himself of the image of the death scene that seemed pasted on the back of his eyelids.
Shaking with emotion, he slipped from the suffocating heat of the bed, unable to lie so close to another human being with this agonizing loss torturing him.
His flesh prickled up in goose pimples as the chill of the autumn night soaked the warmth from his overheated skin. Shivering, he crossed to the window.
The empty city street, gray and depressing, was no dirtier than the hundreds of others he'd looked down upon throughout the years. How many times had he gazed out some unremembered window in the past and longed for home?
The road, his futile search hadn't been easy. No matter where he went, he was always alone. An Indian in the white man's world. He'd adjusted to that world, far better than some of his people, learned how to protect himself, learned to avoid the treacherous grip of the chemical joys that led ultimately to despair, learned so very much...except where it was that he belonged.
Always, the link to his home had tugged him back.
Home meant father. So many things he remembered about the man – his gentleness, the balancing strengths, wisdom, his inner peace, the air of mystery that seemed to whisper about the man like the rustle of autumn leaves, the countless small kindnesses that had helped buffer Hank's difficult childhood, the guidance which had saved his sanity when his powers had awakened, how much he'd hurt that gentle man by trying so very hard to deny what he was, and, perhaps the most treasured memory of all, his father's graceful acceptance of his return. His mother, George, his sister, they had all looked upon that return as a failure. Hank himself had thought it was, dreaded what his father would have to say on the subject. There had been no 'I told you so,' no resentment. His father had displayed nothing but joy at his homecoming, a happiness which had run so deep that it shamed Hank to think of how badly he must have been missed.
Since infancy his father had been a larger than life figure. Invincible. A man who talked to gods. To see that great man shattered, lying in a pool of blood with a worthless punk's bullets in his chest....
A sob caught in his raw throat. He trembled with the effort it took to contain it.
"Holding it in never made anyone feel better." The quiet voice was accompanied by a tentative touch to his elbow, as if his companion were loathe to interrupt this private moment of suffering. The warmth of Buster's hand stole through his frozen flesh.
The unexpected interruption, coming as it did from directly behind him, froze Hank on the spot. His defenses shot to hell, he struggled to subdue the emotional storm raging within.
"It's – not – my way," Hank grated out from between clenched teeth, not turning around. Not daring to. The tremor coursing through him was already threatening to destroy him. He had the feeling that once he let this grief have its way with him, it would hold him forever.
"I know." The soft agreement was entirely devoid of condescension. "Christ, you're like ice."
It wasn't the first time that statement had been used as a character evaluation. Buster's hand flinched away as if from the burn of dry ice.
The air stirred from behind him. Buster leaving, no doubt. If asked a moment ago, Hank would have sworn that nothing else could further wound him, he'd been hurt so much this night. But, as usual, he was mistaken.
Hank clenched his eyes shut. <i>Like ice.</i> If only it were true. He wouldn't hurt so much then.
Hank actually jumped as something soft and warm settled over his shoulders. Not understanding, he stared at the quilt ends draped over his sides. Buster's arm settled cautiously across his blanketed shoulders, being absurdly careful of the bullet graze.
The shaking claimed him then, with a vengeance. At last, Hank turned to acknowledge the gesture, the words stopping in his throat at the worry in Buster's troubled eyes. Hell, it was more than worry; it was open fear. Fear for his sake.
"There's nothing weak about admitting that you care, Chief. Your father was a great man. He deserves to be mourned."
The grief avalanched over him, hot tears exploding from their dams to pour like flash floods down a dry mountain side.
Buster caught him, drew him in close. With a truly shameful lack of control, Hank clung to the shorter man, his face pressed deep into a terrycloth-covered shoulder.
"That's it, Chief. Let it all out," Buster urged, a firm hand rubbing his back, stroking his long hair. Buster's use of the hitherto annoying nickname was oddly comforting. Almost as comforting as the supportive embrace.
Vaguely, Hank was aware of Buster maneuvering them back to the bed. But as those sheltering arms gave no indication of abandoning him, he allowed himself to be led, accepting from this man what he could from no other. Even when Buster began to rock him as one would a frightened child, he made no protest, a part of him that had hungered for some human contact drowning in the unselfconscious embrace.
An eternity later, the tears trickled to a stop, the outburst calming to an occasional convulsive sob. Hank remained still a long time, listening to the beat of Buster's heart beneath his ear and the rhythm of the other man's breath. He felt no compulsive drive to pull back, none of the embarrassment which normally followed such a breakdown. For the moment he was content to stay where he was, soaking up Buster's warmth.
Nor was his friend displaying any signs of discomfort. Buster was giving every indication he'd be willing to hold him like this all night.
Hours seemed to pass before Hank reluctantly straightened from his hunched position, sitting very close to Buster on the bedside. That sense of closeness was more than purely physical. It might have been merely the aftermath of a cathartic cry, but Hank had never felt so at peace with another in his life.
"You think you can sleep now?" Buster asked after an extended period of comfortable silence, stifling a yawn.
Hank nodded, unprepared for the hands which guided him down onto the pillow. The diffused streetlight caught in Buster's hair, turning the honey blond to eldritch silver as the other man rose, pulling the covers up to Hank's shoulders.
Touched by the gesture, Hank caught hold of a terrycloth-covered arm as his companion turned to take his own side of the bed. He'd intended to express his thanks for the solace, but the words caught in his throat as Buster paused over him.
Opposite poles of the spectrum, blue eyes met black. Something unexpected sparked between the two.
Buster gasped, his shock as palpable a presence as the electric current operating between them. "Hank?"
The quaver in that gravelly voice shivered through him, setting his mind awhirl with the possibilities ignited by that one look. Hank's heart pounded with the wild, uninhibited beat of ceremonial drums, its thunderous roar drowning out all thought. The oxygen seemed to have escaped the no-longer chilly bedroom, or perhaps he'd just forgotten how to breathe.
The only thing that existed in this moment in time for Hank was the sight of Buster's eyes. They were wide, all pale blue iris and night-dilated pupils. Hank felt as though he were tumbling into them, spiraling down in a helpless fall that knew no end. The sensation was very much like spirit-walking, only far more disorienting, for Hank knew that he was still firmly rooted in his physical body. Was, in fact, more aware of his body than he'd ever been in his life.
Disjointedly, he wondered if this weren't some kind of delayed reaction to the actual journey they'd taken five nights ago when he'd tried to reclaim Buster's guardian. His father had always warned him of the hidden dangers of the spirit world. Was it possible that through his own inexperience he'd allowed them to get too close, that somehow he'd entangled their souls?
Hank wasn't even certain if such a thing were possible, but if it were, then it was his responsibility to guide them through this.
But how? He couldn't even hold a coherent thought with the way he felt right now, let alone act upon it.
While Hank struggled for control, the decision was taken out of his hands.
He watched the shock fade from the gaze holding him transfixed. Hank waited for the anger and revulsion which were bound to accompany the return to sanity, but those eyes did not close him out. Rather, they seemed to soften and embrace him. Cautiously, almost reverently, Buster lowered his head.
The warm, full lips lightly covered Hank's mouth, exerting no pressure, forcing no response, barely even asking for one, just waiting.
Hank felt his last desperate finger hold on sanity give way. He knew this was something he should not be doing, knew it was forbidden, wrong, perhaps even unnatural, knew this all on a vague, disjointed mental level.
But instinct told him something totally different. His body came alive under the undemanding touch of Buster McHenry's lips. Without conscious instruction, his hands rose to frame his friend's head. Fingers, both injured and uninjured, buried themselves deep in that short, unruly hair, pulling Buster down.
He tightened his hold as Buster seemingly made a try at a parting move, relaxing only when he realized Buster had merely shifted to lie down beside him.
His response ignited Buster. The mouth covering his own returned the pressure, arms equally as strong as his own banding his back, as if to hold him where he was forever.
Stunned by his own body's acceptance, Hank marveled at the unique feel of Buster's moustache against his mouth. The facial hair in question was barely a sprinkling of color above Buster's upper lip. Well-groomed, it didn't quite match Buster's short, wavy blond hair, tending more towards a ginger red than a honey gold. It wasn't nearly as bristly as it looked, being more a startlingly soft caress which brushed Hank's lips every time Buster moved his mouth. Though enjoyable, the moustache's very presence brought home the alienness of what they were doing. Hank, like many of his people, had never even had to shave.
Despite the strange awareness, the kiss deepened, their mouths kneading together.
Buster captured Hank's lower lip between his own, feeding hungrily on it before shifting his concentration to Hank 's thinner upper lip. Buster's attention to detail, his sheer sensuality was doing nothing short of overwhelming.
Buster's tongue tickled between his lips, beseeching entry. Hank opened his mouth immediately, welcoming the wet visitor with a playful stroke of his own tongue. Hardly believing what he was doing, Hank deepened the kiss, reaching back to explore the furthest curves of his companion's sweet mouth.
The taste of Buster, when added to the present stimuli of touch and smell, was all-consuming. The normally reserved Hank was somewhat shocked by the thoroughness of this intimacy, but distantly so. His nerves were thrumming with the thrill of Buster's exotic taste, like the residual reverberations through the strings of a guitar after the last note of a show-stopping solo died away in the air.
When they reluctantly broke for breath, Hank was left with the disorienting sensation that he'd never been kissed properly before tonight. Almost frightened by the degree of passion Buster aroused in him, he hesitantly sought his companion's gaze, not at all certain of what he'd find waiting for him there.
The similar, stunned quality to Buster's expression was immensely reassuring. Buster was regarding him with something very near awe.
"You okay on this, Hank?" T here was genuine concern in the hoarse question, Buster looking worried despite his desire.
And the desire was there in the sweat-sheened flesh, panting breaths, and burning eyes. It should have frightened him, did on some barely-acknowledged level. Uncertain of what would be unleashed should they go any further, Hank nonetheless found himself giving an assenting nod.
His loose hair fell forward at the gesture.
Buster's hand rose to tentatively comb it back, lingering to finger the baby-fine length.
Watching the absorbed concentration with which Buster accomplished even that small, asexual touch, Hank found the last of his restraints slipping.
His rational mind made one final protest, a frantic plea to remember that this was not his way.
True enough, Hank's heart cynically confirmed. His way was one of utter solitude. Empty days that had led to an even emptier bed. Never touching, never acknowledging even to himself the need to touch.
There had been girls, of course. On the road, his loneliness had seemed to attract attention. They'd been mostly drifters like himself; not a one of them had known what he really was. Whereas Buster knew, and it still made no difference.
And that was the most unique aspect of this situation, stranger even than the fact that his partner was of the same sex as himself. For the first time in his life Hank didn't feel as it he were hiding something. Buster accepted him for what he was, accepted and actively wanted him.
Stirred by that knowledge, Hank leaned forward. Their eyes still locked, he initiated another kiss, letting his hands drop lower to explore Buster's chest and sides.
Eider soft, the man was well downed. His own chest virtually hairless, Hank found himself intrigued by the difference. His uninjured fingers followed the line of golden red hair along Buster's sternum to his right breast. Not entirely confident in this yet, he experimentally ran his fingers around the flat nub of nipple.
Buster broke off the kiss with a hissing gasp, his eyes sinking shut, his head arching back as his nipple hardened and peaked beneath Hank's fingers.
Emboldened by the ready response, Hank 's mouth swooped to the exposed throat. No longer uncertain, he kissed his way down its length, his tongue soon replacing the effective finger.
Buster went wild beneath him. Head thrashing from side to side, Buster gave himself up totally to the pleasure, moaning and making hoarse vocalizations as Hank's flat palms skimmed his sides and flanks.
Strong hands gripped his shoulders, firmly pushing him up and away. Wincing at the sudden pain, Hank., allowed himself to be forced back, bewildered as to what he'd done to cause offense. Tense now, he warily watched the opening eyes come to focus on him.
There was no repudiation in the pleasure-dazed blues. Looking at him, Buster seemed to read his very soul.
"Too fast, Hank. I don't wanna leave you behind," Buster explained. As if sensing something amiss, Buster's gaze dropped to his gripping hands. "Christ, Hank. I'm sorry."
The pressure on his wound instantly ceased, Buster carefully guiding him back onto the pillows. For an eternity, Buster just stared down at him, and not just at his face. Hank felt his cheeks warm at the area Buster focused on. Still, the attention wasn't entirely unpleasant. He hardened under that intense examination as he might under another's touch.
"Can we get rid of these, Chief?" Buster asked, giving the waistband of Hank 's borrowed briefs a questioning tug.
Not quite trusting his voice, Hank gave another tight nod.
Buster peeled the pants off with a single pull. Hank's hips lifting automatically to aid in the effort. Buster tossed the briefs aside, his hands returning to rest on Hank 's narrow hips.
Hank searched the familiar features for some echo of the trepidation he himself was experiencing, but could find no hint of uncertainty in the frank appraisal he was currently undergoing. Buster didn't seem at all phased by his erection. To the contrary, the other man appeared oddly relieved.
"You're beautiful, Chief," Buster whispered, his voice ragged not with nervousness or fear, but with appreciation.
Their gazes met again, Buster's shattering one of the basic assumptions Hank had made about this night.
"This isn't..." Hank began and faltered, knowing that it wasn't really his business.
Once again Buster appeared to read his thoughts.
"No, it isn't, but I wish it were," Buster confirmed, sounding regretful. "Do you wanna stop?"
There was an irrational part of him which resented the fact that this was not the first such encounter for them both. That unreasonable side felt horribly betrayed.
But Buster had not seduced him.
The spark which had initiated this had risen spontaneously between them both, the idea as much of a shock to Buster as it had been to Hank himself. Hank knew that to be the truth. Just as he knew how uncertain Buster was, looking at him as if he expected Hank to call a stop to this because of his honesty. Hank sensed how Buster believed him to be within his rights to do just that.
Another piece in the puzzle of this complex character fell into place as Hank realized how difficult life must be for a gay cop – a gay cop living in the shadow of his father's mistake. Little wonder this warrior's spirit was so riddled with pain.
Buster's gaze followed Hank's hand as it rose. His guarded expression told Hank his companion was braced more for a blow than a caress, and willing to accept such a rejection from him if it came to that.
Hank gulped past the lump choking his throat, forced the words out and made them true. "It doesn't change anything." Moving as if to stroke a wounded forest creature, he gently brushed the hair off Buster's brow.
Buster turned his face into the caress, capturing Hank's injured hand to place the most tender of kisses in the palm, his gift chaste and pure as the spirit which guided those lips.
Whatever might have remained of the man of ice melted under that gentle nuzzling. Hank's fingertips soothed Buster's cheekbone and temple as the other man kissed his palm. The slightest bit of pressure turned his friend's face back up to him.
Hank's breath caught in his chest at the expression in those open blue eyes. "Buster, don't...."
"Don't what?" Velvet soft, the question was a caress in itself.
"Don't look at me like that. I'm not...worthy of it."
Buster turned Hank's captured hand over, his gaze fixed on the ugly rips the glass in the display case had left in the skin of Hank's knuckles this evening. "You don't know yourself at all if you believe that, Chief." A kiss that barely touched the torn flesh, then Buster's gaze seared his soul again.
The kiss that followed rent his heart open. Hank felt himself drowning in the sweet depths of Buster's mouth, burning in liquid flame as the incandescent body covered his own.
Hank an his hands down the sweat slick back until stopped by soft cotton. With one fingertip he lightly traced the outline of the generous butt beneath the white material.
Buster growled deep in his throat, instinctively thrusting against Hank's genitals.
The feel of that hard organ pressing at his own through the scant cotton barrier was a whole new experience, unnerving yet exhilarating. Deciding he wanted to feel more, Hank slipped his uninjured hand down the back of Buster's briefs, not at all sure how the other man would respond to such a move. When there was no immediate protest and the kiss remained unbroken, he insinuated two fingers between the hot cheeks.
That received a definite response. Buster moaned against Hank 's mouth, thrust his hips against his once more, and spread his legs wider for easier access.
Hank's hand curled a little further around the well-formed rump. His middle finger dipped blindly into the cleft, zeroing in on the close-guarded entrance. Lightly he tapped the tight-clenched bud of muscle with the ball of his finger, felt the sphincter's convulsive spasm and the resulting tremor which ran the length of Buster's body.
Buster broke the kiss with a gasp of shock.
"Feels good, Hank," Buster approved, then pulled far enough away to squirm free of his briefs. He turned for a moment to rummage through the night table drawer, turning back with a small jar of Vaseline that looked as if it hadn't been opened in a long, long time. "It'll feel even better with this," Buster offered. "That is, if you want to."
The slight blush told him Buster wanted it, but Hank wasn't precisely sure what it was the other man was offering him. Feeling an utter idiot, Hank tried to phrase a question that wouldn't leave him sounding like the complete novice he felt. "Yes, but...."
"But" Buster patiently prompted.
"What do you – how far...."
Buster placed the small jar in Hank's uninjured palm, closing both his hands around it. "However far you feel comfortable going, Hank."
In other words, Buster was letting him call the shots. His mouth ran dry. Touched by the gesture, but longing for more concrete instruction, Hank wryly reminded, "You're the Indian here."
The instantaneous chuckle turned into an all out laugh which left the tousled cop gasping for breath and Hank smiling ever so faintly.
Buster's grin faded like the setting sun as their gazes touched, only its memory remaining to light the pale blue eyes. Hank waited for that lingering glow to pass as well, but the spark burned steady and bright. Hank couldn't understand why that light made him so uneasy or why he found it so impossible to look away.
Buster's gulp was very loud in the quiet between them. "Maybe so, Chief, but I don't feel that way with you." Buster didn't say what he felt, but it was all too clear in his eyes.
The admission lay before them, gaping and awkward in its honesty.
Seeing the regret forming in those too-expressive eyes, Hank leaned forward and very deliberately kissed the other man. He knew and accepted the mistake he was making. This was no longer simply a question of breaking the rules of convention. Each touch, every tender kiss accentuated the danger of what they were doing. Even as he gave himself totally over to the feeling, Hank knew how dearly he was going to pay for this. Dawn's light was going to see a lot more broken than society's rules.
But dawn was an eternity away and Buster was all too real in his arms to pay those warnings too much heed. No empty bed. Not tonight. The desperation with which he resumed their...lovemaking eventually communicated itself to his partner.
Even the way Buster said his name sounded different, special. Reluctantly, Hank raised his head, met the worried gaze, praying to the spirits of his ancestors that the other man would not realize the sentimental fool he was bedding.
"Is something wrong?" Buster averted his gaze, focusing on the lock of straight black hair he was attempting to coax into a ringlet. "I talk too much sometimes."
"No. I like the sound," Hank admitted, aware that that was one compliment the gravel-voiced Buster was unlikely to have received too often in the past. To his bemusement, it also happened to be the truth.
As expected, the peculiar declaration diverted Buster's attention. Nodding, Hank furthered the diversionary tactic by running a slow finger down the center of Buster's broad chest, trailing the dusting of body hair down to his navel and dipping lower.
Ignoring how strange it felt, Hank gathered the heavy cock into his palm, stroking the velvety testes with his free hand. The heady, clean scent was intoxicating, the feel of those moss-soft balls almost addictive.
Buster groaned, thrusting his hips up at him, the open hunger making Hank want more.
But <i>more</i> entailed a far more serious step than he'd ever considered taking, not that he'd ever confronted such a possibility before tonight. Hank measured himself against the idea. A lifetime of prejudice was not an easy thing to move beyond. Buster's people, even more than his own, considered this a perversion, unnatural....
Yet there was nothing unnatural about Buster. And Hank had been the victim of unthinking prejudice too often in the past to fall thrall to it himself. He'd never tried this before. Everything they'd done to each other so far had been fantastic. Was he going to deny his partner pleasure because of some groundless bias? Was he that insecure?"
A moment's silent deliberation and Hank lowered his head. Buster's body stilled, his eyes going very wide as he absorbed Hank's intent.
"Hank, you don't have to.. .ahhh….."
The sigh was one of pure delight as Hank experimentally licked the flaring head. He tried to be objective as he sampled the salty flavor, failing miserably as the taste spread through him. Heart pounding in a maddening, deafening tattoo, he carefully drew most of the straining organ into his mouth, his fingers playing through the ginger gold patch of hair at its base.
His immediate problem was breathing; that, and resisting the impulse to gag on the unaccustomed bulk. If Buster had moved, he probably wouldn't have been able to adjust at all, but the other man remained motionless, as if aware of his dilemma
Finally, Hank figured out how to breathe around the organ as he began to suck. Even if Hank found the experience unpleasant – which he didn't – Buster's obvious enjoyment would've made it worth the effort.
"Oh, God, Hank. Yeah...harder..." Buster urged, thrusting powerfully up at him.
Not yet proficient at timing his movements to his friend's rhythm, Hank found himself choking. He pulled back, looking up at Buster's face through tearing eyes.
Buster's groan at the abrupt withdrawal caught on a sob. Panting hard for each breath, Buster studied his face with surprising clarity. "Takes some getting used to, doesn't it?" Buster reached for his hips. "Shift over, Chief. I'm leaving you behind again."
A little amazed Buster would be capable of thinking of him when this close to the edge, Hank willingly complied.
Hank tried to remember what he was supposed to be doing to that nearby cock, but the moment Buster's hot mouth sucked him in, all thought was blasted from his mind. The instant that hot suction claimed him, it was more than apparent that Buster knew precisely what he was doing. The sensuous mouth did not belie Buster's ability; rather, it surpassed its raw promise.
Hank actually whimpered at the sensations that bubbled through his touch-starved body. Buster set his blood to dancing, igniting fires that Hank in his loneliness had never dreamed existed.
Belatedly remembering that he was supposed to be returning the favor, Hank made a feeble attempt to reciprocate. He cried out in dismay as Buster's delightful sucking ceased, not understanding as strong hands separated him from the pulsing organ in his mouth. "What?"
"Lay back, Chief. Let me do this for you." Buster's smile warmed him to the icy depths of his existence. "Don't worry about me. I'm the Indian around here. Remember?"
As he did recall something of the sort, Hank allowed himself to be pushed back down.
Buster returned to his ministrations, working with an enthusiasm and undeniable expertise that left Hank trembling. He watched the golden head bob up and down, committing every single detail to memory: the fall of blond hair over his groin as Buster's head lowered, the hollowed-out cheeks, the irresistible suction and, above all else, the exquisite tenderness that accompanied every movement.
Buster couldn't know how that tenderness was destroying him. Hank felt as if he were torn open, his soul laid bare and branded, Buster leaving an indelible mark on the very fiber of his being.
Reason tried to tell him that it was a perfectly natural reaction to such an intense encounter after so long an abstinence. After all, it had been – what? A year? No, a year and a half since his last casual affair. This was bound to be more devastating, for there was nothing at all casual about what he felt for Buster.
Which was precisely the root of his problem. This was the most dangerously non-casual feeling he'd ever felt for anyone, man or woman.
Hank made a determined effort to still the voices in his brain, to exist only for the pleasure of the moment.
The last didn't take much effort. The joy Buster gave him now made thought all but impossible.
Warm flesh touched his uninjured hand, removing something from his tight-knuckled grip. As the rhythm of Buster's sucking remained steady, Hank paid only the slightest attention to the event. That was until he felt the slick fingers probing behind his balls for his anus. Instinctively, his body stiffened, a very primal fear clawing through his innards.
Buster felt the change about the time his fingers located their objective. Buster raised his head, neither impatience nor disappointment visible in his earnest expression. "It's okay, Hank. Trust me. I'm not gonna do anything you don't like. Is this a red light or a warning signal?"
Whichever it were, Buster's attitude made it more than plain he was prepared to respect Hank's decision.
Drowning in eyes almost too compassionate to bear, Hank found his voice, not certain of what he was going to say until he heard himself answer, "Green. Only – "
"Proceed with caution. Gotchya."
Buster's mouth returned almost hungrily to his flesh. Hank could only marvel at the open enthusiasm. In the interim following Hank's first attempt at fellatio, Buster's lower body had shifted away from him, his friend concentrating his full energies on his self-assigned task. Yet, Hank could see that Buster was still as hard as when he had been touching him, his partner apparently as aroused by the act of pleasing as being pleased. A rare spirit, indeed.
The unique sensation of a slick finger easing up inside him put an end to all cogitation. Hank had thought such an.invasion would detract from his enjoyment of the more familiar gift Buster was giving him. At first the awareness was somewhat distracting, but Buster knew how to please here as well. His finger pushed deep up inside him, as if seeking something specific. Hank gave a tiny, involuntary cry as his friend achieved his goal.
Pure, mind-searing ecstasy flashed through Hank's entire body from that unexpected pleasure source, delight so sharp it bordered upon agony. The result – instant explosion.
Hank spurted forth his burning seed deep into Buster's throat, endless streams that went on and on. The flushed Buster accepted every drop, drinking of him with a desperation more suitable to a desert victim stumbling upon a cool, hidden oasis. In the incredible intensity of that outpouring, Hank felt their very souls fuse together, Buster's molten gold to his own cool silver.
When Hank was at last entirety spent with nothing left to give, Buster reluctantly released him. His sweat-sheened friend sat back on his heels, palms resting lightly on Hank's thin thighs, Buster's own erection seemingly forgotten as he drank in the sight before him.
Such close scrutiny would normally have been unnerving at such a time, were it not for the fact that Hank found those familiar features as mesmerizing as Buster appeared to find him.
Buster looked….tranquil was not the right word, for Hank could clearly see the burning need being brutally banked down. Still, there was something of that peaceful quality shining in Buster's sweat-glazed face. Perhaps transcendent might be a more appropriate description, for Buster truly looked as if he had just achieved some long-sought goal. Or found his heart's desire.
Never had the mere voicing of his name shivered through him as when played on that rough instrument. Hank gulped around the sudden fear. "Finish it.'
Hank's brow furrowed, as if not quite understanding. So that there would be no question, Hank opened his thighs, repeating, "Finish it."
Inside Hank was quaking. He wondered if those piercing eyes could see that.
Buster reached out to brush Hank's high cheekbone, as if to assure himself of his reality, his gaze achingly bright. An inner war seemed to be waging behind those sparkling jewels – Buster's concern for him weighed against his hunger.
"You sure about this, Hank?" The concern won out.
As he wasn't sure of anything, least of all his reasons for making this offer, Hank confined his response to a single, definitive nod.
The depleted haze of afterglow was fast deserting him, leaving Hank doubting his own sanity, doubting everything save the disturbing light in the other man's eyes. That seemed to be the one fixed point in this radically altered reality. In a world without father, without George, Buster was a strength he could rely on, however temporarily.
Hank's insides quivered at the thought of what was to come, an ambivalent tingling which wasn't entirely fear. He felt drawn to this union, compelled, the way the two halves of father's broken medicine stone yearned to be rejoined.
Buster leaned forward, his kiss oddly unrushed, considering his need.
The unaccustomed weight and press of hard flesh against his own flaccid organ should have been intimidating, but weren't. For all that Hank could feel the other man's contained urgency in the fine quiver running the length of Buster's body, Buster made no attempt to immediately claim what his hungry flesh so desperately craved.
Buster's hands ran restlessly over Hank's sides and back, frantic pleas which Hank struggled to meet. He could feel the gradual increase in pressure in those palms, how touching him only fueled this burning want, sensed how hard-won his companion's control was. Buster's tongue joined the heated effort, circling one nipple and then the other, lapping the cooling sweat off Hank 's chest and flat belly in a single, wantonly provocative sweep.
Hank understood what Buster was attempting, knew the other man was reluctant to take him cold. But even had this dark day not claimed all his reserves, the ferocity of the earth-shattering climax Buster had just given him would have left him drained for at least the next few hours.
Buster rubbed his face back and forth over Hank's unstirring genitals, silently begging response from the tired flesh. The sensation was incredibly erotic – the contrast of the baby-smooth cheeks, soft moustache and prickly beard stubble. Hank could appreciate this experience even if he couldn't adequately respond to it.
But this was no longer enjoyable for Buster.
Reading how the other man's desperation was teetering on the brink of despair, Hank buried his fingers in the thick, golden hair and urged Buster's head up.
Hank freed his uninjured hand long enough to snag the Vaseline. "Enough. Take what you need."
'I don't wanna hurt you," Buster rasped out, looking away, as if by hiding his eyes he could disguise his need.
His throat unaccountably tight, Hank guided Buster's face back to him. "Then stop hurting yourself. Do it. Now."
The calm command seemed to penetrate. Determination replaced the desperation, Buster mastering himself through an obvious act of will. "Turn over, then."
Panic flared. Hank wanted – no needed – to see Buster's face were he to carry this through. He shook his head in mute denial.
"Hank, it hurts more...."
"Face to face," Hank cut Buster off, opening the jar. His tone left no room for argument.
Another man might have made Hank instantly and painfully regret his obstinacy, would perhaps have been justified in doing so, considering how deliberately contentious he was being.
"God damn it, Hank..." Buster raged, looking angry and frustrated enough to strike him.
"Face to face," Hank reiterated, not raising his voice, in no way revealing the cold fear which squeezed his guts at the very thought of losing eye contact. Although, if Buster glared at him as he was now, he didn't know how reassuring that infuriated gaze would be.
Buster wordlessly snatched the Vaseline jar from his hand, digging his fingers in the glutinous gel with unrepressed savagery.
The same way he'd enter his body, Hank couldn't help but wonder. The knee which pushed its way between his thighs to spread them further apart reinforced that fear.
Hank took a deep breath and steeled himself for the worst as he watched the shaky pale hands prepare an erection denied too long. Buster's breaths sounded more like sobs now than the hoarse pants they'd been moments ago.
Hank scoured the strained features, searching for some trace of the Buster he knew. Large beads of perspiration stood out on the high brow and glistened in the short moustache hairs. The full bottom lip was caught between Buster's teeth, every iota of the aroused Buster's attention seemingly concentrated on not coming as he lubricated himself.
The raw carnality chilled Hank. Buster's need was so palpable, like a primal force of nature, unreasoning, knowing only the drive to completion. Hank had been there once or twice himself and felt that helpless urge, but it had never been directed at him before. Knowing it was his flesh which would slake that terrifyingly intense lust made Hank want to....
Buster's bent head slowly rose.
There was something in the reluctance with which his strung-out friend met his eyes that communicated Buster's self-consciousness, the near-shame at being so utterly out of control, and the vulnerability that came from such need.
Buster did not shirk his gaze. Once their eyes touched, the tormented blues held steady, allowing Hank to read everything in those windows to his soul.
Consequently, Buster did his own reading. When he spoke, it was as if Buster had heard every panicked thought. "You don't have to go through with this."
True. He could get out of this bed right now, abandon his friend here on the edge, and never be able to look himself in the eye in the mirror again. "Don't I?"
This time when he looked at Buster, it was the suffering he saw, not the threat, the pain born of wanting him. No one had ever ached for him like this.
Two halves of the medicine stone drawing together, two halves of a soul reuniting. The paralysis of fear lifted from Hank. The worry was still there, but it was no longer crippling. Compassion, and another unnamed warmth unfurled within him, a soft emotion with diamond sharp edges that Hank instinctively knew would tear his heart for the remainder of his life.
Buster was still kneeling between his thighs, his tumescence rising like a primeval archetype.
Hank curled his legs around his partner, his calloused heels pressing into fleshy white cheeks, inviting completion.
Further delay was impossible. Buster was too close to the edge for anything but immediate action.
As if in slow motion, Hank watched those pale hands slide under his own ass, lifting him up until his butt was centered directly below Buster's groin, his long legs draped over either shoulder. That moment was frozen forever in his mind's eye: the sharp but pleasing contrast of his deep red skin against Buster's almost ghostly white flesh, the rosy cock flaring its impatience over taut, pink balls, the sticky sheen of sweat where their skins touched, and above all else, Buster's expression at that moment.
Then the stasis broke and that blood-engorged cock eased into him. The shock of penetration ripped through Hank. The sheerest, most concentrated agony besieged him as that never before explored channel struggled to accommodate Buster's intrusive bulk. His forefathers might have perfected the stoic endurance of pain to an art form, but despite his own training, Hank cried out as the waves of pain hit his system, aware even as he did so that Buster was too far gone for moderation.
To his astonishment, Buster froze above him, groaning with the strain of holding back. One supporting hand left Hank's hip to fumble at Hank 's still-soft cock. Useless effort. Even if he'd been capable, the pain was just too intense.
"Hank, you've gotta relax."
Hank tried to comply. A deep breath helped some, but it did nothing to ease the source of the internal pressure. It felt as if Buster were splitting him right open. The worst part was knowing that Buster was barely inside of him. The fierce agony was just the flaring head. Hank didn't want to dwell on what the next six or seven inches were going to feel like.
"Please, Hank...." The plea was more of a sob, as if Buster were the one hurting.
"I can't. Just. ..do it," he ordered through clenched teeth.
Buster sucked in a desperate breath, still not moving. "Squeeze me, then relax. It – it'll help."
Hank tightened the muscle he was trying so desperately to soothe, gripping that intruding bulk tighter than a vise. That hurt, too. Buster's resulting hiss only accentuated the pain. But when Hank released the tension, the pressure inside was infinitesimally better.
The instant the tract loosened, Buster sank that much further into him, causing him to tighten up with that same piercing agony.
"Again," Buster commanded, his voice so strained as to be almost unrecognizable. The urge to just push up and claim that virginal channel as his own blazed in the incandescent blue gaze.
What his restraint cost the other man, Hank could only imagine. But again and again, Buster held himself back, waiting for Hank's body to accommodate him that little bit before proceeding.
Even at the most agonizing height of discomfort, Hank recognized how hard this patience was on Buster. Each time he squeezed Buster's cock, Buster came just a heartbeat away from losing control completely. Yet somehow his lover always mastered himself to hang there on the very edge.
Though Hank could hardly call this agony enjoyable, there was something unquestionably unifying about this grueling climb to completion. It was Buster's outright refusal to just give in to his need and forget about him, Hank realized. As with the trials of the past five days, they suffered together.
What seemed like hours of torture later, Buster's balls finally squeezed flat against Hank's backside. Buster was finally all the way in. Although the thought brought some relief, Hank still felt as though he had a lance shoved up inside him.
Buster stayed motionless above him in that most uncomfortable of positions for the longest time, as if savoring the sensation to the fullest. Then, with a sudden pull, he withdrew – all the way. The next thrust was a single powerful slide – all the way back in.
Restraint a distant memory, Buster at last claimed him for his own.
As Hank hung there with his legs dangling over Buster's shoulders, that great battering ram pounding in and out of him, he wondered if he'd even survive this. Then, everything changed between one heartbeat and the next.
Buster shifted ever so slightly, entering at a somewhat different angle. The secret pleasure center that Buster's fingers had called to life came into contact with that pounding cock. The very instant they touched, Hank's reality realigned.
Concentrated waves of delight spiraled out, deposing the reigning agony. His own cry of shock joined Buster's ceaseless verbal flow.
Hank found himself rising to meet every thrust, rather than shrinking to avoid them. He hardened almost instantaneously. His own hand encouraged his erection, falling into Buster's irresistible rhythm.
They were together at last. Grunting and moaning almost in unison, they worked their way to orgasm, restraints forgotten, rutting with all the shameless abandon of two wild mustangs.
Hank felt as if his spirit were flying free, circling high above with its paler life-mate right at his side. He wondered if it were the same for Buster. Hank looked up to see.
Buster's head was thrown back, his eyes clenched shut as he buried himself yet again in Hank's welcoming body. Buster's thrusts were more erratic now, almost dangerously wild. This one felt as if it impaled Hank to his very soul.
Buster withdrew again. Hank sensed the power in the gathering stillness, knew this thrust or the next would complete the circle.
With that ultimate plunge, Buster's eyes snapped open and locked with his own. Buster had mumbled a lot of passionate nonsense on this incredible ride to completion, Buster as vocal in bed as anywhere else. None of it meant anything, not the primitive curses or the softer endearments. But this time Buster was completely aware of what he was saying , the words offered with a sense of disbelieving wonder. "Jesus Christ, I fuckin' love you, Chief." As ever, profanity encapsulated the profound with Buster, but that didn't make the sentiment any less true.
Buster exploded within him, the hot internal shower sensed more than felt. Buster's declaration still rang in his ears as Hank spurted forth over his belly and chest, the powerful streams just missing his face.
Buster collapsed on top of him, burying his face in his left armpit, both their chests heaving as if they'd just completed a marathon.
When their breathing stabilized at something near normal, Buster raised his head. r
"Are you okay?"
Knowing he would never be 'okay' again, Hank turned the question back on his questioner. "Are you?"
Hank's was perhaps the more legitimate inquiry, considering that Buster's face was streaked with tears – tears that were still flowing.
Unable to bear hearing those impossible three words spoken aloud again, Hank covered the moist mouth with his own. Buster melted against him, hot drops dripping down to mingle with a similar, unacknowledged wetness on Hank's cheeks.
Not understanding the source of this emotional storm, Hank guided his companion through it, rocking Buster until long after the sobs had stilled to an occasional hiccup and the other man lay heavy with sleep in his arms. He reached over his cherished armload, snagged a blanket end and pulled it over both their cooling forms.
Hank regarded the face pillowed so trustingly against his chest. With teardrops still sparkling in those long, reddish lashes, the passion-flushed cheeks, and the abiding expression of deep vulnerability, Buster looked like a little boy. <i>Little boy lost.</i>
Why was it he'd found Buster now, now when his people needed him so?
For almost four years, he had lived the life of a gypsy, always on the move, searching for that one special person that would make anywhere feel like home just by being there with him. Never once had it occurred to Hank that that person could be another man. The realization was shocking, but he accepted it. Just as he accepted how impossible a dream it now was.
Buster had a life of his own. That life was centered here in this concrete-covered land of noise and desperation. Hank had learned long ago there was no place for him in this world, but for Buster he would have ' been willing to try to fit in.
But he was no longer free to make such a choice. Responsibility had come with his father's death. There was no other Wicasa Wakan in their tribe, not even a youngster with potential. His people needed him now, to keep the land and their spirits healthy. This was not a responsibility he had ever wanted. He'd spent most of his adult life trying to deny it, but now with his father dead, he was the only one left who could continue the tradition.
In his heart Hank cursed the bitter fates which would offer him love at the one time he could not accept its gift.
He supposed he could stay, pretend once again he wasn't what he was, tell himself as he had so many times in the past that it was all just superstitious nonsense, that his people would do just fine without him. But, as he had told Buster three mornings ago, he was <i>that shit</i>. These past few days had taught him the truth of that if nothing else.
His arms tightened convulsively around the sleeping Buster. Hank had always accepted that life wasn't fair, but never had he understood why it had to be so cruel. Buster and he had worked so well together, both physically and emotionally. Different in almost everything, they nonetheless...harmonized, belonged. Even their bodies were a perfect fit.
Hank shifted, Buster's sticky gift seeping from within. The sex had been so... ultimate. It had stripped them both to their very souls, uniting them as not even their spirit walk had. Buster had been just as affected by what they'd shared as Hank himself. Perhaps even more so, he amended, recalling the tears. How was he supposed to just walk away from that?
Or explain to Buster why he had to leave him?
Deep down he knew that Buster would never allow him to go once he admitted his feelings aloud. And with his own desires so at war with what he knew to be his duty...it wouldn't take very much for his persuasive friend to dissuade him.
If he had any doubts as to Buster's ability to do just that, he need only recall the events of the day – the car this morning, their visit to the crack house, the restaurant kidnapping....
Truth was, Buster wouldn't even have to exert his charm. All it would take would be the repetition of those three words and Hank would be lost.
And what about his friend? Didn't Buster have a right to be part of the decision? It affected him just as much. There was always the possibility Buster might not even want him to hang around.
That shadow of doubt had undermined every relationship he'd ever had, but for
once Hank was completely free of it. His spirit had never before told him, <i>Yes,
this is the one.</i> He could question everything in the world, except
the truths of his spirit. Their souls had touched. Buster was real.
So where did that leave them? What was he going to do come morning? Wrestling with these and a thousand other questions, Hank watched the gloomy, gray half-light of dawn fill the bedroom.
It was almost four hours later when the sleeping Buster finally stirred. Hank shifted in the chair he'd pulled up close to the bedside, dreading the moment those eyelids would part.
Buster turned on his side, eyes still closed, his hand reaching for where Hank had been. Encountering only empty space, Buster's eyes snapped open, panic gripping his features as he shot up in the bed.
The change which occurred when the abandoned gaze settled on Hank wrenched his heart.
A smile spread slowly across Buster's entire face, the smile of a man who'd found that the cherished, long-shattered dreams of childhood were true, after all.
"Good morning," Buster greeted, glowing with well being.
Hank nodded, his shields firmly up, giving away nothing. Buster had a way of turning even such clichéd pleasantries into a sensuous invitation.
"You're dressed," Buster noticed, still smiling, not commenting on the borrowed shirt.
Hank wanted nothing more than to return that smile and reaffirm the intimacies of the night. Instead, he hardened his resolve and blanked all emotion from his face. "lt's late. You've got to be in Blalock's office in less than an hour."
Bewilderment clouded the fond gaze, the first stirrings of hurt entering Buster's eyes as he confronted the ice man. "What's going on, Hank?"
"We're going to be late," Hank stonewalled, rising to his feet.
He left the room with slow purpose, taking his time while his heart urged him to run, forward or back, anything to escape that crushed tone.
Staring blindly out the living room window, he listened to the creak of springs as Buster rose from the bed, sensed the other man watching him from the doorway. Hank could feel the waves of misery pouring off his friend, the confusion at his absolute withdrawal, how deeply he'd wounded already.
"You could at least tell me what I did wrong."
Little boy lost. Buster tried to match his cool distance, trying to pretend it didn't matter, but Hank could read right through it. Buster sounded very much like a small boy who'd been told big boys don't cry. r
Knowing himself to be the worst kind of liar, Hank glanced back with studied casualness and gave Buster the truth. "Nothing."
"And last night — was that nothing, too?"
<i>Answer this one right and you'll never need to worry about Buster bothering you again. Ever.</i>
But that would require a direct lie. His brother George might have been the one who'd gotten his tongue cut for lying when a child, but it was the younger of the two Storm brothers who had taken the lesson to heart. Hank had always found lying outright extremely difficult, impossible when it came to doing so to one whose only crime was loving him.
Hank's delay cost him.
As if drawn by the pain beneath his indecision, Buster stepped forward — still stark naked — and reached for him. "Hank?" Worried now, Buster almost sounded as if he'd forgiven him the earlier hurt.
"Don't," Hank pleaded, backing away from that touch as he hadn't from loaded guns. "I — I can't deal with last night. Not yet."
<i>I fuckin' love you, Chief.</i> Last night's words were there in Buster's over-bright eyes, silently begging acknowledgement. He could have thrown them out at Hank and used them as a weapon, but he didn't.
"I'm sorry," Buster said at last, his voice flat and lifeless as he looked away. When he turned back to Hank, his features were shuttered. Without understanding how he knew, Hank felt this new wound being forced to that same secret place Buster hid all his other hurts. "I'll go get dressed."
The silence with which Buster left him was the loudest, most accusing sound Hank had ever endured. It lingered unbroken all the way to the police station. Over 36 hours since food had passed either of their lips and the hedonistic Buster didn't once suggest stopping to eat. That, more than anything, told Hank how mortally he'd wounded his friend.
"Hiya, Buster." The pretty, blonde, civilian desk clerk smiled as they approached the visitor's desk.
"Yeah," Buster replied. "We'll need a visitor's pass for my friend here."
"Ah, sure," the young girl stammered, as disconcerted by Buster's attitude as Hank was disturbed by it.
Throughout all the trials of the past five days, Buster had kept his humor. Now it seemed to Hank that he had succeeded in destroying that which their enemies hadn't been able to touch.
But what could he expect. He was responsible for this change. He'd either have to live with it, or...
He'd have to live with the responsibility. His decision was made. There could be no turning back.
Buster didn't even seem to hear his coworker's goodbye as they walked away.
They passed through a seemingly endless series of busy corridors. Hank noticed how, although many of the cops they passed visibly recognized his friend, there were few greetings. Quite a number of these strangers appeared either hostile or wary. He wondered if that dislike were a lingering legacy of Buster's father's mistake or if it were something of Buster's own doing. Either way, it reminded Hank of how little they actually knew about each other.
The Forensics lab was more akin to a science lab than the rooms they passed in the rest of the station. Clean, orderly worktables, microscopes, and chemical apparatus gave the place an academic air. Although Hank had not attended college himself, he found the scholarly atmosphere preferable to the apathetic squalor of the criminal investigation area.
The man they had met last night, Pearson, sat behind a desk that was the only island of clutter in the organized room.
"Have you got that Lance ready for me?" Buster demanded without preamble.
Pearson glanced up from his jelly donut and removed his feet from his desk. "Well, and a bright good morning to you, too, Buster." His smile was surprisingly free of sarcasm.
"Can it, Johnnie. The Lance — is it ready?"
Brown eyes narrowed then seemed to soften. "Yeah, sure. I'm sorry about Finch, Buster. I know you two were tight."
Buster's face remained blank with incomprehension until his friend's death became real to him again. "Yeah. Thanks, John."
Hank's heartbeat quickened as the fine-boned Forensics man removed something carefully folded in a white towel from his crowded desk. The tingle of ancient power in the air told Hank what was so carefully wrapped within.
Pearson passed the Sacred Lance to Buster, digging a clipboard and pen from the strata of paper right after. "Just sign here and it's all yours."
Buster scribbled his signature on the receipt as Pearson's phone buzzed. "Thanks, Johnnie."
"Anytime. It was nice meeting you." The Forensics man smiled at Hank as Buster turned to the door.
Buster stopped just outside the lab, his stooped figure appearing very isolated despite the busy bustle of uniformed officers hurrying up and down the hall. Buster stared at the cloth-covered relic in his hands for a long moment before finally looking up at Hank.
"Well, 1 guess this is it, Chief."
Buster passed over the Sacred Lance, holding it as carefully as their chief had when he'd entrusted it to Hank's father's hands.
"Thank you, Buster."
Buster's blue eyes shied away from his own, as if the very touch of Hank's gaze had the power to wound him. One hand dug into the pocket of Buster's scuffed, black leather jacket, emerging with something clenched tight in its fist.
"Do you want this back?" Buster asked, opening his palm.
Hank stared at the broken medicine stone resting in the hand that had caressed him with such tenderness last night, feeling as if he'd been kicked below that belt. "Once given it cannot be taken back," he said.
"And if you could take it back?" Buster demanded from behind so many defensive barriers that Hank hardly knew him.
"I would like you to keep it."
"To remember you by?" Buster tried for a sneer. It didn't come out that way, his voice breaking helplessly on the question.
Hank ignored the mocking tone, knowing he'd hurt this man more than even he could appreciate. "For luck," he answered calmly, refusing to take offense. "Take care of yourself, Buster."
"Hank." Buster reached out and stopped him as he turned to go. "I've gotta know something. About last night..."
Hank's gaze leapt to the crowded corridor in alarm. Buster worked with these people. One indiscretion could well be worth his career. "What about it?"
"You said we were friends. Is that still true?"
Stunned, Hank stared into those serious eyes. He'd meant only to keep Buster from changing his mind with this withdrawal. That the other man could so doubt....
The guilt which settled on his already heavy heart was overwhelming.
"McHenry, is that you? Blalock's been screaming for you the last hour. Where the fuck have you been?" The voluminous shout shook the hallway, causing more than only their heads to turn.
Buster jumped at the interruption, glancing over his shoulder. "Be there in a minute, Frank."
"Be there an hour ago. Get your ass in gear. That means now!"
The portly, graying man who approached them was almost a stereotype of his profession. Everything about him screamed 'cop,' from his nondescript dark suit to his suspicious eyes. A beefy hand settled on Buster's arm, obviously prepared to physically move Buster to his appointment.
"You got a death wish, or are you just deaf? The commissioner wants your
ass, IA wants your badge. The
only thing you got standing between you and them is Blalock — and he wants your balls."
"Ain't it nice to be wanted?" Buster sighed. "Okay. Ease up, man. I'm coming"
The quick look his friend shot his way told Hank that Buster had already decided that the answer to his question was 'no.'
"Buster," Hank called impulsively before his companion could be spirited away.
Two pairs of eyes settled upon Hank. The irritated hazel he ignored, but the naked hope shining in those familiar blues stopped his breath.
"It's been forged in blood. Like the medicine stone, you can't take it back."
Buster's momentary confusion blossomed to understanding. There was no lingering resentment in his eyes for the unforgivable treatment he'd received this morning, nothing but a joyful relief and vital enthusiasm. "Hank, we gotta talk...."
"You can do that on the unemployment line. Get moving, McHenry." The shove the bellicose older man gave nearly unbalanced Buster.
Hank automatically steadied him, even that brief contact burning through him.
Buster looked down to where Hank's hand rested on his elbow as if similarly affected.
The harrying cop gave another tug at Buster's jacket.
"I've really got to go, Hank," Buster explained regretfully, still making no move away from him.
Hank could read a thousand unsaid messages in the once-again unshuttered eyes. "Yes, you do." Realizing it was up to him, Hank took the necessary step away.
"I'll come by and see you later." Buster smiled like an eager schoolboy.
Hank made no reply as his friend was finally hauled away, not wanting a lie to be the last thing between them. He watched Buster's retreating back until Buster and his guide turned a corner, then Hank reluctantly took his first step on his solitary path.
Renegades and Other Dreamers
Buster McHenry eyed the passing hills, tall grass, early wildflowers, butterflies, all overwhelmed by the unending sky, a sky of the deepest azure the native Philadelphian had ever seen. Early morning sun poured down, its gentle light highlighting every exquisite color. The sweet-scented air was filled with trilling birdsong and the contented drone of nectar drunk honey bees emerging from their long winter sleep. Had Buster tried, he could not have envisioned a more perfect or more peaceful setting.
Buster attempted to absorb some of that pervasive calm. Everything around him seemed to be asking him to relax and enjoy the morning, only...he was too wired to react to the beauty on anything but the most superficial of levels.
This trip was a mistake. Every instinct he possessed was telling him that. He hadn't heard word one from Hank since the morning after his father's murder. Hell, Hank hadn't even told him he was leaving town. Hank had just cut out without so much as a so long, it's been good to know you. What could be a clearer statement of the other man's feelings? At the best of times Hank Storm wasn't someone you took liberties with. After the way they'd parted.... Now that he'd had time to think about what happened that last night together, Hank no doubt hated his guts.
Yes, this was a definite mistake.
But Buster didn't know what else to do. He'd tried giving it time. Seven months had done nothing to dull the empty ache. Every morning the hurt was worse. He'd get up feeling like a chunk of his soul had been ripped from him, spend the day pretending that he wasn't bleeding inside, and then return each night to the very bed in which this agony had been born.
Nothing helped. He'd worked out until he couldn't move, thrown himself into his work, kept so occupied he shouldn't have had the time or energy to hurt like this. But it was no use. He was being haunted by a man who wasn't even dead.
Buster found himself shivering at the thought, even though the warm, South Dakota sun beat down on him like summer as he guided his rental car along the quiet dirt road. Probably because it was so true. He was being haunted. Like the enchanted prince in some fairy tale, his heart had been stolen. He'd been bewitched by a pair of midnight black eyes and there could be no rest, no peace at all for him until he found Hank again.
He didn't need anyone to tell him how crazy this was. He'd only known Hank
Storm for a total of five days, three of which he'd spent unconscious. They'd
made love once, and Hank had closed himself off from him the next morning as
ruthlessly as any scandalized one-night stand. Any sensible person with even
preservation instincts would have put the encounter forever behind him.
But Buster couldn't leave the memory alone. Granted, they'd only been together a few days, but they were the most trauma-fraught days either of them had ever known. A bond had been forged in that short period that not even the emotionally overwhelmed Hank had been able to deny on that fateful morning after.
So here Buster was, over half a year later, chasing a dream down a dirt road in a reservation full of people who'd been making it plain all morning that he wasn't welcome here.
And what could he expect at the end of this bizarre pilgrimage? A punch in the teeth as like as not.
Yet, Buster still had to come. From the moment Hank left, he'd been drawn here, almost against his will. The compulsion was unnerving, frightening in its intensity – sort of like that night with Hank. Buster had the feeling now that he was so close that if he closed his eyes and concentrated, the connection which had existed between them since their gazes had locked in that gallery where Marino had gunned down Hank's brother would lead him straight to his friend.
As he had concrete directions from the boy at the Storm's family stable, Buster hadn't put that tracking ability to the test. Mostly because he was afraid he'd succeed.
This was already weird enough without him going all metaphysical. One… mystic in a relationship was as much as a simple Philadelphian street cop could deal with.
The car crested another of the endless hills. Buster's heart gave a wild leap as he sighted a group of horsemen ahead. Poised at the edge of a steep bluff with the morning sun behind them, the riders and their mounts were silhouetted against the majestic backdrop like the heroes of a 40s' western. That first sight of Hank at the head of the group couldn't have been more dramatic if the unassuming Lakota had staged the meeting for effect.
At a distance as yet, Buster just drank in the reality of Hank up there ahead of him.
Uncertain how to play this scene, Buster hit the horn to attract the group's attention. Not knowing r anything about horses, he didn't want to come up on them too quietly and surprise them.
The appaloosa Hank was riding pranced high spiritedly as Hank turned the animal around to face r the car.
Buster's stomach gave a nervous lurch as he took in Hank's straight back and the disapproving set of his jaw – sure signs of trouble.
Had he been recognized already?
Buster found himself paralyzed behind the wheel, staring at the well-remembered figure. The pinkish hue of Hank's salmon-colored shirt perfectly accentuated his dark skin, as the tight blue jeans did every inch of his lower body.
Buster's heart raced from just looking at the other man. However Hank might feel about this meeting, Buster was glad to see him. So much so that his enthusiasm outweighed his apprehensions.
Whatever Hank had to say, it could be no worse than what Buster had been telling himself for the last six months. He knew Hank probably hated him for what he had done to him that night. He had every right to. Even at the time Buster had recognized that his actions were inexcusable. Hank had been in shock, grief stricken by the loss of his father, physically hurt from a gunshot. He'd trusted Buster enough to accept emotional comfort from him.
Buster had needed no words to tell him how rare an occurrence that was. Hank was so self-sufficient it was downright intimidating at times. When Hank had finally broken down enough to share his grief and let someone in behind those impenetrable walls, Buster had fell honored that he had been the one so entrusted.
And how had he repaid his friend? By violating that trust and taking advantage of a vulnerability.
Technically speaking, it had not been rape. Hank had offered no protest. Hell, it had even been Hank who had suggested they take that final step. Buster would never have asked that of him. Yet, Buster couldn't help but feel he should have refused, not just that last, but everything. Hank really hadn't known what he was doing at the time.
<i>Like you did?</i> the realist in him questioned.
The feeling had come upon Buster that night like a hit and run driver – out of nowhere and unavoidable. Before he'd even figured out what was happening to them, Buster had found himself in over his head, drowning in those dark eyes, doing and feeling things he'd sworn to himself he'd never do or feel for another man again.
And in six months nothing had changed. Buster was as helpless against this feeling now as then. Perhaps even more vulnerable to it, now that he knew how good it could be.
But that didn't lessen his guilt any.
Well, whatever was about to happen, at least it would put an end to this unbearable limbo of not knowing.
Nervous as a potential bridegroom of dubious prospects, Buster stepped from the car. Humor, as always, carried him through.
"Hey," Buster called to his still-tensed friend, "you're under arrest."
There were ten riders, most of them kids. Every one of their heads snapped Buster's way, various degrees of alarm and dislike showing on each face. Buster barely registered their presence. He had eyes only for their leader.
To say he had not known what type of reception he could expect from Hank was the grossest of understatements.
Gaze glued to that unforgettable profile so he could catch every nuance of the habitually reserved man's response, Buster held his breath in unconscious dread, his entire body tingling at Hank's proximity.
Hank glanced away, his gaze darting out over the open valley below as if to hide or stamp down on some strong emotion. Buster's hopes plummeted at the gesture. But when Hank looked back at him....
The breath whooshed from his screaming lungs, his legs melting to rubber at the open joy shining on Hank's face. Never had he seen Hank smile that way, in complete delight.
"Buster," Hank greeted, sliding smoothly from his saddle, the first trace of something like shyness entering his attitude as he approached him.
The need to touch became an undeniable imperative. Buster stepped forward, his hand awkwardly outstretched in the only gesture that wouldn't embarrass his friend. "How you doin', Chief?"
Hank's dry heat closed around his own moist palm in a tormentingly brief clasp.
In all the times he'd rehearsed what he would say at this particular moment, Buster had never once envisioned this meeting as taking place before an audience of gawking kids. Highly self-conscious, he shoved his hands deep into his pants pockets, noting as he did so how Hank had tucked his own thumbs in his jeans' pockets, as if the temptation were as hard on him.
"Good. It's good to be back. How 'bout you? You're a long way from home," Hank commented, his gaze dropping almost questioningly to McHenry's slacks and tie.
"Yeah, well...they made me leave town for my vacation this time." He saw Hank glance back at the watching kids, obviously as acutely aware of their observation as he was himself. "I'm actually on probation," Buster continued, lest he lose himself in those eyes again, their audience notwithstanding. "My story stuck, though. Looks like everything is going to be okay. I might even get a commendation for this after the investigation's over."
"You might even deserve it." Hank smiled.
They both fell silent, as if not knowing what more could be said.
"Yeah, uhh...." The awkwardness reminded Buster of just how much they were strangers to each other. He tried to explain his presence here in a place they both knew he would never have come to before, tried to explain in terms that would not embarrass Hank in front of the youngsters, "'I really came out here just to.. .uhh...say thanks. I didn't get a chance." Remembering just why he didn't get an opportunity – Hank had left without even saying goodbye – he suddenly felt even more self-conscious, like the world's biggest fool. He looked at Hank, wondering what was going on behind that often unreadable face.
Hank's gaze dropped, every indication telling Buster he didn't want to discuss this topic in front of an audience. Then the dark gaze met his again, Hank giving the most imperceptible of nods.
Acknowledging what? Just his thanks only? Or the feeling that lay behind it?
"I'm gonna...ah.. .be stayin' in a motel in town for a couple of days," Buster informed the restrained man he'd traveled over a thousand miles to see. "If you wanted to find me."
Leaving everything up to Hank, his gaze fell disconsolately to his muddy shoes, all too aware of the error he'd made in coming here. He turned back to the car, even now fighting the magnetism pulling him to Hank's side.
"I found you before." Utterly tentative, the words stopped Buster in his tracks.
He looked back at Hank, caught the fleeting, unsure smile, as if Hank somehow thought he'd waited too long to reply for anything he said to be readily accepted. Buster realized then that he'd never seen this man anything less than 100% certain, no matter the situation.
Suddenly unaccountably shy, himself, Buster gave an answering smile. "Yeah, you did."
Aware that something had been settled but not at all sure precisely what, Buster got back into his car, sensing Hank's movement as he remounted his horse.
He felt that dark gaze following him as he sped off down the dirt road. Each time he looked in the rear view mirror he could see Hank silhouetted on the hilltop, just watching him go until he was lost from sight in the valley below.
And quite literally lost. It was a good ten minutes before Buster calmed down
enough to realize he should have made a U-turn where he'd met Hank and gone
back the way he'd entered the reservation. Not up to
another encounter so soon, he drove on, hoping for an intersecting road.
Two hours later, his mud-splattered rental coasted to a stop in the Holiday Inn's parking lot, the trip back from the reservation having taken twice as long as it should have. His initial enthusiasm for the way their meeting had gone had waned, doubts eating away at his confidence as he recognized how little had been settled.
The worst of his nightmares had not been realized. They were still friends, maybe. Hank hadn't ordered him out of his life, but then again, he hadn't definitely said he'd come see him, either. Cursing himself as an utter moron, Buster realized he hadn't even told his friend which hotel he was staying at. <i>Great</i>.
Emotionally and physically drained from the morning's nerve-wracking ordeal, he turned off the ignition and sat there for the longest time, staring blankly into space as the South Dakota sun relentlessly baked down on his car.
He didn't know what he was going to do if Hank didn't come.
All the way back here the only thing he'd been able to think of was Hank. How good he'd looked sitting on that horse, the grace with which he'd moved, how carefully he seemed to chose every word while Buster himself blithered on nervously...how bottomless those dark eyes truly were, filled with secrets that hinted at greater, unfathomable mysteries. Most vividly of all, he recalled the Hank's pain, the well of loneliness his proud friend kept so carefully hidden. It was that which drew Buster, perhaps even more strongly than this intense physical attraction.
From the first, Hank had seemed so alone. Hank had perfected self-reliance to an art form and gave every indication his solitude was self-chosen, but Buster knew better. He had lived the same lie, day in and day out since his father's conviction. That degree of self-sufficiency was never the product of choice. Somewhere, sometime in the past, people Hank had counted on had let him down, had taught him the only person he could rely on unconditionally was himself.
Buster used to feel that way, too. Until he'd met Hank. Instinct had told him from the very start that here was one man who would never let him down.
Memories of their first meeting unreeled in his mind like an old matinees. Marino, J.J. Williams, and he had been fleeing the cops. Marino had just ordered everybody down at the museum where they'd taken refuge. Women were screaming, people throwing themselves to the floor. The gallery had been in a complete panic.
Everyone, that was, except for the three tall Indians near the wall. Buster remembered how the younger two Indians had placed themselves between the armed hoodlums and the old man with whom they stood. Their calm in that sea of confusion and fear was what had attracted Buster's attention. Hank and his family alone had faced the guns without fear.
An almost electric charge had shot through Buster when Hank and his eyes had locked, a dizzying, inexplicable sense of deja vu overwhelming him, as if he'd known this dark stranger very well in the distant past. Yet all the while, he'd been aware he had never laid sights on the man before. Nevertheless, his reaction was incontestably one of recognition, his move to protect the disturbing stranger after Marino gunned down the man's companion one of pure instinct.
The eerie connection that formed that day still unnerved Buster. What was even weirder was how completely he'd trusted his taciturn captor. Considering how Marino had shot the guy's friend, he should have been worried about the treatment he'd receive, should have been trying to escape from the start, despite his wound. He'd had opportunities to call attention to his plight. Waiting alone in the stolen car outside the hotel until Hank came back for him – then later, while checking into the fleabag dive, had he identified himself as a cop, somebody would have helped him. Maybe.
But he hadn't tried to get away, not until Hank had started talking about offing Marino. Before that, he'd played along with his nameless captor, sensing he was somehow safer with him than with the police.
There had been a few hairy moments there, as Hank had prepared to remove Marino's bullet from his side. Buster feared he'd misjudged the situation, that the other man would take revenge upon him with that long hunting knife, after all, but that had been a sheer-panic response to Hank's unnervingly intense silence.
Ultimately, instinct had proven reliable. If the hands tending his injury hadn't been particularly gentle, they hadn't been notably ungentle, either. When Buster had been helpless, completely at Hank's mercy, he had not been subjected to unnecessary pain.
Even when a kick in the pants had been justified, Hank had been remarkably slow to administer it. Buster recalled the fourth day of his recovery, how he'd thrown a bowl of hot soup at his caretaker's face. When his escape attempt failed – Hank had blocked the dish like a pro – Buster had thought himself dead. But all Hank had done was toss him back onto the bed and clean up the mess, his body physically vibrating with the strain of holding in his rage. Anyone else would have thrashed him to within an inch of his life for what he'd done.
Buster had learned that type of consideration was one of the basic components of Hank Storm's character. There was something about the soft spoken man that would not allow him to use his strength to bully someone physically weaker than himself. That...chivalry, for want of a better term, was one of the many traits Buster had come to respect in the five days he'd spent with Hank.
But there were so many things he admired about Hank. Even if Hank didn't want them to be lovers, Buster hoped they could still be friends.
His spirits so low he couldn't really envision Hank wanting even that much from him, Buster slowly pried himself from the overheated car. It wasn't far from the parking space to his room; if that beat up blue pickup truck hadn't stolen his spot, he could have parked right in front of his door as he had that morning.
The lock stuck again when he tried to get in. Dripping with sweat and cursing even more volubly, Buster at last persuaded the recalcitrant door to admit him, trying not to think that even his hotel room didn't want him here.
Blinded by the bright noonday sun, several seconds passed before his eyes adjusted to the interior gloom. In the act of locking the door, Buster froze and stared over his shoulder in disbelief.
"How did you...?" Remembering whom he was addressing, the question died on his lips. If Hank wanted to find him, he'd find him. A locked door wouldn't be much of a deterrent to a man who'd outwitted the entire Philadelphia police department.
"I hope you don't mind," Hank said, rising from the easy chair in which he'd been waiting – for some time, from appearances.
"No, of course not," Buster dismissed the issue as irrelevant, not caring if Hank had walked through the walls to get in. Considering some of the things he'd seen Hank do, it wasn't as preposterous a proposition as most might imagine.
Still not sure why Hank was here, he waited, content to just drink in the sight of him.
"You didn't come straight back," Hank remarked at last, seemingly as at a loss as Buster.
Sensing the other man's uneasiness, Buster tried to smile past his own apprehensions.
Hank didn't appear angry with him. That was a start, at least. When he'd turned and saw Hank sitting there, waiting for him, he'd thought he'd come to tell him a few things he hadn't been able to say before a group of children.
"I...uh… sort of took the scenic route. Unintentionally," Buster admitted.
"Did you take the left at Black Rock Hill?"
"Eventually." Unable to stand Hank's guarded expression another minute, Buster brightened his smile. "Relax, Chief. You're among friends."
Buster couldn't keep his reaction to that tentative question from showing.
Puzzlement overcame Hank's caution, then a look of understanding. "What I meant was...do you still consider me your friend?"
Swamped by an almost dizzying wave of relief, Buster automatically answered, "Sure. Why wouldn't I?" Had he thought about it, he would never have voiced such a stupid question.
"The way I left, it wasn't right. You had every reason to be angry."
"'You had your father's burial arrangements to see to, Hank. I understood."
"That wasn't the reason I left so suddenly." Always brutally honest, Hank didn't hide behind the offered excuse.
Almost wishing Hank had accepted the easy lie, Buster fished for a response, one that wouldn't give too much of his real feelings away. "Yeah, I know."
The tension in the room was a palpable presence, tingling along Buster's nerve endings like a random electric charge. The polarity was certainly still in effect. Denying its pull, Buster felt akin to an electron attempting to refuse the call of its mated proton. The restraint was unnatural, but...damn it to Hell, Hank Storm was straight!
It was the sex that had sent his friend running back here to South Dakota. Buster intended to do nothing to shatter whatever remained of their friendship. That Hank could believe he was angry with him for his perfectly understandable withdrawal from such a heavy scene more than showed how badly their lovemaking had unbalanced him.
"It took great courage to come here," Hank said at last.
"No, Chief, courage didn't have anything to do with it. I just... needed to... needed to see you. I...ah...wanted to apologize for...everything that happened."
To apologize for falling in love with him. That was what he had really come to say.
"There is nothing to be sorry for."
Rather than assuaging his guilt, the soft words only exacerbated it, reminding Buster anew of how horribly he'd taken advantage of Hank's rarely given trust.
"Jesus Christ, Hank. How can you say that? I never should've..... It never should've happened." Even speaking about that night made it too real.
Shaking, Buster turned away, struggling to get a harness on his runaway emotions, lest Hank see the raw need coursing through him and take flight again.
His body tensed as he sensed Hank's approach, his hold on this fierce wanting all too tenuous. Hank was too close.
A hand settled on his elbow, resting partially on his rolled-up shirtsleeve and partially on bare flesh. The delicacy of the touch spoke of the other man's concern, Hank moving as if he knew how tortuous his mere presence was to him. Even without that caution, the effect was the same as if Hank had laid that burning hand over his throbbing groin.
"Do you believe that?"
The only thing he believed was if Hank took one single step closer, he'd go insane.
Buster sucked in a shuddery breath of Hank-scented air. It didn't help much. "I don't know what I believe anymore, Chief."
His words had an unanticipated effect on his companion. Hank 's lanky body stiffened, barriers Buster couldn't help but view as defensive springing up between them like an impenetrable, invisible force field in a low budget 50's B movie.
"Don't lie to me." Hank's strained voice was the same as when Buster had told his soup-covered caretaker he was an undercover cop.
Now, as then, Buster was telling the truth.
"I'm not," Buster protested, not sure what had disturbed his normally unflappable friend. The emotion glimmering in those onyx eyes was very near anger. "Hank – "
"Would you refute the coming of dawn or the change of the seasons? Would you deny your next breath, your next heartbeat?"
"What?" Buster asked, confused by what sounded like nothing so much as poetry, uncertain if his bewilderment were owing to a legitimate lack of sense in the rapid fire questions, or his own state of heightened sexual frustration.
"Would you?" Hank demanded.
"N-no. Of course not," Buster stammered, unnerved by the vehemence.
"Then why do you deny the truths of your soul? You know what you believe." The raw accusation burning in those familiar black eyes was like nothing he had ever encountered. Utterly merciless, that gaze left Buster nowhere to hide. It stripped his soul bare...and found him wanting.
Aghast, Buster felt his own eyes misting over at the silent repudiation, but he didn't look away. He met the blaze of furious contempt with as much dignity as he could muster. "You're wrong, Hank. I-I'm not like you. Nothing is ever that certain for me. I don't know what I believe. Not anymore. I believed in my father, right up until the DA forced him to admit to perjury on the stand. I believed in Mike Finch. A very long time ago, I even believed in love. But now...l just don't know. You – " Buster slammed his jaw shut before he could admit how Hank scared him.
He wasn't sure precisely what changed or why, but suddenly Hank 's anger was gone as if it had never been. "Yet you believed enough to travel all this way, after all this time." Now Hank sounded merely puzzled.
Buster shrugged, not up to trying to explain the compulsion that had brought him here.
All his hopes and fears were lodged in a painful ball in his throat, the tremor that came from pent-up anxiety so much a part of him that he was barely aware of it anymore. At that instant, Buster had only one imperative – to not break down totally in front of Hank. He was willing to accept almost anything Hank could give, except his pity. Pride wasn't much of a consolidation, but it was the only thing he had left.
The tentative tone was too gentle for his overwrought nerves. Buster looked away, forcing himself to concentrate on the horrid blue flowers in the tasteless bedspread's pattern. "Yeah, Hank?"
"You did right to come here."
His gaze snapped back as Hank took the final step closer and wrapped him tight in his arms. For all his slenderness, Hank was powerful, the flesh on those aspen-thin limbs all corded muscle. The way Hank was holding him...it felt as if he never intended to let him go.
Buster gasped at the unexpected contact, hugging back with all his bewildered might as he buried his face in the front of Hank's shirt.
Up close, the smell of Hank flushed through him, warm and wonderfully real. After only one night of passion and a six month separation, it shouldn't have been so familiar a scent, but it had the feel of coming home. Buster's sensitive nose picked up the traces of horse that lingered in the jeans and cotton shirt, responding to the exotic fragrance as most men would to a woman's expensive perfume.
Remembering that he was supposed to be behaving himself, Buster tried to ignore how wonderful it felt to be here in Hank's arms after almost seven months of desperate, hopeless pining. He forcefully reminded himself that he didn't even know Hank's motivations for initiating this embrace, his laconic friend still as much an enigma as when he was a thousand miles away in another world.
There was so very much at stake here...more than Buster would have dreamed possible.
He didn't even understand how he had come to this state of affairs. Persona non grata on the force since his father's conviction, he'd learned never to allow anyone to get close enough to matter. Self reliance was as ingrained in his character as it was in Hank's, that philosophy coloring his personal life as well.
Once bitten, twice shy, as the old saying goes. There'd been a time when he'd though he was in love, when he'd felt as much for someone as he'd imagined it possible to feel. But there was another cliché of which he should've taken warning – namely, it takes two to tango. Jimmy had left him in no doubt as to how entirely one-sided love could be. Even now, almost six years later, Buster's pride still smarted over how goddamned idealistic he'd been, how blind love had made him. Afterwards, he'd sworn on what few things his burnt heart still held sacred that it would never happen again, that he would be nobody's fool.
But here he was, nearly six years later, in so deep he couldn't even see the shore anymore. And what he felt for Hank, it made Jimmy seem like a light case of puppy love by comparison.
Buster had never needed anyone like this in his entire life. He didn't know how to need, how to act. He was afraid of what going forward was going to cost him, and even more terrified of going back to the limbo in which he'd existed since Hank left Pennsylvania. His will a dry autumn leaf in a November gale, Buster had no choice but to race to where his reckless heart drove him. Right over a cliff edge to destruction was the way it was feeling right now.
Hank's hand rubbed his back consolingly, as if he sensed the emotional wreck Buster was at the moment.
Buster tried to pull himself together, to step away and reclaim his autonomy. The tears hadn't been allowed to flow, but the small victory didn't make that much of a difference, inside he hurt so bad.
It was Hank who withdrew at last, only partially. Their waists still remained pressed together, Hank supporting a good deal of his weight.
Although he felt that dark gaze scouring his features, Buster didn't open his eyes as he waited for Hank to completely detach from him.
Unexpectedly, there came the lightest brush of fingertips down his left cheek, the touch so insubstantial it barely contacted his skin, gliding across the invisible hairs right below his cheekbone to the bristly tips of the beard stubble lining his jaw.
Buster gave a small, breathy gasp, his lips parting as the exquisitely subtle sensation quivered through him.
A moist exhalation, sweet as cut grass, touched his face. A shudder ran through him as he realized how close Hank must be. Then, Buster's helpless breath was cut off as a pair of dry, warm lips covered his own.
No amount of previous experience could prepare him for his body's jolting reaction. Every supporting bone seemed to melt under the passion storm that hit him. The relief alone was so intense it was almost a sexual release. Buster actually staggered under the lurching sweep. All that prevented him from falling was his partner's iron grip as Hank fed hungrily at his mouth.
The kiss seemed endless. Still somewhat emotionally shell-shocked, it was all Buster could do to open himself to it. In that, he had no choice. Even if Hank were not so all-fired overwhelming, Buster's own state of heightened, frustrated longing made resistance impossible, no matter how frantically his bruised heart urged caution.
He'd wanted to go slow, to have their relationship clearly defined beforehand so that there would be no further misunderstandings, but those were just pipe dreams. A single kiss and he was a slave to sensation. Consequence be damned.
But it hurt, not knowing what his pleasure would cost.
Hank didn't even stop for breath as the kiss moved from Buster's mouth to his throat. Buster trembled at the tender quality which flavored Hank's every touch. The cynic in him protested that the subtlety of this intensely erotic seduction was due to smoothly perfected technique, but there was a romantic corner of his soul that still insisted each of those near worshipful touches were intended for him alone. The sensualist within overrode all such debates and demanded he simply enjoy the gift, whatever its source.
The command was not hard to obey. While Hank 's tongue investigated his left ear, his hand stroked down the front of Buster's chest in that by now familiar but no less effective, feather-light touch. Even through his shirt and undershirt, it set his nerves tingling, his nipples hardening to tight, peaked buds at what was essentially only the suggestion of a caress.
Buster's hands were doing their own restless exploring, learning Hank's body by feel. Hard bone and muscle, there didn't seem to be a soft or fleshy spot anywhere to be found. Even the flat butt felt devoid of the necessary, cushioning body fats.
But Hank's skin.... That was an entirely different proposition. Buster had never felt anything as luxurious as that beautiful, rich, red expanse. His fingertips, lips and cheeks leaped greedily at every opportunity to rub against that sleek, nearly hairless flesh.
Hank, apparently still capable of rational thought, maneuvered them closer to the bed.
Half dazed, Buster watched his companion's long, elegant fingers begin to unbutton his white shirt. Loathe to abandon his tactile investigation of the back pockets of the skin-tight jeans, Buster took a bit longer to reciprocate. His own white button down shirt was on the floor by the time Buster had gotten the top two buttons of his partner's salmon shirt undone.
Hank tugged Buster's undershirt free of his pants, his dark brows raised in silent question.
Buster bowed obliging as Hank removed it, the stubborn lock of hair that never stayed put tumbling into his eyes as he rose back up.
At first he didn't understand his companion's wide eyed stare. Hank actually seemed to have paled. Confused, Buster followed the transfixed gaze to the center of his chest.
Comprehension was instantaneous as Buster caught sight of the rough pendant resting there.
<i>Shit</i>. He'd forgotten all about the medicine stone.
On impulse, he'd taken the rock Hank had given him to one of those New Age gem shops and had the unremarkable stone wire-wrapped as a pendant in the manner done to heavy crystals. It had hung on his neck by a strong silver chain since the week after Hank left. The medicine stone had become so much a part of him in the last six months that Buster had totally forgotten its presence.
Only now did he consider how disturbing Hank might find the sight of his father's good luck piece.
Christ, for all he knew, he could be committing some kind of sacrilege by wearing it like this, Buster realized, remembering how Hank's dad had kept the stone wrapped almost as carefully as the Sacred Lance.
"I'm sorry. I'll take it off," Buster offered, unnerved by Hank 's suddenly unreadable expression.
"No." Hank stopped his hand, reaching down to stroke the stone where it rested amongst Buster's golden-red chest hair. "Do you wear this all the time?"
"Yeah." Buster averted his gaze, made self-conscious by the revelation of his sentimentality. "I guess it was a dumb idea, but....."
How could he explain how calming he found the stone's very presence; how during the worst moments of doubt, he'd touch that ancient rock warmed by its contact with his flesh and feel an inexplicable blanket of tranquility settle over his troubled soul?
"It wasn't dumb. The stone is where it belongs," Hank said, his voice sounding different, hoarser.
Buster looked back then, reminding himself not to judge Hank's reactions by those of other men he'd known in the past. Although his unassuming friend was without question the strongest individual he'd ever encountered, Hank wasn't hard. There was no bragging in his attitude, none of the scorn of the gentler emotions that was so often the earmark of a strong man. Hank's was a strength born of deep silences and compassion. Hank might be reserved by nature, but he'd never yet made Buster regret opening up to him.
"It doesn't bother you, then?' Buster checked. "I thought it might be sacrilege or something."
Relief swamped through him as Hank gave one of his enigmatic smiles and shook his head. "No. The medicine stone is of a personal significance. It's a...power object. It's not like a cross."
"A power object?" Buster repeated.
"A Wicasa Wakan will choose something like this – a rock, a special feather, even an animal claw or bone – and borrow its power to enhance his own when needed. My dad used this stone and some eagle feathers to save you."
"Can you do that?" Buster questioned, utterly fascinated.
"To some degree. Did you really want to talk about this now?' Hank asked, laying his palm meaningfully over Buster's bare chest. Hank 's face and tone were perfectly straight, his attitude as serious as ever. Still, Buster swore he could see a smile hiding in the depths of those mysterious eyes, perhaps even a laugh.
Nowhere near as reserved, Buster made no attempt to hide his grin. "No, Chief. Later will do just fine."
One look at his companion was all it took to revive the mood. In his time on the force under Internal Affair's ever watchful eye, Buster had done his best to avoid even looking at other men in a sexual context, such indulgences far too dangerous for a man in his position. But the way Hank looked right now…even on his most disciplined day a single glance at Hank would have been enough to get him kicked off the force.
The weirdest part was that there was nothing overtly lascivious about his friend's attitude. Hank wasn't posing to show off his assets, as Jimmy would often do. He simply stood there with his shirt hanging open, waiting.
Perhaps it was the fact that he wasn't wearing an undershirt. Hank was no body builder, but he didn't need to be. His lanky form was a svelte puma's, not a muscle-bound gorilla's. Even in repose, Hank appeared poised for action, ready to spring into battle at the first hint of danger.
The choker at his throat had something to do with Buster's response to the quiet figure. The pattern in the thick band of beads was intricate, its colors and design suggesting a snake's skin.
Glancing from the choker down the shadowed expanse of sleek skin revealed by the open shirt, the next interruption was the waistband of those skin tight Levis. When his gaze roamed that low, Buster no longer needed to question why the mere sight of Hank was such a turn on. Anybody in their right mind would find that view appealing.
Needing to see more, Buster slid the shirt off Hank, leaning forward to kiss the left shoulder as it was revealed. Hank's arms came around his back again, his dark head tilting so Buster could nuzzle up his long neck.
The way they moved together, it was if the entire scene had been choreographed or enacted countless times before. While locked in the kiss, Hank toed out of his boots, Buster following his example.
Buster reached between their bodies and undid the front of his partner's jeans, pushing pants and briefs down the lean waist. They pooled around Hank's ankles, Hank stepping clear smoothly.
Hank 's mouth was keeping him so busy, he couldn't view the fruits of his efforts. Eager for that pleasure, Buster's hand slid between them again to cup Hank's heavy cock and balls.
Hank broke the kiss with a gasp, his hot eyes peeking at Buster through the veil of his disorganized, black silk.
<i>He's so beautiful</i>, Buster thought, almost choked by the emotion. His free hand quivered as he reached to clear the hair from Hank's eyes.
He'd never thought they'd share this again. Buster had dreamed of it, but never believed it could happen. Now that it was, he didn't want to give it up. Ever.
His heart unaccountably heavy, Buster reinitiated the kiss before those perceptive eyes could read him again. He'd blown it but good the last time with his indiscretion. This time, Buster was determined to make no mistakes.
But it was hard to keep the words in, and downright impossible to keep his touch from revealing his deepest feelings.
Hank stepped in closer to him, the tall form pressing tight against every inch of him, strong arms banding his back in a strangely desperate hug, as it Buster had been the one who'd slipped away without warning last time.
Drowning in sensation, Buster used his last coherent moment to guide them to the bed. They tumbled to its bouncy surface without even breaking the kiss. After that, there was nothing but feeling.
Hank ended up on top, a situation with which Buster was more than delighted. Hank's bony weight exorcised the lonely ache that had permeated every inch of his body over this terrible winter. At times, it felt as if Hank were attempting to melt into him, so hard did he press down on him. Buster only pulled him closer and kissed all the harder.
Restless hands roamed his body, learning him anew as he relearned Hank. Buster's pants, briefs and socks were stripped off with an almost savage disregard to the fabric.
Hank's fingers were everywhere, touching, teasing responses from places Buster had never entertained a single erotic sensation. Like his forearms. Hank's running his palm against the grain of hair shouldn't have been so exciting, but somehow it was one of the most arousing touches he'd ever encountered. Hank's experience at loving another man might be limited, but he certainly knew what felt good. Buster cherished the innocent wonder that his habitually reserved friend made no attempt to hide as he explored his body.
They ended up face to face, rock hard cocks crushed intimately between their bellies. Breathing the same moist air, sharing saliva as their tongues caressed, their very life forces seemed to pulse as one.
The position was rather familiar to Buster, but his response to it was anything but. Hank made him feel...as if he'd never been touched before. Everything, even the most basic of expressions such as kissing and hugging, felt new to him again.
His entire body was on fire, an incredible, throbbing mass of longing and raw need encapsulated in 5'10" of screaming nerve endings. There was only one thing which would slake that burning desire: Hank.
Close, closer, closest, it was the pounding drive as their hips rocked together. Just touching wasn't enough. Nothing would be until their flesh melted away and they shared the same actual space.
Like a tight-stoppered bottle of warm nitroglycerine being shaken, the pressure built, growing and growing until the glass walls couldn't contain the ecstasy any longer. A brilliant flash, and reality exploded.
Buster's mouth broke free with a cry as the white hot sensation shattered him, shards of himself seeming to spiral out until he was nothing and everything. Flesh and blood turned to roiling magma; he exploded, spraying both their bellies with his fiery gift.
Hank stilled above him, giving a softer exclamation of wonder as climax took him. When the spasms ceased, Hank fell back upon him, gasping, his face buried in Buster's shoulder.
Time a truly relative experience, a galaxy could have been born and died before either of them stirred.
At last, Buster drew a shaky breath, too overwhelmed to do more than stroke Hank's sweat-slick back. As the star-flung parts of himself sluggishly reassembled, he tried to understand what had just happened.
Sex wasn't supposed to be like that. The first time with Hank, he'd thought it was just some fluke, but now… now he was lost.
Some time later, Hank raised his head. His hair all askew, sweat drops still beading on his forehead, very little remained of Hank's cool, collected self.
As their gazes touched, Buster experienced that same lurching sense of disassociation which had hit him that first day in the gallery, over six months ago.
"What is it?" Hank questioned, stroking Buster's cheek in an oddly reverent gesture.
The tenderness hurt, Buster wanted it so badly as a permanent part of his life. He gulped, unsure how to answer. "I…didn't intend for this to happen."
Not until they'd talked, not until he understood what all this meant to his friend. When Hank touched him, those concerns were meaningless. All that existed was feeling, and that was truer than any he'd experienced, but Buster had learned long ago that flesh lied. Lying here sated in Hank's arms, the lingering afterglow leaving him soft and approachable, it was too easy to believe Hank felt the same as he did, that this meant something beyond the release of the moment. Buster felt too open, too exposed.
When Hank spoke, it was without accusation. His quiet intensity hinted at how important Buster's response was, but Buster couldn't interpret the emotion underlying his companion's tight control as Hank asked, "Do you wish it undone?"
What he wished for was some assurance that he wasn't going to be abandoned again. But it wasn't something he could ask for. Hank was no liar. If he didn't feel the words Buster needed to hear, asking for them might be enough to put an end to this, right here and now. He had all too vivid a recollection of how his careless declaration had changed things between them last time. As painful as not knowing was, he would do nothing to jeopardize what Hank could freely give.
Hell, with anyone else, the sex would be more than enough. He knew Hank was straight. He should be grateful Hank was adventurous enough to partake in this type of sensual odyssey. It was selfish to want more, but....
The feeling was so close to the ideal love of his dreams, knowing it wasn't real left Buster fighting back tears.
His throat too tight to trust, he gave a firm, negative shake of his head. No, he did not wish it undone. Whatever the cost to his heart, he could not regret what they shared.
The tight set soothed from Hank 's face, a pensive expression replacing it as he shifted onto his side and off Buster. Not in withdrawal, Buster noted with relief. They still shared the same pillow.
Buster turned to face his friend, aching at how goddamned beautiful the man was. Each of Hank's features seemed to have been stamped with innocence. Were it not for the mysteries hiding in those ageless, dark eyes and his habitually serious demeanor, Hank could easily be mistaken for a teenager, especially with his rail-thin figure.
For all Buster knew, Hank might even still be the short side of twenty. Age was another of the many subjects they had never discussed.
Great. Just what he needed. Seduction of a minor to top off his list of accomplishments.
"What are you thinking?" the subject of his thoughts asked, laying his hand on Buster's right shoulder, over the Japanese tattoo.
Even that simple touch burned right through him.
"How old are you, Chief?" Buster asked, tackling the least disturbing worry.
"Twenty-two. Why do you ask?"
Young, but not as bad as he'd feared. Buster released the breath he'd been unconsciously holding. "Just curious. We don't really know all that much about each other."
Understatement of the century.
"We know each other's souls," Hank countered, stating what he obviously considered a certainty.
"Do we?" the desolate question slipped out. At the moment, Buster didn't feel he knew anything.
"Yes." Hank's accompanying gaze was sharp, almost accusatory. "We do."
"But...you don't know anything else about me – my habits, my past, not even what I've been doing these last six months. Doesn't that bother you? You don't strike me as the kind who sleeps with a stranger, Chief."
"You're not a stranger. We walked the Spirit Path together. Nothing is hidden there," Hank calmly insisted.
"Hank…." Exasperated, Buster fell silent, not knowing how to argue with the spirit world. Or even if he should. He didn't see how such subjective experiences could replace concrete facts, but he'd seen enough to accept that whatever this spiritual stuff was, it worked for his friend.
"The rest will come, in time," Hank assured.
"In time?" Buster repeated, hearing a promise of continuity in the matter-of-fact statement that he hadn't dared ask for.
"All right." Hank gave a slight shake of his head, his lips curving in an indulgent smile as he obviously misinterpreted the motivation behind Buster's question. "What would you like to know?"
<i>That you're not going to leave me again.</i> That was the sum total of all that was important to Buster. But he still couldn't say it.
Although impatience wasn't what he'd been voicing, he appreciated what Hank offered, aware of how deeply the other man valued his privacy.
"Everything. I want to know everything there is to know."
Only after the words were out did Buster realize how much he'd given away. He might just as well have voiced his initial thought.
To his relief, Hank's expression didn't falter. He wasn't shut out. "That's a tall order."
"Yeah, well . . . ." Buster said.
"I'm not very good at talking about myself, Buster. Don't get much practice," Hank admitted as if it were a major character fault. "Where should I start?"
"That's okay, Hank. Maybe the facts aren't that important, after all," Buster relented. Hank's willingness to open up was somehow more important than his actually doing so.
"But you said...."
"I talk too much." Buster leaned forward to kiss the puzzled frown from his companion's brow. Withdrawing, he searched the other man's features for some hint that his attentions were unwelcome, still wary of making another mistake. He was doing his best to respond only to the signals Hank put out, thought he was doing a pretty good job. ..only it had seemed the same that first night together. Everything had been so perfect, only he'd awakened to a distant stranger. Buster was determined that would not happen again.
His long-limbed friend gave no indication of being the least bit discomforted by either his touch or appraisal. Buster sensed how unaccustomed Hank was to such intimacies, but there was nothing in his attitude that sought to deny Buster. In fact, the fingers absently stroking Buster's hair seemed to be doing their best to confirm that warm feeling.
Hank's free hand settled on his back, the barest of pressure inviting him to draw closer.
The action strangely significant, he rested his cheek against Hank's smooth chest, gulping almost nervously as strong arms banded his shoulders.
"Buster?" Hank asked, finally breaking the comfortable silence which had settled between them.
"Do you like it here?" Hank asked.
"In your arms?" Buster smiled, knowing Hank was fully aware of his present contentment.
"No. In this hotel room."
"It's okay." Buster shrugged. His surroundings weren't really something he'd thought about, not since he'd walked in and found Hank waiting for him. But he remembered how very conscious Hank always was of his environment, so much that so he'd sensed that buzzer line outside of Marino's estates when their car had driven over it. There had been no warning bump to give away its presence, no sound. It was almost as if Hank had sensed the current running through the cable. Wondering what this highway motel must feel like to someone with such unusual sensitivity, he asked, "Why? Don't you?"
"I'd like you to come stay with me. If you want," Hank added tentatively.
"In your parents' home?" Buster questioned, not sure he liked the idea.
"No, I live apart, now.... Away from everybody. It's not much. It's actually pretty rustic, primitive even, but...."
But Hank wanted to share it with him.
Buster lifted himself up on his elbows to stare down at Hank's face, reading the uncertainty in the normally confident features. Like he'd never asked anyone to his home before. Touched by how very much this seemed to mean to his friend, Buster smiled. "You got yourself a house guest, Chief. I promise not to toss any food around this time." Seeing Hank's relieved smile, he asked, "When do you want to leave?"
"How 'bout right now?"
"How 'bout right after a shower?" Buster laughed, prying himself off his slender, bony cushion. "Come on, Chief. I'll soap your back."
"Together?" The spark in the obsidian eyes was more speculative than shocked.
Feeling like a kid, Buster grinned, slid from the bed, and held out his hand. "Sure. Why not?"
"Yeah, why not?" Hank sounded as if the question were directed at himself as he followed Buster into the tiny bathroom.
By the time Buster repacked, checked out, and dropped off his rent-a-car, the sun had begun its slow slide towards the western horizon.
Bouncing in the passenger seat of the battered blue pickup which had stolen his parking space that morning, with the wind taking mad liberties with his hair, Buster felt oddly content.
There was no real reason for it. Nothing had been settled. They'd hardly even spoken; yet, none of that seemed to matter right now.
He glanced over at Hank's profile. Probably nobody else would have noticed the change in the often inscrutable features, but Buster thought his friend looked more at peace than he'd ever seen before.
An irritated scowl shattered the impression as Hank's hand shoved the wind-flung hair from his eyes yet again.
"What are you grinning at?" Hank asked, a new note of intimacy in
his habitually soft voice.
"Nothin', Chief. Just happy, is all."
"Is that right?" Hank questioned, but Buster could tell he was pleased.
"Yeah. It's been a long time."
When Hank glanced at him again, the amused light was gone from his eyes, his gaze so serious it bled right into Buster's heart.
Gulping at how easily his friend could read him, he looked back at the passing scenery.
The slanting light and long shadows cloaked the abject poverty of most of the homes they passed, making the reservation seem just another sleepy small town by sunset. But Buster, who had driven through in broad daylight, could not forget how poor most of the dwellings appeared, how hopeless. The sight of those rundown buildings had filled him with an undefined sense of guilt, as if the misery of their unseen inhabitants were somehow his personal fault.
"Does anyone ever leave?" Buster asked, his earlier mood subdued by the almost palpable pain which permeated this place.
"Yeah. Most come back, though."
"Why?" Buster asked. Hank's tone made it sound inevitable.
Hank's thin shoulders shrugged. "I didn't know why, myself, when I returned."
"You left?" He couldn't keep the amazement out of his voice.
"I was on the road for a little over four years. What I was searching for didn't seem to be out there, so I came back."
"What were you looking for?" Buster asked, unable to imagine anyone or anything eluding his friend for four years.
Hank glanced at him, then looked quickly back to the road. When he spoke, Buster knew he wasn't lying, but sensed that Hank wasn't telling all of the truth, either as he said, "Probably what everyone else looks for: a way out of being who they are at that moment in time. You can run halfway across the world, but you'll never escape yourself. It took me a long time to learn that lesson.'
"You wanted to be someone different?" Buster asked.
"I was someone different. I wanted to be the same."
"Huh?" Buster tried to understand. He sensed what Hank was telling him now was important, everything about the quiet man's attitude suggesting this was something he'd never discussed with anyone before.
"We're here," Hank said, pulling to a stop.
"Hank – "
"It was a long time ago, Buster. It doesn't matter anymore."
"That's the first lie you ever told me, Chief," Buster said into the silence which followed Hank's turning off the ignition. He held his breath. Hank Storm wasn't a man you casually accused of lying.
"Maybe I just wish it were true," Hank replied at last, stepping from the truck before Buster could phrase a reply.
"Chief...." Buster took a fast look around him, recognizing the large barn, the hand-built stone house, surrounding sheds and smaller structures. "This is your folks' place."
"That's right. This is as far as we can go, by car."
"There aren't any roads out where I live. We go the rest of the way by horse," Hank said.
"By horse?" Buster repeated, temporarily distracted. He'd never been on a horse in his life. "I don't know ride."
"It isn't difficult. If you'd prefer...l can take you back to town."
The reluctant offer made him take a good look at his companion.
Outwardly, the serious face didn't look all that different, but Hank never did. Even right after they'd found his father's body. With Hank, everything was all bottled up inside. Every instinct Buster possessed was telling him his friend was holding in a real powder keg right now. Whatever was bothering him, it had to do with their discussion. Without knowing how he knew, Buster sensed it wasn't even his calling Hank a liar which had upset him, but rather the subject itself.
What was that last cryptic insight Hank had given him? Something about being someone different, but wanting to be the same. The same as what? His people? The rest of the world? As far as Buster was concerned, his friend was a cut above anyone he'd met.
"Nah, saddle me up a charger." Buster smiled, gratified to see the skittishness fade from Hank's features.
"You might prefer to start off on a gelding," Hank suggested.
"Chief!" Buster protested, appalled at the thought.
"Trust me. I'm the Indian around here," Hank quoted those long-ago words, giving Buster his hesitant, shy smile.
Buster chuckled. "Didn't anyone ever tell you never to trust a man who says 'trust me,' Chief, even if he is the Indian around here?"
Hank rewarded him with a full-fledged grin. "Come on. You can pick out your own."
"Then I'll have no one to blame but myself, huh?"
"That's right," Hank replied, opening the huge stable doors.
The concentrated, but not unpleasant, scent of horses, sweet hay, and alfalfa assailed his nostrils. Buster followed his friend into the musty gloom, watching as Hank lit a kerosene lantern which hung on a peg right inside the door.
As the light fanned out into the shadowed interior, Buster looked around curiously. He'd only been in one other stable, Marino's. That had been newer than this one, smaller.
Buster couldn't help but smile at the rows of big brown eyes blinking questioningly at them over their stall doors, hearing what he took to be several welcoming whinnies.
"So who do you fancy?" Hank asked, shining the lantern down the central aisle which all the stalls opened onto.
"I'm no judge of horseflesh, Chief. You pick one out," Buster relented, a little cowed by the size of some of the animals.
"How 'bout Blaze here?" Hank stroked the nearby chestnut's neck as the horse nuzzled at his shoulder.
Buster reached out to pat the horse's reddish mane far more tentatively. "Sure. Hi, there, boy."
Buster stepped away fast as Hank opened the stall door, eyeing the bewildering tangle of leather straps and metal buckles in Hank's left hand.
"Can I help?" Buster offered, watching his friend insert a large metal piece into the reluctant horse's mouth. It looked uncomfortable.
Hank glanced at his face, stifled a smile, and shook his head.
"Does that hurt him?"
"Nope. He's used to it. He just doesn't like it much, is all," Hank said.
"Can't say as I blame him." Buster's gaze roamed interestedly around the stable. "Hey, what's back here?" he questioned, catching sight of a metal chair pulled up against one of the furthest stall doors. He didn't know diddly about horses, but the chair definitely looked out of place there.
"Why don't you go have a look while I saddle him up?"
Not quite trusting that tone of voice, Buster curiously made his way to the shadowed stall. Half expecting a guard dog or something similar to jump out at him from within, he took a wary peek over the wooden stall.
"Ohhh!" Both of the stall's inhabitants glanced up at his excited exclamation. The large grey horse remained where she stood, but her tan colt struggled up onto its wobbling legs and approached the stall door. Unable to resist, Buster bent down to stroke the velvet soft coat. "He's beautiful, Chief!"
Hank's chuckle reached him from the front of the stable. "He is a she. She was born last night."
As he petted the inquisitive youngster, Buster lost track of time. The sound of an unfamiliar, feminine voice jolted him up. He listened in fascination to the cadence of a language he'd never heard before this morning.
"Yes, Mom," Hank answered in English when the woman stopped talking.
Another longer, worried-sounding stretch of Hank's native language followed.
"Everything's okay. I'd like you to meet my friend. He'll be stayin' up at the cabin for a while."
Buster stepped from the shadows into the light, watching the woman's dark gaze jump from his golden hair to his fair face and then back to her son inquiringly.
"Hi ya, Mrs. Storm. It's a pleasure to meet you, ma'am." He offered her his hand uncertainly. This morning's unsuccessful encounters with Hank's people were still fresh in his mind.
To his great relief, the short, graying woman took his hand immediately.
"This is Buster McHenry, Mom," Hank introduced him, smiling proudly.
"You're the young man who helped my son get the Lance back, aren't you?" Hank's mom asked in heavily accented English.
"I just rode shotgun, ma'am. It was Hank here who saved the Lance," Buster denied, recalling how important that quest had been to his friend.
"You are very welcome among us, Buster McHenry." Mrs. Storm smiled, the softening of her features accentuating her resemblance to her son.
"Thank you. It's good to be here."
"Have you eaten?" Mrs. Storm asked her silent son, something in her attitude suggesting it was a familiar concern.
"Not yet," Hank admitted, his obvious reluctance bringing a grin to Buster's face.
"Wait here. I'll...."
"That isn't necessary, Mom." Hank was beginning to look decidedly harassed.
"You are not feeding our guest snake meat on his first night here. I'll have a package ready in five minutes." With of whirl of graying braids, Hank's mom left the stable.
"She was kidding about the snake meat, wasn't she, Chief?" Buster questioned.
"That's tomorrow's menu," Hank replied in a tone which may or may not have been jesting. "Well, that's got it." Hank gave the strap beneath the left stirrup another hard tug before stepping back from Blaze.
The spotted horse Hank had ridden this morning stood unbound behind Buster's mount, nothing but a thick blanket-like pad on its back.
"Aren't you gonna saddle him?" Buster asked.
"Nope. He'll do as he is. Let's see about your luggage."
Returning to the truck, Hank took Buster's carryall out of the flatbed, giving the matching clothes bag a dubious look. "What's in here?"
"A couple of suits and a change of shoes. Why?" Buster answered.
"If we leave it behind, we won't need a pack horse."
"Okay," Buster agreed. "What about that one? My clothes are in there. That saddle doesn't look like it's got room for both me and it."
"It's got room for two of you, but I'll handle the bag." Hank smiled, moving back to their horses. "You ready?"
"As ready as I'll ever be." Buster eyed the saddle skeptically. It seemed a very long way up.
"You always mount and dismount on the left side of the horse," Hank cautioned.
"Whose left – mine or his?" Buster asked.
"If you're facing the same direction, your left will be the same as his," Hank answered patiently, going on to explain the working of the reins. "Okay, up you go."
His foot made the reach to the high stirrup – just barely. If he'd been wearing jeans as tight as Hank's, he would have seriously injured himself attempting this. As it was, he was glad Hank had insisted he don the baggy brown cords.
With a helping boost from Hank, he attained the saddle. Buster clutched the saddle horn instinctively. The ground seemed an enormous drop down.
"How's it feel?" Hank asked.
"Don't worry. You look like a natural," Hank assured.
"I look like a greenhorn and you know it," Buster corrected. "But thanks, Chief."
More than a little envious, he watched Hank slide smoothly onto his paint, the carryall tucked under one arm.
Mrs. Storm met them at the stable door with a tightly-wrapped package of provisions.
"Thank you, ma'am," Buster said as she stowed the parcel in the saddlebags behind him. Had she left the job to him, doubtless he would have landed head first in the straw. This riding thing wasn't nearly as easy as Hank made it look.
"Yeah, thanks, Mom."
"I'll see you in the morning," she called as they left the yard, their horses moving slower than Buster would have on foot.
"How are you doing back there?" Hanks turned to look back as they crossed a field.
"All right, I think." Feeling a little bolder now that several minutes had passed with nothing untoward occurring, Buster lifted his gaze from where it had been firmly fixed on Hank's straight back, actually looking at the twilight scenery.
They'd only been out of the stable for ten minutes or so and already the area seemed much wilder. Buster took in the surrounding hills. Most of them were open and covered with grass, but several of the valleys appeared to be forested. The crisp night air felt good against his face, its sweet, earthy scent strangely refreshing. "It's beautiful out here. I like your home, Chief. I like your mom, too."
"She liked you. My dad did, too. He thought you had spirit."
Clutching the saddle horn for dear life, he gave Blaze a small kick as Hank had instructed he do, and brought his horse to Hank's side. "You miss him a lot, don't you?"
"Every day. It's weird being here without him. And George."
"Were you and George close?" Buster asked.
"We were brothers. The two should be the same, but aren't."
"You didn't get along?"
"I was six years younger and...different. He could never see beyond that fact. But he was a good man. Look." Stopping his horse, Hank pointed to the bank of a stream flowing at the far end of the meadow they were currently crossing.
At first Buster couldn't distinguish anything unusual in the gathering gloom. Then he noticed the delicate figures stepping gracefully out of the thick willows lining the stream's far bank. Deer. They moved so quietly, it was almost eerie.
"Can we get a closer look?" Buster whispered, feeling gifted by the mere sight of the timid creatures.
In response, Hank touched a finger to his lips and slid off his horse, depositing Buster's bag in the grass before coming to Blaze's side to help Buster dismount silently.
Following his companion's example, Buster carefully crossed the field. Hank stopped at the halfway point, motioning for Buster to do the same.
Buster stared at the stream, still a good distance away. Even his inexperienced eyes told him they could risk getting a lot closer before the animals took flight. But he stayed where he was for all that certainty, sensing something not quite normal in Hank's stillness.
One of the deer, an elegant buck with an impressive antler rack, lifted his snout from the flowing water to stare directly at them.
Buster held his breath, waiting for the group to disperse now that they'd been spotted. His incredulous stare followed the stag as it leapt the stream bed and slowly started in their direction.
One by one, the other deer lifted their heads from their drinking, their ears twitching as if answering a call. All eight followed the stag. In a slow procession, the small herd came right up to them, or more specifically, right up to Hank.
Hank greeted each animal with a reassuring pat down their long necks.
Stunned, Buster could only stare. He blinked as one of the animals, a slender doe with spindly legs, huge brown eyes, long black lashes, and a glistening, black nose, came up and gave him an inquisitive sniff.
As if in a dream, Buster's hand rose to stroke her neck, a smile of delight spilling across his face at her ready acceptance. It was positively the most incredible thing he'd ever seen, a wild deer allowing him to pet her like a spoiled housecat. This simply couldn't be happening.
But it was. Were this the product of his imagination, he would certainly have imagined the deer's coat to be a lot silkier than it was. The hair beneath his stroking palm felt coarser than Blaze's mane.
Sensing he was under observation, he glanced over at Hank. The dark gaze studied him so intently it seemed Hank were memorizing him, committing every detail of this moment to memory.
Standing there somehow apart from this wonder he'd created, Hank suddenly seemed very isolated and strangely alone.
Easing his way among the deer, who had now begun to graze around them, Buster stepped to his partner's side. He didn't understand the worry which sparked in the dark eyes, only to be quickly squelched. He was bewildered by the source of the sudden tension which had Hank's long body so tightly strung. It almost seemed to Buster as if Hank were afraid of him.
"Thank you, Hank," he said simply, laying his hand on a rigid arm.
Hank's Adam's apple jumped in his slender throat as he looked away.
By force of will, Buster pulled Hank's reluctant gaze back to him. Relief washed through him as he saw Hank was more himself again, almost as if whatever he'd feared had not come to pass.
Mystified as to what a man who could call the wild beasts from the forest at his bidding would fear from him, Buster struggled to understand what had just happened.
Hank hadn't regretted his gift, Buster was sure of that much. The unguarded expression he'd caught when he'd first turned to find his friend watching him pet the doe told Buster how much Hank had enjoyed the scene.
No, the change in Hank had occurred when he became aware of Buster's attention resting upon him. That tension.... In retrospect, it seemed almost as if Hank had feared his reaction.
A snatch of their earlier conversation in the truck resurfaced. <i> I was someone different. I wanted to be the same.</i>
Suddenly, Buster knew precisely what his friend had been talking about.
But why would he want to give up these wonderful abilities? Most men would sacrifice almost anything to possess such talents. It made no sense at all, unless.... Had Hank offered such gifts to others, only to have them turn away in terror? If they hadn't known Hank well, those powers might have seemed rather frightening. Even Buster found some of the things he'd seen Hank do slightly unsettling, but that was because they shook every conception he held about reality.
Miracles and magic had been consigned by his cynical heart to the realms of legend. He wasn't sure which category, if either, the things Hank did fell into; he was only aware that modern science couldn't explain any of them.
Hell, chances were a scientist wouldn't believe any of it, even if he witnessed it with his own eyes. A serious researcher would write off what Hank did as the product of fraud or chicanery, because such things could not rationally be explained away. Therefore, they could not rationally exist.
And those unscientific witnesses like himself who chose to believe the evidence of their own eyes, no matter how inexplicable, how many of them would be comfortable in the presence of such powers? His time on the force had shown Buster how fear bred violence.
Little wonder Hank worried. A single error in judgment could very well prove lethal. Not that Hank had been physically frightened of him. Everything Buster knew of his friend told him he was probably far more vulnerable to an emotional rejection.
He longed to reassure Hank, to let him know that no matter what, nothing would change between them. The need to speak was an actual physical ache, a lonely, empathic throbbing in the pit of his stomach.
But Buster swallowed the words, forcing them back down his throat as he would vomit at a particularly grisly murder scene. It wasn't easy to hold it in....
Hank had not spoken of this, not openly. His friend was a very private and proud individual. By commenting upon it, Buster would only expose the vulnerability Hank tried so hard to conceal.
Buster knew he wasn't very good with words. Anything he said would only embarrass Hank and accentuate his pain. So he just stood there gripping his friend's arm, allowing his heart to say what his lips hadn't the finesse to convey.
Hank gulped again, an oddly loud sound in the evening hush. The only other
noise was the contented
chewing of the grazing deer. Those dark eyes stared at Buster with the same expression of incredulous wonder he figured he must have worn when he'd seen the stag approach.
Hank looked as if he would speak, but confined his response to a single nod.
"You give good gifts, Chief," Buster said at last, feeling unaccountably shy.
"We should be going. It'll be dark soon," Hank said.
"Yeah." Buster gave the dispersing deer a final look and followed his friend back to the waiting horses. "I think I can manage," he said as Hank moved to help him mount.
Hank took him at his word. By the time McHenry got one foot in the stirrup, Hank was comfortably seated on the strikingly patterned, white-faced horse.
Feeling those dark eyes upon him, Buster struggled to pull himself up. A burst of panic thudded through him as his horse took an impatient step forward.
The chestnut froze immediately at Hank's voice, waiting motionless while Buster hauled himself up the rest of the way.
A little breathless from the effort, he grinned over at Hank. "Back in the saddle again.
"Feel up to a little speed?" Hank asked.
"Sure," Buster responded with more enthusiasm than he actually felt.
The meadow up ahead appeared flat enough, but the twilight was fading, filling the openness with thick shadows.
Both horses took off when Hank clucked his tongue.
Giving his mount free rein, Buster clutched the saddle horn to keep from being bounced from his seat, instinctively digging his knees into Blaze's sides. Terror didn't half describe his body's initial reaction to the bumpy dash. He decided he'd been in gunfights which were less frightening.
Up ahead, Hank was an inspiring sight. With his long raven hair streaming behind him as he raced the wind, he was like a specter from the past, an untamed spirit riding a spotted ghost horse which the unsuspecting traveler might glimpse only in eerie gray twilight.
Flying as if a blood-crazed posse were in hot pursuit, they made a considerable distance before Hank slowed.
"That was fuckin' fantastic, Chief!" Buster laughed as he finally caught up, exhilarated in spite of his fear.
"You did good," Hank approved, the slight flush in his cheeks and spark in his eyes giving away his excitement.
"Is it much further?"
"We're not even halfway there yet."
The course they followed wended through the taller hills, heading towards what Buster took to be higher, rockier inclines. As far as he could tell, they weren't using any trail to guide them. The thick carpet of grass muffling the horses' hoof beats appeared unmarred in the open meadows, and as for the wooded area...even a night-blind city boy like himself knew untouched wilderness when he blundered through it.
Those pine-shaded areas were more than a little spooky. There wasn't even a suggestion of light beneath the close-growing trees. The resin-sweet darkness was thick as ink around him. Buster couldn't even see the white patches on Hank's horse anymore, let alone the trees they moved through.
He'd long since given up trying to steer Blaze, having learned fast the only time the animal stumbled was when he tried to direct their path. What sound there was told him Hank was directly in front of him. Blaze's nose was practically pressed to the paint's rump as they followed. How Hank could see what was ahead was a complete mystery to him,. Buster couldn't even make out his own horse's head in the unnerving blackness.
Still, whatever Hank was doing to guide them, it was quite obviously working. Not so much as a single branch had touched Buster for all his instinctive, irrational fear of this primal dark. An incongruously cheerful trickling announced the presence of a stream nearby. The unbroken blackness sharply defined the smallest of sounds.
A shrill hoot from an unseen source almost propelled him from his saddle. He bit back his panicked question, figuring out for himself that sound had to come from an owl.
Only when a distant, utterly inhuman, prolonged howl pierced the stillness did he give in to his fear. The yipping which followed was by no means reassuring.
"Coyotes," Hank's calm voice came out of the darkness before Buster could ask. "They won't bother the horses."
"Sounds like werewolves."
"It's the wrong phase of the moon for werewolves," Hank informed him in that tone which made it impossible to tell when he was joking.
"That's really funny, Chief," Buster grumbled, Hank's soft chuckle relaxing his jangled nerves.
Buster breathed a sigh of relief as the forest began to thin out and the sky appearing overhead.
And what a sky! With no buildings to obscure his view, the openness stretched on forever, an ebony expanse of plush velvet studded with a deity's treasure of diamond-bright stars. It was one thing to read about the billions upon billions of stars which existed in the universe, and quite another to be confronted with the reality of them.
The sight literally robbed him of his breath, leaving him leaning back precariously in his saddle to absorb the whole view, for once in his life stunned speechless.
Not even the bite of the chill spring night and his steamy exhalations penetrated, the cold meaningless. The rhythm of his horse's gait and the hypnotic beauty overhead kept him mesmerized. At times he would feel Hank's gaze touch him, but the awareness was not intrusive. Rather, this awed silence was something they shared.
Buster jolted up with a start as Blaze came to a gentle stop. As if awakened from a deep sleep, he stared about in bewilderment.
The meadow was relatively flat and wide, seemingly swimming with stars at the present moment. Over towards where the Big Dipper rose stood a copse of pines, beneath which someone had constructed a stone cabin that looked like nothing so much as a small, squat box with windows. The glass reflected the sparkling sky with mirrored perfection. A dark, taller shape behind the principal cabin suggested a shed of some kind.
In front of the tiny dwelling stood a spindly, short shadow. Buster stared hard at the oddly shaped silhouette, thinking at first that it was a crane or other gangly waterfowl. With a shock, he recognized the antique water pump for what it was.
Gazing down at the starlit cabin as they rode in, Buster felt as if they'd traveled further in time than in distance. The building looked as though it had stood there for a century or more in the timeless silence of the meadow.
Too early in the year for crickets, the only sounds in the cool air were the steady rush of an unseen stream, an occasional gust of wind through the pines, and the bellows-like breathing of the horses.
"Christ!" Buster jumped as something touched his thigh. Hank moved so quietly, he hadn't heard him dismount.
"This is it," Hank said unnecessarily, helping Buster down.
About to object, Buster's protesting knees and sore butt made him reconsider. He wobbled as he regained his feet. Hank's steadying hand was greatly appreciated. "Thanks, Chief."
Bemused by the expression in the other man's shadowed face, Buster stood very still as Hank reached out to brush the stubborn fall of hair out of his eyes. Hank's fingers lingered to rub the captured lock thoughtfully between his thumb and forefinger.
"It glows like moonlight through a spider's web," Hank said.
Only Hank Storm could make spiders sound sexy.
His throat tight, Buster guided his taller friend's head down to his mouth.
"Mmmn.. .what?" Buster muttered a protest as his companion withdrew. Hank seemed to have to fight himself to put some space between them.
Buster smiled at the breathy explanation, following Hank back to their mounts.
"What can I do?" Buster asked as Hank removed the paint's perplexing bridle with smooth efficiency.
"You could take Blaze's off," Hank suggested.
In less than a minute, Buster realized he was out of his element. Granted, starlight wasn't the best for illumination, but even in full light he would have had trouble figuring out the bridle. There seemed to be buckles everywhere. Acutely conscious of the fact Hank had already stripped the spotted horse of both bridle and blanket, Buster waited for his friend to take over.
To his surprise, Hank merely laid Buster's carry bag on the ground and started removing Blaze's saddle.
"You do that fast, Chief," Buster admired as Hank removed the heavy-looking gear.
"I've been doing it since I was eight," Hank said.
"No shit. That's young."
"Not really. I was a late bloomer. Didn't start riding till I was almost three. My brother had been riding for nearly a year when he was that age."
"You're kiddin' me, right?" Buster asked.
"Wrong. You might try the buckle by his ear." Hank took pity on Buster's plight as he bent to retrieve his own horse's equipment.
Bridle and reins at last removed, Buster's gaze searched the starlit yard for some sign of his friend. "Hank?"
Not quite easy about leaving Blaze standing without a rope or some other restraint, he followed Hank's voice around behind the cabin. The shadows were thicker here beneath the pines, though nowhere near as dense as in the forest they'd traversed. Sensing more than seeing the shed directly ahead, Buster paused to call out to his friend again.
"Right here." The soft voice spoke out just a little behind and to the left of Buster, no more than a foot away. Not so much as the crunch of pine needles underfoot betrayed Hank's presence.
"Son of a bitch, Hank! Don't do that," Buster pleaded, turning to face the voice.
"Sorry. I thought you saw me."
"Saw you? I still can't see you!" Buster protested, although now that he was looking in the proper direction he could see the outline of Hank's slender shadow. Hank stepped closer and that intimation became reality. Buster was actually able to distinguish the whites of his friend's eyes.
"Is this better?" Hanks asked.
"Yeah. Don't your people believe in flashlights?" Buster asked, holding out Blaze's tangled bridle, unable to believe that even Hank could see his outstretched hand in this kind of dark.
Hank took the bridle away without delay, passing Buster to enter the shed which stood a couple of yards away. "Don't need one. Not on a night as bright as this. Don't worry. Your eyes will adjust."
"You think so?' Buster stared at the inky darkness, searching for some hint of differentiation. But it was all shadow to him.
"Yes. Well, that's it," Hank announced, a rusty squeak heralding the closing of the shed door.
"What about the horses? Don't they go in there, too?'
"Only in winter. We'll let them graze tonight," Hank replied.
"Won't they run off?" Buster asked, his city instincts uneasy at the thought of leaving anything precious unsecured at night.
"Probably. They'll be back by morning."
Buster wanted to ask how he could sound so sure, but with Hank Storm, there was no questioning such certainty.
Very conscious of the quiet presence at his side, Buster tried to muffle his own footsteps. Each crunch and snapping twig underfoot seemed incongruously loud when contrasted with Hank's soundless passage. Back in the clearing in front of the cabin, it was much easier to see. Already the grazing horses had wandered off to the far end of the field.
Buster reclaimed his carryall as Hank lifted the heavy saddle bags. With the leather packs tossed carelessly over his shoulder, Hank looked very rugged, very much a part of this untamed setting.
He followed Hank to the cabin, waiting patiently as the other man paused just inside the door. Looking for the light switch, no doubt.
A wooden scratching preceded the light, which was generated by an old-time
kerosene lantern held in
Hank's hand, rather than from an overhead electric bulb. Staring curiously about the golden-lit interior, Buster recalled his lover's earlier description of his home as rustic and primitive. Both were undeniably accurate.
The cabin consisted of one room only. The wall to the left of the door was completely taken up by a huge stone fireplace. The side opposite it was dominated by an ancient potbellied stove. What furnishings there were were stark and utilitarian. There was no true bed in the room. The mattress from a double bed lay on the floor directly across from the door. A small but sturdy table crouched near the stove with two hard-back chairs beside it. To the right of the door, below one of the cabin's two windows, was a large cedar chest.
Despite the obvious lack of creature comforts, the cabin was not unpleasant. In fact, the little room struck Buster as being very cozy.
A series of pegs had been nailed into one of the supporting horizontal timber beams to the left of the door. Hank's wardrobe hung there in a colorful array of rain slickers, winter coats, jeans, shirts, and hats.
The bed was similarly adorned with a rainbow of blankets. On the highest wall
beam above it hung one of
those round, brightly-feathered Indian art pieces whose purpose Buster had never been able to ascertain. In shape it looked like a tambourine with bead and feather streamers, but instinct told him music wasn't its original function.
The artifact which hung beside it, however, could be nothing other than a musical instrument. The wooden flute was undoubtedly hand carved, its gracefully tapered shape chiseled into a bird's semblance – a swan or perhaps an eagle. It was difficult to tell at this distance.
The final domestic touch was the hanging pots and pans beside the stove. Their metallic gleam in the soft lantern light gave the cabin a homey air.
"This is great, Chief," Buster said admiringly, stepping inside.
"It's very different from your home," Hank commented, watching him as if he were the most amazing sight in the world.
Buster grinned. "Yeah, it is, at that." He scanned the room again, at last determining what was missing. There was only one door, the one through which they'd entered. The closet things to a door after that were the heavy wooden shutters on the windows. "Hey, uh, Hank?"
"Where's the bathroom?" Now that Buster thought about it, there wasn't so much as a sink or water pump to be seen in the kitchen area.
"Out back, behind the shed."
"Out. oh." <i>Well, that answered that question!</i>
"Are you hungry?" Hank asked, laying the saddle bags on the table.
"Starved," Buster replied, surprised by the fact. All winter long he'd been eating mostly out of force of habit, his appetite as low as his spirits most days.
"Good. If you unpack the saddle bags, I'll get a fire going."
Some time later, Buster sighed and pushed away the denuded remains of what had formerly been a tasty chicken. "That was good." He smiled over at Hank, who still had more than half his portion left. "You're not a heavy eater, are you, Chief?"
"I never had much of an appetite," Hank agreed, sounding content.
Buster couldn't blame him. Sprawled here before the hearth on a thick layer of cushioning pillows and blankets, a bright fire warming their toes, good food and hot coffee warming their insides, and each other for company, it was as close to paradise as a disillusioned cop could imagine.
"Oh, I wouldn't say that, Hank. Your appetite in other areas seems just fine."
That shy smile was something he was just going to have to get used to, Buster decided. Every time Hank turned it on him, it still robbed him of his breath.
"Is that so?" Hank challenged, not quite able to hide his pleasure.
They fell silent again, watching the shifting flames and each other. Hank looked great in any light, but by firelight.... The serious set of his features had dropped away, but not the mysteries. They still burned bright as black flame in those bottomless, obsidian eyes.
The dancing, golden light seemed to be as enchanted by Hank's flesh as Buster himself. Its pulsing glow picked out the skin's red pigments and gave lustrous kisses to the fall of raven hair.
Who moved first, Buster could never say. The dinner plates were suddenly off their laps, their arms locked tight around each other as they rolled and tumbled around the soft cushion of blankets in an attempt to get closer. Their mouths were fastened together, vacuum-sealed, with no hint they had ever had a separate existence. Clothes fell away as if by magic, joining the mismatched, bright colored jumble of bedding beneath them.
Buster groaned as his partner's bony weight flattened him, not entirely in pleasure. He pried a hand from Hank's flesh long enough to fish the cowboy boot out from where it poked him in the right kidney.
Hank captured his hand as soon as he'd disposed of the boot. Buster wasn't aware of precisely how it happened, but the next thing he knew, Hank had both his wrists pinned above his head, holding his body as captive as his heart.
Hank withdrew from the kiss to stare down at him, his face unreadable. They remained frozen in that tableau for an eternity of wanting.
Swallowing hard, Buster searched Hank's features for some hint of the smug satisfaction Jimmy had been wont to reveal under similar circumstances. It wasn't there. Remembering how highly strength was valued by Hank's people, he wondered if he was supposed to fight his way free of this hold. Violence was already too much a part of his daily life for Buster to ever consider bringing it to the bedroom. Hank was certainly not the lover he'd start anything like that with, at any rate.
But Hank didn't really seem to be waiting for him to do anything. In fact, as the seconds dragged by slower than centuries, it seemed more and more to Buster that Hank was simply savoring the moment.
"You're gonna kill me it you keep this up much longer, Chief."
"What?" Hank started as if from a dream.
Buster lifted his captive wrists the slightest bit to accentuate his position. "You plannin' on following through on this promise?"
"Could be." Hank gave him his sweet, shy smile and bent to kiss him again.
As he fed on his companion's tongue, tasting traces of chicken, coffee, and the flavor of Hank himself, Buster began to understand the definition of implosion. He couldn't drink enough of Hank into himself; the more he absorbed, the more unstable his insides became, tingling all over, on the verge of collapse.
The kiss was so intense, so erotically thorough, Buster felt should he climax, the release would be oral rather than through more familiar channels. He cried out as Hank broke free, bereft as a scuba diver deprived of his lifeline.
Hank didn't stray far, however. Those talented lips returned to pay tribute to each of Buster's facial features. Kissing and licking his eyes, skimming to his upturned nose, rimming his passion swollen mouth, Hank progressed steadily downward.
With his hands still pinned above his head, all Buster could do was take it. The desire to return some of this fondling, to translate this irresistible yearning into touch was maddening. Held as he was, pleasure piled upon pleasure, the delight a jumpy, squirming sensation so sharp it was close to pain.
Moving like a contortionist, Hank's mouth managed to reach Buster's chest while both hands maintained their hold on his now twisting wrists.
Buster's guttural moan turned to a curse as that luscious tongue twirled around his peaked left nipple, skimming its way across the hair dusting his sternum to its mate. The rush was unbearable, the room seeming to swim around him.
"Christ, Hank, please...."
Like all his previous entreaties this fell on...not exactly deaf ears. Each plea for mercy to date had resulted only in the intensification of the incredible torture. This was no different.
Buster clung to sanity by a frayed thread, twisting wildly now to release his hands, the frantic motions only bringing more of his body in contact with Hank's mouth.
He was sobbing for each breath when he was at last released. Incoherent by that time, all Buster could do was clutch at any portion of Hank's anatomy which came within range. At the moment it was Hank's sweat-slick, thin back that was closest, as Hank bent to explore his navel.
Buster's thrashing legs were caught and held still as Hank's tongue progressed even lower. Buster gnawed at his lower lip to keep the scream in as the wet tip tickled delicate patterns on the flaring head of his cock, lapping the clear preseminal fluid up as if it were sugar. Hank lingered there just long enough to drive him to the brink of madness before moving on.
A slow glide down the underside of his cock left him shaking, a single suck away from release. Hank's mouth moved on to his now tight balls, fingers joining, as if more stimulation were something he needed.
Whimpering from the intensity of the sensation, Buster felt as if he were burning up from the inside out. He tried to hang on, would have remained on the safe side of sanity had not those powerful hands parted his thighs and lifted him up, exposing him to the firelight and that merciless tongue tip.
He screamed then, either a curse or Hank's name, both almost the same to him at that instant. The touch of that tongue in a place where he would never have dared ask his reserved friend to pleasure him was perhaps the most intimate dalliance he'd ever received. To Buster's mind it was even more intimate than the penetration of a cock.
Hank didn't rush it, either. He lingered there, teasing that tight bud of muscle until it blossomed open to him, leaving Buster wet within and without when he at last lifted his head.
"Buster?" Hank's strained voice called him back from the peaks of insanity.
His body thrumming with sensation, a single touch away from explosion, the dazed Buster struggled to focus on his friend's face. "Yeah?"
"Okay?" Hank checked, his chin gesturing to Buster's spread tighs.
"Yeah...anything," Buster gasped, meaning it. His response would have been identical had Hank wanted to carve him into tiny pieces. He watched through glazed vision as that powerful cock centered itself over him, his lower body being lifted to rest on Hank's pike-thin, rock-sturdy thighs.
In his mind, Hank was without exception the most beautiful creation in the universe, doubly so now with that raw need highlighting every feature. For the rest of his life, Buster would recall the expression of helpless want in that proud face as Hank paused above him.
Six years since anyone had last taken him this way. Barely a single day had passed without Buster regretting that sordid union. Jimmy had left him feeling dirty and used, but Hank.....
As that long cock plunged into him, it was like being reborn.
There was pain, as there was in any birth. After all that time, he was almost virginal again. He groaned as Hank slid into him, fitting snug as a sword into its sheath. That agonizing instant of penetration suspended time, stretching the moment out unbearably, every aspect of his discomfort unnaturally intense.
Then Hank moved within him, and the hurting peaked, bleeding over into pleasure as Hank found his prostrate. His body supernovaed, assorted pieces imploding, others exploding, his mind too liquefied to differentiate the two. All he could do was ride out the sensation.
Hank wrung the feeling out of him. Each wild thrust pushed him to sensory overload, left every tingling nerve ending shrieking 'No more, no more, no more or melt down!' Yet more always followed, pushing him just the tiniest bit higher. And somehow, he held on.
Nothing had ever been like this. Buster had only had the one lover in the past – a casually selfish man who pleased his partner more by accident than design. Buster had done this many times, but he'd never felt truly possessed before now. Taken and used, yes, but not possessed. With every thrust, Hank branded his soul as his own.
The truly astounding part was that Buster felt Hank was giving as much of himself as he took. It was possession, but not unilateral. That sense of melting, of merging which had colored each of their other joinings overshadowed even this fierce union. Hammer to anvil, their souls were forged into a single razor-bright blade.
A final thrust pierced him straight to the core. Magma furnace punctured, Buster erupted, liquefied bone, brains, and blood wrenched from him.
Hank stilled within him, spasming a heartbeat later, his climax equally as shattering.
Gasping, Buster accepted the weight which fell on top of him, clutching at his friend as though he would protect Hank from the intensity of the experience.
Time slowed down, stopped, and started anew before either was inclined to move.
At last, Hank rolled off Buster and onto his side, stroking back Buster's sweat-dampened hair as if the lank mess were as plush as velvet, irresistible to touch.
"Are you all right?" Hank asked.
Buster nodded, not daring to speak.
That treacherous softness unfurled within him again. One careless word and he could blow everything. But...how was he supposed to play it cool after that intense an experience? Even Hank appeared awed.
He turned his face towards the shifting flames, those stroking fingers on his brow about to undo him.
"Buster?" Hank's concerned tone made it obvious that, although restrained, his friend was acutely sensitized to his moods.
"I just need a little time, Hank," he pleaded, appalled by the tremor in his voice.
"I'll do anything you want, Buster McHenry; only don't ask me to ignore your pain."
"You are asking me to strip-mine your soul," Hank insisted.
"You just gave me everything you are. Now you ask me not to see what that gift has cost you. You're hurting. Can't you tell me what's wrong?" Hank's attitude made it plain he was unused to prying this way.
"I already told you. You didn't want to hear," Buster shot back irritably, his emotions still raw. He sat up, the sticky, intimate drip from inside accentuating what they'd just shared. Gulping back his pain, Buster hugged his knees to his chest.
"What are you talking about?"
The innocence was no front. Hank genuinely did not understand.
Christ, it was so sad it was almost funny.
Buster made a determined effort to pull himself together. "Forget it, Hank. It's not important."
"Is that right?"
Buster tried to meet that challenge, but his eyes dropped away from the steady gaze. He tensed as Hank moved closer, flinching as one of the many cushioning quilts settled around his shoulders.
"You let me into your body. Now let me into your heart," Hank pleaded.
The soft request shuddered through him.
"Promise me something first," Buster said.
"That's you'll give me this week with you, no matter what," Buster said.
"Give you? Buster, what are you…?"
"Your word, Hank," Buster said, his heart pounding so hard he was sure that Hank must hear it, too.
"All right. You have my word," Hank agreed. "Now, what is this about?"
Buster pulled the crocheted quilt closer, keeping his gaze focused on his fingers as he did so. "You...scare me, Chief."
His confession appeared to affect Hank like a front snap kick full to the groin. Buster felt the reaction as if it were his own.
"I'm not a witch. I swear it," Hank said.
Buster's head came up sharply at the flat, dead tone, only then realizing how he'd been misunderstood. "God damn it, don't you understand? I wouldn't care if you were a fuckin' witch. It's you that frightens me, not any of this spirit world stuff."
"Me?" Hank asked.
Buster gave a slow nod.
The utter bewilderment on Hank's normally self-assured face left him completely unsettled, either laughter or tears percolating right below the surface. How could Hank not know what he'd done to him by leaving like that last fall?
Aware of how close he was to hysteria, Buster tried to get a handle on his runaway emotions.
"Do you want to try explaining it to me?" Hank sounded more curious than cautious now, as if it were somehow a relief Buster would fear him rather than his often unnerving abilities.
Somewhat reassured by Hank's change in attitude, Buster tried to relax. "I don't know where to start."
"The beginning it always a good starting point."
"The beginning, right. The beginning of what's wrong might go back to long before I ever met you, Chief," Buster admitted, wondering how he could ever explain Jimmy and the scars he'd left behind.
"We have time." Hank's soft words were an invitation, not an imperative.
"You spoke of being different before. I was always different, Hank, only not so's anyone else would notice. But I knew. It wasn't until I got to college that I met someone who...made me realize what that difference meant. He…ah… pretty much turned my world upside down. I fell in love. He gave me every reason to believe he felt the same. Only...."
"Only?" Hank gently prompted, drawing closer until no barriers were left between them.
Buster swallowed around the lump in his throat, trying to put things in perspective. So many years ago, it shouldn't hurt just to talk about it, but this was the first time he'd ever voiced this secret pain to another soul. "Only what we shared, it was just fun and games to him. I was too fuckin' young and stupid to see that for myself, though. He had to spell it out for me." Even after six years Buster could feel his cheeks burning in shame at the memory of that nightmare of enlightenment.
"You were never stupid," Hank corrected, inconspicuously brushing the unacknowledged wetness from Buster's cheeks.
"You don't know, Hank, I...."
"I know. It takes great courage to give one's heart so totally."
Buster managed a weak smile. "Yeah, well, I wasn't all that courageous after that, Chief. He just about blew every belief I had clear to Hell. And then with my old man getting busted so soon after.... It was sorta like I turned my heart off. Then you came along and made me start believing again. That's why you scare me. When you left the next day...." His ragged whisper trailed into silence.
Hank was so quiet beside him that Buster couldn't even hear him breathing.
Buster stared into the twisting flames, acutely aware of the fact he'd left himself no hiding place, not even the pretense of one.
"I couldn't risk seeing you again," Hank said at last. "If I'd known...."
"You don't have to explain," Buster cut into the strained admission. "I understood. Christ, Hank, you're straight! What I did to you could've fucked you up for life."
"What you did to me?" Hank's voice betrayed his amazement.
"You'd just lost your father. You were upset and hurting. You trusted me to comfort you and I . . . I took advantage of you at a vulnerable moment."
"It wasn't like that," Hank said at last.
Hank's arms banded Buster's ribs, drawing him back to lean against Hank's chest as Hank settled close behind him.
Hank silently hugged him for the longest time. The pressure of Hank's arms, the surrounding heat, and the rhythmic cadence of breath sent a visceral message to Buster that words could never convey.
Comforted in spite of himself, Buster just waited.
Hank stroked down his throat as Buster's head made itself comfortable on his shoulder. "I'm not such a coward as you think."
"I didn't say...."
"Shhh. It doesn't matter. The fault is mine," Hank whispered, his fingers moving to stroke across Buster's throat.
"Y-yours?" The feather-light touch at his neck was oddly calming. At another time, that same caress would have driven him insane.
"It wasn't fear of you. At least, not the way you think. I would never have allowed the situation to progress as far as it did if I didn't want you. Buster, you knew what I was...and it didn't make a difference. Do you know what that means to me?" Hank asked.
Buster swallowed hard, beginning to have some idea of what that acceptance meant. "Probably about the same as your not holding my father's past against me, what that meant to me. It's no big deal, Chief." Buster laced his fingers with those of the hand still resting on his chest, admiring the pleasing contrast of their skin tones. "If you...." Hank had admitted it himself, there could be no harm in repeating it now, "...wanted me, why did you skip town like that? I gotta know, Hank."
There was a long pause during which Buster could feel the tension gathering in the slender body supporting his weight.
"Because I wanted you. Too much."
Buster had never expected to hear the words spoken aloud, much less to have them repeated twice in as many minutes. Hank's willingness to step beyond his habitual reserve for his sake made Buster's next observation almost mild. "That doesn't make much sense, Hank."
"I had a responsibility to my people, a responsibility I was reluctant to accept. The temptation to stay was already difficult to resist. If I'd seen you again, I could not have gone," Hank said.
With anyone else, Buster would have doubted the sincerity of such a timely admission, but Hank Storm – lying just wasn't a part of his makeup.
"'Can you understand that?" The tentative quality had returned to Hank's tone. The stroking hand stilled on Buster's flesh, as if in anticipation of a negative response or perhaps merely to free him of distractions.
"Yeah, I think so," Buster allowed after a thoughtful pause. "What sort of responsibility, Chief?"
"My father was the last Wicasa Wakan in this area. Every year there are fewer and fewer believers left, Buster. Fewer still who are born with the...Gift. When my father died there was no one left to carry on the old traditions but me, no one else who could even attempt the task," Hank explained.
"Is this Wakan…medicine man so important?" Buster asked.
"The Wicasa Wakan is the heart of the tribe. He is responsible for maintaining the health of the spirits of his people and his land. Without him, the land would fall into ruin as the guardian spirits abandoned it. Famine and disease would strike. Everything would be chaos."
"Do you believe that one man can really make that kind of a difference?" Buster asked, very conscious of the differences in their upbringings. For all of his mother's devotion to the church, religion had always been a rather passive experience in his neighborhood.
"Whenever I would ask my father that kind of question, he'd tell me to look to the cities where the Wicasa Wakan are no more: the pollution, the crime, the fear, and apathy that are so much a part of those places...."
"Your dad was a very wise man," Buster admired, unable to fault the logic.
"Yes, he was. I only wish I'd paid better attention to the lessons he tried to teach me."
Buster squeezed Hank's hand, responding to the wistfulness of which his friend seemed unaware. "It's been hard on you, hasn't it?"
"Hard? I had to leave my family and come live like a hermit up here just to get enough quiet to think. And then....."
"And then?" Buster prompted.
"Nothing would work. It was too quiet. I had too much time to think," Hank said.
"About your dad?" Buster guessed, remembering how hard the old man's death had been on his friend.
"No." Hank's long fingers played with the medicine stone resting against Buster's chest. "About you. About how I was never going to see you again. Anger turns so quickly to hatred, I thought...."
Buster's throat tightened at the understated suffering in the quiet voice. He had a sudden picture of Hank up here all alone in the dead of winter, snowed in with nothing for company but his pain. The fact that this proud man would mention it at all showed how extreme the situation must have been.
Remembering his own winter of uncertainty, Buster gently disengaged from the embrace. He sat up so he could look into Hank's face and, more importantly, so his friend would see the truth of what he would say. "I could never hate you, Hank. Never. All you had to do was call. l'd've been on the next plane out. Fuck that, I should've come anyway. Right away."
"There was no way you could've known, not after the way I treated you that morning," Hank objected, his voice reflecting his amazement. "The wonder is that you would come at all after that."
"You didn't leave me with all that much of a choice." Buster gave a small smile, hoping to ease the edge of pain from his companion's face.
"How's that?" Hank asked.
"I.. .couldn't forget you. Believe me, I tried. I know it doesn't make any sense. It was only one night, but....."
"That night wasn't <i>only</i> anything, Buster. It was a night of... important passages."
A shiver blew down Buster's spine at the significance Hank's tone put into the last two words. "Huh?"
"That night saw my father pass on to join the Sky People. Your friend left this plane, too. A great evil was removed from the world. And...."
"And?" Buster encouraged, wondering if his eyes were as wide as they felt.
"And our spirits touched."
If he'd had any lingering doubt as to what all this meant to Hank, the soft admission dispelled it completely.
"You really believe that," Buster determined, more than a little ashamed as to how readily he'd been willing to dismiss Hank's involvement as some sensual experiment.
Hank knew how he felt about him. Buster realized that he should have known that Hank would never play games with his heart, like that.
Buster watched the shifting pattern of light and shadow cross the other man's face, expecting to see the same inexplicable anger which had flared when he'd questioned his friend on this subject back at the hotel, understanding its cause at last. Hank had been annoyed at him for doubting.
But this time, although Hank's gaze sharpened, there was no angry retort, his lover perhaps having learned enough of him through their conversation to understand what Buster had been going through while they were apart. Instead of taking exception to his comment, Hank merely leaned forward and kissed him.
No simple kiss, this. Rather, the gesture was a fierce statement of precisely what existed between them. It reached straight down into Buster's soul and dredged up every conflicting desire and hopeless dream, brought them into the flickering firelight and made them true.
Buster gasped as Hank withdrew as abruptly as he'd initiated the contact.
"Now tell me that our souls haven't touch, that you don't feel it, too,'" Hank demanded. When he made no reply, Hank continued, "Your heart is strong and brave. Believe what it tells you."
Strong and brave? He felt about as strong as warm, melting jello right now.
"I'm not either of those things, Hank," Buster reluctantly confessed, wishing it were true, but unwilling to allow any lies between them.
"No? I've seen you in battle, my friend," Hank protested, sounding gently amused.
Buster shifted uncomfortably. "We both know that nine tenths of that is bluff." The remaining tenth perhaps a thinly veiled death wish, but that was a truth rarely admitted, even to himself. "This is different."
"Is it? Seven months have passed since you saw me last. As you said before, we touched only once. Yet, you had the courage to come all this way, after all this time," Hank pointed out.
"Courage? Hank, it was fuckin' desperation. I had to see you, had to know that...it was real." Buster's gaze dropped to his hands, which were clenched in the ends of the blue and white woolen quilt draping his shoulders.
"Our peoples must have different definitions of courage," Hank said.
The mild, almost playful tone captured his attention. Buster looked back up. Hank didn't sound the least bit disillusioned. If anything, he seemed proud.
"What?" Buster asked.
"Among the Lakota, the definition of bravery is facing and conquering one's fears," Hank said.
"You believed I left you because of what we shared. Just as I believed you would come to hate me for leaving you. Neither of us was certain of the other any longer. Yet, one of us found the strength within himself to conquer his fear, to face the other and determine what – if anything – still existed between us. I didn't make the journey. <i>You</i> did. It was a mighty big <i>if</i> to gamble on, Buster."
Buster swallowed hard. That was the longest he'd ever heard Hank speak. "You had your commitments here, Chief. You couldn't have come."
"All that matters is that we're together now," Buster ventured, unable to believe that Hank could really consider what he viewed as weakness in himself as an example of strength or bravery.
"Yeah," Hank agreed, laying a hand on his quilt-covered shoulder.
There was no pressure exerted, but Buster could read the unspoken invitation in the dark gaze, sensed how much Hank needed to be held right now. Odd. His friend could overwhelm him with deliberately aggressive demonstrations of how he felt when Buster needed reassuring, but when it came to his own needs, Hank was strangely hesitant. Was he just unaccustomed to such closeness, or had his sensitive spirit been taught to expect rejection when his defenses were down like this?
Buster didn't know which answer was the right one. All that concerned him was meeting that need and temporarily lifting the mantle of loneliness which was so much a part of this self-reliant man.
Buster shifted closer, wrapped his arms around Hank's slender back, and urged Hank's silken head onto his shoulder.
Hank melted into the embrace as if he didn't have a solid bone in his body.
After a time, Buster eased them back onto the cozy nest they'd made in front of the hearth, pulling another of the numerous blankets over them. Almost indecently comfortable, he lay there savoring how good Hank felt in his arms.
Buster was tired for once, not the drained, emotional depletion which came from sleepless nights and empty days, but a healthy, physical exhaustion that promised sound sleep. Depositing lazy kisses on top of the head pillowed on his chest, Buster slowly drifted off.
"Huh-wha...?" Panic gripped the sleep-tousled Buster as the warmth that had comforted him a good part of the night carefully disengaged. Not knowing where he was, Buster stared owlishly around the utter darkness, completely befogged.
"Ssssshh. Go back to sleep."
<i>Hank</i>. With a rush of relief, memories of the previous day returned. Buster could feel Hank sitting beside him, sensed Hank's gaze touching his face the instant before a kiss smoothed his brow. Reassured, Buster allowed himself to be eased back onto the sleep-warmed blankets.
His eyes now somewhat adjusted, he could see the fire hadn't died completely. Orange embers gleamed within the gray ashes amongst the charred wooden skeleton of their fire. The room was dark, but not quite pitch black. He could just make out Hank's profile in the eerie glow as his slender lover bent over him to bring the covers up to his neck. Another much lighter kiss to the top of his head, and Hank slipped noiselessly from the makeshift bed.
<i>Headed to the bathroom – no, the outhouse, no doubt.</i> Contemplating the necessity of a similar trip, himself, Buster watched in sleepy confusion as his naked friend, no more than a somewhat more substantial shadow in a cabin full of shadows, began a series of stretching exercises less than four feet away.
The proximity was born more of necessity than choice, Buster thought, as he rolled over onto his belly to silently watch Hank's graceful movements in the small space between the kitchen area and the head of their nest. The only other place in the restrictive demesne of the cabin which would allow space for Hank to stretch out like that would be the nearby mattress.
Buster had almost fallen back to sleep when Hank completed his exercises. It was the awareness of the other man crossing the room which jolted Buster back to wakefulness. At first he couldn't pinpoint the source of the metallic scraping which filled the room, then realized it must be the hinges on the wooden chest beneath window. A moment's pause, another squeak, and then Hank returned to his former spot by the table.
Buster watched as his friend lay down on the bare wood floor, shivering sympathetically at the thought of how cold that floor must be against naked flesh.
The next shiver which coursed through him had nothing to do with empathy. A chill ran straight down Buster's spine as a sonorous, slow tapping filled the cabin. The sound was subdued; it was only the utter silence of the night which accentuated it, made it so eerie. The deep beat was steady, like a sleeper's heartbeat. Only slowly did he realize that Hank was responsible for the noise, Buster's now wide alert gaze at last distinguishing the small, round drum at his lover's side.
The rapping continued for a short while, then faded back into quiet. Buster listened, but all he could hear was Hank's deep, rhythmic breathing and the wind whispering through the pines out back. He watched Hank's still figure until his heavy eyelids drooped shut.
How long Hank stayed like that, Buster didn't know. He was only vaguely conscious of the dark as his friend rejoined him. Half-awake, he felt Hank settle down beside him.
Hank took extreme care not to disturb him, going so far as to remain outside the blankets bundled around the slumbering Buster.
Hank's presence gradually penetrated Buster's sleepy mind, doing so at all only because he'd been subconsciously anticipating Hank's return. Were it not for that tiny flicker of awareness, he would never have known his friend was there at all.
With a drowsy, incoherent murmur, Buster turned, covering his companion by the uncomplicated expedient of draping his own blanket-layered body across and around the thinner man. It was like embracing a living icicle; Hank's flesh was so chill against his warm skin. But as eager, albeit freezing, arms returned his hug, Buster kept his protest to himself, buried his face in the one warm portion of Hank's body – his silky hair – and promptly fell back to sleep.
The smell woke him, an irresistible, juicy aroma which had Buster's stomach rumbling and his mouth watering before he'd even registered the morning chill or determined where he was. Buster rolled over and listened to the sound of sizzling bacon, his gaze resting on the bare wooden roof beams overhead.
He didn't know what time it was, but his internal clock told him it was far too early for anything sane to be stirring. One glance at the windows told him the rest of the world agreed. The sun wasn't even up yet. The clear window glass was still slick black without even a suggestion of the hazy gray light of dawn.
Buster craned his neck back at the soft greeting, which came from the kitchen area behind his head. The odd perspective and Hank's height made the experience something akin to the opening shot of Clint Eastwood in a <i>Dirty Harry</i> movie, when the camera would pan from the floor up the endless stretch of legs, over the nonexistent tummy to chest, face, and finally the eyes. To his relief, Hank wasn't squinting at him or holding anything even faintly resembling a .44.
Buster grinned up at the bath-robed figure, delighted by the shy smile he received in return. "Good mornin'...I think. What time is it?"
"I'm not sure. About a half-hour to sun up. Are you hungry?" Hank asked, moving to squat down at his side so Buster didn't have to strain as hard to speak to him.
"Always." Strong as the desire to touch Hank was, Buster resisted it, unsure of how much of what they shared that Hank would want to carry over into the daylight. This was all new territory to him. Jimmy had always left him like a thief in the night, so he was as much out of his element as Hank probably was.
Hank's head cocked to one side as he studied him with a thoughtful frown. After a moment, Hank's long fingers reached out to tentatively brush his cheek.
Buster quivered in reaction, his lips parting in a soundless gasp. Hank's dark head lowered to claim his mouth in a very thorough kiss.
"I didn't want to embarrass you," Buster explained as they parted, having sensed the question in the press of the other man's lips.
"There's only the two of us here, Buster."
"Yeah, well...." His words trailed off, self-consciousness lost under that understanding gaze. Sensing himself in danger of spending the remainder of his life staring stupidly into those compelling eyes, Buster shook himself out of the spell. "You better show me the outback, Chief."
"What?" Hank blinked.
"The bathroom out back," Buster explained.
"Oh, yeah. Of course."
"Shit! It's fuckin' freezin' out here!" Buster groaned, pulling the quilt closer around him as they stepped outside. A variety of pine needles, pebbles, and less easily identifiable objects bit into his bare feet with every step. The world was still a cold, dark, hostile place.
Just like the outhouse Hank eventually led him to. Buster's Boy Scout days a thing of the distant past, the city-reared Buster couldn't relax in the rickety, wooden building which reminded him of nothing so much as a casket with a seat in it. A splintery seat. There wasn't even a lantern in the shack. But, after deeper consideration, Buster decided that he really didn't want to see what else might be lurking with him in the shadows of the claustrophobic box.
His business accomplished, Buster shot out of the privy like a racehorse from the starting gate, only to find Hank lounging against the pine outside, waiting for him. Even in the gloom he could read Hank's barely suppressed amusement.
"One word." Buster glared and tried to hold onto his righteous indignation, but it turned into a chuckle and from there into an all-out laugh.
Hank grinned back, looking for all intents as if he'd arranged the set up simply for the pleasure of viewing Buster's reaction.
"You could've at least warmed the seat for me," Buster complained once he'd gotten his breath back.
"Come on. Breakfast is getting cold," Hank said, making no move at all.
Freezing, Buster rearranged his quilt/robe and what little remained of his dignity while trying to keep his teeth from chattering too loudly. Curious, he looked around to see what had distracted his companion. The fact that he could now see well enough to do so gave Buster his first clue.
The sun was just beginning to peek over the eastern ridge of their valley. The hill beneath it was a black and purple amorphous shadow, but the surrounding ridges and canyons were nothing short of breathtaking. The gentle light of dawn seemed to pick out colors and contrasts in the land that the bolder midday sun missed, for all its brightness. The greens of the spring grass and darker pines, the brown of mud, bark, and brush, even the gray of stone, all appeared sharper and somehow more vivid than they might at any other time of day. They were certainly a wonder to Buster, who had ridden in during the dead of night.
Taking it all in, Buster couldn't recall the last time he'd watched the sun rise simply for its own sake. Generally, when he did witness it, he was on the tail end of a stakeout and fervently wishing himself elsewhere. But here with Hank, the cold air and ungodly hour were almost forgotten.
A smile broke across his face as melodic bird song spilled from the tree behind Hank, just as the sun's first rays reached its top. Buster threw back his head to locate the source, finally picking out the graceful gray form up near the pine's uppermost branch.
He glanced at Hank to see if he'd sighted the early morning minstrel, almost losing his breath as a result of that careless glance. Bathed in the golden splash of light, framed by the windblown, long-needled pines, with the breeze lifting his long black hair and tossing it about to catch in the soft needles, Hank was fully as captivating as the dawn, all brooding sensuality and banked down power.
Hank's dark gaze was fixed on him, had apparently been so for some time.
A squadron of drunken butterflies besieged his stomach. After everything they'd shared yesterday, Hank shouldn't have been able to make him this nervous by merely looking at him, but all it took was one glance like that and Buster felt like a virgin again, standing there on the edge of an unknown as frightening as it was exhilarating. He gulped, his feet taking him in closer without conscious command.
Hank's hand lifted to push the wayward lock of hair back from Buster's line of vision, his long fingers lingering to comb through Buster's shaggy tangles.
"It's like molten gold in this light, shimmering as it dances with the sun and wind," Hank said.
Buster shook at the breathy whisper, this time from more than just the cold. He melted into Hank's arms, losing himself in the ensuing kiss.
They could have started something again, right there beneath the sweet scented pines, the desire was more than present. Instead, they separated by silent accord, shared a smile which promised more later, and turned to watch the rising sun clear the opposite crest. Leaning back against his friend, with Hank's arms hugging him from behind and the morning sun kissing his face, Buster felt surrounded by warmth.
"We'd better get started," Hank said at last, with obvious reluctance.
Back inside, Hank handed him a hot mug of coffee as Buster thawed out in front of the potbellied stove.
"This is good," Buster admitted, lifting the bacon and watercress sandwich with his other hand. It was the watercress which had given him pause, coming as it did fresh from the stream out back. How Hank had found and gathered the stuff in the dark was still a mystery.
Recalling another mystery of the night, Buster forsook the stove's wonderful heat to join Hank at the table. "Hey, Hank?"
"What was it you were doing last night?" Buster questioned.
Although his friend continued chewing, Buster sensed the wariness right below Hank's surface calm. Hank swallowed his food and asked, "Did I disturb you?"
"No. It's okay if you don't want to talk about it," Buster added, not wanting to pressure Hank into anything he didn't want to divulge.
"No, it's all right," Hank answered slowly. "I was…spirit walking."
"Like when your dad saved my life?" Buster asked.
Hank nodded. "But for a different purpose."
Hank met his eyes. "I must learn. There is no one here who can teach me the way, so I must turn to my...spirit guide for instruction."
"You mean you meet someone when you're...spirit walking?" Buster tried to understand.
"In a manner of speaking."
"No shit! Who is he?" Buster asked, perfectly serious. Hank's entire attitude made it plain he did not expect to be believed. Buster recognized it was trust alone which allowed Hank to continue.
"His name is...not important. It isn't customary to speak of one's guardian spirit, but since I know yours...."
"Mine?" Buster cut his friend off.
"I helped my father return it to you. He did the actual work; I wasn't strong enough then, but I did see," Hank said.
"Who was it?" Buster asked, thinking angels, but knowing instinctively that wasn't right.
"A bear, mighty and gentle," Hank answered.
<i>A bear</i>. While struggling to digest that, Buster asked the first question which came to mind, "Is that like a totem or something?"
"A totem would be an actual ancestor of your clan. This is more like a helping spirit. You might call it a power animal. It's more of a partnership. He lends you his power and protections."
"What do I do for him?" Buster asked.
"If you were a Wicasa Wakan or one of my people, you would give him a chance to experience physical reality again by allowing him to enter and use your body at times."
"You mean, like possession?" Buster couldn't keep the worry out of his question.
"No. He comes by invitation when you dance," Hank said.
"Oh. What's your guardian spirit?" Buster couldn't help but ask.
"A huge, black raven. He's very old, very wise," Hank said after a monetary pause.
"Are they.. .real?" There was no tactful way to phrase that question. Buster half expected Hank to shut him out for asking such a thing.
Instead, the tension seemed to drain from the long body, Hank's mouth twitching in a small, mystified smile. "Not in the corporeal sense. Beyond that, I don't know. I used to ask myself that all the time, at the start of all this. I was sure I was going insane most of last winter, but now...."
"Now?" Buster gently prompted.
"It doesn't seem to matter so much if he's not real anymore," Hank said.
"Why not?" If some talking raven were visiting him every night, Buster was sure he'd be concerned – either way. The very idea sent a shudder through him. But then, according to Hank, he had a bear hovering around him somewhere.
Hank shrugged. "He answers my questions, points me to the right path. And he knows the old ways. That's all that's important."
"You mean he really tells you stuff you don't already know?" Buster asked.
"In my mind, I know he does, but in some ways it's hard to say," Hank answered.
Hank didn't appear to be hedging, more like stumped for a reply. "I followed my father around like a puppy when I was small. There was much I saw that I don't remember clearly. Consciously. But I did see it. On some level, it must have sunk in. At times I can almost believe that it's just my subconscious reeling out what I need to remember, only...."
"Sometimes there'll be something, a word or a whole song in a dialect I know my father never knew, never even heard."
Goose flesh breaking out all over, Buster found himself attempting to deny the possibility, "How can you be sure of that?"
"Until we took the Sacred Lance to Philadelphia, my father had never been out of this state. About a month ago, the raven taught me a healing song in Bah...Navajo."
"How do you know it was Navajo?"
'I spent some time in Arizona," Hank said.
"So you do know the language, then," Buster said.
"Enough to recognize it when I hear it. Not enough to translate word for word."
"The bird did that for you?" Buster asked.
Hank nodded, watching him closely.
''What other kind of stuff does he tell you?" Buster asked in open fascination.
"You believe me?" Hank seemed stunned.
"It's kinda...spooky, but...yeah, I do." Buster unconsciously fingered the medicine stone at his chest. It, too, was a part of what Hank was talking about. If the stone's calm could be real, as Buster believed it to be, then why couldn't Hank's raven? And his own bear? That last took a little more effort. Somehow he found it easier to accept such seeming impossibilities if they pertained to his friend, Hank being more than a little awe-inspiring, in Buster's mind. When he though of such things in relation to himself, his belief would begin to wear thin.
"What's it like, this spirit walking?" Buster asked on impulse.
A smile flickered through Hank's dark eyes, not quite touching his thin lips. "Kinda spooky at first."
"And now?" Buster asked.
"Huh?" That wasn't the reply Buster had been expecting.
"More than half the time when I'm called upon to help my people, I'm not sure if what I'm doing is right. The physical problems are easier; it's mostly a matter of remembering which herb treats which ailment, but the spiritual...."
"Yeah?" Buster encouraged.
"When Chief Bigstaff or someone else comes to me for guidance, I'll turn to my... guide."
"When I'm lucky, he'll answer my question with a question or riddle of his own," Hank said.
"What happens when you're not lucky?" Buster questioned.
"He can be very exasperating," Hank admitted.
The note of affection in his friend's soft voice belied the complaint. Whatever this spirit bird was, Hank was obviously very fond of ft.
"What did he tell you, last night?" Buster asked.
A hint of color flushed Hank's cheeks.
"He said...it was the first time I've come to him in joy."
Buster grinned at the reluctant admission. "I think I like your bird friend, Chief."
"'You would. You have a similar sense of humor."
"You're kiddin' me, right?"
"Nope." Hank took a sip of his cooling coffee and glanced at the sun-washed windows. "The horses will be starting out late this morning," he said, not sounding particularly concerned with the fact.
"Shit, I forgot. This is a work day for you."
"I would like to stay here with you, but without George...." Hank faltered.
"It's all up to you now, huh?" Buster softly said.
"Can I come?" Buster asked, not sure if Hank would want him there.
"It's a lot of riding, Buster. Up and down the same trail all day. It can get pretty boring," Hank cautioned. The flicker that passed through his often unreadable gaze told Buster he was pleased nonetheless.
"Yeah, well, if it gets too dull, you can tell me more about the spirit bird. What do you say, Chief?"
Buster grinned as Hank gave a consenting nod, sensing how bemused his friend was by all this. He could well sympathize. After seven months of lonely longing, simply being with Hank was intoxicating.
"Great. We better get dressed, then." Buster stood up, put his dirty dishes in the sudsy pail placed at the end of the table for that purpose, and stopped dead in his tracks in the act of retrieving his shaving kit from his carryall.
Abruptly realizing no bathroom meant no shower, he turned back to Hank. His expression must have been highly explicit, for the moment his reserved friend got a look at his face, Hank burst into soft laughter?'
"Well?" Buster demanded when Hank calmed, feeling his lips betray his own amusement with an occasional upward twist.
"There's a pool in the stream that's deep enough for bathing," Hank offered.
"Are they hot springs?" Buster hoped desperately.
Hank was really enjoying this. His lingering smile blossomed into a full-fledged grin as he gave a negative shake of his head. "Nope."
"Is there any other choice?" Buster asked.
"Shit," Buster said.
"Only in the outhouse," Hank replied, completely deadpan. "Come on. Let's go."
"I ain't gonna survive this, Hank," Buster warned as the cold morning air slapped him with the opening of the door. Dawn hadn't made a significant impression on the thermometer yet.
"You'll live." There was no sympathy to be had from that quarter,
Hank appearing almost eager for the ice
bath to follow.
"Yeah, but will I enjoy it?" Buster mumbled, wincing as a pebble bit at his tender sole.
"I think I can guarantee that," Hank said.
Not sure if he'd heard the quiet promise, Buster adjusted his pace to keep up with his long-legged companion.
Buster survived. In fact, he thrived in this new environment.
The days were like nothing Buster had ever known: long, lazy hours filled with sunshine, laughter, and hard riding. It was a time of learning, as well – to ride, curry, and saddle a horse. Once, when Hank was called away to treat a sick neighbor, he even got to lead an actual trail ride, to the astonishment of their wide-eyed guests. His blond hair and blue eyes seemed to shock everyone who came to the ranch, including Hank's family.
Hank's mother was a delight, quiet like her youngest son, but with a dry sense of humor which surfaced at the oddest moments, like the night Buster left the corral gate open and they'd ridden in the following morning to find the horses had taken off in six different directions. Her soft repetition of the time-honored cliché of closing the barn door after the horse escaped, coming as Buster self-consciously did just that, had left them all in stitches.
There were times when he and Hank would be talking together when Buster would feel Mrs. Storm's gaze upon them, and he'd wonder how long it would be before they were questioned on the nature of their relationship. Not that they were indiscreet. Even if they weren't working with Hank's family, Buster would have done nothing to embarrass his reserved lover, but their friendship alone was apparently enough of an oddity to draw attention here. Doubly so, as the Lakota with a white visitor was the notoriously antisocial Hank Storm.
Yet, when his friend's mother had finally broached the topic, it was not the confrontation Buster had feared.
His third day on the ranch, Buster had been shoveling out a stall, ankle deep in horse manure with a malodorous wheelbarrow reeking behind him. Hank had just stopped in to check on his progress, and had walked away laughing at some comment he'd made. Looking back, Buster had found Mrs. Storm silently watching him from a side door. The unreadable expression in her weathered face had told him that this was the moment he'd been dreading. He'd straightened as she'd approached the stall, almost as if the quiet woman had pulled a gun on him.
His nervous "Hiya, ma'am," went unanswered as she stared up at him. Like her son, she had piercing eyes which seemed to read straight to the soul. In the time she'd spent just staring at him, his pounding heart seemed to thud to a stop, his breath catching painfully in his chest as he awaited her no doubt scathing judgment. Buster knew she knew her son well enough to know that this type of relationship wasn't of his making. What she'd have to say to the seducer who'd led her boy astray was anybody's guess.
But, for all of his anxiety, the only thing she'd done was brush the dangling hair from his eyes as Hank was wont to do when they were alone, and patted him on the shoulder. "I haven't seen my son laugh like that, since he was a baby. You are welcome here, Buster," was all she'd said, before leaving him to his work.
She had to have known. Buster could feel the guilt that must have been written all over his face even after she left. Yet, she had passed no judgment upon them and was seemingly content with the change he'd brought about in Hank.
He wasn't sure what the rest of Hank's family made of him. George's widow and four children completed the circle living on the ranch, but there were a number of older men and women of indeterminate relation constantly stopping by. None commented openly on his presence; at least, they didn't while he was there, but they had to wonder.
Hank's sister-in-law wasn't quite as friendly as his mother. Buster couldn't even get a smile from the plump, pretty widow. Her children, however, were another matter entirety. The three boys – George, John and James, ages ten, eight and six respectively – were whirlwinds of activity. Once they'd gotten over the shock of his looks, Buster found himself overwhelmed by their attention.
The last member of the Storm family won his heart with a single smile. As an only child, Buster had never had much contact with children, especially babies. He'd approached Hank's eighteen month old niece, Kaiesa, as if she were made of porcelain. She'd looked up at him with huge brown eyes, set in a flower of a face shaped much like her uncle's, a puzzled expression touching her delicate features as she focused on Buster's blond hair. For a horrified moment, Buster had been convinced she would scream in terror. Instead, a smile had lit up her tiny face, and she'd reached out from Hank's arms to tug at Buster's hair, crooning something in Lakota which his straight-faced lover had to translate as 'pretty.' From that point on, it was the only thing she would call him, to Hank's apparent delight.
So many wonderful things had been crammed into the time he'd spent here. Although he relished every second, the days flew by all too quickly, the nights passing even faster.
So now Buster stood on the ridge behind Hank's cabin, gazing down at the valley below, wondering where the time had gone. He was supposed to be helping his companion gather herbs. His specific assignment was clover, mostly because it was the only plant he could recognize with any degree of success. Although a veritable carpet of the purple flowering growth lay at his feet, he'd collected none.
At 9:23 tomorrow morning, he would have to leave all this behind. For the past week, he'd pushed the unpleasant thought away, as if denial could prolong the inevitable, concentrating on the joy of the present moment. But now that the eve of departure was upon him, the reality of leaving choked his spirit.
A breathy snort from close by drew his attention from the curling wisps of wood smoke rising from the cabin's chimney below. He turned to find Blaze regarding him from a copse of pines. Not surprisingly, Hank's high-spirited paint was nowhere in sight. After six days of working in the Storm stables, Buster was convinced Hank's ghost horse spent the night racing the winds when freed of his bridle and earthly trappings.
"Hiya, boy," Buster greeted, hearing the sadness in his own voice. "How ya doin'?"
The chestnut snorted again, mincing forward to nuzzle Buster's shoulder.
Touched by the gesture, Buster blinked back tears from his eyes, blindly stroking Blaze's silken coat. Christ, but he would miss this – Blaze, little Kalesa, the ever squabbling brat pack, the cabin...Hank.
His arms went around the horse's neck, hugging the animal tight as he buried his face in the coarse mane. His insides were tied in knots, the idea of leaving an aching lump in the pit of his stomach.
No noise betrayed the fact, but Buster sensed he was no longer alone. He slowly raised his head from Blaze and gave his eyes a self-conscious swipe, half expecting to find Hank standing at his elbow. Yet, when he looked, his friend was nowhere in sight. "Hank?"
"Right here." The quiet acknowledgement came from the pines behind him, Hank stepping soundlessly to his side. "I didn't want to intrude."
"It was just Blaze and me." Buster shrugged, highly aware of his wet cheeks. To his relief, Hank didn't comment upon them.
Hank's long fingers reached out to stroke the chestnut's mane, stopping as they contacted Buster's arm on the horse's neck. Buster looked up as Hank's warm palm settled comfortably over his own hand.
The understanding in Hank's dark gaze was enough to choke him up all over again.
"Tomorrow was never supposed to get here." Buster sighed, gazing out over the valley. When he'd first seen the cabin and its environs, it had seemed a place out of time. It still did. Only, now he'd be leaving it and everything would remain the same...without him.
"Tomorrow always arrives," Hank commented, not sounding particularly disturbed by the fact.
"Yeah." Buster didn't lift his eyes from the peaceful view below.
"Your heart is heavy," Hank said in that soft tone Buster had come to love.
Only the calm of the observation allowed Buster to keep up the pretense of control. Like raindrops dripping into a still mountain pool, he absorbed some of Hank's tranquility.
"My heart is breaking," Buster corrected, as if speaking of a stranger.
"It isn't something that can be taken away or lost, Buster. We are a part of each other now. When you return, I'll be here for you."
The promise, the first he could believe in too long a time, wasn't even necessary at this point, but Buster appreciated the effort his restrained lover was making on his behalf. Hank was more a man of action than words. Nothing had ever spoken plainer to Buster's heart than the tender loving Hank had given him this week.
"I know that, Hank, it's just...."
"Yes?" Patient as always, Hank sounded willing to listen to anything he might say, no matter how crazy or impossible.
"I'm a selfish bastard. I want more than just a couple of weeks a year with you, Chief," Buster confessed.
There was no indication Hank was still even breathing. The quiet that followed was so complete. Only the warmth of the hand on top of his own betrayed Hank's continued presence.
"I can't abandon my people, Buster," Hank said at last, his voice flat and without hope.
"I wouldn't ask that of you. Even if you weren't the Wata...the medicine man. Your family needs you too much, Chief. I guess I just don't want to leave."
"Then don't.," Hank said.
Those two soft words shook his universe.
"What?" Buster swung around to face his companion.
"This place has taken you to its heart, as I have taken you to my soul. It would pain us both if you leave."
As a rule, Buster found Hank's habit of talking about the land as a sentient being more than a little disconcerting. This evening, the content of Hank's words was enough to overshadow even that. "Hank....."
The offer was so much what he wanted to hear it actually frightened him. Buster had never wanted anything more than Hank Storm, full-time. He gulped and tried to contain his racing heart.
A stiff dose of logic stilled the jackhammer pounding somewhat as his mind reeled off the thousand and one reasons why such an arrangement could never work out.
"I'd love to stay, Hank, but we both know it ain't possible," Buster refused, every ounce of his will power required to get the words past his lips.
Hank's dark lashed lids lowered, veiling a loss so gaping it rivaled Buster's own. "I understand. You have your own path to follow; your own life."
"Shit, Hank, that ain't it," Buster denied.
"If not ties to your home, then what's stopping you?" Hank asked.
Buster stared into those waiting eyes, unable to believe Hank really didn't see the reasons. "To begin with, I couldn't just live off you like I've been doin'. A guest for a week is one thing, but you've got enough mouths to feed without worrying about another full-grown appetite."
The hand pressing his own into Blaze's soft coat gripped him, lifting and turning his palm to the light. A feather-soft index finger skimmed the collection of still-tender, red calluses there.
Buster's breath caught in his lungs at the action. His body was so finely attuned to Hank as a sensual entity that any deliberate touch could leave him shaking like the last leaves of autumn.
"These aren't the hands of a useless guest. You carried much more than your own weight in this last week, Buster."
"You only had to fix about 90% of what I did," Buster laughed, recalling some of his more spectacular screw-ups.
"No, without being asked you shouldered almost 50% of the workload. I haven't said it before, but...thank you. You made a difference."
"It was fun, Hank," Buster dismissed, uncomfortable at the show of gratitude.
"Fun enough to stay?" Hank asked.
"It ain't that easy, Chief."
"So look for an easier job in town," his lover responded, purposefully misunderstanding him.
"You don't want to go back there, Buster. I feel it. Even your horse feels it." Hank's chin gestured to the silent equine beside them. "Why must you do this?"
"Because life isn't a fuckin' fairy tale," Buster exploded, ripping his hand free. Needing to put some distance between them, he stalked to the very crest of the summit, standing there on the hilltop with his arms wrapped tight around his chest, the wind blowing straight into his face as he stared blindly out over the valley. Sensing that inescapable presence behind him, he explained in a ragged whisper, "Don't you understand? I'm thinking of you."
"Me?" Total incomprehension.
"Have you thought about what living with me here like that would make you?" Buster asked.
All the dirty names Buster had avoided, the labels, the stereotypes...who knew what else they'd have to deal with out here in the sticks? He wasn't certain himself he knew what he'd be buying into if he stayed. Philadelphia, he could predict. An Indian reservation in South Dakota was as alien to him as Venus.
"Yes." The response was so subdued Buster wasn't expecting the accompanying touch when it came. The firm grip on his shoulder left him no choice but to turn and face Hank. His heart hammering against his ribs, Buster looked up at Hank's somber face, a question in his eyes as Hank said, "It will make me happy."
Buster swallowed hard. "That isn't what I meant."
"I know, but it's what matters."
"What about your family? Have you thought about them?" Buster questioned.
"My family already accepts you, Buster."
"As a visiting friend, a novelty. I move up here as a permanent addition, they're gonna know what the score really is."
"I expect they already know," Hank countered, completely unflustered.
"What? How?" Buster tried not to panic.
"They've known me all my life. Such things show."
"Christ, Hank, I didn't want to cause you any problems." Buster stared up at his friend, trying to understand Hank's unbroken calm. The only thing stirring was the wind lifting Hank's hair.
"You haven't. They've seen you're a man of honor, that you would bring no disgrace to our family."
"There's an entire police department back in Philadelphia that would argue that call, Chief," Buster said.
"They don't know you."
"Maybe you just know one side of me," Buster suggested.
"You don't believe that." There was no doubt behind Hank's quiet assertion.
"Maybe not," Buster conceded. "But even if it's okay with your family, what about the rest of your people? How are they gonna feel about me bein' here full time? I saw their eyes when I was riding through last week, Hank. A lot of them aren't happy about me even visiting you."
"If they want to find a new Wicasa Wakan, they're welcome to do it," Hank said.
Hank Storm was the only man he knew who could tell the rest of humanity to go fuck itself and mean it. Hank, of course, would never phrase it so crudely.
"You make it sound so easy," Buster whispered, envying Hank's calm. His own heart was torn to pieces, crushed by the ferocity of this desire and guilt for the ruin he would bring down on Hank's head should he give in.
"It won't be."
Buster's chin snapped up at the warning tone. "What?"
"This life isn't for everyone, Buster. You've adjusted well, but.... This place is very different from your home," Hank said.
"Do you really think I'd choose my TV set over you, Chief?" Buster questioned. He smiled, but underneath the light approach, he was deadly serious.
"No, but yesterday morning, I did hear you offer to trade a kingdom and your horse for a hot water bath," Hank reminded.
"Yesterday morning it was raining," Buster defended.
"And six weeks ago it was snowing. A month before that, there was over four feet of snow on the ground with drifts ten feet and higher. Life here is very different from Philadelphia, Buster," Hank cautioned.
Seeing his friend's point, Buster thought about what Hank was telling him. He was a city boy, born and bred, true enough, but there was a magic to this place which had captured his heart. Whatever that feeling was, he felt safe here, at ease as he had never been in the city of his birth. He couldn't imagine this place allowing anything to harm or injure him. He understood there were differences, difficult adjustments in store, but what was a little physical inconvenience when measured against how good being here with Hank made him feel? Only....
"Do we really have to bathe in the stream when there's snow on the ground?" Buster checked, unable to believe even Hank Storm was that much of a stoic.
Laughter bubbled through the wolf-dark eyes, a tiny smile lighting Hank's face. "Of course not, but it will be a challenge for you."
"It's not just me, you know, Chief. You moved up here to get away from people. I'm gonna be one hell of a distraction," Buster pointed out, belatedly recognizing his unconscious acceptance of the proposal. He hadn't said, <i>would be one hell of a distraction.</i> He'd used the far more definite <i>gonna be.</i>
"Maybe." Hank didn't sound particularly disturbed by the possibility.
"This is serious, Hank. Your work....." Buster's words faltered as Hank's fingers brushed his cheek, the resulting quiver coursing the length of his body. He still found it impossible to accept that a simple touch could have such power over him.
"My work has been much easier since you came to me."
With a concentrated effort, Buster struggled to recall what they were talking about.
"You don't fight fair, Chief," Buster protested, removing Hank's hand from where it now fingered the hair hiding behind his ear. He kept hold of it as a preventative measure. Hank's body heat alone was maddeningly distracting, without the extra level of touch.
"This is real," Hank said, lifting his captured hand, demonstrating how Buster's hold on it was more an unconscious embrace than a restraining measure. "The rest is illusion."
"The real world is illusion?" Buster he argued, worried for both their sakes. Hank was too stubborn to admit what they were up against and he himself was too much in love to keep fighting him much longer. "That illusion's gonna rear up and kick us both in the teeth if we don't cover our asses."
"It can try," Hank challenged, his steely determination obvious even though he spoke the words in his normally soft tone. For some reason, that made them all the more effective.
"Buster, every man makes a conscious decision to be either happy or unhappy in life. Everything you've said is an excuse for choosing to be unhappy."
"God damn it, Hank, you haven't listened to a fuckin' word I've said!" Buster shouted, almost frightened by the younger man's intractability.
"And you haven't listened to your heart." Hank's quiet observation gave him no warning as to what would follow. Hank's mouth swooped down upon his like a striking eagle, relentless and inescapable.
Buster struggled against succumbing to passion's obscuring thrall, anger at Hank's using such a tactic giving him strength. But Hank Storm was nothing if not patient by nature. Hank continued to kiss his unresponsive mouth until those false barriers crumbled and they were touching soul to soul once again.
Buster expected immediate withdrawal once Hank's point was proven with his helpless response, but Hank lingered. He found himself drawing on Hank's certainty, Hank's unshakable belief almost enough to counter his own skepticism.
"That is what your heart tells you," Hank breathed as they parted.
"Jesus Christ, Hank...." The protest caught in Buster's throat, his racing heart drowning out everything but lingering sensation.
"Every one of the objections you voiced was valid, Buster, but not one is as real as that. There will be problems, but I think you're used to them. Would staying here with me be so much worse than what you confront alone at home, each day?"
"What do you mean? Buster didn't quite understand what Hank was getting at, but the question itself had sent a shiver right through him.
"Few warriors possess the courage to live under the shadow that has chilled your spirit the last five years," Hank said.
Buster's flesh prickled in goose bumps as he realized what Hank was talking about. Five years ago, his dad had been sent down for receiving stolen property, but Buster knew he had never mentioned the time period involved. How could Hank have known when it happened? His tone made it plain it was more than a lucky guess.
"You mean my old man?" Buster rasped out, just to be sure. Anything relating to that subject left him vulnerable to attack. With the jerks on the force, he could pretend the comments didn't matter. But he could never hide a hurt that deep from Hank, had never imagined he would have to.
"No, I mean the way your coworkers treat you. I didn't see much, but...."
Buster gulped, then forced himself to meet Hank's gaze. "You saw enough."
Ransom's comments in the car right before Finch let them go to track down Marino were unfortunately an all too common occurrence.
"Would what we face together be any worse than what you face alone?" Hank asked.
The understanding behind that gentle question brought stinging tears to his eyes. Buster blinked them away and stared up at Hank's waiting face. "I don't want that kind of shit coming down on your head. Not because of me. Can't you understand that?"
"Can't you understand that it wouldn't matter? Buster, I've been different and alone my entire life. I don't want to be alone anymore."
That stark admission of need, coming as it did from this fiercely proud man, finished him. His surrender was total, common sense defeated by the one thing he could never turn his back on: Hank's pain.
"Okay," Buster said, gathering Hank close to him in a hug so tight it had to hurt, but Hank made no protest.
"You'll stay?" Hank checked.
"I'll go back tomorrow morning. Finish up the investigation. Another two or three weeks, it'll be over. Then I'll close up my apartment, and catch the next flight out," Buster decided.
"Is it what you want?" Hank asked.
"I still don't think that you know what you're letting yourself in for, Chief, but…yeah, it's what I want. You're what I want.
The kiss that followed seemed to tell Buster that he'd made the right decision.
Perhaps it was merely his imagination, or the wind in the nearby pines, but the entire valley appeared to breathe a sigh of relief. The ground reached up to embrace him, Hank's easing them down onto the thick carpet of spring grass the sheerest of coincidence. Setting sun and cool air kissed him as his partner stripped his clothes away.
Gazing up at his saffron-illuminated lover, it seemed to Buster that he had at tong last found the place he was created to be. As they moved together in the most ancient of dances, he did his best to banish all his worries.
What would be, would be. They could only cling fast to each other and fight to keep what they had found alive. And Buster was willing to fight for this. To the death, if necessary.
Buster smiled a little at the thought, remembering the impossible odds they'd beaten before, both of them outsiders in their own worlds, renegades only in need of a cause. The real world had better watch out. They'd found their cause, now. The renegades were a team again, and they'd take no shit from anyone.
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