Somewhere in Arkansas . . .
For the fifth time in the past hour, the van's engine made a loud grinding noise. Rictor tried not to grimace as he tightened his wheel on the steering wheel, well aware that it definitely wasn't his imagination that the vehicle was pulling to the left. Again.
Beside him, Shatterstar raised an eyebrow. "Tell me again, Julio, are you quite certain the person you acquired this vehicle from is trustworthy?"
It was hard to tell, but Rictor thought he heard a trace of amusement in his friend's voice. "He promised it would run, okay?" he said defensively. "He never actually said for how long."
The engine sputtered, the now familiar grinding sound turning into a loud screech. Smoke started pouring from underneath the hood as the van suddenly shut itself off, its wheels almost instantly locking up.
"Damn it," Rictor muttered, doing his best to steer the now uncooperative van to the side of the road. Luckily, there wasn't any other traffic, so it wasn't difficult to let it drift to a stop.
"Should the engine be smoking like this?" Shatterstar asked, glancing over at Rictor.
Rictor waved his hand at him as he halfway turned around and leaned over the driver seat to grab the bag of clothes and basic supplies that they'd bought back in North Carolina. "No, it really shouldn't," he said. "Come on, time to get out."
Shatterstar raised an eyebrow as he grabbed his own bag from the backseat, but he didn't actually say anything. Rictor thanked whoever might be listening for small favors.
The two of them stood beside the van for several minutes, silently staring at it. It slowly stopped smoking, but Rictor really didn't want to risk getting back inside long enough to see if it would turn back on. He had a bad feeling that, the way their luck tended to run, there was a good chance that the vehicle might explode if he did.
"I concur," Shatterstar said with a nod. "I would not risk getting back inside either."
Rictor blinked twice. Then he glanced over at Shatterstar and narrowed his eyes. "I didn't say anything."
"You did not have to say anything," Shatterstar said. "I have seen that expression on many past occasions."
"Uh-huh," Rictor said slowly, still eyeing his friend warily.
Shatterstar stared back at him without blinking.
After close to a minute of staring, Rictor groaned. He closed his eyes for a moment and reached up to run his fingers through his hair. "Fine, so the van is out of the picture," he asked, grinning weakly as he opened his eyes again. "Tell me, 'Star, have you ever tried hitchhiking before?"
Shatterstar tilted his head. "Once," he said thoughtfully, "but it was . . . eventful."
"Eventful?" Rictor repeated.
Shatterstar nodded. "Quite," he said. "My stories of home seemed to make people quite nervous, and they did not seem very impressed by my weaponry. In fact, one truck driver was quite adamant that I vacate his vehicle immediately once he saw my swords."
Rictor stared at him for several seconds. Shatterstar simply stared right back at him, his face expressionless.
"Okay then," Rictor said, shaking his head as he tried to hide his amusement. "Why don't we let me do all the talking?"
Somewhere between San Antonio and the Mexican border, two days later . . .
Rictor's "please don't run screaming from us" smile faded as the car door slammed in his face. He could actually smell burning rubber from the tires at their latest ride sped off, neither the driver or the passenger in the front seat even taking the time to glance back at them. The taillights quickly disappeared into the distance, leaving them standing in the dark.
"That seems to happen quite often," Shatterstar said, finally breaking the silence. He sounded almost smug, but it was difficult to see his face.
Rictor glanced over at him, squinting a little. At least it was a full moon, otherwise they would have been in complete darkness. "If I didn't know any better," he said suspiciously, "I'd almost think that you were doing this on purpose."
Shatterstar stared back at him guilelessly. "Doing what on purpose, Julio?"
Rictor rolled his eyes but didn't press the issue. He just shook his head and threw his bag over his shoulder, trying to ignore the misting rain that had been coming down for the past hour. "Come on, let's get away from the road."
Shatterstar looked surprised. "Away from the road?" he repeated, throwing his own bag over his shoulder and following Rictor. "Should we not attempt to find another ride?"
"At this time of night? This close to the border?" Rictor snorted in amusement. "Not likely."
"Then you intend for us to rest here for the night?" Shatterstar asked.
Rictor grinned. "Why do you think I bought the tent, amigo?" he replied. "I figured we'd end up sleeping on the ground at some point. Though I have to admit that I thought it wouldn't be until after we made it to Mexico."
This time, Rictor knew he wasn't imagining the slightly sheepish look on Shatterstar's face.
Thirty feet to the east of the previous location, two hours later . . .
Another drop of water leaked from the top of the tent, dripping onto Rictor's face. He made a face and edged a little more to the right, not stopping until he hit something warm and solid.
Shatterstar chuckled. "It is dripping again?" he asked.
Rictor reached over and swatted at him, not even attempting to make out his face in the dark. "Yeah, yeah," he grumbled. "Laugh all you want, but it's not you that the tent has it in for."
"I am certain that the tent is quite a formidable enemy," Shatterstar said seriously. "It will take all of your skill to defeat it."
Rictor narrowed his eyes. "You're making fun of me."
Instead of replying, Shatterstar kissed him.
It was tentative and uncertain, like it had been the handful of previous times they had kissed. Rictor smiled against Shatterstar's lips, eagerly kissing him back but careful not to push any farther than 'Star did. It still surprised him sometimes, how it could be so easy for them to spar or roughhouse or have sex, but physical expressions of their relationship still remained such a rarity. Kisses, touches . . . no matter how casual or private, they seemed foreign to Shatterstar so much of the time.
After several seconds, Shatterstar pulled away. "I will remain quiet once we resume our hitchhiking," he said ruefully. "Perhaps my attempts at conversation are somewhat . . . deterring, to those who are driving."
Rictor rested his head against his friend's chest and smiled. "Don't worry about it, 'Star," he said. "I don't know about you, but I'm not too upset about how today ended up going."
Shatterstar hesitated for just a second. "Neither am I," he said, sounding almost surprised.
Grinning, Rictor turned slightly so that he was resting on his back. He stared upwards into the dark, listening to the sound of their breathing.
Another drop of water landed directly on Rictor's face.
"¡Madre de Dios!" he exclaimed, sitting straight up. "It did it again!"
Shatterstar touched his hand, hesitating slightly before wrapping his fingers around Rictor's wrist. "Ignore the rain."
Rictor bit back the urge to snap back a retort. It was easier than he thought it would be, once he focused on the way Shatterstar's fingers were lightly tapping against his arm. Relaxing, he let 'Star pull him back down beside him.
"You know what?" Rictor asked, his voice cracking slightly when Shatterstar shifted so they were pressing closely against each other. "Why don't I just ignore the rain?"