Chapter 1: Dom's Reflections
Love without a cause
Leaves me trapped
Inside my own bars.
~ Romeo Santos, "Promise"
My first clear memory of Brian is the day I broke up his street scuffle with Vince.
He was sitting at the counter. His flirting made it hard to concentrate on the books. Crunching numbers ain’t easy with a soundtrack of innuendo going nonstop. So I got up to grab a drink. Needed something to cool my nerves before I said something. Especially since if I did? Mia would just tear me up for it.
I pushed the fridge door closed and he was watching me. This wasn’t just a casual glance though. This was a look of curiosity and something else. He was taking my measure. Didn’t have a problem with me knowing it. Wanted me to know it, in fact. Something in the tilt of his head, the intensity of his blue eyes, made it something more. It slammed into me hard, and for the space of a heartbeat I couldn’t move. Couldn’t even breathe.
It wasn’t his first time showing up for lunch, but it was the first time I’d bothered to be there. In fact, it was the team’s bitching (and Vince acting odd and moping) that goaded me away from the garage. I wanted to see him for myself. Especially since he’d become an unknown – and a source of unwanted drama – in the team dynamic.
Easy to see why. It was impossible to ignore that kind of presence.
Last thing I wanted was get involved in separating him and Vince. Their scuffle was entirely testosterone-driven, and I wanted no part of it. Public domain; they weren’t about to damage anything inside the diner, so what did I care? If delivery-boy couldn’t hold his own against Vince, it was better to let the team run him off instead of me doing it.
And if he could? Well. I guess you could say I used it as a test.
Must have been an even match. Because the girls both got up in my grill.
They weren’t about to let me finish my soda in peace. If I insisted, I’d never hear the end of it. I’m not a big fan of drama. Vince’s shit kinda pisses me off, and I had no problem at all letting him know it after pulling Brian off him. Took it out on Brian, too. Didn’t care what he thought. I just wanted a couple hours of quiet, time to work the damned books and balance a fucking budget. The pair of them had spoiled it.
What pissed me off more, though, was Letty and Mia wanting Big Bad Dom to flex his muscles. So it was all on them if I took it beyond what they wanted. I hoped maybe it would teach them not to try telling me what to do. Like I’m some Rottweiler on a leash, and all they gotta do is sic me on whoever they want.
It wasn’t that I wanted him gone. Far from it, really. I’d seen something in his gaze back there when he was staring at me. I didn’t scare him. Not even when I got in his face; he didn’t flinch, didn’t show the faintest hint of being intimidated. My logic in that moment, heat rising off the asphalt beneath the height of the California sun, was that he would spell trouble for me. Just looking at him made my gut tingle, and that was a bad sign. Enough confusion for me to want to be rid of him. Complication I didn’t need and wasn’t looking for.
But I liked him, against logic and sense and anything rational. Even from that first moment, I wanted. That gut instinct we find so easy to ignore. Deep down in that spot that craves.
And that’s why I indulged him that night. Told him so. Not in so many words; he met my gaze and saw it. The answering glint of understanding can happen between complete strangers.
That was a first, for me. A visceral connection with someone I didn’t know. Scary shit.
Cocky punk, standing there with his hands shoved in his pockets. Shaggy, sun-bleached surfer-boy curls. Flashing a million-watt smile, “yeah, that’s my car.” It’s so obvious he’s desperate to earn respect. It’s also crystal he knows it doesn’t come easy. Did he know he was so easy to read?
He’s so country-boy American, he’s cornbread. Makes me think of varsity jackets and Friday night lights on the football fields and all the rest; Sunday afternoon barbeques with potato salad, baked beans, and the heavy smell of mesquite. Paper plates, red Solo cups, and the squealing laughter of a dozen kids.
Bet he was a quarterback in high school. Bean sprout, whip thin. Long fingers perfect for wrapping around pigskin. Or other things... Wrenches. Mufflers. Yeah.
His confidence hadn’t dimmed the slightest when he pulls to a stop a few paces from my RX7 after the race. If anything, it’s got an extra glow thanks to the contact high of the NOS-punch. There’s a glazed look in those blue eyes. Really? A turbo-virgin? He never had me. I tell him as much. But he earns a wedge of respect from me, just for how he handled himself. He’s got potential. And more than that, he’s hungry for something. Not sure what it is, though. Definitely not the money, going by his car. Easily worth $50k the hard way – parts, labor, and tuning; tweaks, paint and decals.
And he didn’t hesitate to put up his pinks for a $2k buy-in. Is he that stupid? Maybe the sun bleached all the brain cells out through the roots of his hair. I mean, being a speed-junkie is one thing, but this boy takes it to a whole different level. His vibe’s changed, just in the ten seconds it took to cover a quarter-mile strip of asphalt.
He reminds me a bit of Jesse. Seems so young and vibrant, fresh and full of life. Like there’s more behind that vivid blue gaze than his body can contain. He listens to me rant at him, criticizing his driving and ripping it to pieces like an engine in the middle of an overhaul. Has a grin curling his lips the entire time. Even when the crowd cheers in agreement of my assessment.
I barely have time to register the neon green of his car when he skids past me. Cop sirens wailing nearer with every passing second, adrenaline thick in my blood and my pulse pounding in my ears, I manage to keep from body-slamming into the passenger-side door. Door pushes open, “Dom, get in.”
Calling it shock would be an understatement. He’s the last person I expected to see. Where’s my team? Damn them, for bailing without giving me a second thought. It should be Vince’s car I’m clinging to the seat in, as he guns it and whips out of the alley into the street, drifting through the turn.
Makes it look as easy as taking a spatula to a bowl of brownie mix.
But God, am I glad to see him. And what a sight for sore eyes. I can’t decide what to watch, the intensity of his focus as he slaloms around a pair of cruisers, or the scowling patrolmen scant inches away. He might have a lot to learn about racing in a straight line, but he makes the rice-burner dance down the street without breaking a sweat or missing a beat. Downshifting to whip past them, shifting again to roar off and leave them breathing his dust.
Slides through another turn, weaves through traffic smooth as you please. Not the slightest hesitation, not a breath of wasted movement as he works the steering wheel, clutch, accelerator, stick shift. Tendons cording in his forearms and neck, his gaze flicks from mirror to mirror, back to the road. He wrings every bit of torque and sprint from the fried engine that it has to give. And not a drop of sweat on his brow – he’s in his element, no doubt about it.
The respect-o-meter inches up a few notches, and I don’t begrudge him that. Don’t know how much to trust him though. So I try to get a bit of background out of him. I know where the driving prowess comes from, bits and pieces of his past. Want to see how honest he’d be though.
Gotta put a stock engine on the dyno before you start to tweak it, right? Know what you got to work with.
He glances at me when I mention his juvie record. Tension around his mouth. “Supposed to be sealed,” is all he says before he goes back to staring at the road. One chilly cucumber, let me tell you.
Even when the crotch rockets swarm around us and Lance crams his semi-automatic in the window at him. No smart quips or sarcasm that would set off an unknown. Ice smooth, goes with the flow.
And damn, that’s impressive. None of my crew would’ve been so cool, but they know the history, the tension weaving around the car. Brian doesn’t. He takes his cue from me just as easily as he read me before the race.
I don’t know what drove me to deny I’d taken delivery of the car. Part of me was hoping to save such a beautiful piece of automotive artwork. Especially after watching Brain make it dance down the road like that. Anyone on the streets could appreciate the amount of time and effort he’d put into it – even if it wasn’t his money. I mean, if it had been his money, he could have come up with a couple G’s for the race, right? Maybe that had just been about upping the ante to be sure we – I – wouldn’t refuse him the chance to earn a measure of respect.
But if I admitted ownership of the car, Johnny wouldn’t have hesitated to rip it up. Deep down, I knew the odds weren’t in the car’s favor the minute Johnny and Lance led us back to the heart of their turf. Better the car than me, though. Or Brian.
The way Lance hardly even looked at the car, gaze locked on Brian, “yeah, it’s an amazing machine.” That got my hackles up. The only way for me to recoup anything was to make sure Brian still owed me a car. He wouldn’t fight me on that. I could read that much when his gaze met mine over the roof. Snowman, cool customer, hands crammed in the front pockets of his stonewashed jeans. Just looking at me. Big blue eyes a little wide, surprised I pulled that one. He’d honor his bet, pay his debt. And if he managed to pull a smooth one on me in the process, well. At that moment I didn’t much care. Not his fault he drove right into the Tran territory helping me evade the cops. His cool’s contagious though. Helps me keep a level head.
He owes me a car; that makes him mine. My mechanic. Much as it annoys me, slapping that look off Lance’s face won’t get me and Brian out of the situation unscathed. So I keep a good grip on the temper that’s making the vein throb in my temple.
The most remarkable thing about hoofing it toward the closest taxi… Having him there beside me was relaxing. Soothing. Them boys get me worked up way too easy. Too much history, and they’re just way too damned unpredictable. Takes me back to my days in Lompoc, trying to watch every direction at once. Of course you can’t manage it, right? But strolling down the middle of the empty road with Mr. Arizona, damn. I could use that cool of his. Like aloe on a fresh burn. Team needed something, that’s for sure. Him and Vince might not have gotten off on the best foot, but that didn’t mean much. I mean, hey. This is Vince we’re talking about, right?
Letty thought he was too pretty. Jesse’s input, “there’s no such thing, girl.”
Leon just kinda shrugged off the whole confrontation. He knew his opinion would count, but like me? He knew it was way too soon to say for sure. He wouldn’t begrudge the possibility though. Hell, him and Jesse just showed up one day for crying out loud. And never left. Wouldn’t be strange if it happened again, just when we needed it.
There are moments when I wonder what does frighten Brian. He asked what the display of machismo was all about. When I told him it was a long story, anyone else would have taken that for the dismissal it was. If there’d been any doubt, I’m sure the attitude rolling off me just then should have clinched it.
But not Mr. Arizona. Nope. Smooth as you please he jumps right back in with, “humor me.” So I give him the short version. What’s bad blood ever about, right? Money and family and women. One way or another. Just turns out this situation had all that rolled up in there. Honor and loyalty and trust, a fragile balance to maintain to say the least. Crush them all, and there’s no hope for redemption.
He listens without comment, and I glance over at him. Wondering why it feels like he’s reading between the lines.
Poor Eclipse. Talk about collateral damage. I’m just relieved I managed to get myself and Brian out of that intact. Cars? Replaceable. Limbs and lives, not so much.
I was the reason why he’d been at risk to begin with, that made him my responsibility. If it had just been him cruising through Tran territory, Johnny would have left him be. No doubt about it. They didn’t have a grudge against him. Course, they probably will now. Guilt by association and all that.
So now? Now, he’s kinda under my wing whether I planned it or not. My mechanic. Got a ways to go yet, but I’m liking the numbers I’m getting. Never know when some unforeseen weakness will crop up and set you back though.
My mind’s on the crew for the rest of the way back to the house. It keeps my awareness off the tingle in my nerves. The heat pooling in my gut. I don’t understand my reaction to him, don’t understand this intensity that makes everything else just blur into the background. Brian isn’t chatty, which is fine with me. The gears are too busy churning in my head. If the nights actually bothered to get cold at all, ya might’ve seen steam rolling out my ears or something.
It royally pisses me off that not a single one of them showed face to make sure I didn’t end up in cuffs somewhere. Don’t know why I told Brian I wouldn’t go back. Not that it wasn’t the honest-to-god truth. It was. Didn’t realize it was the truth until I said it. I don’t talk about that shit, not to anyone. It’s been almost ten years for fuck’s sake, and I still have nightmares. Nobody knows that. Nobody knows about the times I wake up covered in sweat, every muscle in my body clenched so tight I may as well be a statue forged from solid steel. Not even Letty.
Guess I told him because I feel a little guilty for digging around in his past. Only a little – ya learn real fast to be cautious, know what I mean? But I think I meant it as a peace offering.
Fuck, I could really use a Corona. Pretty-boy Snowman looks like he could use one too.
And it kinda startles me when he calls out “see ya,” makes off down the sidewalk.
Can’t hurt to show him a little gratitude. Whatever his motivation for saving my ass, he did it. And the fucking team – and Vince – could use a little reminder of who the big dog in the house is.
He trails up the steps after me.
God, this pisses me off so much. Party in full swing. Even Letty’s sprawled on the floor playing GTA without a care in the world. I could be sitting in jail right now staring at another sentence and they’re all sucking face, sucking beer, and kicking back.
I want to punch something. Torque a few nuts loose. Without the assistance of an air wrench.
Vince mouths off, predictably. And he sees something in my eyes when I lick into him. “Cuz the buster kept me out of handcuffs.” Know there’s more Coronas elsewhere – taking the one Vince just opened wasn’t necessary. Convenient, yes. I did it because Letty and Mia aren’t the only ones who seem to have taken up the “Rott-on-a-Rope” mindset. Brian ain’t stupid. He could see that, played right along and rubbed salt into the wound for me.
The moment Brian takes off for the second-floor bathroom, Vince descends on me. All sound and fury, and I offset it with a long swig of Corona while he does the po-po accusation skit for what seems like the hundredth time.
Gotta hand it to him, he’s got some dogged persistence. Damned pit bull is what he is. Grabs a hold of something, and you can’t break his grip to save your ass. Pisses me off that Vince can keep after that when he wasn’t there when I needed him, and doesn’t really even know the guy from Adam.
Then again, that’s exactly Vince’s point. I don’t know Brian either.
But you gotta give someone a chance now and then. Take a risk getting to know them. Don’t know your car’s potential if you aren’t willing to punch the gas – or the NOS – hang on and let her rip. Circle stays pretty small when you just stick to the people you know… We could use some fresh blood. I could use some fresh blood. I’ve been searching for something and haven’t figured out what.
They don’t need to know about the visceral kind of reaction I have to the man. The reasons for my choices are my own and I don’t have to share them. Or explain. Thank God. Back then, I don’t think I could have if they asked me to. “There was a time I didn’t know you, Vince.”
“Yeah, that was the third grade.” Motherfucker. He’s got me. I laugh, shake my head, and the nervous tension between me and the team snaps and fades away. For now. Them and their fucking drama. The peace won’t last long.
Letty laughs when I remind Brian he still owes me a ten-second car. And that look is back in his eyes. Same one he lit on me at the diner. Did he think saving my ass balanced out? Well. It does, actually. He doesn’t need to know that though. Don’t need to know that I’m doing him a favor. Someone needs to teach the boy a few things. Hate to see all that potential go to waste.
Hate to miss the opportunity to see him more. Can’t put my finger on why, though. And that’s got me curious. Mr. Arizona. As much a mystery as any other snowball in Hell.
Letty drags me off up the stairs for a quick fuck. Just the thing to take the edge off the irritation still cranking through me. Relieve some of that pent-up heat that’s been building all damned night. Distraction from golden halo curls and piercing blue eyes that make me feel like nothing ever has before. Not even Letty, with her rough edges and coarse attitude, and energy to match me.
Does it even matter that it feels like I know all I need to about Brian, simply because I’ve seen him drive?
Details are just window dressing.
Chapter 2: Brian's Impressions
We’re strange allies, with warring hearts
What a wild-eyed beast you be
The space between the wicked lies we tell
And hope to keep safe from pain
~ Dave Matthews Band, “The Space Between”
You can’t help but notice Dominic Toretto. He’s a primal force of nature. Mia once called him gravity, but I don’t know that she had it right. Gravity is stable, unchanging, constant; to my mind, Dom is the black hole at the center of a galaxy. Exerting its overwhelming gravitational pull on those that wander into his life, but only the truly brave and hardy are capable of orbiting in close proximity without being sucked into oblivion, destroyed forever. Every movement, every detail, efficient to the extreme. No wasted energy, no wasted emotion… no waste of space. No room for extraneous fat under that naturally tanned skin. Not with the muscle he’s packed into it.
There’s more to him than that, though.
Those couple weeks I spent in Dom’s orbit … they feel like years whenever I think back on them.
I watched him with his team, his family, and I yearned to have that. I craved it the way a NOS-junkie itches for the right moment to punch. Never going to have it, knew it then too. But you always want what you can’t have, right?
Dominic Toretto is my NOS.
That pretty much sums it up, I think.
I remember Vince and me going at it. One minute we’re slamming on each other, the next it’s not Vince in my grill but a shaved scalp and muscled torso sculpted by honest work. You can’t fake that no matter how much money or time you spend on a machine. His dark eyes are intense, crackling with electricity, his voice resonating along my nerve endings.
“I’m in your face.”
That gaze reminds me of dark chocolate, a straight shot of espresso. Deep, rich, thick, and slightly bitter. Try to take in too much at once, and it does strange things to you. You get addicted, dependent. Jittery.
Dom has very expressive eyes despite his control. There’s a wealth of information there for the reading in a fleeting glance, if you know the language – or have the translation manual. Adrenaline thrumming through my veins, but I don’t even consider trying to lick into this man. I’ve stepped into his microcosm and disrupted the natural order. Thrown a wrench in the gears.
That first race… God, what a thrill. Ripping down the road at 150 miles an hour and looking over as I accelerate past him. I sat there with the engine billowing smoke in the aftermath, and I was a different person. I didn’t know it then; you don’t see the fine lines when you’re that close to them. It’s only with the distance that time gives you that you can realize this was the point at which everything shifted on its axis.
“You never had your car.”
In that moment his rumbling voice, threading through the jeers of the crowd, is the gravitational pull that sucks me into his orbit forever.
The GPS tracking device in my Eclipse tipped the cops to the illegal racing activities. They could tell how fast I was going, knew what was happening, and couldn’t pass up a chance to swoop in and scoop up such rich spoils. I followed Dom as he pulled away in the RX7 out of sheer instinct, really. Didn’t think he couldn’t take care of himself in the least – no doubt his team drew the same conclusions – but his team was the perfect chance for my “in”. Despite the intercultural blending of the illegal meets, the teams themselves tended to adhere to very specific and well-defined lines of ethnicity. Toretto’s squad was the exception, not the rule, and I knew I needed whatever leverage or opportunity I could create for myself.
Especially since Bilkins and Tanner would both want my ass in a sling for sacrificing the pinks for the Eclipse. I had to make this worth it. Obviously that wasn’t my only motivation. I mean… I was driving his car. It’s his and I have no intention of reneging on that.
Want to impress him, since it’s glaringly obvious he’d been far from impressed when I raced him.
Dom’s not the chatty type. It’s all that control and efficiency – he doesn’t waste breath saying inconsequential things. I didn’t fully appreciate that at the time, when his rumbling purr murmurs, “Two years in Lompoc. I’ll die before I go back.” I mean, all ex-cons say that – don’t they? Say they’ll do anything to avoid going back behind bars again, but those words don’t keep them from breaking the laws and sinking further into the world of illicit activities.
When I glance over and see the faraway look in his eyes as he stares out the window, I can feel the truth. It chills the air in the car, sucks a little of the life from us. It makes all the words die in my throat and sucks the wind from my lungs.
I don’t think I’d even recovered from that when Dom denied delivery of the damned Eclipse. I stare at him with what I’m sure is a blank, stupid look. I have no idea what the hell he’s doing. I’m not dumb enough to miss the tension and outright hostility between him and the Vietnamese. Keep my mouth shut and watch him. Trying not to let it show that my skin is crawling under Lance’s stare. You’d think the man had never seen blonde hair before or something.
It was all on Dom, though. If things got ugly, I could hold my own but my sidearm isn’t with me; isn’t tucked in my jeans, isn’t slid under the front seat. Isn’t hiding in the trunk. I take a moment to study Johnny Tran. I am on a job, after all. Hadn’t seen him around Harry’s in my time undercover, but the Feds had a bead on that one.
If I never have to hunt down a taxi in that part of the city again, it will be too soon. Dom falls back into that same reticence, and I soak up the sensations of comfortable silence and companionship. Never before in my life have I been so eager to take what I could get, so willing to settle for nothing but proximity. I’m perfectly happy just walking down the street beside him, a large enough gap that our shoulders don’t come anywhere close to touching. He seems hyper-aware of that cushion of space. I know I am. Fuck, I’ve been sporting wood since I punched the NOS.
When the cab finally graces the street Dom hails it with a sharp whistle, fingers between his lips. I try not to stare and fail, heat pooling in my gut. We pile into the back seat and Dom gives the cabbie his address in Echo Park. That tingling sensation returns, proximity in confined space I guess. He sprawls his legs, braces an arm on the door, settles in. Between the two of us, there isn’t much excess space. I let my head fall back against the seat, hands limp in my lap, and don’t twitch when he shifts, when his knee rests against my thigh.
I stare at the sagging ceiling liner, the tang of body sweat, stale smoke and whatever shit air freshener the cabbie uses blending into a revolting assault. Could feel Dom’s gaze on me. When he’s still looking after a couple blocks, I roll my head to the side and meet his gaze. There isn’t much to make out, in the intermittent streetlights. A flash of smooth scalp, dark eyes boring into me.
The corner of his mouth twitches, drawing my attention back to those lips. “Thanks.”
I stare at him, brow furrowing in confusion, and pick my head back up to swallow because my mouth is suddenly devoid of moisture. “What for?”
He jerks his head back the road behind us. “Keeping your cool back there.”
“Oh.” My gaze slides past him, out the window over his shoulder. “Okay. Any time.”
His laughter is a quiet chuckle, lips curving up into a full-fledged smile. The streetlights illuminate him in strobe, and I catch a glimpse of the glint in his eyes. He licks his lips, glances away. “It could have been worse, you know?”
I let my head fall back again, shift a bit on the seat to relieve some of the pressure in my groin. Suddenly my jeans are a size too small. That man’s voice should be a controlled substance. Every syllable rumbles through me, laying rubber along my nerve endings like they’re sprint tracks.
“Close is a lingerie shop without a front window.” The movie reference keeps him laughing for a few moments longer, which is my goal. God, that sound is like sex. Makes my dick twitch. Of course, that could be a side effect from a lot of things. I’ve pretty much been in a state of semi-arousal since I punched the NOS earlier.
Damned thing doesn’t want to go down. Underneath the prevalent stench of the cab, I can smell him. Leather, sweat, musk, cologne; a trace of NOS from the fumes and smoke of the Eclipse, too.
“I liked that car.” I take in the line of his throat, the bulge of his shoulders beneath the jacket. The curve of olive flesh and hard, toned muscle under stretched white cotton. The desire to follow those curves with fingers, tongue, lips –is sudden, intense.
Dom rests his right arm up on the back of the seat, knee pushing into my thigh with more insistence. “So did I.”
Yeah, that whole thing could have turned out worse. Those bullets would have torn through flesh as easily as they punctured that car. It chills my blood, how close our escape was. And it had nothing, really, to do with much except a streak of petulance on the part of those Vietnamese. Obviously they had a bone to pick with Dom, but it hasn’t yet crossed over into outright bloodshed.
The silence stretches out. I roll my head to look at him again and his gaze is right there, meeting mine. Watching me. He licks his lip, but those dark eyes don’t falter. Right then, I know he feels it too.
Whatever this is. NOS in our blood, maybe? But no, it was there earlier today too. I know he felt it then, just like he does now. It’s something else.
His gaze slides away and he runs his left hand back over his scalp, turns to stare out the window. I wonder what he’s thinking, watching his profile and the play of light and shadow. The strong line of his jaw, the tension in his neck. My fingers ache to trace those lines, feel the heat and life beneath flesh. I can almost sense the wave of intensity that would match mine ounce for ounce.
But I keep my hands in my lap. He looks down at his knee, that single point of contact. Dom doesn’t move away, doesn’t lift his gaze; just watches me in his peripheral vision. I don’t look away.
It doesn’t get tense and awkward until we get closer to his house. He pulls back into himself; it’s like watching him reassemble a mask he’d taken off.
I hoped he would invite me in, but I wasn’t about to impose on his hospitality. I’m fighting off that jittery post-adrenaline crash as it is. Didn’t think I could keep my cool or rein in my fists if Vince decides to start another pissing contest with me.
When he offers me a beer, I can tell it’s half gratitude and half challenge. And it’s more than a beer he’s offering. His intense dark eyes follow me as I retrace my path to stand at the bottom of the steps, look up at him standing there on the porch.
That much is obvious the moment I set foot inside and kick the door shut.
I’ll never forget the way his voice sounds. A Charger revving its Hemi at the starting line, “you can have any brew you want, as long as it’s a Corona.” Being the outsider, I could clearly see him tightening the weave of his team. Reasserting his authority and position. Frankly, I half expected him to whip it out and start marking his territory or something. If the tension hadn’t been so thick, I might’ve laughed. Not about to get in the middle of it, though. It would only make them see a weakness. And Dom wouldn’t want my interference. Even if it’s blatantly clear he’s just firmly defined my membership in his inner circle.
In essence, Dominic Toretto – everything about him, from his life, to his moods, his physique and the very sound of his voice – is his father’s Charger. Haunted by specters of the past that he cannot or will not release, and they shadow every move he makes. His body is all solid lines and his voice growls on that low register that just rumbles through to the deepest corners, shakes your bones. Even in his calm, controlled moments, it’s easy to see that the containment on that power is a fine, fragile thing.
Even sitting in the driver’s seat, you don’t control a car like that Charger.
All you can do is grip the steering wheel, nudge it, and pray to all that’s holy that you make it through the experience in one piece.
In the end, not a single one of us succeeded.
Least of all me.
“He owns you now, you know.” Mia … she acted like she confiding something I didn’t understand.
She never caught on that he’d owned me before that.
Chapter 3: Dom's Reflections
I think I’m moving but I go nowhere
Yeah I know that everyone gets scared
But I’ve become what I can’t be, oh
Stop and stare
You start to wonder why you’re here not there
And you’d give anything to get what’s fair
But fair ain’t what you really need.
~ OneRepublic, “Stop and Stare”
Not sure what I expect Brian to bring me to replace the Eclipse. It was a beautiful thing. Jesse practically drooled on it, was so upset by the damage Brian did to that engine during the race. Good thing he wasn’t there to see its death. I enjoy the anticipation of its replacement, knowing he won’t blow it off. I want to see what he comes up with. Don’t expect it so fast.
His ingenuity shocks the hell outta me. Makes me want to laugh. My god does he have some balls.
Blond curls haloing his face, smile so wide it’s gotta hurt his cheeks. Beyond me how anyone can smile like that. Brian’s whole body gets involved. Open and hopeful, a stray pup looking for approval and acceptance. Just wanting praise and ear-scratching, and maybe a treat.
“This… is your car.”
Like he’s standing in Paris, introducing me to the Eiffel Tower.
Fuck it, no holding it in. My shoulders shake, I laugh so hard. Brace one hand on the jam of the garage entry, take a drag of Red Bull. Willing, hell eager, to indulge him, but playing dubious as I study the charred deformity that was once a Supra.
“Just pop the hood,” still smiling, gaze challenging.
He’s right. There’s a 2JZ tucked in the carcass. Just like that I get it.
That Supra isn’t just a replacement car. It’s Brian.
Telling his story the same way his driving did. Beaten up and scarred, scorched and damaged by life. But the potential, it’s there to see, if ya take the time to appreciate it. Beauty waiting to be uncovered, repaired. Arms folded across his chest, Snowman stands at my shoulder with a smirk on his face. Waiting. I look him in the eye and nod. Tap his forearm with the crowbar in my grip. His ass is mine. When it’s not Harry’s.
I don’t touch him, not the way I do the rest of the crew. Never had a problem with Leon, Vince or Jesse getting physical. With him, it’s different. Intense. Found that out separating him and Vince outside the diner. Not something I wanna repeat any time soon.
Stirs things up like a whirlpool with an undertow. Dangerous territory.
I loaded him in the car with me for the drive down to Harry’s. Team fanned out behind us in morning traffic, a rainbow in a gray sky. Beautiful sight.
Hot air whips in the open windows, plays in his shaggy curls, “I know that car is going to take a lot to get it race-ready.”
“Yeah.” Takes a lot of effort to keep the RX7 at the speed limit. “So?”
He looks over at me, straight face. Serious look in them unnaturally bright eyes. “It was the best I could do.”
“What?” Feel the line between my brows deepening. Shit. “You think I’m gonna tell you your best ain’t good enough?” I put my attention back on the road and the traffic. Makes it easier, somehow. “That engine has more merit than any car off a dealer’s lot.” I glance over at him, “with the exception of a Bugatti Veyron, maybe.”
He stares at the roof and laughs. That sound, it almost tickles.
“God, Dom. That’s not a stock car. Not a ten-second car, either. More like five. But I’d do that just to see the look on your face.”
Can’t help but laugh along, it’s contagious. “Letty would have an orgasm just looking at the thing,” which only makes him laugh harder. That spark’s back in his gaze when he glances over and shakes his head. “Don’t stress about it. I’ve seen you drive. Up close, yeah? You can handle Race Wars. Need to learn how to double-clutch, but you handle a stick-shift just fine. This stuff going on my tab at Harry’s, it’s just an investment.”
“Beats having stock in General Motors?”
“Like to keep my assets a bit more liquid than that.”
He starts chuckling, shifts his hips in the seat. “Right, that’s the reason for the NOS.”
Buster knew his way around a garage. Starting from scratch with a gutted car like that, it can be difficult. Overwhelming. Found a groove fast, though. There were moments when I swore he was reading my mind. Buried in the engine compartment, and I’d need a wrench – or a narrower hand, longer fingers – and he was right there. Tool tapping my shoulder, or “here let me get that.” Always with a smile curling his lips. Like a kid in a candy shop. Grease smudged down the left side of his face. Sweat-damp hair stuck to his forehead.
Around three in the afternoon, the southern Cali sun is a brutal bitch. Jesse is the only one with a t-shirt left on his body. Grab a six-pack of energy drinks from the fridge in the back and chase the boys out of the bay for a break. God knew I needed one. I could feel the sweat rolling down the groove of my spine.
Brian sprawls his long body on the hood of a parts-car. Leans back against the windshield. I grin at Jesse rambling from his perch on the roof, hand Snowman his drink. All I can do not to stare. Find myself wondering why he ain’t in New York being a model for some designer label they sell on Rodeo Drive or something.
“How ‘bout you, Brian? Who taught you how to drive?” Jesse ruffles those sweat-darkened curls as he asks the question. I lean a hip on the quarter panel, rub at a rivulet of sweat trickling down over my breastbone, smile. This should be good.
“Mother. She taught me. First day with my permit, out on Route 40? Wham, five car pile-up. Swear to God.”
The boys die with laughter, and I grin around another swallow of Red Bull. Makes me happy to see them getting along like this. Not that I really doubted it. He’s so… infectious. I crush my can in one fist and turn back to the bay, “couple hours more, boys. Dinner at our place tonight.” Something makes me stop and turn back, point a finger at Brian, “that means you too.”
He rolls off the hood with a smirk, “better earn my supper then, eh boss?”
Jesse and Leon cackle, moving a little slower.
Heat’s rolling heavy off the grill when Brian comes out the back door with the platter of chicken. Footsteps tripping a light stutter-step on the pressure-treated wood. How he manages that, I don’t know. Only reason he don’t sneak up on me is cuz I was about to yell for Mia to bring the meat out.
“Mia sent me out with these,” and I wonder if the kid ever stops smiling. He slides the platter onto the side of the grill and uncovers two uncapped Coronas twined in his fingers.
“Now that’s a friend,” when he holds one out to me. I glance over at him a few times while I load the grill. He’s quiet, sucking beer and just … watching me. “So, your mom huh?”
He nods, “yeah.” Like the earlier conversation never ended.
“She still live in Barstow?”
“Government job at the Marine Logistics Base. Something administrative. Up for retirement in another couple years, I think.” He doesn’t hesitate to offer the information, but there’s tension in his voice.
I was gonna ask about his dad, but the tension’s not just in his voice. Shoulders hunched, staring at the chicken searing on the hot metal, and I decide against it.
After the movie’s over that night, I drag Vince and Jesse out to hang with Hector. Vince caught a bad mood after Mia pulled a swift one on him. He needs a distraction. And Jesse, well… he behaved himself and sat still for an entire movie. Pretty impressive, even though it was because we were watching “Gone in 60 Seconds.” I swear he squealed every time Eleanor made an appearance. Makes me laugh.
Just before we turn onto the block where El Gato Negro is, Jesse eases his foot off the gas and mutters, “shit.” Slides the car into neutral, taps the breaks. Stretches his arm out past me, pointing into the dark alley.
The red truck Brian drives lurks in the shadows. Harry’s emblem barely visible. But enough. Damn, Jesse’s got good eyes.
Vince leans forward, growls, “what the fuck is that?”
I ease the door open, glance back at Jesse and point to the curb just past the mouth of the alley. “Out of sight, kill the lights. Pop the trunk.”
“I’m telling you, he’s a cop,” and Vince is all but quivering with rage as I ease the shotgun out of the spare tire space.
I toss him the twelve gauge, “let’s find out, yeah?”
Been hearing him spout this shit ever since Snowman first showed his face at the diner. Fuck, even before that. Wonder if his paranoia is rubbing off on me? Won’t hear the end of this without indulging him this once. And gotta admit, this is really damned suspicious.
I grab Vince by the front of his shirt and slam him into the brick wall of the alley. Get in his grill. “You take him down. You let me ask the questions.” I slam him again, to get his full attention. He nods, face blank. Studying me close. “If I’m satisfied with his explanation? This dies. Once and for all.” Another pat with the wall, for good measure. “You got me?”
“Yeah man, I got you,” he whispers.
I ease up and step back, and his grimace is back, grip white-knuckled on the shotgun.
“Over here.” I point to the shadows by the front of the truck.
We don’t have long to wait before Snowman shows up. Shimmying down the side of the building, pure cat burglar.
I don’t like this, don’t want to believe Vince. Despite our history. But why am I so reluctant? I think that bothers me more than anything, really. God, the third grade was such a long fucking time ago. That’s not just history, that’s a lifetime. Brian got in my good graces, keeping me out of handcuffs. Barely two days ago. Is that all it’s been? Why does it feel like years?
He keeps his cool through the pain and disorientation, even with the shotgun on his head and Vince’s grip shaking with rage, “because Dom you know – I can’t lose again.”
I stand there and stare at those wide blue eyes.
I know he’s lying. And yet I accept his words anyway. I see something. I feel something.
That connection we have. It was immediate and indestructible. I know that much.
I finally ask him outright, have to force the words, “you a cop?”
Brian’s gaze holds steady despite the shaken look on his face. Like he’s horrified that I don’t trust him. God, why does that hurt? He shakes his head like moving pains him. Doesn’t say a word.
In that moment, I realize it doesn’t matter one way or the other. Whether I should or not, whether he really deserves it or not, I trust him.
Tran’s garage … clinches it. Huddled there behind the boxes while Johnny and Lance grease the gears of their fence. I can feel the heat rolling off Brian. So heavy I pull my hand off his back, have to move away. The sounds bring back unwanted memories of Lompoc, but Brian watches everything, attention never wavering. Not a single flinch.
Tran’s capable of worse, much worse.
Chapter 4: Brian's Impressions
The broken locks were a warning, you got inside my head
I tried my best to be guarded – But I’m an open book instead.
And I still see your reflection, inside of my eyes
That are looking for purpose, you’re still looking for life.
“You going native on me, Brian?” Tanner’s voice slices through the unexpected surge of rage I felt when Bilkins’ assistant asked about Mia.
The man’s disrespect triggered it, more than anything. That’s Dom’s sister, damn it. I don’t know what she is to me exactly, but I do care about her, care about them both. Don’t know what he is, either, but it’s definitely deeper than just the job. Up until that moment, I hadn’t really bothered to try analyzing it. Now it’s a jumbled turmoil of a thousand different emotions I can’t even begin to understand, which is so unusual for me it’s bewildering. Disconcerting. Because somewhere over the past few days, they became family – a twisted sort of surrogate family, but it’s enough that I won’t stand by and listen to them say that sort of thing. As soon as I react, though, I regret it. I should have kept my cool.
“I don’t think Toretto’s capable of it. Too controlled. His boy Vince maybe, but the man doesn’t have the smarts to pull off something like this.”
Tanner tosses the evidence photos of Kenny Linder on the counter. “You’ve read Toretto’s file.”
“I memorized it.” Every last word of the thing. He’s not stupid enough to do this. There’s this voice in my head playing that belief like a broken record.
“Well take a look at these. Toretto did this, with a three-quarter-inch socket wrench. Real controlled, O’Connor.”
I’ve seen the photos, don’t need to see them again, so I push away from the counter and glare down Bilkins and his Chihuahua on the way out of the house.
Working on the Supra gives me a distraction, but Dom must be able to tell I’m off my stride. He keeps glancing over at me from where he’s hunkered inside the engine compartment. Not furtive, but drawn out moments where his gaze flicks over my face, the stiff set of my shoulders. I do my best to ignore it, but all the while my brain is running in fifth gear.
Is Tanner right? Am I going native? What happened to that emotional disengagement of mine? This UC assignment is turning out to be more demanding than I thought or expected. I feel like I’m losing my foothold. I look at Dom, consciously aware of what he’s capable of doing. And yet… it’s like there’s a disconnect or something. This man – the man I know – God. I don’t know what I’m thinking.
I hold the radiator in place so he can secure the bolts, watch the tendons and muscles in his forearms tensing and bulging. Do you hold a single wrong decision over a man’s head for the rest of his life? Is it really justified to judge anyone on a single wrong decision? I think his life, as it stands now, would beg otherwise.
Why’s it seem like I’m the only one who sees that?
He wipes his hands on a rag and holds it out to me, over the quarter panel. Dark eyes solemn, quiet. Photos of Linder’s injuries flash through my mind as I take the grease-stained cloth, the back of Dom’s fingers warm and smooth beneath mine. I can’t reconcile the information in the file with the man I’ve come to know over the past couple days.
“I wanna show you something.” He speaks softly, almost under his breath, though the sound still rumbles. Even a giant’s whisper is loud, if you’re one to take Tolkien at his word. I might be a couple inches taller than him, but I don’t think either of us has ever noticed it. I know, for my part, that he’s always seemed bigger than me – and bigger than life, really. I hold his gaze while wiping grease off with the rag, and his eyes dart away. Dom, nervous? That was a new experience.
Possibilities run through my head when he heads for the RX7 and slides into the driver’s seat. What is it that he’s going to show me? Something that will convince me how serious he is about the threat to break my neck? Should I assure him that I believe it? Hell, even without the file, I would take something like that on faith.
Muscles bulge in Dom’s cheek when I glance over and study his profile. He’s on edge, and not knowing why is putting a bug up my ass. I don’t know what to say, though. Don’t think there’s anything I can say, any way to pose that question. So I just sit back and let him drive, let my mind drift, let the vibrating purr of the engine sooth the tension from my body and mind.
Sometimes you just need to drive.
When he pulls into the driveway at his house, I ease out of the car in his wake. But Dom doesn’t even look at me, just heads for the padlocked garage in front of us. Like he’ll lose his nerve if he accidentally looks me in the eye. As weird as he’s acting, I have a feeling things are about to get weirder.
He juggles the keychain in his palm for a few seconds, staring at the lock. Half glances over, his gaze making it to the general area of my navel before darting away. I cram my hands a little deeper in my pockets and wait. With fumbling, thick fingers Dom untangles a worn, dull key from the menagerie and unlocks the door with a molar-grinding grimace.
The big door slides back with audible reluctance, years of irregular use forcing the muscles to stand out across Dom’s back and shoulders beneath the white, sweat-soaked cotton of his t-shirt.
Afternoon sunlight filters through the slats of the garage, and from the patchwork shadows an old-body Charger glares back at me. I can’t move.
Went to the zoo once with my mother when I was young. To this day, I still remember the look in the eyes of the male lion, couchant in the shade to escape the summer heat. The same vibe rolled over me from that garage, despite the relative cool air in the shaded enclosure. All along my nape and forearms, the hair stands up.
Guess the cause might have been the ghosts clinging to its steel skin.
It was a very different Dom who warily stepped toward the front fender of that beast and stared at the turbocharger. Like he was looking death in the face. Hands fisted loosely against his thighs, shoulders hunched, chin canted down. Eyes hooded.
“Beautiful car.” I can’t think of anything else to say. Dom’s acting weird. But it’s obvious this is what he wanted to show me, for whatever the reason, so I look. Not a flaw anywhere to be seen; someone put a good bit of effort into restoring and maintaining it. Betting that would be him.
His words are soft, “yeah. My dad and I built it … from the ground up.” I don’t move. The scuff of my Cons on the concrete would drown out the sound of his voice. “Nine hundred horsepower of pure Detroit muscle.” There’s a lighter fondness in him then, and I smile. He glances at me, but returns to staring at the motor. Shuffles around to stand by the driver’s door. His hand comes up and he trails fingertips almost reverently over the very edge of the chrome, “my dad ran nine flat at Palmdale. So much torque, the chassis twisted coming off the line.”
Silence drags out. As if we’re paying homage to something intangible.
I can almost feel the weight of the anvil hovering. It’s there in the gravity orbiting his presence. “What kind of numbers you get with her?” He was waiting for me to ask, begging me to. Whatever this is, he wants so badly to share it with me for whatever his reasons. Far be it from me to deny him anything.
“I’ve never driven her.” Heartbeat space of silence. “Scares the shit outta me.”
I follow his agitated journey around the perimeter of the car as he tells me about his father, the race, Linder, the choice he made that changed his life irrevocably. Even if he didn’t consciously make it.
I have to sit down, glad the chair is there and that it doesn’t collapse under my weight because I was about a millisecond from planting my ass on the concrete. Legs can’t hold me anymore. My attention is riveted to his face, his gestures, the movements of his body as he tells me. All of it.
The story I know.
Only… not. Not at all.
I felt like a freight train slammed into me at a railroad crossing. Can see it coming, just figure you’ll get past in time. Roulette, and you never expect the impact. The breath being sucked from your lungs.
Dom knocked the wind out of my sails without even touching me.
This is what comes of people who screw with his family – intentionally or not.
And I knew that. I did.
I see something past the bullshit he spouts at me about living a quarter mile at a time.
I see a man who can’t outrun his history. A mistake he made, a burden he will carry for the rest of his life. Can never put down, never overcome, never move past.
No matter how fast he fucking drives or how much NOS he burns.
He’s searching for something, without knowing what it is or where to find it.
Lost, vulnerable; hiding behind the diamond-plated steel armor of his machismo.
Why did he show me? Did he figure I wouldn’t judge him? I see something in else in his eyes. Fragile emotion, delicate as spun glass. And the voice in my head says, tread lightly here.
Bilkins gives me a thirty-six hour deadline. “I don’t care if you have to blow your fucking cover and put a gun in someone’s face.” Yeah, the man’s got finesse in spades, don’t he.
“It’s Toretto, Brian. It always has been Toretto.” Tanner thought this was about Mia? “There’s all kinds of family, Brian. And that’s a choice you’re going to have to make.”
I stand there staring at the moonlight playing over the surface of the pool. But all I can see is Dom, patchwork shadows flicking over black enamel, the bared soul staring back at me from man and beast.
My reflection looks back at me. “Who’s your fucking family now?” I ask the stranger in the water.
This is your life, are who you want to be?
This is your life, is it everything
You dreamed that it would be
When the world was younger
And you had everything to lose?
Don’t close your eyes.
~ Switchfoot, “This Is Your Life”
Brian walked into the garage just as Mia finishs up the last decal. Hands deep in his pockets, elbows locked. Shoulders stiff, chin tucked. Watching us with hooded eyes. Everything about him screams at me, dark and murky. Never seen him like this before. Leon chucks the keys and he catches them on reflex. Not even a flinch of surprise. I click the laptop shut and wonder what’s got his britches in a twist today. Nothing a good long drive won’t fix.
“Time to take it for a spin and tweak the chip, buster,” motioning him toward the driver side. “Fire it up.”
He doesn’t even crack a grin, just slides into the racing seat and turns it over, revs the engine. Jesse’s moan of delight makes one corner of his mouth crawl up a fraction.
Maybe there’s hope for him yet. Good thing, too. Because I never was one for finesse.
Brian massages the steering wheel as he eases out of the garage doors and turns onto the street. “Coast highway?”
I pull my shades off the front of my tank and slip them on my face. “Let ‘er run, bro. Know a place up north a ways. They have good shrimp.”
He’s quiet for a few blocks, and I fire the laptop back up to make sure it’s tapping into the gauges. Jesse loves this shit. Me, I don’t know much more than how to interpret the program’s readouts and mod the chip settings. Gimme good old carbureted Detroit muscle any day.
“Feels tight,” as he takes the turn toward the 101.
“Well, yeah. Virgin parts, Snowman.” I flash him a grin. He glances at me. Then jams it into fourth and mashes the pedal. Weaves over into the far left lane and lets it run a little. I grapple for the hand grip and slap the laptop shut, “you trying to impress me?”
“Thought I’d already done that.” His voice is flat, movements purely mechanical. Head shifting minimally as he checks the mirrors every few seconds.
For a few miles, the only sounds are the wind whipping in through the open roof and the rise and fall of the purring engine. Damned peaceful. Even if I’m in the passenger seat. No way he’s tricking me into taking delivery until I’m damn well good and ready to.
When he breaks the silence, his words feel distant. Emotionally remote. Doesn’t take but a heartbeat for me to figure out why.
“My father, he was Army. Airborne Ranger, Special Forces. Did black ops stuff; Panama, Bosnia, Somalia and Iraq back ten years ago before we were there the first time. Probably a dozen other places too, that nobody will ever hear a whisper about. Always gone, never knew where he was, never heard from him. Sometimes it was just a couple weeks. Most times it was longer. Months, years.”
Another mile passes in silence. The Supra purrs along in fifth gear. Brian edges over and slides through the Coast Highway interchange smooth as a lizard through the desert.
“When he finally came back, really came back… My parents used to fight a lot. Mom knew it was PTSD and all, but that didn’t make it any easier to deal. Things got broken, thrown around. When the trajectories started getting closer to her than random walls or furniture, she left.”
Brian’s profile is all I can see. Screw the Pacific Ocean.
“Just … didn’t come home after her shift at the Logistics Base one evening. When he realized she wasn’t going to show up, dad went out after her. Don’t really know what happened. Never got up the nerve to ask.”
Another mile of asphalt whips by beneath the tires.
“I’ve always wondered what might have happened, you know? If I’d tried to stop him from driving off with a couple fifths of Jack in his system. I was seventeen at the time. I could have told him I’d go find her for him, right? But the man was six and a half feet of killing machine. Could take you out with his left thumb and the amount of pressure past tap dead center that it takes to start a car.”
The longer he talks, the faster he gets. Like the Supra, picking up speed. He’s on a roll. Doesn’t seem to want feedback. Just needs to get it out. Blow the carbon out of his motor. I can sympathize with that. So I watch him watch the road. His eyes are invisible behind his wrap-around Ray Bans. His knuckles going white on the steering wheel.
When he continues, his voice is flat. Dead, empty. Like he unplugged his emotions. It scares me.
“He had a ‘Cuda. Four-twenty-six Hemi, the seventies model. Big Red, he called it. Wrapped it around a tree that night, but not before slamming into an oncoming car and killing a family of four. Mom ended up in traction for six months. Dad’s still in a coma. She won’t pull the plug. He’s in a full-care VA facility. There are times when I think she just wants him to wake up so she can kill him with her own hands.”
That would be why he never has more than a single beer when he’s around.
“Fuck.” Brian downshifts for the stoplight up ahead. His knuckles graze my thigh. Look like snowcapped Sierra Mountains. I reach out, palm hovering above the back of his hand. Tension pours off him, steam from an overheating engine. When he downshifts again, my hand settles against his. Can feel the tremors running through his entire body in that one point of contact.
Makes the hair on my arms stand up.
He chews his lower lip, gaze locked on me as he shifts into neutral and glides to a stop.
“Buster learned how to double-clutch, yeah?” I try to keep my voice light. Don’t think I succeed all that well. Throat feels raw. Eyes itch.
The corner of his mouth twitches. “I’m getting there. Got a good teacher.”
Black Ferrari eases up in the lane next to us. Revs its engine. Brian’s hand tenses beneath mine. Feel him jiggle the stick, lean forward to look past me.
“How much is a car like that?” Ballsy little fuck, I swear to God. Makes me want to laugh, but I manage not to. Glad I’m wearing shades.
Rich yuppie and his Barbie doll trophy girlfriend. How typical.
I look over at the cocky Snowman and raise a brow. The afternoon sunlight hits his face just right, highlighting his cheekbone. For a brief moment I can see his eyes. Dark and hooded, haunted and hard. Still, I think my blonde is better looking than Ferrari-boy’s. By a long shot. The corner of my mouth twitches up a little.
“Smoke ‘em.” Not a doubt in my mind he can. And he needs it. I can see it in his face, feel it in his hand.
He stares down at the gearshift. “What’s this, my handicap?” His lips curl into a faint smile. Weak, pathetic thing – more muscle cramp than humor.
“You can call it that.”
“I could call it lots of things.”
“Don’t think you can beat him driving with one hand?”
“Didn’t say that.”
“Didn’t have to.” Just as I start to lift my hand, he flexes his long fingers and weaves them in between mine. Sends heat shooting through my body like a jolt of electricity.
“Don’t.” The sound of his voice startles me, but when I look up at his face there’s nothing to see. Nothing but concentration and intensity as he focuses on the stoplight.
I manage to grab the hand grip just as the light changes. Feeling his grip on the gearshift is...strange. Different. A totally new kind of intimate. Brian’s driving is exhilarating all on its own. That single point of contact, simple and complex. Takes a lot to keep my arm loose and let him move. I’m not a passenger anymore. He’s sharing it with me.
Unusually generous with himself today. Which makes my hackles stand up even more.
Still, I have to shift in my seat a bit. Between that zing of something that settled in my gut, and Brian weaving into oncoming traffic to beat the Ferrari… my baggy cargo pants are getting a little tight. He’s so focused on the road. Palms that steering wheel with such accuracy. As though he’s been driving this Supra for years and it’s an extension of his body. I doubt he notices my reaction, even with his knuckles warm and dry against my palm.
My awareness of him is unsettling. Definitely not new, but more intense now. Like someone telling you something and you know it’s important even though you don’t know why. And you don’t know what to do with the information.
Urgent message, but the ink is smudged and unreadable.
I point at Netty’s as he leaves the Ferrari and its Barbie in the dust. He eases in between a flock of Harleys and a beat-up Volkswagen Bus headed for the next high tide. Slides the gearshift into neutral, braces his foot on the break. Doesn’t make a move, otherwise. Staring straight out the windshield. At nothing.
“You burn all the carbon out?”
I grunt and push the door open. I’m hungry for shrimp. And I really need a fucking Corona. Not used to being sensitive with anyone. Not sure I know how. Letty, she doesn’t want to be treated that way. Not by me, not by anyone. And Mia? Well, she couldn’t beat her way around a bush with a Louisville Slugger.
Not sure why I brace my forearm on the edge of the roof. Lean down and stare at Brian until he looks up.
“It’s easy to tell yourself there’s nothing you could have done to make it not happen. Not so easy to believe it. Blame’s a vicious circle, gets you nowhere.” That’s all I have to say on that subject. Really. It takes time, and that’s not something you can steal or buy to make it go faster. “Shrimp, remember? Come on, I’m hungry. Some of us were working all morning finishing your bitch.”
Finally he cracks half a smile and kills the engine. “My bitch?”
I push the door shut. “Hell yeah, I haven’t taken delivery yet.”
He crams his hands deep in his front pockets and stares up at the sky, leaning back against the driver-side door. “You like owning me, don’t you?”
“Damn straight, Snowman. Not a boring moment yet.”
He pushes off the car and trails after me. “Well, that’s something. I aim to please.” Every word dripping sarcasm, a stack of pancakes running a waterfall of syrup.
I slide into one side of a booth and slide my shades off. Make an effort not to glare at him, “you gonna tell me what the problem is?” I ask as gently as I can, try to feel him out. I’ve never poked around the jagged remains of a broken glass before. That’s what this reminds me of.
He just shakes his head and sits quietly while the waitress takes my order, grins, and does something Letty calls ‘making eyes’.
“I know something’s buggin’ ya, Bri.”
“Look, I have my good days and my bad days just like anybody else.” Snaps at me. Clearly saying ‘let it be, leave me alone’ no matter the words I hear. “Please, Dom,” looking up at me through his long eyelashes, eyes hooded. And goes back to staring at his napkin. Plotting its tortured demise with his long fingers. Ripping the paper to shreds.
Despite his mood, the silence between us doesn’t feel strained. It drags out until our drinks arrive, my Corona and his unsweetened iced tea. With lemon. Not that he needs more ‘tart’ today or anything. I don’t even glance at the waitress, “thanks,” keep watching Brian. Kid reminds me of a graphic novel. Expressive, exaggerated almost. Don’t do anything by halves. Picks a mood and mashes the pedal to the floor ‘til the tach redlines.
Lotsa wear and tear on your parts, doing that. What happened to his cool?
He tries to get up in my grill from the opposite side of the table. That long torso of his, he almost succeeds. It’s a struggle to keep my gaze on his face and focus on what he’s saying. Unlike some people, Brian being testy doesn’t tweak my temper. A surprising realization. It’s a first. Even when Letty starts with me, I can get hot under the collar. Think she does it deliberately most of the time.
This is different. I want to grab that finger he’s poking around and flatten his hand on the table beneath mine. Just to feel his heat against the maze of calluses on my palm. Words. He’s still talking. Pay attention, Dom.
Brian wants in. Shit. Those blue eyes are boring into me. Can’t tell him no, even if I wanted to. Why didn’t I see this coming? Got a quick mind in that head of his. Notices things.
“Let’s see how you do after Race Wars, then we’ll talk.” I keep my voice low and watch him study me with hooded eyes. Not sure if that’s good enough for him. Bringing in a new driver at this point would be dangerous. Even one as good as he is. Waiting is safer. Because after Race Wars? There won’t be any more. But I keep thinking he’d be nice to have around. Keep seeing it in my mind. Whether on a Mexican beach watching the tide come in or playing psychic tool delivery system in my garage. Wherever it is. Wherever I am.
I’ve got to let it go and leave it alone,
Just walk away, stop it going on
Get too scared to jump if I wait too long,
But maybe someday …I’ll see you smile as you call my name.
~ The Cure, “Maybe Someday”
Tanner was right. Forcing myself to admit it was a privately painful feat.
It’s Toretto, Brian. It always has been Toretto.
The back of my hand still tingles with the sense memory of his palm, the weight of his hand, the faint rasp of callous over my knuckles. His dark eyes are somber as he slides the folded slip of paper across the Formica. I didn’t want to believe it, liked him too much. Cared too much. In getting close, I got too close – and it happened faster than it ever did in the past. As outgoing as I am, I don’t have a very large collection of friends. I’d like to count Dom amongst them, but he will inevitably learn the truth. One way or another, he’ll discover that Vince was right all along. And then I’ll be the enemy, in his eyes.
I don’t want to see that happen. I don’t want to kill the glint that flashes in his eyes when he smiles that goofy grin of his.
Dom’s careful to avoid my fingers as I take the slip of paper from him. Directions to Race Wars. Best non-answer anyone’s ever given me. He’s all but admitted it. Why does that hurt so fucking much? That he’s guilty? It’s my job. Pulling off a successful UC will bag the detective badge I’ve been gunning for. Only, that doesn’t seem so important anymore. This is going to end badly, one way or another. The truckers … damn it, the only thing that’s important to me in that moment, as I glance up from the paper and hold Dom’s gaze, is somehow managing to be there to stop them from doing this. Minimize the inevitable damage as much as I’m capable.
“So you’re gonna lay out some bank for me to make you money? I might be driving, but this is all you, Dom. Your car, your winnings.”
He pops another shrimp in his mouth, licks the sauce off his lower lip, and bobs his head. “I figure five large to start should be enough to get you rolling.”
“You’re willing to gamble that much on me in a single throw.” I lean back in the bench, stretch my legs out, hands lax against my thighs. Just listening to him talk soothes the tension from my body. That voice rumbles, and I just let everything go. Nothing else matters. My leg shifts as I relax, calf bumping into his beneath the table.
He arches an eyebrow at me. “And then some. You’ll be fine,” grabs another shrimp. His leg presses into mine, and the sudden shift toward tactile baffles me. First in the car, and now this… “What? You just blew away a Ferrari, for crying out loud.”
I roll my eyes and stare off across the highway at the endless stretch of ocean.
“You wouldn’t have beaten that car if I’d been driving it. Happy? That’s beside the point.”
“You. Driving a Ferrari.” I can’t help it, I have to laugh. When I glance back at him, he’s flashing that goofy grin of his at me. I doubt anyone could maintain a gloomy outlook around Dom for any length of time. “So you don’t think I can beat you.”
That grin gets wider, “not a chance in hell, buster.” Dom shoves the plate in the center of the table toward me a fraction. “Have some.”
“I almost had you.” Don’t know why I persist with that. Maybe just to keep him talking.
“Brian, Brian.” There’s a gleam of sweat along his temple as he shakes his head. “I don’t keep you around for your mad driving skills. Though you really did make that Eclipse dance, I gotta hand it to you there.”
“What am I then, comic relief? Everybody laughs at the ‘snowman’ behind his back?”
Dom frowns and cants his head to the side, watches me devour a few shrimp. “Good question. Don’t know I thought that far. You’re the tuna-lover that’s dating my sister.”
Ouch. I flinch inwardly at that assessment but manage to keep it from showing. One corner of my mouth twists into a wry smirk. “Like you’d do that for anyone else your sister dated?”
“That’s the point. I wouldn’t. Her and Vince have been doing this little,” he grabs a shrimp and twirls it in a circle in the air before devouring it, “tango of some kind. Been driving me nuts with it. You’re the first person she’s even looked at twice. She’s using you. You realize that, right? Mia’s been in love with Vince since she was old enough to walk, I think.”
While I digest that, I watch his attention moving between me and the shrimp without an ounce of guile to be seen. “Why’d you threaten to break my neck like that? If you knew?”
He shrugs and fans a shrimp tail out on the pad of his index finger, studying the details of the fins. “Maybe ‘cause it seemed like you expected it of me. The big brother and all, you know? I trust you with her. You’re both adults. She don’t need me poking around in her life like I did when she was sixteen.”
All his statements are sensible enough, but stacked together they feel like a house of cards. None of it makes any sense. I shake my head slowly, hold his gaze across the table. His dark eyes wander over my face. That glint is back. “So you keep me around because I got in your good graces and owe you a ten-second car.” I jut my jaw toward the Supra. “And there she sits, pretty as a picture. Why won’t you take delivery?”
Dom stares at the last shrimp on the plate, then back up at me. When he finally answers, his voice is a low and throaty growl. “I’d much rather watch you drive, Bri.”
The sound of his voice reminds me of patchwork sunlight on black enamel, and a chill runs up my spine. I have to clear my throat before I can speak. “Yeah? Why’s that?”
He laughs, a soft rasp of sound that makes my fingers tingle. “It’s a very… uplifting …experience.”
I blink at that. And then stare at him and study his widening smile before the meaning behind it sinks in completely. “Shit, you’re pulling my leg. You have to be.”
He grabs a napkin and gives all his attention to cleaning the nonexistent shrimp juice from his hands.
“You’re serious.” I whisper, fascinated and shocked and not at all believing him. “You keep me around because my driving turns you on?”
Dom gives me a tight-lipped smile and digs his wallet out, leaves a few bills with a generous tip on the table. “I didn’t expect you to understand, Bri. You asked though,” and just like that he pushes up from the booth and walks away.
Oh no, Dominic Toretto; the conversation doesn’t end that easily.
It takes me a couple seconds to pull myself together and trail after him. He’s leaning on the passenger side quarter panel, staring out at the ocean with his heavy arms folded across his chest like a shield.
My Cons whisper on the asphalt of the lot as I position myself directly in front of him, hands in my pockets. “Dom.”
His chin drops, but his gaze flicks toward me. Dark lashes lowered, eyes focusing on my mouth. As focused as I am when I drive, Dominic Toretto has never failed to register to my senses. I recall how it felt to have him beside me in the Eclipse. Knowing that sensation was partially due to his reaction, not simply mine? That stuns me.
And of course, I wouldn’t have missed the way he shifted around in his seat earlier even if I’d been blind. I watch his lips tense into a thin line, and give him one of my smiles.
Which, of course, makes him laugh and shake his head. “Get in the car, Spilner. This isn’t something I want to talk about. You get me?”
“Sure. Long as we’re cool, Dom.” I’m not moving until he gives me that much.
He looks at me finally, goofy grin intact, dark eyes unveiled and glinting. “Always.” And he turns away, shoulder brushing against my chest with deliberate pressure, slides into the car.
Fucking tease. Of all the people I’ve made acquaintance with in this underground microcosm of street racing, he is the last person I’d ever expect it from. Dominic Toretto, ex-con, old school American muscle aficionado, and tease.
Oh well. At least nothing’s ever boring around the man. Like that restaurant, the Cha-Cha-Cha. I’d been wondering what the hell that was actually about. Beyond Mia toying with Vince and all. Because you don’t go on a serious date, and spend the entire evening talking about her brother. That’s not normal. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Not even when it’s the only common denominator.
The drive back down into town is quiet. It’s a comfortable silence, and I’m not really eager to end any of this. Not our ride together, not my friendship with Dom, not my place in his team that this assignment gave me. Fucking ironic, that this is how I find my place. That one spot where I just fit, without trying too hard, without feeling cramped or pressured. Just accepted. And damn if that doesn’t hurt more than anything else; having found the one thing I’ve wanted and searched for, I have to give it all up. Destroy all of it with my own hand, because there’s no way to hang onto it no matter what I do.
My eyes burn and sting behind the protection of my Ray Bans. I tell myself it’s just the wind.
I am not your rolling wheels
I am the highway
I am not your carpet ride
I am the sky.
~ Audioslave, “I am the Highway”
Brian did what I couldn’t. Saved Vince’s life, pulling him off that semi. Without a line. No regard for his own safety. That alone infuriates me.
What came after, it’s so much worse.
He took a risk, exposing the truth that way. I could see it in his eyes, the apprehension giving way to outright fear.
The betrayal and rage surged through me in a torrent. I don’t know what all I felt in those few moments. One sensation eclipsed the others.
For a couple seconds, there’s nothing but him. Chattering into the cell. Gaze locked on mine.
You just broke my heart.
I warned him not to do it to my sister.
I never said anything about me.
In that moment, the blood on his hands isn’t from Vince. It’s mine.
Didn’t think it would happen. Didn’t care about the truth, either. Wanted to keep pretending.
But he never hesitated, never faltered.
Vince slapping at me, as he flails and coughs, pulls me back into the moment.
No love lost between those two. Why’d he do any of it?
Why’d he throw it all away like that? Shove the truth in my face? Forcing me to admit that this has to end. That we can’t keep ignoring it.
Lifeline takes off. I stare at him across the span of desert scrub. Standing all alone. There’s a million things rolling through my mind as I slide into the passenger seat. Questions I want to ask him. It’s all churning around, confusing me, and right then isn’t the time. The words wouldn’t come even if I tried. I’m so angry; I figure if I never see him again, it would be too soon.
But he comes at me with his sidearm.
All trace of Snowman gone. Emotion bleeding off him from every inch of his body. Burning me with his eyes.
“No more running!” His voice pleads with me. I can hear it.
Does he think he can make this mess all better? What the hell does he mean, anyways? For some reason, it feels like he’s talking to himself, arguing with himself. He’s not here to fight with me, it’s something else going on. He’s fighting with himself about why he showed up in the first place. So I remind him who he is. Knife twisting in my gut. Did he forget so fast?
Maybe that was the problem.
Maybe he forgot, every time he was around me.
Jesse pulls up in a screech of rubber, crying, begging. “Help me, Dom!” Tears streaming down his face.
I hold that intense blue gaze, see the boy’s emotional voice echoed in Brian’s eyes and understand what he isn’t saying. Can’t bring himself to say. Help me, Dom. God, it’s all crumbling around me. I throw the shotgun on the lawn, walk past him. He doesn’t drop his aim, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the last thing he’d do is pull that trigger. Holding the thing is a reminder to him that he’s not one of us. That he has a job to do. A badge. That he’s not a Toretto. Time to buck up and play the role you’ve been handed, O’Connor.
It’s good advice.
As if one man’s blood on my hands isn’t enough, now I’ve Jesse’s too. Streaming from his chest, tear-streaked face slack, eyes empty. Warm and sticky on my palms and fingers. God help me, it’s never going to go away.
I feel him watching me. His damned eyes darken at whatever he sees on my face. And just like that, Brian takes off after Tran and Lance.
Without any backup. Fuck him and his impulsive stupidity. No way I’m letting him go alone.
Jesse was my responsibility.
And the truth doesn’t change the fact that Brian is too.
No matter how ugly that truth is.
Does Brian know how vicious those two can be? He’s a cop. The reminder is salt in an open wound. Charger scares the shit out of me as it leaps down the drive and bounces into the street beneath the lead weight of my foot on the gas.
As though it senses my fury, soaks it up, reveling in the anger. Feeding on my fear.
I’ve got Brian’s back in this one. Everything else pales in importance. It’s just me and him against the bad guys. Simple.
I stare down the hill at Lance, writhing in the grass. Gives me a surge of satisfaction, seeing him like that. What you deserve, for leering at my blond.
He did it for me, taking out Johnny Tran. I didn’t hear the gunshots over the roar of the Charger. Didn’t know exactly how it went down until much later. But I saw him, down the length of the boulevard. Crouched over the remains of the bike. And I knew. And I ran.
When he pulls up beside me at the light, he doesn’t say a word. I can see the unspoken apology in his eyes, but it hurts even more to see it there. And I don’t understand any of it. I can feel the ghosts in the car with me. My father. Jesse. Vince.
It’s ironic, when the piston goes. Echoes the ache in my chest. Everything has gone wrong, fallen apart. When we make it across the tracks, I think maybe I broke the jinx. I look over at him.
For that one moment I feel complete. At peace.
And then fear shifts through his features as he looks past me.
The sound of his voice, screaming my name, echoes in my ears.
So much in that one syllable, stretching out into a wail.
His panic, fear, and love.
That still haunts me.
So close, no matter how far
Couldn’t be much more from the heart
Forever trusting who we are, and nothing else matters.
I never opened myself this way; life is ours, we live it our way.
All these words I don’t just say…
~ Metallica, “Nothing Else Matters”
“Know what you’re doing?”
Like the twisted heap of Charger, Dom’s voice is tight with pain, undercurrents of emotion that I’m too strung out to interpret.
For about thirty seconds there, as I ran toward the black beast and screamed his name, I swore my heart would stop in my chest. Nothing existed but Dom. I willed him to survive that crash. If it had been any other car, anything but the old steel-body monster, he would have been dead. I’m sure of it.
The stain of blood is loud on the side of his white t-shirt; a badge of guilt, a visible reminder of failure, the price of his fucked-up choices, his responsibility.
I hold the keys out, well aware of what it will cost me. Aware and uncaring. It all pales beside the fact that he’s standing here in front of me, alive. I want to fix everything; it wasn’t supposed to be him. Anyone but him, he’s smarter than this. What happened to his control?
Guess everyone needs to let go somehow, and that was how he did it. He couldn’t find it anywhere else. Not with the shadows clinging to his soul, the specters weighing down his spirit.
He hesitates before taking the Supra’s keys. Acknowledging my sacrifice, what it means. He understands. It doesn’t change anything.
I don’t do it for Mia, or the memory of the team. Or the bond of family, the gift he gave me. He rebuilt something inside me that I never even knew was broken, just like he did the Supra. And I hand over more than just a damned set of keys.
I do it for him. More than just repayment for the lies I told, or the betrayal.
Dom’s voice echoes in my head. “You are the cop, you’re the cop!” Makes me flinch even now, the painful reminder of where I stand, straddling the line, torn between loyalties. What I want so badly and can’t have, warring against obligations that I can’t bring myself to fulfill. So many emotions playing through his features; in that moment I truly fear for his sanity. His fury, focused on me, mirrored in the black beast crouching beside him in the driveway. Eager, impatient.
Now a harmless, twisted hulk in the center of the road. As battered and beaten as Dom.
In my own way, I was giving him another chance. To start over somewhere else, to escape and be free. He showed me as much, how to free myself. I don’t even think he realizes what he did. Don’t think I’ll ever get a chance to thank him for it either.
So much I want to say. Not enough time for any of it, not with the sirens drawing closer with each passing moment.
When you love something, you let it go. And walking away has always been a forte of mine. Don’t know if Dom even realizes that when he drives away in the Supra, he takes a piece of me with him.
I don’t expect to see him again. Deep down, I can’t stop hoping. But I don’t think it will ever happen. I tried talking to Mia a few times after returning from Miami and acquiring a slot with the Feds. She either hangs up on me or ignores my calls altogether. It takes a while, but at last I start burying myself in work, trying to forget. No such luck.
I take a trip back to Barstow to visit my father the next year – on the anniversary of the day it all went to shit. I have to get away. Don’t even pack a bag, just hop in the Skyline and run from the press of the past.
Anything is better than driving stretches of road that will resurrect the ghosts and demons of what-if’s, might-have-been’s, and should-have-done’s. Even visiting a father who can’t talk back. Wounds of the distant past are always less sensitive than more recent injuries.
The nurses say hearing familiar voices helps the comatose, but I don’t know how much help it is for him to hear my voice. After all this time, would he even recognize me as his son? So much has changed, and he hardly spent much time with me to begin with. Might help more if I could track down some of his old Army buddies. But I sit and talk to him anyways, for hours, until my throat hurts and my voice is hoarse. Stare at the increase of gray at his temples, peppering his hair more thickly than I recall from the last time. Tell him all about Miami, and how Rome is doing. The garage he opened up. When the nurses chase me off, I drive out to haunt the old stomping grounds, reliving some fonder memories from my adolescence.
Give a passing thought to ringing up Rome. Let him distract me, though he wouldn’t know from what. He’d still do it.
And that’s when I see it in a junkyard off old Route 66. Dull, even in the harsh desert sun; faded paint more gun-metal gray than black, dry-rotted leather seats showing guts of foam and batting. An abandoned old Charger, battered and beaten and needing some love. But not beyond repair, not like some things.
Made arrangements for it to be hauled back to L.A. and rented a garage slip. That wide body and large-block Hemi stands out among the other project cars in the building. Especially at first, given the shape it’s in. All my days off and vacation time go into restoring it. Turns out to be a very therapeutic pastime, and after a while I find I can smile a little when a certain flash of chrome and black enamel triggers a memory of Dom. Not that it doesn’t hurt; it will never stop hurting. But I’m coming to terms with that, and it becomes a welcome sort of ache.
I will never forget the afternoon I finish tweaking the turbocharger and fire it up. The roar echoes through the garage so loud I can feel it. It rumbles up my spine and reaches into all those deep corners that Dom’s voice used to ferret out. The hairs on my nape and arms stand up.
And then my cell phone rings. It’s Letty.