Damen stares at his knuckles instead of trying to unfold them from where he's gripping the steering wheel. He breathes through his adrenalin while his heart slams jubilantly around his chest. He can feel the size of the smile on his face. An incredulous laugh is trying to burst out of him, and he feels like it might echo and whoop from one distant cliff to another if he lets it out.
Jesus fuck. That was maybe better than the best sex he's had in his life. And certainly enough to grab Laurent's attention, along with--hopefully--enough respect for Damen's driving skills that he'll be invited to fill the gap in their crew. Allowed into the inner circle of Laurent's secrets.
He climbs out of the car, closes the door it and leans against it, looking across at where Laurent is doing the same. The slam of Laurent's car door is quieter than his own; Damen would have expected a fit of temper, three days ago, but he knows Laurent better now.
Laurent, who barely looks old enough to hold a driving license, and who races as though daring the track to claim his life the way it claimed his brother's. He's a slim, too-pretty boy of twenty, and the men of this particular underworld talk about him as though he's an open flame, a sparking engine near a pool of gasoline: volatile, and not to be handled. Kid's got balls of sheer fucking steel, Damen's contact said.
Which must be true, because having just lost a race against Damen for pink slips, Laurent looks him straight in the eye and says, "Double or nothing?" in a voice like vodka poured straight from the freezer.
Behind Laurent, Nicaise--who is definitely not old enough to drive, not that it stops him--rolls his eyes and turns to whisper something to Jord, their mechanic.
"With what?" Damen says. He'd laugh the offer off, but the further under Laurent's skin he can get, the better. He steps into the rough circle that's formed around them, centering the focus of the crowd. "I just won your car. And I don't think your sidekick's going to let you put his up next."
"Fuck you," says Nicaise.
Laurent gives Damen a thoughtful look, and saunters forward to meet him in the space between the cars. Headlights and dirty floodlights and just a touch of frigid moonlight combine to make a riot of gleaming shades in his pale hair.
"If you win," he says, calm and clear, "you can fuck me over the hood of whichever one you like."
Noise erupts around them. Damen's brain stalls and grinds like a cheap gearbox under the hands of a nervous beginner. He's blown his best advantage now that Laurent knows about the nitro and has seen how Damen handles himself on the track; surely, surely the untouchable and venomous Laurent wouldn't make a wager like that in front of witnesses if he suspected for even a fraction of a second that he might lose. Damen thinks about what his supervisors at the Bureau would say if he lost this race and had to tell them that the hundreds of thousands of dollars his car represents are now in the hands of a criminal.
But Laurent is gazing at him, a curl of danger and delight on his lips; Laurent's mouth looks as though it would taste like taking a hairpin bend twenty miles an hour too fast. And as much as Damen fights to keep the Deputy Director's furious expression in his mind, it's wiped clean by the image of Laurent gasping and writhing, clenching around him, sweat coating his graceful neck, pinned between Damen and the still-warm hood of his car.
If Laurent's prepared to make that offer, he's underestimating how much Damen wants to win.
Damen swallows. His mouth is drier than the desert that stretches out around them, night-grey sand bleeding into the pinpricked sky.
"You're on," he says, and holds out his hand.
Damen can barely see the world as anything but blurred, tunnel-vision shapes by the time his car screams across the finish line, half a length--if that--ahead of Laurent's. As he lowers his foot onto the brake, as he pulls around in a half-circle to park, as he climbs out of the car in front of a crowd falling quiet with anticipation… he can barely breathe. Part of him's back there on the track, watching the speedometer strain towards two hundred. Part of him's hearing Laurent's voice, making the offer.
He watches Laurent's car--which is his car, now--but he can't see through the windshield with the glare of lights. He wonders if Laurent will stay behind the wheel. Drive the car away in a burst of dust, disappear into the desert.
But that doesn't fit with what he's seen of Laurent de Vere so far. And sure enough, Laurent climbs out of the car as soon as the engine cuts, and strides across to stand in front of Damen. The black T-shirt clings across his chest, scooping low enough that the ends of his collarbones are visible. There's nothing to see in his expression.
Laurent swipes his hair back from his face. He says, watching Damen closely, "Afraid I won't honour my word? I will. I always do."
"What, right now? In front of everyone?" Damen's taken aback, recoiling at the very idea; though a small, triumphant part of him whispers, just imagine, and he can. He can imagine the delicate wrists in his grip, he can imagine forcing noises from that dangerous mouth, under the hungry eyes of this crowd.
Laurent colours slightly. "No," he spits. "But perhaps," with a snap of his eyes that puts all of Damen's instincts on high alert, "you'd like a taste of what you're owed."
Damen hasn't moved before Laurent is right in front of him, stepping in close, one of his hands at the back of Damen's neck to pull him down. His mouth opens beneath Damen's and Damen is only human, after all, and Laurent is like hot wire beneath his hands. He kisses Laurent, hard and desperate, and thinks he wouldn't notice if someone crashed two trucks into one another nearby.
One of Laurent's hands worms its way between them, cupping and rubbing Damen shamelessly though the front of his jeans. Damen finally gathers himself enough to break the kiss and push Laurent back.
Several further wolf-whistles and lewd shouts emerge from the crowd. Laurent looks over his shoulder and these subside rapidly.
Damen's mind races, wondering how Laurent will play this out. Will Laurent expect to go back to Damen's place, said place being a motel room scattered with dossiers on Laurent and the rest of his crew?
"Follow me," Laurent says. He stops briefly to exchange words with Nicaise, whose glare at Damen is poisonous enough to be felt like noon glare on the face, and then climbs back into the car he's just lost for the second time.
Damen can't think of anything to do but obey.
Laurent doesn't drive any more slowly or carefully than usual, but Damen keeps his tail lights easily in view, following him on a winding dirt road up through the hills, away from the flat area where the races were being held. At a distance from the artificial lights, the moon seems both larger and brighter. By the time Laurent pulls up, at what seems to be an overlook of some kind, the stars are so dense as to turn the sky into tinsel.
Damen parks at an angle to Laurent and, as Laurent has done, leaves his lights on before he climbs out of the car. During the drive, the part of Damen's brain that is still an FBI agent has managed to wrestle control back from where his brainstem and his cock had grabbed hold of the wheel.
The sight of Laurent's ass in dark, hugging denim, as Laurent walks into the crossed spill of headlights and towards the railing at the edge of the overlook, tests that resolve.
"We don't have to do this," Damen says. Laurent stills, but doesn't turn around. "I won. All right. Give me something else instead. Give me a chance to drive for you. You know I'm looking for work, and you've seen what I can do."
Laurent turns. His face is a ghost, a mess of shadows. He is lovelier than the arm of the galaxy behind him.
"You don't want me?"
Damen says, hearing it come rough off his tongue, "You know I do."
A smile that looks like both shyness and triumph steals across Laurent's face, and is gone. Laurent tucks his fingers into the back pockets of his jeans and tilts his head.
"Look at it this way," Laurent says coolly. "It doesn't really matter what you do now. You're never going to build a case against me, Damianos."
Cold adrenalin pours down over Damen like a sponge squeezed in the nape of his neck. His heart pounds. He's alone in the dark in the middle of nowhere, with a criminal who has called him by his name.
Laurent says, "I know who you are. I know why you're here."
Damen manages, finally, "Then why would you--"
"You can't think of a reason?" Laurent's hand comes out of his back pocket, with Laurent's phone in it. Laurent thumbs rapidly and then holds it out to Damen, who forces his feet to carry him forward. The photo on the screen is of himself and Laurent kissing. Both of them have their eyes closed; both of them look as though they would kill anyone who interrupted.
"I doubt Nicaise has a future in photography. But do you honestly think," Laurent goes on, merciless, "that anyone would believe you didn't follow me up here and fuck me breathless?"
Damen stares at the photo: the obvious position of Laurent's hand, his own arm around Laurent's slim waist. Then he looks at Laurent himself, the almost unreal beauty of him, with his lip bitten into redness and his blond hair like water under the moon.
Nobody would believe it. Damen can hardly believe it himself.
"No," says Laurent, providing his own answer. "I honour my word. There are two hundred people down there who will swear to it."
"Did you throw the races?" Damen demands. It's absurd that he should feel more angry about that idea than anything else, but there it is. "Did you let me win?"
Laurent's mouth quirks. "No," he says, and it sounds like it costs him to make the admission. "But I know how to take advantage of a bad situation. You should know that about me if you've done your homework, Special Agent Akielos."
The spill of panic has ebbed now, leaving Damen feeling tired and shaken. His mission is well and truly over; all that's left now is damage control. He turns on his heel, stalks back to the car, but can't make himself open the door. He braces his arms on the roof and lets his head sag between them.
"Fuck," he mutters.
"As I said," says Laurent, sounding very close. Damen jerks his head up again; Laurent, now leaning against the car, flicks him a smile. "No matter what happens now, everyone will think you've fucked me."
"I got the point," Damen growls.
"So," Laurent goes on, "there's no reason not to."
Damen stares at him, waiting for an explanation to present itself. None does.
"I don't believe you want that," Damen says.
A fine eyebrow shoots up. "Really? Do you know what you look like? And I think," Laurent says, his voice lightening oddly, "that you would give me a good ride."
Something dangerous and fatalistic is stealing through Damen's veins. Laurent is right. There's nothing more to be lost here. Even if someone is waiting in the shadows with a video camera, the additional evidence would hardly be any more damning.
Laurent reaches up and puts his hand at the side of Damen's neck, shifts closer and presses his body against Damen's. Tilts up his incredible face.
He says, soft, "Tell me you don't want me, Damianos."
The click of a lighter within Damen's chest turns, in an instant, to true flame. He moves, trapping Laurent between himself and the car, pressing him into glass and metal, kissing him and kissing him, mad with how good it feels.
This is absurd. This is a challenge: the sheer stupid fact that Laurent would fuck him knowing that Damen has come here to put him in prison. That Damen would fuck Laurent, knowing that Laurent will ruin him. The whole heady disaster of it feels like aiming your car at a canyon edge and throwing the throttle open, trusting in luck and gasoline to get you to the other side. Knowing that at least the crash will be legendary, spectacular, if you fail.
Laurent, beneath him, is surprisingly willing to be led. He doesn't try to seize control of the kiss. He opens sweetly; he tastes like night air and neon. Damen has the growing urge to surprise Laurent, who had the upper hand all along. He wants to do something to wipe away that cool, superior expression.
"Backseat," he says, onto Laurent's mouth. He fumbles blindly and gets the door open. Laurent falls more than climbs into the car, and Damen follows him, climbing between Laurent's spread legs and kissing him one more time before sitting back and getting to work on the fastening of Laurent's jeans. Laurent's stomach, flat and flawless white in the darkness, heaves with unsteady breaths as his hands first try to help Damen, then form fists by his sides.
It's an awkward fit, trying to curl his body in the space available. But Damen keeps one foot on the ground outside the car, tugs Laurent's jeans and underwear down just enough for Laurent's cock to spring free, and then lowers his head.
He wanted surprise, and he gets it. Laurent reacts instantly to Damen's mouth on him, all soft broken noises and shivery jerks of his hips, singing for Damen like the sweetest engine purr. He comes more quickly than Damen expected.
Thinking of the upholstery, Damen swallows.
Damen wipes his mouth on the back of his hand as he pulls gently away. He feels smug, in an obscure way, like he's wrestled back some of his dignity. But he glances up into Laurent's wide, shadowed eyes and remembers with a start that Laurent is only twenty, and that nowhere in the dossier was there any mention of past relationships, even casual ones.
"Have you done this before?" Damen asks.
Laurent's face tightens. He gathers himself visibly, pushes himself into a sitting position, and reaches out to bury the fingers of one hand in Damen's hair. He drags Damen across the seat and kisses him, slow and thorough. "Do you have--?"
"Did I, the FBI agent, bring condoms and lube to a street race?" Damen says. "Strangely enough, no. You're the one who made the bet."
"I did," Laurent says. He holds Damen's gaze.
Damen, suddenly annoyed by how little he can see, reaches between the front seats and around the steering wheel to turn off the headlights. He hits the interior light instead, a startling spill of yellow illumination that banishes the world around them to darkness. The world is in here. Laurent, now easing his pants back up over his hips, has parted lips and mussed hair and an expression that turns, like a flipped switch, determined.
"Right," Laurent says.
It's far better than it has any right to be: Laurent stretched out on top of him, Damen's knees bent up and his head nearly off the seat, Laurent's hand working him fast and dry. Damen grabs at the back of Laurent's neck as his orgasm roars towards a finish; he buries his face in the hollow of Laurent's neck and shoulder and gasps, his hips bucking as Laurent strokes him through it, his teeth grazing Laurent's fine skin. He can't think. He wants to peel Laurent out of his clothes and have him slowly, tenderly, watching for those deadly eyes to flutter shut. He wants to race Laurent down abandoned streets.
Laurent makes a breathy sound of satisfaction and then collapses as if he's the one who just came, his head shoved up under Damen's jaw, his cheek on Damen's chest. Damen's harsh breathing disturbs Laurent's hair. A strange, giddy tenderness is spreading beneath Damen's skin. Before he can think better of it he lifts his head, tilts Laurent's face up to his, and kisses him. It's the same sweet, artless kiss as before.
"Now what?" Damen says, helplessly. Laurent's plans have dragged them thus far. Part of him is absurdly hoping that Laurent has a plan for what he should do now.
Laurent yawns. "Can I have my car back?"
"No," says Damen.
"Are you still looking for work?"
"No," says Damen, then actually stops to think about his options. He can go back to the office and explain, somehow, that his mission to infiltrate the de Vere crew is over before it's properly begun; that Laurent is smarter and faster and better than they'd thought, and that Damen has managed to breach at least five different pieces of protocol. He'll be reprimanded, and then reassigned. The promising career that was left in the dust when Nicaise took that picture can probably still be salvaged, with some effort, and time.
Or...what? Disappear into the desert night with Laurent and spend his life racing, racing, driving just fast enough to escape a life that now seems dull in comparison?
"This is insane," he says, but he can hear the wonder in his own voice.
"You were right; I've seen what you can do," Laurent says. The cool confidence is back. "You like the thrill of it more than anything else. Tell me I'm wrong."
Tell me you don't want me. The cadence is the same. The truth of it is the same.
"You're not wrong," Damen says.
Laurent twists in his arms and looks down at him. He touches Damen's mouth, and then jerks his fingers away, as if he didn't realise he was doing it.
"I suppose I could consider you on probation," Laurent says. "Betray me and I'll put the bullet in you myself."
Not betray us. Betray me.
"I honour my word as well," Damen says.
"Good," says Laurent. "Speaking of which, our bet still stands. We'll have to do something about that, when we get back to the garage."
"What?" Damen furrows his brow.
"You've got two perfectly good cars, and you still haven't fucked me over the hood of either of them."
Damen stares at him.
"Just saying," Laurent says.
The Bureau catches up to them six months and five states later.
Damen is eating lunch at a cafe that barely deserves the name, lukewarm fries and too-loud music and rusting furniture embedded in the concrete ground of the outdoor dining area. This last becomes suddenly and dramatically pertinent when Nikandros sits down opposite him and handcuffs him to the table.
Damen says, "What--" and yanks on it, an automatic reflex, even though he knows it's useless. The last time a cuff was around his wrist was during a training exercise at the Academy, to show him how it felt.
Six months on the other side of the law, Damen thinks, and I've forgotten.
Nikandros crosses his arms and props his boots up on the table, a pushy bad-cop move. It looks good on him; despite himself, Damen nearly smiles.
"I gave you the benefit of the doubt at first. I thought you'd been abducted. Held against your will."
Oh, hell. "Nik."
"I defended you to everyone. There's no way he'd go rogue, I said. Not Damianos."
"Do we have to do this part?"
"Shut the fuck up, Damen. And then I saw a proper picture of de Vere. And I worked it out."
Damen lets out a sigh. The metal of the cuff is beginning to warm against the skin of his wrist. His phone is in the car, charging.
"Not rogue," Nikandros says, blunt. "Just cock-struck."
"It wasn't like that," says Damen, even though it was, kind of, like that.
Nikandros picks up some of the fries. He chews the soggy, undersalted things with a relish that tells Damen he's been on the road long enough and chasing them hard enough to have missed a couple of meals; normally Nikandros would make a face and toss this sort of subpar food into the garbage.
Or maybe he's changed. People make choices, and they change.
"By the way, this is me giving you a chance to explain yourself," Nikandros says, in between bites.
Damen looks at him helplessly. He can't. Any attempt is going to lead them back to the part of the conversation containing horrifying words like cock-struck. Damen has burned his regrets to ashes and held them close, then dusted his palms out the window going one-ten on a freeway. He could talk until the sun sets and rises and sets again and he knows he'll never be able to make Nikandros understand what's changed--what it is in him that turns like a compass to the sound of Laurent's laughter and the joy of the challenge. That compared to the person Damen is now, Special Agent Damianos Akielos was nothing. Cardboard. A flimsy dream.
"Where's your backup?" he asks instead. "Were you hoping you'd be able to talk me into just climbing into your car of my own volition? Coming quietly?" He feels the half-hearted smile die on his lips as Nikandros gazes steadily back. Damen's stomach begins to tighten and the hairs on his arms raise in instinctive alarm. "Or do you have no intention of taking me anywhere," he says, mouth dry, "until--what? What are you keeping me away from?"
NIkandros presses his mouth into a line. His eyes skip to the side, and then back.
"Nikandros," Damen says, with all the authority he ever had.
"Did you think I just charged up to you with a pair of handcuffs as soon as I knew where you were?" Nikandros demands. "We're not inept, Damen. You know that."
Nikandros sits back in the rigid, rust-flecked metal chair and spreads his hands; it's a gesture of defeat that says, what does it matter now? He says, "We've set up a sting."
"The meeting with the buyer," Damen says at once. He knows where Laurent and the rest of the crew are supposed to be at the moment; he'd offered to be there himself, but Laurent replied to his text--the words on Damen's phone somehow conveying one of the dry, offhand tones that was shorthand for affection--with the order to take his time, Laurent had somehow managed plenty of meetings like this one before Damen joined the crew, and if Damen got himself arrested for speeding in an unregistered car then Laurent was going to deny all knowledge of him. "What is it? What have you done?"
A shrug. There's something close to exasperated kindness in Nikandros's eyes now, like a parent about to tell a child that all of this is for their own good. Damen's hand itches to punch him.
"We've cut a deal with some members of the Palomino crew. That's who de Vere will be meeting in that warehouse."
The sick tightness in Damen's stomach redoubles at once, and his pulse hammers in his ears. "What did you say?"
"Our informants have set up a meeting: the Palominos, and de Vere's crew. Both of them think they're meeting a neutral buyer. We've got them both in a room with stolen parts and intent to sell, the Bureau catches them all in the act, nice and tidy."
"There's nothing fucking tidy about de Vere senior," says Damen, "and that's who's running the Palominos now."
"What? The Palomino head is Gaspard Braun," says Nikandros, but he trails off in the face of Damen's shaking head.
"Braun took an unwilling dive off a suspension bridge a month ago. If you've been dealing with anyone in his crew, you should know that."
Nikandros is staring at him, a fry poised between two fingers, and the horrible breadth of the situation falls over Damen like a rough breaker, filling his nose with salt and nearly blinding him with the panic of air-loss, surging down from a skull that feels like it's brimming with blood, forcing out all thought. Laurent is walking into a trap. Text messages or not, if Damen doesn't show up to a shitshow of that magnitude--and then the FBI does--then Laurent will think that Damen betrayed him.
And if Laurent's uncle is involved, Laurent might not even survive long enough to feel betrayed.
Damen realises that he is on his feet, bent awkwardly to one side where his wrist is still attached to the low table. One of the servers inside the cafe has paused and is staring out the window at him, over a stack of trays. Damen feels something like a growl come from his throat as he gives another useless yank at the cuffs.
"Stop it," says Nikandros, "you're going to hurt yourself, you stupid asshole," but he's directing a wary look between the handcuff chain and the the concrete where the table disappears into it, as though he's not totally confident in their ability to withstand Damen's full strength.
Damen forces himself to take two deep breaths, to sit down again, and to think. He stares at the new red marks where the cuff has not quite broken the skin of his wrist. Think. It's Laurent's cool voice he can hear. Not all of us can punch our way out of trouble, Damianos. Get used to having a plan.
And a backup plan, and a backup to the backup. Damen's never been slow when it comes to strategy--he'd have been posted to a less prestigious Bureau taskforce or ended up with a drug dealer's bullet in his chest, if that were the case--but working with Laurent these last few months has been a masterclass in both improvisation and contingencies.
Laurent, who discovered Damen's identity and gambled everything on the fact that Damen wanted him, when Damen had never said anything to suggest it.
Everyone wants something.
What does Nikandros want, out of all of this?
Damen says, "I assume you heard about those two men who were found in the park, in Minneapolis?"
He doesn't need to specify further. Nikandros swallows hard and his eyes flick sideways again, his lips screwing briefly into a sickened expression that tells Damen his old partner has heard all the pertinent, grisly details; he might even have seen the crime scene photos, a fact which Damen doesn't envy him at all. There's killing people and then there's killing people to send a message, and the state of those bodies might as well have been skywriting.
"That was him. Laurent's uncle."
Nikandros licks his lips. "We heard rumours…"
"He's a sadistic son of a bitch and if he could hurt Laurent in any way, he would," said Damen, speaking low and urgent now. Every second they waste here is like the strike of some terrible bell hanging in Damen's heart. "And he's smart. If you think you're pulling the wool over his eyes with this, you're wrong. I swear on everything you hold dear, Nik, whatever deal you think you've cut, he's playing you. Somehow."
"It's in motion, Damen." But Nikandros looks increasingly uneasy.
"Call it off." Damen slams his free hand down on the table. "Tell them the crews are expecting the raid. Something. And I swear to you, I'll get you everything you need to take down Laurent's uncle."
"What are you going to do? Switch loyalties again?"
That stings, but only a little. "Laurent's lieutenant, Nicaise. He used to run with the Veretians. It took him a few years before he jumped ship and accepted Laurent's protection. He was fourteen." Damen forces Nikandros to hold his gaze; to imagine what the kind of imagination that led to Minneapolis might do to a child. Even if it's sometimes hard to remember that Nicaise is a child, especially when his mouth is running full throttle. "He's sharp as a box of razors, and his memory's even sharper. He could give you names, dates, evidence."
"Could he. Will he?"
"If it's for Laurent," Damen says, without hesitation. "Yes."
"What the fuck is it with this kid," Nikandros says, "does he shit diamonds? Play the fucking panpipes and you all come running? What?"
"Take down his uncle and the Palominos will crumble. They were barely cohesive under Braun. It's a surer bet than a raid. And I can deliver, I can give you this, but you have to let me go. Now."
You have to let me help him. He doesn't say it. He doesn't kid himself it's not plain as a neon decal across his face.
Nikandros rubs his hand over his eyes. In the silence there's a long, drawn-out, sickly car horn from somewhere in the parking lot, followed by raised voices--an everyday disagreement, nothing that could turn dangerous--and then the rev of an engine that needs tuning, and the begrudging screech of tyres. Nikandros drops his hand. Something that's been over-winding itself in Damen's chest releases with such force that he almost gasps his relief.
Nikandros says, exasperated. "This is how it happens, isn't it? You go in knowing exactly what you're supposed to do, and then someone makes you an offer that you can live with."
"An offer that your gut tells you to take," says Damen.
His friend's gaze sharpens. Something closer to honesty, to true communication, happens between the two of them now, across this metal table. Damen had been afraid that they'd lost this. But Nikandros's look says that they haven't--that he too remembers all the time they used to spend muttering about rigidly by-the-book agents who ignored their gut and got people killed because of it.
Eventually Nikandros heaves a sigh. "I'm still not convinced it wasn't something south of your gut doing the decision-making in your case."
"I'd die for him," Damen says simply.
"Try to resist the urge to do so," Nikandros mutters. He dips into his pocket for the handcuff key, which he slides across the table to Damen. "Damn it. You've got a fifteen fucking minute head start; I'll call in and delay the raid, but my boys are going to want to mop something up."
Damen fumbles the cuff open and stands, yanking his jacket off the table, weak with a mixture of fear and relief.
"Thank you," he says. "I'll bring you that information."
"Damen," says Nikandros.
Damen looks at the man who probably counts as his oldest friend, by now, even though they only met on the first day of training. Damen's left his past behind, unlamented, once before. Maybe that made it easier to do it the second time.
"If you're screwing me on this, that's it," Nikandros says. There's truth in his eyes, and something implacable. "No more favours. No more trust. We're done, and I'll chase you down and see you all behind bars. That blue-eyed snake of yours included."
Damen can't bring himself to do anything more than nod, and then he breaks into a run.
"Your arm," says Damen.
"You took your time," says Laurent, "given you arrived at this address a full ten minutes ago."
Damen stares at him, then ducks further behind the pile of crates as another round of gunfire starts up. The sleeve of Laurent's shirt is stained dark red from the shoulder halfway to the elbow. On the other side of the warehouse, a calm crisp voice that has more than a little in common with Laurent at his most scorn-dripping is giving orders, just audible between the bursts of bullets and the shouts of Laurent's own crew.
Laurent has a gun in one hand. In the other is his phone, which he turns briefly to flash the light of the screen in Damen's direction.
Damen swallows an unproductive mouthful of expletives about Laurent's ability to multitask and another about his complete disregard for privacy. He says, full of adrenalin and fatalism, "You're tracking my phone."
Laurent purses his lips: we don't have time for this.
Damen says, "I had a brief errand to run first."
Whatever Laurent reads in Damen's face seems to be enough. He makes a curt gesture with his wounded arm and closes his eyes for a count of two.
"Your arm," Damen persists.
"It's nothing," says Laurent. "Govart got in a lucky stab." A shadow of an expression. "I let him too close. I didn't know the brute had taken a liking to knives over guns, but I suppose I should have suspected."
Govart, the eager tool, the sadistic hand at the end of Laurent's uncle's long reach. Considering Minneapolis, Damen should have suspected as well. An anger so fierce it's scalding rises in Damen's chest, and he risks a glance around the corner of the crates.
"I'm going to kill him," he promises.
"Flattering," says Laurent. "How about you find us a way out of this, first?"
"I assumed you'd have five plans already."
The corner of Laurent's mouth flickers. "Take the damn keys when I hand them to you, Akielos."
Damen grins at him, and gets to work clearing an exit. It's not as neat as it could be, because Damen is fucking determined to see Govart bleed. A stream of admiringly colourful invective that's probably Orlant can be heard beneath the shouts and shots as Damen snatches up a fresh gun from a fallen Palomino, sees his moment, and tears in a madcap dash across the full width of the warehouse. He leaps over a fallen metal chair--feels a hot flick on his ear--falls into a roll, and comes up with a clear line of sight to Govart's scowling face.
Damen pulls the trigger and rolls again, already in search of cover, not even waiting to see if the bullet flies true. He trusts his own aim.
He only gets one good look at Laurent's uncle, as they're halfway out the back entrance. De Vere senior is standing straight-backed and calm in the chaos; he has dark hair and is wearing a suit that yells expense with the way it sucks in the light. He looks pleasant. He looks like a businessman. The commanding angle of his back is the strongest note of Laurent about him.
"Where's Nicaise?" Laurent says from behind Damen, sharp, and in the next instant another shot rings out. The intelligent face of the man in the suit creases with pain--one leg buckles--and Damen hears Laurent inhale like a second gunshot. And then Nicaise is there, tucking his gun back into his hoodie as he moves: a blur of dark curls on long legs, ducking and weaving, fluid as oil on water.
"Go. Laurent, go," Damen says, and taps two fingers to his wrist: on the clock.
They dash out of the warehouse and into the cars. Jord throws himself behind the wheel of his beloved Escalade, Nicaise in the passenger seat, and Damen shoves Laurent bodily into the wide backseat before climbing in after him. The rest of the crew take the other two vehicles. There are headlights coming down the highway, a tight motorcade pattern that shouts law enforcement even without the telltale blue and red.
"Fat lot of good it will do, your government friends turning up now," Jord says, slamming the driver's door and jamming the key into the ignition. "The Palominos will scatter just as fast."
"No," Damen says. "They won't."
The engine purrs to life and Jord pulls them into a sharp reversing curve.
"Ah," says Laurent. He has one hand pressed to his shoulder and his voice is more clipped than usual, but otherwise he still looks perfectly fine. Perfectly himself. "Your brief errand."
As they pull away, Damen can see the frantic gesticulations of the surviving Palominos and hear the faint, gasping sounds of thoroughly sabotaged vehicles.
"They can try scattering on foot," Damen says, "but I doubt they'll get far." He leans back against the seat. Exhaustion is beginning to saturate his body. He puts out a hand without looking and rests it next to Laurent's leg, just close enough to feel the warmth of him.
"The side of your head is all blood," says Laurent abruptly.
"And you didn't insist on driving," Damen returns. He leaves it a moment before he glances over. "Who gets to be more worried, in this scenario?"
Laurent's lips tighten, then part. He turns Damen's jaw with a single finger, inspecting the damage--Damen honestly doubts he'll end up with more than a scar through the top of his ear and another on his scalp--and then nods and subsides into his own side of the back seat. He's stopped clutching his shoulder, as if Damen's going to somehow forget the stab wound.
Damen says, "By the way, Nicaise, you and I are going to sit down and you're going to tell me everything about the Veretian crew after Laurent left."
"Like hell," says Nicaise, but it sounds like a reflex.
"Nicaise," says Laurent.
"We're going to put that son of a bitch in prison," says Damen.
"He deserves worse than prison." Nicaise drums his fingers on the handbrake. Jord slaps them away.
"You slowed him down, back there," Damen points out. "And you can make sure he never gets the chance to speed up again."
Nicaise says, "Yeah, except I was aiming for his fucking dick," and resumes staring out the window like any teenager on a long road trip.
Laurent hisses, as Damen presses the cotton pad soaked in hydrogen peroxide to the now-clean wound in his left shoulder, and gives a soft thump of his boot against the concrete floor of the garage. He's sitting on the high hood of the Escalade, with the other leg tucked up, submitting with arrogant grace to Damen's ministration.
"Stitches next," says Damen.
The crew has taken refuge in one of the many friendly houses they have scattered across the country. This one belongs to a retired Formula One racer who owes Laurent unspecified favours, and whose property is the size of a small farm. The main garage is stuffed full of Jags and Lamborghinis; the crew has stashed their own vehicles in this smaller one.
Damen and Laurent are having an informal council here, beneath the warm-tinged bare light bulbs. Everyone else is in bed. Damen napped at some point during the long drive here and isn't ready to sleep again yet; Laurent has the vaguely feverish edge to his ice-blue eyes that he gets sometimes, when he's been awake too long and running the machinery of his mind too hard to sleep of his own accord. Only a few things will bring him down from that, and as none of them has a bottle of twenty-five year old single malt on hand, Damen's going to resort to one of the others.
Once he's cleaned up the stab wound, obviously.
Either Laurent was lucky or he has the devil's own presence of mind when it comes to dodging, because the injury could have been far worse. The knife hit the humerus and glanced off, leaving a nasty laceration in the skin but only a shallow cut to the muscle. If it had gone an inch higher it could have severed an artery or made a real mess of some nerves, and if Govart had angled it into the armpit then Laurent could have died.
Laurent just raises his eyebrows, when Damen points this out. "And you could have been shot in the head, pulling your stupid stunt to get at him."
"Killing the man who stabbed me," Laurent says softly. "Very medieval of you."
"Do you mean chivalrous?"
"Feudal, perhaps." Laurent pales and the lines around his eyes deepen as Damen puts in the stitches. "Chivalry's a poetic invention. The word means horsemanship, anyway, did you know that?"
"Did you know you turn into Wikipedia when you're tired?"
"I'm not tired."
Damen applies a dressing, then repacks the first aid kit and puts it on a table. When he returns to the car, Laurent has both legs dangling off the hood--Damen moves close, to stand between them--and is experimentally moving his elbow, his wrist and fingers. After a moment he says, "Nicaise isn't happy. I'll have to let him drive for us at the race in Arizona, now."
"He's reckless," says Laurent, in the schoolmaster tones of someone who's never personally bet his cars, his life, or his ass against his own brilliant and bloody-minded disregard for the laws of physics.
"Well," says Damen, letting that go, "it's Nicaise's evidence or we all end up in prison, according to the deal I made with Nikandros."
Laurent's brows arch again, perfectly. "The deal you made."
"If you don't trust me to make deals on your behalf by now, sweetheart, then we're both fucked." Damen lifts a hand from his jeans pocket and dangles the keys to his own car, which is stowed safely at their base in Nevada and which is now--courtesy of a personal race down the midnight streets of a forgettable city--Laurent's car. But Damen still drives it; Damen took the keys when Laurent tossed them back to him, five seconds after they were surrendered in the first place, and neither of them have looked back since.
An odd smile makes Laurent look younger. He touches the keys with a single finger of his uninjured arm, then reaches round to scrape that finger commandingly through the hair at Damen's nape, and leans in. Perched on the car, Laurent's head is a breath higher than Damen's. Their foreheads touch.
"I trust you," Laurent says. "And if not…" A brief, teasing press of fingertips. Right above the brainstem.
"I know," Damen says. He captures Laurent's lips, so tantalisingly close, for a soft moment. "Bullet to the brain."
"Yes," Laurent whispers, and opens his mouth to be kissed again.
Damen obliges. Damen could do nothing else. This isn't even half of what Laurent means to him, but Nikandros was right, in a way: it was the click of the lighter, the key that turned the ignition. Damen was lost from the first kiss, public and manipulative as it was, pressing into Damen's bones a heat that has never since been stifled. A heat that flares up into helpless longing when Laurent is at his fiercest, most hilarious, most authoritative. And threatens to consume Damen entirely at times like this.
He kisses Laurent until Laurent is pliant and wet-mouthed and gasping, and then pulls back. He keeps his hands cupping Laurent's head, one on either side, loving the way he can trace Laurent's lips with his thumbs and have the rest of his fingers sliding in Laurent's hair; how Laurent will let his head tip into Damen's sure grip, as though he knows Damen will keep him upright.
Damen has to breathe past a sudden constriction in his chest, watching Laurent's eyes open and lock onto his, curious and fond. Now it's his turn to rub a few fingertips against Laurent's skull.
"What are you doing?"
"Sometimes I think I can feel the heat of you thinking," says Damen.
Laurent smiles and leans back to rest on his elbows. Damen follows, leans down and traps him, a hand splayed on either side of his head. Laurent's legs wrap around his waist. Bare-chested, Laurent is a feast, sprawled over the metal, which is still warm: warm as blood and desert sand and the cage of Laurent's whirring mind. By now the car's warmth is just because it's summer and the garage isn't air-conditioned, but it still makes Damen shudder all over.
"What," Laurent murmurs.
"I remember the first time we did this." Damen drops another kiss on Laurent's neck and then straightens. "The engine was still hot."
A flush glides across Laurent's cheekbones. He doesn't blink. "I remember the last time. I could barely walk the next day."
Damen sucks in a breath, but manages, "You didn't have to. You were racing."
"That was worse," Laurent says. "Four races in a row over rough ground, the engine throbbing--it was like you were fucking me all over again," and then gives a laugh of pure satisfaction when Damen groans, resting his palms on Laurent's thighs, letting everything show in his face.
"You still won them," Damen says.
"Of course I did."
And Laurent, two steps ahead and with plans all the way to the horizon, pulls the jar of lube from his pocket and tosses it in the air.
Damen catches it.
Fever-bright, nitro-bright, Laurent says: "Make me stop thinking."
Damen holds Laurent's feet against his stomach to unlace the boots, then unbuttons Laurent's jeans and tugs the dark denim off one leg and then the other.
"Shirt," Laurent commands, somehow looking regal in nothing but a pair of blue briefs. When Damen is too slow in obeying, Laurent hooks a bare leg behind Damen's knee and drags him close again. He pushes up Damen's T-shirt and pauses with a finger faux-absently resting on Damen's nipple before dipping his head to tease it between his teeth.
Damen wrestles his shirt the rest of the way off, lube still gripped in one hand, and gets the other hand in the small of Laurent's back. He gives one good haul that brings Laurent to the edge of the car's hood. His half-hard cock stiffens further, painfully full in its denim cage, at the press of Laurent's own length against his stomach.
Laurent makes a low sound and drops his head to Damen's shoulder. His teeth scrape there, a blurry back and forth. Damen slides his fingers beneath the waistband of Laurent's briefs and pulls him close again, using his strength to tug Laurent against him in pulsing movements that he meets with his own hips, shoving them up against one another. He can feel sweat trickling down from his neck, feel the slide of his palm on Laurent's lower back. Everything is hot and tortuous and just the right side of uncomfortable, desire making fiery paths down Damen's legs until he has to concentrate to stay upright.
Laurent's legs shiver and release their insistent grip on Damen's hips. Laurent lifts his head, eyes over-focused like splintered blue glass, and drags Damen's face back to his for a bruise of a kiss.
"I. Now." Laurent spouts facts when he's tired, but verges on incoherent when he's this turned on. It took a month before Damen could coax formed words from him at all, during sex, and another month after that before Damen realised how much he'd been trusted with, that Laurent would let Damen see him as anything less than in perfect control.
Damen has slicked his fingers by the time Laurent wriggles out of his briefs. He pushes one of Laurent's knees up to Laurent's chest; Laurent lets his head fall back, a dull thunk against the metal. His fingers drum a rapid, nervy tattoo on either side. Damen can read his moods by now, and Laurent is a stretched-tight piece of elastic; there's not going to be any point in taking this slowly.
So Damen doesn't. One finger inside him, two, and Laurent is biting his lower lip, ribs and stomach heaving with his inhalations, the slim muscles of his arms taut beneath pale skin.
"Your shoulder?" Damen says, watching the dressing for any spots of blood.
”Damen," Laurent says.
Satisfied, Damen tugs at Laurent's knee until Laurent slides forward so that his feet land lightly on the garage floor. Damen turns Laurent around and presses a palm between his shoulder blades, directing. Laurent goes easily, spreading his feet to anchor his stance, hands braced on the shining silver of the hood.
Damen has to take a breath. Another. He has to lean down and kiss the line of Laurent's spine, the faint dusting of blond hair in the dip of Laurent's back.
"Damen," and now it's a threat.
When Damen pushes into him, a long slow thrust, Laurent rises onto his toes and exhales with a desperate, half-vocalised sound. Laurent's palms slip on the metal as he tries to push himself back to meet Damen.
Damen has one hand at Laurent's hip as he starts to move, gentle nudges at first, not even drawing out halfway. His jeans are slipping down his thighs with the movement. Laurent is braced on his forearms now; his hands are in fists. Damen gets his other arm beneath and across Laurent's chest, fingers hooking up over Laurent's uninjured shoulder from below, and begins to fuck him in earnest.
It's as good as the first time. As good as the last time. It's always good; it's always a thrill better than anything on wheels. Their bodies are sweat-slick and Laurent is tight, Laurent's breath being forced from him in ragged pants that echo off the hard surfaces of the garage and return to wrap themselves around Damen's nerves as Damen buries himself in Laurent again and again.
Laurent's teeth close on the skin of Damen's wrist. The pain melts into everything else as Damen chokes, "God," and comes with a hurtling, throbbing force of pleasure, only dimly aware of Laurent shaking and clenching beneath him.
They stay that way for a long series of moments, recovering their breath, Damen's heart rapping at Laurent's through the layers of bone and muscle between them, a simple code of need. I've found you. I'm keeping you.
"You certainly are," Laurent murmurs, in response to what Damen hadn't realised he was saying aloud, "while your not inconsiderable bulk is pinning me to this car."
Not inconsiderable. Laurent, post-orgasm, has found his vocabulary again. Damen buries a grin in the back of Laurent's shoulder and pulls gently out, letting Laurent straighten up.
When Damen has refastened his jeans and Laurent has climbed back into his own-- "Hmm. Shirt," Laurent says again, with a snap of fingers.
He proceeds to use Damen's T-shirt to wipe the evidence of his own release off the metal of the hood. For some reason, that makes a new heat rise to Damen's neck. They've not done this on Jord's car before. Damen has the absurd urge to apologise to the Escalade.
Damen says, "I want to race you for my car again."
"Oh?" says Laurent. "And what are you offering me this time?"
Damen reaches out and lifts a hand of pale fingers to his lips, where he kisses them, feeling the courtliness of the gesture sink into him like something true. Feudal, indeed. Damen's heart rate is still high and he's dizzy with it, so much in love that it feels like the universe's balance must catch up with them eventually; or maybe not. Laurent is brilliant, Laurent trusts him, and they can outrace anything, the two of them, together. They can leave anything in their dust. Luck and the law and death itself.
"Anything," he says. "Anything you want."