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Breaking Point

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He was going to be late. Fuck. Johnny twisted the key savagely in the ignition, foot pressing down hard on the clutch, as though more force would make a difference.

The Mustang's engine turned over again a few more times and died with a grinding noise.

Johnny slammed his fists against the dashboard and cursed again as his watchband embedded itself in the skin of his wrist. "Motherfucker," he snarled, fumbling the door open and reaching for the lever to pop the hood. Not that he'd know what to do with anything under it, but that's what you did, when you were a guy and your goddamn piece of shit Mustang wouldn't start. You looked under the hood and made serious faces.

Then you called the tow truck.

He climbed out of the front seat and just leaned against the car for a moment, both forearms pressed to the chilly ridge of the roof, condensation soaking into his sweater. He'd already been late for this bar review course twice, and he couldn't afford to do it again - that's why he'd sworn off surfing on Tuesday and Thursday mornings until the course was over.

If he didn't pass the bar this time, he couldn't take it again until July, and he'd have to pick up some part-time work to make it through 'til then. Severance pay from the F.B.I. was generous, but not generous enough to cover another half-year of living unemployed in Venice Beach.

He pulled his cell out of his pocket and went to lift the hood. After a minute of hunting for that little metal thing that holds the hood up, he found it and stepped back, staring at the engine while dialing Information on the phone. The tangle of dusty black parts was depressing in its inscrutability.

"Venice, California," but then he blanked out when the polite recording asked for the name of the listing; he didn't have a mechanic in Venice yet, and his Triple-A probably wouldn't cover a tow to the place he used to take the car, in Long Beach. He snapped the phone closed, still staring at the jumble of wires and casings. The Yellow Pages? Or maybe he could call Craig down at the Zephyr when they opened, ask him for recommendations. But that wasn't until ten, and in the meantime, he'd need a cab.

As he was reaching up to close the hood, he heard the door of the house to his right slam shut. Great, just what he needed, to have his favorite neighbor Mr. Rice-Rocket see him staring at his car like a moron. Guy spent more time working on his car than Johnny spent wanking, which was saying something since Tyler left. Dick substitute, likely, Johnny thought sourly. He could feel his masculinity evaporating. Should have taken fucking auto shop in high school instead of all those Honors courses. Would have been more use.

"Need some help?"

Johnny gritted his teeth. He's just being neighborly, he told himself, but it didn't help. Forcing his voice into some semblance of friendliness, he turned to answer.

"Nah, I'm just going to call a cab, I'll deal with this later. Got somewhere I gotta be, you know?" Johnny smiled tightly and turned back to the car. Blond hair and a scruffy chin felt like a gut-punch, too familiar, and he really didn't need this at seven-thirty in the morning. It was hard enough to ignore his demons after a few cups of coffee; having their doppelgangers ambush him in the early morning like this was just unfair.

He'd been avoiding the guy since he moved in, three weeks ago, and he'd hoped to keep it up. But good fences make good neighbors, and he'd left his fence back in his old gated community in Long Beach. When you lived in a low-rent shack in Venice, you got the neighbors you paid for - nosy, apparently, and unable to take a hint.

"Man, you'll never get a cab out here at this time in the morning, not if you haven't called in advance." Johnny made a show of removing the hood prop and letting it close with a final-sounding clunk, then went around to get his bag from the passenger side. He hoped to God the guy didn't know what he was talking about, because he didn't have time to wait for a cab. These prep courses were expensive, and they covered so much material that missing a day put you way behind.

"Where're you headed?" the relentlessly friendly voice continued. "If you're going south, I can take you as far as Palos Verdes on the 405. I'm headed that way anyhow."

Shit. But, any port in a storm. Besides, the guy was being nice. Just because you have some hang-ups, Utah, doesn't mean he's not a good guy. He can't help the way he looks. And you need a ride. Johnny swallowed and turned around.

"Really, dude?" He tried to smile, but a weird little half-twist of the mouth was the best he could do. Every time he saw this guy, it was like a flashback to Bodhi. A better-looking, more respectable flashback, true, but he couldn't help it. There was something of the same magnetism in the easy smile, the crinkle around the eyes.

But he had to get over it sometime. He lived next to the guy, for chrissake - and he really did need a ride. "Um, if you don't mind, I mean, I'm going to Dominguez - near the University -- but if it's too much trouble I can call a cab."

"Naw, it's no problem. Cab wait'll be almost an hour, and I'm headed that way anyhow. C'mon, I'll take you." There was a chirrup as he unlocked the Civic and gestured at the passenger side. Johnny gave in to inevitability.

"Thanks, man." He locked the Mustang and stepped through the low bushes that separated their driveways, leaning over the garishly-painted hood to offer a handshake. "Johnny Utah, your new neighbor. I can't tell you how much I appreciate this."

"Brian O'Conner," his neighbor responded. He had a good grip, firm and warm without being bone-crushingly macho. "Glad to do it - I've seen you around but we haven't had a chance to say hello." His eyes met Johnny's, and there was a forthright friendliness in them that made Johnny flash him an involuntary real smile. "Hop in, it's open."

The interior of the car was less neon than the exterior, but still pretty elaborate. Brian switched off the stereo as soon as it came on, but not before some overly-loud bass beats startled Johnny half out of his skin. "Sorry, man." Brian gave him that smile again, the one that went all the way to his eyes, and swung out of the driveway. They were on the freeway before he spoke again. "You a student?"

Johnny was surprised into a short laugh. "Not exactly - I guess you could look at it that way, though. I'm doing a bar review course, so I can practice law in California; it's been a while since I got my J.D., though." Two years, a world of beaches, a career, and a dozen dead bodies ago. He changed the subject. "I would have been screwed if I hadn't made it today, man. Thanks."

Brian gave him another half-grin and a little shrug. "What's wrong with your car?"

Johnny's face burned. Of course he'd have to ask. "I'm gonna have to take it to a mechanic," he confessed. "I don't know shit about cars. You, um, know any good ones in the area? My last one was in Long Beach, I don't want to tow it all the way down there."

Brian burst into a delighted cackle, grinning and beating a tattoo on the steering wheel with his fingers. Johnny's carefully-schooled friendliness toward him snapped.

"Hey, man, not everyone knows cars, you know?"

Brian looked startled and stopped laughing, though the broad grin didn't leave his face. "I know, Johnny, it's cool. Just, do I know a mechanic?" He chuckled again, to himself. "Yeah, I know a guy. Does good work, won't cheat you, and he's real close."

"Yeah?" Johnny asked, unable to keep a slightly surly tone out of his voice. "How much does he charge?"

This set Brian off again. When he stopped laughing, he said, "Depends, man, depends. At the shop, going rate is seventy an hour for labor plus parts. But for a neighbor, I'm sure I could negotiate a deal."

Oh, shit, he's talking about himself. The realization eased something in Johnny's chest. At least Brian wasn't laughing at him. But it meant that he'd pretty much have to take him up on it, too. There wasn't any polite way to back out of it now. "You're a mechanic?"

He hadn't expected it, and now wondered if he should have guessed. Where's all that F.B.I. training now?. But Brian never wore mechanic's coveralls when leaving or coming home, and Johnny'd figured the time spent working on the car was just a hobby. Just because he'd been avoiding the guy didn't mean he hadn't been watching him. Keeping an eye on him, like; it never hurts to know your neighbors.

"Yeah, I work at an imports specialist down in Redondo. We do mostly custom stuff, but I can still change a spark plug or whatever your car needs, no problem. And actually, I meant it about working out a deal, too." Brian looked at him, eyes serious now. "You've got something I want more than money, Johnny, man."

Brian looked almost hungry, and Johnny hoped that this wasn't some weird kind of criminal or sexual proposition. Headlines flashed through his mind: "Psycho Neighbor Preys On Automobile Innocents;" "Mad Mechanic Molests Mustang Owner." He shook his head, trying to reassert his common sense. You meet one blond psychopath and you start seeing them on every corner, Johnny. Relax. "And what would that be?" he asked, trying to keep his voice light and even.

"Teach me to surf."

Then it was Johnny's turn to laugh, and Brian's turn to look a little wounded. But Johnny couldn't stop, once he got started. He'd thought Brian had been about to ask him to go on a date or a bank heist and the guy just wanted to learn to surf. Paranoid much, Utah?

He leaned against the car door when he ran out of breath, and gave Brian a genuine grin. "Man, you don't know how to surf? You just ... you look ..." he gestured helplessly, still catching his breath. Brian really did come off like the consummate California beach bum, with his wavy blond hair and his lightly tanned skin. Even in regular jeans and a sweatshirt, he looked like he spent a lot of weekends with sand and salt and sun and waves.

Reluctantly, Brian smiled back, a wry half-lift of the corner of his mouth. "I know, man, I know. But I'm from fuckin' Arizona. Not much ocean there, you know? And I see you going out with your board all the time in the mornings, and I just thought ... but it's not a problem, if you don't give lessons, I mean. I can work for cash."

"Hey, no, I'm sorry," Johnny said. "I just ... yeah. Yeah, no problem, I can teach you. If you think it's a fair trade." That could work out really well, actually, since he was short on cash and long on time these days.

"We'll see," Brian said. He flipped on his signal and merged over to get to the exit for the university. "It could be some little buy-me-a-six-pack spark-plug change. On the other hand, from what I've seen of your car," and he shot Johnny a friendly smirk, "you could be looking at a year's worth of lessons. I'll take a look at it tonight when I get home if you'll help me push it up into my garage so I can get some light in there, and I'll be able to give you a better idea of what your problem is then."

No tow truck, no hassle in finding a mechanic, and an excuse to surf more. Sounded too good to pass up. Johnny smiled. "You've got yourself a deal." Then, noticing where they were, he added, "Hey, you can just let me out here, man. The classes are a few blocks out, down the street, and there's no easy turnaround. I can walk from here."

Brian slowed the car and pulled into the next parking lot, a Taco Bell, idling his motor in a parking space. "You sure? I can take you all the way, it's no problem."

It was only about two minutes' walk, and he needed to get coffee on the way or he'd fall asleep. Johnny shook his head, grinned. "It's all right, Brian. You've got to get to work, and I don't mind the walk. When do you get back, in the evenings?"

"Depends on traffic, usually six-thirty or seven. I'll park on the street and come by."

Johnny picked up his bag and got out of the car. "See you tonight, then, six-thirty, seven." He shut the door and watched as Brian turned smoothly out of the parking lot and cut into traffic. Car like that, you'd think the guy would peel out, drive like he had something to prove, but he just merged seamlessly and executed a legal U-turn at the light. Seems like a lot of things you'd think about people aren't quite correct, he chided himself.

He should know better than to jump to conclusions by now.

~*~*~

Times like this, Johnny really missed being an F.B.I. agent. If he'd still had his security clearance, he could have known everything about Brian O'Conner in minutes, from his parking tickets to his parents' address. Instead, he was left with Google, which was not helping.

Sure, he could find "Brian O'Connor" - the retired Air Force colonel, the baseball coach, the biology professor, the Georgetown graduate - but not Brian O'Connor the Venice Beach mechanic. An alternate spelling netted Brian O'Conner the House representative, Brian O'Conner the cop, and Brian O'Conner the linebacker. It seemed that if you didn't have a life that brought you into contact with larger institutions or geeks, you might as well not exist to the Internet.

Johnny leaned back and rubbed at his eyes. He wasn't sure why he even cared; it's not like he had run background checks on his other neighbors, or even knew their names, though he'd seen them around and could recognize their faces. He sat back up and typed in "surf-report venice-beach ca" instead and checked out the reports on several sites; just ankle-to-knee-high swells, nothing spectacular.

He should get to the airport anyhow, rent a car so he'd have backup in case the Mustang was out of commission for a while. Johnny logged off and pushed away from the terminal, gathering his bag before waving to the librarians on his way out.

~*~*~

Johnny had books and papers spread out over the kitchen table layers deep, but he wasn't getting much of anywhere. Usually he could focus when he needed to; it was one of the things that had put him at the top of his class at Moritz, and it was one of the things that had made him a good agent. He did his research, and he did it well. Not tonight, though; tonight he'd been scattered and distracted, and he heard the doorbell with a distinct sense of relief.

Brian was grinning at him from the step when he opened the door. "Man, we need to get your car fixed stat. You're my neighbor - I can't let you be seen driving that thing!"

"Hey, it was all they had left. But yeah, I want the Mustang back." Johnny was renting a horrible maroon Granddad-mobile that looked like one of the clunkers the Ex-Presidents used to hotwire for their heists. He'd left it parked at the curb so they'd be able to get the Mustang out of the driveway easily. "So, how you want to do this? You had dinner yet?"

"No, I figured it was kind of late, I'd better come by first." Brian shrugged. "Have you? I was just gonna order pizza or something, we could get one for both of us."

"My treat," Johnny said, stepping back and waving Brian in. "I owe you for the ride this morning, anyway. You really saved my ass." He headed for the phone, tucked the receiver under his jaw, and started dialing while he spoke.

Brian was looking around curiously. "Man, how long have you lived here? Aren't you ever going to unpack?"

"Yeah, I've just got no time, you know, and I can still get at the stuff, it's just in ... Yeah, hey, I'd like a pizza for delivery?" He nudged Brian, who was staring at the mess of cardboard boxes in various states of emptiness festooning the living room. "What do you want on your pizza?"

They ordered one large pizza with pepperoni, olives, and sausage (on your half, not mine, Brian insisted) and went out to push the car over to Brian's garage to have a look.

~*~*~

"Get the light, willya?"

Johnny followed the general direction of Brian's wave and found a wall switch that flooded the garage with a harsh, fluorescent light. The neat rows of tools and workbenches along the walls were nothing like any garage Johnny had seen before. Where were the boxes of Christmas ornaments and other seldom-used possessions, the rusty bicycle, the recycling bins?

This was clearly a work space, not a storage room. Even the fishing tackle boxes in the corner were carefully labeled, and when Johnny looked closer, he saw that they were sorted into various sizes of screws, bolts, and wingnuts, each with its own separate drawer. He whistled. "How long you lived here? This is a nice setup you've got."

"'Bout two years, now. And yeah, you like it?" Brian's face was hidden under the hood, his hands busy unscrewing something, but the pride in his voice was clear. "It's not a proper shop, but I can do little things in here, enough to keep me busy. And, you know, if this baby needs more than I can take care of here, I can take her in to the shop I work at. I got an in with the owner, she'll let me use the lifts and stuff during off hours if I want."

"She?"

"Yeah, shop belongs to my ex-girlfriend. She doesn't work there, she just manages the accounts and keeps us in the black, but it's in her name."

"You work for your ex-girlfriend?" Johnny was incredulous. He'd heard of some fucked-up bosses, but that had to be the worst. "Your ex?!"

Brian ducked out from under the hood and went to go rummage in one of the larger tool chests. "It was a friendly breakup, what can I say? And I already worked there, and I'm good at my job, so Mia didn't fire me." He laid a few tools out on the workbench.

Brian sounded a little defensive, and Johnny backpedaled "I'm sorry, man, it's none of my business. Just, whoa. That's, um, cool it worked out like that."

A car pulled up to the curb and the pizza delivery man got out. Johnny came back twenty bucks lighter and balancing the pizza box with one hand as he shoved his wallet back into his pocket. He set the pizza down on a workbench and for a few minutes there was silence, as they both inhaled their first slices.

"You want a beer?" Brian got up and went over to the beat-up old fridge in the corner and cracked it. "We got any kind you want, as long as it's a Corona." He laughed to himself, and at Johnny's nod, fished out two bottles. He cracked the tops off expertly on the edge of a workbench and handed one to Johnny. "No lime, sorry, man."

"Don't need it." Johnny took another drink of his beer. Maybe he should shut up about this, but he was honestly curious. "So, you work for your ex ... but isn't that weird? I mean, seeing her all the time? It really must have been a good breakup, 'cause I've never had an ex that didn't want some serious breathing room after, at least for a while." Like, thousands of miles of breathing room.

Brian grabbed another piece of pizza and took a few bites before he answered. He wasn't looking at Johnny.

"Things were...things were complicated. We still got along fine, but she thought I was in love with her brother."

Whoa. Johnny choked a little on his beer, but swallowed it down, breathing through his nose. He grinned at Brian, shaking his head. "Aw, shit, women are just fucking crazy like that, aren't they? My ex used to tell me I was obsessed with this guy we knew, too. That shit's just crazy, dude, they get some idea in their heads, and they just run with it. But couldn't you just say, 'Are you nuts?' Talk her out of it or something?"

"No, Johnny," Brian said, looking down. "She was right." In the shocked pause that followed, he got up, still carrying his slice, and went back to peering under the hood of the car.

She was right? Brian didn't look like a queer, not any of the gay guys Johnny knew, anyway. He just looked like a regular guy. Okay, a really pretty regular guy. Johnny tried not to stare at Brian as he bent over, doing something noisy with one of the tools he'd gotten out earlier.

If his best friend could hear his thoughts now, Johnny realized, she'd kill him. Or at least lecture him to death. So, okay, Brian liked guys, no big deal. He'd had a girlfriend, so was he bi, or was her brother just a fluke, or... Johnny's face flamed red as he caught himself wondering what Brian had ... done ... with guys. Did he take it up the ass? The idea of that had always freaked Johnny way out. What could be so good about ... that?

Johnny shook himself. None of his business what Brian did. Wasn't like they were friends. Anyway, just because Brian's girlfriend had been right, Johnny told himself, didn't mean Tyler had. She used to freak the fuck out each time he got a new lead, got ready to fly off to a new place, and her lips would tighten up and she'd say things like, "I just can't do this, Johnny," and "You've got to let him go," and "You won't catch him, Johnny, it's over."

Well, she'd been wrong about that last one, at least. He'd caught Bodhi, but by then Tyler had left him, staying on at that beach resort in Sumatra, letting him fly on to Fiji without her. "I'm just tired, okay?" she'd said. "I'm tired of competing with him for you."

Maybe Tyler had been right about him too. Not the way Brian's ex was right, or anything. He sure as fuck hadn't been in love with Bodhi, and he didn't think that's what Tyler meant anyway. But he'd lied to her when he met her, lied to her to get in with Bodhi, and then he'd put her in danger when it all went bad, so he guessed he had always put Bodhi first, in a way. Just not a sexual way.

Bodhi just got that reaction from people, that weird sort of instant connection, and from everything Tyler'd told him, she'd been sucked into it too for a while. He'd flash that fucking maniac grin at you and the next thing you knew you'd be surfing in the dark, riding big waves by nothing but moonlight, or jumping out of a goddamn plane with a bunch of guys who wanted to kill you. He was magnetic, that was the word; people were just drawn to him, whether it was love or hate.

He didn't realize he'd spaced out until Brian's voice broke into his thoughts, and then he noticed that his fingers had a death-grip on the bottle and he was staring blindly at his shoes. "You got a problem with that, Johnny?" and Brian sounded resigned, and a little pissed, like he was expecting Johnny to just turn around and walk out, right there.

Oh man. Brian probably thought he was some total homophobic asshole, the way he'd gone all quiet. Brian pretty much just came out to him, a total stranger, and he'd spaced out thinking about goddamn Bodhi.

"No, man, no, it's, um, I'm good with it, you know?" and god, he sounded like an idiot. Johnny was almost surprised by how much he wanted Brian to believe him, to realize he wasn't in some kind of weird straight-guy shock over it. "My best friend back home is a lesbian," he offered, and then almost died of shame as he heard himself say it. Could you be more of a clich�?

But Brian didn't roll his eyes, or get pissed off, or anything Johnny might expect for such a lame response. He just seemed to take it at face value, and went back over to his toolbox, rummaging again. .

Brian might look like Bodhi, but he was cool. He was ... he was full of surprises. Like Bodhi, something in Johnny whispered, but he ignored it. The more he knew of Brian, the less like Bodhi the guy seemed.

"So, um, what happened?" Johnny asked, not knowing if he should say anything, but genuinely curious. Did Brian have a ... boyfriend? He hadn't seen anyone else coming and going from Brian's house, and Brian seemed to be home most nights, so Johnny had assumed he was single.

"She broke up with me, I told you. I mean, we're still friends, but after she figured that out, well, there are some things -" Brian turned back to the car and picked up a wrench, started unscrewing something.

"No, I meant with the brother."

Brian's laugh was humorless. "Dom? He was long gone by then, anyhow. He got in a bit of trouble with the law, you could say. He headed south across the border and his girlfriend followed him. They lived happily ever after. Or something."

He picked up the beer and brought it to his mouth for a pull, and Johnny noticed the smear of grease on the back of Brian's hand. He sounded tired. "I had no chance with Dom, anyway. He and Letty? They'd been together forever. So."

Johnny nodded. "Yeah. Can't fight history." He changed the subject, hoping for easier ground. "So, you know what's wrong with my car?"

Brian looked relieved at the topic change. "It's your alternator, it's shot. You can get a second opinion if you want it, but I'm pretty sure about this." He undid the prop and let the hood slam down, resting a hip on it as he talked.

"It's going to take at least a week to get replacement parts, depending on what they have in stock, but the install shouldn't take long, a few hours or so. I'll have to take it down to the shop and use the lift for that." Brian eyed Johnny assessingly. "Worth a surfing lesson or two? Enough to get me up on small waves, so I can learn on my own from there? Or do you just want to take it in somewhere else?"

Before Johnny could open his mouth, Brian rushed on, his hand caressing the hood of the car absently as he talked. "If, you know, if you wanted, I could do some other work on your car. This is a beauty man, I got to tell you. I mean, I work on imports mostly, now, but this is classic American muscle. I woulda killed for a chance to work on this car when I was a kid." His face lit up with another of those dazzling smiles. "It's wasted on you, man. You do, what, basic maintenance? You haven't even begun to tap the potential here. I could make this baby into a dream car, Johnny. For, like, a few months' worth of lessons. If you want."

A few months of lessons. That was nothing, if you thought about it in terms of money, not compared to the work Brian was talking about. But he'd just met Brian, really. A few years ago he would have said yes without a second thought. But a few years ago he was fresh out of law school and about to enter the FBI training academy at Quantico; another life.

"Well, you might not take to the water. Why don't you do the alternator, and we'll do a few lessons, and you can see how you like it, okay?" Just because the guy looked like a born surfer didn't mean he'd actually end up enjoying it.

"Order the part, or whatever you gotta do; I can write you a check, right?" He looked uncertainly at Brian, who nodded. "In the meantime, I go out a few mornings a week, and on weekends. If you wanted to come by - Saturday, maybe - we could start your lessons."

Brian looked a little wistful, still stroking the Mustang's hood. "Okay, man. But think about it, I mean it. This is a classic fuckin' car you've got here, and I could make it beautiful. But until then - you want to just leave it here? I mean, you can't drive her until we do the replacement, and I've got room in the garage."

"Sure, man. I don't wanna have to push the car back and forth more than is absolutely necessary; they built them heavier back in the day." Johnny grinned and clapped Brian on the back. "I'll see you Saturday, then, okay? Come on over around nine." He left his empty beer bottle on the workbench and turned to go.

"Do I need a surfboard or anything? A wetsuit?" Brian's voice behind him sounded unsure, and Johnny turned to face him. He scanned him carefully. A little taller, a little broader in the chest, but nothing neoprene couldn't stretch for. And with that scruffy golden hair and big smile, he'd wear it well, too. Get him on a board and he'd be the darling of all the Long Beach bunnies.

"Nah, man. I got spares, they should fit you." Johnny kept his voice light, but he was suddenly itching to get home. Pretty fucking Brian. Pretty, magnetic fucking Brian. Damnit. "Gnight." He turned on his heel with a little wave and headed across the driveway toward his house.

~*~*~

That Saturday morning, Johnny took Brian down to one of the more secluded beach areas for his first surfing lesson. Learning to surf was a pretty embarrassing thing, really. It involved, generally, a lot of flailing and falling down and eating sand before you even got close to getting it right, and Johnny figured the fewer witnesses, the better. Tyler had taught him in front of everyone, but Tyler was sort of a hardass like that, and he'd needed her, so he hadn't complained. Still, he could do better by Brian.

"No, pop up, both feet at the same time." Johnny watched Brian, who was hopping on and off the dry board like a demented monkey. His wetsuit fit okay; a little short, a little tight, but good enough for an hour or two here and there. And the board was more or less the right length, though if Brian ever got serious, he'd need something customized for his height. But board and suit did not a surfer make, and Johnny could see that he had his work cut out for him.

"Brian, if both feet don't land on the board at the same time, it's just gonna go shooting right out from under you. And you gotta make sure your center of balance, here," Johnny tapped his own hips, "is low and over your feet, or you'll be ass over elbow in the water." He hopped on his own board to demonstrate. "You ever take martial arts classes? Skateboard?" Brian was shaking his head. "Okay, it's like this. See how I'm crouching? My center of balance is over the board. Now you."

Brian popped up and crouched, and Johnny reached out suddenly and shoved his shoulder. Brian went down like a rock, ass-first in the sand, and the look on his face was way beyond priceless. Johnny couldn't help himself - he started to laugh, snorts that turned to helpless spasms of laughter. His shoulders were shaking and he couldn't stop, not even when Brian glared at him, not even when Brian reached out, lightning-fast with those long arms, and grabbed his ankles.

Johnny lost his balance, windmilling, and fell back in the sand still laughing. And then Brian was laughing too. He had a dorky little giggle that set Johnny off again, and they laughed until Johnny's sides hurt and he was gasping for breath.

Eventually Johnny caught his breath and sat up. He looked over. "See, Brian, when you stick your butt out over your board like that, it's too easy to lose your balance."

"Yeah, yeah," Brian said, on his back in the sand, staring up at the sky. "Thanks a lot. Asshole." But he was grinning.

Brian didn't get up on his board that day. Or the next weekend. He wasn't anything close to a natural, and if Johnny was honest with himself, he had to admit that maybe he wasn't the greatest teacher, either. But Brian went out, and fell down, and ate sand, and got up and grinned and paddled out again, over and over, with no sign of discouragement.

Johnny liked that about him, that sort of cheerful persistence. Johnny liked a lot of things about Brian, and it didn't hurt that the guy couldn't surf. Actually, Johnny liked that too. Brian looked a lot less like Bodhi on a surfboard than he did on dry land, weirdly enough, and that could only be a good thing.

"So, man, is it like, a back problem? Or maybe, like, a fear of commitment, you can't move in with yourself?" They were sitting at Johnny's kitchen table after Brian's second lesson; he'd cleared the papers off it so they could sit down. Brian was eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (all Johnny had in the house that wasn't either lumpy or moldy), and giving Johnny a hard time about his housekeeping.

"Dude, I hate unpacking, all right? I'll get around to it, eventually." Johnny licked a stray bit of peanut butter off his thumb and screwed the cap back on the jar. "We can't all be anal-retentively organized like you, Mister Hardware-In-Tackle-Boxes."

"I'm your mechanic, you should be glad I'm organized. You don't want me putting the wrong filter on during your oil change or losing the screws for your battery, do you?" Brian grinned at him, unfazed. "You, now, I bet you lose your keys on a regular basis."

Johnny shot him the bird. "Hey, mechanic boy, speaking of my keys, when are my parts gonna get here?"

Brian leaned back and gave him a long, slow scan up and down, smirking. "Oh, I'd say you got all your parts already."

Johnny felt his cheeks burning. He couldn't believe Brian just said that. Brian had just checked him out, and not even a little bit subtly.

Maybe Brian couldn't believe he'd said it either, because he straightened up in his chair real fast and said, "Sorry, man. I, um, I called on Friday, and they said your alternator should come in Monday or Tuesday. I should, um, I should have it installed in another week; I gotta wait until the weekend to borrow the tow truck and the lift from the shop. Is that cool?"

Johnny collected himself a little before answering, because it wasn't just about the car anymore. Was it cool? He looked over at Brian, who was staring fixedly at the remnants of his sandwich. "Yeah, man. That's fine." He could still feel Brian's eyes on his skin. Maybe he should be more bothered about Brian looking at him like that, all half-lidded and hot and intent, even if he was just joking around.

It didn't fucking matter, though, if Brian liked guys or women, or both or whatever. He was just Brian; he could still fix cars, he still couldn't surf, and he still had a dab of jelly on his cheek that made him look kinda stupid. Johnny relaxed. "Did I give you my keys already?"

"Yeah, I got 'em." Brian looked relieved. "I'm sorry it's taking a little longer than I thought, I thought the parts would be here by now, you know?"

Johnny waved off the explanations. "No worries, man. We'll go out on Saturday, see if we can't get you up on that board this time, okay? And then you can take the Mustang in, so I can give the senior-citizen-mobile back to the Alamo guys already."

"Is that where you got that thing? Because Johnny, man, nobody wants you to get rid of it more than me, trust me. It's an embarrassment to live next to someone who drives one of those."

"Whatever. You know, you got jelly ..." Johnny gestured, and Brian licked his thumb to wipe at it. "Yeah, it's gone now."

And if seeing Brian lick his thumb like that made Johnny's mouth a little dry, made him want to lick his own lips and look away for a moment, well. He'd been a fucking F.B.I. agent, he'd had interrogation training and everything. He knew all about the power of suggestion. That's all it was.

~*~*~

The next Saturday, Brian caught his first wave. He'd been crashing and burning all morning, and Johnny was starting to despair, but Brian was nothing if not determined. He had that same cheerful smile going on he'd started with, even after twenty tries, and he kept paddling out, popping up, and falling down until finally he made it. It was a little teeny baby wave, barely white at the top, and he was a little wobbly still, but he got up on his borrowed board and rode it out.

Johnny splashed into shore after him and found himself wrapped up in a wet, sandy, exuberant hug. "Dude! I did it!" Brian's enthusiasm was infectious.

"You sure did!" Johnny grinned back, when Brian let go of him. "And when you can do it ten times in a row, we'll try you on some of the bigger waves!"

Brian looked a bit crestfallen at that, and Johnny couldn't help but laugh. "Man, practice makes perfect. You didn't think I was going to let you out in the big rollers after one bunny wave, did you? I tried that when I was starting out, man, and I almost drowned. It doesn't work like that." He smacked Brian on the ass and headed back toward the ocean. "Come on, I'll stick with you."

Brian ran after him and passed him, trading back the swat with interest with the hand not clutching his board.

"Hey!" Johnny said, and went in chase. There was a brief, juvenile waterfight, which Brian won by the simple expedient of ducking Johnny repeatedly, and they paddled out again.

They had to call it quits, though, before Brian could get more than three in a row without falling; the tow truck was available that afternoon, and they need to take in the Mustang. Brian was almost pouting as they left the waves behind.

"Aw man, I almost had it." They had reached the shower area near the path, and Brian propped up his board against the back of the public restroom building. He turned on the thin stream of fresh water and threw back his head to rinse the salt and sand out of his curls. "Another couple of hours, and I coulda..."

"Don't rush it, Brian; this shit takes time, you know?" Johnny was trying not to watch, but Jesus, the way Brian was arching under the spray as he rinsed off, he might as well be naked. Not that neoprene hid much anyway. Brian had a slight burn on his cheeks and nose, despite the sunscreen, and he looked golden, even in the wan November morning light.

Johnny turned away and propped up his own board. "Next Saturday, man. Or the Saturday after that. I've got 'til February, and then we'll see."

Brian stepped out of the water and shook off, spraying Johnny like a wet dog fresh from the bath. Johnny flipped him off and stepped under the shower, and Brian went to towel himself off.

"Until February? So, you think any more about that deal I offered you last month? I mean, it's cool if you just want to get me there and then stop, but if you didn't mind more lessons, I could really do something with that car of yours. That's a classic ride."

Johnny was feeling none of his earlier hesitation. Brian might remind him of Bodhi now and then, but he was a genuinely good guy, and the surfing lessons were no chore, though Johnny'd be happier when he could get back to the bigger waves. And it would be cool to have a nice car for a change. He kind of liked the idea of being a hot-shot lawyer with a souped-up muscle car. "Sure, man. I mean, if you're okay with that - it's a lot of work, and the lessons aren't worth much."

Brian waved his hand. "No big deal, man, I... Hey!" Johnny had shaken off the water the same way Brian had - except this time, Brian had been almost dry. Brian pointed at Johnny, who was grinning irrepressibly. "Don't make me reconsider, Utah."

"Awww, afraid of a little water?" Johnny snapped Brian with his towel. "Hup to, dude. We've got a tow truck to get."

~*~*~

They took Johnny's rental out to the shop, with Brian bitching all the way about the ride ("Crappy shocks...steers like a cow...who drives these things, anyway?") until Johnny told him to shut up unless he wanted to lend Johnny his car, at which point Brian went suddenly silent. Johnny tried not to laugh.

The shop, "Toretto's Garage," looked pretty much like every other auto shop Johnny had ever seen, shut up and silent for the weekend. Brian swung the car around back and pulled up next to the tow truck parked in the back lot. They both got out, stretching in the weak sunlight, and Brian handed Johnny the keys.

"So, um, I should follow you back?" Johnny wasn't' sure he could find his own way back to the freeway from here, though he usually had pretty good instincts for that sort of thing.

But Brian said, "Naw, man, I got some paperwork to take care of before I head back, and really, you don't need to do anything but wait, from here on out. I'll bring the Mustang back here, put her up on the lift, and you'll have yourself a working car in no time."

"Next Saturday, then?"

"I'll see you before then." Brian had been turning away, but stopped and pivoted around as though a thought had just struck him. "Hey, speaking of Saturdays -"

"Yeah?"

"You got anything planned for Thanksgiving weekend, or are we still on?"

It was two weeks away. Johnny hadn't even been paying attention. "No, nothing different. Why, you got something? It's cool if we skip some lessons, I'm gonna be gone most of December anyhow, in Ohio with my folks..."

"I'm not going anywhere. Just checking to make sure we were still on. And hey, if you don't have plans for Turkey Day, we all do a big thing every year, with the guys from the shop, and you should come. Mia's cooking is to die for, I tell you." Brian had his hands on the roof of the car now, leaning over the window as he talked, blue eyes friendly and open.

And why not? Johnny certainly hadn't made any other plans ... didn't have many other friends, if it came down to it, and the offer was the only one he was likely to get.

"Um, thanks. If you're sure? Because yeah, that sounds good."

Brian thumped a fist on the hood of the car and straightened up. "Done, then!" He headed toward the door of the shop, calling over his shoulder, "Left out the parking lot and take another left at the second light, then follow the signs."

Johnny started up the boat and grinned. Thanksgiving plans. That'd be nice. He'd better go home and get some extra studying in, if he was going to be developing a social life like this.

~*~*~

They took Brian's car to Thanksgiving dinner. Brian handled the car as he had on the morning they met; driving just a shade too fast, turning just a shade too sharply, but with a cool confidence that kept Johnny from reaching for the "oh shit" handle.

Or at least from actually grabbing onto it, anyway. His hand shot out a few times, but he was able to pull it back. Brian caught the motion each time, though, the bastard, giving him that wide, white grin. Like Bodhi on the airplane, seeing his fear, loving the thrill.

Except you were never safe with Bodhi. And despite his nervousness, Johnny knew he was safe with Brian.

When they arrived in Echo Park, Brian just parked and hopped out, heading up the stairs of a large white house. Johnny grabbed the beer from the backseat and followed a few steps behind.

By the time he got to the front door it was already half-open, and Brian was talking to a beautiful Latina woman who was leaning out of it. Johnny felt awkward, out of place, but he turned on the Utah charm, the veneer of confidence and friendliness he could always pull out when he needed it, and said, "Hey."

"Johnny!" Brian said. "Meet Mia! Mia, my neighbor Johnny Utah."

So this was Mia, the former-girlfriend-turned-boss. Jesus, she was gorgeous - Johnny'd imagined someone older, more Brian's age, maybe with all-American blonde good looks like his, but Mia was nothing like his mental picture. She was hot in a cocky, self-assured way that made her youth all the more astonishing.

She looked at Johnny appraisingly. "Utah? You Indian or something?"

Everyone always asked. "Dunno, probably a little bit somewhere back there. I'm not, like, on any tribal register or anything." He shifted the heavy case of beer. "Um, nice to meet you, Mia. You got a place I can put this?"

She seemed to realize that she'd left them trapped on the porch and opened the door wide, letting the screen bang. "Oh, sure, sorry about that. You can put it down in the kitchen - Brian, show him where it is." She shooed them in, and Johnny caught Brian's wry smile as she ordered him around. Yeah, she was his boss, all right.

"Look, Johnny Utah, good to meet you, and we'll talk later, yeah?" Mia had one eye on someone in the next room who was messing around with a guitar, and she was no longer paying attention to them. "I just, I got a lot of things to deal with if we're going to eat on time." She gave him a little wave, and headed off.

He followed Brian toward the kitchen, and as he passed Mia and the guy with the guitar, he heard her say, "Vince! Why aren't you setting the table? People are gonna be here soon, so quit messin' around!" Yeah, that one didn't put up with anyone's shit. Johnny smiled to himself, and his respect for Brian went up a few notches. It took balls to date a woman like that. Even if you had a thing for her brother. Maybe especially if you had a thing for her brother.

The kitchen was full of a few more girls, cooking, and one tall, scruffy guy, who seemed to be doing more getting in the way than anything else. It smelled heavenly. Johnny looked for a place to put the beer down among the dishes and platters lining the counters, but every surface was filled. He looked helplessly at Brian, who moved a microwave in the corner back, freeing up a resting place, and did the introductions.

The women all had names that ended in "a" - Angela, Maria, Felicia. The scruffy guy was Leon. Johnny grinned and said friendly, meaningless things, and followed Brian back out into the dining room as fast as he could.

Vince had put down the guitar and was setting out plates and silverware from a wall cabinet. He stopped when he saw them and switched the silverware to his other hand in order to give Brian some kind of macho, complicated handshake that ended in them punching each other in the shoulder.

"Vince," Brian said, "I want you to meet Johnny Utah. Johnny, this is Vince; he manages the shop where I work."

"Hey man," Vince said, holding out a large paw for Johnny to shake. "Nice to meetcha. You race?"

Confused, Johnny looked at Brian for clarification, and Brian answered for him. "Naw, Vince, he don't race; you'd know him if he did. Johnny's my next door neighbor, the one who's teaching me to surf."

"Oh yeah, the one with that sweet Mustang. Welcome, surfer boy. You should get Brian here to take you to Race Wars or something next year. Not to race or anything, but you should see what he does, we work on a lot of those cars and it's sweet to see them in action."

Johnny couldn't imagine anything more tedious than a day in some sort of NASCAR bleachers, but he smiled and said yeah, maybe he would someday. Mia came downstairs, dusting her palms off on her jeans, and saw them chatting.

"Vince, that table's not going to lay itself. Ten places, babe. I've seen you change a full set of spark plugs faster than you're laying out those forks." She turned to Brian. "We eat in fifteen. Why don't you take Johnny around, show him the house 'til we're ready?" Not waiting for a response, she breezed on into the kitchen and Johnny could hear her directing the troops in there as well.

He grinned at Brian. "Looks like you'd better do what you're told, eh?" Brian shot him a dirty look, but they left Vince and went out into the main room again. It was large, but sparsely furnished, with a few couches, chairs and a coffee table around the edges. Over by the stairs there was a big TV with an X-Box gaming setup attached.

"Well, you've seen the kitchen, dining room, this is the living room ..." Brian spun around, his hands outstretched as though to show off the walls. "This is pretty much it, and the bedrooms upstairs; I guess I should take you up, show you where the bathroom is, but there's not much more to see." He headed up the stairs and Johnny started to follow but stopped at the base, looking at the framed pictures that were hung on the wall at eye level, heading up the stairwell.

The first photo was a group shot. He recognized Mia, and Vince, and Brian - they were standing in front of the shop, under the sign that said "Toretto's Garage," with a bunch of other guys and one of the girls from the kitchen. A few steps up was a grainy family portrait; a large man with olive skin and a walrussy moustache stood with his arm around a small dark woman with gorgeous black hair all the way to her knees. The woman held a baby, and a small boy scowled from almost behind her skirts.

Next up was a picture of a horse, just some cheap drugstore print, then a color snapshot of two more people Johnny didn't recognize, sitting in a brightly painted car and squinting into the sun even behind their sunglasses. The woman's full mouth looked sour and impatient, and the guy ... well, he just looked dangerous. Big and bald and brown and bad, with muscles that bulged out of his t-shirt as he gripped the steering wheel.

"That's Dom and Letty," Brian said quietly, at his shoulder, and Johnny jumped. He hadn't realized Brian had come back down the stairs.

Johnny shot him an incredulous look. "That's Mia's brother? That guy? The one you were ..."

"Yeah," Brian cut him off, "That's Dom, a couple years back. There's a better picture of him, him and Mia, further up." He headed back up the stairs, and this time, Johnny followed.

They stopped at the last photo, which showed Mia and Dom together outside a convenience store. Her arm was around his waist and him arm was around her shoulders and they were both smiling, easy smiles. Dom still looked big, in this picture, but he didn't look as scary. Still, nothing like what Johnny had imagined.

"Is he gonna be here today?" he asked cautiously, not sure what to say.

Brian shook his head. "No, man, I told you, he and Letty are south of the border. If anyone knows when or if they're coming back, they sure as hell haven't told me." He shrugged, self-deprecating, and then looked down at Johnny, who stood a full head below him on the stairs.

"I'd appreciate it if ... if you wouldn't say anything to anyone, today. About Dom, you know; I mean, Mia guessed, but it's not like there was a reason to say anything to anyone, and, um. I don't think some of the guys would take it so good, okay?" Brian shifted his weight a little, nervously.

"No, man, of course not. None of my business anyway, Brian." Johnny felt awkward. So nobody else knew Brian was gay? Or, whatever, bisexual? Well, it really was none of his business, like he'd just said. He changed the subject. "If you don't show me where this bathroom is soon, though, I'm gonna pop, so can we hurry it up?" It wasn't really true, but it made Brian smile again and start moving.

The rest of the house wasn't much, like Brian said; a few bedrooms, the bathroom, a scrubby backyard with a well-worn path to the large garage. Brian finished the "tour" in time for Mia to conscript them both and employ them in setting out serving dishes on the sideboard and putting the beer they'd left on the counter in the fridge to keep cold, where it joined quite a few similar longnecked golden bottles. Johnny suspected he'd discovered the origin of Brian's particular beer loyalties.

Dinner was, in a word, amazing. Johnny had had Thanksgiving dinner every November of his life, but never like this. This wasn't his parents' white-bread stuffing and yams with marshmallows, or the stuffed game hens and gratins of his law school crowd. He'd never met anyone who served turkey with a mole sauce, or who dished out homemade polenta instead of mashed potatoes. He ate until he was stuffed, washing it all down with Coronas and lime.

The talk around the table was all about cars; had been since grace was said (and a peculiarly automotive grace at that) and with no sign of a topic change anytime soon. Even the women seemed to know their way around under a hood. He picked up the occasional tidbit - Angela was the receptionist at the shop, Mia spent most of her time in "the store," which seemed to be somewhere else, Maria was married to Tom, who worked at the shop as well - but mostly he just basked in his full belly and let them talk.

The phone rang just as Maria was bringing out the pie, and Vince answered it. He caught Mia's eye and jerked his head, and she got up and followed him into the kitchen. The table went a little quiet, and even Brian, who had been wrapped up in some technical discussion about torque with Leon, looked subdued. Vince came back out after a few minutes, then Leon went in; Johnny could hear low voices from the kitchen but he couldn't make out what they were saying. More things that weren't any of his business.

By the time Mia came back out, Brian was looking miserable, hunched up in his chair. He hadn't even finished his pie, and for a guy who ate like Brian, that meant something was really wrong. Johnny looked at the clock, searching desperately for something to say. It was close enough to game time.

"Any of y'all watch football?"

Mia rolled her eyes and one of the other girls groaned, but Leon and Brian's eyes lit up, and both Tom and Felicia's boyfriend, whose name Johnny hadn't gotten, looked interested. Vince looked pretty interested too, but one look from Mia had him saying, "You guys go ahead, I'm gonna help the girls put stuff away."

Johnny tried not to grin as he saw Brian mouth "whipped" across the table at him, but couldn't help himself when he saw Mia smirk at Brian and say out loud, "You know it, baby." Brian had the grace to look a bit sheepish.

It was an effort to push back from the table, but Johnny had been looking forward to this game. The Cowboys were playing the Redskins, a high-stakes match between long-time rivals, and the game promised to be close. "Cowboys'll go to the playoffs if they can take the 'Skins," he observed to the table.

Leon snorted. "Ten bucks says they can't."

"Naw, man, I don't bet." Johnny shrugged. "Nothing's certain in football, you know?" He grinned and headed for the living room. "Just because your team sucks..."

"Yeah, well, we'll see about that." Leon turned on the set and settled back into the couch. "Grab me another beer, willya?"

"I'll get it," Brian called from the dining room. "Johnny?"

"Yeah, please."

Brian came back with two bottles of Corona and handed them out. Johnny looked quizzically at his empty hands, but he explained, "Driving," and Johnny nodded, patting the couch next to him.

They were halfway into the second quarter when Jeremiah Trotter went down with a knee injury. "Oh, shit, man, that hurts," Johnny blurted, watching the medics clustered around the injured player. The announcer droned on about anterior cruciate ligaments and restated the obvious: "Looks like that's the end of the season for Trotter, and he's a player that Washington really can't afford to lose..."

Leon grunted. "What do you care, man? Not your team, Cowboys've got a better chance now."

Johnny rubbed his own knee in memory. "Happened to me, man. I was quarterbacking for Ohio in the '98 Rose Bowl, against Arizona. I was set to go pro the next year, already had scouts sniffing around, was looking at some preliminary offers, but I blew my ACL in the final quarter. By the time I was done with the surgery and the PT and on my feet again, I'd missed my window."

Brian was looking at him wide-eyed, and shock and sympathy showed on his face and the faces of the other guys. Johnny busied himself with his beer, wishing Coronas had a label he could peel off or something.

"Hard luck, man," Vince said from the doorway to the dining room. He was drying his hands on a towel, and he came into the room and flopped into a chair. "I think I remember that game. What did you do?"

"What could I do?" Johnny snorted. "I couldn't play, I could barely fuckin' walk. I put in a last-minute application for the law school and they pushed it through for me. By the time I could play again, I was almost done with my degree, and the top teams weren't looking anymore, so." He shrugged again.

"You're a lawyer? I thought you were a surfer!" Vince looked at him suspiciously.

Brian leapt to his defense. "Nothing says he can't do both, Vince. And he's not a lawyer yet."

"I take the bar this February." Johnny could guess, from what Brian had said about Dom's troubles with the law, that lawyers were pretty much persona non grata around the Toretto household. "I'm taking review classes now. It's been a while and I've changed my field since I was in school, so I've got a lot to catch up on. Environmental law's a lot different from crim."

"Environmental law? You gonna save the whales?" Vince relaxed a little and gave Johnny a small smile. "That's cool. But it's been, like, two years since you got outta school. What've you been doing with yourself?"

If "lawyer" hadn't gone over well, Johnny was pretty sure that "F.B.I. agent" would get him kicked out of the house or worse. "It's complicated." He held Vince's eyes until Vince nodded and dropped his gaze. Vince seemed like he knew better than to press when someone said things were "complicated." With Dom being in whatever kind of shit he was in, Johnny was sure Vince wasn't entirely clean. He stole a look at Brian.

Brian looked uncomfortable, but he wasn't saying anything either, just staring at the screen. Maybe Brian wasn't entirely clean either. If he wasn't, Johnny didn't want to know. Enforcing the law wasn't his business anymore.

"Anyway, right now I'm nothing. Not a quarterback, not a lawyer," not an F.B.I. agent, he added silently, "just a part-time student and Brian's surfing coach."

Tom grabbed at the chance to change the subject. "Yeah, Brian, how's that going, anyway? You any good at it yet?"

Brian turned to answer him, and the tension that had built in the room slowly dissipated. By the time the halftime show was over and the game had resumed, Mia and the other girls had joined them and the atmosphere was once again one of relaxed familiarity.

The Cowboys beat the Redskins 27-20 in a hard-fought fourth quarter, with two more players out for injuries on the Washington side. Leon was gracious in defeat, though he did say to Johnny as they shook hands at the door, "Cowboys still aren't going to the playoffs, man. No way in hell." But he said it with a smile.

They rolled the windows down and Brian drove a little slower on the way back, which was a good thing since the streets were lined with cops, one at every third intersection and more on the highway. Brian was pretty much sober, but he'd toned down his usual driving style just in case. The lethargy from the huge meal was finally wearing off, and on impulse, Johnny said, "Hey, let's go down to the beach."

It was too nice a night to waste, and too early to just go home. The beach near their cul-de-sac was a crappy little stretch of sand that got no decent waves, but it was a good place to have a bonfire at night; the cops never checked there. Brian didn't answer right away, so Johnny pressed on.

"We could bring some beers - I know you couldn't drink because you were driving, yeah, but we could do our own little stumble-home celebration down there. I think I've even got a ball somewhere we could toss around." Suddenly, he really wanted to do this. Brian, however, seemed reluctant, his shoulders hunched and mouth pulled to the side in an indecisive grimace.

"Bonfire, Brian," Johnny coaxed. He didn't know why going to the beach had become this thing that he so desperately wanted to do tonight, but who cared? He had a case of beer at home, some lighter fluid, and a football, and there was no earthly reason why not.

Brian suddenly relaxed and let his shoulders drop, looking over at Johnny with a grin. "All right, Johnny. But you're buying and schlepping, man. And no flying tackles or anything, Mr. All-Star."

By the time they got down to the little beach, Johnny was feeling the wisdom of Brian's conditions. Carrying a couple of six-packs of cold beer and a football and lighter fluid for ten blocks took its toll on a man, particularly a man who had ingested a great deal of turkey and beer earlier in the evening. He set his burdens down on the sand with a thump.

Luckily, there were enough old bonfires and driftwood deposits that they could easily cobble together a reasonable woodpile, and a few splashes of lighter fluid and a match or seven later, they were on their way to a decent blaze. Johnny went down to the water's edge to get traces of lighter fluid off his hands and heard Brian yell, "Look out!"

His F.B.I. training spun him around in the blink of an eye, but it was the years of quarterbacking that allowed him to catch the football that came close to hitting him in the face. "Shitty pass, O'Conner!" he yelled, and chucked it back up the beach, high and spiraling toward Brian's right side, so if he ran just right ...

Brian fumbled the ball, trying to hold his beer and catch the football at the same time, and Johnny called out, "Drink or play, dude, what's it gonna be?"

In the end, it was a bit of both. Brian set down his beer for a few more passes, then they retired to the fire for more beer, and then once they were warm again, went for a bit more tossing the ball around. On one final pass, Brian lobbed the ball so wildly that Johnny could barely get his fingertips on it and it spun into the surf. Johnny got his jeans damp fishing it out, and that was enough football for the evening. November in L.A. might be relatively temperate, but wet denim on the beach was never fun. They retired to the fire and killed some more bottles while Johnny attempted to dry his jeans in front of the flames, to little avail.

"I used to play ball in high school, for a little while," Brian volunteered, tossing the football from and to hand as he stared into the fire. "Got kicked off the team."

"Staring at the other players in the locker room?" Johnny poked Brian and grinned, to show he was just kidding, but Brian responded seriously.

"Naw, man, I was just a shitty ball player. They wanted me because I had the build, but I was just never very good at any of it." He poked Johnny back and added, "Besides, I never even looked at a guy like that until I met Dom."

"Really?"

"Yeah. I dunno, Mia told me once that he was like gravity, that people were just drawn to him, they couldn't help it. And it was so true. You can see it a little in Mia, but Dom was just ... when he walked into a room he was the only one you listened to, the only one you saw. It wasn't just me; everyone felt it. He commanded your attention, your respect, your focus." Brian finished off his beer and cracked another.

"He looked like a pretty commanding individual all right. Looks like it runs in the family; Mia's a tough girl. She has everyone in that house pretty well under her thumb."

Brian laughed. "Yeah, Vince is her love slave, basically, and the rest of us, well, we don't cross her much. Honestly, I mean, I know our whole breakup was mostly about how I felt about Dom, but I think she kinda had her eye on Vince all along. She used to flirt with me to make him jealous, before we ever got together; he wanted her for years. She just wanted it on her terms, is all."

Johnny snorted. "You sure don't pick the easy ones, do you? I mean, you wanted to take on Dom? Man, his little sister's too much woman for you, and she's half his size. You like to bite off more than you can handle, don't you, O'Conner?"

He thought maybe for a second he'd gone too far, and that Brian wasn't going to hear the teasing. Brian was looking at him, and Johnny thought Brian might punch him, and he even thought he might deserve it ... and he was a second too late getting up once he realized that running might be a good idea, and Brian was just a few steps behind him, and tackled him hard onto the sand.

Johnny fought back hard, trying to get out from under Brian, waiting for the first blow, any second. He managed to squirm around so he was facing Brian, but he still couldn't get free; Brian had him well and truly pinned. Johnny started to panic, and then he realized Brian was laughing.

"Man hasn't been born that could 'handle' Mia, my friend." Brian teased. "Not me, not Vince, certainly not you."

Johnny stopped struggling, flooded with relief that Brian had known he was just razzing him, that this was a friendly wrestle, not a real fight. His body didn't know it yet, though, and he was high on the adrenaline of it, muscles tense with the need to move, to act.

"Yeah, well, maybe I can handle more than you think." Johnny was thinking about Tyler; she'd been a right wildcat, and they'd done all right for a while. But he felt Brian go still above him, his eyes impossible to read in the dark. Shit. Had he said the wrong thing again?

He opened his mouth to tell Brian that he didn't mean he could handle Mia, that he'd meant it more in general. And then he heard Brian say, "Oh yeah?" in this funny sort of breathless voice, and "just what can you handle?" and then Brian leaned forward and was kissing him.

Surprise and shock kept Johnny still for the first moment or two, while Brian's lips were still soft and quiet on his. And then Brian's tongue licked out and his hands tightened on Johnny's wrists and Johnny could feel the change in both the intent and intensity of the kiss.

It was maybe surprise, and maybe shock, and maybe just the fact that he'd sort of been wondering for the last couple of weeks what it was like to kiss a guy, (not with an eye toward trying it, or trying it with Brian or anything, just wondering). But something made him open his mouth and kiss Brian back.

No matter why he'd done it, he hadn't expected that it would be like this. He'd had vague ideas that it might be like his first kisses with girls back in junior-high spin-the-bottle games. Mostly just awkward and wet and somehow different. He hadn't expected the almost electrical charge he felt as his mouth opened and his tongue found Brian's.

Brian tasted like beer and salt and Johnny felt the rasp of stray sand grains between their lips. He gasped and strained against the grip Brian had on his wrists, trying to get more of it. He took everything Brian was giving him, lips and teeth and tongue and gave it back with equal force.

He couldn't reach down to adjust himself and he was getting hard and the harder he got, the more uncomfortable he was. And he could feel Brian above him, and Brian was hard too, and ...

Johnny wrenched his mouth away.

"Whoa," he panted, and Brian stopped and leaned back, eyes a little glazed and mouth swollen and shining in the light from the fire. He let go of Johnny's wrists, and sat back on his heels to give Johnny some room, breathing hard. Johnny leaned up on his elbows and tried not to look at the bulge of Brian's erection pressing against the worn denim of his fly.

"I just ... I don't know if I can handle that, Brian," Johnny said, and flopped back down, digging the heels of his newly-released hands into his closed eyelids. "That's, um."

"My bad," Brian said, and he sounded miserable and not a little bit drunk. "I didn't mean to ..."

Johnny cut him off. He was drunk, and suddenly very tired and confused, and he really, really didn't want to talk about it. "Look, Brian, I just don't know. But you and me, we're good. Tomorrow, we're friends still, Saturday, I give you another surfing lesson. I just -- I don't know about this, okay?"

Brian was silent for a moment, then released a noisy breath. "Okay," he said, and moved off of Johnny's legs, flopping down to lie face-up on the sand next to him. "As long as we're still good tomorrow."

"Yeah, we're good."

There was another silence as they both stared upward into the dark. "Is it just me, or are the stars spinning a little?" Johnny asked after a while.

Brian snorted. "Well, the Earth is spinning, but you shouldn't be able to see that. And it was overcast today, so you shouldn't be able to see the stars, either. I think I just tackled you too hard and you're seeing Tweety-Bird cartoon stars, my friend."

Johnny elbowed him. "That what you call a tackle? Man, no wonder they kicked you off the high school football team!"

"Naw," Brian said. "You think I tackle all the boys like that? Only you, baby."

Johnny didn't have a comeback for that.

After a while, he picked himself up off the sand and offered Brian a hand, and they headed back to their dying fire.

It was in a drunken silent camaraderie that they picked up the empties and the lighter fluid, kicked sand on the coals, retrieved the football, and headed back toward their houses. Brian even helped carry on the way back, and things felt easy again. For the moment. Time enough to deal with anything else later.

~*~*~

The last thing Johnny felt like doing when he woke up the next morning was dealing with anything. His head was stuffed with cotton wool and his bones were lined with lead, and the light through the blinds was an offense to his eyes. He dragged himself out of bed when the pressure of his full bladder won out over everything else, and pissed and scrubbed his teeth clean, holding himself upright through an effort of will.

He had to concentrate to swallow three ibuprofen and a glass of water, leaning against the bathroom counter and breathing shallowly, trying not to look at himself in the mirror. It was bad enough feeling this way, without seeing how he looked, too.

Then he went back to bed.

When he woke up again, it was afternoon. His mouth still felt fuzzy and foul, and he had a bit of a headache, but at least he could walk without feeling queasy. He repeated the actions of the morning - piss, teeth, ibuprofen, water - and made his way out into the kitchen, where he checked the expiration date on the orange juice and then drank it straight from the carton, standing in front of the open refrigerator door.

Drinking more after he'd gotten home had clearly been a poor decision. But damn it, it wasn't every day you got hard over a guy after a life of heterosexuality. Killing off the bottles of Corona left in the fridge had seemed like a perfectly logical way to cope at the time.

He sat down in a kitchen chair and stared at the empties on the counter. He should probably clean up, maybe even try to get something done so the day wouldn't be a total waste. Instead, he reached for the phone and dialed a number from memory.

"Catelin Anderson's office, how may I help you?" Of course she'd be at work the day after Thanksgiving. She didn't even sound hungover. Johnny tried to remember if he'd ever had as much energy as Cat, but it just made him feel old.

"Cat, it's Johnny."

"Utah!" The cool professional tone was gone, replaced by real warmth and enthusiasm. "And here I was starting to think you didn't love me anymore. To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"You know I adore you. I've just been busy." Busy with Brian. Johnny felt guilty; it had been weeks since he'd called Cat, and she was his best friend. "Look, I'm sorry I haven't called, I just ..." he trailed off.

Cat knew him too well to let that sentence go unfinished. Her voice sharpened. "What's going on? What's wrong? Are you okay?"

He closed his eyes. "Not really. I mean, I'm not sick or hurt or anything, I've just, I've been better."

"Spill," she ordered, and that tone brooked no contradiction. "What is it?"

He kept his eyes closed and drew a deep breath, and blurted out, "How did you know you liked girls?"

"Whoa," Cat said. "Hang on just a second. I'm gonna answer you, but I'm gonna go close my office door first, okay?" Cat worked at an architectural firm in Columbus, and office gossip traveled fast.

"Okay," Johnny said, and waited. There was a lump in his throat and he wondered if he should have waited to call Cat until he felt a little more clear-headed.

"Johnny." She was back, and she sounded ... amused? "What brought this on?"

"Nuh-uh," Johnny said. "We're not going there yet, Cat. Just, humor me here. How did you know you liked girls?"

"I just liked one, Johnny, it wasn't really a categorical revelation. Come on, you were there, you remember the whole fiasco with Karyn."

"Yeah, you sure could pick 'em. She was a real bitch." Johnny had never gotten along with Cat's college girlfriend. Cat had thought he was jealous of Karyn, but he'd been over their high-school romance by then, it wasn't that. He just hadn't liked Karyn, thought she was snotty and superficial, and when she dumped Cat to go "find herself" in India after their junior year he'd said good riddance.

But he hadn't called to talk about Karyn.

"So, it was just like, you met her and suddenly, voila, lesbian, huh? How did you know it wasn't, you know, a fluke or something?"

Cat was actually laughing now. "Utah, are you having some kind of sexual identity crisis?"

"Not if you're laughing at me I'm not."

She sobered, though he could still hear the smile in her voice. "You are. Oh my God. You've gotta tell me about this guy, Johnny, he must be something pretty fuckin' special if he's got you all flustered like this."

He definitely should have held off on the phone call.

"There's nothing to tell. I mean, I don't know if there's anything to tell." He closed his eyes and propped his elbow on the table, rubbing his forehead. "I'm fucking hung over and confused and kind of freaked out, so go easy on me here, okay?"

"Been drowning your sorrows, huh?" Cat sounded sympathetic, and he could tell she was actually listening, so he went on.

"I just, there's this guy, right?"

"I knew it!" Cat crowed. "You met someone!"

"It's not like that, Cat, just ... just hear me out, here, okay?" The frustration in his voice made it come out sharper, angrier than he intended, and Cat got quiet fast.

"Sorry. Go on."

"He kissed me last night, Cat. And I kissed him back, but I was drunk and it's all fucked up, I don't know what I'm doing."

She was quiet for a moment, but even his earlier reprimand couldn't keep Cat down for long. "Okay, you need to start at the beginning. Who's this 'he' you're talking about, and how did you meet him?

Johnny laughed, a ragged sort of chuckle. "He's my next-door neighbor, Cat. He's the fucking boy next door, for Christ's sake, and that's funny, because he is sort of blond and cheerful and All-American like you'd expect the boy next door to be. He's a mechanic. His name is Brian."

"And when I first saw him, he reminded me of Bodhi."

He heard her suck in a breath. "Whoa. That's some heavy shit,."

She knew about Bodhi, already, of course; you couldn't spend more than a year of your life chasing around the world after a madman without the people you loved knowing a little about it at least, and she'd spent a few weeks with Johnny in Columbus when it ended, too. He'd never really talked much about Bodhi himself; it was too raw, too confusing, but Cat had been there for him at the end of his probationary period, when he and the F.B.I had parted ways, and she'd heard some of it.

"I didn't even want to get to know him, you know? I thought -- I mean, I don't know what I thought. But then my car broke down, and he offered to help, and I've been teaching him to surf in exchange for the work. And he can't surf worth shit, is the thing. He's nothing like Bodhi, really, he's funny and laid-back and I like him, you know, we're friends."

"And he kissed you."

"And then, yeah. I mean, I knew he liked guys, or anyway, that he'd liked a guy - before me, I mean," and god, how weird was it to say that, "but I didn't really think that ... I mean, what the fuck, Cat. I never really thought about a guy before, not really, and suddenly I've got a hard-on for some guy who reminds me of a fucking dead guy, a murderer, a guy I spent a year of my life hunting down? This is so fucked up."

"Well, when you put it like that, yeah, it sounds a little unhealthy." He could hear Cat smiling. "But I think you're being kind of hard on yourself. I mean, you just said that this Brian guy is nothing like Bodhi. He just maybe looks like him a little."

"Yeah, but he's like him in some ways. He's got that same energy and confidence, and his smile, it's that same kind of smile. I trusted Bodhi at first, you know, and Brian's got that same kind of ... charisma, or whatever."

"But wait, back up for a second, Johnny. Is this about Bodhi, or is this about you? Because if Brian is kissing you, and you're kissing him back, it sure doesn't sound much like what went on with Bodhi, you know what I mean?"

Johnny shuddered. "I sure wasn't kissing Bodhi. I hadn't really thought about guys that way before. And I'm not sure I think about Brian that way, but I was drunk, and we were kidding around, and ... I just don't know."

"You don't have to know, though. I mean, I know it feels like a crisis - believe me, I know. The first time I kissed Karyn I freaked the fuck out. I half expected to wake up the next morning with a crew cut and a couple of cats, like I'd been turned into an �ber-lesbian overnight."

Johnny snickered. "Well, you did buy that motorcycle and start listening to a lot of Tori Amos."

"We are not talking about my undergraduate identity crises right now. I'm just saying, just because you kiss a guy once, doesn't mean you have to march in the Pride Parade next week. Lots of people experiment."

"But how do I know if I'm experimenting or if I'm really, you know, if I really like him? I don't have a lot of friends out here, and Brian's a good guy. I don't want to just 'experiment' on him like some kind of sexually confused mad scientist and then be like, 'Oh, whoops, sorry, buddy,' if it's not my thing.

"I don't even know what guys do in bed, I mean, I kinda do, but I don't know if I can go there, Cat."

And this was why he'd called her, really. Who else could he say that to but the girl he'd lost his fumbling virginity with in his sophomore year of high school? They'd learned that together. If he could tell anyone about his sudden stupid insecurity and uncertainty, it would have to be Cat.

Who, of course, was laughing at him. "Johnny, my friend, you're getting a little ahead of yourself. It's not like you have to go from kissing to, I dunno, hardcore buttfucking in a day. You've got time. When did this all happen?"

"Last night," Johnny admitted sheepishly.

"So you woke up in a state of heterosexual panic and called me for advice? Man, you have got to stop seeing things in black and white. I mean, it might have been a useful perspective when you were with the F.B.I., but lawyers have to give the world a little more leeway. So you kissed a guy. Not the end of the world, okay?"

"But he's coming over for surfing lessons tomorrow, Cat. And I just don't know what to say!"

"You don't have to say anything. He's a guy, he's not going to want to sit down and 'process' everything all the time. You know what I think?"

"What?"

"I think you should spend some serious quality time thinking about dick."

Johnny choked, and he heard Cat laugh.

"I'm serious! You don't want to mess with your friend, that's cool. You don't know what you want, that's cool too. But you've got resources available to you. You've got your hand and your imagination, and I'm sure you've got a video place in your neighborhood that rents porn. You don't have to fuck guys to figure out if guys turn your crank, is all I'm saying."

Cat's straightforward style could still shock Johnny sometimes. "You want me to whack off to gay porn?"

"Look, I'm sure I don't want to know the details. I'm just saying, yeah, a kiss could be a fluke, a drunken aberration or something. If you're still thinking about girls all the rest of the time, if that's the only thing that gets you excited, then yeah, that's probably all it is. But if you think about guys, and that gets you hot too, then you'd maybe have a better idea what you want to do about Brian."

That made sense, actually. "So you don't think this is some weird thing about Bodhi?"

"I don't know, Johnny. I mean, yeah, it's weird that he reminds you of Bodhi. But it seems like he's got a lot of the stuff that made you trust Bodhi in the first place. I mean, he sounds like a really friendly guy, and all. But maybe not so much with the bank robbing and killing people that made that whole situation so fucked up. So I'm not sure it's a bad thing, anyway."

"Huh." Johnny wasn't sure that he was any less confused now than he had been before he called Cat, but he felt better anyway. "So, I'll be home for Christmas on the ninth, that's a Monday. You wanna pick me up at the airport?"

Cat wasn't put off by the quick subject change. She was good like that, never pushed if he didn't need it. "Sure thing. Send me your flight info."

"Yeah, I will. And Cat?"

"Yeah?"

"Say hey to Deb for me, and ... thanks."

"Anytime, babe. Take care."

He hung up and stared at the table for a few more minutes.

Then he got up and went to take a shower.

~*~*~

Saturday morning, Johnny woke up early. He'd crashed early the night before, tired and hung over and still unable to deal with the sudden weirdness of his life, and so the alarm showed 7:23 when he opened his eyes. He shut the alarm off and nestled back down into his pillow - Brian wasn't due until nine.

But once he'd thought about Brian, he knew he wasn't going to get back to sleep. What the hell was he going to say? What if Brian said something? Johnny rolled over onto his back and stared at the ceiling.

After a few moments, he became aware of his morning erection chafing against the sheets. He reached for it without thinking, and then froze. This is stupid, he told himself. You do this all the time. And he sure as fuck needed a little relaxation this morning. He closed his eyes and wrapped his hand around his cock, giving it nice slow strokes up and down.

Might as well try out some of Cat's advice. Johnny blushed, even though he knew nobody could see him. He thought about touching another guy like this - would it feel weird? It would be all backward and stuff. He wondered briefly what Brian's cock looked like, and reflexively shut down that line of thought.

And then cautiously opened it back up. If he was totally honest with himself, it wouldn't be the first time he'd wondered a little. But, you know, guys wondered about a lot of things when they got off. Fantasy was fantasy, and he never figured it meant he wanted to actually do anything about it.

But maybe he was wrong about that, at least when it came to Brian.

He deliberately pictured Brian, half stripped-down with his wetsuit hanging around his waist, bending back under the showers at the beach, and started to stroke.

Oh god, and it was instantly clear that this was working for him, working really well, because his cock was rock-hard and each movement of his hand was already getting him closer. He squeezed his eyes shut and imagined touching Brian, getting under the water with him and kissing him like they had on the beach.

Oh, shit, that was good too. Brian pushing back into him, all that skin slippery against him...Tiny tight nipple under his fingers, and he'd slide the zipper further down, roll the wetsuit over those slim hips and ...

Hard, wet cock, oh god.

Oh, god.

Johnny had just about time to imagine taking Brian's cock in his hand - just like this - before the image really registered and that was it, he was done for, coming all over his hand and his belly.

For a moment he just lay there, panting, twitching with the occasional aftershock. Then he threw back the covers and swung his legs over the side of the bed, headed for the bathroom.

Well, he guessed that answered a few questions, at any rate.

Brian didn't act any differently when he showed up at nine for his lesson, and Johnny was more than happy to follow his lead and let the whole thing go. He had trouble looking Brian in the eye on the way to the beach, though. What if he looked freaked out, or did something to make Brian kiss him again, or ...

He shook himself. What a fucked-up way to be. He'd said didn't know, and Brian had been cool about that, so he should just fucking relax. Once he got into the water, they'd be fine.

Besides, he wasn't sure he didn't want Brian to kiss him again.

He tucked his board under his arm and grinned at Brian. "You start out on the little rollers, okay? Same drill as last week. Catch ten in a row and then paddle out to me; I'm gonna go play out there a little and then we can meet up, see if you're ready for something bigger."

Brian had gotten up on his board pretty consistently the week before, but he still hadn't managed to "pop up" ten times without falling, and Johnny was sticking to his original goal. Yeah, the waves weren't that big here, but the ocean could really fuck you up if you got too cocky, and he wasn't taking any chances. Johnny paddled out and joined the other surfers who were waiting for a wave. He made small talk ("Yeah, nice board -- big waves in Maui last week --- heard about that shark attack..." ) while keeping an eye on Brian down the beach. By the time it was his wave, he'd seen Brian ride two little swells in, with decent form.

And then there was no one in front of him, and he stopped thinking about Brian, and swam out with the swell, reaching, feeling for that perfect instant in which the movement of the water hesitated, changed, tugged in on itself and then he was up and gliding, rushing over aqua-grey waters with the crash and roar of breaking surf behind him and the perfect glass of potential ahead.

He caught several waves, checking up on Brian intermittently while he waited for the next set, and by the time he heard a familiar "Hey, man!" and saw Brian paddle up on his board, he was feeling good and loose, high on the rush and flow of it.

"Ten?"

"Yeah, didn't fall once. And I did a few more to be sure before I came out." Brian's eyes were shining, and he looked ready to try anything. Johnny had a feeling that he could have pointed him at twenty-foot North Shore breakers and Brian would have given it a shot. Johnny found himself watching Brian's face, thinking about salt water and kisses, and he shook it off. Not the time.

"So, you ready to give this a go?"

"Definitely." Brian was all white teeth and enthusiasm as Johnny talked him through.

"This isn't gonna be like the baby waves. For one thing, you've got to pay attention to the lineup, know when it's your turn, know when you can catch it and when to let someone else go." He gestured at the surfers bobbing around them, intent on the swells. "The guy closest to the wave, and closest to the breaking point, takes the wave. So, your turn will come when we're out front. For now, I'll tell you when to go, but let's hang back for a few sets first, and I'll show you what I'm looking at when the waves come in."

Brian's enthusiasm wasn't dampened by the delay at all. He listened to everything Johnny said about swell and breaking points, and how to tell which waves would close out and which way a wave would break, and he watched the other guys paddle out and take waves, all with that big "hell, yeah" smile on his face.

After a few sets he could tell Johnny more or less whose wave each successive swell would be, and which way it would break, so Johnny started moving them forward in the lineup again.

"I can't explain it to you, really. It's just something you'll feel. Paddle out early, before the wave hits you, and there will be this moment when you feel the wave start to break. You can analyze direction and swell all you want, but that moment is a gut feeling. You'll just know. And when that hits? Get up on your board, like you've been doing on the bunny waves, no delay...and ride it in."

The guys before them picked up waves, one by one, and Johnny was glad to see that even the less experienced riders were handling them without difficulty. It was a good day to start. Johnny checked behind him and yelled, "Brian, paddle! Now!" Brian gave him a surprised look, but he started paddling, strong arms flashing out fast.

He made the wave, but got up a bit too early and missed it. Another hopeful further down the line caught it and rode it in, and Johnny paddled out to Brian.

"Okay, you'll have less warning on this one, but you got up a little before the breaking point on the last one. You want to feel the wave push your board, like you can't do anything else, and then get up. You'll know, dude."

Brian nodded, looking wet and breathless.

"Okay," Johnny said, checking behind them. "This one's yours. Go! Now!"

He could tell this was it. Brian hit the swell with confidence and popped up just right, right before the crest of the wave. He almost wavered - butt out too far, again - and Johnny held his breath, but he corrected and was moving on and down, almost out of Johnny's line of sight, in another instant. And then Johnny was moving out, himself, paddling to catch a wave of his own, and it wasn't until the sweet glide and rush of the ride was over that he was able to look around again for Brian.

Brian was standing in the shallows, looking right back out at him.

Johnny swam in until he felt sand, then stood and splashed over and just grabbed Brian in a huge hug, leaning back to yell "Woo hoo!" at the pale blue sky. Brian laughed and hugged him right back, surfboard bumping awkwardly against Johnny's side.

"I did it! What a fucking rush, man!"

Johnny pulled back, but Brian was just grinning, happy, with none of that crazy intensity Bodhi always had when he went on about "the ultimate rush."

"You wanna go again?" Johnny managed to keep his smile on. Not Bodhi.

"Naw, man, end the morning out on a perfect note." Brian was still beaming as he clapped him on the shoulder. "You know what I really want right now?"

Johnny came up with a lot of things he didn't want to say out loud. "No, dude, what do you really want right now?"

"Waffles." Brian's smile was blinding. "C'mon, my treat."

Waffles. Right, okay, he could do waffles. Johnny followed Brian across the beach toward the car.

~*~*~

The next two weeks were torture.

Not that Brian was pushing him into anything. On the contrary, Brian was the same sunny, slightly manic guy he'd always been, whether they were having waffles at the weird little breakfast shack Brian had taken him to or continuing Brian's lessons in surfing.

They hung out a few times a week, like they'd been doing, and kicked back at Johnny's kitchen table drinking Corona and talking about Johnny's car, or Brian's day at the shop, or something Johnny was studying. Brian hadn't let that kiss on the beach get in the way of his friendship with Johnny at all.

And that was the problem, really.

Because it was Johnny, now, who couldn't let it go. Every time he touched himself, it was Brian he thought about. Brian's mouth. Brian's skin. They way it had felt that night to be on his back on the sand, achingly hard and pinned down by Brian's weight, shoving up with his hips, feeling another man's cock rubbing through layers of fabric against his own ...

He tried to think of other things, but now that he'd started, now that he'd opened that door, it was like nothing else would work for him. He'd spend ages trying to jerk off to memories of Tyler, or thoughts of the pretty brunette in his bar review class, even his old stash of magazines; and then, frustrated and horny, he'd give in, and think of Brian, and he could get why it was called "turned on," because it was like someone flipped a switch. Instantly hard and no more than a few minutes before he was close.

He tried thinking of other guys, too, but they all turned into Brian somehow. And he was pretty sure now that he wanted Brian to kiss him again, that he wanted a whole hell of a lot more than that, even if there were things he wasn't quite ready for.

But Brian was being very good at pretending nothing had happened at all, and Johnny was starting to think maybe they'd both had a little too much to drink that night. Maybe Brian hadn't really meant to kiss him; maybe he didn't want to do it again.

And it was driving Johnny crazy, not knowing. He was still spending time with Brian, like usual, but now watching Brian lick waffle syrup off his fingers or rinse off at the beach was pure sex. Johnny'd get hard just watching him, and have to carry his board or his jacket to hide it. Sometimes Brian would touch him and it was all Johnny could do not to rub up against him like he was in heat or something. Sheer torture.

It was getting fucking Pavlovian, practically, like his dick was hardwired to Brian, and he just couldn't help pressing the little button for more. He hadn't gone through this much Kleenex on the bedside table since he was a teenager, and he wasn't getting enough sleep. But Brian seemed oblivious, and Johnny was starting to think maybe he'd missed his chance.

The stupidest, most random stuff could get to him, too. Watching Brian drive, the way he got so intent and focused, even if it was just normal traffic. That fucking smile he had, the one that lit his whole face up. Seeing his hands, with those long fingers, do pretty much anything - wrap around a cold Corona, or a steering wheel, or brush sand off his shorts.

The only time Johnny could be around Brian and not think about sex was when they were surfing. And if Brian ever got to be any good at that, it was going to be worse than everything else put together.

It was a good thing Johnny had arranged months ago to spend three weeks in Ohio for the holidays. Before he ever met Brian, though that seemed odd now, that there was a time before they knew each other, a time when he hadn't wanted to know Brian.

Because Brian was nothing like Bodhi, Johnny got it now. He didn't push that same way, past what's right or what's sane. He didn't have that same death-wish-masquerading-as-a-life-wish manic need for whatever it was Bodhi had needed. Brian's magnetism came from someplace else. Maybe it was that weird optimism of his, or the dogged persistence. Nothing knocked Brian down. Nothing broke him.

But wherever the pull came from, Johnny needed a break from it. He'd have three weeks to try to straighten out his head (so to speak) without seeing the guy every other day. He planned to talk to Cat, spend some time with his folks, and catch up on all the studying he still needed to do. The bar was only two and a half months off, and lately he'd been spending more time with his right hand than with his books. He needed to get away.

But first, he needed to clean up the house a little. Brian was going to take care of it for him while he was gone - bring in the mail, water the plant, that kind of thing. He'd be showing up to get the key and give Johnny a ride to the airport in a few hours. And Brian had been giving him shit from day one about not being moved in, so Johnny was doing a last-minute sweep to clear the boxes out of the living room and bedroom, at least.

Some of them were empty, and those were already out by the recycling; he'd managed to at least get some of the books on shelves, and the stereo system set up in the corner, next to the TV, with his VHS tapes of surfing competitions stacked underneath it. And most of the kitchen stuff, dishes and pans and shit like that, had come out in the first weeks. He found some half-unpacked boxes of spare cords and old half-used tins of board wax and emergency candles, useful little bric-a-brac. Stuff you'd want, someday, but never really had a place for. He stuck it all in one big crate in the already-overflowing pantry. This had to be the only house in all of the L.A. area with no garage, but at least it was cheap.

And then the boxes of papers were the only things left. The second box in was the stuff from his old office. He knew as soon as he tipped back the cardboard flaps and saw the stapler. Not much in there of worth - he'd only worked a few cases, and he sure hadn't been in the office much - but it had his name plate, and his certificate from Quantico. Most of it was junk - notes in Jennie's looping script about calls long answered or ignored, the lab results from those stupid hair samples they'd run, an employee policy handbook and benefits manual.

Near the bottom, there was a picture of him and Angelo, one they'd snapped on the first day of the undercover, with Johnny holding that cheap-ass rental board and Pappas pointing and grinning, dressed in one of those ugly Hawaiian shirts he'd favored. Johnny looked at it for a minute, and then threw it back in the box. Fuck this. He piled the other stuff on top of it, saving out only the stapler. He'd sort through it later.

And then, of course, the last box of papers, the one with "2001-2 papers" scrawled in black marker on the outside. Johnny didn't even open it. He knew what was in there, and it wasn't something he wanted to face right now. He stacked the other boxes on top and hoisted them up. Fuck, all that paper was heavy.

He took them to the pantry and wedged them in next to the ironing board. That would do, for now, and he'd find someplace permanent later.

By the time Brian showed up at the door and Johnny let him in, he'd had a beer and was working on his second, and the kitchen was cleaner than it had been since he moved in. He hadn't been expecting Brian until later, so the knock took him by surprise.

Brian had come straight from work, still wearing his blue shirt with the name patch on, and he had a smear of some kind of dark grease on his forearm.

"Hey, man, you ready?" Even after a long day at the shop, Brian was vibrant, energetic. He saw the bags by the door and went to grab them. "I'll put these in the car and we can take off."

Johnny laughed. "Take it easy, dude. Plane's not until nine-twenty. We've got a couple of hours at least."

"I thought you said eight?"

"Naw, I thought I said to pick me up at eight. It's cool, we'll get some dinner before we go, or something." Johnny shrugged. "Hope you didn't brave the rush hour just to take me to the airport."

"No, it wasn't bad." Brian shrugged, even though Johnny knew it must have added another forty-five minutes to his drive. "Is there anything I should know about taking care of the house?"

"Not really, just, you know, stick the mail on the kitchen table and leave the light on outside, so it doesn't look like I'm gone." Johnny tried to think. "I've got a plant in the living room, but it can survive anything, so water it if you see it drooping, but it should be cool. I'll give it some now." He filled a pitcher with water and went out to the living room to water the plant. Brian followed him. Then Johnny remembered. "You've got my cell, right? I'll have it with me, you can call anytime, use the phone here or whatever. And I've got your number programmed in, is it cool if I call sometime?"

"Sure, you're back on what, January third? Call and wish me a Happy New Year." They were back in the kitchen and Johnny put the pitcher in the rack and turned to get a dishtowel to dry his hands. Suddenly, Brian was right there.

Johnny hadn't realized how closely Brian had been following, but he was inches away now, totally in Johnny's space, and Johnny felt disoriented, off-balance. He opened his mouth to make automatic apologies, but then he looked up and saw Brian's face, and shut his mouth.

Brian looked - well, he didn't look startled. Or like he wanted Johnny to move. He looked...intent, like he did when he drove. Johnny'd had one hand raised partway, in a kind of "whoa, hey, sorry about your personal space" gesture, but he reached out instead, and put it on Brian's chest.

Brian didn't say anything, just kept looking at Johnny, and it was like the nervous tension of the past few weeks just stretched and snapped, and Johnny leaned up and wrapped his other hand around the back of Brian's neck and kissed him.

Johnny's heart was pounding and it felt like his skin was buzzing, and holy shit, Brian was kissing him back and moving in, until Johnny was pinned up against the counters with Brian against him. While Johnny wasn't what you'd call a small guy, Brian felt...solid. Just a little taller, a little broader, a little more, and god, having him crowd in like this was hot, it was even better than the kissing on the beach, because Johnny could let himself enjoy it.

He was already hard, they both were, and Johnny bit Brian's lower lip a little too sharply and heard him grunt in surprise. But after that - well, after that it was like surfing a rough break, actually. He could feel himself lose control of the kiss, and then it was just trying to stay upright and go along for the ride, because Brian had pretty much taken over.

Which was fine by Johnny, really, because one of Brian's wide, rough hands was popping the buttons on his jeans, and another was up inside his t-shirt, fumbling over his chest. And then Brian reached into Johnny's boxers and wrapped a hand around his cock and it was a damn good thing that Johnny was leaning into the counter and it was digging awkwardly into his lower back, or he might have fallen down or come just at that first touch.

He clutched at Brian's shoulders, hanging on desperately, moans muffled in the kiss. He dropped one hand to fumble blindly at Brian's waist, and Brian took his hand off Johnny's cock long enough to unzip and pull himself out. Then he shoved Johnny's boxers down and started to stroke him again, and it was so good Johnny almost forgot what he'd meant to do in the first place.

But his hand bumped Brian's cock, and the warm weight of it distracted him a little from his own pleasure. Brian's cock felt...different, but Johnny had figured it would, and he was too high on the rush and the weirdness of actually having another man's cock in his hand - Brian's cock - to worry about technique. He just gripped and stroked, and it was a little awkward but totally amazing, because Brian made this noise and broke the kiss, started mouthing blindly at Johnny's neck as he stroked, and he'd tightened his hand, too. Johnny could hear himself panting, making weird breathy noises of his own, but he couldn't stop. He could feel his orgasm building, and he closed his eyes and pressed into Brian's hand a little harder and moved his own hand a little faster.

And that was what did it, really, because Brian bit down on his neck and made a little choked-off "nnngh," and Johnny gasped "Brian," and came all over his hand.

Brian stroked him through it, then stilled his hand. Johnny didn't have time to feel the sticky awkwardness of it, because Brian wasn't done yet. He was still kissing Johnny and his hips were pushing up into Johnny's grip. Now it was Johnny's turn to tighten his hand, and reach up to pinch at Brian's nipples through the cotton of his shirt. Brian froze for a second and then kissed Johnny even harder, and Johnny felt the pulse and wetness as Brian came too.

And then for a few moments there was just the wet sound of their kisses, gentling down, and then their breathing, growing quieter.

And then, of course, the sort of sticky, awkward part. But it was better than it could have been, because Brian pulled back and looked at him and said, "Whoa," in this totally blissed-out surfer voice, and that cracked Johnny up.

And then Brian looked confused, and said, "What?" So Johnny said it back to him, complete with the sort of half-lidded post-orgasm eyes and Brian got it, and they were both giggling, sticky and with their pants slipping off their hips and still in the fucking kitchen fer chrissake, but it was all right.

They washed their hands in the sink, but really, they needed showers. And to change, too, because Johnny's shirt had gotten all messy, and Brian's jeans hadn't fared much better.

"I'll head back to my place, get cleaned up, and then we can go grab dinner, okay?" Brian was doing up his fly, and he shot Johnny a little smile that might have been shy, if Brian were the shy type.

"Shower with me," Johnny blurted. It wasn't what he'd meant to say - he wasn't sure what he'd meant to say, but he didn't want Brian to leave.

Brian looked at him in surprise, and the grin went full-wattage again. "I can do that. But you've gotta give me some sweats or something to go back to the house in." He looked down at his fly ruefully. "I think we've made a mess of these, pretty much."

Brian wet and slippery in the shower was pretty much everything Johnny had hoped for. By the time they'd actually gotten in, and mostly gotten clean, they were both hard again. Johnny had Brian pressed up against the wall and was kissing him enthusiastically while they slipped and slid against one another, and Brian had to push him away to turn off the water. "We're just going to get messy again, and I don't want to run out of hot water," he explained.

Getting messy again sounded pretty promising to Johnny, and he reached for Brian, but Brian used his extra reach to grab Johnny first and spin him around before hauling him back into his arms.

Johnny made a protesting noise, because they were back-to-front now, and he couldn't reach Brian to kiss him. But Brian said, "Hang on," and then there was a tight wet fist around Johnny's cock again and all he could do was let his head fall back on Brian's shoulder and moan.

Brian took his time, this time, jacking Johnny slowly while he rubbed his own cock between the cheeks of Johnny's ass and against the small of his back. He was biting at Johnny's neck again, breathing hard, and his hips gradually sped up, his hand keeping pace, until they were both shaking with how good it was, braced against the tile and panting.

Brian was talking now, saying, "oh god, Johnny, Johnny, oh fuck," over and over between gasps, a little louder each time, and his name and the harsh sound of Brian's breathing next to his ear was enough to make Johnny desperate to come. He wrapped his hand around Brian's and moved their fists tight and fast while he ground back with his ass onto the hard ridge of Brian's cock.

He could feel it when Brian came, because he suddenly stopped moving or even breathing and his hand on Johnny's hip tightened. Johnny felt Brian's cock jerk against him, heard it when Brian started breathing again, panting, really, and that was so weirdly hot - Brian had just come all over his ass - that Johnny took Brian's hand off his cock (Brian wasn't moving it anyway, too caught up in his own orgasm) and turned around. And then he was kissing Brian again, wet and messy and breathless, and it only took a few strokes of his own hand before he was gone, too, pushing up against Brian's damp skin and with his moans muffled by Brian's tongue.

Once Johnny came down, he felt about as strong as a dishrag. "Good idea with the hot water, dude," he mumbled, turning it back on. Brian looked equally done in by their activities, damp and debauched with half-lidded eyes. "You want to get dinner, or you want to lie down for an hour or so?"

Brian rallied. "Man, if I lie down now, I'm gonna be out for the evening. Let's push through, get some coffee or something at dinner, or you'll miss your plane for sure." He laughed softly, a pleased little sound. "You really took it out of me, Johnny; I swear to god I can't feel my knees."

"Yeah, well, you too." Johnny finished rinsing off and hopped out of the shower. "Hang on and I'll get you a towel."

They managed to get dry and dressed and into the car with an hour to spare before they had to head for the airport, so they hit up the taqueria down the street, the one with the really fucking good mole sauce. They didn't talk about anything, really - particularly not anything that had just happened. Johnny made small talk and smiled at Brian, and Brian smiled back at him, and things were pretty good if they were both smiling, Johnny figured.

He gave Brian the key to his house when Brian dropped him off at the airport, which felt weird, like a promise or something serious. "You can put the mail on the kitchen table or wherever," he said, just to make sure that Brian knew it wasn't like that. "And, you know, if you want to hang out or borrow any books or CDs or anything."

"Thanks. And, um, have a good flight." Brian slipped the key in his pocket and then just stood there, looking at Johnny, not moving toward his car.

"Um. Yeah, have good holidays, and, you know, call me if anything comes up. You have my cell number." Johnny wasn't going to kiss Brian goodbye at the fucking airport or anything, but it would be weird to just shake hands with the guy you'd just come all over not an hour before, so he grinned and gave a little wave before hoisting his bags, and that seemed to be okay.

Brian smiled back, and said, "Take care, Johnny," and then Johnny was walking toward the terminal, and when he looked back it was just in time to see the Civic slip into traffic.

After that, it was a blur of tickets and gates and intercom announcements and then Johnny was crammed into a tiny seat by an equally tiny window. The plane hadn't even taken off before he was asleep.

~*~*~

When Johnny stumbled off the plane, dazed and sleep-fogged, he was instantly attacked by five-foot-five of enthusiastic Cat. "Johneeeee, baby!" she yelled, giving him a hug and hauling him down so she could mess up his hair. "Welcome home!"

He gave her a kind of bemused friendly snarl, which she shrugged off, because she was Cat, and let her drag him off to the baggage claim, talking all the while. The first shock of the air outside the airport woke him up, though, the cold cutting right through his California clothing and causing him to shiver.

Cat, of course, caught it. "Getting soft, out there with all the sun and the sand. C'mon, the car's not far."

He piled his stuff into the back of her Jeep and hopped into the front seat, still shivering. As they headed toward the parking toll booth, Cat said in an elaborately casual voice, "So, guess things are going well with your guy, then?"

Johnny'd been prepared to be grilled, but he still jumped and blushed. "How did you know?"

Cat made an inelegant noise and reached over to cuff him lightly on the side of the head. "Johnny Utah, most clueless man on earth." She grinned. "Two words for you, babe: Giant. Hickey."

Oh, fuck. He clapped his hand to his neck, right where Brian had been kissing him, and then flipped the sun visor down and craned his neck sideways, trying to see the mark in the mirror. Cat wasn't kidding; it was bigger than a quarter and pretty dark red. He slumped back into the seat and covered his face with both hands. Fucking Brian hadn't mentioned it. Bastard. He got a vivid mental picture of Brian's wide smile.

"Good thing you came in turtleneck weather," Cat observed cheerfully. "That one's gonna take a while to fade. So, I guess things are going well with your guy, then?" Once Cat started in on a topic, she didn't quit.

"Yeah. I, um, I guess so." Johnny could tell he was turning red and he hoped the dark and his tan would be enough to hide it. He knew he wasn't going to get away with just a confirmation, though, and Cat's next words proved him right.

"So...kissing, yeah? Anything else? Did you get to second base yet, or what?"

"Second base?! What, are we in third grade, Cat?" They were pulling out onto the highway, and Johnny took advantage of her attention to the road and poked her, hard.

"Hey!" Cat batted at his hand. "Enquiring minds want to know! And Deb is gonna kill me if I don't have a full report when I get back, so 'fess up, if you know what's good for you."

He sighed. Might as well give in now; Cat was unstoppable when she wanted something. "You want gory details, woman? Or will just a 'yes' suffice, and we can leave all the sticky sweaty bits out?"

"I don't need details, I just wanna know the basics. Was it good? Are you still freaked out? Are you guys together now?" Just as Johnny was starting to relax and had opened his mouth to answer, Cat added wickedly, "And who bottoms?"

He choked. "We're a ways away from that yet!" She laughed, and he knew she'd asked just to shock him. "Um, yeah, still a little weirded out, but not as much as before. It's all pretty new, you know, but. Good, I guess. I don't know if we're together or not. We're guys. We didn't like, talk about it or anything."

She snickered as she took the exit off the highway. "Of course not."

He glared. "Does that satisfy your perverted curiosity? Are we done?"

"Faaaar from done, but we're good for now." Still looking at the road, she reached over and patted his cheek. "Your folks gonna be asleep, or do we need to pull over at a gas station or something so you can change your shirt?"

"Naw, they're asleep. I've got a key, still."

She nodded, and the SUV took a left onto the sleepy street where Johnny had grown up, and pulled over in front of a familiar dark house. Cat left the motor running while they unloaded Johnny's bags, and then she reached into the back and grabbed a wrapped package, handing it to him.

"What? Cat..."

"Merry early Christmas, Johnny. Open this one tonight - and don't let anyone see you."

Johnny was instantly suspicious. "Cat, what did you get me?"

She smiled up at him impishly. "Wait and see, baby. There's a proper present from me and Deb for Christmas morning, but this is just from me." She reached up on tiptoes and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "We're expecting you for dinner on Saturday, and you've been conscripted for mall duty on Wednesday, because Deb does her shopping at the last minute like you do and she still hasn't gotten anything for anyone, including me. And Johnny..." Cat smacked Johnny on the ass and went to leave, "make sure she gets me something good."

Johnny saluted her with the hand that wasn't holding the package, and bent down to get his bags. He fumbled the key in the front door lock and caught himself holding his breath at the noise, tiptoeing in hoping he hadn't wakened his parents. It was like being a teenager again, sneaking in late with a huge hickey on his neck, and Johnny wasn't yet old enough for that to be particularly funny or nostalgic.

He let out a noiseless breath of relief when he'd reached the guest room - his old room, really, but cleaner now, and with fewer hallmarks of the Adolescent Jock style of d�cor adorning its walls. He dumped the bags on the bed and rooted around for his toilet kit.

Once he'd brushed his teeth and changed for bed, he dumped his bags on the floor and reached for Cat's gift. He stared at it for a moment in trepidation - what had she come up with now? - before ripping into the paper. The plain brown cardboard of the box inside gave nothing away, and he struggled with the tape for a brief moment before giving up and fishing his keys out of his pants pocket, where he'd left them crumpled on the floor.

When he finally got into the box, his first thought was to thank God Cat had bothered to give him a warning, because if he'd saved this for Christmas morning and opened it in front of his family, he would have died from embarrassment.

He lifted out the object on top. A little longer than his hand, and unmistakable in shape, it flexed slightly and crinkled in its cellophane. He put it aside; he could not cope with thinking about that, or what it was for, or the fact that Cat had actually gone somewhere, and bought it for him, and expected him to use it. The bright color and little glitter sparkles in the silicone were an extra-special touch; Johnny imagined that he could hear Cat giggling all the way across town. There was also a bottle of K-Y and some condoms in the box, and he set those aside as well.

The next thing was a book, Anal Pleasure and Health, by some doctor guy, and then The Joy of Gay Sex. By the time Johnny got to the copies of The Advocate and Unzipped at the bottom of the box, he was blushing like mad, and he hastily piled it all back in, shoved the box under the bed, and fell back on the mattress with a thump, forearm over his eyes. He thought he might die of embarrassment anyway.

Johnny resolutely decided not to think about it, and turned off the lamp instead. He was fucking tired, and not even the memory of Brian's skin, hot and damp against him, was enough to keep him awake; his cock gave a twitch, but he crawled under the covers and wrapped himself around a pillow instead of paying attention to it. In moments, he was asleep.

~*~*~

The next few days were great --lazy mornings spent catching up on his sleep, a little study in the afternoons, dinner with his parents, the usual home stuff. He went over to Cat and Deb's on Saturday and ended up staying until Sunday morning, drunk on whisky sevens, which Deb insisted were girly (she drank her bourbon neat) and which Cat mixed with a deadly hand.

He definitely approved of Deb - she was no-nonsense, down-to-earth, and it was clear that she thought Cat was the best thing going, an opinion which she and Johnny shared, though in different ways. Maybe mall duty wouldn't be so bad; she seemed to face it with as little enthusiasm as he did, which boded well for efficiency and minimal fuss.

She and Cat somehow managed not to ask Johnny about Cat's little gift, and Johnny was both surprised and deeply relieved by their unexpected tact. Truth was that his embarrassment had only deterred him until his curiosity and general horniness had taken over, and so it had been less than forty-eight hours before he was reading The Joy of Gay Sex avidly and jerking off thinking about what he could do with Brian.

And he'd thought sneaking into the house late was a flashback to his teenage years! What with the turtlenecks and the dirty books hidden under the bed and the constant masturbation, Johnny felt like his voice might crack any moment now, or his skin break out. Thank God that his room was far down the hall from the master bedroom and that his parents were deep sleepers.

Of course, when he was fifteen he'd been thinking about girls, at least mostly. And he sure as hell hadn't ever even considered using slippery wet gel to stroke a finger inside himself.

But being fifteen had sucked, anyway, and now Johnny figured that not knowing about your prostate was all just part of that general lameness. And so maybe he'd been a slow learner, but god, he was making up for lost time now. Most of the time that Johnny spent in his room (when he wasn't sleeping) was now spent fucking himself with his fingers, reading gay sex manuals, and thinking about Brian. He hadn't gotten up the guts to use the toy yet, but he'd considered it.

He didn't know what he would have told Cat if she'd asked about the gift. Not the truth.

When his cell rang as he was getting ready for bed a few days later, Johnny was confused for a moment. Caller ID was showing "Johnny Utah," and he sure as hell hadn't called himself...Oh. Right. Brian. He flipped his cell open.

"Hello?"

"Hey, man, I hope you don't mind I used your phone to call." Brian's voice came over the line, lazy in that California way. It made Johnny homesick. It also made him kind of hard.

"Brian! No problem, mi phone es su phone, you know that. What's up, is something wrong?" Johnny adjusted himself in his boxers and slipped under the covers, shivering at the feel of cool sheets on his bare skin.

"Well, it's nothing big; just, your toilet won't stop running and I can't find the plunger, so I wondered if you wanted me to call the plumber." Brian suddenly sounded worried. "It's not late there, I didn't wake you, did I?"

"No, I was just getting ready for bed, I'm cool."

"Ready for bed?"

"Yeah, it's only a couple hours later here, but I've been going to bed pretty early." To jerk off thinking about you, Johnny did not add.

"Should I let you go, then?"

"Naw, I'm still awake. What's up with the toilet? Did you try opening up the lid and jiggling the thing?"

"What thing? I fix cars, Johnny, not plumbing."

"Dude, you're on the cordless, right?" Johnny stretched under the covers, which were starting to warm up, and yawned. "Just go into the bathroom, and take the lid off the back of the toilet."

He waited, listening to the sound of Brian walking around his house and the clank of the porcelain. "Okay, now you see how there's like a little arm with a floater thingy on it, that goes down to like, a drain plug like you've got in the kitchen sink, almost?"

"Yeah, I see it. What do I do?"

"Well, the plug isn't down, right? Like, the water level's low? So look for a hang-up in the wire somewhere; it should just drop down once you find it, and it'll stop running in a minute or two."

There was a little silence and then the clank of the porcelain being replaced. "You should get your landlord to take care of that."

"No big deal. Hey, it's good to hear your voice."

Johnny heard the bathroom door shut. "You too, man. What have you been up to?"

"Family, studying, sleeping...had to go shopping with my best friend's girlfriend yesterday, that took all day. Nothing much. You?" Johnny snuck one hand under the covers and put it on his cock, just resting, warm through his boxers. He was half-hard just listening to Brian, and it felt good to be warm and sleepy and hear his voice coming over the line.

"Work, that kind of thing. Hey, is it okay if I take the Mustang into the shop again while you're gone? I might have some time to work on it, if it gets quiet."

"Okay," Johnny said, and yawned audibly. "Sorry, dude, it's like I get into bed and I just crash."

"You're in bed? Oh, man, I'm sorry, I shouldn't keep you up." There was a pause. "Unless, you know, what are you wearing?" Brian made it sound like a joke, but he didn't quite pull it off, and Johnny sucked in a breath.

"You serious, man? Because, you know, not much, just my boxers." Brian was silent, and Johnny blushed, alone in his room. He was fully hard now, just from the idea, the weird sort of fucked-up naughtiness of it, and he pressed his palm down hard on his erection. "And I've been thinkin' about you."

Brian's voice came back on the line a little rougher, a little deeper. "Yeah, I guess I am serious, if you're game. I've been thinking about you too, Johnny."

"Uh, so, what are you wearing? Where are you?" Johnny had almost no experience with this kind of thing, but thinking about Brian sitting somewhere in Johnny's house, maybe touching himself too was pretty much good enough for him. He lifted the elastic of his boxers over his erection and pushed them down, kicking them off.

There were rustling noises on the other end of the phone, and Brian said, " I'm in the bedroom, if that's okay. On your bed." He laughed a little embarrassed laugh. "And, um, I was wearing my jeans, but I guess just a t-shirt now."

God, and that was an inspiring mental image. Johnny wrapped his fist around his erection and squeezed hard. "Yeah," he said, and it came out kind of shaky.

"You getting started already, man?" Brian sounded turned on, and Johnny wondered if he was hard. "You touching yourself?"

"Yeah," Johnny said, and it came out pretty much the same way, except he was starting to breathe a little harder now, which was embarrassing. "You?"

"Fuck, yeah," Brian said, and the idea of it made Johnny let out a little involuntary "nnnh," into the phone. He was sure Brian could hear him panting. He was stroking himself, now, slowly and deliberately, and he wished he didn't have to hold onto the cell phone, so he could use both hands, slide one down behind his balls too. But this was good, and it was even better when he heard Brian groan a little and imagined what he looked like, spread out on Johnny's bed with his cock in his fist and his t-shirt pushed up over his stomach, which Johnny remembered was smooth and lightly furred. God, he wanted to lick it. That wasn't all he wanted to lick, either. He imagined the head of Brian's cock as it thrust up out of Brian's fist, and he licked his lips and made another little noise, knowing Brian was listening.

And Brian must have found the hand lotion that was beside the bed - Johnny flushed hot knowing he'd just left the Kleenex and lotion out, but whatever, they were guys - and besides, Brian was using it the same way, he could tell by the faint squelching sounds he could hear over the line.

And even that was amazing, those squishy unsexy noises, because he was imagining Brian's cock slick with lube, Brian hard, Brian ready to fuck him... The idea simultaneously made him race closer to orgasm, and tense up, clenching his asscheeks, because it was great to think about, but Brian was a lot bigger than just a few fingers. Brian's cock would stretch him out, it would go so deep Johnny wasn't sure he could take it. But god, he wanted to try. He whimpered and pumped himself faster.

He felt like he should have been talking, but it was hard to concentrate on words, and just listening to Brian's breathing and those fucking noises was going to be enough to make him come. "Brian, gonna come." His voice went high and tight on the last word, and he could feel it starting. He let his hips arch off the bed as he stroked. "Gonna come, oh, god, gonna come, I..." he broke off with a little strangled noise as his orgasm slammed into him, and he squeezed his eyes shut and gasped, "Oh, oh, oh, oh" through it, panting so loudly he couldn't hear Brian on the other end of the line at all.

He stilled his hand and let his breathing quiet down. Then he could hear Brian again, those same wet noises, the slap and slide of fast, hard strokes, the ragged breath. He wanted to make Brian come like this, and it sounded like Brian was close, but Johnny didn't know what to say.

"Brian?"

Brian's voice was more a gasp than a word. "Yeah?"

"When I get back, I want you to fuck me."

"Jesus, Johnny!" Brian yelped, and he must have mashed the keys on the phone somehow as he came, because Johnny heard a series of loud beeps and rustling and a strangled moan and then Brian's breathless cursing as he scrambled to get hold of the receiver again.

"Warn a guy!" Brian sounded out of breath, but he was half-laughing. He quieted down and neither of them said anything for a moment, and then he said, "You ... really?"

"Um," Johnny said, because he didn't want to make any promises, and it was kind of weird to talk about. "Maybe, yeah."

"Well, you know. That's, um, that's cool, but only if you want to, you know, I mean, wow." There was another brief silence, and Brian cleared his throat. "I guess I should let you get back to sleep now, huh?"

Johnny's eyelids were already starting to feel heavy. "Yeah, probably. Call me again on Christmas or something - and you've got my flight info for when I come back in, right?"

"Yeah. Okay, I'll, uh, talk to you later, then."

They said their slightly awkward goodnights and Johnny snapped his phone closed. He did a cursory cleanup and rolled over; within moments, he was asleep.

The rest of the visit was good, but Johnny spent a lot of it wishing he was home already. He got more work done, enough that he felt on track for the bar exams again, and had a nice Christmas morning with his folks, eating cinnamon rolls and drinking his dad's crappy coffee while they opened presents. Christmas afternoon he hauled on one of his new sweaters and went over to Cat and Deb's, where Deb answered the door rumpled and tousled and looking exceedingly smug.

"Guess she liked the present, then?" Johnny asked, trying to look innocent as Deb stepped back to let him in.

"See for yourself," Deb said, and gestured to the living room, where Cat was stretched full-length in the wrapping debris, eyes glued to the TV screen as she frantically mashed buttons and thumbed the controller.

"Hey, Utah," Cat said over her shoulder, not taking her eyes from the little figures on the screen. "Y'wanna play?"

The rest of the day was all PlayStation and champagne, and a call from Brian, which was short but left Johnny with a silly smile that earned him what he felt was an excessive amount of teasing from both Cat and Deb.

"Johnny has a booooyfriend," Cat singsonged, pouring them all more champagne.

"Shut up," was Johnny's mature and well-reasoned response. But the smile lingered.

Christmas night, he finally got the courage to try the toy Cat had given him; it was a little awkward and he thought maybe he wasn't getting the angle quite right, but it still felt better than he'd thought it would, better than his fingers. He used it again several more times during the rest of the week, including once on New Year's, when Brian called him after midnight to wish him a Happy New Year and they ended up jerking off again to each other's noises long distance. He didn't tell Brian what he was doing, just stroked the silicone deep as he listened to Brian choke and gasp his way though orgasm, and tucked the phone in the crook of his ear and shoulder long enough to use both hands and get there himself.

He flew out a few days later, waving goodbye to Cat and Deb at the airport and practically running for his plane. The flight home had never seemed so long.

~*~*~

Brian picked him up at the airport, those extra few inches and blond curls making him stand out among all the other people waiting at the gate. To Johnny, he looked like every fantasy he'd had for the past two weeks, and he had to restrain himself from kissing Brian right there in the airport. Instead, he gave him a one-armed hug that lasted a little too long, and said, "I checked bags this time. Loot, you know."

And Brian smiled a small private smile, just the corner of his mouth quirking up, and said, "Let's get them and get you home."

Brian carried the largest bag out to the parking garage, slung over his shoulder, which made Johnny feel simultaneously grateful (it was heavy, and he was tired) and pathetically girly. "I can get that, it's no problem," he was saying for the second or third time, when Brian reached into his pocket and tossed him a set of keys.

Johnny looked at them, bemused - they were his keys, and then looked up...to see the Mustang, shining glossy grey and smooth, sitting in the parking spot in front of them. It looked amazing. He turned to Brian in confusion.

"Dude!" Brian had said he wouldn't be done until January, and now...Brian was smiling, that crooked half-smile again. "You...is it done?"

He got a real smile for that. "Blasphemy, man, a car is never 'done.' Don't talk like that. There's still a lot to do, but yeah, you're good to drive it now."

Johnny dropped his bags and opened the trunk, then the front door, and reached in and popped the hood. Brian was explaining something about what he'd done, but Johnny didn't a word of it. But it didn't matter. He could see for himself that whatever was under the hood now, it sure as hell wasn't what had been in there before.

It was too much. "The paint job alone is worth more than those surfing lessons. I can't..." but that had knocked the happy look right off of Brian's face, and Johnny shut up fast, bending to pick up his bags and stick them in the trunk.

"Just, Merry Christmas, or whatever. I wanted to do it." And Brian put the bag he was carrying into the trunk too, with a thump, and then they were just standing there, staring at one another. Johnny felt like his chest might break open, he wanted to touch Brian so bad. And fuck it, that was a totally amazing gift, and Brian was right there, so Johnny leaned up and kissed him, just a quick peck on the lips, in the shadow of the parking garage wall.

God, and if that didn't whet the appetite for something more...

"Thank you. It's awesome, I love it." He dangled the keys from one finger, letting them make a jingling sound. "Can I offer you a ride?" He made the innuendo sound as dirty as he possibly could, and had the satisfaction of seeing Brian blink and start forward automatically, before catching himself.

"Only if you drive fast," and the growl in Brian's voice was a promise.

Johnny did; the Mustang responded beautifully now, the air was warm, he had Brian next to him in the front seat, and he felt reckless. Brian was quiet on the way back, but Johnny didn't have a lot to say, either. They both knew what would happen once they got into the house.

And then they were pulling into the driveway, and unloading the bags, and it was time. Fucking past time, and they both felt it, but still there was this awkwardness between them. Brian kept looking down, like he was unsure, but then he looked up again and Johnny was totally floored by the sheer depth of emotion going on in those blue eyes. Brian looked scared and angry and wistful and Johnny didn't understand any of that. But he could tell that Brian wanted him, so finally he just dropped the bags he was holding and stepped in, his arms going around Brian's waist. Brian started, as though he hadn't been expecting that, but he bent down to kiss Johnny hungrily.

Kissing Brian was a lot like surfing. There was always that breaking point, that moment where you either had to pull back or commit yourself to it, and once you made that commitment, there was no going back, you just had to ride it out. They stood there in the hall, kissing, and Johnny could feel it, the moment when they stopped just making out and started ... well, started having sex, because even if they weren't there yet, it was clear that that was where they were headed. It was a one-way road from here to full-on nakedness, and no stop signs.

Johnny ran his hands under Brian's sweater and pushed it up, until Brian had to break the kiss and lift his arms to take it off. He threw the sweater and shirt aside, inside out, and yanked Johnny's up too, roughly enough that Johnny got one of his elbows caught in the sleeves and there was an awkward moment trying to get it over his head. The sleeve of the sweater was still hanging off one arm when Brian started kissing him again, and he had to step on it to pull it the rest of the way off.

Brian was a pretty sunny, good-natured guy, most of the time. But this was the focused, determined side of him Johnny had glimpsed occasionally while teaching him to surf. Brian knew what he wanted, and he wanted Johnny. And really, that was a good thing, because Johnny was rock hard and plastered about as close to Brian's skin as he could get without crawling inside it.

For a few minutes, he thought the whole thing was going to be a repeat of the kitchen incident right before he left, but then Brian started walking him backwards toward the bedroom. That lasted about two seconds, until Johnny tripped over his own discarded sweater and almost fell. And besides, he needed the lube out of his bags if this was going where he thought it was going. He pressed his hand up against Brian's chest.

"I gotta get something, okay? Just go wait in the bedroom, I'll be right in." Brian looked confused, but that was probably only natural, considering how much of his circulation was currently centered below the waist. "Go on," Johnny said, and Brian went.

Johnny rummaged frantically through his bag until he came up with the lube and a strip of condoms. Stuffing them in his pocket, he headed for the bedroom -- and stopped in the doorway. Brian had taken off his shoes and socks and was stretched on the bed in just his jeans, rubbing his erection through the denim and staring at Johnny like he wanted to eat him. Johnny thought he'd never seen anything so fucking sexy in his entire life.

"Jeans off, Brian," he said, toeing out of his own shoes and leaning over to take off his socks, bracing himself on the doorframe. "I wanna see you."

"You too," Brian said, already undoing his button and pulling down the zipper. Johnny didn't need any encouragement. He undid his fly and pushed his jeans and boxers down, eyes fixed on Brian as he wriggled out of his pants and kicked them onto the floor. None of the guys in the magazines looked this good, but it wasn't just that Brian looked like some kind of wet dream stretched out over Johnny's dark covers, all golden skin and blond curls and hard cock. It was that this was Brian, and Brian was hard for Johnny.

Johnny kicked his jeans over to the side of the bed and climbed up -- and found himself flat on his back, with Brian spread out over him, their cocks pressed so closely together it was almost uncomfortable and Brian's tongue in his ear.

"Wanna fuck you," Brian panted, grinding against him. "I want to --can we -- I want to fuck you."

"Yeah," Johnny said, "Yeah." He pushed at him, but Brian was biting at his neck now and not paying attention.

"Brian. Brian." That distracted Brian, and he stopped and leaned up on one elbow. "You've gotta move if you want to fuck me, we can't do it like this."

Brian rolled off to the side and Johnny leaned over the side of the bed, scrabbling in his discarded jeans for the lube and condoms. He almost fell before he fished them out, but he managed to tear off a flat, square packet and put the rest of them on the nightstand. He crawled over to Brian, who was laying on his back, just watching.

Johnny set down the lube and took Brian's cock in his hand. It was heavy and warm, just like he remembered, and he pumped it once to feel the skin shift over the solid shaft. Brian hissed, and Johnny ripped the condom packet open with his teeth. Brian's cock was gorgeous, thick and smooth in his hand, and he wanted to taste it. Maybe he should just try a blowjob; Brian's cock was still a lot bigger than the toy he'd been using, and it looked even larger up close. Johnny hesitated a moment, with the condom in one hand and Brian's cock held loosely in the other, and then bent his head to take a quick lapping taste of the smooth skin of the cockhead.

It was salty-tasting, in a really weird way, and the texture of the skin was odd under his tongue. Brian groaned and tried to thrust up, but Johnny's hand at the base held him down, mostly, while Johnny licked around the head again and sucked a little, experimentally.

"Johnny, please!" he heard Brian gasp, and he straightened back up. Concentrating carefully - he hadn't done this backward like this before, and it was a little different than handling your own equipment - Johnny pinched the tip of the condom, rolling it down to the base of Brian's cock, trying not to tangle it in his pubic hair. He flipped open the cap on the lube and poured out a generous dollop, smoothing it down the shaft before smearing his hand between his own legs. He'd need more than that, but it was better than wiping it on the sheets.

He handed the lube to Brian, who was sitting up and reaching for him. "You know what you're doing?"

Brian gave him a belligerent look, but it melted into a sort of embarrassed sheepishness and he shook his head.

"You gotta prep me," Johnny told him, blushing furiously but scared enough to make sure that Brian knew what to do. "Stretch me, like, with your fingers and stuff. Use lots of lube, and then, you know, go slow. Stop if I tell you."

Brian nodded wordlessly and Johnny got up on his hands and knees as Brian moved to kneel behind him. It seemed like it would be easier to do it like this, the first time, than any of the more creative positions he'd seen in the books Cat gave him. He felt silly and exposed, but then Brian touched him, tentatively, fingers wet with lube, and he sucked in a breath and reached down to stroke himself.

Brian was unsure and a bit clumsy, but his fingers were long and square and by the time he added the second one Johnny was squirming back on them and panting. He still wasn't quite ready for the slick, blunt press of the head of Brian's cock, but when it came, he didn't tell Brian to stop, either, just pressed back as Brian pressed forward until it popped in, only the head, and then it hurt like a motherfucker, and he gasped, "Wait." Brian did, one hand on Johnny's hip and one on the bedspread, shaking a little and panting.

It took a while for the pain to fade, and then it just felt weird, until Johnny remembered to touch himself, and then it started to feel weird and good. "Okay, slow," he managed to get out, and Brian started to push in. Johnny pushed back onto him, too, still jacking himself, feeling Brian move inside him. It didn't hurt like the beginning had, but there was definitely a burn and ache to it, and he stopped when Brian was only a little further in and started to rock back and forth.

It was a shallow, steady fucking that got deeper with each stroke, until Brian was buried most of the way inside him and Johnny was getting flashes of intense pleasure he was pretty sure had something to do with his prostate gland. Brian's hands clutched convulsively at Johnny's hips, steadying them both as they rocked together in a slow steady rhythm that quickly got deeper and faster. And holy shit, that was good, that was better than any toy.

Johnny was jacking himself fast now, pushing back hard against Brian, reveling in the feeling of fullness, the stretch, the slick slide and pull of Brian's cock shoving into him. He'd softened up a little at first, but that was long gone, and now he was racing toward orgasm so fast it was almost embarrassing. He heard himself moan, and Brian muttered "Yeah," and gripped him a little harder, fucked him a little faster.

That little "yeah" really did it, the sound of Brian all rough-voiced and breathless for him like that, and Johnny moaned again, and said in a choked voice, "Oh, fuck, and came all over his hand. The orgasm felt like it went on for a long time, and Brian fucked him through it, making soft guttural noises every time his hips met Johnny's ass, muttering disjointed sex talk under his breath.

"Johnny, uh, gonna, fuck you, so good, oh, so, Johnny, fuck you," and Brian was getting louder now, Johnny couldn't concentrate, he was being fucked into the wall and he had to push back against the forward push of Brian's hips, "Fuck you, Johnny, fuck you, you, oh god, Johnny, you...!" Brian slammed into him one last time, so deep it hurt, and Johnny could feel him come, feel his cock pulse as Brian froze and panted and jerked his hips again.

For a moment he just lay there, collapsed and weak with Brian still inside him. And then he felt Brian start to slip out, which was a fucking weird feeling, and Brian grabbed the condom and pulled out entirely, flopping to the side as he knotted it. Johnny took it from him and got up to throw it away. By the time he got out of the bathroom, Brian was lying on his back with his arm across his face, breathing slowly.

"Brian?" Johnny said, but either Brian was already asleep or he was faking it pretty well. Johnny tossed a blanket over him and climbed in under the covers, wishing Brian weren't laying on top of them. He leaned over and laid a small kiss on Brian's shoulder and scooted close to Brian's body before closing his eyes.

When Johnny woke up, Brian was gone. The house was still dark - the sky was still dark, and Johnny just groaned when he saw the lighted LED display on his alarm clock. Six. Where the fuck was Brian?

The door to the bathroom was open and the light was off. Johnny swung his legs over the edge of the bed and padded in to take a piss. He grimaced as his movements reminded him of the previous night's activity. Well, he'd liked it, that was for sure. It just hadn't been quite what he'd expected. He didn't need to be held or anything, he wasn't a girl, it was just... he'd thought Brian would stay. He hadn't even heard him leave.

He went back to bed, but it took a while for him to get back to sleep. The alarm said nine-o'-clock when he woke up again.

He found the note on the table when he went to get the orange juice out of the fridge.

Dear Agent Utah,

I realize I don't have any right to ask you this, but I hope you'll leave last night out of your official report to Bilkins. Wouldn't want anyone to think you got too close to your subject, after all.

- Brian O'Conner.

What the fuck?! Johnny picked up the note, and saw that it lay on top of his Quantico diploma and some of his old F.B.I. papers. The stuff that had been in that box he'd shoved in the closet. His first reaction was to be furious, that Brian had gone through his things, that he'd left without a word.

But then the essential weirdness of the note sank in. Who was Bilkins? And why would Johnny be writing a report for him? Brian clearly thought he was under investigation for something, but Johnny had no idea what it might be. What was Brian into?

Johnny's blood ran cold. Jesus. Just like fucking Bodhi. He should have known. Brian was some kind of criminal. Johnny sat down hard in the kitchen chair, staring at the note like it might jump at him and bite.

Well, he could think of someone who might be able to tell him what all this was about. He reached over, still holding the note, and picked up the phone, hoping she'd be at her desk again after the long holiday.

When the ringing stopped, a pleasant female voice said, "Federal Bureau of Investigation, Jennie Deer speaking, how may I help you?"

"Hey, Jennie, it's Johnny. Johnny Utah." He had to hold the phone away from his ear to protect his eardrum from her excited squeal. "Look, I've got a favor to ask. Do you know an Agent Bilkins? He should be here, in the L.A. area. I need to find out about a case he worked on."

Johnny could hear Jennie tapping at her keys as she looked up the local F.B.I. roster on her computer. "I've got an Agent Saul Bilkins here, interstate affairs, that sound right to you?"

"Yeah, that's gotta be him if it's the only Bilkins you've got. And I don't have a case number, I know I should have one, but all I got is a name. Pretty please, Jennie? Sugar on top, and I will so owe you ... Just, can you find me any cases he investigated that involved a Brian O'Conner, O-C-o-n-n-e-r?"

After a few minutes of silence and tapping, she said, "I'm sorry, I can't find anything with an O'Conner listed as a suspect, not in the last ten years or so. You want anything before that, I'd have to go request the files from Archives. And I like you and all, but you're not that cute. It's like a circle of Hell or something down there, I swear."

"No, it's cool - this would have been more recent anyway." Johnny heard Brian's voice in his head. "Dom? He got in a little trouble with the law, you could say." "Try cases involving a Toretto, T-o-r-e-t-t-o, maybe?"

Tapping. Then, "Dominic Toretto?"

Jackpot.

Johnny's excitement was dampened by her next words. "I got something, sure, but this is an open file, and you know I can't talk to you about anything that's still open." He knew. The non-disclosure rules were drummed into the head of every trainee from day one, and it would be more than Jennie's job was worth to give him any details of an open case.

But she was still talking. "I can say, though, that it looks like your O'Conner fellow was the local undercover on the case; they brought him in from Arizona for 'specialist knowledge' in 2000, for about six months, that's all it says. And you know I can't give you any more than that. I shouldn't even tell you this much, but I always had a weakness for tall, dark, and handsome."

The local undercover on the case. Holy fuck.

Brian was a cop.

Except Brian was a mechanic.

Johnny realized he was hanging onto the telephone with a death grip, not saying anything. "No, Jennie, that's good. That's perfect, actually. Look, I can't tell you how much I appreciate this. Really. And I owe you dinner, okay? But just one last thing ... I know you can't tell me any more about the case, but can you get me Agent Bilkins's number? I just have some questions for him. I won't mention how I found out, I already had his name, remember?"

"A really nice dinner, Johnny, and you better not be doing anything with this information that's gonna get me in trouble." Jennie rattled off a few digits and Johnny scribbled them down hastily.

"Thanks, Jennie, you're the best."

"Don't you forget it. And don't think I'll forget about that dinner you owe me now, either."

He rang off and leaned hard against the counter. Brian was a cop. An undercover cop. Christ, could this be more ironic? And for some reason he thought Johnny was watching him. Johnny reached for the phone again and dialed Agent Bilkins.

"Bilkins here."

Johnny put all the professionalism he could muster into his voice. "Yes, Agent Bilkins. My name is Johnny Utah, and I'm calling with a question about a case of yours."

"Mr...Utah? And who are you with?"

"I'm afraid I'm no longer with the F.B.I., Agent Bilkins, but you can access my records to confirm that I was, in fact, an agent in the Los Angeles office last year." He'd never tried to do this, to talk to anyone inside from the outside. He had a feeling that getting anything out of Bilkins was going to be a great deal more difficult than sweet-talking Jennie.

"Well, Mr. Utah, you realize that that severely limits the information I'm able to share with you." Bilkins sounded about two seconds away from hanging up, and Johnny rushed to explain.

"No, sir, I know that. It's just about the Toretto case, I wondered if you could tell me..."

"The Toretto case?" Bilkins was definitely listening now. "That's an open file; I can't discuss that with you without authorization."

Johnny tried again. "But it's not the case itself I wanted to ask you about, it's about Officer O'Conner..."

He could hear Bilkins's snort over the phone lines. "Not an officer anymore, and that's a matter of public record, so I don't mind telling you that much."

"Agent Bilkins, I just want to know if Brian's under investigation for anything." Johnny could hear the tapping of keys, and he figured Bilkins was looking up his records.

"Agent Utah...former Agent Johnny Utah..." Bilkins was clearly reading Johnny's files. There was a pause, and the tapping of some more keys. "Look, Mr. Utah, I can't tell you anything more. You want a personal reference, you're going to have to talk to Sergeant James Tanner, of the LAPD. Brian was his man." Bilkins' voice was cold. Johnny couldn't' blame him for the cold shoulder; he'd have done the same to a guy who got his partner, a cop, and a bunch of civilians killed and then let the perp go once he finally caught him. Not that that last bit was in his records, but the bank robbery was, and none of it looked good.

Bilkins gave Johnny Tanner's number and hung up without saying goodbye.

Tanner wasn't in, but his assistant said he'd call back after noon. Johnny left his name and his number, and spent the next four hours fidgeting around the house.

This was so fucked-up. What the fuck had last night been about, if Brian thought that Johnny was investigating him for the F.B.I.? Johnny could still feel the residual soreness in his ass when he moved in certain ways. Revenge fuck? He thought about Brian's voice, so friendly and natural when he'd called on New Year's. He thought about the Mustang, gleaming gray and purring. Not a revenge fuck, then.

He sat down with his books, but he couldn't concentrate. Finally, he tried Brian's cell, even though he wasn't sure he was ready to talk to him. It went straight to voicemail.

It had been something, something important, to both of them. Johnny squeezed his eyes shut and propped his elbows on the table. He'd never given it up like that for anyone, and not just the sex, either. He'd never let anyone get under his skin like Brian, change the way he lived his life.

Except Bodhi, and hadn't that just been the ultimate revenge fuck, for all he'd never touched the guy. And Brian wasn't anything like Bodhi, but where did that leave him? Please, don't let it have been another mistake.

He was going over the same information again, still with no conclusion, when the phone rang.

"Johnny Utah here."

"Sergeant Tanner, returning your message, Mr. Utah. You had a question for me?"

Johnny exhaled, silently, and wiped his palms on his jeans. "Thank you, Sergeant Tanner. I'm a friend of Brian O'Conner's, and Agent Bilkins at the F.B.I. told me you might be able to fill me in on his involvement in the Toretto case."

"The Toretto case?" Tanner sounded surprised, and wary. "That's an F.B.I. matter, son, not something I can discuss."

Around and around and around....Johnny tried again. "Sergeant Tanner, I know you don't know me, but I'm not asking for information about the case itself. Just about Brian's involvement."

"Seems to me, if you were a friend of Brian's like you claim, he'd tell you himself."

Tanner sounded concerned for Brian, protective, and Johnny figured that was a good sign. "I'm a former F.B.I agent myself, Sergeant Tanner. Brian's not too keen to talk to me since he found out, and I'd like to know why."

Tanner laughed, a short, harsh bark of surprise, and muttered something about turnabout being fair play. "Look, Mr. Utah, I'm sorry to hear that you and Brian are on the outs. But I really can't say much about that case. Brian was the undercover, as you clearly know, and he'd gotten in close with Toretto. There were a few false starts, but most of us were pretty sure from the start that Toretto was behind the thefts, and that's the way it played out. Brian was there when it went down, and they caught one of the minor players, but Toretto somehow got away. Brian chased him down again and he got away again, this time with Brian's car. "

"Whoa," Johnny said. He didn't know what else to say. He'd had no idea. No idea about any of this.

"Yeah, it was weird. Brian's story was that Toretto overpowered him both times, held him at gunpoint, took the car. There was an investigation into Brian's conduct, but nothing could be proved either way. He resigned from the force pretty much right after that." Tanner sounded tired.

"An investigation?" Surely Brian didn't think Johnny had anything to do with that?

"Yeah. Look, Mr. Utah, Brian's a good kid, but this was his first undercover gig and maybe he was kind of over his head. He never seemed to want to believe that it was Toretto, and he was dating the sister - part of his cover, he said. But I think maybe he got in a little too close; not like he was involved in the heists, but..." Tanner sighed. "I've said all I can, Mr. Utah."

"No, thank you, that's very helpful," Johnny babbled. Holy fuck. "I really appreciate you talking to me, and honestly, I am a friend of Brian's." Or more than a friend. "Thank you."

Tanner grunted. "I'm glad to hear it, M. Utah. That boy could use some good friends. You take care, and keep this information to yourself."

"Oh, I will, Sergeant. Thank you." Johnny hung up the phone. Undercover. In too close. Let him go, twice. Investigation. It was eerie, is what it was. Like Tanner had been looking in Johnny's own file, except he'd never have access to that. Only F.B.I. personnel with the correct security clearance could...

Johnny swore. Then he dashed for the pantry, pulled out the unopened box and started to rifle through the papers.

An hour later, he walked next door, with the box in his arms, and put it down on the front step. Brian still wasn't home, but he didn't usually use the front door anyway, so Johnny walked to the mailbox and stuck a note inside. In wide black felt-marker print, it said:

Dear Officer O'Conner,

Look by the front door - you missed a box.

Call me.

-- Johnny

And then it was just waiting.

~*~*~

Waiting was excruciating. It was like the time between the bank robbery and the video in the back of Bodhi's van, knowing he'd fucked up, wondering how or if he'd have to pay. It was like the moment between realizing he'd called a big wave wrong and the part where it tumbled him over, pulling him down. It was worse than waiting in the hospital, hoping against hope one crappy play hadn't ruined his whole pro career before it even got off the ground - at least then he'd had drugs. It was just bad.

Johnny tried Brian's cell phone again, with the same lack of result, and sighed. The house was clean, even - he'd cleaned it for Brian before leaving for Ohio. Johnny fished a Corona out of the fridge and wandered aimlessly from room to room, looking out the window every few minutes to see Brian's drive still empty. After about two hours, he called Cat, but she wasn't home, and he hung up rather than leave a message. What would he say? It was all too fucking complicated.

Another beer, an attempt at watching TV, unpacking his bags in the hall. The sight of Cat's gift made him grimace. After a moment of hesitation, he threw the magazines and the toy in the nightstand, tossing in the lube from the night before as well. Could be all the entertainment he'd have for a while.

By evening, Johnny was sitting at the kitchen table, sorting through the box of stuff from his office. He put some of it away, recycled most of the paper, and sat staring at the photo of Angelo. At least this time, his mistakes weren't going to get anyone killed. Cold comfort, that. Angelo smiled up at him out of the photo, slobby and crass and vibrant and alive. Johnny's chest felt tight and his eyes were dry. His ass hurt a little.

Fuck this. Johnny called the surf hotline, listened to the reports, and went to grab his board. Night surfing was just what he needed.

Night surfing was dangerous, any way you looked at it - only crackpots like Bodhi and his gang did it, and nobody did it alone. But Johnny didn't give a fuck. The moon was full enough, shining down on the black water as Johnny parked the car, and nothing else was going to take him out of his head enough for him to get some sleep.

Brian probably wouldn't even come home tonight - he could crash with Mia. Johnny felt a flare of irrational jealousy and reminded himself that Mia was with Vince now. And she'd dumped Brian anyway. He got out of his car and changed into his wetsuit, shivering a little as the cool night air hit his skin.

There were good things about crazy, Johnny remembered, as he paddled out into a deserted, moonlit sea. Crazy could make you fly, through water or air. Crazy put you out on the waves on perfect moonlit nights. Crazy made your blood sing, took your mind off your troubles. Crazy made you care just a little bit less. That's what made it dangerous, but that was the seduction of it, too.

He lined up and waited for a wave, then took off, let it carry him. When he felt it - the crucial pull, the break - he caught the crest, stood up...and flew.

He stayed out for hours, letting the adrenalin and the roar of the surf push his troubles to the back of his mind. He surfed until he felt liquid, muscles exhausted, mind totally subsumed by the flow and ebb of the water. When he knew he was too tired to keep going, he turned in to shore.

The drive back was smooth, just the night and the purr of the Mustang. Johnny found some comfort in the fact that Brian had fixed up the car. He'd probably done it before he found the papers - either that, or Johnny should have checked it more carefully for hidden explosives - but that wasn't the sort of thing a guy who was planning never to speak to you again might do.

The zen buzz of the evening lasted until he pulled into the cul-de-sac and saw the light in Brian's living room window. Johnny was sure the house had been dark when he left. He got out of the Mustang and walked over. The box was gone from the front porch. The hood of Brian's car felt cold when he checked it. Brian must have gotten home hours ago.

Johnny hesitated. Should he wait until morning? The anxiety was rising in his chest again - anger and hurt and fear, tangled up and making his heart race. He had to talk to Brian - he'd never get to sleep with all this hanging over him, knowing Brian was just next door.

His knock at the door wasn't loud, and for a few long moments, he thought maybe Brian was asleep. It was long enough that he was just turning to go when he heard a thump and then padding footsteps, coming toward the door. When Brian opened it, he didn't look surprised. He looked exhausted, and resigned, and maybe like he'd just woken up from a nap of his own. He was wearing the shirt and jeans from the previous night, and he was barefoot and rumpled and unshaven.

He waved Johnny in and headed back to the living room without a word. Johnny followed him, and stopped, abruptly, when he saw the papers from the box spread out over the coffee table, the floor, the couch. He'd thought maybe Brian would just read the stuff on top, but he'd eviscerated the whole box. Newspaper clippings about the bank robberies, Angelo's death, the search, Bodhi's capture lay everywhere. The official letters of censure. His letter of resignation. Old plane tickets and reports were strewn all over the coffee table.

He knew he'd given it all to Brian, but it looked somehow more real, more damning, all laid out like that, a sea of black and white and official print. He swallowed and looked at Brian, who had shoved some of the news clippings aside and was sitting on the couch, elbows on his knees.

For a minute, nobody said anything.

Then, "I guess I owe you an apology," Brian said, and his voice was hoarse and low.

"And an explanation," Johnny said. He was glad to hear his voice come out even, no sign in it of the way his knees felt like they were about to give way. He took a few steps and leaned against the wall.

Brian gave a mirthless little snort and ran his hands through his hair, dropping his head down before looking back up at Johnny. "Yeah, I guess so. Um, I guess you know I used to be a cop, then?"

"Yeah, I talked to your sergeant today. Tanner."

Brian's head shot up. "How the hell did you..."

Johnny wasn't up for discussing it. "I sure as hell didn't go through your closet looking for your back employment papers."

"Right." Brian slumped again. Johnny didn't think he'd ever seen Brian look beaten, but he sure looked it now. His shoulders were hunched in and every line of his body telegraphed dejection. "So maybe I owe you more than one apology."

"I'm waiting." Johnny just wanted to go over there and curl around Brian, have Brian kiss him, go back to how they'd been last night - no, how they should have been last night. Suddenly, he couldn't stand it anymore. "What the fuck was last night about? Some sort of fucked-up attempt to make sure I wouldn't be a credible witness? I guess you'd know about getting too close to your mark, though, wouldn't you?"

He saw Brian flinch as the shot went home, but he was too angry to regret it. He just waited, arms crossed over his chest. The smooth lassitude in his muscles from the surfing was starting to morph into an ache and the tightness of salt on his skin made him feel dried out, stretched thin.

"I'm sorry." It came out quietly, so quietly that Johnny almost didn't hear it. Brian had his head down and was talking to his knees. "I didn't even mean to go through your things - I was looking in the pantry for a plunger, and the papers were right on top."

Johnny could have kicked himself for not putting those away better, but that didn't change the fact that Brian had read them. "And you didn't think you might have talked to me about them? Instead of ..." he swallowed, "fucking me and then running off and leaving me a goddamned note? Class act."

"Class A asshole, maybe," Brian admitted wearily, "Last night - look, I wanted last night. And I thought, I don't know, I thought if you were investigating me it might compromise that -" he held up a hand when Johnny opened his mouth, "but I also thought it might be the only chance, you know, and I just..." he looked at Johnny despairingly.

"God, I tried to be patient, but you've got no idea, I've wanted..." he ducked his head. "I'm sorry. I read all this," he waved his hand at the papers all over the room, "and I just...I had no idea, man."

Johnny believed him. Of course, if Brian had had any idea, things might have gone better, Or never happened at all. "There seem to be a lot of things we weren't talking about, Officer O'Conner."

That got him a nervous grin. "Undercover is like that, I guess. You get in the habit of not telling people anything they don't need to know." Brian stood up, started gathering some of the papers on the coffee table, still talking. "This Bodhi guy, you were friends before it all went down?"

Johnny thought back to the parties, the Frisbee on the beach, Bodhi's crazy grin. "I don't know. I don't know if Bodhi had friends. You reminded me of him when I met you, you know? You kind of look like him, a little. Freaked me out."

Brian shoved the papers in the box . "But you weren't investigating me." It wasn't a question. "I thought - they never found Dom, you know, and there's this guy, Agent Bilkins, he was on me during the IA investigations, he was sure I knew where Dom was. And when I saw your papers..."

"I talked to Bilkins today," Johnny blurted out. "After I got your note, I called some people I used to know, they gave me his number. They're still looking for Dom."

"You talked to Bilkins?"

"Yeah, but he wouldn't tell me anything. Former agent, fall from grace, blah blah blah."

Brian nodded. "I knew they were still after Dom. That's why I, um, jumped to conclusions, I guess." He came closer to Johnny, until he was standing right in front of him. He put a hand on Johnny's arm and looked down, into his eyes. "I shouldn't have done that, last night."

Johnny held his breath. Brian's touch on his arm was electric, and his body was responding to the nearness of him, getting aroused, wanting to touch back. "I wanted it." The honesty was painful. "Just...not like that. I thought you'd stick around, we'd have breakfast, maybe, you know, do it again. Not all this bullshit." He shifted restlessly against the wall.

"Do you think..." and Brian was running his hand down Johnny's forearm, leaving a tingle in its wake, "Do you think we could start over, maybe?"

Johnny was hard, now, and it wasn't helping him think rationally. "I think," he started, then gasped as Brian's other hand dropped to his hip. He forced himself to focus, gave a little half-smile. "I think that might take more patience than I've got right now. Maybe just try last night over again?"

Brian leaned in and nuzzled at Johnny's neck. "Without the part where I act like an asshole, you mean?"

"Yeah," Johnny said, distracted. Brian's hands felt so good, and the little kisses he was dropping on Johnny's neck were unbearably exciting. He knew he should probably hold out, that they should probably talk, but they needed this, too. "Maybe skip that part, this time."

"Mmm," Brian agreed, and then they were kissing, hot and desperate like they'd been apart for weeks and not just one day.

Johnny put his hands on Brian's hips and just held on, pressed back against the wall. He lost himself in the feel of Brian, his lips and tongue and broad, restless hands. He let his hips push up against Brian's, let himself think about that night on the beach and the many times he'd fantasized about it since.

This was the real thing, Brian's hot wet kisses moving from his mouth to his jawline, a little sloppy, dropping down to suck at his neck, just below his ear. Johnny groaned.

Brian dropped to his knees so fast Johnny wasn't sure between one minute and the next just what had happened. But there Brian was, on his knees on the crap shag carpet with newspaper clippings all around him, and as Johnny looked down Brian rubbed his cheek against the front of Johnny's jeans, leaning into the denim, mouth slightly open. He looked up and met Johnny's eyes and oh shit, he looked scared and wired and needy and all Johnny could do was gasp and nod wordlessly.

Brian had Johnny's zipper down and his cock out before Johnny was even done nodding, really, and then he yanked the waistband of the jeans halfway down Johnny's thighs before leaning in for a taste.

There was nothing graceful about the way Brian sucked cock - just sheer, raw want, Brian reaching up to hold the thickening shaft still as he leaned in and took the head in his mouth, sloppy and clumsy and Jesus Christ so good. Brian choked a little at first, going too fast, and Johnny had to hold himself back from shoving forward just to hear Brian make those helpless little noises around him again.

Brian pulled off and coughed once, still working Johnny with his hand, and then tried some more careful licks, mouthing around the head with little sucking kisses. Johnny thought he'd come right then, seeing Brian's tongue on him, watching those lips move over his shaft, but then Brian opened his mouth and took him in and Johnny closed his eyes and let his head fall back.

A few more moments of nirvana and then there was cool air on his cock again. Johnny opened his eyes and looked down - Brian had moved, leaning his forehead into Johnny's hip, pushing against him, rocking his head from side to side. He gripped Johnny's hips so firmly it was almost painful. "I'm sorry," Johnny heard him murmur, felt the vibration of the words against his pelvic bone. "Sorry, Johnny."

Johnny laughed, but it came out as a sort of chuckle mixed with a breathy groan. "You sonofabitch, you're not half as sorry as you're gonna be if you don't keep going, right now."

He could feel Brian's smile against his skin. "Did you want something?"

Bastard. His cock was still rock-hard and wet, rubbing against the side of Brian's face, and Johnny tangled a hand in those blond curls and pulled Brian's face back, so their eyes met. "Don't stop. Please." He hadn't meant for it to come out like that, almost begging, but goddamnit, the man was a tease.

Brian opened for him, sucked him in again, and wow, Brian sure had gotten the hang of this cocksucking thing fast. Johnny's hips jerked forward, but Brian had him pretty well pinned to the wall. Brian was making these little noises, like he was really getting into it, and Johnny couldn't look away from that mouth as it moved on his cock, lips stretched tight and slick with spit. Suddenly Johnny was close to the edge.

He tugged a little at Brian's hair, and said, "Brian, gonna," but Brian just took him in a little deeper, hands tightening on Johnny's hips. And it was probably a good thing that Brian had him pinned like that, too, because Johnny was jerking against his grip, his orgasm tightening in his balls. He felt the familiar lift and pull, a perfect moment of balance before it broke over him and he shuddered, gasping, coming into Brian's mouth.

Brian tried to swallow and coughed a little, pulling away, and when Johnny looked down again he could see streaks of semen on Brian's cheek, dripping a little, and Brian was making a funny face as he swallowed. Johnny thought he'd never seen anything so goddamn sexy in his entire life.

Brian had already pulled his hands away from Johnny's hips and was undoing his own fly. The sight of Brian on his knees with his cock in his hand and Johnny's come still shining wet on his face was irresistible, and Johnny slid down the wall and kissed him, batting Brian's hand away and replacing it with his own.

He tasted himself in Brian's mouth, on Brian's tongue, and he chased the taste with his own tongue, kissing Brian deeply then licking at the spatters on his face as his hand worked on Brian's cock. Brian panted and gave a little grunt, then pulled Johnny down to the floor with him.

Brian was panting, his hips moving up in little unconscious jerks, and Johnny ran his hand up Brian's inner thighs, stroking his balls through the loose denim of his jeans. This was a rush of its own, the weight of Brian's cock in his hand and the little "uh, uh" noises Brian was making into Johnny's mouth. Brian was getting louder, and Johnny figured he was close.

Brian shook underneath his hands, and said, "Oh, fuck yes," and shot all over Johnny's wrist and his sleeve and the carpet. He took a minute to just kiss Johnny slowly after he came, still breathing a little hard, and then he pulled back and said, "Christ, what a mess."

Johnny scrubbed his sticky hand on his pants and made a face. "Yeah, well. It happens."

Brian had a smile on his face, watching Johnny. He looked great like this, cock still hanging out of the fly of his undone jeans, lips swollen with kisses, skin warm in the lamplight. The misery and exhaustion he'd shown when he opened the door had faded.

Johnny sat back against the wall and stretched out his legs, closing his eyes for a moment. "We really should talk."

Brian snorted, and started to tuck himself away. "You think? I think we just said the really important shit, right there."

Johnny was feeling pretty blissed out, and the carpet was starting to feel like a good place to go to sleep. Between the waves and the blowjob, he wasn't sure he'd ever be able to move again. "Mmmm. Maybe." He tried to rouse himself a little. This was important. "But I wanna know about what happened, dude, I want the whole story. And you can't do that shit to me anymore, okay? The running out and leaving stupid fucking notes, that stuff. No more of it." Coherence wasn't working at an all-time high either.

"Yeah, I know, it was stupid." Brian reached over and shook Johnny's shoulder. "Man, you look dead! No falling asleep on my floor, now."

Johnny forced his eyes open, blinking at Brian. "Spoilsport."

"Look, how about my bed, instead?" The offer made Johnny's chest twist up a little. "And we can go for waffles in the morning and swap stories. Yours looks at least as weird as mine."

Brian was teasing him. Johnny rubbed his eyes and sat up, grabbing onto Brian to lever himself up off the floor and then offering him a hand up himself. For just a moment, he put his arms around Brian's waist, leaning against him. He considered it, sleepily.

"Never told anyone the whole story before."

Brian rubbed his back, briefly. "Me neither, man, but I think it might be time."

Johnny kissed Brian's neck, felt the stubble underneath his lips. "Yeah, I think you might understand it a lot better than most people."

Brian laughed, and started to steer them toward what was presumably his bedroom. "I kind of get that feeling."