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Judas Kiss

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Part One: Ghosts


Chapter One

"Dom? ... Dom? ... Hey, Dominic!"

Dominic Toretto came out of his reverie with a start and realized to his not inconsiderable embarrassment that he'd been well and truly mesmerized by the sight of a hubcap of all things. Shit. Damn. Fuck. This was the third time in one week Vince had caught him in a zone. The man looked more worried every time; not that he'd call Dom on it. Dangerous waters, those. Here be dragons.

Thank God good old Vince knew when to keep his yap shut.

Of course Vince, the contrary bastard, chose exactly that moment to break their silent agreement to deny and ignore. "You've been doing it again, haven't you?"

Unable to look at his oldest friend, Dom grabbed the offending hubcap and threw it into the bushes behind the dusty little garage. "Doing what?" he stalled.

"Thinkin' about LA." Vince hesitated, then obviously decided 'what the hell' and plowed on like a scruffy, all too human tank or one of them stupid dogs that wouldn't let go once they'd gotten their teeth into something. "Thinkin' about him."

He almost flinched, though Vince hadn't even said the name. None of them had, not in more than six months. Wouldn't ever again, if Dom had any say in it. He stared down at the polished windshield they'd gotten ready to fit in, and for a second, just for the duration of a heartbeat, he thought he saw familiar blue eyes look back at him from under an unruly shock of blond hair. Then reality crashed back down on him and the strong, clear-cut face changed into the harsher features of Leon's mirror image.

He almost put his fist through the glass.

Why couldn't he forget and move on? He'd been deceived before, it shouldn't be so hard. He should be happy to be rid of that Judas. Only, the 'Judas' had saved Vince, had avenged Jesse's death and saved Dom and risked his own life and career in the process. If anything, they were even. Though sometimes it felt like in truth he owed-

No. No, damn it. Not with the betrayal that burnt him every time he thought about it. It shouldn't have hurt so much. They'd barely known each other for a month; a month that felt like a lifetime.

Half a year; and Dom still occasionally found himself opening his mouth to talk to him, then clenching his jaws hard when he remembered he was alone. After all this time, his head would still whip around and his heart pick up speed every time he thought he caught a flash of golden hair from the corner of his eye, or a familiar movement. He'd stop in the middle of whatever he was doing and stand frozen like some stupid pointer dog, just because his imagination fooled him into believing he might've heard that pleasant drawl in the distance.

He'd wanted to get rid of the car. It was a hazard; much too conspicuous with its showy neon orange paint job, the broad racing tires, the powerful roar of its engine. The car screamed 'racer' even to a blind, lifelong pedestrian. He'd planned to sell it, or dump it, maybe even destroy it. He didn't. The damn thing had taken a lot of abuse the last time its true owner had driven it, but it had gotten Dom to safety despite it all. It was a first-rate car; fast, perfectly tuned, and reliable. He told himself it was simply good sense to keep it, that if he sold it or dumped it, it might lead the cops onto his trail, and it would be a waste to demolish such a magnificent machine. His decision had nothing to do with the fact that it had been a gift and that the seats still held the faint memory of that tantalizing scent, like desert and motor oil and Brian.

Brian Earl Spilner.

Officer Brian O'Connor.

He'd started out as Dom's rival in a race; not even twenty minutes later, he'd been his savior from the police. They'd become tight so fast. Brian had been the man who'd made his sister laugh, gave Jesse more self-confidence, and who'd saved Dom's oldest friend. He'd been Dom's friend, his confidant... and, in the end, his Judas.

Dom should be happy to be rid of him.

He wasn't.

They were only three now.

Letty had left not even a month after what they now called the 'Truck Disaster' and to the day Dom wasn't quite sure how to feel about that. He knew he should be devastated or at least suitably hurt - the little hellcat had been his lover for almost five years, after all - but actually, there was mostly relief and a warm fondness every time he thought of good times past and laughter shared. The truth was they'd started to drift apart even before Brian had stepped into their lives; had outgrown each other until only habit and convenience kept them together. Well, that and the sex. They'd always enjoyed that immensely.

He'd known it was over the moment he leaned into the car and looked at her before he ran to help Brian with Vince. It wasn't so much that she was banged up and dirty from the crash, or slowly coming down from the adrenaline rush of the chase; when he met her eyes, they both found themselves staring at a stranger.

Leon got her to safety, just as Dom had ordered. He drove her to San Clemente, to the pothead doc they'd met on the tracks some three months back and hadn't quite gotten rid of due to the man's not-so-secret crush on Leon. The doc reluctantly sobered up enough to take care of Letty and then of Dom, when he arrived at the scene with his collection of broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder, severe bruising and a minor concussion. Not even a day later, Mia turned up. Apparently, a Sergeant Tanner - for reasons unknown - had given her six hours to slip away and take care of her 'family matters' before she had to be back to sign the paperwork and whatever. She brought their fake passports, three duffel bags full of their stuff, and another bag filled with the money Dom had squirreled away behind the loose tile under the kitchen sink. She also told them that Vince had survived the night.

Letty had come with them to Mexico. They'd spent a month in Baja to rest and heal and figure out what to do next. At the end of those four weeks, Letty had taken her things and her share of the money and left. She'd always wanted to see the carnival in Rio de Janeiro and figured this was a good time to just go ahead and do it. From the few postcards she'd sent since then, Dom deduced she was still there, happy as a clam and not likely to leave any time soon. She said she worked as a chauffeur for a very rich banker - the poor man probably thought he'd hired a getaway driver.

Leon and Dom stayed closer to the States. They holed up in a town near Chihuahua and opened a small garage. They didn't really have to work - there was enough money left to last them comfortably for years in Mexico - but they needed the distraction and working with cars was in their blood.

A few weeks after Letty's departure, a taxi pulled up and deposited a still pale, notably subdued Vince at their doorstep. Turned out, except for Dom, they were all home free. The truck driver hadn't come forward to testify and somehow, the rather circumstantial evidence that linked the team to the robberies had disappeared. Ironically, the only thing they could charge Dom with was grand theft auto... the bright neon orange vehicle in question hidden in a wooden shed behind a certain garage in La Junta, Mexico.

Since there was no way in hell Dom would risk getting sent to prison again for a minor felony like that, he decided to stay where he was, at least for the time being. The FBI had a long memory and he knew he'd vexed them enough to make them vengeful. If they ever got their hands on him, they'd find a way to make him pay. He told Vince and Leon to go back to the States and get their lives back, upon which they looked at him like he'd lost his mind, told him to stop being an ass, and started a discussion about American vs. European tire quality. Stupid, bullheaded, unreasonably loyal bastards.

So they stayed in Mexico and slowly, over the course of the following weeks, they found some kind of balance again. Jesse was dead, Letty was gone, and Mia was a tinny, distant voice on the phone; but they compensated. They didn't laugh as much as they used to, but that was to be expected. They didn't mess around so cheerfully, didn't touch as readily. It wasn't for lack of familiarity or friendship. There were ghosts walking among them now; they all sensed them, even though they never talked about it.

Strangely enough, it wasn't Jesse who haunted Dom the most. Yes, he'd suffered the expected nightmares about the kid dying, bleeding to death in his arms. He'd heard Jesse's whiny, uneven voice call his name and curse him because Dom hadn't protected him. He'd known it was his guilt speaking, but it still had hurt like a son-of-a-bitch. Yet those dreams didn't plague him so regularly anymore. He'd learned to deal with the loss. He'd never forget Jesse and he'd mourn him for a long time to come, but it wouldn't stop him from living his life.

He missed Letty, but not enough to go to Rio and try to win her back.

He missed Mia; but, she seemed quite happy and content without her big brother around. She'd sold the garage and hired help for the store-cum-diner - that, plus the money she'd kept, was enough to keep her in college and comfortable. She called him every week to make sure he was all right and reassure him that yes, she was fine, and yes, she didn't study too hard, and no, she didn't have a boyfriend at the moment, and yes, she'd steer clear from anything male and suspicious that crossed her path, cops and dogs included.

They never even mentioned Brian; and yet it was his presence that was with Dom with every breath he took and every beat of his heart. It had been bad enough when that damn, beautiful Judas had contented himself with commandeering his dreams - he'd alternately made Dom wake up yelling, breathless, or swearing - but instead of fading away with time like a good specter, he'd become stronger with every week that passed. Somehow, he was always there; his voice, his sparkling eyes and ready laugh, his golden hair and golden skin, his temper and dry wit, his betrayal and his loyalty.

It made Dom twitchy and irritable, which in turn made Vince and Leon tense and jumpy. Vince had tried to talk about Brian the day he'd come to La Junta, but Dom had refused to discuss it. He'd stated clearly and firmly that he did not wish to hear the name Brian Spilner or Brian O'Connor ever again.

The tactic worked fine for the next two months... then he started to have wet dreams about Brian. He dreamed of long, powerful limbs twined intimately around his body, of sky-colored eyes hazy with desire, pink lips opened invitingly. He could almost feel his cheek rub against silky hair, his hands roam over smooth, hot skin, while little gasps of breath kissed his face and throat with every movement. He didn't wake up cursing anymore; now he woke sweating and panting, hard and half-crazy with the sensation of phantom fingers touching him and a deep phantom voice crying out his name in sheer, unfeigned pleasure.

It shouldn't have surprised him as much as it did. Dom had been aware of Brian's attraction from the moment he first laid eyes on the tall, blue-eyed man who'd walked into his diner like he owned the place. He remembered how he'd thought the stranger's easy confidence reminded him of a tomcat on the prowl then had almost choked on his soda when the guy promptly ordered the tuna. For the first time in years, Dom was forced to work hard on ignoring somebody. He should've stayed away, yet from that day on, he went to visit Mia far more regularly. He sat in the back over the books and waited for the rumble of the red truck's engine that heralded that husky drawl. Sometimes, he'd stand up and get himself a drink, just so he could take in the view without being obvious about it.

He should've known that a man who could bewitch Dominic Toretto with nothing more than a look and the hint of a smile had to be trouble. Vince had known. Then again, Vince had known him since third grade, and he didn't miss much when it came to Dom. Somehow, he picked up on Dom's fascination with the 'tawny tomcat' and he reacted like any of their team would've upon sensing a danger for their surrogate family - he tried to eliminate the threat.

Too bad it had already been too late.

"We gotta do something," Leon muttered. He watched Dom's broad back, visibly amazed by the utter stillness of his friend's form. "This ain't even funny anymore."

Vince scowled at him. "It wasn't funny to begin with." He sighed. "How long this time? Half an hour? Forty-five minutes?"

Not that it really mattered. It shouldn't happen, period. Dom had always slept like a log, no matter where or how emotionally strained he was. Something was seriously wrong if he got up at five in the morning to walk into the shed and just stare at the damn Supra like it knew the answers to all of his problems.

Maybe if Vince torched that stupid car...

"Don't even think about it," Leon told him sternly, though one corner of his mouth quirked upwards a bit. "He'll kill you, dawg."

That might just be worth it; but who'd take care of Dom then? Leon would protect the man with his life, but perceptive as he could be, he wasn't exactly the poster boy for tact and discretion. On the other hand, Vince had tried just about everything he could think of to wean Dom off his Brian Spilner/O'Connor obsession. He'd tried to beat up Brian in an attempt to scare him away the first time he'd met him face to face; Dom had stopped him. He'd tried to thrash Brian when Dom had first brought him to his home; Mia had stopped him. He'd tried to force Dom to choose between Brian and Vince at the barbeque; Dom hadn't even realized there was a choice. He'd tried to shun Brian, insult Brian, provoke Brian; Dom hadn't noticed, Brian hadn't cared, and Leon had ribbed him mercilessly. Hell, he'd flat out told Dom that Brian was a cop when they'd caught him breaking into Hector's garage, but no matter how thin and utterly ridiculous Brian's improvised story was, Dom had believed him.

If Brian hadn't identified himself as a cop in front of Dom's eyes - name, rank, and status - that stupidly loyal fool would've probably followed Officer O'Connor right into the nearest police station, gentle as a fucking lamb.

"Maybe you're right," he admitted slowly. "Stick a fork in me, man, I'm done. Tell you what - he's all yours. Have fun."

The grin dropped off Leon's face. "No way, bro," he protested, shaking his head vigorously. "I don't do suicide. It's hazardous to my health. You go do something."

"I tried. Didn't work. That damn narc got to him but good. I'm out of ideas, so that means it's your turn."

Leon raised an eyebrow. "Damn narc, huh? Dude saved your life and let Dom go, remember?"

"Yeah, and now look at Dom," Vince spat. He gestured at the still figure in the shed, so tired and confused and defeated. "It's almost like the damn bastard-"

"-broke his heart," Leon concluded softly. He studied the hunched shoulders of their friend, the bowed head, the way the man seemed completely transfixed by the way the first rays of the rising sun made the hood of the Toyota glow. He huffed an impatient breath. "Okay, all right, I'll try my luck. Watch my back."

Vince almost sagged in relief. "Thanks, Leon. You rock."

"Yeah, yeah. Up yours," came the grumbled reply. "I want decent coffee for breakfast, not that dishwater you usually make. I want scrambled eggs and bacon and biscuits and jam and grits and syrup. And orange juice. And a muffin."

"We don't have grits or jam. I don't know how to make muffins. And shit, man, if you eat all that, you'll explode."

"Get grits and jam. Learn how to make muffins. I want a first-rate breakfast for once." Leon smirked. "Condemned men get a last meal, right?"

"God, you're like a black hole," Vince mumbled. The amount of food Leon could devour in one session never ceased to amaze him. How the man stayed so lean was beyond Vince.

"Not my fault you can't cook and Dom's too messed up to be any good in the kitchen." Leon should've looked defensive when he said that, but instead glared accusingly. "I'm going hungry most of the time; a man can't live on tortillas and nachos alone. Now git! I want my breakfast."

"Scrambled eggs and bacon, jam, grits, orange juice, and a damn muffin?" He couldn't really eat all that, could he?

Vince's attempt to cut Leon's list short was detected and foiled by Mr. Culinary Memory. "Don't forget my coffee, the biscuits, and the syrup."

This was going to take a while. Vince did a mental inventory of the fridge and kitchen drawers and came to the conclusion that he'd have to go grocery shopping and try to flirt Rosalita into helping him. He grabbed the keys for the jeep from the dresser and his wallet from the nightstand then pointed a warning finger at his friend.

"Don't fuck this up."

"Don't worry," Leon said. He tried to sound reassuring and failed miserably. "I'll give him a nice general overhaul. Clean those air filters, test those brakes... take a look at his ignition management..."

Vince shuddered. "I'm gonna regret this."

"We can still abort," Leon offered. He looked far too hopeful when he made the suggestion.

The fingers of sunlight finally reached the Supra's windshield and with a sparkle of metal and glass, the car seemed to come alive. Dom turned his head away as if suddenly it hurt to see the sleek lines and bright colors, but he didn't leave the shed.

"No," Vince said quietly. "We can't let this go on. We're losing him."

Leon waited until Vince was gone, then he stepped out of the house and onto the porch. The wooden planks creaked under his weight, but Dom predictably didn't react to the sound. He was completely lost in whatever thoughts and memories played havoc with his usual cool composure. Vince was right, Leon thought as he sat down on the first step and took a moment to just watch his troubled friend. It had gotten worse.

Maybe it was because they had more time on their hands now. The first two or three months after their hasty departure from LA had been filled with activity - they'd had to find a new home, decide on whether to stay together or split up, they'd parted with Letty, then moved from place to place until they found one they liked, got settled in... Dom hadn't had the time to really process what had happened. He'd run on autopilot, had simply followed his prime directive: to keep what was left of his family alive and well. Now that things had calmed down, the protective walls Dom had erected were beginning to crumble.

To be honest, Leon wasn't especially surprised by his friend's slow unraveling. He'd anticipated something like this. They'd been as close as brothers since their late teens; there wasn't much either Dom or Vince could do to shock Leon. He knew he wasn't the brightest bulb in the chandelier and he was well aware that he had the diplomatic grace of a pitbull with a hangover, but he'd been there through all the ups and downs in Dom's life. He knew Dom. He knew seeing his father burn to death had almost broken the man, and those two years in Lompoc hadn't helped. Dom hadn't really been alive anymore when they got him back, no matter how well he hid it. He'd been crippled inside, somehow.

The races, the heists... all those adrenaline kicks had kept Dom up and functioning, which was the main reason why Leon had gone along with it. He'd never been as good a driver as Dom or Letty. Hell, even Vince and Jesse had more skills behind the wheel. Leon was much more comfortable poking around under the hood of a car than actually unleashing all that raw power.

So Vince and Letty got caught up in Dom's wild world and thrived on the rush and Leon enjoyed the ride and tried to make sure they didn't get killed. He'd been worried about Dom before Brian appeared on the scene. Dom had been taking too many risks for Leon's liking, had seemed too hungry for the chase. Then one day that almost too pretty, blond, blue-eyed, all-American boy walked into the diner and, just like that, Dom lived again. Oh, he'd barked and growled and played it cool, but, damn it, he'd all but glowed every time that Arizona spitfire had come near him. The two of them had hit it off right from the start, Vince's little alpha dog demonstrations notwithstanding. They just... fit. Like two pieces of a puzzle. Like two halves of a whole. Leon couldn't quite suppress a silent guffaw. Like roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote.

All things considered, it was amazing Dom had kept it together as well and as long as he had. Brian whatever-his-last-name-was had taken the unshakable Dominic Toretto by surprise and put him on an emotional rollercoaster that would've made a stunt pilot barf. To have so much faith in somebody, to trust so quickly and so completely, only to find out that person had lied to you from the start... that, Leon mused, had to hurt something fierce. Dom was a proud man, almost too hung up on honor and loyalty for Leon's peace of mind, and he'd always had a knack for reading people. He must feel like a complete moron because he hadn't realized his new friend was more than he appeared to be.

The last thought made Leon sit up and take notice. This might just be the key for getting Dom's attention.

With a sudden smile, the lanky mechanic rose from his perch on the veranda steps and loped across the dusty yard with its yellowed grass and kitten-sized rocks. Dom startled when Leon's large hand slapped down on his shoulder.

Leon pulled his fingers back before something nasty could happen to them. "Chill, man, it's only me."

Dark eyes glared at him from a tired face, but Leon wasn't impressed. He was on a mission from God - well, Vince, really - for truth, justice, and breakfast. And if he was lucky, he might even get to help his friend.

"What do you want?" the ungrateful object of his selfless effort growled in a grating, dry tone that sounded remarkably like gravel on asphalt. Ouch. Someone else here needed coffee to lubricate the old pipeline, or he might lose that golden voice of his.

Now how to approach the delicate subject matter? He ought to try some tact here, some... what did Mia call it again? ...finesse.

"Y'know, maybe ya should just talk to Brian."

Or not.

Dom actually flinched at the name. "I don't want to talk about it. There is nothing to talk about."

"Yeah, right." Leon snorted in blatant disbelief. He walked around Dom and very deliberately sat down on the Supra's gleaming, slanted hood.

For a second, Dom looked like he might haul back and wipe him off the car, then he visibly forced himself to relax. He exhaled a careful breath, unclenched his fists, and leaned against the wall with an amused little smirk that would've been more convincing if he hadn't stood with his arms and ankles crossed. My, my. Talk about defensive.

"What's wrong, Leon?" that rough voice challenged. "You bored because you're not making any headway with your little señorita?"

"At least I'm talking with her," Leon shot back and noticed with interest how Dom's eyes flickered away at that. Huh. Bull's eye. Leon smiled, stretched, and made himself more comfortable on the car. "You're a mess, dawg," he told his friend bluntly. "You're driving yourself - and us - nuts, 'cause you can't wrap your mind around th' fact that Brian-" Again that tiny flinch. "-sold you out."

"Watch your fucking mouth." Dom straightened angrily. "Brian saved Vince's ass. He took out Tran after the bastard killed Jesse. He let me go!"

Leon raised an eyebrow at Dom's unhesitating defense of the narc. "Could've fooled me," he said. "What with banning his name and brooding and yelling for him in your sleep and all..."

Score another point for the old sheepdog. Had Dom just squirmed?

"Shut up, Leon."

Yep, that was most definitely a squirm. Interesting. "C'mon, Dom, tell me." Leon slid forward on the smooth surface of the Supra's hood, watching the familiar face intently. "What's chewing your ass? That Brian-" Another flinch. "-wasn't who you thought he was... or that he got to you in the first place?"

That must've hit home, because suddenly, Dom was up and in his face like a pissed-off grizzly bear. "What the hell d'you wanna hear?" he hissed. The anger and pain in his gaze were palpable. "That I screwed up? That I fell for a smile and a line of bull? That Vince was right about..." His voice caught, but he plowed on determinedly, "...about Brian the entire time? Fine. I did screw up. I trusted the wrong person. Vince was right. Happy now?"

Leon blinked slowly. "I liked Brian."

Dom opened his mouth, shut it, opened it again. "What?"

"I liked Brian," Leon repeated. "He had grit. He was funny. He was good with cars and he was good with you. He didn't take shit from nobody, but he was a nice guy. He was cocky, but he wasn't arrogant. You don't find that so often. Pretty cool dude, all things considered."

"What the fuck are you getting at?"

Sometimes, Leon wondered why everybody thought he was slow. "I'm tryin' to tell you that I don't think he was lying as much as you think. You're a better than decent judge of character, Dom. You would've known if he was pretending. I think the Brian we got to know was mostly the real deal. And Brian was your friend."

"He lied to me from the get-go."

Leon shrugged. "Get over it."

Dom did a double-take. "Just like that?"

"Well, you could spend another six months agonizing, brood, angst, destroy a couple of plates, scowl a lot, yell a lot, make us all go stir-crazy, and then get over it, but I don't know if V's fragile psyche can take that." He stared at his friend mournfully. "Also, if things don't get back to normal soon, I'll starve. Nobody's cookin' anymore."

God, he hadn't realized how much he'd missed Dom's deep belly laugh until he heard it. He didn't even try to duck away when a powerful arm reached out to catch him around the neck and knuckles rapped over his skull in an affectionate noogie.

"Can't have you waste away to nothing." Dom chuckled. "C'mon, I'll make us some pancakes."

Pancakes... Leon thought about the deal he had with Vince and grinned expectantly. Pancakes always made for a delicious appetizer. "With chocolate sauce?" he asked.

"With chocolate sauce," Dom agreed.

Heaven was getting nearer. Leon was just about ready to grab his friend and drag him into the kitchen, when he remembered his duty. "What about Brian?"

Dom rubbed his face with a hand, thinking. Finally, he nodded slightly. "Maybe you're right," he admitted reluctantly. "I guess I could give Mia a call and... ask about him. Maybe."

"Yeah, maybe." Leon nodded. "Maybe today?"

"Don't push it."

Well, it was a start.


Chapter Two

"...and Vince is still pissed at Leon because Leon ate all the Twinkies he'd squirreled away. Right now he's pouting on the porch. Leon's 'feeling the injustice' and is sulking in the kitchen. He's probably after the muffins V bought. I swear, Mia, sometimes those two are worse than a couple of kids."

Mia Toretto chuckled at the picture her brother was painting. She missed him. She missed them all. After living practically in the same household for years, the sudden lack of her family felt like a ragged hole in her life. Even now, having been on her own for several months, she was still haunted by the phantom voices of four exuberant men and one foul-mouthed tomboy of a girl. At times, the creaks and sighs of the house as it settled at night almost convinced her that she was hearing them move through the building. Dom and Letty in the bedroom, boffing like bunnies; Vince sleepwalking through the corridor with the ever watchful Leon trailing behind to make sure he didn't take a header down the stairs; Jesse raiding the fridge with a joint in his hand and that sleepy little boy look on his face that made her want to tousle his hair and coo to him as if he were a puppy. The one time she'd actually done that, he'd almost fainted.

She sat on the couch now, Jesse's favorite pillow on her lap, a bottle of Corona in one hand and the phone in the other, soaking up her big brother's deep voice. He sounded a tad too cheerful, talked a bit too much. Something was definitely up, and thanks to the phone call she'd gotten the day before, Mia had a pretty good idea what. Good thing Leon had all the discretion of Gossip Gertie.

"Dom?" She slipped his name in when he had to pause to take a breath, and was rewarded with the barely audible click of his jaws snapping shut.

"Yes?" Dom sounded careful, and not a little apprehensive.

"Why don't you just tell me why you're calling?"

There was a trace of hurt in his tone when he replied; it made her wince guiltily. "You're my sister. I miss you."

Maybe she should've been more tactful. Damn, that talk she'd had with Leon must've affected her more than she'd realized at the time. The man's utter lack of finesse had the unfortunate habit of rubbing off on other people. "I know," she soothed, honestly apologetic. "And I'm glad you're calling. I miss you too." She sighed. "It's just that the way you keep skirting around the real issue here is driving me nuts."

Dom chuckled at that, which made her feel better instantly. "All right," he sighed finally. "I was... I was wondering if you'd heard... if you'd heard of... of... of Brian, since that day."

Again Mia silently thanked Leon for the heads-up. If she hadn't already known what was coming, she probably would've frozen up. "Yeah," she said quietly, leaning back into the couch and clutching the pillow close. So this was it. The talk.

For a moment, everything was quiet. Even the ticking of the kitchen clock seemed muted, almost as if the house was holding its breath. She could hear Dom sigh on the other end of the line, a little exhale that sounded strangely vulnerable.

"You gonna tell me about it?" he asked, uncharacteristically reserved.

It was Mia's turn to sigh. "There's not really much to tell." She realized she had hunched over and curled around the pillow, and straightened defiantly. "He contacted me after you were gone. I was pretty pissed at him for a while, but... you know Brian. It's hard to stay mad at him."

Wasn't that the truth? It was amazing how a man who was so cocky and upbeat most of the time could look so much like a kicked puppy in the face of her angry accusations. She'd caved like wet sugar on day three, and still felt a little bad for having made him wait so long. Not that she'd tell Dom that.

The sound drifting from the phone couldn't quite be called a laugh, but it definitely carried a good measure of rueful amusement. "You fell for the doe eyes."

She sniffed indignantly. "I did not 'fall for the doe eyes'!" Perish the thought! "I just took a good look at the facts and decided that there really was no reason to stay mad at him. I mean, c'mon, Dom! Any other narc would've let Vince die, busted you all, and got a promotion out of it instead of risking his life for his marks and get fired for his trouble."

Dom's voice rose alarmingly. "He got fired?"

Oops. Hadn't she mentioned that before?

"Uh... yeah," she said, a bit taken aback by the vehemence of her brother's reaction. "Well... no... actually, he kinda quit. His sergeant tried to protect him, but apparently he had a bit of an argument with their FBI liaison that ended with him breaking the guy's nose." She grinned a little at the memory of how visibly pleased Brian had been with himself when he'd mentioned that.

"Damn," Dom muttered. "He doesn't anything by half, does he?"

"Nah." Mia smiled fondly. "Not Brian. He's not exactly one to hide his displeasure. Remember his little feud with Vince?"

"Looked more like a cold war to me." Dom was relaxing now; some of the tension seeped out of his tone as he thought of the way Brian and Vince had gotten on each other's nerves. "What's he doing now?" he finally asked. "You still in touch?"

Was it just her, or did Dom sound the tiniest bit hopeful?

"He doesn't tell me much," she hedged, trying to buy a little time. She knew her brother, had long learned to read between the lines when talking to him. Dom had been hurt by what he'd perceived as a betrayal, but Brian had gotten to him from the start and within a few short weeks had carved out a place for himself in Dom's heart. He'd become a part of their family, thoroughly charming them all with the exception of Vince, who'd been too jealous to be affected by the nearly irresistible pull of charisma. As for Brian and Dom... She'd never seen two people fit together as perfectly as those two. Dom had never been one to trust easily, but he'd trusted Brian, and, being the person he was, he couldn't stop caring about a friend just because the man turned out to be a cop.

Of course Dom noted her hesitation, and promptly assumed the worst. "Tell me he's not in trouble!" he barked, audibly upset. "He didn't do anything stupid, right?"

Mia cleared her throat nervously. Dom in protective mode had to be handled carefully. "Ah... define 'stupid'", she said, then hurried to reassure her brother before he could throw down the phone, get in his car, and drive straight back to L.A. to kick some ass. "He's fine," she told him quickly, well aware of Dom's priorities. "He just thought it might be best not to stick around after what happened, because... ah... that FBI guy was a little..." Now how to phrase that diplomatically? "...upset and tried to bag him for obstruction of justice, or aiding and abetting, or something like that, so Brian went to Miami for a while."

"Miami?" Dom asked in exactly the same incredulous tone she'd used when Brian had informed her about his plans.

She shrugged. "He needed some distance."

The resultant snort almost made her snicker. "So he moved to the other side of the damn continent. Fucking typical. So what happened in Miami?"

"How d'you know something happened?"

Dom sighed deeply. "This is Brian we're talking about," he said dryly.

No point denying the obvious. Mia decided to get it over with and gave her brother a brief report about Brian's adventures in Florida. She didn't know much about it herself; Brian had been rather close-mouthed about the whole affair, which meant it had likely been a lot more dangerous than he'd let on. The little she did know was bad enough, seeing as it involved crime bosses and dirty cops and high speed chases and far too many guns.

"So is he a cop now or not?" Dom asked when she was done. "And where is he? Back in L.A. or still in Miami with that Rome guy?"

Now this was where it got tricky. "He... ah... he's visiting with his parents in Arizona right now."

Dom chewed on this for a minute, obviously weighing the innocuous statement against the slight edge in her voice. Mia waited fretfully. "He's visiting with his parents."


"In Arizona."


Another minute of thoughtful silence followed. Dom sounded very controlled when he inquired, "Why?"


"Isn't a guy allowed to visit with his parents now and again?"

Thunder rumbled through the line. Dom was growling; never a good sign. "Mia."

"There was... some kind of accident," she said, carefully. "I don't know all the details. Rome said someone shot at him during a race." She flinched at the small, painful sound that filtered through the phone. "He's alive." She pronounced the words clearly, driving them home with as much force as she could. "He was lucky. He got hurt, but not badly. Rome decided it'd be safer to get him out of Miami before whoever did this could gun for him again, so he packed their stuff and drove them out to Arizona."

"He's hurt?"

"He'll be fine." She noted that her free hand was wringing the pillow and let go with a huff. Damn Dom anyway. For half a year he'd never even spoken Brian's name, and now he was almost sick with worry because the 'traitor' was hurt. Men.

Dom muttered angrily; his voice was too low for her to understand what exactly he was saying, but she did pick up the occasional swearword before he pulled himself together and remembered her. "Where is he?"

Oh shit. Dom had come to a decision, and - from the sound of his voice - it was probably a rash one. "I already told you, he's with his parents."

"I ain't deaf, I heard you. Gimme an address."

Now, this was definitely not a good idea. "Dom, calm down, he's gonna be all right. Stay put, I'll call you as soon as I hear from him."

"Don't tell me to fucking calm down!" The angry bellow caused her to recoil and shake her head to get rid of the ringing in her ear. She could've sworn the phone actually vibrated in her hand. "Now give me the damn address!"

Not so easily cowed, Mia scowled at the phone and yelled back, "I don't know the damn address! I didn't plan on going there, all right?"

Dom wasn't impressed. "So what do you know?"

Stubborn bastard. Now that he'd made up his mind, he wouldn't budge from his harebrained - and, at this point, likely rather vague - plans. If she didn't give him what information she had, the dumb fuck would go looking for Brian anyway, even if it meant he had to knock on every single door between San Simon and Yuma.

"His parents own a ranch somewhere west of Tucson, off the I-10, near Red Rock. It's called the Double C."

The unapologetic grunt she got in reply didn't improve her mood any. "Close enough," Dom decided. "I'll find him."

"Dom? Dominic?" Mia didn't like the sound of this. "Don't do anything stupid, you hear me?" she called, anger giving way to worry. "Brian can take care of himself, he doesn't need you to charge to the rescue. Dom!"

But her brother was already gone.

Dom put the phone down and for a long while just stood there, staring at the wall. He hadn't anticipated this. He wasn't quite sure what he'd expected when he'd called Mia, but it hadn't been the news that his sister was still in regular contact with the man who'd betrayed her love and had turned all their lives upside-down.

He hadn't been prepared for the anger he'd felt when she told him Brian had been fired, or the sudden pang of loss at the thought of Brian moving to Miami. Somehow he'd always thought Brian would stay in L.A., where Dom could find him if he wanted. It didn't help that Brian had hooked up with an old friend of his while he was away. Old friend. What exactly did that mean anyway? School friend? Cop friend? Fuck-buddy? Who was this Roman Pearce and why couldn't he have stayed under his rock where he belonged?

His stomach roiled and churned, reminding him of the sharp stab of cold terror that had sliced through him when Mia informed him Brian had been in an 'accident'. He still couldn't decide how he felt about the man, if he wanted to punch him or kiss him, but the thought of him not being there anymore to do either almost brought him to his knees. The idea of Brian hurt was bad enough; it made every instinct he had scream at him to grab his car keys and drive until he saw with his own eyes that the bright fire that was Brian O'Connor hadn't been extinguished.

There was... some kind of accident.

God. He took a deep, shaky breath and clenched his fists in a futile effort to ward off the chill that seemed to have taken up residence deep in his bones. It was too much like the sensation of panicked cold that had gripped him all those months ago, when he'd knelt on the dirty pavement in front of his house, holding the dead body of his friend and realizing with sudden clarity that he'd just sent Brian after the killers without backup and armed only with his handgun. Only then he'd been able to do something, to take the Charger and make sure the two cousins didn't corner their lone pursuer.

Someone shot at him during a race.

He was lucky.

How many more lives did Brian have left? He'd almost been killed at least four times in the short period of time he'd spent with Dom, and from what Mia had said, he'd barely escaped a violent end more than once in Miami. A shudder ran through Dom's powerful frame when a vision of Brian's bloodied body flashed into his mind. Firm flesh riddled with bullets, mangled by twisted metal; broken eyes empty and lifeless.



Fuck all this self-pitying brooding. Fuck the indecision. It was time he got off his ass and had himself a good, long talk with a certain ex-cop.

When he turned around, grim-faced and determined, he found himself face to face with Vince and Leon, who stood in the doorway like a pair of anxious hound dogs. He met their questioning eyes with a glare.

"What're you waiting for?" he snapped. "Pack your goddamn bags. We're going to Arizona."

Leon rolled his eyes heavenward. "Hallelujah!"

Damn smartass.


Part Two: Mr. Arizona


Chapter Three

"Are we there yet?"

Fighting the urge to either pound his own head against the steering wheel or Vince's head against the dashboard, Dom unlocked his jaws just wide enough to growl,


Vince subsided back into his seat with a discontented murmur, then twisted around and started to dig through his duffel bag. The floor at his feet was littered with empty cans and plastic wrappers that rustled and crackled with every shift of his legs. Maps, comic books, and a broken gameboy surrounded and covered him like the Vince version of camouflage.

As a driver, Vince was good; not anywhere near Dom's league, but definitely above average. As a passenger, the man was a menace.

Dom glanced into the rearview mirror to check on Leon and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw his friend still curled up on the backseat, sawing logs. When Vince did that, he looked like a scruffy cat snoozing in a corner; Leon was all elbows and knees and awkward angles, about as graceful as a newborn colt. It was cute as hell, though Dom wouldn't ever voice that opinion out loud. He valued his life.

They'd crossed the border at Naco early in the morning then took Highway 80. Passing through Bisbee - an old mining town clinging to the steep slopes of a canyon that made Dom feel distinctly claustrophobic - they made their way north, with the inevitable stop in Tombstone so Leon could play tourist and see the OK Corral. By the time they reached Benson, Dom was forced to outlaw the names 'Wyatt Earp' and 'Doc Holliday' and threaten his companions with death and kitchen duty for a year to keep them from quoting (and misquoting) their favorite westerns. What was it with this part of the country? Those two had been perfectly happy urban dwellers all their lives, but as soon as they set a foot on Arizona territory, they got the cowboy fever.

They reached Tucson at noon, but Dom refused to stop and have lunch at a Cracker Barrel no matter how Vince whined. The closer they came to Red Rock, the tenser Dom became. His stomach was in knots, his mouth dry, and he had a hard time looking calm in front of Vince and Leon. He was going to see Brian again. He was going to see Brian again. Blue eyes, angel face, killer smile and all. It made him feel almost... giddy. He suppressed a snort at the thought. The words 'Dominic Toretto' and 'giddy' did not belong in the same sentence.

Goddamn it, what had Brian done to him? He used to be in control of his body and his emotions, used to laugh at fools who let anyone lead them around by their dick. His relationship with Letty had been passionate and he'd happily indulged her bossy nature, but she'd never occupied his thoughts and feelings like that motherfucking cop. Not even after she'd left had she haunted his dreams, or made him stop in the middle of the day and grind his teeth at the aching loneliness her absence created.

Absently, he reached up to rub his chest in an attempt to get rid of the dull pain that had been his constant companion for months now. It really was high time that he went and found Brian. One way or another, this had to end. He hadn't been this obsessed about anything since... well... actually, he couldn't remember ever having suffered from this particular form of preoccupation.

"So, how long till we're there?"

Never taking his eyes off the road, Dom raised a warning finger in Vince's direction. "Don't start."

Vince opened his mouth as if to say something. He caught the warning glint in Dom's eyes, thought better of it and shut up. The peace lasted for all of twenty seconds.

"I was just asking 'cause I gotta go."

Fingers tightening on the wheel, Dom silently counted to ten. Patience, he thought. Stay calm. It's been a long drive, we're all tired and cranky. Don't say something you're gonna regret.

"Fifteen minutes ago, we passed a rest area. I asked you if you had to go. You said no." He shot his friend a glare. "I remember this, because I asked you twice, just to be sure."

"Yeah, I know."

"Then why the hell did you say you were fine?" Dom snapped, wrestling with his temper like Ahab with Moby Dick.

The look Vince gave him clearly indicated that he considered this an exceptionally stupid question. "Because I didn't have to go then," he explained.

As if sensing the impending explosion, Leon chose that moment to wake up and pop his head through the space between their seats. He blinked owlishly.

"Are we there yet?"

Somehow, the sight of his tousled head and sleep-heavy lids dissolved Dom's anger before it got the better of him. With a deep sigh, he mentally threw up his hands and gave up. "Fine. There's a gas station coming up. We'll pull over, fill her up, V can use the can, we can eat something and ask for directions. And Leon?"

Leon's head turned in slow motion. The man was barely firing on one cylinder so close to waking. "Yuh?"

"Wipe the drool off your chin."

"Yeah, man, c'mon," Vince threw in, pulling a face. "That's disgusting."

Incapable of coming up with an appropriate retort with only about ten percent of his brain working, Leon restricted himself to scalding them with an evil look before he disappeared back into his domain.


Her name was Zerelda Mimms. She was about 5'2'' of sun-burnt hide over bird-like bones and ropey sinews. She also was seventy-three years old, originally from Missouri, and claimed a distant blood relation to Jesse James. She liked quilting and cactus jelly, even if it - the jelly - was so terribly, terribly sweet, but didn't the sweetness have its own appeal? She'd been married three times, had lost her first husband to the flu, the second to an unfortunate accident involving soap, a goose, and a truckload full of water melons, and the third one to a scrawny peroxide blonde on her way to California, may the devil piss on her soul. She wore the same blue blouse every second Wednesday because a woman needed something to look forward to and she always enjoyed to talk to polite young men who were good listeners.

No shit.

Vince's eyes had glazed over somewhere around the watermelon incident and Dom had given up on his fruitless attempts of trying to get the location of the Double C ranch out of the old lady and was busy drawing up wild and desperate escape plans. In Lompoc at least the guards hadn't tried to chat him to death. The only one completely unaffected by the non-stop stream of useless information was Leon. Zerelda had taken one look and practically adopted him. He sat in a corner, happily munching on a large piece of buttered cornbread and nodding sporadically.

Dom didn't know what it was about Leon and gossipy crones, but this was not the first time this had happened. Maybe it was his tendency to employ puppy eyes whenever he sensed a possible food source close by and then to tuck away huge amounts of home cooked goodies and still look like he didn't get fed by big bad Dominic.

Whatever the reason, they were good and trapped. Their quick pit stop had turned into an hour break involving a detailed account of the highlights of Zerelda's long life, gossip about people they didn't know anyway, and more southern hospitality than they could possibly digest.

It wasn't that the woman was unlikable, really. She was quite a sweet person, and not only because of her not-so-secret passion for cactus jelly. Besides feeding the black hole that was Leon, she also supplied Vince and Dom with samples of her culinary experiments. Unfortunately, the tasty morsels came with an elaborate narrative about the history of the dishes, the area they came from, and the people who had inspired the idea.

Half an hour later, despairing of his futile efforts to extricate them from the lady's jelly-flavored net, Dom was ready to scream. He might've done it, too, if Zerelda hadn't chosen that instant to wrap up her tales and return to their original question.

"You really can't miss the Double C, you know?" she chirped, peeking up at the quivering mass of raw nerves that was Dominic Toretto in complete disregard of the man's boiling temper. "Just take the second exit from here, go right past the abandoned gas station, then take the third road to your left." She smiled. "Who're you boys looking for, if you don't mind me asking?"

Leon chanced a quick glance at Dom's face, saw the thunderclouds assembling there, and quickly insinuated himself between the woman and his friend. "We're just looking for a friend of ours, ma'am," he said respectfully, earning himself a dirty look from Vince. "Brian Sp- O'Connor."

"Oh, Brian!" Zerelda crowed, delighted. "Cole's youngest! You're so lucky, he was gone for years, but he came back home last week. I wonder how long's he gonna stay this time. You probably know him from Los Angeles, don't you? Are you actors?" Vince opened his mouth, most likely to say something filthy involving Brian and movies, but she went on before he could get them into trouble. "Anyway, if you want t' talk to Brian, you won't have much luck right now. They're racing down at Potter's Field, so he sure won't be home till tonight. I really don't know what it is with that kid and speed. I guess he got that from his mother."

A race? Brian was at a race? After having been shot not even two weeks before? Dom's mood plummeted another several degrees. "How do we get to Potter's Field?" he rumbled, scowling.

"Oh, that's easy," Zerelda promised, eyes sparkling, and launched into a detailed explanation of how to traverse the obviously maze-like system of back roads. Dom didn't even try to remember her description. Vince was better at this kind of stuff; he'd play the navigator.

They finally said their goodbyes and left hastily, leaving a set of rubber marks on the asphalt as they peeled out of the parking lot and headed back for the freedom of the interstate.

In the safety of the backseat, Leon carefully tucked away two jars of home-made cactus jelly. Somehow he suspected that Dom and Vince wouldn't be too thrilled about his acquisition.

Potter's Field, Zerelda had said, so - born and bred in L.A. as they were - the three men naturally assumed she was talking about an old airfield or a deserted military base like the one where they'd attended their last race.

As it was, it turned out that when people in Arizona said 'field' they really meant a field. 'Field' as in 'pasture', 'grassland' or 'no-fucking-paved-road-anywhere-in-sight'. It was a traumatizing experience for the former street racers. The further they followed the washed-out gravel road into the middle of nowhere, the grimmer the men's faces turned.

It was Vince who finally couldn't take the silence any more. He felt that he had to either voice his frustration or implode. Since he doubted that Dom would care for having to clean bits and pieces of Vince from the upholstery, he opted for solution number one.

"I can't believe it! The old scarecrow pulled our leg, man. There's no way anybody's racing here. There's no fucking road!"

"I don't hear anything either," Leon said, his post-lunch contentment shredded by too many miles of dust and desert. "We passed the damn sign five minutes ago, we should hear the engines by now."

Dom didn't reply immediately, too busy avoiding potholes to take his eyes off the path, but the way his fingers clutched the wheel and his jaws worked was a little disturbing. "Let's give it another five minutes," he ground out after a few moments. "This goat trail leads up that hill... maybe we can see something from up there."

"Like what?" Vince snorted. "Cattle? Cactus?"

"Cacti," Leon corrected from behind. "No chance there's only one. Them little shits come in herds, man."

"She didn't have any reason to fuck with us," Dom said, but he didn't sound too convinced anymore.

"Yeah, after all, it's not like we look like a gang of thugs out for Brian's blood or anything," Leon agreed. He eyed Vince's tattoo- and scar-covered arm and amended, "Well, except for V maybe." Dom glowered. Leon grinned. "You don't look too friendly either, dawg. If it wasn't for my boyish charm, she might've assumed the worst."

Vince frowned darkly. Much as he hated to admit it, Leon was probably right. "She sent us on a wild goose chase." Damn it, nowadays you couldn't even trust little old ladies. "Let's turn around and get back to the highway, Dom," he said, then swore when the car bounced through another hole in the road. Good thing the modified Chevy was tougher than it looked.

"Two minutes."

Now that Dom had made the decision to go settle things with Brian, he was set on his course like a torpedo.

Well aware that resistance was futile when their friend was in this particular frame of mind, Vince shared an exasperated look with Leon and mouthed the words "stubborn asshole".

"I saw that," Dom told him, unmoved.

Vince was still searching for a snappy reply when they reached the top of the rise. His jaw dropped. Dom stepped on the brake and brought the car to a stop, then just sat there and stared. Leon leaned forward between their seats until he was almost sitting on Vince's lap. After a long minute, Dom pulled the handbrake and slowly got out of the vehicle, his gaze glued to the scene below them. Vince and Leon followed him. The trio stood in front of their car, feeling poleaxed.

Not surprisingly, it was Leon who got his wits back first. "No cars," he stated the obvious, a trace of wonder in his tone.

"Good God," groaned Vince.

"I can't believe this," Dom muttered. "What the hell is he doing?"

"Downshifting," Leon quipped, and then almost bent double, hooting with laughter.

Dom glared at him. "Not funny," he growled.

In the face of about two dozen beaten up trucks and about twice as many horses milling around what looked like an improvised race track, Vince had to disagree. It was funny.

Brian O'Connor was doing the quarter mile on horseback.



Chapter Four

It was a good day for a race.

Brian O'Connor stretched his legs in the stirrups and shifted in the saddle until he'd found just the perfect position. Ahhh. That was better. He leaned forward, patted the sleek black neck of his mount, and murmured a word of praise. The tall gelding lowered his head and snorted, then started to chew on his bit. He looked almost bored; certainly not impressed by all the hubbub around them.

"I don't like it."

Fighting down the urge to roll his eyes, Brian focused on the man standing beside him, powerful arms crossed in front of his chest and a surly look on his handsome face. "It's just one race, Rome," he said, slightly exasperated. "It's not like I'm overtaxing myself here."

"You keep saying that," Roman Pearce snapped. A tight mixture of anger and concern roughened his voice and made the black's ears flicker in his direction. "And then you overdo it and take a nosedive and scare the shit outta me, because you're a fucking idiot."

"It was only one time!" Brian protested, indignant. "I stood up too fast and got dizzy, that's all."

His friend's chocolate brown eyes darkened even more at his words. "You didn't get dizzy, Bri, ya passed out on me, man. And it wasn't only once, it was twice. You just don't remember the first time because you felt like crap to begin with. Now would ya please get off that fuckin' horse and let me humiliate Billy?"

"It's not the same." The gelding, sensing his growing tension, stopped playing with the bit and started to prance around to convey his sympathy. Brian forced himself to relax. "First of all, you're heavier than me. Second, you don't know this horse. Old Whiskey here is no machine, plus he's got a sensitive mouth. And, let's face it, you're a much better driver than rider." He flashed Rome his most winning smile. "C'mon. Billy's been a pest since we got here. He needs to be taken down a peg, and I'm just the man to do it."

Rome sighed. "Can't you just kick him in the balls and be done with it?"

Brian's grin got bigger at that mental image, but he shook his head. "Nah, that'd be too easy. With Billy, you gotta aim for his pride."

He could see Rome was swaying from the way the big man glanced at their opponent with something akin to longing in his eyes. The idea of seeing Billy Quaide eat Brian's dust did have an almost irresistible appeal.

"You sure you can beat him with that wounded wing of yours, brah?" Rome asked. "He's sitting mighty tall on that damn stud of his."

A memory brushed through Brian's mind at his words, bittersweet and still far too fresh. "It's not how you sit on your horse. It's how you race your horse," he said, surprised when he realized how wistful his voice sounded.

If Rome noticed his sudden melancholy, he chose not to comment on it. He stared at Brian's right arm instead. "I still think this is a dumbass idea."

This was getting old. "I don't really need my right arm for this. I'm holding the reins with my left, remember? And Whiskey has a real smooth gait. He's surefooted, doesn't spook easy, and he can run Billy's glorified hack into the ground. Now would you please stop worrying and go place our bet?"

Rome sniffed disdainfully. "It's hardly even worth it," he grumbled. "The stakes are peanuts. Not exactly high rollers, this."

"You're spoiled, man," Brian scolded, laughing at his friend's haughtiness. "There was a time when we thought this was the real big money."

"You thought it was big money," the other man corrected with a grin. "I always knew there had to be more out there." His smile faltered. He sighed and gave Brian's denim-clad thigh a gentle slap. "Okay. You go kick Billy's ass. I'll place our bets and get us some pocket money. Just be careful, okay? You fall off that horse, I'll keep your half of the loot." With this parting shot, he swaggered off, never looking back.

Brian watched him go with a smile. "Softie," he muttered, before he took up the reins and pushed his mount towards the starting line. He could feel people's eyes on him, curious, appraising, a little bewildered. Same old, same old. Some of them knew him; he'd grown up here, had been one of them. Others just knew his reputation; the young hotshot who'd fallen in with the black kid from Old Sam's garage and had gotten in so much trouble that eventually he'd left. They weren't quite sure what he was doing back in Red Rock. He'd come home before, had visited his family occasionally, but it had been years since he'd joined a race.

Let them figure he was rusty, that he hadn't sat on a horse for a while. Let them take in the way he favored his right arm and assume it would affect his performance. He'd waited for years for a chance to go up against Billy Quaide, and now he had a horse that was good enough to pull this off. Also, right now, he needed the distraction. He needed the fierce joy of victory against an enemy he could see.

Dom had told him once that he lived his life a quarter mile at a time, and since the day of blood and bullets, when Brian had lost more than just a ten second car, he'd found himself doing the same. It worked surprisingly well. If you had to focus all of your attention into controlling the power and fury of a roaring engine or a hot-blooded horse, you didn't have time to think. You didn't have time to hurt.

He'd long realized he was well on his way to becoming an adrenaline junkie and that it was one of the reasons why Rome stuck so close. His friend had seen the changes in Brian and he was worried, even though he wouldn't admit it out loud. They both knew that sooner or later, something had to give. Brian had always loved speed, had had a passion for the kick of the race and the heady feeling of coming as close to flying as a person could without getting into an airplane. It had pumped his blood up and set his heart on fire and the afterglow had always been enough to light up anybody who came within a ten feet radius of him, male and female alike.

Brian didn't glow anymore. His reason for racing had changed. Where before that fateful undercover assignment it had been his way of celebrating life, of sending a jubilant prayer of thanks to whatever deity had put him on this earth, he now needed the more dangerous edge of the chase. It took the very real possibility of dying to remind him that he was still alive.

He could feel it now, the familiar jumble of fear, expectation, and exhilaration, as he passed the old strung up hubcap they used in lieu of a starter pistol. Billy had seen him approach and was already moving in position beside him, his long-legged bay dancing nervously.

"Howdy, Bri," he greeted, not even trying to hide the way his eyes roved over Brian's body. What a surprise. "You gonna make my day today?"

"Oh, for fuck's sake," Brian muttered, half irritated, half amused. "Can't you come up with something more original?"

Billy grinned, not visibly discouraged by the less than cordial welcome. "You've been away for a while, Brian. Things have changed. We've all grown up since the last time we met."

"Apparently not," Brian quipped absentmindedly. He'd already switched gears mentally, had smoothly slipped into the focused detachment of his racing mode. "If you were all grown up, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

Whiskey grew restless beneath him as he picked up on the increase of tension. His head came up, ears darting back and forth between the strange horse beside him and his rider. Tommy Hayes called out the rules again, as he always did when a veteran was going up against a new contender, but Brian didn't listen. He hadn't participated in a horse race for years, but he was still familiar with the ritual. It didn't take much to get Whiskey to perk up and pay attention. The Quarter Horse gelding had been trained by Brian's brother Ben and had seen his share of action, though never at one of the 'backyard' races. Muscles tensed, grew taut as steel cables as the big horse readied himself for the bang of the wrench against the hubcap. Brian banned Billy from his mind. Every fiber of his body hummed with anticipation. The tension running from him to his mount and back jingled through him like an electric current.

Wrench hit hubcap and they were off, the thunder of the hoof beats drowning out the cheers of the crowd.

It was almost enough to make him feel alive again.

Horses are slower than cars... only they aren't.

It's a peculiar phenomenon that has less to do with real speed than with the perception of speed. It is an entirely different experience to sit in the cockpit of a souped up racing car doing 150 on a smooth asphalt road than to cling to the back of almost half a ton of bunching, coiling muscle that has a mind of its own and is hurtling across a rocky desert floor with all the sweet restraint of a runaway truck.

Horses - especially trained race horses - are fast. They're also living creatures that defy total predictability. Even the tamest, gentlest of equine personalities can still break its rider's back simply by shying at an inopportune moment and dislodging their cargo with a bop and a bounce. A horse can stumble and fall and crush the fragile human body beneath its greater bulk, or it can throw its rider and batter them with iron-clad hooves that can break bones or damage delicate tissue to the point of irreparability.

Rome didn't know much about horses (and what he did Brian had taught him), but he was an expert when it came to the risks involved with horse racing. During the second race he'd ever seen - he'd been there mostly to cheer on Brian - he'd witnessed a slender mare step into a gopher hole. She'd somersaulted, taking the second horse down with her; the result had been one man squashed to a pulp and another in a coma. The mare had broken her neck; the other horse involved shattered its leg and had to be put down.

It had left quite an impression on fourteen year old Roman Pearce. No matter how often and believably Brian assured him that accidents like this were extremely rare, from that day on, Rome was stubbornly convinced that horses were deathtraps on four legs, and he made it his personal mission in life to redirect his best friend's love for speed into a less dangerous direction. Of course one could argue the merit of car racing versus horse racing, but it was Rome's firm opinion that a car's metal frame offered at least a modicum of protection.

He watched the race like a hawk from the bed of the old truck he'd borrowed from old man O'Connor, his knuckles white from the pressure of his grip on the cab. He didn't know why it was that he could match Brian mile for mile on any urban racetrack, could sit beside him unfazed while the man weaved through heavy traffic like a suicidal jackrabbit, but could hardly watch his friend do what he'd been trained to do since he'd been a kid. It wasn't exactly logical, but then, logic wasn't really an issue when it came to his feelings for Brian.

The big black gelding was running nose to nose with Billy Quaide's bay now, swallowing the distance with ground-eating strides that showed no sign of panic or headstrong competitiveness. One point for Brian's big brother: he'd coughed up a well-trained mount. No clamping down on the bit there. He could tell Brian was still holding Whiskey back and he grinned at the look of premature triumph on Billy's face. One of the perks of this kind of racing was that you had more time for strategy.

"C'mon, Bri," he muttered, as he followed the horses' progress with avid attention. "Make him eat your dust."

As if his words had been the cue, Brian leaned forward slightly and loosened his hold on the reins, giving the gelding his head. Whiskey stretched his long neck and legs eagerly. Dust and small rocks pelted the bay as the black shot past him on the worn-out trail, faster and faster, until he seemed nothing but a dark shadow that swooped across the dry earth.

They flew past the cactus patch that marked the final two hundred yards, through the shallow creek bed that allowed for a brief additional burst of speed, and over the patch of white sand they used as the finish line.

Brian's whoop reached Rome's ears even above the clamor of the crowd.

When the black came flouncing back along the track - neck arched, ears pricked, every line of his body screaming 'winner' - he was greeted by general approval. The regulars had been wary of the newcomers at first, but now they'd seen Brian ride they visibly relaxed around him. The way some of the weathered faces grinned at the victorious ex-cop made Rome shake his head in fond amazement. He'd never known a person with such a talent for charming people. Part of it could certainly be attributed to the man's good looks, but Rome was pretty sure most of it was just Brian being Brian.

He was about to jump down from the truck bed and go collect their winnings - the better to gloat at Billy Quaide - when he noticed a new car parked among the others. It made him stop and frown, suddenly unaccountably spooked. It wasn't even that the 1971 Chevy Chevelle was a very conspicuous vehicle. As a matter of fact, the car looked like it had seen better days; its side was dented and what was visible of the paint job under the layer of dirt and dust looked like a remarkably unremarkable dull brownish/reddish color. No sparkling chrome or fancy hubcaps there. It was a perfectly street legal, ordinary Chevy.


He stopped and mentally rewound. Hubcaps. Tires. Definitely non-custom tires; too broad, too new. Too expensive. Them were racing tires.

Alarmed, Rome straightened and looked around, sharp eyes scanning the gathering for faces that didn't belong, strangers who stood out in the denim-clad, boot-wearing, Stetson-adorned Arizona audience. He wasn't even aware that he was moving towards Brian until Lee Burnett stepped into his path, a rueful grin on his face and a not overly impressive wad of money in his hand.

"Good race," he said, grudgingly. "I should've known better than to bet against O'Connor. The kid's still got it."

Much more concerned about the possible enemy among the locals than the status of Brian's riding skills, Rome muttered what he hoped was a suitably modest reply and tried to push past Lee. However, the other man wasn't so easily deterred.

"Say, how long are you two gonna stay? 'cause if Brian's lookin' fer a horse of his own, I know somebody's got a real pretty mare for sale. She's a bit of a handful, but she's got a fam'ly tree as long as my arm. Morgan stock. Nice build. Good lungs. She's a bargain really..."

"Yeah, yeah." Rome found himself clenching his fists; the desire to just punch Burnett and step over him was almost too much to resist. "We'll get back to you." His voice rose in annoyance. "Man, lemme through! I gotta talk to Brian."

As he untangled himself from the talkative human obstacle, he could see Whiskey move through the assembly like an icebreaker through rough northern seas, plowing towards him. Brian was still smiling, the darkness in his eyes momentarily banished by the thrill of the win. He seemed almost a bit manic now; not as badly as in Miami, but still slightly disconcerting. His wind-tousled hair shimmered like spun gold; it reminded Rome that he'd forgotten to bring his friend's hat. Brian had gotten out of the habit of wearing it and the hot desert sun was probably all but frying his brain by now.

Before he could break through the throng of people that still separated them, Rome saw a sudden change come over Brian's features. The laughter went out of his eyes, chased away by shocked recognition. The smile dropped from his lips as his face tightened, protective walls coming up like invisible shields.

As he pushed against the knot of bodies, his heartbeat surging up with a wave of fear, all Rome could think of was the sight of glass splintering under the impact of bullets, the choking stench of rubber as tires locked and screeched over scorching asphalt, and the sound of metal shrieking as a shining black Toyota Supra smashed sidelong into a parked car. Please, God, he thought, frantic, don't let it be that crazy-ass shooter. Don't let it be the shooter. I can't lose him again. I'm not that strong.

Then he broke through, stumbled into the clear space beyond the line of cars, and stared in confusion at the burly, bald man who was the center of Brian's attention. No guns, was the first thing he noted with bone-deep relief. No noticeable weapons. Just this one massive, vaguely Hispanic looking guy and the two scruffy individuals flanking him. They weren't moving and didn't look like they might spring into action in the near future, and if they'd wanted to shoot anybody, they probably would've done it already.

Satisfied that the stranger didn't pose an immediate threat, Rome looked at Brian, who was still frozen in the saddle. He sat so utterly motionless even his mount seemed spellbound; Whiskey had stopped his little victory dance and stood like a rock, his full attention on his rider.

Rome walked toward his friend slowly, his focus split between the familiar form on the black horse and the trio at the end of the path. When he reached the gelding, he carefully touched a hand to Brian's knee in a gentle attempt to break the spell.


The worry obvious in his voice almost made him wince; he hadn't meant to show his concern so openly in front of these potential troublemakers. Brian didn't react. The level of Rome's anxiety - which had started to decrease with the realization that there were no firearms involved - rose again.

"Yo, homeboy, what is it? Who's this?" he hissed, as quietly as he could.

Brian swallowed dryly, painfully. His gaze never left the man in front of him. He whispered something, but his voice was too low for Rome to understand.

Annoyed, worried, and increasingly agitated, Rome's grip on his friend's knee tightened. "Bri, who the hell is this?"

The reply was a sigh, raspy like sandpaper over stone. "Dom."

Dom? Dom? Who in blazes was- Then it hit him. Dom. Dominic Toretto. Ex-con, ex-highwayman, fugitive. The chink in Brian's armor and thorn in Rome's side; the reason for those damn shadows in Brian's eyes.




Chapter Five

He was beautiful.

Somehow, Dom's memories of Brian had downplayed the man's physical attributes; or maybe it was the sheer happiness of seeing him alive and apparently unharmed that made one sweaty, dust-caked horseman look like a slightly disheveled angel. Brian hadn't changed much. His hair still framed a face that was saved from prettiness only by its hard, masculine angles and the hint of danger in those clear, light eyes. He also still needed a haircut... and a shave.

Dom knew he was staring, but he couldn't seem to help it. He tried to remember why he'd been so pissed at the man; it seemed like a damn waste of time, now that he was finally facing him again. He'd missed Brian. God, he'd missed him. He hadn't even realized how much until he met that steady gaze and felt something click into place within him that he hadn't even known was dislodged.

He hardly noticed the arrival of a muscular, black man until the stranger stepped up to Brian and put a hand on his knee. His first impulse was to stride over there, swipe the offending limb off what was his, and knock the intrusive bastard flat on his ass. Then his brains kicked in, his survival instinct desperately clubbing his reptile brain into submission. Brian hadn't even really taken notice of the hand on his leg, meaning he knew this guy. Given Dom's recent run of bad luck, Mr. Tall-Dark-and-Handsome was probably Rome. Not a good idea to introduce himself back into Brian's life by coldcocking his childhood friend. Brian might take offense.

Vince and Leon moved slightly beside him, evidently ready to grab Dom by whatever handle they'd reach first and pull him back before he could do something stupid. He'd make them back off as soon as he managed to tear his gaze away from the man still sitting motionless astride that big, black horse. He couldn't believe how at ease Brian looked in the saddle. He couldn't believe Brian had just raced Fury there along a trail that would've been hard on a jeep; going the quarter mile at a speed that should've seemed like a snail's pace in comparison to their usual tempo but that had appeared nothing but insane to Dom.

They probably would've stayed locked in their silent staring contest for the rest of the afternoon if not for the arrival of a new player. This one was riding a sweaty, dirty bay and looking like someone had just grabbed his balls and twisted with relish. Considering how he completely ignored Dom and his companions and focused on Brian instead, it was pretty much a given that this 'someone' had been Brian.

"Good race," he said, his tone about as sincere as that of a Mexican salesman talking to an American tourist. "I didn't know Whiskey had it in him."

Dom hadn't liked most-likely-Rome touching Brian's knee, but he found he cared even less for the way the newcomer stared at Brian. There was something going on there, some kind of history - the bad sort - and it made his skin prickle with protective anger. He was moving towards the two riders before he'd consciously made the decision to do so, his friends half a step behind him.

"He's a choosy horse," Brian rumbled, his attention now mostly on the cowboy. "He doesn't let just any shitfaced cowpoke mount him and play Wild Bill." Somehow it didn't sound like he was talking solely about his horse. "You lose much?"

"Enough," the man growled.

"Not hardly," Brian's friend snapped, walking around the front of the dark horse and glaring at the stranger, unaware that his comment made him rise a good two notches in Dom's esteem.

Cool gray eyes peered down along a proud nose with arrogant disregard. "You keep outta this, Pearce. This ain't got nothing to do with you. I was jist congratulating Brian on his win."

"You've done that. Now move on." Dom's gravelly voice broke into the sizzling resentment that clouded the air around the three. It made Rome tense, the cowboy startle, and Brian grin unexpectedly.

"Who the fuck are you?"

Dom lifted an eyebrow and mimicked exaggerated surprise. "Who? Me?" He could sense Brian's amusement and it made him preen just a little; thank God nobody but Vince and Leon would be able to tell. "I'm a friend of Brian's." He took a step forward, which brought him about level with Rome, and tilted back his head to stare up at the idiot who'd dared break up their reunion. "I'm also the guy who's gonna pull you off that horse-" Damn, and it was a big horse! "-and kick your lily white ass if you don't turn around and take the fuck off."

That didn't go over well. The cowboy opened his mouth to say something, but made the mistake of meeting Dom's stare first. Whatever insult had been on the tip of his tongue dried on his lips.

With a sound that could've been a snort or a suppressed chuckle, Brian leaned forward and rested his elbows on the saddle horn. "Word of advice, Billy? Take the fuck off."

A slight shifting and rustling behind him told Dom that Vince and Leon were moving into position between Dom's back and the curious audience their little show had drawn. If Bigmouth had compadres on the sidelines, those two would make sure that was exactly where they'd stay. Apparently he didn't, because he retreated with ill grace, tipping his hat derisively at Dom and Rome and giving Brian a last, unreadable look before he pushed his bay around and rode off.

Brian watched him go with narrowed eyes then turned his head and met Dom's gaze again, questioning and not a little wary. Uncomfortable under the scrutiny, Dom jerked his head towards the Chevy.

"Let's get outta here. We gotta talk."

A choppy nod was his only reply. Brian straightened and touched his calves to the black's sides, waking his mount from its reverie. A moment later he had to rein it in again or walk right over Rome, who had moved into his path with one long stride.

"This," Rome said through clenched teeth, "is not the smart thing to do, brah."

"Probably not," Brian agreed, ignoring Dom's glare at the admission. "But I'm gonna do it anyway." He smiled tightly. "Do me a favor and show Leon and Vince the way to the ranch."

"What about you and Toretto?" Rome questioned, unconsciously echoing Dom's very thoughts.

"Yeah, Brian," Dom threw in, tilting his head curiously. "What about you and me?"

This time, the smile was a lot broader and less strained. "We're going for a walk."

Dom blinked. "Walk," he repeated, slowly.

The expression on his face cheered Rome up considerably. "Don't worry, chica" he smirked, "it's only about twenty miles."

"More like five," Brian corrected. "And it's not like this'd be the first time we went for a hike, right, Dom?"

Flashing back to a warm LA night that had started with Brian losing his car to him and ended with the two of them walking back to the city and the nearest working pay phone after Johnny Tran and his crazy cousin had blown up same car, Dom felt a grin stretch his face. That had been the night when he'd decided to keep Brian.

"You gonna offer me a beer when we get there?"

"Any brew you want." Brian winked at him. "As long as it's a Corona."

All of a sudden, that five mile walk sounded surprisingly good.

It was weird to see Brian again.

During the past months, Vince had often wondered what he'd feel or say should he ever find himself face to face with the man again. Brian had saved his life, but Brian had also broken his world apart, had changed things irrevocably just by being who and what he was. Right now, Vince didn't know whether he wanted to thank the ex-cop, or deck him.

He turned his head and stared over to where Dom was walking off with Brian, the horse trailing behind them like a supersized dog. Even through the distance he could see the relaxed set of Dom's shoulders, the return of the easy grace that had been so painfully missing for much too long. They looked... right... together. Content, even with all the issues still open between them.

In the end, Vince thought with a sigh, his own hang-ups didn't matter. He'd deal. He'd grumble and bitch and get smacked by Leon a lot, but he'd deal. Because Leon, with that strange empathy he showed sometimes, was right: Dom needed to get over what had happened, and the only way to do that was to confront the person who'd been the catalyst of all this.

So Vince steeled himself, started the car, and followed Roman Pearce and his truck onto the gravel road that lead back up the hill, away from the improvised race track. The last thing he saw in the rearview mirror before a cloud of dust obstructed his view were the tiny forms of two men and a horse melting into the barren Arizona landscape.

He didn't know what to do with his hand. His left had a loose hold on the reins, mostly to keep Whiskey from stepping on them as he trudged after them patiently, but he wasn't sure where to put his right. His fingers itched to touch Dom; his wrist, his arm, his neck... his face. The need to reassure himself that Dom was real, was actually right beside him, solid and strong and charismatic as always, was almost irresistible. Finally, he stuffed his hand into his jeans pocket, determined to keep himself in check. He still didn't know why Dom was here, how he felt about Brian; he wasn't going to do something rash and break the fragile truce between them.

A couple of people called out to him as they left the gathering. Some to say hello, some to offer acknowledgement of his victory or extend challenges. His ride had obviously broken the ice. A sweet little brunette asked if he was going to join her and her friends for a celebration at the Silver Spur in the evening. Brian declined with a smile and a wave. He knew her and liked her, but there was no way he was going to get his ass kicked playing pool with Lily Ellen Baker if he could spend the time with Dominic Toretto instead.

It wasn't long before the noise of the crowd faded in the distance as they followed a narrow rabbit path out of the depression and into the desert. Dom kept pace easily; his worn boots handled the terrain without a problem as he adjusted his gait to match Brian's unhurried stride. He'd lost some weight, looked leaner than in LA, though his broad-shouldered frame was still hard and powerfully built. His skin shimmered like young bronze in the sunlight, several shades darker than Brian's honey-colored tan. It occurred to Brian that Dom wasn't wearing a hat and that his head was shaved... not a good combination.

When he stopped, Dom gave him a questioning look. Brian didn't know what to say, so he just walked back to Whiskey and grabbed his Stetson from where it dangled from the saddle horn, thanks to mother-hen Rome. He handed it to Dom with a vague gesture towards Dom's head and the burning eye of the sun above them, and muttered something about heat-stroke and baked brains.

After a moment's hesitation, Dom took the offered hat with a small nod and put it on. It should've looked weird. It didn't. Big surprise there; the man could've worn a pink shirt and flip flops and still made it look cool. He eyed Brian now from beneath the brim of the Stetson, dark eyes guarded and annoyingly unreadable.

"Thanks," he said, and the deep rasp of a voice sent little shivers of gooseflesh up and down Brian's spine despite the heat.

"You're welcome."

He wanted to fidget, but years of training kept him from showing his agitation. With an inaudible sigh, he ran a gentle hand over Whiskey's silky shoulder, taking comfort from the familiar feel and smell of happy horse. It wasn't as satisfying as pacing and babbling, but it would have to do. He'd never been that good at freaking out anyway.

However, the brief interaction had dissolved some of the tension between them. When they started to walk again, the silence between them was familiar and almost comfortable. After a couple of minutes, Dom glanced at Brian, a glint of humor in his eyes.

"So, you really are from Arizona, huh?"

A helpless little grin tugged at the corners of Brian's mouth. Leave it to Dom to find the perfect opening. "Yeah, man. Born and bred." He hesitated; decided what the hell. "Most of it was true, y'know? I even spent some time in juvie for boosting cars."

Dom was quiet for a while. It made Brian nervous, made him wonder if he'd said too much too soon. Then Dom shook his head slowly. "I don't get it. Everybody I've talked to makes it sound like you grew up on a fucking ranch. Where the hell did you learn so much about race cars?"

That one was easy.

"Rome." Brian grinned fondly at the memories. "I met him when we were about twelve. His dad owned a garage in Tucson; he was a former wheelman turned NASCAR driver. Rome didn't know shit about horses, but he was magic with machines. He got me addicted, and his dad taught both of us to drive. The rest is history."

His companion blinked. "That still doesn't explain how you ended up as an LA undercover cop."

That wasn't Brian's favorite part of the story, but he guessed Dom had the right to hear it. If they wanted to salvage their friendship, it was time to 'fess up and be as honest as necessary. "You could say I'm sort of the black sheep of the family," he admitted, studying the ground with sudden interest. "Rome 'n me got in a lot of trouble for a while, especially after he lost his dad. I had this oh-so-perfect older brother I never measured up to and... hell... you know how it goes. They decided I was too much of a handful and sent me to an old army buddy of my father's to straighten me out. Tanner's LAPD and I liked that better than breeding horses, so I followed his footsteps." He shrugged. "Turned out I had a knack for it."

Until he'd gone native, that was. He kicked at a rock in frustration then almost landed flat on his back when Whiskey recoiled at the crack of the stone smacking against a small boulder. The sharp tug sent a flare of pain through his damaged arm, making him hiss and curse under his breath.

Dom was there instantly, unsuccessfully trying to hide his alarm with a gruff, "You all right?"

As all right as a person with a healing bullet wound could be, Brian supposed. Maybe riding that race hadn't been such a great idea after all. It certainly hadn't done his arm any good. He flashed Dom what he hoped was a reassuring smile, and promptly got caught in the man's ardent gaze.

"I'm fine."

Whiskey tossed his head up again, more to gain Brian's attention than out of fear this time, and he turned around reluctantly. He could feel Dom watch him as he soothed and petted the gelding. Damn. This was harder than he'd thought, in every sense of the word. He'd forgotten how thick the sexual tension used to be between him and Dom. Or maybe he just hadn't thought it'd be this strong after all the time and all the things that had happened. Shit. So much for being over this infatuation. Wishing he had his hat to hide his eyes, he turned around and set out again, Whiskey once more a quiet shadow at his heels.

"Anyway, long story short, Uncle John was the one who recommended me for that undercover gig."

"Because of your driving skills," Dom said quietly.

"Because of my driving skills," Brian agreed. "Well, that and the fact that nobody thought I looked like a cop." He flashed a quick grin. "Too pretty."

A low chuckle made him chance a quick glance at Dom, who was shaking his head in amusement. "That's exactly what Jesse said, first time he saw you."

Brian smiled, despite the pang of sorrow that shot through him at the mention of Jesse. He'd genuinely liked the kid; ADD, car obsession, irritating voice and all. He wanted to say something, anything, but it all sounded flat and trite in his mind. He hadn't known Jesse for as long as Dom; he hadn't been part of the family, not really. He'd been an undercover cop doing his job. That thought made him snort in disgust. Yeah, sure. Mr. By-The-Book, that was him.

"He admired you."

Brian's head jerked up at the casual comment. What the hell-? Dom wasn't looking at him though; he was staring at the ground as if it held the secrets of the universe. Uncertain of how to take the remark, Brian followed Dom's example and joined him in his intense scrutiny of rough Arizona soil. "He didn't even know me," he muttered.

With a sigh, Dom stopped. He pushed the Stetson off his head so it dangled between his shoulder blades on its leather strap and ran a hand over his stubbly skull in a familiar gesture of tired annoyance. "You got a split personality?"

Okay, talk about a change of topic. Brian frowned in confusion. "No?" he offered, carefully.

"So the guy with the bizarre fondness for Mia's godawful tuna sandwiches and the bad habit of mixing his tools with mine, that was you?"

He had not mixed his tools with... uh... all right, maybe he had, once or twice. It happened, when you worked so closely together. "Her tuna ain't that bad."

"Was that guy you or not?"

Damn, but Dom could be persistent.

"Hell, yeah, it was me. Who the fuck else would it have been?"

Dom nodded in satisfaction and looked at him with just the hint of a smile. "Thought so. Doubt you were playacting 24/7 either." He reached back, grabbed the hat and pulled it back onto his head with a grunt. "So how come you think we didn't get to know you?" Smirking at what was doubtless a look of total bafflement on Brian's face, he started walking again. "If it's any consolation, I think you did a damn good job. I never would've guessed you were a narc."

"I'm sorry."

The words were out before Brian could stop them. Mentally, he kicked himself; hard. He hadn't meant to say that, ever. It made it sound like he owed Dom an apology, like he'd done something wrong, when in truth the only person he had betrayed had been John Tanner. Dom hadn't been innocent; he'd been behind the heists, even if Brian hadn't wanted to accept it at first... and still Brian had protected him. He'd grown too attached, had compromised his own integrity to salvage what he could of Dom's family. He'd risked his life to get Vince off that truck, had gone up against two gang members with submachine guns to avenge a boy who'd fucked up big time and led his pursuers directly to Dom. He'd fucking let Dom go, given him his car even. He'd destroyed evidence, lied to his superiors, screwed up his career, taken the fall so the man he considered his friend would get away.

"No," Dom said quietly, finally meeting his gaze. The look in his eyes brought Brian up short; he hadn't seen such a turmoil of emotion since he'd identified himself as a cop in front of Dom. "I am sorry."

And, just like that, he had Brian. Again.

They walked the next few miles in silence, both relieved and feeling awkward at the same time. Dom was grateful for the reprieve. His thoughts were whirling and tumbling all over each other, colliding and merging with feelings and half-formed desires and resentment until he was almost dizzy.

Goddamn it. He'd thought he wanted to hear an apology from Brian. Brian had betrayed him. He'd made Dom believe he was a friend, but it had just been a job. Not real. Only it had been. It didn't get much more real than a person putting his life on the line for you and yours, giving up everything so you could be free. He knew that, he'd known that from the beginning, but acknowledging something in one's mind and accepting it in one's heart where two different things.

It didn't help that finding Brian and Rome together made him see everything through green-tinged lenses. Were they friends? Lovers? Did Brian even swing that way? God knew that Dom had tried just about everything at least once, and those two years in Lompoc had taken care of any remaining questions he might've had... but Brian? Brian, who'd grown up in the middle of cowboy country, where men were still men and sexual ambiguity ranked among the top ten 'crimes against God'? Brian, who'd been a cop at the notoriously homophobic LAPD? Not to speak of his doomed but enthusiastic affair with Mia...

As he sneaked a quick look at the man beside him, Dom felt the old frustration well up. Brian was driving him nuts. He could feel the tension crackle between them, could almost touch the emotions that tied them together, but he just wasn't sure if he was reading the signals right. He hadn't made a move while he'd been with Letty and now that he was single again, he didn't dare. If he was wrong, he might well lose Brian for good. The thought alone made something in him scream in pain. No. No way. He'd rather suffer a little sexual frustration. He glanced at Brian again, took in the lithe golden form moving at his side like a guardian angel in cowboy boots, and suppressed a sigh. Make that a lot sexual frustration.

Hell, he could more than understand why Mia had fallen so hard, so fast. He'd done the same. Only he hadn't had the guts to do something about it. Maybe he should-

A sudden change in the rhythm of Brian's steps made him turn his head just in time to see his companion stagger. Dom reached out reflexively; his fingers curled around the nearest arm, only to jerk back hastily when Brian cried out at the contact and almost went to his knees. Panic seared up hot and raw.

"What?" he yelled, wanting nothing more than to grab the swaying man and support him, but unsure where to touch. "Brian, what the fuck's wrong?"

"Ow." Brian dropped the reins and grabbed hold of Dom's T-shirt instead. "Ow, ow, ow. Shit. Don't do that again."

"Do what?" Dom was getting slightly frantic by then. Belatedly, he remembered that Brian had been shot a few days before. How bad had he been hurt? "What can I do?"

"Nothing. I'll be fine in a sec."

Brian took a deep breath, held it, and released it slowly, straightening as he did. He was still too pale for Dom's peace of mind, but the color was slowly coming back to his face. Feeling helpless and not liking it one bit, Dom carefully put a hand on Brian's left shoulder. When his touch didn't provoke another flinch or shout, he slowly tightened his grip and pulled until Brian was half leaning against him. The simple fact that no protest was coming forth told him a lot about how crappy his friend had to be feeling.

They stood like this for a few moments, as Brian got his breathing and Dom his racing heart back under control. Then Brian, with amazingly bad timing, chuckled. Dom glared down at the curly blond head cradled against his shoulder. "What's so funny?"

"Me." Brian snorted softly. "Do me a favor, if I make another bad decision today, gimme a good, hard slap on the right arm." He pointed at the exact spot where Dom had seized him the first time. "Right there."

Dom winced in sympathy and guilt. "Sorry 'bout that," he mumbled.

"No sweat, man." Brian's indomitable nature was making a fast comeback now that the pain seemed to be receding. He pushed away from his human support pillar with something very close to reluctance and started to finger his arm suspiciously. "Let's just hope I didn't open my stitches. Ben will have my hide if he has to sew me together again."

A vein began to throb at Dom's temple. He had to fight to keep his voice below a shout. "Again?"

Completely ignoring the rising temper, Brian went back to his horse and picked up the reins from where they'd fallen. The black had stopped the moment the leather straps had hit the ground. "Yeah, well, I've never been a model patient."

Really? Dom wouldn't have guessed. "How bad were you injured?" Couldn't have been just a graze; not with Brian still hurting so much.

Brian scanned their surroundings for a moment, then dropped the reins again and walked over to a small rock formation, where he sat down on a boulder with a sigh. He looked tired and sweaty, and Dom's stomach clenched with a jumbled blend of emotions. Brian was a strong man, used to having full control over his body. He didn't necessarily have to be in motion all the time, but he needed to have the option to move whenever he wanted. Being unable to do so must be driving him nuts. It explained why he'd participated in the race even though he was obviously not fully healed yet; it also was most likely the reason why they were trekking through the desert now instead of driving. Dom would've yelled at Brian if he hadn't understood him so well.

"Got a bullet in the arm and crashed my car against a parked Volvo. Pulled and bruised the shoulder. Almost dislocated the joint, too." Brian scowled. "The bastard shattered my windshield and front windows, the crash smashed the rear window. The entire side of my car looks like someone took a sledgehammer to it. A tire's blown, the axle's cracked, and I don't even wanna think about the paint job."

Dom didn't know whether to laugh at the doleful expression on his friend's face or bawl him out because he seemed so much more offended by the damage done to his car than the wounds he himself had sustained. He was saved from the decision by a soft whinny from around the bend of the path. Whiskey perked up, swiveled his ears towards the sound, and answered with a polite nicker.

"We're not done talking," Dom told Brian. He'd barely spoken those words when a speckled horse head came into view, quickly followed by the rest of the animal. So much for the vast loneliness of the desert.

The rider turned out to be a tan, tough looking man with broad shoulders and intense blue eyes. He was leading a riderless horse and visibly trying to tune out the running commentary of the man following him on a huge, raw-boned sorrel. Leon didn't seem to mind. He was too busy telling his mount about his uncle's couch to pay attention to his guide. Dom and Brian shared a look of complete disbelief. Leon on a horse was not a sight they'd ever expected to see.

Leon's eyes lit up when he saw them, a welcoming grin forming on his lips. "Lookee who's here," he barked happily. "The lost lambs. How's it hangin', kids? Got yourselves a good tan?" He chuckled; the sound low and grating and familiar. "Nice hat, Dom."

"You're one to talk," Dom countered, eying the black Stetson that adorned Leon's head. "Where did you come from?" He watched the stranger pull his horse to a stop in front of Brian and, with a narrow-eyed glance into Dom's direction, slide to the ground with the catlike grace of someone who spent a lot of time getting on and off large quadrupeds. "And who's John Wayne?"

"Oh, you'll love this," Leon promised, grinning like the Cheshire cat. "That's Benjamin Raymond O'Connor, Brian's big bro. He doesn't talk much, but, man, he can glare with the best of 'em."

From the way Brian winced at the introduction, Dom guessed his brother didn't like hearing his full name. Noting the way those impressive shoulders tightened under the stranger's shirt, Dom tensed and took a step towards the brothers, ready to pull the older O'Connor off the younger one. He didn't doubt Brian's ability to defend himself, but there was something in the stance of the quiet relative that set the warning bells of Dom's instincts ringing. This was no ordinary cowboy. Something was off, and Dom didn't like it.

His worry turned out to be for nothing. Benjamin Raymond muttered something unintelligible that made Brian laugh out loud then prompted his brother to pull off his shirt so he could have a look at the bandage. Even from his position beside Whiskey, Dom could see that there were some dark spots on the white gauze, too reddish to be just dirt. Damn Brian and his stoicism! Couldn't he have said something before he almost fell flat on his face?

Benjamin Raymond seemed to share his opinion, because he uttered a sound somewhere between an irritated huff and a snarl, buttoned Brian's shirt again and told him in no uncertain terms to get his exhausted ass on his horse where he was supposed to sit quiet and still until he was told to get down again. The rebellious glint in Brian's eyes told Dom that his friend was about to get ornery just on principle. Since he felt no desire to watch the man take a headlong dive from considerably higher up than ground level, he carefully picked up the reins and tugged. Whiskey followed him docilely, making up for the brownie points he'd lost when he'd almost pulled off Brian's arm with his stupid shying.

The brothers interrupted their developing staring contest when Dom appeared right beside them and held out the reins. "Stop being an ass," he growled. "Get on the damn horse. I'm hungry, my feet hurt, and I've seen enough of the sights for now. We can finish our conversation later."

"What he said." Benjamin Raymond nodded approvingly. "Plus, I'm not sure how long Dad can keep Rome and that tattooed punk busy."

Dom's temper flared at the less than favorable description of Vince - that it was accurate didn't mean anybody but family was allowed to use it - but Brian beat him to the punch. "You playing pot to Vince's kettle now, bro?" He smirked. "Does mom know about that new, itty bitty tattoo on your-"

Blue O'Connor eyes flashed dangerously. "Shut. Up."

"Nah, don't! It's just gettin' interesting!" Leon at least was having fun. Then again, Leon almost always had fun. The man was hard to shock and easily entertained. It was part of what made him the bedrock of Dom's team.

"Ignore him," Dom advised. "C'mon, Benjamin Raymond. Let's get Mr. Stubborn here back in the saddle."

"The name's Ben," Brian's brother ground out. "Ben. Just... Ben."

By this time, Dom was past courtesy and manners. "Fine, whatever. I'm Dom. Just Dom. Now get a move on."

Thankfully, Brian was feeling bad enough to be surprisingly cooperative. He allowed the two men to help him to his feet and even leaned slightly on Dom on their way to Whiskey's side. Of course he had to destroy the impression of vulnerability a moment later, when he swung lightly into the saddle, but by then Dom was too mellowed by the lingering sensation of Brian's warmth against his side to say anything beyond a half-hearted, "Show-off."

Getting Dom on his horse was more of a challenge, not least because of Leon's increasingly 'helpful' suggestions. Dom was wary of what he perceived to be a big, hairy, and potentially dangerous animal, and approached the whole idea of riding back to the ranch with all the enthusiasm of a cat about to be thrown into a dog kennel.

Finally, tired of the argument, Brian snapped at Leon to shut the fuck up, at his brother to stop smirking, and at Dom to put his left foot in the left stirrup and get his ass onto Pharaoh's back or else. Since he looked increasingly strained, the three men obeyed without further fuss. Leon and Ben watched critically as Dom mimicked what Brian had done and made it into the saddle without incident.

They headed off in a single file, Ben leading the way, followed by Brian and Dom, with Leon bringing up the rear. Dom had to admit it was a lot less tiring than hoofing it, and faster to boot, but he couldn't help it; he missed the illusion of intimacy walking with Brian had provided. He missed the sound of Brian muttering curses when they had to circle around yet another prickly pear patch; the perfectly synchronized rhythm of their breathing; the occasional brushing of their arms and shoulders when the trail got narrow.

So much for getting the man out of his system.


Chapter Six

When they arrived at the Double C, the 'tattooed punk' and old man O'Connor were sitting on the veranda, bonding over Coronas and nachos. Rome was pacing in the yard, followed at a respectful distance by a mongrel that looked like a not very attractive mix between a Border collie and a coyote. Which, incidentally, was exactly what it was.

They all turned to watch the riders come in from the dusk, various degrees of relief on their faces. Leon had given up trying to get his companions to talk and contented himself with hanging back a little and enjoying the show. It was really quite interesting to do that. People-watching was one of his favorite hobbies.

Cole O'Connor - ex-Army, gnarly and weathered like an old oak and about as easy to read - tilted his head in a silent question, which was answered by his oldest son with a brief so-so hand gesture and a disgruntled glare in Brian's general direction. Vince and Rome were more direct; Vince jumped down the wooden porch steps and marched towards Dom like a man on a mission, while Rome made a beeline for Brian.

Dom - predictably, in Leon's opinion - promptly kicked his long-suffering mount until it moved between Brian's black and Brian's oldest friend. The two shared a brief scowl of mutual dislike then Dom slid to the ground in the space between the horses (heedless of the fact that he was getting off at the wrong side of the horse) and raised his arms to help Brian down. Brian must've been paying the price for overtaxing himself, because he didn't even crack a joke at the unusual treatment.

His lack of protest didn't go unnoticed.

"I told you riding that race was a fool thing to do," Mr. O'Connor said, sounding none too pleased with his youngest. He shoved past Rome, Vince, and poor Pharaoh and studied his son critically. His verdict wasn't long coming. "You look like shit."

"Thanks, Dad. That's exactly what I needed to hear."

Any more sarcasm, Leon mused, and the acid would probably dissolve Brian's tongue.

"I see it's not too bad," O'Connor noted dryly, completely unfazed. "Rome, why don't you get him into the house while the others help me take care of the horses?"

Sounded like a request; was in fact an order. Leon smiled and shook his head. No wonder Brian had a tendency to balk at this particular tone of voice. It probably was his personal equivalent to nails screeching over a blackboard.

Obviously, Dom had either come to the same conclusion or felt Brian stiffen beside him, because he got that almost bored-looking, hard to read expression on his face that spoke of trouble.

"Why don't I get Brian into the house while Rome and the others help you with the horses? Seeing as how I don't know shit about horses to begin with?" Dom's voice was casual, soft, and smooth as silk over a razor blade.

Brian looked from one man to the other, rolled his eyes, and pushed away from both of them to head towards the house on his own. Dom sighed, broke off the posturing, and trotted after him, muttering something unflattering under his breath. Before Vince and Rome could follow, Mr. O'Connor had slapped a pair of reins into each of their hands and pointed them towards the stable. A look of panic crossed Vince's features as he stared the big black in the eye. Whiskey stared back, fluttered his long lashes, and tried to rub his hard head against Vince's shoulder.

Leon sniggered. That's what he liked about Brian; things never got boring when he was around.

Brian woke up with the slightly disoriented, cotton-mouth feeling that told him someone (most likely Rome) had slipped him a painkiller before he'd gone to bed. He didn't appreciate it. Tylenol and most other analgesics had their use and could be necessary at times, but they also made him feel disconnected, fuzzyheaded, and distinctly cranky. Brian wasn't a bad-tempered person by nature, so sniping at family and friends made him feel uncomfortably guilty, which of course didn't improve his mood, which made him even more snappish... which was why he tried to avoid taking painkillers as a rule.

On the plus side, he'd had a really cool dream, and he even remembered it for a change. Usually, only his nightmares left enough of an impression to last into his waking hours. This dream, however, had been a good one. Undeniably a good one; bordering on great even. He'd ridden a race against Billy Quaide on Ben's Whiskey, and he'd won. Take that, Billy. Then Dom had appeared - and Vince and Leon, but they hadn't stayed long - and they'd walked along the old Kinney trail and talked. Dom hadn't been mad anymore, at least not much, and, unlike in the nightmares, Dom also hadn't ended up a bloody corpse in a wrecked and shattered Charger. No death and destruction this time at all. Good dream.

The Dom in his dream had been like the Dom before Brian had been forced to out himself as a cop to save Vince's ass; only this Dom had known that Brian had been undercover. He hadn't seemed to mind so much though. He'd understood, or at least had tried to understand. Hell, he'd even apologized himself. Awesome dream.

Too bad the real Dom was probably holed up in Mexico somewhere, hating Brian's guts and playing house with Letty.

It still had been a very nice dream. Feeling better already - though still a little befuddled - Brian rolled out of bed and landed on the floor with a grunt and a curse. Shit. Fuck. Damn. Stupid fucking habits. He was so used to starting his day with push-ups followed by his usual workout routine that his body couldn't seem to remember that it was too banged up to go through the familiar drill. This was the third time since he'd been shot that he'd almost done himself serious harm getting out of bed. No wonder it took him such a long time to heal. At least this time he hadn't yelled, so the others wouldn't come running. Thank God for small favors.

He picked himself up off the carpet carefully and made his way to the bathroom without further incident. He even remembered to protect his bandage with the plastic cover Ben had MacGyvered for him from plastic bags with elastic bands and duct tape before he stepped into the shower. It was awkward as hell to wash his hair with one hand, but he was getting better at it. Drying off was a haphazard affair at best, and he hated brushing his teeth with his left; it messed up his rhythm and he tended to knock the damn tooth brush against his gums and the roof of his mouth. A critical look in the mirror revealed eyes that still carried the slightly drugged glaze that was the result of pain meds and exhaustion. It made him scowl at his reflection and decide that if he had to accept the fact that he wasn't up to a hundred percent, he could forego shaving as well. It wasn't like his whiskers were that bad anyway and his father would just have to live with a stubbly son for a day.

He returned to his bedroom to dress and chanced a glance at the alarm clock in passing. One thirty-four... P.-fucking-M. Fuckers. They'd promised they wouldn't let him sleep so much any more! Goddamn it, how was he supposed to get any work done if he spent half the day snoring away?

Before he could work up a good anger, the smell of chili and cornbread wafted through the door-crack and hit him like an olfactory freight train. His stomach yowled in sudden demand and his mouth watered. Unfair. Ben was fighting dirty. Maybe he'd made those little tuna sandwiches, too? Socks, socks... who needed socks? He hopped around on one foot until he'd shaken out the knot in his jeans leg, pulled the pants up and buttoned them under careful use of both hands. Then he grabbed the first T-shirt that caught his eye, sniffed it quickly, and headed for the door.

The muted hum of male voices drifted up from the dining room/kitchen area and he loped down the stairs quickly. Ben's chili was outstanding, the bastard never made enough, and Rome was a bottomless pit when it came to good food. He was almost as bad as Leon... Brian cut that thought short. Leon had disappeared with Dominic, and much as Brian would've loved to try and lure him out with a pot of his brother's chili, he knew it was an empty dream. Like the one he'd had that night.

Unwavering in his resolution not to vent his frustration and painkiller-induced grouchiness on his innocent family, Brian bounded around the corner with a determined smile on his face only to come to a sliding stop halfway between the doorway and the unusually crowded table.

Dom looked up from his plate, his eyes lighting up when he saw Brian. "Yo, Brian!" he greeted with a booming cheerfulness that made Rome jump due to sheer volume. "Sleep well?" He pulled the chair next to him back in invitation. "Sit down, sleepyhead, and dig in. This chili's amazing."

Reeling from the unexpected turn his day had just taken, Brian found himself walking across the room and plopping down on the empty seat between Dom and Rome. A huge bowl of steaming food was placed in front of him, a tuna sandwich - no crust - balanced precariously on the rim. He stared at it dumbfounded until Rome pressed a spoon into his hand and gave him a nudge, then he started to eat mechanically.

It was surreal, the way his dad sat there munching, flanked by Ben and Vince as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Vince had stopped eating and sat there scowling at Brian, but his glare lacked its usual bile and after a long moment it faltered completely and was replaced by a hesitant smile and a nod of greeting. It only served to freak Brian out more. His gaze jerked to where Leon was perched on his stool between Vince and Dom, too busy chewing to do more than give Brian a wink.

A hand holding a glass of water appeared in his field of vision and he slowly followed the muscular arm up until he was staring into Dom's face. Dom frowned at him, worry creeping into his eyes when Brian made no move to take the proffered glass.

"You all right?" he asked in a low voice.

He might as well have shouted his concern, because everybody stopped eating and focused on Brian, who just blinked back like a concussed puppy. He couldn't seem to get it. Dom was here? And Leon and Vince? It hadn't been a dream? What the hell had been in those pills?

A hand touched his left shoulder and he startled so badly he almost toppled over, causing everybody but Vince and Leon to dive towards him in an attempt to keep him from hitting the hard tile floor. He caught himself just in time, but still felt the touch of two warm hands ghosting over his back; one from the left and one from the right.

"I'm fine," he rasped, and almost winced at the rusty sound of his voice. "I just..." Did they have to stare at him like that? "I'm not quite there yet, okay?" Which was probably the understatement of his life. "Who slipped me the damn pain pills anyway?"

"I did," Ben confessed without a trace of guilt. "You can stop glaring at Rome; he was only the distraction this time."

Dom shook his head and snorted in disbelief. "It was like giving medicine to a cat. You always this stubborn?"

"Damn, that boy's so ornery he was born three weeks premature," Brian's father stated between two mouthfuls of cornbread. "Caught us all by surprise... and didn't bother to wait for the doc either. No, he had to get out right now, at six in the evening, in the stable when his mother feeding the horses. It was so inspiring one of the mares foaled early, too."

Barely resisting the urge to dunk his head into the bowl of chili and drown himself to spare himself the embarrassment, Brian shot his dad a glare instead. "Want to dig out the baby photos while you're at it?"

Even Rome chuckled at that, and finally Brian gave up and concentrated on filling the hole in his stomach. It was Dom's fault, he decided. His old man was usually quite close-mouthed around strangers and it took him a long time to accept people he hadn't personally invited into his life, but Mia had been dead-on in her assessment of her brother: Dominic Toretto was indeed like gravity. It didn't matter where he was or who he was dealing with; people just naturally tended to make room for him in their own space. Even Ben seemed to like him, and Ben was about as trusting as a stray cat.

It was an odd feeling, to sit at home like this and have almost everybody he cared for at one table. The only people missing were his mother and Mia, and, frankly, he wasn't sure he could've handled it if they'd been there too. This were his two families, the one he'd been born into and the one he'd chosen, and he hadn't realized before just how seamlessly they fit together.

His father and Vince sat at one end of the table and squabbled good-naturedly about the merits and drawbacks of L.A. vs. Red Rock. Ben was watching Leon eat, a look of wary amazement on his face. Leon was shoveling chili into his mouth, perfectly happy and relaxed, a condition that - contrary to popular belief - was not as common as it seemed.

The only ones not at ease with each other were Rome and Dom. Rome was uncharacteristically quiet and picking at his food; every now and then he'd lean forward so he could glare past Brian at Dom, who ignored him studiously. The testosterone levels were way in the red. Oh, great. Alpha dog antics. If the two of them hit it off as well as Brian and Vince had, they were in for one hell of a ride.

Roman Pearce did not like Dominic Toretto.

Roman Pearce did not like Dominic Toretto in the least.

Roman Pearce wanted Dominic Toretto gone, the sooner the better. He hadn't felt such an intense dislike for anybody since the day he'd met Brian's first girlfriend, that unfaithful little bitch. He just... he couldn't stand the man.

He didn't like the way Toretto had maneuvered them so the only free chair at the table was right beside him, but the bastard had done it so smoothly that the only countermove Rome could come up with had been to plant himself on the other side, so Brian ended up between them. Toretto had pretended not to notice, and that was another thing about him that rubbed Rome the wrong way: that whole perfectly-in-control, too-cool-for-his-boots attitude the man wore so well. Nothing and nobody seemed to faze Dominic Toretto; he carried himself with such an easy self-confidence everybody around him just automatically seemed to defer to his authority. Even Cole O'Connor had accepted him without so much as a bark. Not to speak of Brian, whose IQ must've dropped a good fifty points the moment he'd laid eyes on Toretto.

Rome had known Dominic must be a pretty exceptional character since he'd first heard his friend talk about the man. It wasn't so much what Brian said (because that really hadn't been a lot), but the way his voice softened and his eyes grew distant whenever he did mention his time with Dom and 'the team'. Brian felt something for the ugly ex-con, that was painfully evident, and the fact that more than half a year apart had done nothing to dull the feeling made Rome very uncomfortable.

It wasn't jealousy exactly that made him so miserable, though he was honest enough to admit it did play a not inconsiderable role. Brian was his. They'd hit it off instantly the day they'd first met and their friendship had been the one constant in Rome's life ever since. Even when he'd felt betrayed by Brian because - all right, mostly because Brian had chosen a different path growing up than he had - he'd always known that when he needed him, Brian would be there, no matter what.

It was a rare thing, to find a friend like that.

Brian and Rome had always been able to bicker and argue and occasionally duke it out like rowdy kids, and yet never to lose sight of what was important. Brian had been the one who'd taken care of Rome's last baby tooth by knocking it out; he'd been Rome's only ally against Chuck Travis and his gang when they were teenagers and Rome one of the few black kids in his neighborhood; hell, they'd even got to know each other in the biblical sense for a while there. Brian was precious to Rome. And Dom... Dom was trespassing, big time.

How the man had managed to get under Brian's shields like that was beyond Rome. No one else had ever gotten this far; no one. Rome had seen the results when he'd reunited with his friend in Miami. He'd always thought of Brian as damn near indestructible. The man was almost too handsome for his own good... and he knew it. A number of ugly incidents in his late teens had taught him to be careful whom to trust and given him a thick skin; while he happily flirted with everything on two legs, Brian was cautious when it came to emotional attachments. Toretto must've blindsided him; whatever had been going on between those two had gone deep. It had changed Brian. It had hurt him. Rome didn't like to see his brother hurt. Consequently, Rome didn't like Dominic Toretto.

He observed with an eagle's eye as Dom rescued the last tuna sandwich for Brian and handed it over and felt something inside twist anxiously when he saw their fingers touch ever-so-slightly. So that's what it was. Damn. He'd already suspected Brian had fallen for his mark, but had hoped they could make it through this without any more major emotional damage. However, if Toretto was interested too, things looked different. The son of a bitch had better be looking for something permanent, because if he believed he was gonna get away with a wham-bam-thank-you-man type of relationship he was in for one hell of a surprise.

Brian bit into his sandwich and moaned ecstatically.

Dom watched him with a grin.

Rome wondered if it was too late to bury the bald bastard out in the backyard and salt the earth that covered his grave.


Part Three: Howling with the Wolves


Chapter Seven

Things were looking up.

Dom and Brian were slowly but surely getting their shit together, Vince had finally decided he might just survive without MTV, Ben was gradually thawing out, and Brian's dad knew the coolest stories Leon had heard in a long time. Now if they could only get that Rome guy to unwind and stop eying Dom as if he were the Antichrist, their stay at the Double C might actually be fun.

In all honesty, Leon had to admit he was a bit tired of playing den mother. He hadn't had a break since Dom had returned from Lompoc and the constant vigilance was starting to wear him down. A man could only be even-tempered and supportive for so long. In other words: Leon was in dire need of a vacation.

The past two weeks had provided a chance to get their feet back under them and they all had seized the opportunity and taken it easy. For the first time in much too long, they allowed themselves to simply let go. Even Dom, who'd been hanging on by a thread, was visibly relaxing now that he was close to Brian again. He'd had one serious relapse when he'd seen the pitiful wreck of what had once been a sleek, black Supra in the garage - probably due to realizing just how close Brian had skirted death yet again - but working on the car calmed him down bit by bit. It would've helped if Roman Pearce hadn't stuck to Brian like a second shadow, but despite Rome's naturally abrasive personality, Leon strongly advised Dom to cut him some slack.

"Dude's just worried about his homie, bro," he'd told Dom when the other man had slammed into the kitchen with a thunderous scowl on his face yet again. "You're trespassing on his turf. Play nice."

Amazingly enough, Dom paid attention to his words and did his best to hold his temper in check. It helped that Leon and Ben teamed up to keep Vince busy and out of the way, seeing as he tended to put his foot in it whenever he got close to Brian. Poor Vince had no idea of how to handle the man now that it was common knowledge that yes, he'd been a cop, and yes, he'd lied to them, but no, he hadn't betrayed them, and no, he hadn't even tried to take Dom away from them. Worse, Vince owed Brian his life, and he took his debts seriously. So he tried to be nice. It was quite an experience, given that he still didn't really like Brian and didn't have much practice making amends either.

Ben tried to teach Vince how to ride and take care of a horse, mainly because he and Leon had a running bet about how long it'd take until Vince caved and admitted that he was scared shitless of anything four-legged that was larger than a cat. So far they weren't making much headway; Vince might be terrified, but he was stubborn, too. Leon considered it 'male bonding time' and took great pleasure in pestering him.

The Double C wasn't an extremely large ranch, but it was notably bigger than the farm Leon's uncle had owned and where he'd spent several summers before his mother moved to LA when he was fourteen. Apparently, the land had belonged to the O'Connors for a long time, but it was desert land, harsh and unforgiving, and it had taken three generations of pure doggedness to turn a shack in the middle of the devil's playground into a prospering ranch. It was the horses, Cole O'Connor told them one evening after dinner. Brian's grandfather Cain and his grandmother Christine - hence the 'Double C' - had raised a special breed of Quarter Horses, tough and strong and every bit as tenacious as their owners.

Brian's father hadn't had much interest in the family business at first; he'd joined the Army instead. Six years later, he'd met First Lieutenant Rosita Ramirez. He married her two months later and returned to Arizona with her.

"If I'd known my eldest would pay me back by joining the damn Marines, I might've waited a mite longer," he grumbled with a glare at Ben.

"Why ain't I surprised?" Leon grinned. It certainly explained why 'cowboy' was most definitely not the first vibe he'd gotten from the man.

Ben glanced up from his cards. He was sitting at the big dining room table, playing poker with Vince, Brian and Dom, but must've been listening in on their conversation, because he shoved up his right sleeve to reveal the Semper Fidelis tattoo on his biceps and smirked. "I reckon this might've been a clue."

"Nah," Brian smirked. He winked at Leon. "I think it was your new bumper sticker. The Oorah! It's a Marine Thing one."

His brother's reply wasn't fit for polite company, but nevertheless immediately filed away for future use by all the men present.

"Remind me to throttle Matt when he gets here," Ben grumbled.

"Hey, leave me outta this." Brian picked up another card, pulled a face, and stole one of Dom's peanuts. "He's your husband."

"They're not married!" yelled Cole from the couch. "They're just partners!"

"Yeah, and I'm butt-ugly," his youngest shot back.

Dom smiled. "I've seen worse butts."

Brian batted his eyelashes and cooed. "Aww, you say the sweetest things!" He stole another peanut. "You're also gonna crash and burn, buster. I wanna see."

Leon thought about the simple silver band around Ben's right ring finger.

This was turning out to be quite an interesting family.

"Okay, so what's the story behind Ben and this Matt guy?"

Rome looked up from where he was working on the heavily dented car door and blinked, obviously surprised to find himself face to face with Vince all of a sudden. Vince dropped his tired ass onto a small stack of tires and raised an eyebrow expectantly. He didn't give a damn about the big guy's attitude problems; his primary objective at the moment was to lay low until Leon got bored searching for him and cleaned that big black ogre of a horse himself. Thinking about big black ogres had spawned the ingenious idea that nobody would look for him in the vicinity of Mr. Roman Pearce, so here he was.

"I don't think that's any of your business," Pearce growled, but his scowl could've been deeper and the anger in his voice didn't sound too serious.

Heartily unimpressed by the unfriendly reception, Vince stretched his legs and popped his back, grunting with satisfaction at the resounding crack of his vertebrae slipping back into position. "It's not," he acknowledged easily. "I'm just interested."

Astonishingly enough, that was the truth. Brian's family was a weird bunch, harder to figure out than he'd expected. He'd seen the way Dom looked at Brian, and the way Brian looked back, and he suspected that sooner or later they would cross the line and hurtle remorselessly into queer territory. Now, while Vince couldn't care less if those two danced the horizontal mambo or not, such a change in their relationship would mean that he was probably going to be stuck with Brian for good. If he had to share his family, he wanted to know what made the kid tick. Ben wasn't exactly a wellspring of information, you didn't talk about stuff like that with somebody's daddy, so the only source of information left was Pearce.

Growing up around Dominic Toretto had honed Vince's radar for serious barks and pretend barks. He didn't have the feeling that Pearce was usually such a bear; the man struck him as a guy who tended to be a lot more animated and vocal than he'd been during the past two weeks. It was just a hunch, but Vince had always had good instincts and he'd learned to trust them. Hey, he'd been right about Brian, too, hadn't he?

"Why the sudden interest?" Pearce asked, guardedly.

Bingo. The guy might not be delighted about the company or the topic, but he was willing to talk. He probably needed some non-argumentative human contact after his self-imposed isolation from the newcomers and his surrogate family. The question was, how honest should Vince be? He shrugged mentally. It wasn't like he was about to blather out any secrets; he was reasonably sure Pearce had seen the same things Vince had noticed and hadn't liked them any better.

"Maybe I just wanna make sure the old man's not gonna disown Brian or whatever when something happens."

Those strong fingers clenched around the metal tightly at that, then Pearce exhaled slowly, deeply, and carefully put his work down. "Aw, shit, man. So you think it's a 'when' and not an 'if', too."

Vince recalled the past months; Dom's voice shouting Brian's name in the middle of the night, frantic, miserable, impassioned; Dom touching that damn Supra as if he could somehow reach Brian through his car; Dom drifting through life like a piece of shattered china until they went to Arizona and he saw Brian again. He thought about how Brian had always reacted to Dom, leaning towards him like a tree towards the sun; the softening in his eyes when he looked at Dom; the way those two were able to talk without a word, their bodies attuned to each other so they even recognized the other's footfalls from afar.

He lifted his gaze to Pearce's and saw the same look in the man's eyes that had to be in his own. It made him sigh. So much for hoping he'd imagined things. "You tell me."

He hadn't thought it possible, but that handsome face could scowl even worse than it had before. "Yeah, I think you're right," Pearce ground out, none-too-happy. "It's only a matter of time. I've never seen Bri so stupid over somebody. And I've seen him be plenty stupid." He waved a hand dismissively. "Cole ain't gonna kick him out or anything. He'll just bitch a lot and call woe to the world."

"You sure about that?" Vince wiggled until he could lean against the wall with his ass still comfortably pillowed by the tires. He couldn't help but remember the rising and falling tension between Brian and his father. "They do argue a lot."

Pearce snorted at this, unable to suppress a quick grin. "Brian's the baby of the family; he's six years younger than Ben and takes after his grandma. Ben looks more like their ma. Cole always half-figured Brian had to be gay, because of his looks."

Vince almost lost his balance and had to flail his arms to keep upright. He laughed helplessly. "I bet that went over well."

White teeth flashed in Rome's dark face as he finally let the grin slip out. "Why d'you think Bri and me got into so much trouble? Poor boy needed to vent. Ben tried to negotiate between Brian and Cole, but after a while he gave up." He sniggered. "Man, you should'a seen Cole's face when he joined the Marines. I swear that stunt was his way of showing his disapproval."

"The guy a masochist or something?" Vince asked, incredulous. Dear God. Joining the Marines just to spite old dad? The man must've fallen off his horse a couple of times too often. "So what happened?"

Giving up on the pretense of disinterest, Rome crossed his legs and got more comfortable, settling in for a good long gossip session. "Ben fell in love, that's what happened."

"With this Matt guy?" Vince clarified.

"You wanna tell the story?" Rome asked sternly. He waited until Vince made an impatient sorry-now-get-on-with-it gesture, then continued. "I got no idea what Matt used to do... dude was Spec Ops. Green Berets. Delta Force, I don't know. Ben's a sniper, I figure that's how they ended up working together. Something happened - don't know what, shit's classified - and Ben ended up hurt bad. Bri said he was in a coma for a week. He got a medal for it, and an honorable discharge. We didn't even know about it until he arrived at the ranch with Matt in tow. Three weeks later, they announce at the dinner table that Matt's gonna leave the service, too, and that he and Ben are a couple." He chuckled. "Rosita didn't so much as blink, Brian just about laughed his ass off, and Cole freaked."

That didn't sound promising. Vince's skepticism must've shown on his face, because Rome hurried to reassure him.

"It's fine, brah. The man just can't get over the fact that it was Ben who turned out to be gay. Probably still waiting for somebody to tell him it was a joke."

Seeing the sparkle in Rome's eyes, a reluctant grin stretched Vince's mouth. "Not gonna happen, huh?"

"Not in this lifetime." Rome smiled. "They've been together for... what?... five years now?... and they're still crazy for each other. Completely gone. This is, like, it for them. They clicked. Kinda like-" He hesitated; his face hardened.

Damn it. Vince closed his eyes and rubbed his face, the familiar rough rasp of stubble against his palms calming him somewhat.

"Don't say it."

"I wasn't going to," Rome snapped, his good mood evaporated.

"But you thought it."

"I'm not blind, okay?" The irritation in the man's voice was almost tangible. "I know Bri. I don't know Toretto, but he's not exactly subtle, right? They've got it bad; I've only ever seen that kinda pull between four people: Cole and Rosita... and Ben and Matt."

"Fuck," Vince muttered, defeated.

"Yeah," Rome agreed. They shared a somber look. "Exactly."


Chapter Eight

Matt Johnson arrived at the Double C two days later in a dust-coated van that made the racers among the welcome-committee sniff in disgust. Ben shot them a glare that could've peeled paint off the wall and went to greet his partner, looking cool and collected as always. No hurry there. No sign of any kind of emotional upheaval. In a moment, they were gonna shake hands and make polite small talk.

"Wait for it," Brian muttered. "Three. Two. One..."

Matt's arms came up and around Ben's shoulders as he pulled the shorter man into a hug that made the couple's forms melt together in the muted evening twilight. Two dark heads tilted towards each other, then connected at the lips and didn't move apart for a long time.

Brian nodded in satisfaction. "Houston, we have lift off," he declared, turned around and walked back into the house to finish the guacamole.

"Damn it," grumbled Cole. "There they go again."

Rome laughed at his exasperation. "What, you still not used to it?"

He headed back to the grill to check on the fire, followed by Vince, whose stomach was rumbling loudly. Dom was about to join the two - he wasn't stupid enough to go anywhere near Brian while the man was fighting willful avocados - when he realized that Leon wasn't with him. He stopped, looked back, and blinked. Leon stood on the first step, mesmerized by the sight of Ben and Matt still kissing.

Shaking his head in amusement, Dom dropped a heavy hand on Leon's shoulder, spun him around and pointed him towards the back porch. "Go set the table, Leon. Your mama never teach you it isn't polite to stare?"

"Aww, c'mon, dawg!" Leon complained, craning his head to look over his shoulder. "I gotta get used to the sight sooner or later! There's no way I'm gonna make like a tomato every time you and Brian suck face!"

Dom stopped abruptly. So Leon had caught on. Well, good, he'd been blatant enough in his wooing. He'd wanted to make his intentions clear from the start to see how everybody would react, if there'd be trouble or protests from any corner. The only one who'd made his disapproval known had been Rome, but even he hadn't done more than bitch bitterly and bring up former love interests of Brian's at every opportunity. Leon's crude comment was his way of stating his support, and Dom was grateful for it. Kind of.

"Couldn't think of a less charming way to say that, huh?"

"I could." Leon freed himself with a twist and straightened majestically. "Didn't want to scar you, is all."

Blanching at the immediate flood of alternative turns of phrase, Dom decided he didn't want to know. "Thanks for the restraint," he said, then added, just to make sure, "So you won't have a problem with me and Brian?"

A shudder ran through Leon's rangy body. "'s long as you promise you won't fuck on the kitchen table. Caught my aunt Marie at that once... thought I'd go blind. I still have nightmares about it."

Dom's roar of laughter made everybody's heads turn and Ben and Matt stop kissing and walk towards the house to join the others in the dinner preparations.

Somehow, Dom didn't think they'd be overly focused.

Dinner, as always in the O'Connor household, was a chaotic affair. Eight hungry men and one medium sized table made for a bad combination, so someone was always up to fetch food, beer, or paper towels. Rome kept an eye on the grill, which made Dom twitchy because he considered the guarding of the fire his job. Brian and Leon were positively entrenched at one end of the table, discussing the modifications of Dom's Chevy. Vince leaned against the porch rail, chewing on a chicken drumstick, his scars gleaming in the firelight, and tried to convince Cole that horses were outdated and the future belonged to the car. Cole wasn't convinced. Ben and Matt sat side by side, their shoulders brushing occasionally. They were quiet, but the air around them was heavy with anticipation.

Matt was a tall man with a warm smile and dark chocolate-brown eyes. In contrast to Ben he looked very much like a cowboy, in a ruggedly handsome, Marlboro Man kind of way. Friendly and outgoing, he had no trouble fitting into the strange new crowd he'd encountered upon his arrival. He didn't so much as frown when Vince criticized his choice of car, just stated calmly that it suited his needs. When Dom looked at the van again, he remembered the powerful rumble of the engine and suddenly thought of the black vans he'd seen S.W.A.T. use. He made a mental note to ask Brian later just what Matt and Ben did for a living.

The barbeque was a total success. They'd gotten comfortable with each other and conversation flowed easily. Dom didn't even notice that he and Brian were sharing a Corona until he had to slap his friend's arm to get his bottle back. Brian took one last swallow, handed over the beer, and went right back to his squabble with Leon. The man had no sense of self-preservation. It was almost scary. Not even Mia was brave enough to get between Dom and his Corona. Brooding over Brian's death-defying habits, Dom's contemplations were cut off when the object of his worry nudged him again and started to pull on his bottle. He let go of it, watched the amber liquid spill down through the long bottle neck and disappear between Brian's parted lips, and came to the conclusion that he didn't mind sharing after all.

The sun had long gone down by the time the last tortilla chip was crunched and the last bit of steak polished off. The men sat for a while longer and talked before they got up and carried the dishes into the kitchen. Vince, Brian and Leon pulled the short straws and had to do the dishes. As expected, they tried to weasel out of it by pointing out the inordinate amount of work each of them had invested in the creation of the dinner. Also as expected, their arguments fell upon the deaf ears of five people who were extremely determined not to get suckered. Rome and Ben went to take care of the horses since the two ranch hands were spending the night out in the back corral with a pregnant mare, and Matt and Cole disappeared into Cole's study to have a look at some paperwork. Dom grabbed his half-empty bottle of Corona and went back outside.

It was a beautiful night; but then, he mused, most nights seemed to be beautiful out in the desert. You got so used to the smog in LA, you didn't even notice it anymore. Dom had learned to appreciate the sparkle of starlight and when he looked up and took in the glittering expanse of endless sky stretching into eternity above him, a strange tightness clutched at his heart. This was where Brian had grown up. The wild, wide country around him had formed the man he'd come to love. He recognized elements of this land in the character of his friend, and it filled him with awe and a little worry, because his own background was so different from Brian's. He'd always thought of himself as pretty tough, but now he was starting to wonder if he could really match the true grit that was such an essential part of the other man's being.

Even their beliefs were poles apart. Dom had been raised Catholic, and while he didn't go to church every Sunday, he was used to the small rituals he'd grown up with, like saying grace. The O'Connors didn't say grace. Dom hadn't seen a single cross in the main building, or any hint of a religious background. It was a bit weird, given that Rosita O'Connor was of Mexican-American descent. As far as he could tell, religion wasn't even a topic in this house, and yet no one had batted an eye when Dom had started to give a quick Thank You before each meal. They just took it in stride, like Brian had when he'd first been invited into Dom's family.

During the past two weeks, he'd gotten to know the real Brian O'Connor and he was at once so similar and so unlike the Brian Dom had met in LA, it made his head spin. Even his accent had changed, carried more than just a hint of a Southwestern twang now. Familiar, yet unfamiliar. It was as if he was seeing two pictures of Brian at the same time; like a badly manipulated photograph. There was the cocky kid with the laid-back, hey-dude surfer mentality, and the more mature man he'd seen peeking through on occasion even back then, especially towards the end; harder, a little jaded even, steel and carefully controlled passion in his eyes. Which one was the true Brian? Dom couldn't tell yet, but he realized he wanted more than anything to find out.

He didn't know how long he stood there, staring into the night, but the moon was already on the rise when the door opened and a slice of warm light cut through the shadows beneath the wooden overhang. Dom looked over his shoulder and frowned a little when he recognized Brian's father. Cole O'Connor slipped out of the light into the darkness and closed the door behind him softly, then moved across the porch with the sureness of someone who knows his surroundings so well he can navigate them blind.

Clothes rustling softly, the older man leaned against the rail next to Dom and joined him in his contemplation of the desert. "Beautiful, isn't it?" he asked quietly.

"Yes, it is," Dom agreed, a thread of tension working its way into his backbone and spreading out from there. Something was up.

"Brian's beautiful, too, isn't he?" O'Connor said, his tone still mild.

Alarms went off in Dom's mind until his head was ringing with the clamor. Outwardly unruffled, he stared fixedly at the black silhouette of a Saguaro cactus that stood like a spiny sentinel just beyond the O'Connors' yard. "Yes, he is," he replied simply.

O'Connor nodded pensively. "Thought you'd noticed." He was silent for a while, seemingly engrossed in the view. Dom's guts twisted nervously. Finally, when he was about ready to scream, Cole spoke again. "I've always lectured my boys not to judge people by the way they look or speak, or their gender. I told them to get to know a person and form their own opinion, to trust their instincts." He chuckled softly. "Should've known they'd use the same guidelines to choose their partner."

Oh, great. Was this the part where the old man told him that if Dom broke Brian's heart, Cole would break his neck?

"Do you regret teaching your kids to be so open-minded?" Dom asked, surprised by how calm he sounded.

Sharp blue eyes, slate gray in the moonlight, flashed up at him in annoyance. "Don't be stupid, boy. Of course I don't regret the way I raised my sons. They were my pride and joy from the day they were born and they've turned into men I'm proud to call kin."

A few of the knots that twisted Dom's insides eased at that declaration. He wasn't certain what to make of this talk yet, but at least he hadn't driven a wedge between Brian and his father. "So what's the problem here, sir?" He could hear a thread of irritation twining through his voice and toned it down with an effort. "Brian's old enough to make his own decisions. If he doesn't want me, I'll accept that. If he does-"

"-he'll place his heart and soul into your hands, Dominic Toretto," Cole said roughly. "Like my father did with my mother. Like I did with Rosita and Ben did with Matt. It's our way. The O'Connor way. If we find someone to love, we don't back out and don't back down, ever. Ben surprised me by falling for a man, but he chose wisely. Matt's a good person. He's been through some ugly stuff, but he has a big heart and he loves Ben more than anything."

Taken aback by the sudden fierceness of the normally unflappable man, Dom couldn't think of anything to say. The fine little hairs at the back of his neck rose in apprehension.

Cole turned and faced him abruptly. "Ben and Matt live in Los Angeles," he said, thoroughly confusing Dom with this seeming non sequitur. Things got clearer quickly. "They own a low-profile security service; handle pretty much everything from simple bodyguard jobs to freelance missions for the government. When you turned up here and I realized you were Brian's choice, I called Matt and asked him to check you out."

So that's what it felt like when your stomach dropped to your feet. Not a very pleasurable sensation, Dom found. Fighting to keep his face impassive, he crossed his arms and leaned against one of the wooded support posts.

"So what did he find out?"

He was prepared for hearing the long list of his misdemeanors or a recitation of his rap sheet, maybe even a recounting of the events that had led up to his meeting with Brian and everything that had happened then. Instead, Cole only said one thing, in a voice so determinedly not cracking that the stark fear that lay just beneath the hard tone cut through Dom like a razor.

"You have one hell of a temper."

The air left Dom's lungs in one long, drawn-out hiss that tasted like relief and anger. He closed his eyes for a moment, getting a grip on his emotions, then very gently and very quietly mounted his defense.

"Don't you think that if I'd ever lose my control with Brian, it would've happened when I found out he'd lied to me from the get-go?" He shook his head, hating the memories and welcoming them at the same time. "I hadn't felt so much fury and pain since the day I saw my father die, you know. I thought I'd explode. He stared at me the entire time he made the call that saved Vince's life and tore apart my world."

God, it still hurt. He'd dreamed about it; Brian kneeling in the dry grass, covered in blood, looking frantic and scared and yet incredibly steady and dependable at the same time. Brian had known about Dom's temper. He'd seen the files, he'd heard Dom talk about what had happened with Kenny Linder. But when he called 911 and identified himself as a police officer he didn't hesitate and his voice never wavered; he did what was necessary and trusted Dom not to do anything stupid.

"I was so mad at him and myself, I wanted to scream." He admitted it easily now, as he finally came to terms with it himself. "I wanted to howl, to curse, to smash something. But I never, not once, even thought about hurting Brian." A smile twitched around his lips, probably hidden in the shadows, but he let it out anyway. Who would've thought it? Leon had been right; sometimes, talking about it did help. "Can't say there weren't times though when I wanted to throttle him, or at least bop him one, for being a smart aleck or so goddamn smug."

Cole O'Connor stared at him for a long minute in absolute silence, and it felt as though the man was looking straight into Dom's soul despite the darkness. He must've found what he was looking for, because he relaxed gradually until he was leaning against the railing again.

"Guess we all felt that way at one time or another." He chuckled affectionately. "He's a good kid, but he can be a pain in the ass when he sets his mind to it."

Dom nodded wordlessly.

Brian's father sighed. "Well, let's give you a try. Just... do me one favor, Dominic. I'm still trying to digest that grandchildren are off the table. Try not to remind me about the nature of your relationship with my boy, all right?"

Dom's grin was so broad it almost hurt. "Deal, sir." He hesitated. "Does this mean I got your blessing?"

"It means I won't have Ben shoot you and feed your carcass to the vultures," Cole said dryly. "Don't push it."

"Yes, sir."

Life was good.


Chapter Nine

Brian was drying the last plate, swearing up and down that he was going to buy his parents a dishwasher at the next opportunity, when his father walked in, clapped him on the shoulder, and told him that maybe his judgment wasn't so bad after all. It took Brian almost a minute to decipher the meaning behind the innocuous comment. His dad had already left the kitchen again when illumination struck and Brian yelped and dropped the plate.

"Oh no. No, no, no. He didn't. He didn't!" He whirled around and glared at Ben and Rome who'd come running when they'd heard the crash and now stood in the doorway with matching puzzled faces. "Tell me he didn't!" Brian demanded.

"Didn't what?" Leon piped up.

"Didn't who?" Vince echoed.

Paying no attention to the two - because of everybody present, they were the only ones he knew were most likely innocent for a change - Brian homed in on his brother. "Did he tell Matt to run a background check on Dom? He told Matt to run a background check on Dom, didn't he?"

Ben at least had the decency to look a little guilty. Rome frowned for a second then his face lit up. "Cole had Toretto checked out? Outstanding! What's the verdict?"

Brian's indignation melted into a shit-eating grin. "Basically that I should go get him."

"Oh." Rome's face fell, only to brighten again when a different thought struck him. "Think he gave Toretto the 'be good to him or I'll feed your carcass to the vultures' speech?"

Brian froze again. "Goddamn it."

"Yep." Rome nodded sagely. "I think so, too."

Eyes wide, horror scenarios playing in his head about his dad giving Dom 'the talk', Brian shoved past him and made for the back door. Ben caught up with him when he came to a halt on the porch, desperately scanning the shadows for the familiar burly frame. His search was in vain; Dom was gone.

"Calm down, he's in the garage," Ben said with such an infuriatingly knowing smirk Brian wanted to smack him. It worked though. Brian's racing heartbeat slowed down as the unvoiced fear that he'd lost Dom again abated.

"How d'you know?" he asked grudgingly.

Ben moved out of reach surreptitiously. "Matt watched Dad and your friend from over there while they talked. Just a precaution."

'Over there' turned out to be the roof of the bunk house. Too far away for Dom to spot the watcher. Too far away to observe two people talking in the dark, too. The only way Matt could've made out anything from that distance at night was with night vision goggles... or a night scope.

"Just a precaution," Brian repeated slowly. "He didn't, by any chance, happen to have your Remington 700 up there with him, just in case?"

The only reply was a non-committal shrug that sent a shiver down Brian's spine.

He shook his head. "Ben, you're my brother and I love you very much, I really do... but sometimes, you scare the shit outta me, man."

His brother's chin dipped in a curt, accepting nod. "I saw the pictures in Dom's file," he said. It wasn't an apology - Ben had never felt the need to justify who and what he was - but it was an explanation. His eyes met Brian's and even in the dim light that fell through the half open door, the steel and the worry were impossible to miss. "If he ever lifts a hand against you, I'll personally put a bullet through his head." Ben's square jaws clenched briefly. "You can tell him that."

"Jesus Christ, Ben! What is it with you guys lately? First Dad gives him the third degree then my brother utters death threats. I thought you liked him!"

"I did." Ben turned his head away. "Then I saw them photos. I'm sorry, little bro. I know you can take care of yourself, but..." He raised his eyes to meet Brian's, his gaze full of fire and grim determination. "I won't let him hurt you. If I have to call every day and threaten him, it's more than worth the trouble if it keeps him from working you over with a goddamn wrench!"

"See?" Brian snapped, irritated and touched at the same time. "That's exactly why I didn't want y'all to get your fingers on his files. I've seen them, Ben. I know what he's capable of. But I also know why he did it, and the price he paid for it... is still paying. I know him. Sometimes it feels like I've known him forever." Unable to explain his feelings and annoyed by his inability to express himself, he ran a shaky hand through his hair. "He's a good man, Ben. Maybe he's not perfect, but then I'm not exactly an angel either. Not everybody can be as perfect as your Matt, y'know?"

Ben blinked, thought about it. Twice he started to say something, twice he snapped his mouth shut without voicing his opinion. Finally, he shifted uncomfortably.

"I never said he was perfect."

Brian rolled his eyes. "You make it sound like the old Devil Dog can all but walk on water. It's disgusting."

His criticism earned him a scowl. "Go check on your bulldog," Ben grumbled. "I have more important things to do than watch after your ungrateful ass."

"I know whose ass you'd rather watch," Brian chortled. He danced back, expertly evading the inevitable swat at his head, and grinned affectionately. "Go fuck your soldier boy. And... thanks. I appreciate the concern."

Damn if Ben didn't almost blush at that. "That's what brothers are for, aren't they?" He cleared his throat, did that little shift/shoulder-dip that qualified as fidgeting with him, then executed a perfect about-turn and headed back into the house. Just before he closed the door, he stopped and looked back over his shoulder. "Oh, one other thing. Matt dug into Toretto's medical records while he was at it. Your friend had a complete check-up and blood test done shortly before he came here. He's squeaky-clean. Lube's in your tool box. Have fun."

And with a shark's grin, he closed the door in a speechless Brian's face.

Dom stood in the moonlit garage and stared at the smooth, gleaming black hood of the car in front of him. The stillness of his body was a direct contrast to the whirlwind of emotion that tore him up inside, going round and round so fast he couldn't identify half of the feelings that kept him reeling and off balance.

His only haven in the storm was the wounded Supra. Its sleek lines and cool metal beauty provided an anchor, grounded him with the wordless promise of speed and power. Looking at the car, it felt almost like Brian was there, too, in spirit if not in flesh.

This was getting way too familiar.

Somehow, in his mind, the Toyota Supra had become inseparably connected with the man who'd haunted his dreams for so long now. Brian had given him the first one, still hidden away in his garage in Mexico, and now another Supra had brought them back together. It was a bit disconcerting, that he'd never be able to look at this specific type of car again without thinking of Brian.

His talk with Cole O'Connor had really thrown him for a loop. He'd known for a while now that he wanted Brian. He'd been aware that what he felt for the man went beyond friendship or lust, but the memory of the betrayal had been there in the background all the time. It had taken his own voice, recounting the events of that day, to make him see past the hurt to the one truth beneath: he'd never stopped trusting Brian. God help him, but even when every belief and illusion he'd carried had shattered around him, when everything had spun out of control so fast and so furious, his faith in Brian hadn't wavered.

He hadn't doubted Brian would do everything in his power to save Vince. The idea that Brian might shoot him had never entered his mind, not even with the man pointing a gun at him. He'd counted on Brian to hunt down Jesse's killers and bring them to justice. He'd known Officer O'Connor would do right by him, though he hadn't realized at first this would entail Brian letting him go.

He trusted Brian; and Brian trusted him.

It was quite the epiphany.

A squeak of rusty hinges, a shadow slipping through a ray of silvery light, then Brian was beside him, right where he belonged.

"My head hurts just from watching you think."

And as full of respect for sacred moments as always.

The sound of the familiar voice chased away the last of Dom's demons, and he almost groaned in relief when the invisible weight lifted off his shoulders. "I'm done thinking," he said quietly, turning to face his friend.

Brian looked like a fallen angel in the semi-darkness, all hard-edged beauty, unashamed pride, and raw, masculine sexuality. His lips parted, probably to let loose with yet another wisecrack, but something he saw in Dom's face stopped him short. His eyes widened; his jaw dropped just a little. His voice, when he finally found it again, was low and scratchy and just the tiniest bit uncertain.


It was nice, to see the usually so self-confident smartass thoroughly flustered for a change. Dom smiled, aware that the gesture lacked its normal teasing quality, and that it unsettled Brian even more. He couldn't help it. He'd never felt this way before. It was as if for the first time in his life, he was truly free. No cars involved; no ten second limit. Just him and Brian in a cluttered old garage in the middle of the Arizona desert, waiting to shape their future.

"I love you," he said, and then waited a beat. The sky didn't fall, the earth didn't open, and Brian didn't bolt. Wow. "I want you," he added, making use of the quiet while Brian was still stunned. "Sorry it took me so long to catch on."

If Brian was going to freak, he'd do it now. Dom was almost certain he'd read the signs right; he was almost positive Brian felt the same. This was the moment of truth, and, despite his newfound serenity, there was still that tendril of doubt coiled around his heart like a viper, filling him with dread. The words were out though, and the only thing left to do was wait and hope that their friendship could survive if he'd fucked up.

He needn't have worried. True to form, Brian didn't stay silent for long. He grinned, relaxed visibly, and found back to his usual cocky self with a quick shake of his head.

"This mean we can finally have sex now?"

Trust Brian to skip the sweet talk and get right to the point.

"I wouldn't want to disrespect you like that," Dom deadpanned. "Now that I got your dad's permission to court you, I thought I'd take you to dinner and a movie. Maybe kiss you goodnight at the door."

"Not funny," Brian growled, and then he was right there in Dom's personal space, closer than ever before, his body hot and solid against Dom's, his breath a shivery caress on Dom's skin, his lips meeting Dom's for the first time.

Once again, Brian surprised him. He'd expected the kid to kiss the way he'd approached; bold, fast, hard. He hadn't imagined the kiss would be slow and deep instead, wrought with a tenderness and passion that almost made his knees buckle. Brian's tongue slipped between Dom's lips like it belonged there, then proceeded to familiarize itself with the layout of Dom's mouth, staking its claim. It tasted like beer and tabasco sauce and Brian, a flavor that shot immediately to the top of Dom's favorites list.

Yet even in the midst of this soul-searing kiss, Dom couldn't help but smile at the mixed signals Brian sent. He was trying so hard to appear brash and in control, unaffected by Dom's words, but every movement he made, every gentle, reverent touch betrayed his turmoil and emotions. He'd wrap his arms aggressively around Dom's neck; then stroke Dom's head like a piece of precious treasure. He'd push one leg between Dom's thighs; then press and rub it so carefully against Dom's erection that Dom wanted to scream in frustration. He'd thrust his tongue almost into Dom's throat; then bring it back brushing along the roof of his mouth soft as a feather.

It was maddening. It was also hot as hell. It made Dom itch to get them both out of their clothes and horizontal... or maybe just up against any convenient support, so he could properly ravish the intriguing bundle of contradictions in his arms. Brian must've had the same thought, because he pulled back reluctantly and started to tug on Dom's T-shirt. "Get it off," he ordered, in such a hungry, husky tone that Dom's already half-hard cock came to full attention in a flash.

"You too," he demanded, already pulling the garment over his head. He didn't have to ask twice; Brian's tee hit the floor a second after his.

Dom stopped for a moment to admire the picture. It wasn't that he'd never seen Brian bare-chested - the man had never been shy to take off his shirt when he got hot or didn't want to get oil or grease on a particular outfit - but it was the first time Dom allowed himself to enjoy the view. What he could see of it in the semi-darkness of the garage, that was. He frowned. Damn it. He didn't really want to turn on the lights, because the harsh neon brightness would strip the magic off this encounter and he didn't want that.

"What?" Brian asked, sensing the slight change in Dom's mood and reacting to it. "What's wrong? Don't like what you see?"

"That's just it," Dom rumbled in frustration. "I can't see a fucking thing. It's too damn dark in here."

The relieved sigh that drifted through the air almost made him smile again. "Hell, man, if that's all..."

The ethereal creature made of mother-of-pearl and shadows moved, passing by Dom to make its way towards the work benches in the back of the shed. A thud, a curse, a click, then both men blinked in the sudden warm glow of a small lamp clamped into the jaws of one of the big vises. The lamp shade was a curious thing made of stained glass in various hues of amber, and the resultant vision of something akin to a golden halo around Brian made Dom's breath hitch.

Unaware of the effect the play of light had on Dominic, Brian turned around with an apologetic shrug. "Sorry 'bout the kitschy lamp. My mother's good at improvising, but..." The sentence trailed off when Brian finally paid attention to the look in Dom's eyes. " now?"

"Sex now," Dom agreed, happily saying goodbye to his higher brain functions for the time being. "C'mere."

He didn't have to ask twice. Brian toed off his sneakers and stalked back across the garage before the last syllable had left Dom's mouth. He grabbed an old blanket from a chair, dropped it on the ground beside the Supra, and started to pop open the buttons of his jeans. "What're you still doing over there?" he asked, more than a trace of impatience ringing through.

"Getting a free show, apparently," Dom noted dryly, then stepped over the tool box that had almost felled Brian on his way to the work benches and joined his friend on the blanket. "Let me do this," he whispered.

And just like that, Brian's hands fell away and six foot one of independent spirit gave himself over into his care without a second's hesitation.

Brian had thought he'd seen sexy when he'd turned around after lighting the lamp and stared at the sculpted body of Dominic Toretto waiting for him at the edge between light and darkness, every line and angle of his torso standing out in stark relief and those dark, dark eyes looking at him with enough hunger to almost make him gasp.

He had to retract his verdict when Dom sank to his knees in front of him and unbuttoned his fly, then gave him a look so full of... love? desire? devotion? ...that a sharp pain of need and longing stabbed through his heart. God, he loved this man. He'd wanted Dom from the first glimpse he'd gotten at that beautiful body, but by now he wouldn't have cared if Dom had turned into the hunchback of Notre Dame. This was Dom. His Dom. His friend, his nemesis, his partner. There was no turning back now; he'd been caught, mind, body, and soul.

Suddenly weak-kneed, he stumbled back a half step, bumped against the smooth body of the car, and sat down on the cool metal frame rather abruptly. Dom's stare lost none of its intensity. Strong fingers tugged on the waistband of Brian's jeans, snagging his cotton briefs, too, and pulled both of them over his hips, down his thighs, and off.

Naked now and feeling more vulnerable than he had in a long time, Brian reached out to put his hands on Dom's head. He rubbed his palms over the short, soft bristle of hair, following the contours of the man's skull, then framed the beloved face in his hands and leaned down to press a kiss to those tempting lips. Tabasco. Beer. Dom. So good.

Dom's hands were all over him, touching, stroking, exploring. A thumb rubbed over his left nipple, sent a tingle right down to his groin. Five fingertips feathered over his back, made gooseflesh rise in their wake. They skimmed over his skin until it felt tight and sensitized almost to the point of pain. He tore away from Dom's mouth with a desperate intake of breath. Dom, the bastard, promptly lowered his head and licked the tip of his straining erection, almost causing him to come on the spot.

Obviously pleased with the tiny mewl of desire Brian couldn't suppress, Dom put a hand on each of his lover's thighs and pushed them further apart, then went to work on Brian's weeping cock. He licked. He kissed. He sucked. He-

The back of Brian's head hit the hood of the Supra with a resounding clang, but that wasn't what made him see stars. Where in blazes had Dom learned to do that?

And then. The son-of-a-bitch. Stopped.

He stopped.

Scrambling up onto his elbows with a wince at a twinge of not-quite-pain from his arm, Brian glared down the length of his body at the motherfucking tease between his thighs and helplessly searched for the words to vocalize his frustration.

"You stopped! Don't stop!"

The bastard's head jerked up. His eyes were slightly glazed and hot as burning coals. "What?"

So beautiful. So incredibly, breathtakingly, heartbreakingly beautiful. No. Wait. Not a chance. Brian was not going to be distracted this time. He was hurting. He was on fire. He needed to come so badly he wanted to howl.

"Don't fuck with me, Dom. I'm about ready to explode!"

"But I want to," Dom said quietly.

He wanted what? "You want what?"

"I want to fuck you."



An interrupted blowjob obviously made for a cranky Brian. Filing this information away for future ribbing, Dom focused on the sight before him. It was spectacular. Brian was sprawled out on his back on the hood of the Supra, his tawny body shimmering like gold against the gleaming black metal background. He was panting, sweaty, and undulating slightly; his eyes all but glowed in the lamplight. Beautiful. Magnificent. Absolutely fuckable.

It was almost physically painful for Dom to pull away, and, judging from the small sound of distress from the direction of the car, he wasn't the only one who didn't like losing the contact.

"Need some slick," he explained roughly.

He didn't dare look at Brian, because he didn't trust himself. No way was he going to do this without properly preparing his partner. He still had nightmares about a rape he'd witnessed in Lompoc; he never, ever wanted to be responsible for causing Brian pain like that. He was about to start searching for the axle-grease they'd used on the Supra, when Brian made a sound somewhere between a growl and a chuckle.

"Try my toolbox."

Dom opened the box, picked up the tube of AstroGlide, and turned back to Brian. For a few heartbeats he simply stood there and soaked up the sight of Brian O'Connor touching himself leisurely, legs spread wide in invitation, then he raised an eyebrow and the lube.

"Did you plan this?"

Brian sighed and let go of his cock to snatch the tube from Dom's hand and open it quickly. "Can we please not talk about this?" he muttered. "As in: never?"

"Uh huh." Dom held out his hand for Brian to squeeze some of the slick gel onto his fingers. "I'm curious. How come you keep this stuff in your toolbox? And why didn't I find it before?"

He rubbed his hands briefly to warm the lube up a little, then fondled Brian's balls before sliding his fingers down to the rosy pucker beyond.

"Wasn't there before," Brian gasped. His hand was back at his cock, squeezing and pumping it gently. "And I didn't put it there either." He shifted when a slick finger pressed into him. "Ahhhh... yesssss..."

Dom's breath came faster now despite his efforts to regulate his breathing. The sensation of the strong ring of muscle constricting around his finger made him break out in fresh sweat.

"Who... who did?" he asked, determined to keep Brian distracted. He could tell from the way his friend shifted on top of the Supra that the other man wasn't too happy about the penetration. It must've been a while since Brian had done this; he was so tight and sensitive that Dom couldn't help adding, "Please tell me you're not a virgin."

"Ben." Brian sighed and visibly forced himself to relax and take more of Dom's fingers. "My meddling... aahhh... anal retentive... ohhhh, God... probably clairvoyant brother. Deeper. C'mon, I'm fine, I can take it! ... He sends his regards. ... And no, I'm not a fucking virgin. Do I look like a fucking virgin?"

No, he most certainly didn't. From a strictly objective point of view, Dom thought, Brian looked wanton, aroused, and exceptionally eager. There wasn't even a hint of trepidation in his eyes. Then again, Dom had seen the man look afraid only once before, and that had been after their last race when Dom had had that unplanned close encounter of the eighteen-wheeled kind. Brian generally didn't seem to spend much time worrying about himself.

Two fingers. Three fingers. Brian took it and demanded more, fearless and passionate as always. He wasn't a very vocal lover, but his body was so open and receptive to every touch and every caress that Dom wondered if he'd died and gone to heaven. When he lined up his cock and slowly, steadily sheathed himself in Brian's body, his own moans drowned out the harsh pants of his friend's breathing.

Brian's back bowed, the back of his head banging against the hood once again with an audible 'thunk'. He didn't seem to mind. Dom cursed breathlessly, fighting for control as those long, strong legs wrapped around his waist and pulled him closer and closer, until he was buried completely in the quivering heat. He steadied himself with one hand at Brian's hip, tried to calm both of them by gently stroking the taut skin of his lover's flat stomach. His gaze traveled up the arched body as he committed the sight to memory; the ridges and smooth, almost hairless planes of Brian's belly and chest; the rigid nubs of his nipples, just begging to be rubbed and tweaked and licked; the symmetrical curves of his collar bones; the perfect arc of the stretched neck and bared throat; and that angelic face, even more beautiful in the haze of sexual bliss.

Deceptively slender fingers clawed at the shiny black coat of the car, scrabbling for purchase on a flawlessly glossy surface that didn't offer any. Taking pity, Dom caught one of the flailing hands in his and intertwined their fingers. It gave Brian the grounding he seemed to need. With a deep, hitching sigh, he closed his eyes and loosened his death clutch around Dom's hips.

It was as close to surrender as it got with Brian.

Unable to restrain himself any longer, Dom let his pelvis roll forward in a slow, powerful shove. Brian smiled. Dom moved back until only the head of his cock remained in Brian's body. The drag of damp, satiny tissue against his sensitized penis made him cry out hoarsely and slam back into Brian hard. He froze. Brian grinned.

"Do that again," he breathed, his voice so deep and ragged with pleasure it made Dom's bones thrum.

One, two experimental thrusts, and they'd found their rhythm. It was so easy, with Brian. Work, play, or sex... it didn't seem to matter with them, they complemented each other perfectly.

Reduced to feeling, to the raw essence of sensation, Dom's world narrowed down to the zings and throbs of ecstasy coursing through his being; to the sounds and smells and tastes that were all Brian. The smooth, almost painfully sweet cadence of his cock sliding in and out of what felt suspiciously like paradise became as compulsory and familiar as the beating of their hearts. When he leaned down and kissed and licked Brian's skin and lips, his mouth filled with a salty, spicy tang that somehow reminded him of the wild country that had formed the man before him. The pressure of Brian's fingers tightening around his own in counterpoint to his thrusts was a constant pulse of sensation at the periphery of his perception; strangely enough it felt almost more intimate than the actual fucking.

The first little ripples of orgasm started to tease at him when Brian's hand between them picked up the tempo, brushing against Dom's stomach with every movement. A low moan vibrated in the air between them; it gradually grew louder, like some powerful engine rising into a rumbling growl. Brian's lashes fluttered, revealed desire-darkened eyes that fixated on Dom through a haze of want, mesmerizing him.

Dom was fighting it now, trying to slow down, draw back from the brink. He didn't want this to end, not yet, not ever. He wanted to feel Brian beneath him, drive into his willing body until the sight of him writhing on the slanted hood of the Supra, hot and passionate and alive, erased the nightmares about Brian getting shot in the same car, crashing it into that damn Volvo at a hundred and twenty miles per hour.

Of course Brian, contrary bastard that he was, chose that exact moment to drag him down into a deep, lustful kiss and clench his muscles around him like a damn vise.

Dom came with a roar that made the shed shake.

Brian came with a shudder and a gasp.

The Supra stayed quiet. Go figure.


Part Four: Fear and Fury


Chapter Ten

"Damn it, Matt, I just wanna get my Glock."

Matt's fingers tightened around his partner's shoulder. He shook his head, trying very hard not to laugh. "Ben, no."

"I'll just be a minute."

"You're not setting a foot into that damn garage," Matt said firmly. "I didn't pull your ass out of the line of fire time and again to lose you now."

Ben crossed his arms in front of his chest and gave him a long, provocative once-over. "Come again?" he drawled. "Who spends half his time covering whose ass?"


"Now, correct me if I'm wrong," Ben continued, his steel blue eyes narrowed. "But last time I checked, I was the damn sniper in this team. I am the guy making sure y'all get outta the messes y'all get into... and I can fucking take care of myself!"


"Now, I'm not gonna make this twenty questions or anything. I'm just gonna sneak in, git my gun, and be long gone before they're even awake." He sniffed indignantly. "If I can sneak behind enemy lines, I can damn well get past my own li'l brother."


"He doesn't think things through. Too damn emotional... and he's a sloppy fighter, too. Not that I think Toretto would-"

"Benny Ray!"

Ben stopped and blinked. "What?"

Chuckling, Matt leaned forward and pressed a quick kiss to Ben's soft mouth, gently nipping the bottom lip before he pulled back. "Never heard you ramble before."

It took Ben a second to recall what they'd been talking about. Early morning kisses always made him a little dizzy, like an overdose of caffeine.

"I didn't ramble," he defended himself, though he suspected that maybe he had. A little.

"Hell, yeah, you did." Matt looked like he was fighting with himself, but in the end it was too good to simply let go. "It's kinda cute." Ben opened his mouth to give a biting reply, but Matt put on his 'commanding officer' face and he found himself snapping his jaws shut in reflex. "You don't need the Glock, I don't want to have to pry Brian off your throat when you 'accidentally' step on Toretto, and we're in a hurry anyway. So shut up and get into the damn car."

Sometimes, being in love with your former superior had definite disadvantages. After years of being conditioned to blindly obey direct orders, it was hard to shake the habit when Matt used this particular tone of voice. The "Yes, sir," snapped out automatically, and Ben was halfway to the van before he remembered that, technically, he was his own man now.

He shot Matt a glare over his shoulder. Matt replied with a broad grin, completely unrepentant. One of these days, Ben was going to... not hit him, exactly. Couldn't damage that handsome face. Maybe... scowl at him. Or cuss him out. Or kiss him. Probably the latter.

Not right now, though. They had business to attend to in Phoenix. Urgent business. After all, somebody had to look out for his little brother.

When Brian had fallen asleep in Dom's arms in the early morning hours, he'd had a vague notion of waking up some time around noon, maybe sucking Dom off, getting dressed, then walking back to the house for late breakfast or early lunch.

He had not expected the garage doors to slam open at dawn, waking him and Dom rather cruelly just when they'd reached the phase of deep, dreamless sleep that plays hell with the body's early warning systems. He jerked up with a start, bleary eyes searching blindly for a threat. As adrenaline battled exhaustion, he instinctively lifted himself up on one elbow to shield his partner with his body.

Behind him, Dom had jolted to life, too; he growled a fuzzy "Whassafuck?" and tried to peer over the broad shoulders that blocked his view. Brian could feel a large, work-roughened hand splay over his stomach protectively. Dom shifted, most likely trying to get the leverage to roll them over so he could cover Brian, so Brian quickly grabbed his arm and held him in place. He wasn't in the mood for heroics.

The silhouette of a man that stood in the open doorway took a hesitant step forward. Brian realized the intruder had yet to get used to the gloom inside the garage, had likely not even seen them in their nest of blankets beside the car. His brain fought through the lingering cobwebs and kicked into overdrive as he tried to figure out who the hell they were dealing with. The stocky, slightly bowlegged form seemed vaguely familiar, but he couldn't place the man without seeing his face.

Hot breath tickled his cheek when Dom's chin brushed lightly against the crook of his neck. He glanced at his friend and wasn't surprised to see the predatory way in which Dom watched the stranger. The muscular body at his back was almost humming with tension, ready to vault over him and inflict some serious damage at the slightest provocation.

Then the Destroyer Of Their Peaceful Slumber spoke, and Brian slumped back against Dom with a frustrated little groan.

"Brian? You in here?"

Billy Quaide.

Of all the people to come and fuck up their morning after, it had to be Billy Quaide. No use playing possum; Billy wouldn't leave until he'd either found Brian or made sure the garage was empty. Like a dog with a bone, Billy was. There had been a time when Brian had admired the sheer tenacity of his old high school buddy. Now he just wished the damn roof would collapse and flatten the louse.


With a shake of his head and a muttered curse, Brian accepted the inevitable. "What the fuck are you doing here?" he growled, sitting up.

He could feel Dom lever himself up behind him until he was pressed up against Brian's back hot and firm. One arm came up to rest against Brian's left shoulder, dangling down onto his chest possessively even as Dom's chin found a comfortable place on the other shoulder.

And that's exactly how Billy found them when he walked around the front of the shiny black rice rocket; naked on a pile of blankets, only haphazardly covered to their waists, Dom half-draped over Brian, and both glaring at the intruder. Predictably, he didn't take it well.

"Goddamn it, Bri! What the fuck are ya doing?!"

Brian snorted, not especially bothered by the fact that he had to tilt his head back to be able to look Billy in the eye. "I'm checking the tire pressure. What the hell d'you think I'm doing?"

A finger stroked lightly over his sternum, then Dom's deep, deceptively soft voice sounded right beside his ear. "I think we haven't been introduced yet." Brian glanced at his friend and found him completely focused on Billy, visibly unimpressed by what he saw. "Who the hell are you?"

"I'm-" Billy stopped himself, tore free from the hypnotic force of Dom's stare, and looked at Brian accusingly. "Who's he?"

This was getting tedious. Brian gestured towards the bane of his youth. "Dom, that's Billy Quaide. Ex-quarterback, sexually frustrated wannabe, and all-around pest." He pointed a thumb over his shoulder at Dom. "Billy, that's everything you ever wanted to be and never will be. Tell me what'cha want and then fuck off. We were trying to sleep here."

Billy's jaw dropped. He blanched, then flushed bright red. Brian scowled. He'd never been a fan of early mornings, and the combination of sleep-deprivation, residual soreness from the night's activities, and finding himself face to face with someone he heartily disliked was playing havoc with his temper. Even Dom looked slightly taken aback. He'd seen the rivalry between them at the race track, but apparently he hadn't realized how deep Brian's resentment went.

"What is it between you two anyway?" he questioned, and looked back and forth between them quizzically.

Brian glared. "Billy doesn't know when to stop, do you, Billy?"

"Goddamn you, Brian," came the bitter reply. "Won't you ever forget about that?"

"Forget about what?" Dom asked.

This was not the sort of conversation Brian had planned on having anytime soon. Or ever. He was annoyed, his arm had started to throb again, and there was no coffee available. He shook his head.

"Spit out why you're here, and go," he ordered, trying very hard to be civil. He didn't like Billy, didn't respect him, and desperately wanted him gone, but he realized the danger of being this irritated. Don't blow this outta proportion, he thought. Wasn't like Billy had killed anybody.

However, Billy had obviously reached the end of his tether. "I'm sorry about what happened, all right? I didn't think your friend would get hurt so bad. I just wanted a chance to get you alone, so I could-"

"Fuck me?" Brian suggested.

"Yes. No! I- I don't know, okay? I don't know what I thought. I guess I- I wanted to... but you were always sticking with that damn punk! It was driving me nuts! So I... hell... d'you have any idea what you did to me?"

From the corner of his eye, Brian could see Dom's eyes narrow. Damn. Dom was adding two and two and probably getting four. Time for some damage control.

"Billy..." Brian sighed and ran a hand through his hair in frustration. "What d'you want?"

"Who cares?" a new voice asked, and then a silenced gun coughed once and Billy's left eye exploded in a spray of blood and fluid and he crumpled to the floor like so much dead meat.

Frozen, Dom and Brian could only watch as a slender Asian man stepped into view, weapon still raised and pointing at Brian now. He smiled. "And another one bites the dust."

He didn't wear the snakeskin pants anymore, but even without the fashion statement his appearance made Brian's stomach roil with apprehension. Figured, that Johnny Tran's death would haunt him like this, in the form of the man's cousin.


Sometimes, life really sucked.


Chapter Eleven

The last time Dom had seen Lance Nguyen had been when he'd catapulted the little fuck over the edge of a gravel slope. Frankly, he hadn't expected to ever meet him again... not that he'd spent much time thinking about him. Lance had been one of the shooters who'd killed Jesse; somehow, Dom had simply assumed that Brian had made sure the son of a bitch was locked away for good.

Seemed like Brian had thought the same thing, because Dom could feel Brian go rigid in his embrace until he'd turned into an armful of hard muscle and sharp angles, taut like a coiled spring. It was a weird feeling, kind of like being reminded that the pretty feline in one's lap was not a sweet little pussycat, but a grown tiger. He loosened his hold instinctively.

Sidetracked by the sudden change that had come over his friend, Dom didn't immediately focus on their adversary. When he finally did, his heart stopped for a second. Lance was staring at Brian with a strange, disturbing expression in his eyes. It wasn't the first time he'd done that either. Dom remembered far too well how the man had fixated on Brian from the moment he'd first laid eyes on him, knocking his automatic against the window of the late Eclipse. While Johnny had been busy playing power games with Dom, Lance had just stood there, aiming his gun at Brian and staring at him the entire time as if enthralled.

"What do you think, Lance?" Johnny had asked, as he admired Brian's car.

Lance, without ever taking his eyes off Brian, had replied, "It's an amazing machine," so obviously not referring to the Eclipse that Dom had wanted to rip him a new one even then.

He was doing it again now, drinking in the sight of the barely covered blond, all but rubbing himself through his snug, black leather pants. Unfortunately, Brian wasn't distracted enough by the gun not to notice, and too wired to be properly scared. Dom could feel him bristle and tense, and was struck by a bolt of instant panic. Lance had a gun. Lance held a grudge. Lance was armed and dangerous and probably more than slightly psychotic. Brian was fearless and Dom loved that about him, but in this situation, fearless could get him killed... could get all of them killed. So Dom did the only thing he could think of to protect his friend; he broke the silence and drew Lance's attention to himself.

"I thought you were in prison," he said, surreptitiously pulling the blanket up a little more so Brian wasn't quite so exposed to the invasive scrutiny.

Those eerie, unreadable eyes rolled in their sockets like motion sensors until the almost reptilian gaze zeroed in on Dom. "Didn't Brian tell you?" Lance smiled emptily. "I died in prison."

Brian shifted slightly against Dom, but thankfully he was smart enough to keep his mouth firmly shut.

"You look good for a corpse."

Keep him talking, Dom thought desperately. He couldn't see a way out of this yet, but if he could buy them some time, maybe Brian could come up with something. The kid had been a cop; he must've learned how to deal with sick shits like Lance Nguyen. Though even the best training likely didn't include a scenario like this one, with the cop - or ex-cop, in this case - literally caught with his pants down and held at gunpoint by a vengeful killer who lusted after his body.

A hair-raising sound drifted through the garage; it took Dom a long moment to recognize it as a chuckle. "You're funny."

Lance came closer. He was walking with a pronounced limp. Looked like the spectacular crash that had been the result of Lance's bike meeting Dom's Charger had left its mark. He motioned with his gun.

"Get up." Brian placed a hand on the ground to push himself up then froze when Lance stopped him with a wave of his gun. "Not you. Toretto."

This didn't sound good. Dom slid out from under the blanket carefully to leave Brian covered, and stood slowly. He wondered if he should raise his arms, but decided against it. It wasn't like he was carrying any concealed weapons, and the only things within reach were a grimy sponge and the Supra. Neither lent itself to throwing.

Lance called out in what was probably Vietnamese; not that Dom could've told Vietnamese from Danish, but since Johnny and most of his people had claimed a South Vietnamese heritage, it seemed most likely. Two men moved into the shed silently. They looked vaguely familiar; Dom thought that maybe they'd been members of Johnny Tran's gang back in LA, but he wasn't sure.

His first instinct was to lash out at them when they circled around the car so as not to get into Lance's line of fire and came up behind him. He was naked, unarmed, and feeling vulnerable, and it didn't sit well with him.

Lance smiled.

Dom forced himself to keep very still.

They used plastic straps to tie his wrists together then one of them picked up his pants and helped him into them. He even pulled up the zipper and fastened the button, though he wasn't too gentle about it. Brian wasn't offered the same courtesy.

While Dom was being manhandled, his gaze stayed locked on his partner, who was now half sitting, half kneeling on the ground and returning Lance's stare with all the animation of a comatose lizard. Dom had never seen Brian look so... empty... before. Like no matter what happened, he couldn't be touched, couldn't be hurt. Like, maybe, a part of him was almost as cold and dangerous as Lance. The thing that scared Dom most about it was that he couldn't tell for sure if Brian was only acting, or if that cool, calculating stillness was for real.

Brian was so tense he was almost shaking with it. He could hear Dom grunt as he was tied, could hear the rustle of cloth that told him they let him put on his pants at least, but he couldn't look, couldn't assure himself that his partner was all right. The only thing he knew with absolute certainty was that he could not, under any circumstances, let on just how scared he was. If Lance sensed the tiniest weakness, he'd pounce.

He didn't allow himself to think about the others. After the talk he'd had with his brother only hours before, he didn't doubt Ben and Matt had been on guard during the night, to make sure nothing happened that Brian didn't want - and the only way Lance and his cronies could have gotten past them without one hell of a fight was if they'd just killed them from a distance. The two ex-Marines hadn't expected an attack from the outside; they hadn't been on the lookout for snipers. Chances were, his brother and the man he considered his brother-in-law were dead. Only God knew what Lance's men had done to the rest of the family. Better he didn't wonder; wasn't like he could do anything about it anyway. His first priority had to be to get out of this immediate mess; the rest would have to wait.

Lance jerked his head slightly and one of his men bent and grabbed the blanket that covered Brian. Brian felt more than he saw Dom start forward, then come to a painful stop when the butt of a gun was rammed into his stomach. The small grunt of pain he couldn't contain as he doubled over almost made Brian flinch. He didn't. He stayed in position, unyielding, not even acknowledging the sudden exposure. He didn't try to cover himself, didn't lower his gaze, firmly refused to blush.

His complete lack of reaction made Lance's eyes narrow in annoyance. If he wanted to check out the package, he'd lose the staring contest he'd started.

It was a tough choice.

Lust won over pride; Lance broke eye contact to slowly, deliberately run his gaze over Brian's body. As he took in every inch of sun-kissed skin, every elegant curve and dip of muscle and bone, and every passion mark Dom had left on him, Dom got just enough of his breath back to start cursing him viciously.

Goddamn it, Dom, Brian thought fiercely. Shut up!

He could see the triumph in Lance's smile, the satisfaction that he'd gotten to one of them at least. Unfortunately, despite the tight control Dom usually had on his temper, there were two surefire ways to get him spitting mad within the blink of an eye: through his honor, and through his loved ones. Heartwarming as it was to receive affirmation that he did indeed belong to the small circle of people Dom loved, Brian would have preferred if his friend hadn't reacted so beautifully to this particular trigger. He didn't think Lance was the type to play with his victims for long - he was too smart for that - but what playing he'd indulge in, he'd do with Brian now, just to spite Dom.

Lance tilted his head to the side slightly in a rolling, almost birdlike gesture. "Thoroughly fucked is a good look on you," he praised, the crudeness strangely at odds with his usual choice of words. "I think I won't kill you. I know people who'd pay a lot of money for you."

Terror screamed through Brian at those words, hot and cold and brutal. He'd been part of a raid against a slave-trader ring once, in the early days of his short career as a policeman. He'd only been there as emergency backup, hadn't even had to pull his gun. They'd called him in for the cleanup, and he'd seen firsthand what the victims had been through. The lucky ones were drugged to the gills, so out of it they didn't even realize the newcomers were cops and not customers. Those who weren't so fortunate had been so thoroughly broken in spirit it didn't make a difference to them.

One of the victims, a kid really, though he probably hadn't been much younger than Brian at the time, had latched on to Brian for some reason. He hadn't spoken, hadn't even told them his name, but he'd crawled onto Brian's lap and cried during the entire ride to the hospital. The sound of those hurt, desolate sobs had haunted the young officer's nightmares for years.

There was no way in hell Brian would let Lance do that to him. He'd seen some ugly things in his life, but this was the one horror he knew he couldn't cope with, the one that'd break him.

He was so distressed it took him a moment to realize that the muted roaring in his ears wasn't caused by his rising blood pressure but by Dom, who was fighting his guards like a madman, bound and outnumbered and half-crazy with fury and fear.

Shaking off the panic-induced paralysis, Brian leaped to his feet in one fluid, powerful movement - only to be knocked down again immediately by a blow to the back of his head.

Blackness threatened to take over. He lay on his side on the ground, gasping for breath, clinging to consciousness with all his might. Something warm and sticky trickled across his right temple and then over his face, down the forehead and cheekbone and the eye in between. He blinked in an attempt to get rid of the thick liquid, which resulted in a peculiar strobe-light effect.


Many, many feet in expensive shoes, all over the place. Huh. Looked like Lance's backup had heard Dom and decided to come and play.


A knot of bodies beside the Supra, fighting what sounded like a Brahma bull. Go, Dom! Show them!


Leather-clad thighs right next to his face, cut off at the knees. No, just kneeling. Damn. Slender hands reaching for him.




People at the open garage doors, pulling, pushing, dragging a struggling, yelling Dom away. Forcing him into the trunk of a lime-green Viper.


Driving off.


Change of perspective. Staring at the ceiling now. Dark eyes, enemy face. Lance. Lance's lips moving soundlessly; something in his gaze like anger.

They were alone.

Ben was dead. Matt was dead. Dom was gone.

Brian's world was reduced to ashes and pain.


No more blood in his eye, but a different kind of redness. He moved his neck, moved his arms, discovered that his body was still able to function, jerkily, slightly uncoordinated, but obedient.

Lance was holding him in his lap, but he wasn't looking down at him anymore. He was looking towards the door, impatience in every line of his body. Brian turned his head, just a little, to the right. There, under the workbench, testament to his brother's paranoia and foresight, was the holster with Ben's Glock 21.

That sinister redness still blurring his sight, feeling light and heavy and strangely disconnected, Brian rolled out of Lance's hold. A half turn, and he was face-down on the ground. One and a half turn, and he'd crossed the distance to the workbench. Everything felt so sluggish, it was like swimming through molasses. He was aware of nothing but the silence of his mind, the narrow focus of his purpose. His arm reached up, fingers clicked the holster open, slid the gun out. Muscles adjusted to the familiar weight without a thought; his thumb unlocked the safety blindly.

By the time he was facing Lance again, the man hadn't even gotten up from his knees. Odd, how slow he was moving. It wasn't him with the head wound, was it?

Their eyes met across the small space between them.


Brian pulled the trigger.

When Lance talked about selling Brian, something in Dom snapped. Images flashed through his mind, of the one night they'd spent in each other's arms: the way Brian smiled when Dom touched him; the easy, catlike stretch of his body; the sparkle in his eyes when they weren't hazy with passion. The notion that anybody should touch this man without his permission, of loveless hands bending those supple limbs to their will, cruel strangers trying to break his spirit, was more than Dom could bear.

He kicked out, rammed the heel of his foot against the side of the nearest henchman's knee, and was rewarded with a sickening crack and an earsplitting wail. The second man escaped a vicious head-butt only through the devil's own luck and started grappling with Dom even as the doors were torn open and more people poured into the garage and ran towards them.

Brian shook off the shocked stillness that had come over him at Lance's threat and jumped up with almost boneless grace to join the fray. He didn't hear Dom's warning, didn't even manage to take one step before one of the newcomers clubbed him from behind with what looked like a police baton. He fell without a sound, like a deer shot mid-leap, landing on his side on the heap of blankets.

Someone was screaming like a banshee then, a wild, mournful wail that sent shivers down Dom's spine, but he didn't stop to find out where the god-awful sound came from. He fought like he'd never fought before, tore at the plastic that bound his wrists until blood streamed down his hands, kicked and thrashed and struggled desperately to get to Brian. Now and then he'd catch a glimpse of his partner through the tangle of bodies that separated them, and he was terrified by Brian's utter lack of response to all the uproar.

They wrestled him to his knees, got him under tenuous control. He kept resisting until the two bastards that had blocked his view stepped aside and he could see Brian again, still and lifeless on his side with blood flowing freely over his face. Brian was breathing harshly. He should've been unconscious, but his eyes were open. The usually so clear blue orbs seemed weirdly cloudy, like the eyes of a blind man, and he was blinking slowly. Except for the hoarse pants, it was the only movement he made.

God, no, no, God, please, no.

It couldn't end like this. Brian was supposed to be invincible. Brian was supposed to shake off a blow like that and beat the shit outta these assholes. He was too strong, too stubborn, too damn alive to die.

He's not dead. Maybe it's just a concussion. Maybe it's just-

So pale. How could somebody who was so tanned look so terribly, ghostly pale? How could the man who'd pushed Dom against a workbench and fucked him straight through an orgasm into nirvana seem so impossibly fragile all of a sudden?

C'mon, Brian, stop blinking and look at me. Look at me, Brian! Please...

Lance knelt down beside Brian, his face twisted into an ugly grimace. Dom could only watch as he reached out and checked the wound...

...and then Brian's eyes closed and didn't open again.

Dom's world shattered.

He heard Lance tell his men to take Dom and go, that Jenny was waiting in LA and it was time to bring her the man who was responsible for her brother's death, but the words didn't mean anything to him. Jenny Tran wasn't important. The men around him weren't important; neither was Lance. The only person who mattered was lying naked and bleeding on the floor, unconscious or dead, and Dom hadn't been able to protect him. He couldn't even take him into his arms, couldn't tell him how much he loved him, just in case.

Rough hands pulled him up into a standing position and started to drag him towards the exit. It woke Dom from his stupor with a jerk. They were trying to take him away, to separate him from Brian.

No. No!

Bone split with a satisfying crunch when Dom rammed his head against the nearest face. He followed through with a shoulder shove that dropped the screaming man like a felled tree, kicked another guy in the balls, and broke free. It worked, for about two seconds. Then Dom stumbled over the corpse of Billy Quaide, which somebody had obviously hauled to the side so it wouldn't be in the way. Damn redneck bastard was a nuisance even when dead.

The expected impact of his skull against the floor never happened. Somebody grabbed him by the shoulders, pushed and pulled, got him up and going. He found his balance, thanked his savior by stepping on his foot with all his might, and went right back to fighting. It didn't help. They towed him away, no matter how stubbornly he dug in his heels, shepherded him out of the garage and into the pale morning light.

Dom swore at them, yelled at them, screamed Brian's name, all the while twisting and kicking like one of Ben's broncos. Three men held him in place while the fourth quickly opened the trunk of a green Dodge Viper. Just before they forced him inside, Dom thought he saw movement on the roof of the bunkhouse. It made him hesitate for a second, then a fist hit his face and a couple of hands pushed at him and he toppled into the trunk and the lid slammed shut.

A car door banged, the Viper howled like a kicked dog, and then they were gone.

Dom closed his eyes and keened.


Chapter Twelve

They were already on the highway when they got the call. Matt was driving so Ben, who'd been awake for most of the night, could sleep in the passenger seat. It was one of Matt's top ten rules: if you're about to go into a possible combat situation, make sure your sharpshooter is at least moderately rested.

As usual, Ben was wide awake by the second beep and grabbed the cell before Matt could even find it. After his usual longwinded and informative greeting ("Yep."), Ben went quiet for a few minutes, then disconnected without saying another word. He put the phone down calmly, turned to Matt, and in his coolest, most professional tone told him to turn the van around and drive back to the ranch.

"Nguyen's already there. Floor it."

So much for catching the bastard before he made it out of Phoenix.

An illegal U-turn and a few terse minutes later, Matt knew as much as Ben. Apparently, Nguyen and his men had just hit the Double C. Rome, who never went anywhere without his cell phone, had managed to hit the speed dial and ask for backup before the gunmen found him, then drop the phone before it was discovered. His choice to call Ben and Matt instead of 911 wasn't surprising, considering that the two of them were not only closer to the ranch than the sheriff but also better equipped to handle heavily armed gang members.

It was shortly after dawn, about half an hour after the two soldiers had left. Swearing softly, Matt stepped on it. The van might not be up to the standards of a Dominic Toretto or Brian O'Connor, but it did have a little more horsepower under the hood than it had started out with. Ben called the sheriff's office in Marana, which was technically in another jurisdiction, but closer to the Double C than Red Rock - plus, Sheriff Roberto LaCruz was a friend, which might come in handy should he recognize Dom. He might not make it in time, but he promised to do his best.

They approached the ranch via a supply road, parked the van near a large outcropping of rocks that would hide the vehicle from potential observers, and crossed the rest of the distance on foot at a fast clip. Nguyen was either sloppy, inexperienced, or not as smart as he thought he was; there was only one guard at the bunkhouse and none at the stable. Matt took out the man soundlessly, leaving him unconscious but alive. They bound him with plastic police cuffs just to be on the safe side and stuffed him into the closet. The ranch hands weren't back yet from checking on the mares in the canyon corral, so at least they weren't among the hostages.

There was a commotion as Ben started to climb onto the roof of the bunkhouse. A group of Asian-American men ran across the yard and disappeared into the garage. Ben and Matt shared a worried look, but carried on in grim silence. Nothing they could do about whatever was going on in the garage right now.

With an effortless pull-up, Ben heaved himself onto the roof. Matt tossed up the Remington, gave him a nod, and disappeared around the corner. He'd check out the situation in the main building and see if he could free the hostages. Ben was just getting in position to cover his partner's back, when a long, painful scream rent the air and made him flinch. The voice was deep and powerful like a lion's roar. Toretto. He sounded like his heart had just been ripped out of his chest with a pair of pliers.

God. Brian!

For the second time in his life, Ben's fingers trembled as he readied his rifle. He fought to keep his mind blank, not to think about what Dom's howl most likely meant, but visions of blood and death kept invading his calm. Too late too late too late, a shrill voice echoed through his head. You lost him, he's dead, he's dead, he's dead. The damn rifle jammed.

An unexpected flurry of movement at the garage door made Ben's head snap up. They were dragging Dom out of the building kicking and screaming. The broad-shouldered form was half naked, hands tied behind his back, and fighting like bull terrier against his handlers. Every line of his body was straining towards the garage.

Before Ben could get the Remington unjammed, Dom was pushed into the trunk of a green sports car and rushed away. At that moment, gunfire erupted in the house. Cursing, Ben switched his focus, primed his rifle and brought it up just in time to take out a tango through the living room window.

The door opened and Rome appeared, closely followed by Ben's father and Toretto's buddies. Vince was sporting one hell of a shiner. His charming personality must've made him few friends. Matt lined up another target at the kitchen window. Ben took the shot, watched the man fall, chambered another round, and fired again. The dark-clad form that had risen from a crouch in the hall doorway toppled over. Matt turned, nodded a quick thanks, and gave him the all-clear signal.

Ben was about to start picking off the remaining thugs who'd taken cover behind the Chevy parked near the shed when the sudden roar of an engine shattered his concentration and made everybody whirl around towards the garage.

Something black and streamlined burst from the darkness into the sunlight like an incensed dragon shooting out of its lair. It fishtailed around the Chevy, almost barreled right into the water trough, then hit the gravel driveway and disappeared with something like a sonic boom and a cloud of dust.

Ben grinned.

Looked like Brian was alive after all.

They'd taken Dom.

It was all Brian could think of as he struggled to his feet unsteadily. His head hurt. The garage spun slowly around him. He straightened too fast and nausea hit him like a kick in the gut.

The next thing he knew was that he was on his knees on the ground, dizzy, queasy, the disgusting taste of bile in his mouth. He wiped a shaking hand over his lips and made it into an upright position, more carefully this time. Never again would he laugh at a newborn colt that couldn't coordinate its legs. He knew that feeling now, and it wasn't the least bit funny.

His jeans were hanging off the back of his father's three-legged chair. He weaved his way towards them, almost fell over a pair of legs in black leather pants, made the mistake of looking at Lance's face. Neat little entry wound. Nasty big exit wound. There wasn't only blood on the floor there, but he didn't stop to identify the bits of gray matter and whitish-yellow splinters. His stomach flip-flopped nervously.

His fingers shook as he buttoned his pants. Black spots danced through his vision, throbbing in time with his heartbeat. He swayed where he stood and had to reach out to steady himself. The darkness pulled at him, sang to him a sweet promise of peace and painless slumber. The idea of just letting go was awfully appealing. He was hurt, tired, and he'd just killed a man. He wanted so badly to close his eyes and give in to the pull of unconsciousness. The trouble was, he couldn't. A small, but persistent voice in the back of his mind kept yelling and cursing at him. There was still something he had to do, something important. He wasn't sure what had happened, but killing Lance wasn't the end.

They'd taken Dom.

The memory hit him like a sledgehammer. Dom. Screaming, fighting, calling for him. Propelled out of the garage and locked into a trunk like a disobedient animal. Not any trunk, but that of a Dodge Viper. Green. Broad racing tires, which gave the car one hell of an advantage on a flat surface, but wouldn't be fun when driving on gravel. He didn't know how much time had elapsed since the Viper had left, but maybe he still had a chance.

The Supra wasn't back to its full glory yet. The paint along the side was still scratched, the side mirror gone, and the right front light hadn't been replaced. It gave the car the look of a scarred, one-eyed warrior, banged up and more than a little worse for wear. But the axis had been mended, the blown tires had been changed, they'd fitted in the new windshield only the day before, and the engine and NOS system were in perfect working order. One Eye might look like a hundred miles of bad road, but he was ready to roll.

Now if Brian could only say the same thing for himself...

He wobbled back to where he'd dropped the Glock, picked up the gun. Without thinking, he thumbed the safety back on as he'd been taught. Wouldn't do to accidentally shoot himself while trying to save Dom.

His head hurt so badly now he whimpered, the tiny mewl loud in the bubble of stillness around him. It made him clamp down on any other sound he might've made, even though he felt sick as a dog by now.

Dom. He had to get to Dom.

His arm and shoulder protested when he pulled at the car door, reminding him none too gently that the barely healed limb had taken almost as much abuse as his poor head, between the sex and the fall and the recoil of the gun. Ben would-

No. Ben was most likely dead.

Don't think about it.

The smooth leather seat hugged him like the arms of a lover when he slid behind the wheel. It braced his battered body, soothed his headache with its familiar smell, and reminded him that even though he felt like a heavily-abused punching bag, he was still one of the best goddamn street racers there was.

He turned the key and the Supra came to life with a grumbling roar that vibrated through every fiber of his being.

Vince and Leon's heads jerked up and around when the familiar sound of a powerful 2JZ engine reached their ears. With a disconcerting feeling of déjà vu, they watched the black Supra barrel out of the garage, zigzag across the yard, and take off after the Viper.

Cole O'Connor stared after the car in amazement. "Brian?"

Rome smiled. Vince and Leon shared a look. "Brian," they confirmed.

Cole blinked, and the car was gone. He blinked again.

"Hot damn!"

Under different circumstances, in a different car, racing through the desert with an average of eighty miles per hour might've felt like flying. As it was, it felt more like sitting in a soap-box that was dragged over a wash-board by an airliner.

It hurt. It was also more than a little dangerous. The only advantage Brian had over the driver of the Viper was that he knew the road like the back of his hand; bends, ruts, and all. He couldn't see the other car yet, but he was pretty sure he was gaining on it fast. Only a madman would drive a race car through this kind of terrain at this speed; even with Brian's level of skill the Supra skidded and swerved through the curves like a drunken jackrabbit.

At times his vision tunneled until he could barely see the road and it was only experience and luck that kept him on course. His fingers clutched the wheel in a white-knuckled grip, little cramps of pure tension knotting his right arm as still-healing muscles and tendons complained about the shabby treatment. Brian didn't even notice. The only thing that mattered was to catch up to the Viper and get Dom back. He didn't have a plan beyond that, which was a good indication of how bad his condition really was.

The Supra shot up the last hill before the dirt road ended. As it soared over the crest and slammed back onto terra firma, Brian could see the Interstate below... and the cloud of dust that was making its way towards it. The Viper was going slow, bounced from one pothole to the next, the driver still unaware of the one-eyed predator that was coming up fast from the rear.

Brian got halfway down the slope before he was made. The green car in front of him accelerated suddenly, leaving a veil of dust in its wake like the smoke of a wildfire. Brian bit down a curse, stepped on the gas, and drove right into the cloud. Visibility near zero, he had to rely on his familiarity with the area and his reflexes to stay on course. He nearly collided with a barrel cactus, barely avoided overshooting the last turn, and came out on Brawley Road tires screeching.

Damn, damn, damn.

There the Viper went, up the ramp to the I-10. Once on the Interstate, they'd floor it and Brian would have one hell of a hard time catching up. Nothing he could do about it though. There'd be no quarter mile marker in this mad race; this time they were going for broke, and Dom's life was the prize.

He downshifted, threw the Supra into the curve, and sped up after the Viper.

They hit the Interstate like a matched pair of heat-seeking missiles. Fast. Hard. Completely focused. The Viper squeezed through the narrow space between two pickup trucks to the second lane and opened it right up. Brian followed with a suicidal swing.


The Supra growled. Its black nose pressed closer to the ground as it shot forward obediently. A high, keening sound jabbed through Brian's skull, causing white-hot bolts of pain to stab through his head. After a tense second he realized it was the car-born wind singing in the Supra's empty eye socket. It sounded like a devil's cry.


The rear window of the Viper shattered. A dark shape appeared, then the much too familiar staccato flares of a machine pistol's muzzle flash. Brian imagined the bullets must be flying around his car like angry hornets, but the only notable result was the brief scream of metal as the already mostly amputated stump of the side mirror was torn off. Behind him, tires squealed. He didn't look.

More. Speed.

His perception narrowed to the green shape of his prey, Brian hit the NOS.


Chapter Thirteen

The first hint that Brian and his quarry had reached the I-10 came in the form of a high, aggressive buzzing sound in the distance that made Sheriff Roberto LaCruz and his five deputies tense and straighten. They moved to the front of the solid roadblock they'd built on top of the rise that marked the county border between Pima and Pinal.

"What the hell's that?" Deputy Don Wells asked, squinting into the distance.

Sheriff LaCruz stared at the two tiny dots that had appeared at the horizon and were rapidly coming closer. The drone of the cars' powerful engines got louder by the second.

"According to Ben O'Connor, that's the sound of trouble," he said without a trace of humor. Ben had called him, informed him about the shootout at the Double C, and given him a terse warning about the danger headed their way. Talk about California criminals, dead bodies, and kidnapping didn't lend itself to cheering up a sheriff. "Remember: no shooting. We got Brian O'Connor in the black car and a hostage in the trunk of the green car. There's gonna be enough paperwork even without any more casualties."

As if on cue, the distant chatter of gunfire kicked all their adrenaline levels up a good few notches. "We are allowed to shoot back though, aren't we?" Deputy Paolo Mendez inquired sharply.

They could see the racers more clearly now. The green vehicle was still in the lead; it roared towards the hill and the waiting cops without any indication that the driver had detected the obstacle in his way yet. The black car was coming after it like a speeding bullet. O'Connor was either blind to the MP slugs that hammered into the asphalt all around him, or he simply didn't give a damn.

"Hold your fire," LaCruz ordered roughly. There was enough lead flying without the additional participation of his people.

One of the pickup trucks behind O'Connor lurched to the side suddenly. It skidded across the Interstate almost on two wheels, tipped over, and slid across the road until it was stopped by a mile marker.

"Fuck!" Chief Deputy Carmen Del Toro muttered, and grabbed the radio to call the ambulance they had on standby and inform the fire department about the crash.

"Let's just hope them assholes see us in time to stop," Deputy Mike Panta whispered, his gaze glued to the scene before them. "If they don't, we can wave our cars goodbye."

That was an understatement. If the perps and O'Connor smashed into the sturdy barrier of four police cruisers, chances were neither of them would survive. The crest of the rise had the tactical advantage that the officers could see their targets coming and vice versa, but the rock faces on either side of the road made an evasive maneuver impossible. The pass was sealed to anything wider than a pedestrian.

Those maniacs better start braking now.

The driver of the Viper kept glancing into the rearview mirror, anger and excitement pumping through him with every thundering heartbeat. Five hundred horses under his hood, and that damn Supra was still gaining. It was disturbing, to see the reflection of that black, battered beast grow larger and larger in the mirror; like watching a hungry shark rise from the depths of the ocean.

He looked back at the road, mentally calculated the gradient of the incline before them, then did a double-take when he became aware of sunlight glinting on metal at the top of the rise. Holy crap.


Whoa. Sheriff LaCruz took a half-step back. When those racers decided to brake, they really did brake.

Engines yowled and tire rubber smoked as four pairs of vented disc brakes kicked in. Excellent ABS quality was the only thing that kept the two cars mostly on course, and even then the green one swerved dangerously. O'Connor had better control, but less room to maneuver, because he was trying desperately to avoid crashing into the other car.

"Shit. They're not gonna make it," Deputy Sarah McBride said softly. Her eyes widened. "Get away from the cars!"

The words hadn't even left her mouth when her colleagues were already on the move. As he dove for cover, LaCruz turned his head and glanced towards the approaching cars. For the duration of a heartbeat, he looked right through the gleaming windshield of the black Toyota and at the driver. The young man's face was so bloodied, pale and impassive that the sheriff almost didn't recognize Brian O'Connor. It was like staring at a ghost; a vengeful spirit so focused on its prey it simply refused to acknowledge that it was already dead.

Pulse racing, LaCruz all but flew up the rocks to a ledge he still knew well from his early days with the Highway Patrol. When he looked back at the cars, the green one had slowed down considerably and was now twirling into a half turn so the broadside faced the barrier, which slowed the approach even more. However, the only reason why the driver had enough space for this admittedly effective trick was that O'Connor had apparently carried out a similar move only seconds before to clear the way for the other vehicle. In order not to crash into his quarry and crush it between his car and the police cruisers, he was forced to execute a much riskier spin.

LaCruz watched in morbid fascination as the black sports car whirled across the cracked asphalt lanes, engine yowling, brakes squealing, tires shrieking over the still night-cool surface. In his mind's eye, he already saw the sleek, dark shape collide with the rock wall and inanely wondered how the hell they'd get the mangled body of Cole's boy out of the pulped and twisted metal mess that was about to happen.

Brian O'Connor surprised him.

While the other vehicle hit the roadblock with a moderate thud and came to a rattling standstill, O'Connor blithely defied several laws of physics and performed a tight 360 degree turn that ended with his car coming to a halt about two inches from Chief Deputy Del Toro's left knee.

If nothing else, one had to give him credit for style.

He couldn't move.

He couldn't see.

He could hardly breathe.

Dominic Toretto tried to think back to an occasion in his life when he'd felt worse, but, for the first time since Lompoc, he couldn't. He'd always thought prison was the absolute rock bottom, that nothing could top those two years of constant claustrophobia, tension, and emotional isolation. He'd been wrong.

As he lay twisted and tied in the tiny trunk of Lance's car, painfully made aware of every rut and groove in the road and feeling the naked vulnerability of total helplessness, he realized that Lompoc had been child's play compared to this. True terror had nothing to do with prison walls or hard-eyed cons; it was seeing your partner lie at your enemy's feet, bleeding and still; it was being torn away from the one person who meant more to you than your own life, not knowing if you had already lost them for good. Terror was the slow blinking of Brian's eyes as he stared vacantly into space. Terror was the blood that covered Brian's face as he gradually grew paler and paler. Terror was being shoved into a glorified coffin while Lance pulled a naked, defenseless Brian into his lap.

It was this final picture that haunted Dom the most as he was beaten and battered by the unfortunate combination of bumpy Arizona back roads and a car built for speed, not cross country drives. Was Brian dead? Or was he still alive and at Lance's mercy? And what had happened to the others?

Dom was a strong man. He was used to being in control of himself and his environment, which was why his stint in Lompoc had been so hard on him. Lance had stripped his control from him with an ease that was unnerving. Not Brian's though. Brian had been cool and steady, like always when the shit hit the fan. He hadn't so much as flinched until Lance had threatened to sell him into slavery. That had hit a nerve. Yet, even then, it hadn't been Brian who'd flown into a useless rage. Dom had never realized just how professional the kid could be when the situation called for it. Brian would've picked his moment with more thought than Dom; he probably would've gotten them out of their predicament without a scratch if Dom hadn't lost it so spectacularly.

The Viper, which had navigated the rough road at a snail's pace until then, suddenly picked up speed. Dom was torn from his grim reflections by an awkward lurch of the car that threw him against the back of the trunk. He swore in surprise and pain then added a few more choice words when the bouncing didn't stop but only grew worse as the Viper accelerated.

What the hell was going on?

With nothing to cushion the blows against his already aching body, Dom tried to curl up as much as possible. His shoulders creaked, the joints almost ready to give in to the constant strain. His left side worried him most, seeing as he'd dislocated that shoulder once already. He'd been lucky then; the injury had been relatively minor. There hadn't been any fractures or torn ligaments, and, once the doc had popped the bone back into the pan, the damage had healed without complications. It had taken time though. Dom had spent three weeks with his arm in a sling and another two months doing careful exercises until a Mexican doctor had cleared him for his normal workouts. He had no intention of going through the same shit again.

He wondered what had gotten into the driver. They were obviously still on that damn dust road that connected the Double C with the country lane that eventually led to the Interstate. It was not a place that lent itself to fast driving; not for the robust pickup trucks that were common around here, and especially not for a high maintenance race car.

Unable to suppress a strangled cry when a pothole that felt like the Grand Canyon smashed him against the lid of the trunk, he stopped thinking and focused on riding out the bumps as well as he could. Some of the shocks made him see stars in the blackness that surrounded him.

After half an eternity, the Viper finally reached the asphalt road. The transition wasn't what Dom would've called smooth, but by that point he didn't really care anymore. He didn't doubt his captors were headed for the Interstate, so the sharp turn that followed didn't come as a surprise. Up the ramp they went, then the driver floored it and they zoomed forward full throttle.

Dom might be blind and caught in the trunk, but he'd grown up around cars, had spent most his life tuning engines and racing the temperamental machines. Not that he needed a lot of expertise to know they were going way above the speed limit. He could feel the vibrations of the straining Viper all around him, could hear the engine scream and the tires sing on the well-worn surface of the I-10. Every gear shift translated itself into a subtle change in the familiar sonata of speed.

Why were they going so fast? What the devil had happened that the driver had chosen to risk drawing the attention of the Highway Patrol or any other police officer they might encounter? The Viper wasn't the most inconspicuous of vehicles to begin with, but to streak down the Interstate at an estimated one hundred and thirty miles per hour was like the racer's equivalent of mooning the sheriff.

Then he heard it.

At first he thought it was his imagination, nothing but wishful thinking. The angry sound of the Supra's finely tuned engine had become inseparably connected with images of Brian in his mind, and after all the blows he'd received recently it seemed likely that his subconscious was simply popping up with auditory hallucinations as his stress levels rose dangerously.

A crash from above made him flinch. Glass rained down on the top of the trunk, but it was the sharp coughs of automatic fire that really got his blood pumping. If they were shooting at his delusion, then he was either not alone in his bout of insanity... or the Supra was real. Since he doubted the bastards would shoot at their own boss that meant whoever was driving the car was on his side. Leon, maybe. Or, more likely, Vince. Could be Rome, for all he knew. Though how his friends had gotten free and hold of the Toyota was a mystery to him.

Savage elation made him grin wolfishly despite the danger to himself and whoever of his friends was driving the Supra. They'd come for him. They'd come for him and that meant Brian was safe. They wouldn't have left the ranch while he was still a hostage; they would've gotten him out first and then gone after the Viper. With a bit of luck, Brian was on his way to the hospital already.

Brian was safe.

With that in mind, Dom didn't worry too much when the driver of the Viper stepped on the brakes suddenly. He did curse the law of inertia when he was slammed against the back of the trunk yet again and his shoulder groaned a last warning, but it didn't dampen his renewed sense of hope. Whatever had caused the asshole behind the wheel to reduce speed so abruptly had to spell trouble for his captors.

He could smell burning rubber, was half deafened by the screeching of the tires as the Viper fought to come to a stop. It scared him that he could hear the Supra's voice so clearly; the other car was close, maybe too close to avoid a collision. Dom didn't fancy the idea of being crushed to death by his rescuer. He didn't want to die in this trunk, trapped and bound and alone.

Then, with a tormented squeal, the Supra broke away, got left behind. A moment later, the Viper turned and skidded sideways for a second or two, until it met some sort of immovable object and came to an unexpected halt. The impact probably wasn't even hard enough to dent the chassis, but it knocked the breath out of Dom just fine.

Panting, he lay in the darkness; half on his side, half on his back. His chest heaved as he fought for air, every whimpering gasp sending a new jolt of pain through his shoulders. He couldn't feel the blood run down his hands anymore as his arms had gone to sleep a while back, but something chafed at his wrists. It made him wonder how deep the plastic cuffs had cut into his skin.

For the longest time, he felt nothing but pain, saw nothing but blackness, heard nothing but his own labored breathing and the ticking of the Viper's cooling engine. Finally, voices penetrated the silence, sharp and authoritative. Cops. One of the Viper's doors was torn open. The car dipped and bobbed slightly as the driver and his companion got out. Dom wanted to scream, wanted to kick out and draw attention to himself, but found that he couldn't move. He was exhausted, stiff, hurting all over. Damn it, did he have to do everything himself? Couldn't somebody else do some of the work for a change?

As if in answer to his irritated thought, the trunk of the car vibrated slightly. Someone fiddled with the lock, tried to open the lid. The catch refused to give, which prompted the person outside to slam a hand against the metal in frustration, then bellow for keys or a crowbar. The voice stirred something in Dom. It sounded familiar, but was nearly drowned out by the ringing in Dom's head and he couldn't identify it.

Footsteps came closer, people all around the back of the car now. A different voice - male, deep, very controlled - repeated the demand for crowbar or keys. Dom knew that particular pitch. He was pretty sure the new arrival was a police officer, but couldn't find it in him to care. It was unlikely anybody had even heard of Dominic Toretto here, and if they had, he'd deal with it later. Right now, all he wanted was to get out of the damn trunk and find Brian.

"Gimme that," the first voice, the raspy one, snapped.

Metal jingled, a key slipped into the lock, then, with a heave and a curse, the lid was pried open by strong, bloody hands. The intensity of the sunlight breaking into his darkness made Dom wince, jerk his head to the side, and close his eyes. Immediately, a shadow moved between him and the source of his pain, shielded him from the glare. He turned his head towards his savior, and carefully opened his eyes.

His breath caught.


Bloodied, battered, beautiful Brian. Leaning over him with concern in his eyes and a smile on his lips. Dom blinked suspiciously, but the vision remained. He cleared his throat, which didn't help the dryness any, and croaked, "Brian?"

"Who'd you expect?" Brian chuckled. "The Lone Ranger?"

He swayed slightly and had to grip the edge of the open lid to steady himself, but some of the tightness in his face eased. Dom felt his own mouth stretch into a smile. Obviously, it took a lot more than a near-death experience and an almost fatal car chase to keep an O'Connor down. He leaned into Brian's hands, allowed the other man to sit him up and support him as he slowly, painfully climbed out of the trunk. God, what a shitty morning after.

"That's not what I had in mind," he groaned, then laughed helplessly when he realized his words were the exact echo of what he'd said the last time Brian had pulled him out of a wreck.

"Let's not make this a habit, all right?" Brian asked, catching his meaning instantly. "You okay?"

Dom surveyed the scene, took in the roadblock, the two men handcuffed on the ground, the sheriff and deputy hovering behind Brian, and the black pattern of tire tracks on the road. How the hell had the kid managed to pull this off? Belatedly he noticed that Brian stared at him in concern, looking pretty shaky himself.

"I'm fine," he said, without bothering to check how true that statement was. "What about you?"

"Me?" Brian smiled. "I'm peachy."

And with that optimistic announcement, he promptly passed out.


Part Five: Tougher than the Rest


Chapter Fourteen

"Of all the stupid things to do," Dom growled, glaring down at Brian, "going after two armed thugs with nothing but a half-wrecked car and a concussion's gotta rank among the top ten."

Brian snorted. "Yeah. Right after choosing a fucking railroad crossing as your quarter mile marker." He shifted impatiently on the couch. "At least I wasn't going postal on purpose. And it turned out fine... I don't see why I couldn't go to Billy's funeral. I'm good."

"They kept you in the hospital for two days," Dom reminded him with rising irritation. "Only reason you're out now is that you promised to take it easy." He shook his head in disbelief. "I don't get why you're kicking up such a fuss about the damn funeral. You didn't even like the bastard."

With a sigh, Brian subsided back against the cushions and tipped his head back until he was staring at the ceiling. It wasn't easy to explain why it rankled so much that he couldn't even go to the memorial service. It was true, he hadn't liked Billy Quaide. The two of them had never been friends, but they'd been best enemies for years. Strange as it seemed, as relationships went, that counted for something.

They'd had... history.

Brian opened his eyes a little and, without lifting his head, looked at Dom through his lashes. His friend had calmed down and was now sitting patiently, waiting for an explanation. It was odd, Brian mused, how much this man had come to mean to him. He hadn't lied when he'd told his brother it felt like he'd known Dom forever; he had no other explanation for why they'd become so close so fast.

He didn't doubt for a second that Dom felt the same. Toretto wasn't one to trust easily, but he'd taken Brian into his innermost circle almost from the start, as if this cocky, troublemaking stranger had every right to be there. Brian had worked with the team, eaten with the team, spent his evenings with the team... he'd all but lived at Dom's house. And Dom had always been right there in Brian's space. He'd laughed with Brian, talked with Brian. He'd shown him his father's Charger, had trusted him with one of the most devastating moments of his past.

Maybe it was time that Brian returned the favor and shared something with Dom.

Maybe it was time that Brian introduced his lover to Alegría.

When Brian sat up again, Dom could tell from the serious look in his friend's eyes that Brian had made some kind of decision, which could be a good thing or a tremendously bad one. When it came to Brian and surprises, Dom had learned to be wary. After a long minute of staring at each other silently, Brian gave a tiny, decisive nod and straightened.

"Let's go for a walk."

Whoa. Not a good idea. His mind full of horror visions of the two of them trooping through the desert under the burning sun, Dom was up in a flash, ready to push his still recuperating partner back down. He'd sit on him if necessary.

"Your dad said you were to stay on this couch," he said, going for the big guns in the hope of getting to Brian before he could rally his defenses. "So did the doctor. We can talk here."

His concern must've shown all too clearly, because Brian grinned one of his annoying ain't-he-cute-when-he's-overreacting type of smiles. "I didn't mean 'let's take a hike through the desert'. I was thinking more about walking over to the stables. I wanna show you something."

Something about how he said this made Dom sit up and pay attention. For some reason, this was important to Brian. Not in a life threatening sort of way, but more like his friend was about to share something with him that was private and, well, important. The stables weren't that far away either, so it wasn't like their little excursion would overtax the man.

Brian waited uncomplainingly until Dom had made up his mind. He didn't even protest when Dom insisted on helping him up and then hovered next to him the entire way from the house to the stables. For such a stubborn, fiercely independent individual, he'd given in to Dom's fussing gracefully ever since he'd woken in the hospital. Maybe he, too, needed the reassurance that they'd made it through their latest adventure alive... or maybe he sensed that Dom couldn't help himself. Whatever the reason, they crossed the yard in companionable silence, their arms and shoulders brushing occasionally.

The interior of the large, wooden structure that housed the O'Connors' private stock - the horses that weren't for sale - was nicely shady and cool. It was also almost empty. Brian's mother had taken her prized cutting horses on the circuit and was showing them in Phoenix (whatever that meant), and Cole's gelding was out in the corral, about to lose a staring match with a cactus. He was a weird animal.

The only occupants of the stalls were Ben's black Whiskey and Matt's checkered mare. Brian insisted on calling her a Pinto, not that it made a difference to Dom. It was a horse. Four legs, a head, lots of muscle in between. Not that he'd ever say that out loud. The O'Connor clan reacted to comments like that in the same way that Dom reacted to observations like "It's a car. Four wheels, an engine, lots of metal in between."

Brian stopped for a moment to pet the curious black nose that came poking over the door of Whiskey's box, but he didn't stay long. Instead, he walked along the row of empty stalls until he reached the very end of the building. There, in the biggest box available, stood a dark brown horse that blinked at them myopically.

Dom had noticed this particular beast before. He thought it must be quite old; it had that look. The dark coat wasn't as shiny as it could've been, and speckled with gray at the muzzle and head. There was a slight stiffness to its movements, not very obvious, but still there. Its back and belly were sagging like gravity was getting too much. It was not the most attractive horse Dom had ever seen. It didn't seem to be doing much either. Yet he'd observed the affectionate way with which the family treated the creature. This was the only horse that was fed little treats like apple slices or dried pieces of bread by all the O'Connors, was petted and praised and handled more like a pet than a work partner. Dom hadn't asked why - frankly, because he didn't think it was any of his business - but he had a feeling he was going to find out now.

Predictably, Brian welcomed the bony head that pressed against his chest straightaway with a smile and a string of low, gentle words. He stroked along the broad jaw, scratched under the hairy chin, rubbed the furry ears. Dom watched him with a mixture of fond amusement and puzzlement. Finally, Brian stopped cooing and smiled at Dom over the long equine nose.

"This is Alegría."

Unsure of what was expected of him, Dom edged closer, reached out a hand and carefully patted the horse's nose twice.

"She's pretty," he offered.

His obvious discomfort made Brian grin. "Remember when my dad told y'all about the night I was born? About the mare that foaled at the same time my mom gave birth to me?" Dom nodded slowly and watched Brian's hand caress the mare's angular face in a slow, hypnotic rhythm. Alegría's eyes drifted half closed in contentment. "She's the filly," Brian said simply. "She's almost thirty now, which is pretty old for a horse. I learned to ride on her. She was the first horse I ever raced." He chuckled at the memory. "Man, did we ever lose. She never did understand why she was supposed to outrun the other horse."

Something about this scene seemed familiar. Dom frowned, trying to get a hold of the elusive sense of déjà vu, until it came to him. The wooden shed, the feeling of intimacy, the sharing of private memories. The Charger. This was Brian's version of the Charger and Dom's confession. Like Dom then, Brian was trying to tell him something now, in that awkward, roundabout way they both had when talking about personal things.

Long fingers threaded absentmindedly through the mare's coarse mane. "She and I, we go way back. I can't remember a time when she wasn't around. She's part of my childhood, of my life." He looked up then, met Dom's eyes steadily. "Like Billy."

Oh. So that was what this was all about. Dom leaned against the nearest wall and cocked his head, waiting for the rest of the story.

Brian didn't make him wait long. "I met Billy in high school. He was a year older than me, one of those loud, popular jocks with a high opinion of himself. A real pain. I was the skinny kid with the attitude who smelled like horses and always mouthed off at the most inopportune moment." Dom chuckled. Brian winked at him. "Good thing that changed, huh? Anyway, we clashed a time or two. He tried to kick me around, I didn't let him. I had a girlfriend, he wooed her away from me then dropped her for a cheerleader. Rome kicked his ass for that."

"So you knew Rome in high school?" Dom asked. He'd never quite figured out the complicated relationship between Brian and Roman Pearce and realized this might be his one chance to get some information without prying.

"Kind of," Brian hedged. "He went to a different school. Didn't stop us from being thick as thieves, but it meant that I had to manage Billy on my own most of the time. It wasn't that big a deal. He never was as tough as he thought he was."

The toothy smile on his face spoke of many victories over the bully and made Dom's lips twitch in an answering grin. He could just see a teenage Brian go up against the school's star footballer like a little wolverine. Quaide had never stood a chance. Still, that kind of rivalry didn't explain the tension between the adult Brian and Billy. Brian wasn't the type to carry a grudge for little shit like that.

"So what happened?"

"Graduation happened." Brian sighed. "See, what I didn't get about Billy was that he was gay and firmly in the closet. I'm bisexual, I knew that even then, but I didn't have much experience with guys. Tucson doesn't really have a thriving gay community, plus I was still trying to prove my dad wrong. So I just didn't cotton to the fact that Billy had a crush on me." He snorted. "You can probably guess what happened. It's pretty cliché."

Dom wasn't amused. "He tried to rape you?"

"Kinda. It wasn't that dramatic. He cornered me after the ceremony, got all nervous, kissed me, pawed at me, tried to get at my dick, and got punched out for his trouble. The thing I couldn't forgive was that in order to get me alone, he sicced a couple of his buddies on Rome." His eyes hardened. "Things got outta hand. Rome ended up in the hospital with a couple of broken ribs, a mild concussion, and more bruises than I ever wanna see again."

"Shit," Dom muttered.

Brian nodded. "Yeah."

This was probably not the best moment to bring it up, but Dom couldn't stop himself. "What is it between you and Rome?" he asked with studied nonchalance. "He acts like a jealous ex or something."

Shaken from his trip down memory lane, Brian snorted softly. "Like Vince?"

Dom glared.

Brian grinned. "Rome gets a bit protective, is all." He hesitated, thought about it. "We did fool around some when we were younger, but that was just for fun. We wouldn't have made it as a couple. We'd have killed each other within a week."

Refusing to let his relief show, Dom raised an eyebrow. "And we won't?"

"Nah." Brian patted Alegría's neck fondly and walked over to Dom. Obligingly, Dom turned a little so his back was flush against the dividing wall between the aisle and the empty stall behind him. He slouched comfortably and Brian stepped right into his arms, warm and strong and reassuringly alive. "Doesn't work that way between us," he murmured.

Dom shifted, turned on by the proximity, but determined to get this straight before he so much as placed a kiss on those inviting lips. "You sure about that?"

The answer sent a fine chill down Dom's spine. "We wouldn't be here if I wasn't."

That was reassuring.

Dropping the pretense of indifference, Dom let his hands slide down Brian's body until they came to rest on the man's hips. He hooked his thumbs through the belt loops and pulled his friend closer so he could press his forehead against Brian's chest. He could feel the warm, firm muscle through the soft cotton of the shirt and the slow, regular beating of Brian's lion heart.

Brian's arms slipped over his shoulders, his chin touched lightly against the top of Dom's head. His breath drifted over Dom's skin like an invisible caress. So gentle. And he'd almost lost this, lost Brian. A shudder ran through his frame, harsh and uncontrollable. Brian's grip tightened.

"I love you," Dom whispered against the shelter of the beloved body before him. "God help me, I love you so damn much."

The ghostly touch of Brian's breath paused for a moment, then came back with the brush of lips against his skull. "Love you, too, Dom."

He knew it was a stupid thing to say, but he couldn't stop the words from slipping out. "Don't you ever die on me."

Their embrace loosened as Brian pulled back. Strong hands cupped Dom's face, lifted his head until they were staring at each other seriously. No attempt at levity now, no wisecracks or flippant remarks.

"Can't promise you that," Brian said quietly. "Life doesn't work that way."

As if Dom didn't know that. He tried to look away, tried to hide his disappointment that Brian, who'd never had a problem misleading him before, would refuse to give him this one little white lie now. Brian didn't allow him to retreat, held Dom's head steady between his hands.

"Hey. Dom." Reluctantly, Dom looked back at him. "I love you, man, all right? You got me. I'm not going anywhere. I'll stay with you until death do us part. You get what I'm saying?"

Dom did. "I do."

Who said romance was dead?

Funerals sucked.

Attending the funeral of a person you hadn't liked much sucked marginally less than attending the funeral of a friend, but it still didn't win any prizes with Rome. Alas, he'd promised Brian he'd go in his stead, so he dug his second best suit out of the closet, splashed on some aftershave, and bribed Leon and Vince into accompanying him. There was no way he was going to suffer through this alone.

Ben and Matt had done the smart thing and taken off shortly after they'd collected Brian and Dom from the hospital and helped them settle in the living room - one on the couch, the other on Cole's cozy armchair. Sheriff LaCruz had wrangled a promise from the two mercenaries to come by his office and give their final statements before they left, so they'd opted for an early departure. It gave them the perfect excuse to avoid Billy Quaide's funeral. It would also inevitably lead to many unplanned stops to 'admire the sights', but that wasn't exactly news. Matt had a long, not-so-secret list of places where he intended to seduce Ben. Ben might've added an item or two. They certainly deserved the break.

As it turned out when the first confusion after the shootout and the car chase was over, Ben hadn't dropped in for a visit at the same time as Brian purely by chance. Worried by his little brother's escapades in LA and Miami, he'd kept a closer eye on the youngest O'Connor from afar. The sniper attack during the race in Florida had been the last straw; Ben had packed a bag and gone to watch over Brian personally while his partner hunted down the latest threat to Brian's life. With the assistance of Sergeant John Tanner - Uncle John - Matt had discovered that the 'new' enemy wasn't so new after all. Lance hadn't been aware of his target's better-than-average connections and thus hadn't done much to cover his trail. He'd been under surveillance from the moment he'd left Miami. Unfortunately, the man who'd tailed him in Phoenix had been involved in an accident that landed him in ICU. He hadn't been able to warn Matt that their mark was on the move again.

Rome readily admitted he was impressed. He'd never had a chance to observe Ben and Matt at work, and he was surprised by how smoothly and discreetly the two men operated. Not even Brian had realized what was going on. If not for the unexpected glitch with the accident in Phoenix, the 'civilians' at the ranch would never have been involved at all. Rome didn't know what the original plans for Lance Nguyen's removal from the picture had been, and he wasn't going to ask. The former soldiers did their best to be law-abiding citizens, but their interpretation of the law was somewhat ambiguous at times.

All in all, Rome hoped the two of them had a pleasant drive back home. He understood why they'd bowed out of stopping by the cemetery; they'd been to more than enough funerals in their lives already, and - unlike Brian and Rome - didn't have a history with Billy. Strictly speaking neither did Leon and Vince, but it was different for them. Brian had adopted them into the family, Cole was about to do the same, and Rome had discovered a growing fondness for both knuckleheads. They were all right. They were friends. Consequently, if Rome had to endure two hours of glowing eulogies to William Peter Quaide, so had Leon and Vince. He called it 'tough luck by association'.

So far, the most recent additions to the O'Connors' strange patchwork family had held up admirably. They'd climbed obediently into the backseat of Cole's old truck, listened stoically to the speeches, baked uncomplainingly under the hot Arizona sun while the coffin was lowered into the hard soil, and neither shifted nor blinked when Billy's entire clan eyed them distrustfully. That spoke of dedication. Not too bright, those two, but loyal and resilient. Rome could respect that.

"I think I'm gonna die next," muttered Vince, hardly moving his lips. His glassy-eyed stare never wavered from the sight of Zee Mimms distributing her home-made cactus jelly among the congregation in hopes of cheering them up.

"I'm hungry," Leon added mournfully and just as mesmerized. "Can we go now?"

Rome sighed. Oh well, it had been nice while it lasted. His own stomach growled insistently. All right, they'd definitely done their duty. They'd stood around, looked suitably serious, and represented the O'Connors since Cole had taken flight after the church service. Brian should be able to let it go now. He shook himself to let his body know it was allowed to move again and jerked his head to ease a crick in his neck.

"Let's go find Cole and take off."

"Thank you, thank you, thank you," Leon groaned, turned around, and headed straight for the exit, Vince at his heels.

"Yeah, thanks for helping me search," Rome grumbled, but couldn't suppress a grin. They'd held out longer than he'd expected.

As he sat on the backseat of Cole O'Connor's ancient pickup truck, hitting his head every third pothole or so and trying to tune out the country music blaring from the speakers, Leon couldn't help but notice that Rome was getting edgier and edgier the closer they got to the ranch. At first he thought the other man might just be getting ready to call first dibs on the shower, but careful observation put an end to that notion. Something else was bugging the man, and Leon had a solid theory about what it was.

They'd left Brian alone.

Worse, they'd left Brian alone with Dom. Rome had never bothered to hide his misgivings about Dom. Always the protector, Leon had kept an eye on him during the past two weeks to make sure Rome's antipathy didn't escalate. For a while there at the end, it had looked as if the man was coming to terms with the budding relationship between his oldest friend and Dom, but now the old tension was back with a vengeance.

Experience told Leon they were rapidly approaching the breaking point. Dom and Brian had crossed the line the night before the shootout, but none of them had yet had the time to deal with it. Ben and Matt had taken the anticipated development in stride, as had Cole and, surprisingly, Vince. Leon had had ample warning before and had personally given Dom his blessing. Rome... Rome was about to reach a decision whether or not to accept Brian's choice.

Considering that both Brian and Dom were still recovering from the injuries they'd sustained during Lance's thankfully brief visit, Rome's timing could've been better.

Vince had picked up on the rising tension in the car, too. He shared an uneasy look with Leon and leaned back with his arms crossed. It was his way of saying that he'd do his damnedest to keep out of it this time. His resolve probably wouldn't last - Vince was not good at staying on the sidelines when trouble was brewing - but it was a huge improvement that he was even trying.

By the time the truck came to a jerky halt in front of the house, the radio was the only thing that didn't broadcast bleak foreboding. Cole reached out and turned it off. The singer's yodeling stopped and was replaced by strained silence.

For a few minutes, the four men sat quietly and watched the house as if they half-expected it to explode. It didn't. Thank God for small favors.

Finally, with an exasperated huff, Cole pushed open the door and slid out. He wriggled out of his bolo tie, grabbed his hat, and marched off towards the corrals, muttering something about horses and feed and idiot boys.

Rome looked slightly panicked for a moment, then scowled and kicked open the door on the passenger side with a bit more force than necessary. "I'm gonna go check on Brian," he announced, belligerently.

"Fine," Vince replied blandly. "I'm gonna check on Dom."

Unable to restrain himself, Leon rolled his eyes. "Dudes, I'm gonna check on both of 'em. Git going," he ordered, and jumped out of the car before anybody could respond to his words. He set out towards the house with long strides, which forced Rome and Vince to jog after him with a distinct lack of dignity.

They tramped up the stairs and through the hall, took a right into the living room and opened their mouths to call out a greeting only to snap their jaws shut at the sight that presented itself to them.

At one point during the past few hours, Dom and Brian must've gotten up and taken a walk, because their dust-covered boots were lying in the middle of the room like forgotten hunting trophies. One empty and one half-empty glass of water stood on the table, no doubt leaving wet rings on the wooden surface, and... was that rice all over the floor? What the hell...?

The duo responsible for the mess wasn't where they'd left them either. The armchair stood empty and abandoned in front of the fireplace. Dom had moved to the couch, where he was perched perilously close to the edge, his back towards the room. Judging by the soft snores that drifted through the quiet, he was fast asleep. The only parts of Brian visible behind the wall of muscle was the curve of a blond head, a leg that was draped over Dom's thighs, and one tanned arm, slung possessively around Dom's waist.

As they watched, a shiver ran through both men and they pressed even closer together in an unconscious attempt to ward off the cold. They must've been hot upon their return from wherever they'd gone, so they'd cranked up the AC and then fallen asleep. Not the smartest thing they'd ever done.

Vince made a tiny movement towards the pair on the couch, but Leon stopped him with a firm grip and an unsubtle jerk of his head towards Rome. Brian's friend stood like a statue, his gaze fixed on the scene before them. Leon imagined he could hear the battle raging within him as he took in the picture of Brian sleeping in Dom's arms. So this was it. The moment of truth. Would Rome stomp out of the room in anger, or do something about the miserable quivering on the couch?

Dark eyes unreadable, Rome studied the couple. His gaze traveled over Brian's hand splayed over Dom's broad back, the sun-bronzed skin dark against the light t-shirt; it examined what little they could see of Brian's face, almost sweet in slumber. Eventually, it came to rest on one of Dom's wrists, the bandage very white against the dark fabric that covered Brian's shoulder. Leon had to suppress a shudder of his own at the memory of how his friend's wrists had looked at the hospital. In his desperation to get to Brian, Dom had fought the sharp plastic restraints so hard he'd cut deep gouges into his skin.

The reminder of Dom's frantic struggle proved to be the deciding factor. With a deep, heartfelt sigh, Rome went over to the wooden trunk in the corner and pulled out a soft wool blanket. His resolve faltered as he approached the couch. Leon and Vince held their breath. Rome shook off the hesitation and crossed the remaining distance with quick steps. He stared down at the couple for a second then carefully draped the blanket over Brian, leaving Dom bare.

Vince opened his mouth. Leon jabbed his elbow into his ribs, which shut Vince up just fine.

Across the room, Rome studied his handiwork with a not-so-happy face. He crossed his arms. He tapped his foot. He scowled fiercely.

Leon grinned.

Rome reached out again, grabbed the blanket, and pulled a corner of the material over Dom's torso. He scowled some more. Dom didn't look noticeably warmer. Rome muttered something unintelligible and probably remarkably rude, and rearranged the blanket until it covered both the men before him.

He turned around, pierced Vince and Leon with a dark glare, and stalked away to turn off the AC.

It wasn't much, but it was definitely a start.




"Ohhhhh, yeah. Now we're talking."

Brian stalked around the two cars that faced each other on an empty stretch of desert highway south of the border with a look of anticipatory glee. The black Supra was back to its usual majestic self, powerful and stylish and almost austere in its simple, dark coat. It sat on the road like a sliver of night. The neon-orange Supra flashed and sparkled in the sun, a lively contrast to its less flamboyant brother. It had spent the journey from its shed to the makeshift race track in the bowels of a rented truck, and seemed all too happy to be able to show its colors again.

"Thought you'd like that," Dom grinned, visibly pleased with himself.

White teeth flashed in a stunning smile. Brian was pleased. Very pleased. Extremely pleased. Extraordinarily pleased. He was also raring to get behind the wheel and finally find out which of his babies was faster.

"This is gonna be so good."

"This is stupid," Mia told him, still not overly enthused about the whole idea. "Goddamn it, Dom, couldn't you just buy a cake like a normal person?"

"Hey!" Brian protested. "I like my present!"

Dom nodded vigorously and raised pleading brows at his sister. "It's his birthday. I'm supposed to get him something he likes. You said so yourself."

Mia looked from Brian, who was slinking around the cars like a cat around two bowls of cream, to Vince, Leon and Rome, who were staring at her from beside the truck, and back to her brother, who was watching her anxiously.

"I was thinking about a new Stetson, or a new toolbox, or a trip to Rio. I didn't mean arrange an illegal street race on a deserted piece of highway so you two can find out which of your damn cars is faster! Who cares? You can't race yours anyway!"

"That's not the point," Brian told her. He came up behind Dom and leaned against his friend with the easy familiarity that still amazed and delighted Mia. If she'd known that all it'd take to get them back in synch was to add a sexual dimension to their relationship, she would've locked them into a bedroom months before.

"So what is the point?" she asked, already sure she wasn't going to like the answer.

Her brother and Brian shared a grin of mingled devilment and anticipation. Their eyes sparkled when they turned back to Mia and replied in unison,

"We wanna know."

Jesus Christ, and there she'd thought their racing days were finally over after all they'd been through separately and together. Part of her wanted to kick them for their cheerful, devil-may-care attitude, but at the same time she admired them for it. Brian's zest for life had reignited the spark that had almost disappeared in Dom after Lompoc, and it was hard to stay reasonable in the face of their combined fire. No sense deluding herself; Brian and Dom lived their lives at a faster pace than most people. They needed the thrill of speed, loved dancing on the razor's edge... and they were good at it.

Half a year after Dom had found Brian again in Arizona, they were stronger and happier than she'd ever seen them before. They wanted this race. Not only because it was Brian's birthday and he wasn't too fond of cake anyway, but because, consciously or subconsciously, they wanted to celebrate the fact that against all odds, they'd made it. They weren't merely surviving anymore; they were alive. Vibrantly, blissfully, passionately alive.

"Go," she said, no longer able to deny them. "Have fun."

They took off with matching brilliant smiles.

Too cute.

Brian slid into the seat, closed the door, fastened the seatbelt.

He turned the key and smiled when the beautiful machine around him came to a rumbling, growling life.

His foot eased down on the clutch; he let his hand caress the gearshift.

The Supra purred in expectation.

Mia raised her hand.

He leaned back, turned his head, looked at his partner in the familiar neon-orange car, and smiled. Dom smiled back. Beautiful. Confident. His.

Mia's arm jerked down.

And Dom and Brian spread their wings and flew.


The End

May 2004
(rewrites: January 2012)