Brian called on a Wednesday afternoon about a week after the solar storm and said, “Hey, man, you want to come over for dinner?”
“Yeah, sure,” Dom said. He didn’t think much of it, except maybe he needed to tell Brian and Mia he wasn’t going to break or anything. There’d been a lot of invitations. They’d both been calling a lot, too, or even just showing up, one or the other of them sometimes with the kids in tow. He didn’t mind that, furthest thing from, but he didn’t want them worrying.
He hadn’t talked a lot about it since Letty had handed him back the cross and gone, but there wasn’t a lot to say. That fucking mutant had wanted himself a driver, so he’d turned her into a blank slate, just reached into her head and scooped out all her memories and tossed them to the wind. For months, Dom had believed they were going to come back. Hell, so had Letty. He couldn’t blame her for needing to check out when they hadn’t. “I love you,” she’d said. “I love you like crazy, but I don’t fucking know why, and there’s nothing underneath it. It just comes at me out of nowhere when I look at you, and I can’t—”
It sucked, but there was no point in talking about it. It hurt bad enough to have lived through it, to feel like a widower all over again. But truth was, he wasn’t one, and he wasn’t going to lose sight of that. That fucker Shaw was a vegetable in a hospital like he deserved to be, never going to hollow out anybody’s skull again, and Letty was alive and safe and her own woman. If she never drove back into his garage, he’d still have that. Yeah, he’d gotten left. Lots of guys got left, for worse reasons. He was okay.
He had figured Mia and Brian had both gotten that much; they’d backed off little by little after the first couple weeks, and then the radiation warnings had kept them and the kids at home. They hadn’t ramped back up since then. Maybe they’d just been waiting, though, what with Brian calling him out of the blue two hours before dinner to get him over there.
But when Dom got out of his car at their place, Mia came out, happy to see him but surprised. “You’re lucky Brian asked me to make pasta, there’s going to be plenty,” she said, kissing him. “He’s in the garage,” and Dom got loud and clear that there was something up, and Brian didn’t want Mia knowing about it yet.
Jack was in the garage jumping up and down in the backseat of the GT-R Brian was working on. “Hey, hand me that wrench by your foot, would you?” Brian said, before Dom even got a word out, which made it even more clear. He got the wrench, and they spent the next hour doing some tune-up work on the brakes.
Mia made pasta so much like their ma’s that Dom ate about three helpings too many. Afterwards Jack demanded Uncle Dom for bedtime, and Dom drifted off somewhere in the middle of Harry Potter. He woke up with Jack dead to the world snuggled against his shoulder, untangled himself and went out yawning. Mia had taken Rachel off to nurse and put her down, but Brian was still sitting at the table, staring into a cup of coffee in front of him. Dom got one and sat down next to him. “All right,” he said. “Let’s have it.”
Brian drank the rest of his coffee off in a swallow. “Let’s go for a ride.”
He took Dom out in the GT-R, silent all the way along the back roads to the freeway entrance. He got on, slid all the way across to the HOV lane and onto the far shoulder, and put the car in park.
“Okay,” Dom said. “We going to get somewhere anytime soon?”
Brian was staring out the windshield. “Do you trust me?”
“What the fuck kind of question is that?” Dom said.
“If you say yes, I’m going to take you on the worst fucking ride of your life,” Brian said. “Do you trust me?”
They were in a pocket between streetlamps, headlights from the other side slicing Brian’s profile into orange-yellow and shadows. “Yeah, O’Conner,” Dom said. “I trust you. Do what you’ve got to do.”
Brian still didn’t move at first. Then he put the car into first gear, waited for an opening, and did a fast U-turn back onto the shoulder, turned them facing the oncoming traffic: the tail end of the rush hour crowd, a sea of headlights. Then he put the clutch all the way down and started revving her up, RPMs climbing. Dom stared at him and then out at half of fucking downtown Los Angeles coming right at them. “Brian,” Dom said.
“Don’t get cold feet on me now, man,” Brian said, but he wasn’t grinning; his face was grim and locked down. He yanked the brake. Smoke climbed up behind them from the tires burning out against the pavement, plumes thick enough Dom smelled them even with the windows sliding closed, and then Brian slammed down the brake and “Holy fucking shit!” Dom yelled, grabbing the dash, because Brian wasn’t just driving into traffic, he was goddamn flooring it like he was going for a ten-second quarter-mile right in the middle of the freeway, and there were headlights in their—Brian jerked the wheel, and back, and then dragged them three lanes of traffic straight over—
Twelve cars hit them, a semi fucking totaled them, they spun out and flattened into mush against the median, except none of those things happened. Dom saw the end coming every time, too fast to do anything about, and it never happened. Brian kept accelerating. The engine roared wild as tigers in Dom’s ears and the g-force pushed him into his seat, choking the air out of his throat. Cars were honking like crazy at them, but Brian just kept finding one hole after another and taking them, going: seven seconds, eight seconds, nine, another thirty goddamn ways to die blowing by, and then Brian spun her around again and landed right in the lane for his own damn exit.
Dom still had his hand on the dash and another gripping the strap, his heart still rocketing up and his breath coming in fast, like he’d been accelerating too and hadn’t reached top speed yet. Brian pulled off the highway and drove away through the back streets for a couple minutes, and then he parked in front of some random suburban house and killed his engine and his lights.
“The fuck, O’Conner,” Dom said, when he could say anything.
“We ran out of milk last week,” Brian said.
“What?” Dom said.
“We ran out of milk.” Brian was staring out the windshield, hands gripped tight over the top of the steering wheel. “Mia took the jug out of the fridge, Jack grabbed her leg, the whole thing went all over the floor. He screamed for half an hour because he couldn’t have his cereal with milk. So I went out and got some. I was in the sun for maybe three minutes, all told.”
“Jesus,” Dom said, sick, his throat knotting up hard.
In the streetlamp light, Brian’s face looked stricken. “How do I tell Mia?”
“You don’t tell Mia shit,” Dom said. “There’s nothing to fucking tell her—”
Brian slammed both hands down against the steering wheel. “Dom!” he said. “You saw it! You fucking saw it! Could you do that? Could anybody you know, any driver in the whole world, the best guys you’ve ever seen, could any of them do it? Could I fucking do it? Three days ago, could I do it? Dom, I’m a—”
“Shut the fuck up, O’Conner,” Dom bellowed at him. He ran both his hands together down his face and tried to pull his brain together, figure something out, but all he could see was an ocean of cars coming at them and Brian driving through them, top speed, like they’d laid out a path for him to travel. Dom knew he couldn’t have done it. Nobody could’ve done it. It wasn’t about nerve or skill: nobody could react that fast. No human. “How the fuck did you do it?”
Brian shrugged, small move of his shoulders. After a moment he said, “You know, I always used to think that—that everybody knew, and they just didn’t have the balls to follow through.”
“Knew what?” Dom said.
“The next move. Where to go. But now—” He stopped and swallowed. “Now I know every move, for the whole next quarter-mile. And now I know that everybody doesn’t see it, because I didn’t use to.”
Dom stared out the window. Every move. Where every opening was going to be, every car along the way—? Jesus fucking Christ. “It doesn’t matter,” he said after a moment, harshly. “You don’t pull anything like that again, we forget this ever happened.”
Brian didn’t say anything for a few moments. “Dom,” he said, so quiet Dom could barely hear it. “Dom, you don’t get it.” He gulped, and then he said, “The X-gene is dominant. I looked it up.”
“What the fuck does that mean?” Dom said, his heart revving up. “They didn’t go out in the storm, did they?”
“It doesn’t take radiation exposure,” Brian said. “It hits most kids in early childhood or puberty. I’ve probably had it since I was a kid. The storm just made it worse. If they’ve got the gene, if the kids got it—from me—oh, fuck,” and he put his head down against his knuckles, his voice cracking wide open. Dom grabbed him and hauled him in close, and held Brian’s head against his shoulder while he sobbed.
Going to the official testers was like betting your kids at a craps table. Dom had planned to be done with playing on the far side of the law, but he still knew guys. Three or four calls to the right people got him a cellphone number for an underground tester, and after he sent five grand to a Caymans account, he got an address and a time in a text message from an unknown number. He and Brian drove there and met a lab assistant in a rent-by-the-hour office space, a scared little mouse of a guy whose eyes went darting back and forth between them when they walked in, nervous. He didn’t give them a name, and they didn’t give him theirs, either. He took four vials of blood out of Brian’s arm and said they’d get another text in three days or less, depending.
“Depending on what?” Dom said.
“How fully expressed the mutation is,” the assistant said, which didn’t mean a lot to either of them. “If it’s a minor mutation,” his eyes darted back to Brian’s face, up and down his body, like he was trying to see what it was, “it can take up to three days to detect the minimal threshold level to classify you as—for mutant classification.”
Brian looked away. “Let’s go,” he said shortly.
They were eating lunch at a dive bar three hours later when the burner phone in Dom’s pocket buzzed. Brian looked up and saw Dom’s face, and he sat back and stared out at the beach. Dom took it out. Positive, alpha-level. He didn’t know what alpha-level meant, and he didn’t want to know, either: positive was bad enough. He tossed the phone on the ground behind the rear tire before they pulled out and went home.
They still hadn’t told Mia, but she was waiting for them at the kitchen table when they got there, her face set. “Tell me,” she said. Brian went over to her chair and slid to his knees and buried his face in her lap. She bent over him, her arms going around his head, and Dom stepped out into the living room and stood in the middle of the room, head bowed, fighting not to put his fist into the wall.
“We’re not taking the kids to a guy in a back alley,” Mia said afterwards. She called three moms she knew from Jack’s preschool and got a quiet referral to a Dr. Redmond, a real pediatrician with a real office in a downtown building, who shut the door behind them when they came into her exam room.
“Before we start,” Redmond said, “I just want to be clear up front. I do this on a confidential basis, but if my testing turns up something that suggests your children are a danger to others, you need to work with me to develop a management plan that will keep them and others safe. If you refuse to do so, if you don’t return my calls, that’s when I call the authorities. I have never needed to do so, just to be clear, but that’s my bottom line. If you aren’t willing to accept that, I can’t help you.”
Brian and Mia both nodded. “We wouldn’t want anybody else to get hurt,” Mia said.
“If we have to, we’ll homeschool them, we’ll get a different house somewhere else,” Brian said.
Dom didn’t say anything, leaning against the back wall with his arms folded. Far as he was concerned, they got anything that worried the doctor that bad, they were taking the kids and heading straight south until they made it to one of the countries that didn’t even register mutants, much less take them from their parents.
“Okay, good,” Dr. Redmond said. “That said, I now want you both to try and relax. There are no external signs of mutation, and you say they’re asymptomatic. Even if one parent is a carrier, based on the literature it’s only about a ten percent chance of their actually manifesting any noticeable mutation. Which of you is the known carrier?”
“Me,” Brian said.
“Is your mutation active? Any physical symptoms?”
“It’s active,” he said. “Nothing physical. It’s—I don’t really know how to describe it. It’s like I can see ten seconds into the future, I guess.”
“Well, that doesn’t seem too dangerous,” Dr. Redmond said. “All right, here’s what I suggest. I’ll test the children for the presence of the X-gene. If they come back positive, we’ll do an MRI on you and see if we can spot anything unusual in your brain physiology. Mutations in families are often related, so if we see what’s going on with you, it’s a good idea of what to look for in the kids as they get older, even if they aren’t expressing mutation now.”
The doctor took the blood herself. Rachel cried in outrage for thirty seconds and then forgot about it, but Jack howled for ten minutes until they finally caved and shoved a lollipop in his mouth. “In case you were wondering, that’s not a symptom of mutation,” the doctor said cheerfully. “Just of being three.”
“Glad to hear it,” Dom said, wincing a little.
“When—when do we get the results?” Mia said.
“The genetic test results will come back within a week,” Dr. Redmond said. “If they’re actually expressing the gene, we’ll get results sooner from the blood test. Of course, if that happens, that’s good news. If their mutation is already active and you haven’t noticed anything, that’s great.” She smiled. “The boring reality is that more than ninety percent of mutations are gamma-level, and ninety percent of those are benign.”
“What does that mean?” Mia said. “Gamma-level?”
“Mutations are classified according to degree of expression, which generally correlates with the—power of the mutation, for lack of a better term,” Dr. Redmond said. “The mutants you hear about on TV, the ones ripping up stadiums and mind-controlling entire rooms of people, those are the alpha-level ones. There probably aren’t more than a hundred of them in the entire country.”
Dom didn’t let anything show on his face. He hadn’t told Brian, hadn’t told Mia. He didn’t plan on telling them, either. It wouldn’t matter until it mattered, and they didn’t need any more to worry about. Just because you were the only guy in the country who could drive backwards on the highway didn’t mean your kids were going to be blowing up their elementary school.
“Try not to dwell too much while you’re waiting,” Dr. Redmond said. “Remember that if your kids are X-positive, they’ve been that way their entire lives. Chances are they aren’t, and chances are if they are, it’s not something to worry about.”
The call came two days later. “Both of them?” Brian said, his voice tight on the line, and the next morning Dom went with him to the radiology center to meet a technician who had a mutant kid that Dr. Redmond had helped. The scans came back with a big extra chunk of brain at the base of Brian’s skull that most people didn’t have, and Dr. Redmond stopped telling them not to worry anymore.
She asked Brian a whole lot more questions about his mutation, what it’d been like before the sunstorm. “I’m reluctant to put the children through an MRI given that you aren’t seeing symptoms in them yet,” she said, “but I won’t lie, we are going to be watching them both like hawks.”
“Should we take Jack out of nursery school?” Brian asked, low.
“No,” she said. “Not yet.”
They were walking back to the car, silent, Mia holding Rachel tight and Brian carrying Jack, when Dr. Redmond came running out of the building to catch them. “You need to come back in,” she said, and behind the closed door of her office she said, “I’m sorry. The genetic results just came back. Rachel is a double carrier.”
“What?” Mia said, clutching her tighter. “What does that mean?”
“It means she has two copies of the X-gene,” Dr. Redmond said. “She inherited it from both sides. You’re positive as well.”
Dom felt almost relieved to have her take his blood along with Mia’s. At least he wasn’t on the outside of it anymore, helpless, watching the people he loved most in the world go through fucking hell. He didn’t doubt for a second he was positive, too: it made all the sense in the world all of a sudden. Him, and Mia, and Brian; it was racing, had to be, something like Brian’s one-second-edge, and the radiation burst had just kicked his up a notch.
Dom didn’t know what it was going to be, but he was ready for it when he came out of the MRI machine—the tech had squeezed them both in that same day, half an hour after the place was supposed to close—and then Redmond looked at his and Mia’s scans and shook her head. “No, you both have altered brain physiology, but it’s not similar to Brian’s at all. He’s got a medulla and brain stem modification. They’re extremely uncommon – the theory is most mutations that low down aren’t viable, and the handful in the literature are all over the place in terms of function. You and your sister both have classic prefrontal cortex mutations, those are relatively common. It’s normally associated with—well, the ability to affect brain activity in other living creatures. Have people you interacted with ever,” she hesitated and then said, “have they ever done things for you that were strongly against their own interests? Taken unusual risks for you?”
Dom stared at Brian across the room and Jesus fucking Christ, he wasn’t ready for it at all.
“Mia’s ordering Chinese,” Brian said, coming back outside. He and Mia had carried the kids inside, put them to bed. Dom didn’t answer him. Brian came to stand next to him, leaning against the railing of the porch. “Dom,” he said.
“Not now,” Dom said, by which he meant not the fuck ever. He went down the stairs and into the garage, started putting away the tools they’d left out when Redmond’s first call had come—that morning, Jesus; the whole fucking world turned upside down in less than twelve hours.
Brian followed him, leaned against the side of the open bay. “You aren’t seriously sold on the idea you mind-controlled me into—I don’t know, my entire life? You asshole.”
Dom didn’t look up. Didn’t matter what Brian said. What was there for Brian to say? He had a wife, he had two kids. But it had never made any fucking sense—Brian handing him the keys to his own car, Brian slamming his whole life into the garbage a second time over to break him out of prison. Even Brian giving up everything to make Mia happy. There was a fucking minivan in the driveway, for Chrissakes.
Brian hadn’t ever been able to explain why he’d done any of it, and Dom had taken it for granted. Because people did crazy shit for him, with him, they always had. Even if they didn’t have a damn reason, even if—even if somebody had ripped every reason they’d ever had out of their heads. Christ, Letty.
“Forget about it,” he said flatly, sick to his stomach.
“Yeah, soon as you do,” Brian said. “She even said your mutation is gamma-level, Toretto, you’re not making me do anything I don’t want to.”
“Then there’s no problem,” Dom said.
“I’m seriously going to beat the shit out of you,” Brian said. His phone rang, which at least saved Dom from the fucking conversation for a minute. “Yeah, Roman, that you? Hey, man, I can barely hear you, there’s a helicopter—” He stopped, and then he dropped the phone and ran for the house, shouting, “Mia! Mia, get Rachel, now!”
Dom grabbed the phone almost before it hit the ground. “Roman? What the fuck?”
“Dom, man, I don’t have any idea, but I got a call from Baby Oil five seconds ago saying I needed to tell my pastiest friend to run, and that’s all he said before he hung up on me,” Roman said. “So I think wherever you are, you better haul your ass on out.”
Brian was already coming out of the house, carrying two backpacks and a crying, half-asleep Jack on his shoulder. Dom took Jack from him as Mia came running out, carrying Rachel in her arms with the baby carrier half on. “We’ll take the Charger,” Dom said. “It’s got more muscle for hauling people.”
Brian put out a hand and caught his arm, stopped him. Dom looked at him: Brian was staring at the cars one after another, sound of the helicopter getting closer with every second, and then he said, “We’re not going to make it that way.”
“What?” Dom said.
“This way, come on,” Brian said, and he dumped one of the backpacks and took Rachel from Mia and ran. Dom traded a look with Mia as they took off after him, headed for the top of the hill behind the house where the zig-zag trail went all the way down to the beach. Brian stopped at the top and stared down, and then he turned and gave Mia the last backpack. “Okay,” he said. “You need to just go, straight down. Keep your arms out, and don’t step on the big rock, jump it. Go.”
“Brian,” she said.
“We don’t have time, go,” Brian said, and Mia took a deep breath and went, flying down the hill. Brian turned. “Put Jack against your front,” he told Dom, pulling off his own hoodie and tying it over Jack’s head and shoulders. “Yeah, I’m sorry buddy, hang in there,” he said; Jack was crying and fighting it. He took Dom by the arm and guided him to a spot at the top of the hill. “There. When you start to slide, don’t try to get your feet, just go with it and put your face against Jack’s head. Go.”
The sky was going darker every second, and the hillside looked solid black. Dom wrapped his arms around Jack and went for it, dirt and rocks scattering out from under his feet, raining against the bushes, branches slapping at his legs and arms. Almost three quarters of the way down, the slope went out from under him, and he just grabbed Jack closer and skidded the whole rest of the way on his ass with his eyes closed, dirt hitting his head. When he got up at the bottom, Brian was coming down the hill with Rachel, running flat-out. There were already lights sweeping around the top of the hill above them. “Now what?” Dom said.
Brian led them around the corner to the beach’s postage-stamp parking lot. There was a little cheap-ass sun tent set up with a car sitting right underneath it, tools scattered around and a tarp covering it. Brian yanked the tarp off.
“What the fuck is this?” Dom said: even in the dark he could see it was a ’67 Coronet, beautiful, rigged out to the nines.
“Your birthday present,” Brian said, handing Rachel in to Mia as she scrambled into the back seat. “You don’t need to belt the kids in,” he told her, and she nodded and held out her hands for Jack, took him from Dom and got him settled with his head in her lap, murmuring to him and quieting down his crying.
The helicopter was circling in tight overhead, long beam still sweeping back and forth across the top of the hill. Brian took the car out slow, no lights, rolling down the road away from the beach and around the curve of the hill. They crept along, and Dom craned forward to look up out the front windshield: on the road higher up, the one that led to their house, there were walls of police cars with flashing lights blocking the way.
Dom sat back and looked at him. “How did you know they were there?”
Brian stared out at the dark road open ahead of them. “I didn’t. There just wasn’t any way to go.” The copter and the searchlights went out of sight in the rear window. Brian put his foot down hard, and took the Coronet straight up to a hundred miles per hour down the road, heading for the freeway.
Dom called Elena’s cell from a pay phone at a rest stop outside Temecula, maybe a hundred miles from the Mexico border. “Hey,” he said.
“Yes,” she said, and hung up. He waited by the phone. It was still dark out, stars clear across the sky, dry hot breeze against his skin. The kids were fast asleep in Mia’s arms in the back seat, and Brian was under the hood of the car, fixing up a few things. Dom watched him working, his hands moving over the ticking engine, sure and cool and steady. His brother, his friend; the guy who’d put his life on the line for him over and over, a gift Dom had thought Brian kept giving him.
Except it turned out Dom had taken it.
The phone rang after a couple minutes. “Just tell me something, Toretto,” Hobbs said. “Did somebody shove O’Conner outside during that sunstorm, or does he not have the goddamn sense God gave a flea?”
“He didn’t know he was a mutant,” Dom said. “None of us did.”
“Yeah, well, a lot of people know it now,” Hobbs said.
“Who are the ones after us?”
“The entire United States fucking government,” Hobbs said. “In the person of none other than Colonel William Stryker, head of the Mutant Response Unit of Homeland Security.”
Dom stared at the phone. “Jesus Christ, Hobbs! We’re not bin Laden or that asshole Magneto. What the fuck does he want with us?”
Hobbs paused for a long moment. “Are you shitting me, Toretto?” he said, slow and measured. “I’m talking to you right now because you just waltzed around a highly-armed elite military squad, the one whose job it is to catch mutants, like they weren’t even there. With less than five minutes’ warning, zero preparation, civilian gear, and two small kids in tow. What does he want with you?”
Brian had finished up under the hood. He lowered it down slow and quiet not to wake the kids, and then he looked over at Dom. He was lit up like a target under the one streetlamp shining straight down. “Brian,” Dom said, cold. “He wants Brian.”
“No shit,” Hobbs said. “He’s not the only one, either.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Stryker thinks the Mutant Brotherhood’s got a line on you,” Hobbs said. “I had warning because he tried to sell me on bringing you in before they got there first.”
“What the fuck do they have against us?” Dom said.
“According to Stryker, they’ve been trying to break into a facility with stockpiles of weapons-grade uranium,” Hobbs said. “They’ve struck out a couple of times. They might be looking for a helping hand.”
Brian had walked over to join him. His face was hard. “Ask Hobbs if the feds would let me come in to him,” he said. “Alone.”
Dom glared at him. But Hobbs had heard it anyway. “I’ve been trying to get the people upstairs to let me offer you a deal since I got the first smell of Stryker going after you,” he said. “No one’s taking my calls. Everyone’s spooked about mutants these days, and Stryker’s the only one who’s ever made any real headway bringing them in and keeping them under control. Nobody’s willing to balk him.”
“Wasn’t an option anyway,” Dom said flatly. “We’re getting out, together.”
“Easier said than done,” Hobbs said. “There are only four countries in the world that don’t either register or extradite, and the Brotherhood’s in charge of all of them. Believe me, the last thing you want is to get out of Stryker’s frying pan and into their fire.”
“So where the fuck does that leave?” Dom said.
“I’ve only got one option for you, and it’s not anything I’d recommend,” Hobbs said. “But there’s an independent mutant safehouse in upstate New York. Not Brotherhood-affiliated. They might be your best shot.”
“New York, huh?” Dom said. “And when Stryker shows up with a warrant?”
“Stryker won’t touch the place,” Hobbs said. “Way I hear it, the scariest mutant in the entire world lives there, and not even Stryker’s ready to pick a fight with him.”
Yeah, that sounded fucking great. Dom hung up the phone and looked at the car. Two hundred miles to Mexico. Brazil was still too hot to hold them. Costa Rica, maybe. He looked at Brian. “All right, O’Conner,” he said. “Which is it going to be? New York, or Costa Rica?”
“I don’t think it works that way, man,” Brian said.
“Yeah? Well, try.” Dom pointed at the highway. “Look down that road, you see us on it? Put yourself there, you know what the border crossing looks—”
“Oh, shit,” Brian said on a strangled inhale, and Dom jerked around and then grabbed for him, because Brian’s eyes had just filmed right over, solid white. Brian grabbed at his shoulder with a frantic grip; his whole body was stiffening up, rigid.
“Brian!” Dom said. “Jesus Christ, stop, Brian, come back to me—”
He had his hand on Brian’s face, trying to turn his head away from the road, and just as fast as it’d started Brian went limp and nearly collapsed into him, gasping for breath, the film coming off his eyes like somebody had swiped a hand through fog on a window pane.
“Christ, O’Conner, don’t you ever do that again,” Dom said, hefting him up.
Brian leaned against him, shivering. “It worked,” he croaked out.
“We can’t go that way. Dead end. I don’t know why, but it’s a dead end.”
“Jesus,” Dom said, and wiped a hand down his face. “All right. New York it is.”
They swapped the car in San Diego. Dom knew a racer who didn’t mind keeping the Coronet under wraps in his garage for a few days, long enough to see them to the East Coast. The new car was an anonymous silver-gray Civic with some decent mods under the hood. Dom took the first leg, cutting up north through Arizona into Utah and getting off the obvious route, burning up miles along empty southwest roads. Brian slept in the passenger seat, except just outside Cedar City he stirred and put a hand on Dom’s leg and murmured, “Speed limit,” without even really waking up.
Dom dropped about eighty miles off the speedometer and slid into the middle lane. He stayed there right past two big speed traps, cops pulling a dozen cars off the road, until Brian said, “Okay,” and he could accelerate back up again.
Jack was awake by then and being three years old on a long road trip, whining and bored when he wasn’t asleep. They’d tossed their cellphones, so he didn’t have his games. At the end of the afternoon, getting close to Kansas, they stopped at a Cracker Barrel to give him and themselves a break, and after they ate, they let him run around in the store playing with all the toys, and picked out half a dozen car-ride games. Mia took him up to the register and handed over the cash with a tired smile for the woman at the register.
Dom was standing next to her, watching the room, when Brian came walking fast out of the bathroom with Rachel and the diaper bag half open, armful of things hanging out. One look at his face told Dom something was wrong. He looked around: the cashier was fumbling at the register, her hands shaking, carefully not looking at them.
“Keep the change,” Dom said flatly and grabbed Jack up from the floor. Mia got it right away, picked up the stack of toys and followed him outside.
Brian caught up with them and put Rachel into Mia’s arms. “Go, get into the car,” he said, and turned around: through the window Dom could see the woman at the register on the phone, and pointing at them, and five big guys, truckers, were coming out into the parking lot.
“Brian!” Dom said.
“Go with Mia!” Brian shouted, and took off running right at the truckers like a fucking lunatic.
The first one took a swing at him, but Brian ducked under it, got the guy in the midsection and carried him straight into the two behind him. He whirled around and socked the fourth guy across the jaw, and jammed an elbow back into the throat of the last one. It looked like dancing more than fighting, like they were all moving to meet his hits on purpose.
“Dom!” Mia grabbed his arm, and he jerked and ran for the car with her. She scrambled into the back, already getting Rachel into the carrier, and Dom got the car going and pulled up right next to Brian, who slugged one last guy staggering back up and dived into the passenger side.
“Pull over,” Brian said, a mile down the road, and took the wheel. He pulled off into side streets, taking one turn after another through a tree-lined suburb until he broke out onto a state road on the other side and started picking up speed again.
Brian kept going straight through the night. He pulled off the highway a few times, dived into side streets with no rhyme or reason. Dom vaguely knew each time it happened, dozing, but he woke up for real the third time, somewhere in the early hours of the night, and sat up rubbing his face. Mia and the kids were asleep in the back, Jack’s head pillowed on Mia’s leg with her arm around him, protective, and Rachel in the carrier. No streetlamps, no houses, no other cars, solid black of fields on either side under a charcoal-grey sky. Brian was drinking Red Bull and rolling down the long dark road, following some roadmap being laid out in his head as far as the headlights could reach.
“Figure they’ve got the plates?” Dom said.
“Yeah, I guess,” Brian said. “I don’t know. Could just be make and model, the roads are pretty empty around now.”
“We’re going to have to ditch the car.”
Brian nodded. “We’ll just buy one,” he said. “There’s a hundred grand in the backpack.”
“Yeah,” Dom said. They’d get the new car in the morning. Once he’d gotten Brian and Mia into it, he’d take the Honda and head south—run it past a few squad cars, let them see the plates and pass the word. He could outrun them for a long while before they finally cornered him and figured out they’d been decoyed. Enough breathing room for Brian to get Mia and the kids away safe. Dom shut his eyes again, plan settling square into place. Felt right, felt like bringing things back to level between them, where they belonged.
Brian got drive-through for breakfast and pulled into a deserted rest area outside Gary, Indiana. There was a half-rotten phonebook underneath the pay-phone booths, and Dom ripped out a couple of pages of used-car dealerships nearby. They got lucky and found an SRT8 Grand Cherokee, overpriced at the forty grand the dealer wanted, but beggars couldn’t be choosers, and the V8 looked like it was in good shape. They bounced it, then Dom got underneath while Brian poked around some more under the hood. He pulled out and looked up, Brian looked down at him, and they nodded and handed over the cash.
Dom waited until Brian had the keys in hand, and then he headed back for the Honda. He had the key in the ignition when Brian opened up the passenger door and sat down next to him and slammed it shut after him. “So what was the idea,” he said tightly, staring out the windshield. “Lead them away from us, go out in a blaze of glory, that kind of thing? And then what, we’d be even?”
“Christ,” Dom muttered. Brian had always had his number, but this was just fucking annoying. “O’Conner—”
“You need to get the fuck over yourself, you know that?” Brian said. “My life is not about you mind-controlling me.”
“That’s not what this is about,” Dom said. What the fuck did Brian know, anyway. Yeah, maybe Dom wasn’t in charge of every fucking minute, but he’d sure as hell gotten Brian to go his way when it counted. “This is about getting your family to safety. That’s what matters.”
“Yeah, Dom, that is what matters. My family. Including you.”
Brian had that mulish look on his face, the way he got when he was going over the nearest goddamn cliff and you weren’t going to stop him. Dom ran a hand over his face. “Splitting up makes sense,” he said. “More chance at least one of us stays loose.”
“Yeah, see, I might buy that if I thought for one second you were planning on staying loose. But you don’t. Because you’ve just locked onto this idea that you’ve fucked me over somehow, and you won’t let go of it, and it’s just so fucking—!” Brian cut himself off, his voice rising, and pressed his mouth tight. After a minute he said, low, “Look, man, I’ll make it clear the hard way if I have to, but I really wish you’d give me some other option, because I don’t—”
He stopped again, and Dom frowned over at him, wondering what the hell Brian was even talking about. Brian still wasn’t looking at him. He’d folded his hands together on the dashboard and was leaning against them, his face with that focused look Dom was starting to recognize, the one that meant the engine in the back of his skull was running hot.
“You know, I can tell you to the actual second when I fell for Mia,” Brian said abruptly. “She took me driving—you know that turn on Beckford, the hairpin? She took me around that thing at—shit, must have been eighty miles an hour, not even a tap on the brakes, and then she looked at me and laughed.”
Dom swallowed hard, something tight and glad in his throat. He knew that turn, he knew the way Mia could spin a car like it was on a turntable, her light touch on the gas and just the right twist of the wheel.
Brian was smiling a little, light in his eyes, remembering. “She wasn’t showing off, was the thing. She was just doing it for the hell of it, because it was such a great feeling, and she wanted me to be in it with her. She wanted me to feel it. That’s when I fell in love with her.”
“Yeah,” Dom said softly.
Brian nodded. “And—do you remember that day in the garage when we craned the engine out of the Supra? You forgot to lock the swivel joint—”
Dom snorted. “Yeah, I remember. Nearly brained both of us, and you just started laughing like a fucking nutcase. Now you’re finally going to give me shit for that?”
Brian huffed a laugh. “See, what I remember is after it nearly took us both out, you just—you lost it, man. I’ve never seen anybody get that mad at themselves ever. You were cursing yourself out worse than I’ve ever seen you go after anybody—”
“It was a fucking stupid mistake!” Dom said. “I’ve locked that joint and double-checked it a million fucking times—”
Brian was looking over at him and grinning now, wide and bright. “Yeah, see, that’s what I’m talking about.” Dom scowled at him. “And you just kept going, for like five minutes solid, and then you finally turn around and look at me and just glare, so fucking pissed off I’d just witnessed it, the great Dominic Toretto screwing up—”
“Fuck off, O’Conner,” Dom said.
Brian just kept going. “And I couldn’t help it, I busted out laughing, and you had like—this second, this one second, when you were thinking about beating the shit out of me, and then you started laughing with me too, and we just—we were lying on the fucking floor hysterical and Jesse came in and thought were had lost our fucking minds—”
“We had lost our fucking minds,” Dom said, but he couldn’t help it; he was grinning, helplessly, because he did remember it; he hadn’t even been able to say why he’d been laughing, except it had been a hell of a great feeling.
Brian was smiling back at him, but there was something strange about it, like his mouth was trembling a little, and then he said, “And that’s the second when I fell in love with you.”
“When you what?” Dom said, blankly.
Brian looked away, blew out a breath hard, and then he turned and leaned in, caught Dom’s head in his hands, and—kissed him, full on the mouth—not just one peck but all-out, full-throttle kissing, all over him, Brian’s tongue sliding against his lip like an invitation, the kind of kissing that was flat-out sex—
Dom grabbed Brian by the shoulders and shoved him off, held him at arm’s length, staring at him. “What the fuck, O’Conner!”
“Yeah,” Brian said, panting a little. “So how about it, still think this is your idea?”
Dom didn’t know what to do, whether he wanted to punch Brian in the face or—or—punching him sounded pretty good right now, actually, because what the fuck. This was not his idea, this was nowhere fucking near any idea Dom had ever had in his life, Jesus, and—and Mia, for Christ’s sake, what the hell was Brian even—
Brian actually laughed in his face, a bark of a laugh, short and sharp. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, Toretto, you’re really in fucking charge of me.”
“Is this—fucking Christ, Brian, are you pulling this stunt on purpose?” Dom said, starting to get pissed off. “Are you fucking trying to convince me—”
“Oh, Jesus,” Brian said, his voice cracking a little, and jerked out of his hands. He turned away from Dom in the seat, shifted his whole body so he’d blocked Dom out of his peripheral vision. “Fuck you, Dom, you don’t even—you don’t fucking realize—”
He stopped, and Dom could see his jaw working, swallowing. After a moment he said, “My mom walked out on me and my dad when I was five. Just left. She’s alive, actually, I just haven’t seen her since. I found out maybe ten years later she’d married some other guy in another state, had a couple kids with him. I’ve never met them. She never called, she never wrote.”
Dom flinched, whiplashed; it was the worst fucking thing he’d ever heard. He was still angry enough to slug Brian, but he wanted to pull him into his arms at the same time.
“And my dad,” Brian said, “well, I told you about him a little. The reason I’m into cars is my bus stop from school was right in front of an auto shop. He paid the guys there fifty bucks a week to keep me there when I got home from school, starting in kindergarten. They had me do odd jobs—help wash the cars, pick up screws from the floor, mix paint, that kind of shit. He’d pick me up about as late as he could, seven or eight, give me takeout and turn on the TV. That was it. Weekends he kicked me out into the back yard or told me to go ride my bike.
“Yeah, I know,” Brian said, like Dom had said the words he wanted to say, what kind of a fucking person does that, “but the thing is, I didn’t really mind that much. I didn’t care, Dom. Because I didn’t love them either. Truth is, Dom, I don’t remember loving anybody. Not one person. Even Rome, not then. Back then, he was just a guy I did shit with sometimes. I had girlfriends, but that was just—”
He shrugged. Dom’s hands were clenched on his thighs, like he could go back and haul Brian’s parents up and punch them in the fucking face a few dozen times. “Brian,” he said.
“I thought love was just bullshit, actually,” Brian said, as if he hadn’t said anything. “I thought everybody only pretended to love people, that it was just something people said. So when I say I remember to the second when I fell in love with you, I’m not talking out of my ass, Dom. I remember to the second because the whole fucking world changed. Like I’d been in the dark my whole life, and then the sun came out.”
He looked at Dom straight on. “And for all I know, maybe that was your mutation,” he said. “You and Mia, maybe you did make me fall in love with you or something. But the thing is, Dom, I don’t really give a shit, because if somebody tried to take it away from me, I’d kill them.”
Brian sacked out in the back of the Jeep behind the second row of seats, pillowed on his hoodie and invisible from the driver’s seat. Dom took the wheel and drove, pissed off and turned around in about thirty different ways. Mia sat with the kids in the back seat for about an hour, singing until the road got them and they both fell asleep. Then she climbed over the console into the passenger seat and punched Dom in the arm so hard he nearly swerved the car out of the lane.
“What the fuck, Mia!”
“I don’t believe you!” she hissed at him.
“What, you saw—and you think that was my idea?” Dom said. “Christ, Mia, I don’t know what the fuck’s going through O’Conner’s head, but you can leave me the fuck out of—” and then had to jerk to catch Mia’s hand mid-air before she slammed another punch into him.
“Brian gutted himself for you, and you think I’m mad at him?” she snarled, trying to get loose to hit him again.
“Are you kidding me?” Dom said. “So what, you don’t mind if your husband just laid one on me, wants to fucking make it with me—”
“For God’s sake, Dom, you think Brian wanted to tell you any of that?” Mia said. “He’s not stupid, he knows you don’t feel the same way. He’s always known.”
It was like he’d fallen into some fucking twilight zone universe. “You’re telling me you know about this?”
“Yes, Dom, I know about it,” Mia said. “And I don’t care, because I also know he loves me more than his life. What I do care about is you making him rip himself open just to get through to you, and then you act like he’s insulted your manhood or some bullshit.”
Jesus. “He didn’t need to say anything,” Dom snapped.
“Like hell he didn’t,” Mia said. “He had to do something, don’t you get it? Because otherwise, there was a dead end up ahead for you, and I think you know that anyway, because you were ready to drive yourself right into it.”
Dom stared at the road, out of words. Mia wiped her cheeks angrily with the back of her hand. “And you know what else I think?” she said. “I think you wanted to believe you were mind-controlling Brian.”
“Mia,” Dom said warningly.
“No,” she said, “no, I’m right, aren’t I? You’ve always wanted to own him. Even before he had superpowers.” She huffed a laugh. “But Dom, Brian’s not ours because you’re making him do anything. He’s ours because he loves us.”
“Yeah, us,” he muttered.
“If you didn’t know Brian loved you, you’re an idiot.”
“That’s not the same thing and you know it,” Dom said.
“It is for Brian,” Mia said. “You know him, Dom! He doesn’t have a line, he doesn’t just go so far and stop, not with either of us. So yes, he wants anything and everything you’d give him. Are you really that surprised?”
“How the fuck is this even a conversation we’re having is what I want to know,” Dom said. Mia punched him again. “Goddammit, Mia, I’m driving!”
“We’re having it because you were going to take off and get yourself killed!” Mia said. “I swear to God! You want me to care about Brian kissing you?” She sat back with her arms wrapped around herself and glared out the window, smoke practically coming off her. The quarter-miles slid by in silence for a while, a dozen of them. Then Mia said abruptly, like she’d just thought it over again and decided, “I don’t care. I don’t care, and I really don’t care if you think I should care. Fuck you, it’s not like you ever minded before, when Brian was jumping out of windows for you.”
And fuck, he hadn’t minded; he hadn’t minded at all. He hadn’t minded when he’d thought Brian was doing it because he believed Dom had something going; he hadn’t minded when he’d thought Brian was doing it out of loyalty and the kind of love that went to the finish line and stopped there. And yeah, Mia had his number, even if he didn’t like to admit it: he’d only half minded when he’d thought he’d been making Brian do it, because at least that way Brian wasn’t going anywhere.
He couldn’t mind now; he didn’t have the right to mind. And he had to tell Brian so, he got that loud and clear. But what the fuck was he supposed to say? He was just as glad Brian slept through Indiana and Ohio and spared him figuring it out, but about three quarters of the way through Pennsylvania, Jack spiraled into a real meltdown, screaming and kicking. Then Rachel started in crying too, and Brian dragged out of sleep as Dom pulled off at the next rest stop.
It was a bare-bones place: no view, no food, just a single concrete bunker for the restrooms and a nine-square-long sidewalk cracked and overgrown with grass. Brian climbed out stiffly and took Rachel, walked around the lot with her, rolling his shoulders and stretching. Dom got out too and worked the crick in his neck and his shoulders. He’d been fighting not to notice that three days living in a car fucking sucked, but he wasn’t twenty anymore, and that was a fight he was starting to lose. Jack was finally quieting down and drinking some water Mia was giving him, and Brian was standing at the far end of the lot, Rachel on his shoulder, bouncing her up and down a little.
Dom thought about going over to him, but there was still nothing ready to come out of his mouth. He didn’t see how to get around it: anything he said was going to have a no attached, whether he said it out loud or not, and it didn’t matter if Brian knew that, had known it going in. Goddammit, Mia was right about Brian not having any fucking boundaries, and he’d climbed, squirmed through, busted open, and crawled under every one Dom had, too. Him and Brian, they hadn’t said no to each other pretty much ever, not in any way that had ever stuck. Now he was going to start?
But Mia was throwing some pointed looks at him, and fuck, all right: he had to say something. He couldn’t leave Brian hanging. He’d find some way to make it up to him; shit, he was going to have to let Brian put him in an import for his next car or something.
He crossed the lot. Brian was holding Rachel, looking out into the trees. “Hey,” Dom said, and then he said sharply, “Brian,” and came around: Brian’s eyes were gone solid white again, and he was standing stiff and motionless, rigid, only his hands around Rachel’s body still cradling her gently.
Dom grabbed his arm. Brian groped at him blindly without turning his head, found Dom’s hands and put Rachel into them. Dom got her into the crook of his other arm and gripped Brian’s shoulder. “Brian! Come on, don’t pull this shit on me again, O’Conner, come on out of—”
Brian dragged in a breath like he’d been underwater for five minutes and staggered against him, shutting his eyes. When he opened them again, they were clear, and he jerked up and said, “The keys, give me the—”
Jack started wailing again as soon as they tried to put him back in the car, but Brian just grabbed him up and carried him bodily into the back seat, ruthlessly, before scrambling over the console and into the driver’s seat. Dom hadn’t even gotten his door closed all the way before they were peeling out, smoke rising off the wheels. Brian hit the highway at a hundred miles per hour and didn’t slow down.
“What is it?” Mia said, her voice shaking.
“I don’t know,” Brian said. A hundred twenty, hundred thirty.
“We’re going to run out of gas in three hours, you keep her this high,” Dom said. “And that camshaft’s going to go soon after.”
“Worry about that in three hours,” Brian said. He was blazing past everybody else on the road like they were standing still, taking holes Dom wouldn’t have touched at half the speed. “Fold in your side-view,” he said, dipping between a semi and an oil tanker to get past a BMW doing only ninety-five in the fast lane. Dom lowered the window, air roaring in like it wanted to rip his face off. He yanked in the side-view and got the window shut about three heartbeats before Brian slid back into the left lane, so close to the semi’s bumper it cleared the folded mirror by less than an inch.
“There’s a helicopter behind us,” Mia said. Dom turned around and peered out the back window: it was a speck in the distance over the highway, gone again the next time the road curved, but it appeared again in a moment.
Brian didn’t look around. He just picked up more speed, although he started doing some weird-ass driving, taking his foot off the gas for a random moment now and then. “What the fuck,” Dom said.
“It’s the fucking stock fuel injection on this piece of shit,” Brian said through his teeth, and Dom realized he was—what, babysitting how much gas was going down the line? Jesus.
They were climbing up into the mountains, and as they crested a ridge Dom got a good view of the road behind them: police cars spilling onto the highway, flashing sirens, and armored vehicles coming on fast underneath the helicopter. “Shit,” Brian said, and there were more police cars coming on at the next entrance, and one pulling out of a speed trap up ahead. The other drivers on the road were all starting to slow down, bunch up into a solid wall, and Brian abruptly turned right onto the grassy median and drove straight across it, dirt flying, and hit the highway going the opposite direction.
“Oh my God!” Mia said. Dom braced against the dashboard. Brian just kept going, weaving through the oncoming traffic, his eyes fixed on the road, unblinking. One minute, two, three, and then he swerved back over the median into their half of the highway again, on the far side of the police cars and the clot of traffic now blocking the road behind them.
The helicopter was still coming on, though, close enough Dom could hear the blades, and there was a whine and a rattle coming from somewhere under the hood saying the engine had hours left, not days. “Dom,” Brian said, “get ready to take the wheel.”
“What the hell are you going to be doing?” Dom said, and Mia said, “No! Brian—”
He turned around to her, his face grim and set, somehow managing to steer even without looking at the road. “Mia—Mia, listen to me! I’m going to make it back, you understand? I’m going to make it back to you. I swear.”
“Brian, oh, God,” she said, crumpling, tears sliding off her face.
“What the fuck are you even planning to do?” Dom snapped at him, his heart pounding. “You can’t fucking outrun a helicopter and every goddamn cop in the Tri-State area—”
“I won’t have to,” Brian said, shrugging out of his seat belt and punching Dom’s open. “Come on, take it,” and there was nothing Dom could do but grab the wheel and heave himself over into the seat, get his foot on the gas as Brian scrambled over him, trading places.
The Jeep tried to swerve out from under him. Even after wrestling it back into lane, Dom had to drop forty miles off Brian’s speed, which would’ve pissed him the hell off any other time, but not with Brian getting his hand on the door, ready to fucking jump out and disappear. “Brian, wait, there’s another one!” Mia said, pointing: another small helicopter coming towards them, low and fast over the highway.
“Yeah,” Brian said. “It’s okay.” He shut his eyes and took three fast breaths, and then he opened them whited-out again, staring straight ahead. Not even a minute, and then he gasped and let it go, shaking himself out. He looked at Dom. “Get off at the next exit, boost the red Focus at the back of the Friendly’s, and keep going the rest of the way. Don’t stop, Dom, promise me. No matter what, promise me.”
“Brian, what are you going to do?” Mia said, desperate, and Jack was crying and trying to climb over the console to get to him, saying, “Daddy, don’t go!”
Brian leaned over and kissed him, voice cracking as he said, “I’m going to see you soon, buddy, okay? Stay with mama, you gotta take care of her for me until I get back.” He kissed Mia too, fast, and then he turned back. “Get into the right lane,” he said, and Dom clenched his jaw, because he could see it: there was a short bridge coming up ahead, crossing over some kind of creek. Brian was going to hit the slope and roll all the way down, right where those helicopters could see him, and drag the whole pursuit off the highway behind him.
But Brian wasn’t doing this, wasn’t leaving them, not if there was any other way out; Dom didn’t need him to say so. This was the only way out for Mia, for the kids, and if Dom didn’t get them to safety, those bastards weren’t just going to get Brian, they were going to get a collar made out of iron to put around his neck.
Brian looked at him steadily, like he knew Dom was working through it—like he knew exactly where Dom was going to end up: in the right lane, letting him go. “Fuck!” Dom snarled, and jerked the wheel, crossing in front of a honking Taurus, and when he slid into the right lane he reached out and grabbed a fistful of Brian’s shirt.
Brian already had his hands on the door. Dom jerked him around, saw Brian’s face, surprised. There wasn’t any time, there wasn’t fucking time to say anything at all. Dom hauled him in and kissed him, hard and fast.
They broke apart. Brian stared at him, panting, and then he whipped around and opened the door and jumped, just in time, right as they came off the bridge.
He was gone. The door was flying wildly open, rocking the car back and forth until Mia scrambled into the seat and grabbed it and hauled it shut. Jack was crying, trying to climb over after her. She reached back and got him and pulled him into her lap. She twisted in the seat, looking back, and Dom looked in the rear-view mirror. He couldn’t see any sign of Brian, but the helicopter was peeling away over the creek, and nearly all the cop cars were squealing to a halt on the bridge, piling up.
A couple more were still coming after them, though. “Shit,” Dom muttered, under his breath—the next exit was coming up, he could see the goddamn Friendly’s sign behind the trees, but he didn’t get how the hell he was supposed to go boost a car with two black-and-whites on his ass.
Then the second helicopter swept overhead, low enough to make the car sway, and all of a sudden the two cop cars behind them were—were rising into the air, fucking floating, and Dom nearly hit the brakes before he remembered Brian saying don’t stop, promise me—
The cop cars sailed away, underneath the second helicopter, until as they got over the crowd of police cars they dropped like—like they were fucking cars, and fireballs went up, plumes of smoke rising. “Oh my God,” Mia said, pulling Jack’s head against her so he didn’t see.
The helicopter turned to follow the first one, and as Dom took the exit, he saw a guy leaning out the side—a guy in a fucking cape, wearing a helmet, and he was reaching out a hand.
“Dom,” Mia said, “Dom, isn’t that—”
“Yeah,” Dom said grimly. He’d seen the guy’s picture in the papers before.
“Oh, God,” Mia said. Tears were sliding down her face. She held Jack in one arm, cradling Rachel in the carrier with the other, and put her face down against their heads and sobbed.
Dom put his arm around her shoulders, gripped tight as she leaned against him. “We’re gonna get him back,” he said. “I promise you, Mia, we’re getting him back.”
It didn’t seem real at the end, rolling down the long, quiet driveway, big old trees lining it on either side, and coming up to the house like something out of a bad movie on PBS. The sun was getting low, and as they pulled up to the doors, Dom saw kids running around a basketball court, yelling; and there were a boy and girl, teenagers, sitting on the front steps of the house. As they pulled up, the girl stood up and went into the house; the boy came down the steps to the passenger-side window.
Dom rolled it down and the kid said, “Hey, I’m Bobby. The garage is down that way around the corner, you can park there.”
“I can, huh?” Dom said flatly. “You guys get a lot of unexpected visitors around here?”
“Well—yeah, actually, kinda,” Bobby said. “But you’re not unexpected.”
Dom carried Jack into the house. Poor kid was clinging to him tight, shivering, still completely freaked out, and Dom wasn’t feeling a whole lot better. He was wary as hell of the whole place; they just didn’t have anywhere else to go. The two teens were in the front hall, talking to an old man in a wheelchair who turned it to face them as they came in.
“Hello, Mr. Toretto, Mrs. O’Conner,” the man said. “Please don’t be alarmed. I know you have had a distressing journey—please believe me when I tell you that you are indeed safe here, and welcome.” He paused and said, “I beg your pardon, may I?” and rolled up to Dom, holding out his hands.
“He’s pretty upset,” Dom said shortly, and like hell was he giving Jack to some stranger anyway, but abruptly Jack squirmed in his hands and turned and stretched out until Dom traded a look with Mia and let Jack go to him. The man put a hand on Jack’s head, and after a moment Jack sighed and just completely relaxed into sleep, right in the guy’s lap.
“What did you do to him?” Mia said, jerking forward.
“Please, Mrs. O’Conner, I assure you everything is all right,” the man said, and the weird thing was Dom half wanted to believe him. He looked up at Dom and smiled. “You can take him back, now. He’ll feel much better when he awakens. I do apologize for intervening without discussing it with you both, but he was in severe distress, and the trauma was only just sufficiently recent that I could simply ease it without causing any harm. Will you please come with me? I’m sure you must have many questions.”
“You can start with who you are, and how the hell you knew we were coming,” Dom said, gathering Jack up from the guy’s lap. He didn’t plan on trusting him, maybe even more because he wanted to trust him: like hell was that natural.
“I’m Charles Xavier, the headmaster of this school,” the man said. “And as for how we knew, I’m afraid it’s quite prosaic. Mr. O’Conner called and told us you were on the way.”
Dom stiffened. “What?” Mia said. “You’ve heard from Brian? Where—where is he? Is he coming here?”
Xavier took them upstairs to his office. They put Jack still sleeping down on a couch and let Rachel lie on a mat on the floor, kicking her feet in the air. Another teenager brought in a tray: a teapot, cups with saucers, plates of cookies like they really were on Masterpiece Theater or some bullshit. “Mrs. O’Conner, would you care to do the honors?” Xavier said. Mia stared at the set, and Dom was pretty sure she was right with him and the whole thing was headed out the window, but then Xavier said, “I’ve often found the practice very calming.”
Mia swallowed and started pouring out tea. She didn’t bother to make a cup for Dom, which was just as well since that would have gone out the window, but she gave Xavier one and took one herself. Dom folded his arms and leaned against the wall. If Brian had been on the way, Xavier would’ve just told them so, which meant he wasn’t. But somebody had let him make that phone call.
“Your speculation is indeed correct, Mr. Toretto,” Xavier said, like he’d read Dom’s thoughts off his face. “Mr. O’Conner was not captured by Colonel Stryker’s organization. I am afraid, however, that he is presently in the hands of the Mutant Brotherhood.”
“Oh, God,” Mia said, covering her face.
“I don’t wish to downplay the gravity of the situation,” Xavier said, gently. “But I assure you that Erik—that Magneto—has no desire to harm your husband.”
“Just to use him,” Dom said flatly.
Xavier nodded. “For what purpose, I cannot say.”
“What we heard, he’s looking to get his hands on some nukes,” Dom said.
“I find that highly unlikely,” Xavier said. “Magneto has little scruple for harming those who get in his way, but an atomic bomb is an extremely blunt instrument. He has far more controllable weapons at his disposal. In any case, we must consider that Brian’s mutation is a double-edged sword for anyone who would wish to place him under duress. During the course of any mission, he might as easily turn his gift against his captors as against their targets—unless he had substantial incentive to do otherwise.”
Mia turned to look at the kids, and Xavier nodded. “Yes, it does beg the question.”
“What does?” Dom said sharply.
Xavier looked up at him. “Why Magneto did not take you, as well. In fact, it seems as though Erik waited to act until the very moment he could take Brian alone. On the face of it, that would seem counterintuitive. Which means he must have had a different reason to leave you behind—one, I suspect, which must be connected to your own mutations.”
“We don’t even know what our mutations do,” Mia said.
“That is true,” Xavier said, “but Erik almost certainly does. One of his compatriots is a mutant known as Titrate. She has the ability to analyze mutant DNA almost instantly, from only a few drops of blood, and obtain a sophisticated understanding of the underlying mutation. You may be sure that Erik’s interest in Brian—and his avoidance of yourselves—is highly informed.”
“The doctor in LA said it had something to do with mind control,” Dom said.
Xavier shook his head. “It will require some time in the laboratory to make our own analysis, but that, at least, I can rule out.”
“What, just by looking at us?” Dom said. “How do you know we aren’t mind controlling you right the hell now?”
“Because I could very easily control you, Dominic,” Xavier said gently, and Dom stared at him and remembered, too fucking late, Hobbs saying the scariest mutant in the world lives there. He didn’t say it out loud, but Xavier sighed. “I prefer to think of myself as a man of peace. But you are all safe here. When we have performed the analysis—”
“You can check Mia,” Dom said. “I’m not staying. I’m going to get him,” he told Mia, and she nodded.
“Dominic,” Xavier said, “while I understand your desire to rescue Brian, I must urge you to exercise patience. Brian’s mutation is immensely powerful, and it may well enable him to escape and return to you on his own.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Dom said flatly. “We’ll never know. Where’s a phone I can use?”
“Jesus Christ, Toretto,” Hobbs said.
“Not our goddamn fault,” Dom said, because he knew Hobbs was talking about the blown-up helicopter and the seven wrecked police cars and the twenty-six casualties.
“The problem is I have the bad goddamn feeling it might be mine,” Hobbs said grimly. “Magneto’s got him?”
“Yeah,” Dom said. “And we’re going to get him back.”
Hobbs made some phone calls and got a meeting set up in D.C. with a guarantee of safe passage. “I’ve got a little more room to maneuver right now, because Stryker looks like an asshole for losing O’Conner after he sold everyone on the idea we couldn’t let Magneto get to him first. But I wouldn’t count on that safe passage lasting more than three seconds after he gets his hands on O’Conner.”
“Fine by me,” Dom said, because that was never going to happen.
Stryker was all smiles when they got into that room. “I only wish all of this could’ve been avoided, Dominic,” he said. “There’s a reason the MRA requires licensed testers.”
“Yeah,” Dom said. He was glad to have Hobbs at his back: something about the way Stryker looked him up and down made him want a fucking shower. “Would’ve made it a lot easier on you grabbing Brian. Can the bullshit. Where’s Magneto going to hit?”
Stryker didn’t lose the smile. “There’s a top-secret facility in Utah that houses a significant stockpile of refined uranium. He’s made five attempts on it in the last two years, all of them futile, so far. Naturally we expect he’s going to have another try at it now that he has your friend helping him. What I’d like to know is what you propose to do to prevent it.”
“Nothing,” Dom said. “What I’m going to do is stop them after they leave.”
“I understand you’re quite the driver,” Stryker said. “But I’m afraid you may find your usual tactics somewhat hampered when dealing with Magneto.”
“The idea is for him not to see us coming,” Dom said, but after they got out, Hobbs shook his head.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, Toretto,” he said, “but going up against Magneto with a bunch of cars is like handing the other guy a machine gun before you get started.”
“Yeah, we’re not going to beat Magneto, and neither is Stryker,” Dom said. “I’ve seen first-hand what that guy can do.”
Hobbs eyed him. “So what the hell is the plan?”
“We don’t need to beat him,” Dom said. “We just need to get Brian an opening.”
“So we’re for real going up against guys with superpowers this time, huh?” Roman said over the headset.
“That a problem?” Dom said.
“No, no problem, I’m getting used to this crazy-ass shit by now,” Roman said. “Just making sure I’m clear on the situation.”
They were all parked up on an overlook right on the edge of the desert, above the main road that led to the base. Magneto and his people had hit the wall five minutes ago, and there were flashes of machine-gun fire going off all along the perimeter.
“Yeah,” Dom said, “about that.” He put his car into park and started a burnout, getting the tires hot.
“Aw, hell,” Tej said. “You’re kidding, man, right?” He started revving up, too.
“What are you talking about?” Roman said. “Wait, why are you guys firing up?”
“New plan,” Dom shouted over the noise as Han gunned his engine.
“Are we going to like the new plan more than the old plan?” Han called. “Because I gotta tell you, Dom, I didn’t like to say anything, but the old plan wasn’t looking so hot.”
“Yeah, you’re gonna like it more,” Dom said. “We’re hitting the base, right now.”
“Hang on, are you telling me we’re sailing into a goddamn US military base while it is under attack by superpowered terrorists?” Roman squawked. “What exactly are we even trying to accomplish here?”
“We’ve got one job and one job only,” Dom said. “Get in there and create all the chaos we possibly can.”
“Wow,” Han said. “You’re right, Dom, this is tailor-made for us.”
“Oh yeah, why, because it’s fucking crazy?” Roman yelled, but he started his engine too, and Dom shoved into drive and took the Charger down the hill, picking up speed as they barreled down, heading for the front gates. Magneto had left them a twisted heap. Dom smashed through and put down his window and started shooting at anything he could see that looked like it might explode.
Tej had gone straight for a comm tower, and Dom saw him slide up to the bottom and jump out of his car and go for the control box, carrying his own laptop with him. “Okay everybody, lose your headsets,” he said over the line, and Dom jerked his off: a moment later crackling static started blaring out loud enough to hear even with it sitting on the passenger seat.
Roman was driving in figure eights all over the base, lobbing grenades out of his windows, taking out doors and walls in every direction, and through the flames Dom saw a low bunker on the other side of the complex. Its big metal bay doors had been peeled open like a giant had gone at them with a can-opener: bingo. Wherever Magneto was, that’s where Brian was going to be, because no way was that guy doing anything but sitting right on Brian’s ass, making sure he didn’t skip out.
There were a bunch of guys with machine guns on the roofs of the complex, firing at anything that moved. Dom ducked low behind the dash and floored the gas, drove straight through a rattle of gunfire against the Charger’s sides, and slammed through the peeled-open door and into the bunker.
Inside, an industrial-size elevator shaft was standing open. Dom got out of the car and looked down: he could just barely see a gleam of light, a long way down. “Brian, if you’re down there, I hope you see this coming,” he muttered, and popped his trunk and got out the rocket launcher.
The tail end of the fireball came right back up the shaft at him along with a cloud of shrapnel. Dom dropped the launcher into the shaft and dove for cover, rolling away. He shucked his jacket, smoke coming off the scorched leather, and looked outside. Flames were roaring up out of a couple of ventilation shafts planted in the ground nearby, so he’d fucked up something underground. That was either a great sign or a terrible one, and Dom had no fucking idea which.
He didn’t know what to do next, either, but then he spotted a couple more of the ventilation chimneys spitting fire on the other side of the complex in front of a second low bunker, like the two were connected underground: another way out, for somebody who’d been down there below.
Only problem was the small war going on between him and the building: fifty soldiers facing off against a knot of five mutants, one of them throwing fire out of his hands, another one jumping around like he was on a fucking pogo stick, another about eight feet tall throwing full-grown men around like they were made out of cardboard. It didn’t look like much of a fair fight. Then a Jeep pulled up almost right in front of the bunker, behind the soldiers. Stryker was standing in the back, and the guys with him were setting up something that looked like a net.
Dom looked around the garage at the Humvee sitting in the other bay. The steering wheel was padlocked, but Dom had wire cutters in his trunk. He hauled about ten feet of the towing hook into the cab with him, got her warmed up, and waited. Stryker’s guys launched the net. Dom gunned the engine as soon as it went flying, plowed straight out through the bunker’s other door, slammed the Jeep from behind and spun it wildly off into the corner of the building.
Dom caught one glimpse of Stryker’s face twisted up in rage as the Humvee steamrolled on by past him. The mutants were tangled up, and Dom tossed the hook at the net as he plowed on by. The cable caught and dragged them all off their feet, hauling them behind him. The big one was roaring like a goddamn lion and clawing his way up the net towards the cable. Dom hit his horn, and Han came barreling around a corner and spun his car neatly right into the net, knocking the whole kit of them through the wall of another half-collapsed burning building. Dom shoved into reverse and hit the worst-cracked wall, and the whole front end of the building fell in.
Han flashed him a thumbs-up, and Dom gave him a quick hand-signal: round everybody up, head for the hills. Han nodded and sped away. Dom punched the release for the towing cable, let it fall off, and then gunned the Humvee right for the second bunker. He was twenty yards short when the door flew up, and Brian was right there waving his arms wildly, turn around!
Dom yanked the handbrake and spun her, squealing to a stop with his rear at the door. Brian immediately hooked something onto the back—a big enclosed cargo trailer, and then he was running up to the driver’s side.
Dom opened the door and slid over to the passenger side, hauled Brian in. “Just tell me that isn’t a fucking nuclear bomb, O’Conner,” Dom said.
“Depends on your perspective,” Brian said grimly. He shoved the Humvee back into forward and roared out of the bunker. There were more knots of soldiers and mutants running around, more bursts of gunfire—Dom saw the giant mutant guy fighting again, apparently no worse for wear after having a goddamn building dropped on his head—but Brian dodged through them, accelerating. Outside the gates Tej and Roman and Han fell in behind the Humvee, and they were flying down the road and away from the blazing chaos of the base behind them.
Brian took them off-road about ten minutes down the highway and kept going into the dark for another ten minutes before they hit the perimeter fence around the base. The Humvee plowed right through it without even slowing down, and the others followed them through the hole and out into the open ground. Another half-hour got them onto the highway, heading east, and Brian relaxed against the seat and blew out a long breath.
He looked over at Dom. “Hi,” he said. His face was smudged with soot, ash in his hair and eyebrows, a scrape across his cheekbone: fucking beautiful. “Nice to see you.”
“You knew I was coming, O’Conner,” Dom said, grinning helplessly, feeling like his heart was going to swell right out of his chest.
Brian grinned back at him, wolfish. “Magneto didn’t.”
Dom laughed out loud, and then he leaned in and grabbed Brian’s head and kissed him, kissed him right this time, long and sweet and hot, and Brian was panting when they broke off. “All right, so what the hell is in the trailer?” Dom said.
“Nine alpha-level mutant kids,” Brian said.
“What?” Dom said.
“Stryker was doing some kind of shit to them down there,” Brian said. “Brainwashing them, or—I don’t even fucking know. They’re all doped to hell, pretty much. A couple of them are just fucking toddlers, Dom.”
“Goddamn son of a bitch,” Dom said. “So this was a fucking rescue?”
“Yeah, well,” Brian said. “Magneto wasn’t exactly planning to find good homes for all of them, so I don’t know if that’s what you want to call it.”
“Shit,” Dom said. “All right. We’ll take them to Xavier. They can be his fucking problem, he’s already got a hundred kids running around the place.”
Hobbs had a cargo plane waiting at the tiny airport a hundred miles out, and when he got a look inside the trailer, he wasn’t inclined to argue with Dom’s plan. “We’ll drop you at Westchester, and if Stryker digs himself out of the wreckage and wants to pick a fight with me, let him bring it on,” Hobbs said grimly. “I don’t know who the fuck upstairs signed off on this bullshit, but you can bet your ass they’re going to keep their head down unless they want a man-size helping of regret, courtesy of my fist.”
The kidnapped kids bounced back fast. By the next afternoon, they were all running around the grounds and playing. Brian was with them, along with Jack: he’d rounded up the handful of three and four year olds and they were all kicking around a soccer ball together, laughing. Dom watched them playing from Xavier’s window, arms folded.
“Yes, I have intervened to some extent,” Xavier said behind him, rolling into the office. “But far less than you might think. The young are often remarkably resilient, and in fact the degree to which the children were kept drugged and unaware of their surroundings has protected them from a great deal of harm.”
“You really need to quit doing that,” Dom said, turning around.
Xavier smiled at him. “I do apologize, Dominic, but when you insist on thinking so loudly, it makes it difficult not to overhear.” He drove his chair around the far side of the desk. “I understand that Agent Hobbs has already made progress in convincing Homeland Security to clear Brian’s status as a dangerous mutant.”
“Yeah,” Dom said. “I think he’s selling them on the idea that they’d like to have Brian on their side, if push comes to shove.”
“Indeed,” Xavier said. “But of course, it would be the other way around, wouldn’t it? For if push does come to shove—Hobbs will be on your side.”
Dom paused. “You found out what it is, don’t you?” he said slowly. “My mutation.”
Xavier nodded, and Dom looked away. Mia had been right: yeah, he’d wanted to own Brian, but—not like this. Not like this. If he really was doing something, if he really was forcing Brian into something—
“It’s not entirely like that,” Xavier said.
“Not entirely?” Dom said.
Xavier sighed. “I’m afraid I can’t give you quite as straightforward an answer as you might like, Dominic. The truth is, your mutation does give you influence over the minds of others. But not in so dramatic a fashion as you envision. You already know that your mutation is gamma-level. You simply don’t have the power to exert literal control over the minds of others. And yet—from another perspective, you might have the most powerful mutation imaginable.”
“Cut to the chase,” Dom said. “What am I doing to Brian? To—everybody.”
Xavier paused, and then said gently, “Loving them.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Dom said.
“I mean it quite literally,” Xavier said. “Your mutation is a subtle one. It essentially ensures reciprocity. In other words, those whom you care for—care for you in return. Those whom you love, love you back. And love you as wholeheartedly, as unreservedly, as you yourself love them.”
Dom stared at him. “You’re saying I really do make people fall in love with me?”
Xavier shook his head. “It is not as though you can simply choose to love someone and induce them to love you back. In fact, I would suspect that to the contrary, on more than one occasion you have had people slip out of your life, precisely because they felt unprepared for the strength of the connection you were offering.”
Dom paused, because—yeah, okay; he’d had more than one girl tell him he came on too strong, wanted to get too serious; there had been friends who’d backed away, people he’d written off. He’d never wanted anybody around who wasn’t all-in; and only the people who really were all-in had stayed. But that still left—
“Brian,” Xavier said.
“He came into my family undercover,” Dom said. “Pretended he wanted to be in with us. So I—so me and Mia—we went for him. And that made it—we made it real. We made him really fall for us.”
“Yes,” Xavier said. “Yes, Dominic, you did.”
Shit. Shit. Dom turned away to the window, stood there feeling sick to his stomach. He could see Brian still down there, playing with Jack and the kids.
Xavier rolled up beside him. “I believe Brian himself told you that he has no regrets,” he said.
“How the fuck can he have regrets?” Dom said. “We got in his head, we fucking made him, and now he’s in it. He didn’t get to choose.”
“Is that how he described his situation to you?” Xavier said.
“He wouldn’t, would he,” Dom said tightly.
“No,” Xavier said. “No, he would not. But I don’t think you entirely understand why that is. Dominic, Brian is sociopathic.”
Dom jerked around. “Fuck you, Xavier.”
Xavier didn’t look bothered. “I am speaking in the clinical sense,” he said. “Did you not notice anything unusual in the way he described his family situation? A mother who abandons her child, only to seek out a new partner and raise others? A father who emotionally neglects his child, yet arranges for supervision and physical care? And a child who does not experience enormous distress at this neglect? Brian’s parents were not in fact monsters. They were ordinary people reacting badly but in a human fashion to a problem not of their making: their own child did not love them. Could not love them. The condition is very likely a consequence of Brian’s mutation, in fact—some interference in the capacity to form attachment.
“Brian was not lying to you, Dominic. He truly had never felt love until he met you and Mia. He had never formed a real connection with another human being. Not until the gift of your mutation—and of your love—was able to overcome the terrible, distorting curse of his own.”
“It doesn’t bother you,” Dom said.
Mia had picked out one of the five million empty suites in the place for them: three bedrooms and a bathroom between them, a private living room tacked on. She’d gone shopping that morning with a couple of the other girls, come back with stacks of clothes she was already putting away in the closets.
“No, Dom, it doesn’t,” Mia said, without even looking up from the pile of toddler t-shirts. “What bothered me was my kids being taken away or my husband being kidnapped. I’m not going to make up problems where there aren’t any.”
“You don’t think it’s a problem we’ve made him fall for us?” Dom said.
“What, because he was so happy before?” Mia said, raising her eyebrows. “Dom, Brian’s the one who came to us. Twice. He had a choice and he made it, so stop acting like he didn’t have a say in this. He didn’t have a say in being a mutant who couldn’t fall in love, that’s what he didn’t get to choose.”
“Yeah, all right,” Dom said. He looked over the mess of clothes. “And you’re okay with this place, too? Staying here?”
“Remember the part about my kids not being taken away?” Mia sighed, pushing her hair back from her face as she surveyed the clothes. “This may not be where we belong just yet,” she said after a moment, “but it’s where they belong. It’s where Brian belongs.” She smiled at Dom a little. “And we belong with them, Dom. As long as that’s true, do you really think anything else matters?”
Dom walked out to the boathouse and stood there tossing pebbles into the water a while. It was getting late, sun sliding away to the west, and getting cold. “Hey,” Brian said behind him, and walked up to the edge of the pier to join him, hands shoved into his pockets. He looked out over the lake. “Nice place they have here.”
“Yeah,” Dom said.
“Good garage space, too,” Brian said. “Did you see one of the teachers has an RX-8?”
Dom smiled out of the corner of his mouth. “Settling in already, huh, O’Conner?” It was funny, but he realized he could see Brian slotting into place here, easy: who would be better at corralling mutant kids than a guy who could figure out how to handle their crazy powers before they even started slinging them around. He wasn’t so sure about himself, but hell, he’d find something to do. Work on building a car out of fiberglass and plastic, maybe. Next time he ran into Magneto, he didn’t plan to be flying into the fucking air, that was for sure.
“It could be good for the kids,” Brian said. “What do you think?”
Dom turned and put a hand on Brian’s neck, turned his head to face him. Brian swallowed hard. “Yeah,” Dom said, “I think it’s going to work out okay,” and pulled him in and kissed him.
They almost fell off the pier on their way back to the boathouse, kissing the whole way and trying to strip off their clothes; Brian grabbed Dom’s arm and hauled him back from the edge just barely in time. “Dom, you think—are you—I’m not sure—is Mia going to be okay with this?” Brian said, as they went down together onto a heap of mats.
“She’s gonna have to cut me some slack,” Dom said, kissing him, heeling off his own boots and shoving his pants off the rest of the way. “Can’t hand somebody the keys to your Maserati and then get mad when they take it for a joyride once in a while.”
“I’m a Maserati, huh?” Brian said, breathless, and then he was rolling them over, straddling Dom’s thighs with his hands moving over Dom’s body like—holy Jesus, like he knew exactly what to do, and it hadn’t even occurred to Dom what Brian’s fucking mutation was going to do to this. Brian was kissing him deep and hungry, touching him all over, one jolt of lust after another firing along his nerves until Dom was gasping for it, his motor running at ten thousand RPMs and climbing. Brian’s hand was on his dick, thumb rubbing over the ridge, squeezing just right, just hard enough, every stroke happening right when Dom wanted it, where he wanted it.
“Christ, Brian,” Dom groaned, felt Brian’s grin against his throat, smug as hell. “O’Conner, are you doing this on purpose?”
“Hey, I can’t help it, man,” Brian said blandly, bullshit. “You want me to stop?”
“Fuck no,” Dom said, even though Brian was lying through his teeth, the fucker; he was all over getting to drive. But who cared? He got hold of Brian’s ass with both hands, felt up the sweet tight curve, and hell, maybe this had been his idea after all, because he couldn’t remember not wanting it anymore.