"So what do you think you're doing?"
Brian locked down the crank on the trailer's tongue jack and straightened up, painfully slowly.
"What's it look like I'm doing?" His voice was an unpleasant cross between a cough and a wheeze. Dom was standing by the truck, getting rained on. Brian hadn't even heard the Nova pull up.
"Looks almost like you're clearing out without telling me."
"Kinda looks that way," Brian croaked. "And I would have told you, sooner or later."
"Where you headed? And what the hell's wrong with your voice?"
"Don't know where," Brian said, then resumed cranking the stubborn jack again. The thing was only there for one purpose: to stabilize the trailer tongue while hitching or unhitching. Consequently, it hadn't been used very often and was rather rusty. "And I've got a cold. What are you doing here?"
"Just thought I'd drop by, see what you were up to," Dom said. He looked up at the sky, then pulled the hood of his sweatshirt up over his head. "Hadn't planned on the cold shower, though."
"So come on in for a minute," Brian offered, locking the crank down again. He moved too quickly when he stood up, though, and set off a coughing fit that bent him double. Part of him was aware that Dom moved closer. The rest of him was busy trying to survive as his lungs gurgled and his throat shredded. Finally he was able to draw a full breath, or at least as full as his lungs would allow.
"Brian? You okay?"
"Yeah, man, like I said I caught a stupid cold."
"You shouldn't be out here. Get inside. Now."
"Yes, dear," Brian said. His attempt at humor was rather spoiled by his scratchy voice. He really didn't mind going inside, even though the roof vent and some of the windows leaked. It was still mostly dry in there. He sloshed through the muddy yard and hauled himself up into the trailer. "Sorry, man, I already stowed the step. Be careful coming in."
Brian stepped around the heap of jack stands on the floor and made for his bed. The trailer rocked as Dom came in and looked around.
"Mind giving me the whole story?" Dom leaned against the counter.
"No story," Brian shrugged. "Having money problems, again, and the managers want me gone. Frank was leanin' on them to get rid of me. So I'm out. Figured if nothing else I could pull the trailer out into the desert somewhere and park till someone ran me off. Oh, and the cops are getting curious. They've been watching anyone that's ever had anything to do with Frank."
"And you weren't going to tell me?" Dom shook his head. "Man, that stupid pride of yours is going to get you killed some day. Maybe today, if the way you look is any indication. You been working?"
"Yeah," Brian nodded, then forgot to breathe carefully and started coughing again. "Dammit," he gasped when it was over, "I hate colds. Been working a couple paper routes, New Times on Wednesdays and the Republic every day but Saturday."
"That why you never drop by?"
"Yeah, my days are all screwed up now. Why"
This time, the cough was much worse. It drove into his lungs and throat relentlessly, simultaneously stabbing him with a thousand tiny daggers and asphyxiating him. His lungs felt like giant wet sponges. By the time it was over, Brian was surprised he hadn't spat blood all over everything.
Dom was there with him, on the bed, one hand on his shoulder. "This is bullshit, man," he said, dark eyes worried. "You're coming home with me, got that? And this time I won't take no for an answer. When does this thing have to be out of here?" He thumped a nearby wall.
"Tonight's the deadline," Brian wheezed. The cough was really getting bad, even worse than it had been a few days ago. Maybe Dom was right and he should go home with him. "No time left. Just need to hitch up and go."
"Fine, then. I'm taking you home now. And then I'm going to get your trailer and put it in my yard. Got that? No arguments."
Brian rubbed his head, which felt rather like an overripe pumpkin. This could be a very difficult situation... but he felt like shit. And Dom was, amazingly enough, acting like he still cared. Hmm. "Looks like you've got me, dude," he said. "Thanks. Can't turn down an offer like that."
"Great, just what I wanted, a sick ex-cop in my house," Dom grumbled, but he said it with a smile and messed up Brian's hair. "Now let's go. Got anything warmer than that jacket?"
"This is it." Brian hunched his shoulders in a careful shrug. The damp denim wasn't particularly warm, but it was better than nothing.
"Man, you really are hard up." Dom started for the door and Brian forced himself to stand and follow. The Nova was out there, parked in the driveway, something sure to annoy the park manager. She was always so insistent on people parking way out by Frank's mobile home, in the "visitor parking" spaces that visitors had to have a map to find.
Brian got in the car. "Why are you doing this, man?"
"Later, Brian. Not now."
Dom started the car and cranked up the heater. The engine must have been warm still, because it started putting heat out immediately. Brian shivered, then closed his eyes. The warmth started to seep in, starting with his face and working its way into the parts that had been cold for months now.
For once, Brian didn't mind Dom's silence. The heat felt too good, the caring felt too good. Whatever reason Dom had for picking him up and getting him out of trouble, he wasn't willing to argue, not while the heat was sinking into his frozen bones. But even with his eyes closed and in the sorry state he was in, something seemed wrong. He cracked an eye open and was momentarily disoriented. Wasn't this Litchfield, not Central? "Where are we? Thought your place was the other way?"
"It is," Dom rumbled. "Going to the store, and I don't want to hear anything about it."
"Okay." Brian sagged back against the seat again. He had a feeling he should be protesting, but what the hell... time enough for that later, when he felt better. He felt too miserable right now to protest anything Dom did.
What Dom did was stop at the Albertson's and pick up some cold medicine, orange juice, and chicken soup. Brian managed to find a smile somewhere over that. "Thanks."
"Don't mention it. Been a few too many times I've had to take care of my sister when she was sick, I know what to do with someone with a cold."
"Hear from her lately?"
"Told you, no contact. She's smart, she'll be doing well. She's got the business in her name, plus money no one can touch, but if I get anywhere near her, even just a phone call, they'll be all over her like stink on shit. You know that. And if you know what's good for you, you'll leave it at that."
"Gotcha." Brian felt a cold spot against his face. What the hell? Oh, shit. Somehow, he'd been far enough out of touch with reality that he'd oozed sideways in the seat and fetched up against the window. He straightened with an effort. Man, this sucked. He hated being sick.
By the time the car pulled into Dom's driveway, Brian was nearly asleep. Being warm, really warm, was unbelievably relaxing. He'd bought a sweet little heater for his trailer, a little cube of a thing that could put out heat like the breath of Hell, but it couldn't compete with all the leaks and drafts in the walls. It was mostly warm in there, but not like this. But the car had stopped, and now Dom had his door open and was urging him to get out.
"Come on, Bri, move it. I'm not going to carry you."
"Yeah, yeah, I'm coming." Brian made an effort and heaved himself out of the Nova. Maybe this was something worse than a cold. He didn't think colds were supposed to leave you this bad off. Everything hurt, not just his lungs and head. But there was an open door ahead, and Dom was inside pulling out the same old green Army blanket he'd used before and a spare pillow or two.
Come on, body, you can do it. His body didn't want to listen. He forced himself to move anyway, wondering vaguely if he really thought he was going to get up and go to work at midnight like he was supposed to. Yeah, right.
He made it to the couch and sat down. Why was it he suddenly felt so much worse? Was it just because suddenly he didn't have to be up and moving, because there was somebody else to take care of things that needed doing? Whatever. He felt bad enough that he drank down the cold medicine Dom gave him without complaint, even though he couldn't stand the stuff, and at least a quart of the orange juice. He imagined he could feel his abused body absorbing the liquid as it went down, so it never even reached his stomach. He had enough rational thought left to kick his shoes off before laying down. But then he lurched back upright, coughing and coughing. Damn. He'd forgotten to prop himself up again. No laying flat, felt like he was drowning. He stuffed a couch cushion behind the pillow and laid back cautiously.
"I'm going for your trailer now," Dom said, appearing from nowhere to stand over him. "Don't you even think about moving."
"Let me guess," Brian said, through the spinning feeling left behind by the cough, "you won't let me work tonight."
"What are you, fucking crazy? You're staying right there. No working until you can stand upright, not all hunched over like a dying thing."
"Okay, if you say so..." Brian closed his eyes. "Thanks again."
"Yeah, well, I'll take it out of your hide later. For now, you just rest and get well."
Dom left. Brian tried to puzzle out what he might have meant and why he was doing this, but the cold medicine kicked in with a vengeance long before he organized his sluggish mind.
The next three days went by in a haze of medication and weird dreams. The blasted imitation NyQuil had Brian knocked out more often than not. He was aware of Dom coming and going, although that was usually because Dom would wake him up and get him to drink something or try to eat. The cough got worse before it got better, and so did the aching. Finally one day he woke up all the way, not just the hazy semi-consciousness he'd been enduring. He felt utterly drained and unable to even move, but at least his head was more clear than it had been since he'd started feeling sick.
The first thing he noticed was that he needed a shower. His skin itched and crawled with the slimy feeling that came from alternately sweating and freezing for so long. And his hair... ick. Best not to think about that. He sat up.
"Ohhhh," he groaned, as the room swayed alarmingly. He really had to get to the bathroom, though, so he pried himself up off the couch and wobbled across the floor. The way his legs shook convinced him that it wouldn't be smart to try for a shower. He caught sight of himself in the mirrorhe looked awful. No real surprise there, considering how he felt. What was visible of his face was pale. His hair looked like a tornado had gone through it. And as for his beard... he rubbed at the straggly mess. Maybe it was time to get rid of the thing. It had served a purpose, but he was pretty sure he remembered cops sniffing around before he got too sick to move. Nobody here had seen him without the beard, so if they were looking for the guy that occasionally ran stuff for Frank he'd be harder to spot. Of course, if they were looking for the renegade ex-cop from LA... but they weren't.
Right. Later, then, when he wasn't quite so shaky. But for now, looked like it was back to the couch. Damn. He really hated being sick, this feeling of being weak as a newborn kitten. Speaking of kittens... where was Fred, anyway? He hadn't been around at all. And Dom, too. Presumably he'd gone off to work somewhere.
Dom... Brian shook his head and pushed off from the sink. He concentrated on getting back to the couch. What was Dom up to, anyway? Besides saving his ass. Again.
There it was, home sweet couch. He reached it just about the time his legs gave out. Thankfully there was nobody around to witness his collapse.
Brian laid down, then sat up again. His body might not be very cooperative, but his mind was awake for the first time in days, maybe weeks. Where was the remote? At least if the tv was on it'd give him something to look at.
He found the remote and flipped through the channels, looking for something even remotely interesting. Daytime tv without the benefit of cable really sucked. Ah, there was something always worth a laughJerry Springer. He sat and watched guys get all worked up because they found out their girlfriends were hiding dicks under their miniskirts.
He must have dozed off again, because he woke from a freaky dream to the sound of the five o'clock news. Damn. So much for being alert. Maybe Dom would be home soon.
Suddenly, the idea of having Dom see him like this was unbearable. He thought he remembered Dom saying something about pulling the trailer into the yard. Great. The trailer had what he needed, so he had to get there.
The nap must have done him some good. Maybe his body found it more restful to sleep without the influence of cold medicine. Whatever the reason, he was able to make it across the house, with a small pause to lean against the wall before venturing outside. He was in luck. The trailer had been backed in right next to the house, with the truck unhitched and parked next to the Nova. Cross the carport, keep a hand on the wall of the storage room for balance, around the corner, another ten feet or so to the door... Inside.
Brian sat heavily on the floor and tried to catch his breath. He was feeling better, yes, but better was by no means healthy. He pulled himself up with the aid of the counter and made it to the closet and drawers. Sweats, clean t-shirt, clean socks. That about depleted his entire wardrobe. It was time to do laundry, go shopping, or both. Next stop, bathroom. He found a razor, brand new and saved for the day he felt safe enough to shave off the beard. His eye fell on his toothbrush and toothpaste and suddenly was disgustingly aware that he hadn't brushed in days. Shampoo, a better comb than he carried in his pants pocket, and his mission was accomplished. Now to get all this stuff back to the house without dropping anything.
He made it. Getting cleaned up was a long and painstaking process, punctuated by many pauses to hold onto the nearest solid object until the walls quit spinning. It was worth it, though, to feel clean again.
He looked at himself in the mirror before returning to the couch. He didn't remember his face looking quite so... gaunt was the only word for it. He looked awful. At least the beard had hidden how scrawny he looked now.
An insistent yowl at the door roused him to move. Fred had returned. He opened the door and the cat marched in, complaining all the way. Brian smiled and bent carefully down to pet his back. Then he went back to the couch.
It was getting late. Where was Dom? Shouldn't he be back by now? Brian realized abruptly he didn't even know where Dom worked. That was a weird feeling. What if something was wrong? How could he reach Dom if he had no idea where the man was?
Don't be stupid, he told himself. It wasn't going to kill him to not know where Dom was. He'd made it so far, after all, without having any idea where the man went during the days. He'd make it just fine today, too.
Fred joined him on the couch and they watched a movie. Despite his decision not to worry, Brian couldn't help but get a little concerned as the evening wore on. It was nearly nine o'clock before he heard the Nova pull into the carport.
"Hey, dude, you're back!" He smiled, relieved, when Dom came in the door.
"Yeah. You look better." Dom tossed his jacket on the kitchen table. "How're you doing?"
"Much better, thanks. Where were you? I was getting worried."
Dom snorted. "You, worried about me. That's cute. I was at the shop, getting the car ready."
Somehow that didn't surprise Brian, even though he hadn't known for sure Dom was still involved in racing. "Shop? Car?"
"Yeah." Dom sat in the recliner and leaned back. "Never told you, but I have a job at a garage, and I run a sprint car now. Not quite the same, but it's a fun little bastard. Got someone who drives it for me in the races out at the dirt tracks. This weekend they're opening Manzanita for practice. Regular season starts next weekend. Although, given all the rain we've had, the track's bound to be a mess."
"Weekend..." Brian did a quick bit of reckoning, trying to determine what day it was. "Is this Friday?"
"Yeah. You've been out of it for a few days."
"No shit." Brian coughed. The damn thing was still hanging on, but at least the aching was gone. "So can I go with you tomorrow?"
"Not if you're still sick."
"I'm better," Brian insisted, despite the leftover cough.
"Yeah, well, how are you going to be able to come work with me if you push yourself into a relapse?"
"Work with you?" Brian leaned forward eagerly. Dom didn't move, still kicked back in the recliner with his eyes closed. "You've got a job for me?"
"Yeah." He opened his eyes and smiled at Brian's eagerness. "If you want it. I talked the owner into letting me have an assistant, no questions asked."
"Want it... you have no idea how badly I want it." A huge load of stress lifted off Brian's shoulders. "Thanks, man... again. Getting so I can't turn around without you saving my ass."
"Yeah, well, your ass needs a lot of saving." Dom stretched and got up, heading for the kitchen. "You hungry?"
"You know, I think I am," Brian said, surprised. It'd been a while since food had sounded appealing. Maybe he really was getting better.
The evening passed smoothly, with none of the awkwardness of the last time Brian had spent the night at Dom's place while actually conscious. The only rough part was when Brian said something about getting out of Dom's way as soon as possible and the big man refused to hear of it.
"You're not going anywhere," he said. "End of story. Don't give me any more of this leaving crap. Got it?"
"If you say so, Dom."
"I say so." He glanced at the vcr clock. "It's getting pretty late. I'm off to bed. You'd better get some rest if you intend to come to the track tomorrow."
"Sure, whatever you say." Brian wasn't really tired, but he laid down anyway. What the hell. After all, he hadn't been tired earlier, after his shower, and he'd fallen asleep then. Was he imagining things, or did Dom always go running off to bed right whenever he'd done something that might remotely indicate he cared? Brian smiled and shoved the pillows into a more comfortable spot.
He must have been more tired than he'd thought, because he didn't wake up until morning. This time Dom made breakfast, which was what woke him. The scent of eggs frying would probably haul him out of his grave. Brian got up and staggered off to the bathroom.
He came out again a few minutes later, slightly more alert. "Morning," he said to Dom, sliding a chair out from under the kitchen table and perching on it.
Dom made a guttural sound of acknowledgement and flipped the eggs. Brian snickered. Dom wasn't much more of a morning person than he was.
They were both a little more aware by the time breakfast was over. Brian offered to clean up and Dom let him while he showered. Brian washed the dishes, then started hunting down all his dirty clothes.
Dom emerged from the bathroom, clean and damp. "What are you doing?"
"Hey, man, got a washing machine? I have nothing left to wear."
Dom looked at him solemnly. "Let me get this straight. You cook, you do dishes, and you do laundry. And you expect me to let you leave this place?"
Brian laughed. "Uh-oh, I think I blew it. Maybe I should become a slob."
"Won't work," Dom shook his head. "You're stuck here, for a while anyway."
"Until you get tired of having me underfoot?" Brian smiled a little, tilting his head to the side.
"Something like that. Washer and dryer are out back."
"You have an out back?" Brian looked around, but still only saw two doors: the one to the carport, and the front door.
"Yeah. There's a walkway through the carport. You going to throw some of my stuff in there too?"
Brian laughed again. "Something tells me I'm really screwed. All right, where's the dirty shit?"
"Bedroom," Dom said, and located the remote. Brian went into the bedroom and found a pile of clothes in the corner. He heard the sounds of Warner Brothers cartoons drifting out of the other room.
Brian took a large armful of clothing and headed out the door. Wasn't like he had enough dirty stuff of his own to make up a full load, might as well make full use of the water. Something in his desert upbringing wouldn't allow him to waste water if he didn't have to.
He found the washer and dryer easily enough. They were in what he'd taken for a built-in storage shed. The only excuse Brian could find for himelf for not noticing the walkthrough to the backyard before was that he hadn't been feeling well at all up until today. He still didn't feel all that great, for that matter, but he was much better than yesterday.
He got the laundry started and went back inside, shivering. He got to the couch and wrapped himself up in the blanket. "Cold out there."
"You need something warm to wear." Dom ran his eyes over Brian, not missing a detail. "Don't want you getting sick again."
"Never guessed you cared," Brian said lightly, to disguise the lump in his throat. It had been a very long time since anybody had given a damn about what happened to him.
"Yeah, well, maybe I'm a sucker for big pathetic blue eyes."
Brian made a sad puppy face at him and Dom laughed. "Actually," Dom corrected himself, "I'm just looking out for my own best interests here. How can you work if you're flat on your ass all the time?"
"I knew you had ulterior motives. But that's okay. I don't mind paying for my keep."
"Good thing." Dom sounded pissy, but Brian didn't miss the twinkle in his eyes.
Brian let it drop, even though he really was getting curious about why Dom was so anxious to keep him here.
The morning moved along, aided by cartoons and laundry. Brian had another shower and changed into clean clothes when they came out of the dryer. Something told him it was going to take a long time before he got tired of hot showers. He emerged from the bathroom to find Dom up and moving around.
"You about ready to head out?"
"Yeah, suppose so. Seen my jacket around here?"
"On the closet door."
"Good place for it." Brian crossed the room and plucked his denim jacket from the closet doorknob. "Let's go, then."
"Hey, Fred!" Dom yelled. "Time to go."
The cat emerged from somewhere in the bedroom, tail up. Dom switched off the tv and opened the door. The cat darted out, followed more sedately by the two humans.
"Time to start being useful," Dom said. "We're taking your truck."
They got in the truck, Dom at the wheel. Brian considered protesting, but gave it up. He probably wasn't up to driving, anyway. He still felt utterly drained.
The garage was only about ten minutes away, down by a bunch of industrial buildings on Western Avenue. It was a good sized brick building, with three bays and a waiting room. Dom parked the truck around back and led Brian into the bay closest to the office area. He opened a door and stuck his head in.
"Hey Mike! You here?"
"That you, Velasquez?"
Brian shot him a startled look. Velasquez? Well, maybe Dom could pass for part Mexican. More easily than Brian could, at any rate.
"Yeah. Want to come out and meet my new assistant?"
"Nah, I'm on the phone. Maybe later, okay? You hitting the track today?"
Dom shut the door and caught the look on Brian's face. "What? The name?"
"No. I take it you have a pretty relaxed relationship with your boss?"
"Yeah. He's more partner than boss. He doesn't give a damn what I do or when I do it, as long as the customers go home happy."
"Cool. I can tell this is going to be an interesting place to work. Where's your racer?"
"Over there." Dom pointed to the far side of the garage. There was a small car on the ground, hardly more than a big engine with a rollcage and a wing on top. And there was another one on the lift, one that looked vaguely familiar.
"Is that...?" Brian moved across the garage, avoiding the many obstacles with ease. That looked like his car, the one he and Dom had rebuilt together. "That looks like"
"It is," Dom growled. He looked embarassed. "Didn't want to get rid of it."
"Cool, man." It had a new paint job now, of course, but it was still the same Supra. The car, the way Dom was taking care of him, the absolute refusal to let Brian go... hmm. He turned a thoughtful gaze on Dom, who was pulling the body panels off the little outlaw sprint. Brian shrugged his speculations away and went to help. "So what needs doing?"
"Just the usual pre-race shit. It's been sitting since November. Needs fluids, tires checked, new plugs, all that fun stuff."
"Had the engine apart after the last race. Jeff blew the rings."
"My driver." Dom reached for a wrench and Brian was momentarily distracted by the way his muscles rippled. Maybe... just maybe...
"Uh... driver. Why don't you drive it?" Brian yanked his mind away from its dangerous speculations and went back to work.
"Not my style, man." Dom glanced up at the Supra.
"Yeah, I guess I can see that. Supra need any work?"
"Not really. Could use a coat of wax, though."
"What car couldn't?" Brian laughed.
"You just want to get your hands all over my car," Dom accused, voice slightly muffled. He was halfway under the engine, twisted nearly upside down, checking plugs and wires.
"Yeah, maybe I do," Brian acknowledged. That's not what I really want to get my hands on, though. "But it's my car."
Dom laughed. "No way, bud, you ain't pulling that with me. It's mine, signed, sealed, and delivered."
"Yeah, yeah, so you say." Brian grinned. This was fun. "I can't believe you still have it, though. I mean, the VIN's got to be plastered all over every cop shop in the country."
"Not anymore," Dom said, rather smug. "That's how I met Mike. He takes care of things like that."
"Ah... I see." Brian shifted uneasily. He wasn't a cop any more, that was true, but he wasn't entirely comfortable around people with so little regard for the law. And yet, Dom didn't bother him... whatever. "Maybe I'd be better off not knowing all the details."
"Why? Going to rat on him?" Dom emerged from the engine, face carefully neutral.
"No way, man. I'm just not interested in how illegal this guy Mike really is."
"Hey, dude, this car's not really big enough for two people at once," Brian said, eager to get past the uncomfortable moment. "Mind if I"
"Oh, go ahead, you're going to anyways," Dom said, exasperated. Brian grinned.
"Thanks, don't mind if I do!" He found the lift controls and ran the Supra down to a more reasonable level. "Where's the wax at?"
"Bottom shelf, big tool cabinet."
"Thanks." Brian found the wax and went to work. What he hadn't told Dom was that his hands were shaking and he felt like he really needed to sit down. He was pretty sure he could handle waxing a car, though.
The new paint job was about as far as it could get from the old orange color. It was one of those graduated effects, with the top a red so deep Brian had to get right on top of it before he was sure it really was red. It shaded down from red into black, and through it all little metallic flecks sparkled in the light. "Car looks good," Brian said. His car. Had Dom kept it because it was a sweet ride, or because they'd worked on it together?
"Thought the orange was a bit conspicuous. This doesn't stick out as much."
Brian concentrated on smoothing the wax on evenly. "The outlaw sure does, though." The body panels and the wing of the little car were an electric shade of lime green.
"It's supposed to," Dom grunted, wrestling the wing off the car and to the ground.
"Why'd you take the wing off?"
"Can't load the car with it on."
"Oh." Brian started rubbing off the wax from the section he'd just coated. "Why are you running sprints, anyway?"
"For the hell of it."
Brian let it drop and concentrated on the car. He wasn't sure why, or how, but something in Dom's reply reminded him exactly why the man was running sprints out here in the desert. Because of him. Oh, not entirely his fault, of courseDom had been breaking the law all on his own. But Brian had blown everything all to hell.
Wax on, wax off, just like the movie. Only instead of him being a teenager fuming over a pointless task, Brian was struggling with his conscience. Dom wouldn't be here if not for his interference. Hell, Brian himself wouldn't be this screwed if he hadn't been so hot to take that job. But then he never would have met Dom...
"Hey Brian, you still alive over there?"
Dom's voice shook him out of a somewhat mindless state. He'd been staring at the Supra, fully coated now and shining, with his mind finally gone quiet.
"Yeah," Brian said, shaking off the stupor. "Whatcha need?"
"Nothing. Just checking. You've been standing like that for ten minutes now." Dom fastened the last body panel back onto the outlaw and looked it over.
"Just thinking, that's all." Brian stretched and put down the towel he was still holding.
"Yeah? Must have been mighty interesting."
"Was wondering why this isn't your racer."
"It is mine. You gave it to me." Dom reached for the hand cleaner, satisfied the outlaw was finished.
"You know what I mean. If this is yours, why aren't you racing it?"
Brian rubbed a stray speck of wax away and waited for Dom's answer. The big man continued wiping his hands on a shop towel that had once been clean, looking at the car. The powerful orange scent of the cleaner cut through the normal garage smells with ease, incongrously cheerful in the tense atmosphere. Finally Dom finished wiping his hands and turned a troubled gaze on Brian.
"Because I don't want to race anymore."
"Oh." Brian wasn't sure how to respond to that. Racing had been Dom's life. Still was, in a way, but what had happened to the man who'd only felt truly alive while hurtling down a straightaway with nothing to stop him? "Why not?"
"I have my reasons."
Brian was about to ask about the reasons when a truck pulled in to the first bay, a big brown Ford. Dom tossed the rag aside and crossed the garage floor.
"'Bout time you got here, lazyass," he greeted the small man emerging from the truck.
"Got held up at home," the man replied, pulling off his baseball cap to run a hand through short brown hair. "My wife needed help with the kids."
"Yeah, well, we almost packed up and left without you." Dom glanced over at Brian, who was watching the exchange with a puzzled look. "Brian, this is Jeff, my driver. He's a real family man, but don't hold that against him."
Brian laughed. Driver? Would he ever get used to the notion of Dom not racing any more?
"And Jeff, meet Brian. He's my new mechanic. Or at least, he will be when he's able to stand without falling over."
Jeff glanced at Dom, not sure what to make of that, then nodded in Brian's direction. "Nice meeting you."
"Yeah, nice to meet you too."
"Right. We're late. Let's get moving."
Jeff made a move towards the Ford, but Dom shook his head. "We're taking Brian's truck."
Jeff shrugged. "Whatever, man. You're the boss."
"You'd better believe it," Dom said. "Now let's move."
The three of them managed to get the car and everything it needed loaded onto a covered white trailer. Spare parts, tires, gas, the big toolbox that took all three of them just to liftall went into the trailer, ready to go. Brian backed the truck up to the hitch. He'd been working too hard. He leaned back against the seat for a moment, fatigue momentarily getting the better of him. It was crazy to be up and working this hard when he still felt like shit, but he was tired of laying around and doing nothing.
The track was fairly close, only about half an hour's drive from the garage. Brian used the truck ride to rest, hoping like anything Dom couldn't read him well enough to know how far gone he really was. Dom was preoccupied, so the odds were with him.
"What's on your mind, bro?" Brian asked, when he'd recovered a bit from the morning's activity.
"Thinking about the competition," Dom grumbled. "Some bad feelings left over from last season."
"Yeah? Do I want to know?"
"Not really," Dom admitted, gripping the wheel a bit tighter. "Justanyone tries to give you any shit, let me know."
"Right," Brian said dubiously. "And what's to differentiate anybody's shit around here from the ordinary shit I get every day?"
Dom laughed. "Good point. Here's the track, man. Time to hit the mud."
It was a mess. But then, they'd known it would be, after all the rain. Other teams and drivers were already there, had been for some time if the swampy muck on the track was any judge. Dom shoved the truck into an empty spot near the pits, backing it in between a big black Dodge and a Nissan to unhitch the trailer. The pit area was a swarm of activity, with people scrambling all over both loading and unloading, with the sound of straining engines providing a steady background for their efforts.
"What a mess," Brian observed, eying the mud with distaste.
"Yeah. At least they covered the track for a while. It's wet, but not soaked through."
"Damn good thing." Brian got out, right in a puddle. He sighed and resigned himself to the mud. At least this was still the desert, and the ground was only squishy... he'd seen real messes up north, where the rain would leave the ground so wet a man could sink right into it. That much water was just unnatural.
The three of them got the car unloaded and ready, then Jeff took it out on the track. Brian watched the car slide around the first turn.
"So what's the game plan?"
Dom didn't take his eyes off the little green sprint. "He's going to run about fifty laps, break the new engine in. Told him to take it easy the first forty, then let 'er loose. See what happens. He blows this one, and he's out."
"Sounds like a good idea." There was a wall ahead, a low cement barrier meant to separate the pits from the track. Brian sat sideways on it, dangling his legs over into the pits. The cars on the track went round and round, kicking up clumps of mud that turned them all into a uniform shade of brown.
"You ever driven on a circle track?"
"Nah, man, not my scene." Brian glanced at Dom, who was still keeping his eyes glued to the track.
"Neither is street racing."
"Hey, man, just 'cause I can't beat you," Brian started to defend himself, then broke off with a laugh when Dom thumped his shoulder. He caught Dom's hand and knocked it away.
"Never stood a chance, kid," Dom smiled at him. Brian searched that smile for any indication that he was reading the man right, that he really wasn't as straight as he came across, that the care and concern he'd been exhibiting were real signs of interest. But he really couldn't tell. Damn.
The day was long and rather boring. Jeff ran the little car for however many laps Dom ordered, then brought it in so Brian and Dom could fiddle with it and make adjustments. Sometimes the track was too full and they had to hold off until there was enough room for one more vehicle. It was getting late, Brian was more tired than he'd ever admit, and Dom was showing no signs of packing it in. So he found a spot against the wall, as much out of the way as possible, and sat down. He leaned back against the pit wall and closed his eyes. The sun was warm and relaxing. The sounds of the track faded into a meaningless hum, punctuated by a few sharp sounds that couldn't quite shake him out of the sun-warmed lethargy. Brian didn't even try to fight it, just let himself drift, for a time that might have been minutes or days.
"Anyone seen Brian?"
Dom's voice cut through the pit sounds easily. Brian wasn't asleep, not really, but it was too much trouble to get up and let Dom know where he was.
"Over there," Jeff's voice responded, "crashed against the wall. Looks like he's down for the count."
Dom swore. Brian considered opening his eyes, but they didn't want to respond. So he stayed limp, apparently sleeping, and wondered what would happen next.
He could hear Dom moving towards him. The footsteps stopped, and Dom muttered, "Crazy sonuvabitch, shoulda stayed home." Brian would have smiled if he'd had the energy.
"Okay, Brian, you're coming with me," Dom said, louder. He reached down and shook Brian's shoulder, eliciting a sleepy mumble. "C'mon, up you go."
Brian let Dom pull him upright, alarmed by how unsteady he felt. Dom put an arm around him, taking most of his weight, and steered him towards the trailer. "Stupid idiot, doing too damn much. Going to make yourself sick again. Now don't fall over."
Dom left him standing, swaying, while he opened the back door of the trailer. Then Dom pushed the unresisting Brian in and gave him a gentle shove backwards. Brian went over with a groan. "Dom, what..."
Dom pulled one of the shipping blankets over Brian. "You're all I've got, Bri, only family I've got left. Damned if I'm going to let you fall apart on me again. So take care of yourself, damn you."
Brian tried to hang on to Dom, but his hands were detached firmly. "I'll wake you before we load up, okay? Now get some rest."
Not like I have much choice, Brian thought, as Dom turned back to the activity in the pit area. He found a marginally comfortable position and started to slip into unconsciousness. One thought followed him: at least he'd finally gotten the sign he was looking for. Dom was acting the way he was because he saw Brian as family. Nothing more, nothing less. Not a romantic interest at all, then.
The last thing Brian remembered before he slipped into sleep was a feeling of regret.
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