"Fuck!" Brian slammed his hand against the steering wheel and glared at the gas guage. Empty. Fucking empty.
Halfway to a foul temper, he ran out of energy. The tank was empty, there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it, and getting pissed wouldn't help anything. He should have known better than to run to that part of town with a full tank, anywaynot without a locking gas cap, a high-power security system, and maybe an Uzi for good measure.
Brian rested his head against the steering wheel and sighed. Just what he needed, more shit gone wrong. Then he unbuckled his seatbelt and shoved the heavy door open, slamming it with only a little more force than was necessary, and fished the gas can out of the back. Without a backward glance, Brian set off down the quiet highway, leaving the faded blue Chevy truck lost and forlorn on the side of the road.
"Fuckers," he muttered, kicking up dust. Of course this had to happen today, when he was finally getting himself put back together... or so he'd thought. And naturally it had to be out here. He'd driven this way specifically because MC 85 was one of the most deserted stretches of roadway in the West Valley, with little traffic and fewer cops. Not like the Interstate, with cars whizzing by every few seconds and regular patrols every fifteen minutes or so. Couldn't be a better road for a fugitive with expired tags and a fake id to use. Couldn't be a much worse road to break down on. And he was still at least five fucking miles from the nearest gas station.
The sun beat down on his back and heated his denim jacket uncomfortably, but his front was cooled by a chill breeze. Couldn't make up its mind, this desert weather, but he didn't mind. He just wished he could have holed up in Tucson instead of Phoenix. Well, Avondale, but that was close enough to count as Phoenix to outsiders. In Tucson he wouldn't have had to worry about shitheads siphoning his gas. He'd hated Phoenix ever since he was a kid. But unfortunately the first place the LA cops would look for him was Tucson. Not that Phoenix was all that safe, but he was fairly sure he'd been away long enough that his face wasn't plastered on every cop shop wall in the desert southwest. He'd hated spending several months up north, but obviously the LAPD hadn't thought to look for him in a carnival touring the northwest states. And when the carnival headed for winter quarters, he'd wound up back home in the desert, certain that he wouldn't be easily recognized these days.
The thought was actually enough to bring a smile to his face. He raised a hand, the one that wasn't holding the gas can at the moment, and rubbed his main attempt at a disguisea short scruffy beard. It made him look older, almost dangerous, especially combined with the longer hair. People no longer took advantage of him based on his young and innocent looks. No, now they just ran roughshod over him because he was down and out...
Never mind that for now. Just keep walking. He turned around and walked backwards for a few steps. Yep, truck was still in view. He wasn't getting anywhere fast. He turned forward again, glad the sun wasn't quite overhead yet. He should reach Cashion well before it got into his eyes.
Thoughts chased themselves around in his head aimlessly as his body settled into the rhythm of walking. At least the day wasn't miserably hot. On the whole, if he was going to have to walk four or five miles through the Sonoran desert, he'd prefer February to, say, July any day. On and on, one foot after the other, switch the gas can to the other hand when it got too uncomfortable, and above all try not to think too much. Just light little thoughts, surface thoughts, ones that didn't touch on the deeper miseries of his sorry existence now.
He was so absorbed in his careful thoughts that he didn't realize how close he was to town until he was almost in it. The big thingwhat was it, a grain elevator? Whatever it was, it was tall, stored grain, and was dead ahead. It was also directly across the street from a Circle K, a bar, and some dilapidated and probably condemned buildings. Those landmarks and a stop sign combined to make Main Street of Cashion.
Brian looked at the Circle K (and why were there so many cars there? He couldn't remember getting passed by any within the last hour or so), then he looked at the bar. Circle K. Bar. Circle K had gas. The bar had beer.
Not much of a decision, there. He crossed the street and headed for the bar. It was a rough joint, not the kind of place he'd usually hang out even if his ex-cop instincts weren't screaming that it was dangerous. But he wasn't a cop anymore, and if this looked like a wild and lawless place, so be it. He'd been living on the wrong side of the law now for quite some time.
The bar was dark and dingy, with a bartender that didn't speak a word of English. But Brian hadn't lived out West his entire life without knowing the meaning of the word cerveza. He found a stool at the bar (here, tooat least ten people. Couldn't one of them have stopped and given him a ride?) and settled down with the beer, empty gas can tucked away by his feet.
He couldn't take as long as he wanted to enjoy the cool drink, though, because he had a long walk back to the truck, and the sun set early these days. So he knocked it back fairly quickly, then made a trip to the bathroom. On the way out, his gas can knocked into a big guy in a hooded sweatshirt.
"Sorry, man," Brian said, hoping the guy understood.
"Watch it with that thing," he snarled, turning around abruptly.
"I said I was sorry." Brian edged past the man. Or at least, he started to.
"Wait a minute... I know that voice!"
Quick as a striking snake, the man uncoiled from his chair and slammed Brian up against the nearest wall. The gas can dropped from suddenly nerveless fingers and Brian struggled to breathe.
"It is you. Did you think that stupid beard would keep you safe?"
Brian gasped and struggled. Shock combined with lack of air to make his muscles weak as water. Dom!
"I can't believe your fucking nerve." Dom dropped him like a sack of potatoes, but didn't back off. "What do you have to say for yourself, cop?"
Brian coughed and rubbed his throat. "Not a cop anymore, man. Gave it up for you. I did," and he coughed again, "everything I could for you."
"Sure you did." The hood fell back, exposing Dom's furious face and shaved head. "Undercover cop, lowest of the low, makes a living destroying people's lives. You betrayed me, you fucking pig!"
"Uh, not so loud," Brian looked around and saw several unfriendly stares. Voices muttered just out of his range of hearing, but he could imagine what they were saying: cop. "Told you, I ain't a cop anymore."
"Yeah, and give me one reason why I should believe you."
"I'll tell you why!" Brian glared at Dom, anger overcoming shock. "I gave up my job for you, man, my entire life. I fucking shot a man for you. You think I want to live like this? Hiding out, fucking illegal as hell, trying to scrape by on cash only jobs and hoping like hell no one gets curious enough to run a background check? Just because I fucking didn't want to see you go down, man."
"Huh." Dom stepped back. His face was still now, expressionless. "I'll give you that. Okay, you can live."
"Thanks." Brian took a careful breath and a chance. The sudden change of mood threw him off balance, but he'd go with it. "You look better than the last time I saw you."
"Be hard not to." Dom flexed his left arm. "Good as new. What're you doing here?"
"Ran out of gas," Brian muttered, retrieving his gas can from where it had rolled.
"Fuckin' idiot," Dom rumbled, mouth twitching. "Need a ride?"
"Depends. You planning on taking me out in the middle of the desert and dumping me?"
A slow grin spread across Dom's face. "Lacks class, man."
"Yeah. It does." Brian hefted the gas can, resisting the urge to rub his throat again. Dom was strong. "I'd appreciate a lift. Gotta hit the gas station first, though."
Dom nodded and started for the door. Brian followed, head spinning. He wasn't entirely sure what had just happened. At least he wasn't dead, and was getting a ride back to his truck...
Dom stopped outside in front of a forest green Nova and unlocked the passenger door.
"This is your ride, man?" It was about the last thing he'd expected to see Dom driving. Sure, the other car had to be long gone, but another muscle car? After he'd wrecked the Charger?
"Yeah. Got a problem with it?"
"No way, man. Just surprised. It's not your usual style, and all." Brian dropped into the passenger seat, suddenly glad it was a big old '68 Nova and not one of the fast but tiny foreign jobs. There was plenty of space between passenger and driver on the wide bench seat.
"Yeah, well, things change." Dom slammed his door and started the car. The engine rumbled like a contented lion.
"Tell me about it." Brian slumped back against the seat. The gas station was right there, it practically shared the same parking lot as the bar. Dom pulled up beside a pump and looked sideways at Brian.
"Maybe later. Now get your gas."
Brian did so, putting five gallons in the can and hoping that was enough to get the big truck started and all the way back here. He tried not to think about what Dom might have meant by that comment about "later". Better not to get his hopes up.
He paid for the gas, then told Dom where the truck was. The ride to the truck was silent and uncomfortable. There'd once been a time when he could just sit next to Dom, not speaking, and still know what was going on in the man's head. That time was long gone. There was no comfortable, familiar feeling in the car with them now, only the uneasy prickling of something nasty laying just beneath the surface. Finally, after a stretch of what felt like hours, he spotted his truck, a dust-covered blue hulk sitting beside the pavement.
"There it is," Brian said, relieved that his voice didn't reflect the tension he felt.
"That's your ride, man?"
Brian chose to ignore the mocking tone. "Yeah. It does the job."
"Doing the job is important to you." He pulled a U-turn and parked behind the truck.
That one Brian couldn't ignore. "Not so much as you think it is. There's some things that mean a lot more than doing what I'm told. Thanks for the lift."
Brian got out of the car and slammed the door. At least the doors on older vehicles were heavy enough that slamming was necessity and not an act of defiance or challenge. He could feel eyes on his back all the way to his truck, watching him unscrew the gas cap and pour the gas in. The Nova finally pulled away when Brian tossed the empty can in the bed and climbed into the cab.
He sank into the truck, the familiar smell of dust, oil, and gas settling around him. "Sonuvabitch," he sighed, and rested his head on the steering wheel. He'd been doing a lot of that lately. Dom.
Brian automatically started the truck, without raising his head. Dom. Why the hell wasn't the man safe in Mexico? He should have been there, happy and secure, on a beach somewhere with Letty. Not here, in Arizona, alternately strangling and helping him.
Brian pushed himself off the wheel and blinked. His eyes didn't want to focus, probably because he'd been pressing too hard against the steering wheel. Too bad he couldn't press some sense into his head.
Just for the hell of it, Brian checked the mileage to town. About five minutes later, he pulled into the gas station six and two-tenths miles down the road. Wonderful.
Putting gas in the truck for the second time in a day completely cleaned him out. Money had been tight ever since he'd been on the run, though, so being broke was nothing new. He'd just have to be extra careful, not drive the gas-guzzling truck any more than necessary, and make do with whatever food he had back at the trailer until he could get his hands on some more money.
"And so it goes," he said aloud as he pulled out of the gas station with barely three quarters of a tank, "life on the edge strikes another blow at our hero. Will he survive? Or will he get squashed by a tourist bus speeding on its way to the nearest casino?"
Naturally, the truck had no answer for him. The sun shone directly in Brian's eyes as he covered the final fifteen minutes of a trip that should have ended hours ago. At least he'd had the day off today, which was why he'd run to town in the first place, because he had the time. And a hell of a lot of good it had done him, tooforty-five minutes of arguing with the guys at the main office of the local auto parts chain had been more then long enough for assholes to make off with his gas, but not nearly long enough to convince them to change their policy and hire him. Stupid policy, anywayin order to work there applicants had to provide driver's license, social security card, a permanent street address, and references... in short, had to prove that they were legal residents of the US and not fugitives or anything like that. And the funny thing about that was they counted an RV park address as transient, not permanent. Ridiculous, really, the way it worked: to get a home, he needed a job, but to get a job he needed a home. How in hell was he supposed to get ahead again if he couldn't even get a real job? About the only work he could find anymore was construction cleanup, and that did not pay well.
Speaking of home, there it was now, Hawk's Nest Mobile Home and RV Park. Brian pulled into the driveway and the truck immediately protested the speed bump laying across the entrance, a trap for the reckless and unwary. Five squeaky complaints later, Brian reached the end of the speed bump gauntlet and pulled into his spot. Idly he wondered what Dom would think of his trailer, a relic of the late sixties held together more by its paint job and luck than by good construction. But it was a hell of a lot better than living on the streets. And right now, he was incredibly glad to see it.
Brian shut off the truck and went inside. A half-eaten bag of Doritos beckoned from the counter and he took it with him to the bed. It was a decent size trailer, a good twenty-one footer, but the bed was the only place he could stretch out and be comfortable. RV life just wasn't intended for tall people.
He'd no sooner gotten comfortable and started on his chips and some serious thinking when someone knocked on the door. "Yeah, I'm coming," he grumbled. He reached the door in three strides. "What?"
"Hey, Bri, come on out for a minute."
"Whatcha need, Frank?" Brian stepped out of the trailer to stand in the grass by one of the permanent park residents. Maybe he had another side job to offer? That'd be great.
"Had to talk to you, man, find something out." Frank moved a little closer, voice low. "You a cop, man?"
"What the hell?" Brian moved back involuntarily. "What makes you ask that?"
Frank raised a dark-skinned hand and beckoned. Three more men appeared quietly from behind the trailer. "Got someone here who says you're a cop, said some guy roughed you up at the bar down Cashion way. Now I'd appreciate it if you tell me this just isn't so."
"I'm not a cop, Frank. Why? Does it matter?" Actually, it did matter, and Brian was sweating with tension. Frank was a very successful local dealer.
"Now, I see it like this, Brian." Frank came forward another step. Brian decided to go with looking intimidated and retreated again. "I see that you're a quiet guy, hard up for cash, so you're willing to do a bit of work for a successful business man like me, right? And I also see that it's a perfect setup for an undercover sting operation. So tell me true, are you a cop?"
"Look, man, I said I ain't a cop." Brian was seriously sweating now. Four on one, and he wasn't feeling particularly strong or healthy after so many months of scarce food and lousy living conditions.
"Got any proof of that? Because Manuel over here, he says otherwise, and he's been loyal to me for years now. You've only been around a few months. Am I supposed to take your word over his?"
Shit. "Look, I'm not a cop, I'm a wanted man" he began desperately, not missing the hungry way the three other men were eyeing him. They were ready for a fight, no doubting that.
And then, like a gift from a hitherto indifferent god, a forest green Nova pulled into the yard beside Brian's truck, edging the men out of the way. The door opened and Dom stepped out.
"What's this, Brian, you're having a party and didn't even invite me?" His dark eyes swept over the scene. One of the men started and rattled something off rapidly in Spanish.
"That true?" Frank was visibly surprised. "This the guy from the bar, the one that roughed you up?"
"Dom's an old friend of mine," Brian said, never taking his eyes off Dom's face. Too bad the sun was setting and he couldn't see as well as he would like to in the gathering dusk. Please, come on, Dom, pick it up and run with it... "I was having car trouble. He gave me a ride back."
"Yeah." The park lights flickered on, including the one in Brian's space, supplementing the dying sunlight. "There a problem here?"
"They think I'm a cop." Either the gamble would pay off, or Dom would join in the fun and help kill him off.
"Heard that before," Dom grunted. He turned to face Frank. "Cop wouldn't have helped me run from the law. If he's a cop, he's looking at just as much time as I am."
Frank looked from Brian, to Dom, then to Manuel. "Is that so. Well, just keep in mind, kid, any sign that you're undercover and you're going to regret it. Not even a cop can escape some things, and I know where you live, remember? And it would be a real shame if anything were to happen to your home. These trailers, they burn real fast"
"Enough," Dom interrupted. "I don't know who you are, but you're going to quit threatening this man here, understood? Now get out of here."
Frank considered Dom for a long moment, clearly weighing his options. Then he shrugged and gestured for his men to follow him. "Not worth bothering with you anyway, boy," he said over his shoulder to Brian as they left, giving Dom and his car a respectful amount of space.
"Mind telling me what that was all about?"
Brian looked at Dom warily. That hadn't sounded particularly threatening, but the memory of being smashed up against a wall choking for breath was still recent. "Frank's a dealer. One of his little friends heard you call me a cop. He got pissed."
"Huh. You sure do pick winners to hang around with."
I picked you. But Brian didn't say that. Instead, he tried to sound casual and asked, "So how'd you find me?"
"Easy enough. Followed you. For a cop you sure aren't very observant."
"How many times do I have to tell you," Brian started, then saw the traces of a smile lurking on Dom's face. "And I wasn't looking for anything but cops on my tail. I never notice anything anymore unless it's got lights on top. Or in the grill, or on the dash..."
"Yeah, whatever. So this is your place now? My, how the mighty have fallen." Dom looked around, taking in everything: the battered pickup and trailer, the irregular-shaped lot marked off by a sagging chain-link fence on one side, the telephone pole with the cockeyed streetlight, even the overlong grass.
"That's where you're wrong, Dom." Brian turned a solemn gaze on him. "This is an improvement."
"Huh. Maybe you'd better come with me, then, and tell me about it."
"Maybe so." Brian went inside and grabbed his keys off the counter. When he turned to leave, he saw Dom peering in from the outside. "Don't say it, man."
"Why not? It's truethis place sucks."
"Yeah, well, it beats living on the streets." Brian went back outside and shut the door, hiding the interior from further criticism. He locked the padlock, trying to ignore Dom's incredulous stare.
"A padlock? You think someone's going to steal something?"
"It's the only way to keep the door closed. Padlock outside, bolt inside." Brian stuffed the keys in his pocket. "Not that any kind of lock would stop Frank from torching the place. He can be a real bastard sometimes."
"Come on, then," and Dom gave the trailer a final dubious look before heading for the Nova.
Brian followed. "Hey, man, in case I didn't say it beforethanks."
"Yeah. Don't count on me saving your ass again, though."
Brian couldn't think of anything to say to that, so he settled into the Nova without another word. He hadn't counted on Dom saving his ass in the first place. What the hell was going on here, anyway?
The Nova was nice inside. Brian ran a hand over the smooth wood paneling on the dash. His truck might have looked like this at one time, before twenty or so years of hard work under the desert sun had taken its toll. But what more could he ask? He'd paid all of a thousand bucks for both truck and trailer. And a ridiculously long time it had taken him to get the money together, too.
Dom seemed content to drive in silence. But again, like earlier in the day, the silence was edged with tension. Brian shifted nervously in his seat, twisting a button on his denim jacket, which he'd never even had a chance to take off. Finally the tension and the silence became too much for him.
"Where are you taking me?"
The word sent a thrill racing through Brian. He knew it just referred to Dom's house, that it was not any special indicator that he was welcome in Dom's place, but it still set his heart to racing. He hadn't ever expected to go home with Dom again, at least not in this lifetime.
Their destination wasn't far, not that anything was far from anything else in the Avondale/Goodyear area. Down Main to Fourth, take a right into the warren of little old houses, and suddenly they were there. Dom pulled into the carport of a small house with a big yard and shut the car off.
"This is weird, man."
"Yeah." Brian agreed with that statement without hesitation. But he followed willingly when Dom got out of the car, all the way into the house. It was small, but it had everything it needed: a couch, a recliner, a tv, a kitchen... "Nice place."
"Beats yours all to hell." Dom flipped a light on and headed for the refrigerator. "Want a beer?"
"How'd you guess, dude?" Brian went into the kitchen and accepted a Corona, looking around at the almost luxurious amount of space. Well, luxurious compared to a trailer, anyway. "Thanks."
"Don't mention it." Dom hadn't looked at him since they'd gotten into the car. He moved back into the living room and sat in the recliner.
"Fine, then, I won't." Brian had a long swallow of beer before heading for the couch. "Don't take this wrong, but what am I doing here?"
"Would you rather I left you with those tweaked out assholes?"
"No! Thanks, but no. I'm justI mean, I never expected to be on speaking terms with you again, even if by some freak of chance I ran into you. And now I'm here, in your place."
"Yeah." Dom drained about half his beer. "So spill it."
"What part of it do you want?" Brian's mouth quirked sideways in half a grin. This was all so... surreal. The entire day, starting with the truck running out of gas, had been beyond belief.
Dom finally looked at him, dark eyes unreadable in the light of the single lamp. "All of it."
"You got it, then." Brian drank some more of the beer and sighed. All of it. "I was on the force for eight years, straight out of high school into the Academy. Parents suggested it, rather strongly. Dad was a cop, mom was a dispatcher... seemed like a good idea at the time. That story I had before? Only part of it that was true was the part about me being from Tucson, at least for a while. My dad liked to move around. Wound up in California. Thought I wanted to be a detective eventually. It was my first case, should have been easy, just find out who's poppin' those trucks and get the Feds off our necks. But then I got involved. They were riding me hard about thinking you were innocent. Called me all sorts of idiot for defending you. And I didn't believe it was you until I saw you leave to pull a job. But by then I didn't care. I came damned close to running with you."
"Back then, I probably would have killed you."
The voice was so quiet, so calm, that Brian shivered. "Yeah. I believe it. So I didn't. I ran on my own."
There was no change in his voice, but somehow the question was supercharged. Brian could tell any chance of a future that involved Domhell, possibly even any kind of futurewas riding on his answer. "How could I stay?" He looked at the man across the room, eyes tracing every detail of the reason behind the massive upheaval in his world. "My career went out the window the second I decided to go after you. I wasn't going to arrest you, dude, I was going to warn you off, let you know that they were on you like stink on shit. I wanted no part of any atempt to put you behind bars. And it got worse. Shit, I would have rather died than let you know I was a cop, but how the hell else could I have done anything to help Vince? He was dying, man, and no way would they have sent a chopper out for just a 911 call. So I did it, I called it in and put my job even further on the line as far as the fucking Fed was concerned 'cause that chopper runs about ten grand every time it lifts off. And don't forget Tran. When I left him, he was still barely alive, but I heard he died. You think my job could have survived that? And then there was you..." Brian sat the beer down, what was left of it, and rubbed his eyes. "Probably shouldn't say this, but what the hell. You said all of it, after all. I never intended to survive that race." Dom twitched, just a slight motion. "I saw those railway gates drop and it suddenly seemed like the perfect solution. Train comes, boom, we're both gone in a blaze of glory. Bit hard on the engineer dude, but oh well, no more problems. So I punched the nitrous and we made it, dude, we fucking made it but you hit that semi" Brian downed the last of his beer.
"And you gave me your car. Why?"
"Because I couldn't let you go back to jail. No way, no how. My life was fucked already, so fuck it a bit harder and clear out. All the charges they would bring me up on could have me put away a hell of a lot longer than you. So I got the hell out of Dodge. That's when life got real fun. Ever try starting over with nothing but the shirt on your back? The bloody shirt, might I add. Too many deaths that day. I ran like hell. I hit the north central states and went on the road with a carnival"
"A carnival?" The incredulity in Dom's voice made Brian smile.
"Yeah, a carnival. Not a bad way to run from the law. Ever try it? Half the carnies are so hot they can't stay in any one place for more than two days. I fit right in. And they paid cash, no questions asked. Took a while, yeah, but I scrounged up enough over the summer to get a tent, which beat the hell out of crashing on one of the ride trucks, and then we hit winter quarters, right there off Litchfield. I got a truck and trailer with my season-end bonus and found myself an RV park. That's been, oh, a couple months ago, three or four maybe. Been grabbing any kind of job I can get since then. Picked up an idname's Flannery now, by the waybut been having a hell of a time getting legit work. Ran a few deliveries for Frank, that's probably why he was so jumpy tonight. I've seen more than enough to send him for a long stretch up the river. But I just don't give a shit anymore, because I'm looking at a pretty long stretch myself."
Dom looked at him for a long, quiet moment after Brian finished talking. "So what's with the fringe?"
Brian rubbed his jaw. "Started with the carnival. Easy way to change my face, you know? And besides, do you know how hard it is to find a razor and a place to shave when you're living on the back of a ride truck? Let alone a shower. Jesus." Brian made a face. "And now I've got a shower of my own, but the fucking water heater doesn't work in my trailer."
"No hot water?"
"No heat, either." Brian shivered reflexively. "Damn good thing this is the desert."
"No shit." Dom picked up his empty bottle and looked at it, then set it down again. "You were family once. Maybe you still are. At any rate, you helped me out as much as you could. Need a place to stay?"
If Brian hadn't already been sitting, he would have fallen over. "Uh... stay? Trailer. I mean, I have a place, but, rent! If I don't pay the space rent, I lose the trailer. Tonight, maybe?"
"Your call, man." Dom stretched an arm out and snagged the tv remote off the lone end table in the room. The sound of the tv filled the room, the meaningless babble of local news lending a domestic touch to an already strange scene.
"Why?" Suddenly, the weirdness was too much for Brian to take. He had to know what was going on here.
"I told you before, I might tell you later. Not now."
Dom turned to the tv, ignoring Brian. He sat there unmoving, face carefully blank. Brian ran a hand through his hair, frustrated. What the hell
Brian looked around, startled. A large black cat marched into the room, tail up and ears forward. It was a scruffy looking critter, with patches of scar hair showing white against the dark fur. It looked from Dom to Brian, meowed again loudly, then sat in the middle of the floor and started washing itself.
"You have got to be kidding me," Brian said. The cat lifted a hind leg and started licking its butt. "A cat?"
"That's Fred. He followed me home one day and won't leave," Dom muttered. The cat finished licking himself and crossed the floor to sit on Dom's feet.
Brian laughed. He couldn't help himself, it was just funny to see the big tough guy with a cat sitting on his feet. Dom reached down and scratched Fred's ears. "Sorry, man," Brian said, choking back his laughter. "Just seems kinda funny, you know? I mean, kitty doesn't fit with the tough guy image."
"Fred's a tough cat," Dom said, straightening in his chair. "He lived on the streets for a long time, or so I'm guessing from the scars. Anyone can take that much of a beating and still keep his tail up is alright by me."
For some reason, the cat broke the tension in the room. There were still unacknowledged problems lurking beneath the surface, but most of the awkwardness was gone. More awkwardness went away when Dom ordered a pizza and found a halfway decent movie on tv.
It was almost like old times, but for one thing. Brian was no longer lying. He felt off-balance, somehow, almost as though he had no right to be here acting like an old friend. But there wasn't anywhere else he'd rather be.
"Was it hard, living on the road?"
"Huh?" The question startled Brian. He'd been almost dozing, not really paying attention to what was on screen... some gung-ho space cowboy kicking butt on an unfortunate alien.
"The carnival. Was it hard?" Dom looked at him, eyes half shut. Brian woke his tired mind up and answered.
"Yeah, it was pretty hard. Why?"
"Just curious. You look like you've had a rough time of it lately."
"You could say that. Life on the road ain't all it's cracked up to be, that's for sure. Parts of it were niceI always did like staying up all night. Somehow I always wind up working jobs that have me up with the sun. But that just don't happen, on the road with a carnival." Brian smiled a little at the memories. "Midway opens at five Fridays, noon weekends, and always closes at midnight. All workers on site by eleven or so. 'Course, after the midway shut down there was cleanup yet to do, so no one got done until maybe one, two in the morning. Then it's find a spot to crash. Mine was on the Flying Bobs truck, had a spot up in the cab for a bit until Doughboy found himself a girl and didn't want company. Picked her up in Mitchell, I think, Mitchell, Nebraska. Hell of a spot there. But it was okay that I lost my spot on that truck, 'cause I got bumped up to ride jock. Just one of the kiddie rides, you know, the Hampton? Stupid little thing, goes in circles, has cars and motorcycles and such?" Dom nodded. "So since I had my own ride, I got to crash on the truck it stowed on. Bunch of other guys there, though, so sometimes it got a bit rough when one'd try to grab my spot... Anyway, I eventually got paid enough to clear my tab at the chow wagon and buy myself a tent. Wasn't easy, let me tell you, making barely enough to get by. Only time I ever saw any real money was working setup and teardown. But then, of course, that money had to cover meals on the road... bit of a rough life."
"I guess so," Dom said. "And you put up with this why?"
"I didn't have a choice, man." Brian reached over and rubbed the cat, stretched out on the sofa cushion beside him. "What else could I have done?"
"You could have turned me in. You would have kept your job that way."
"No way, man. No way I could have turned you in. They made a major mistake putting me on that case. Anyone but you, sure, I could have done it. But you're" Brian struggled with words for a moment. "I don't know. But I just couldn't have done it. I'd rather you killed me."
"I wanted to," Dom said quietly. "I really wanted to. No one betrays me and gets away with it."
"Maybe you should have." The cat fur under his hand was a strange texture, not really coarse, but not soft either. Brian concentrated on petting the cat slowly, evenly, not looking at Dom, not letting on any of the chaos that was threatening to overwhelm him. The cat started purring.
"That would have caused more problems than it solved."
There was a long quiet moment while the cat purred and Brian felt eyes burning into him. Then Dom stood up.
"It's getting late. I have to work early. See you in the morning."
And he walked out of the room, switching the light off as he went. Brian watched him leave, still absently stroking the cat. What exactly had just happened there?
Brian sighed and reached for the remote. He turned the volume down and stared at the tv, letting the meaningless images flicker by without really paying attention to them. What was happening here? Better yet, what was happening inside him? He'd known before exactly how he felt about Dom. The man was dangerous, no doubting that, but he was also infinitely worth the danger. Dominic Toretto was a complicated man, with many layers, each one more surprising than the last. Brian had known from the moment Dom had invited him into his house that first wild night, after the Tran cousins had shot up the department's expensive car, that Dom could be the best friend he'd ever had. Why? Now that was harder to pinpoint. Mostly it was just a feeling, something he knew instinctively, but it was there. And it had been true. They'd gotten so close, despite Vince's best efforts to keep them apart, and Brian had hated himself for what he was doing.
Maybe that was the root of it, the turmoil inside him now. He gave up on the tv, paid a visit to the bathroom, and pulled the scratchy green Army blanket off the back of the battered couch. He laid down, shoved the cat aside, and tried to follow up on his earlier thought.
He'd felt like he was hanging over the edge of an abyss ever since he'd gotten to know Dom. They warned about that, back on the force, they'd said that he'd need to be a thick-skinned, cold-blooded bastard to survive undercover work. What they hadn't said was that he'd have to see a side of himself he didn't know he had. So he wanted to go in undercover, bring the bad guys to justice before anyone got hurt and before any more expensive equipment got stolen. Noble purpose, shining ideals... what a load of crap. What it really boiled down to was he had to work his way into a tight-knit group of friends and family, become one of them, and then betray every last one of them. How was he supposed to know that he was capable of caring for the so-called bad guys? How could he have known that Dom was the kind of friend he'd dreamed of having for years, or that Mia was someone he could easily have loved, or that he'd even be willing to put his life on the line for big stupid Vince... And what did that make him, then? Just another good cop gone bad, they were probably saying about him back in LA, but that wasn't really how he saw himself. As far as he was concerned, he just wasn't capable of being the kind of lousy rotten bastard that could betray friends without a second thought.
Okay, so Dom had been doing something illegal. Who'd he stick it to? Big corporations. Up until the last run, nobody had gotten hurt, other than a few truckers with headaches. Brian smiled in the dim light leaking through the blinds. Put that way, it sounded like Dom was a modern-day Robin Hood. Take money from the big nasty corporations, give it to the poor down-trodden members of society's lower class, with a healthy portion of cash to line his own pockets... not so bad, after all.
Brian couldn't have missed the contrast between Dom and his superiors if he'd tried. The criminal was the one who looked out for his own, took care of his team no matter what. The cops and that Fed were the ones looking to set Brian up to take their fall. Yeah, Tanner had tried to look out for him, sort of, but even he had been willing to smack Brian down. Not a nice contrast. Weren't the bad guys supposed to be the nasty ones?
He eventually drifted off, despite the restless thoughts flying through his head. At least now there were no serious moral issues with being on friendly terms with Dom, not that that was much consolation for the confusion in his soul.
* * * *
Brian was mostly asleep, unable to fully relax because he was in someone else's house, when he heard a sound. He tried to figure out what it was and decided Dom must be having a dream. So he burrowed into the cushion a little further, found out his legs were pinned by a sleeping cat, and tried to go back to sleep. But then Dom yelled.
Brian shot straight up, heart pounding. The cat made a disgusted noise and hopped off the couch.
He untangled himself from the blanket and stumbled across the room, swearing at his uncooperative legs. He pushed open Dom's door and waited for his eyes to adjust. It was darker in here, probably because there was no light from the neighbor's across the street shining right on the window like there was in the living room. Dom was sitting up in bed.
"Hey, dude, you all right?" Brian asked from the doorway. Dom moved, the faint light reflecting from his skin.
"Yeah, man, I'm fine. Why?"
Brian blinked. "Uhh... heard you yelling, just thought I'd check." Fine? Yeah, right.
"No problem, just a bad dream. Go back to bed." Dom laid back down and pulled the covers up over his head.
Brian took the hint and shut the door again. The return trip to the couch was much easier, since his legs were more willing to cooperate. Thoughts whirled through his head at a frantic pace. Back on the couch, he got settled under the blanket again and sighed with relief when he heard the heater kick on. Such a luxury, after freezing his tail off all through the winter... The cat came back, adding to the warmth of heater and blanket, and Brian felt tension draining out of his muscles. But relaxation did nothing to slow the thoughts in his head this time.
So Dom was having nightmares about him, hmm? Brian chose to think positively about that. When Dom had yelled, it hadn't sounded like he was pissed off, so that was a good sign. Maybe things would get better in the future. Maybe.... just maybe...
Brian let his mind drift off into a fantasy, what might have happened if he was a little more braveor maybe a little more suicidal. He would have gone in to the room, not just stood there at the doorway like a big chicken, and reached out...
Dom's skin was like ice. "Hey," he said, concerned, "you all right?"
The muscles under his hand rippled in a shrug. "Yeah, fine. Why?"
He sat on the edge of the bed. "Just heard you yelling, that's all, and wanted to be sure."
This time Dom was the one to reach out, resting a hand on Brian's arm. "You're here, right? Not dead. So yeah, everything's fine."
Nah, that probably wouldn't happen. How about...
He lurched off the couch, heart pounding, and stumbled towards the sound of Dom's voice. What could possibly be wrong in there, for Dom to be yelling for him?
He found out when he opened the door. Dom lurched upright in his bed, reaching out frantically. Brian tripped over something on the floor and nearly fell onto the bed.
"Dom? What's wrong?"
"Brian? You're not dead?"
Suddenly, he found himself trapped in a powerful embrace, but escape was the last thing on his mind...
That was even worse. He knew Dom was straight. He shouldn't be thinking things like that. But oh lord, it would be so good, if only...
He's straight, you dumbass, he told himself for maybe the hundredth time that day. Remember that. Friends only, or you lose him for good.
Brian finally dropped back into an uneasy sleep, troubled by nebulous and disturbing dreams.
He woke to the sound of rain. At first, he couldn't quite place the sound, then he recognized it and had to laugh at himself. Even after all those months up north, he still couldn't readily identify the sound of rain on a roof. Of course, it wasn't like he'd had many chances up there to hear the rain on a real roof, but still...
He had just settled down to try and sleep again when he heard Dom's alarm go off, an obnoxious beeping sound followed by a groggy curse. Brian gave it up as hopeless and sat up.
The cat was nowhere to be found, which surprised him for some reason. Then he remembered waking up with the cat on his legs and Dom yelling. Oh yeah, so that was why he'd expected Fred to be there. Now the question was, would that weird incident affect things this morning?
The annoying alarm shut off and the bathroom door thumped shut. Brian stretched. He'd spent nights on more comfortable things than Dom's couch, but he'd also spent nights on much worse. He fished around in his back pocket, pulled out his comb, and went to work detangling his hair. He needed a shower, rather badly in fact. Maybe Dom wouldn't mind if heooh. There went the shower now. It took a great deal of effort to wrench his mind away from thoughts of Dom in the shower.
To distract himself, he went into the kitchen and poked around. Memories of other mornings waking up at Dom's place indicated there should be eggs in the fridge.
Eggs, onions, a little plastic bag of sliced red and green peppers, cheese, salsaplenty of stuff to whip up a respectable omelette. Brian gathered up the ingredients and stared at them. It'd been entirely too long since he'd cooked, did he still remember how? He started cracking eggs. He owed Dom this much, at least, for letting him stay here. And he definitely remembered that Dom really liked a good breakfast.
The mess in the skillet was about halfway turned into an omelette when Dom came in, dressed in a blue-gray coverall. "What are you up to?"
"Thought I might earn my keep," Brian replied. "And maybe get enough brownie points to use your shower."
A slow smile spread across Dom's face. "Trust me, Brian, you don't need brownie points to use my shower. In fact, if you don't get in there and get cleaned up, I might have to hurt you."
Brian laughed. "In a minute. Let me finish this first, okay?"
"Make it quick. You look like something the cat threw up."
"Good morning to you too, asshole," Brian grinned, taking a swipe at Dom's shoulder. Dom blocked it halfheartedly, then sat at the kitchen table, sprawling over a chair in a way that somehow managed to look graceful.
"Seems almost like old times."
"Yeah. Missing a few people, though." Brian glanced sideways at Dom. Maybe this wasn't very wise, but what the hell. "How's Mia?"
Instantly, Dom's face went still and guarded. "Haven't heard. Chances are she's okay, though."
The omelette was done. Brian split it in half and then realized he had nothing to put it on. He started opening cupboards. In the second one, he hit paydirt: a stack of paper plates. "These work for you?" He held one up. Dom nodded without looking. He stared off into space, eyes blank.
Brian scraped the omelette halves out of the pan and dropped them on plates. He scrounged a bit harder and pulled a pair of forks out of a drawer. He took the plates over to the table, with the salsa clamped under his arm. Dom shook his head abruptly and his eyes focused on Brian. He reached out and took one of the plates.
"Thanks, man," Brian said. He sat the salsa down in the middle of the table, then pulled out the other chair and sat down.
"Thank you. Been a long time since anyone made breakfast for me."
"Least I could do." Brian scooped out some salsa and tackled his breakfast. He had a feeling mentioning Mia had been a bad idea, but he really wanted to know. He had cared for her, after all, that hadn't been an act. Maybe not as much as he should have, maybe not as much as he'd let on, but he still cared.
Dom concentrated on eating. Brian might as well have been alone. He finished quickly and tossed the paper plate in the trash and the fork in the sink. The shower was calling him.
Boy, was it ever calling him. It stood there in front of him, a rather nondescript shower stall as such things went, but it beckoned with the promise of hot water. He reached out almost reverently and turned the hot water knob. Obediently water spewed out of the shower head, rather cold. Brian used the toilet and stripped off. Steam started curling around the edges of the shower door and Brian smiled.
It was heaven. It was absolute, pure heaven. It was almost too hot to handle. Amazing! Absolutely amazing.
Ridiculous, really, how good the water felt. He hadn't had a hot shower since... he came up totally blank. Damn. He looked around for shampoo, then laughed at himself. What would a bald man want with shampoo? But there was a bar of soap, and that would do just fine.
While he scrubbed every part of himself, Brian set his mind to tracking down that elusive last hot shower memory. No water heater in the trailer, he'd had that for three months now. Before that, the tent. Almost three months in that, using the camp shower he'd invested fifteen bucks in... which was nearly as much as he'd invested in the tent itself. That had been nice enough during the summer. Fill it up, lay it in the sun, and it'd heat up enough water for a quick scrub. Before that, the ride trucks. Aha! That was it. In Mitchell, same place he'd lost the spot in the cab of the Bobs, he'd gotten a real shower in the mobile home of a friend of a friend. That had been... holy shit, almost seven months ago. Sheesh. No wonder this shower felt so good.
He was in the middle of rinsing off a second time when the water started going cold. Brian yelped and rinsed faster. His luck was out, the water turned to ice almost instantly. He flinched away from the suddenly sharp drops with a series of undignified yips, but managed to get the rest of the soap off. He turned the water off as quickly as he could manage. Wow! Nothing quite like ice water on overheated skin to get the blood going. Kind of like hot tubbing, then jumping into an unheated swimming pool. In January.
He found a towel, still slightly damp. Okay, mind, just don't go there. Do not think about where this towel's been. But it was hard, very hard, not to imagine the towel rubbing all over Dom's body.
"Hey Brian," Dom knocked on the door and Brian jumped. "You almost done in there?"
"Yeah, man. What's up?" Oops. Unfortunate choice of words. Fortunately, there was no way Dom could see him blush.
"I'm heading out. If you want a ride, you'd better move it."
"Gotcha." Brian pulled his jeans back on, flesh crawling at the not-quite-clean feel. T-shirt next, then much-abused sweatshirt. He looked at his socks, but just couldn't face dirty socks after that nice shower. He wadded them up and went out of the bathroom, searching for his shoes and jacket. The socks could go in the pockets. Dom was there, pulling on a brown leather jacket.
"You look better. Almost like yourself again." Dom's mouth twitched, just a little bit. "Now I can tell there's a Brian hiding under all that hair."
"Uh-oh, if it's that obvious I'm in trouble." Brian stuffed his feet into his shoes and shrugged into his jacket. "Hope there's no one else as observant as you."
"Get outta here, smartass." Dom headed for the door. "You got a job?"
"Halfass job, doing construction cleanup. But there's no work for the rest of this week, so I'm looking for something. Got a line on anything?"
They got into the Nova and backed out of the carport into the grey day. Brian looked at the clouds and sighed. Mixed blessing, rainthe desert needed it badly, but as long as it was wet he'd have an even harder time picking up a cleanup job. Maybe there was something else he could find, something that wouldn't give him shit over his so-called transient address.
The ride to his place was over too soon. Brian tried frantically to come up with something to say. Dom beat him to it.
"Don't be a stranger."
His eyes were fixed on the asphalt, hands clenched on the wheel. Brian paused, one hand on the door. "Thanks, dude. I won't."
Then he got out of the car and splashed through the puddles to his trailer. He got the door open and made it to the window in time to see Dom's taillights pull away.
Fuck. He'd really blown that one.
He sighed and dropped the curtain. Practicality asserted itself and he found clean clothing. Might as well not waste that shower, no matter how badly he'd screwed up his chances with Dom. As friends, dammit. Nothing more. Pissing Dom off first thing in the morning wasn't a promising beginning, though, and he really hadn't been too thrilled with that question about Mia.
Too late to do anything about that now. Brian finished changing and reached for the classified section of yesterday's newspaper. Maybe there was something he'd missed.
|AS&J||BSG||Farscape||Jeremiah||Jurassic Park||Litslash||Potpourri||SAJV||Star Wars|