Life did go back to normal, of course. Whatever that was.
I know Dom watched me sometimes when he thought I didn't know. I couldn't tell what he was thinking. I didn't really care that much, as long as he didn't make me go away. I didn't think I could handle that right then.
I put some serious effort into not screwing up after that. I didn't want to give him a reason not to want me around any more.
I stood on the porch for twenty minutes before deciding to face the music.
I practised saying it. "Sorry, Dom, but no one has one. I don't know what it is, I went everywhere, and no one had one."
It sounded pretty lame. And it was kind of embarrassing. I mean, all I had to do was pick up a fuel pressure regulator. No big deal, right? Except no one had the model Dom wanted. Not Harry, no one! They all sent me to someone else, someone who didn't have shit either. I felt like such an idiot, because I started wondering if there was some conspiracy going on or something, 'cause they were all really friendly, too.
When you're a kid, too young to drive let alone own a car, these guys don't give you the time of day. They just don't. But today it was like they were waiting for me, practically jumping on each other to help me, only to tell me that that model was out of stock but I should really try Bob's or Louie's.
And now I'd wasted the whole day looking for one, and, well, I felt like an idiot.
The door opened and I jumped to see the man himself in front of me.
"Kid? You been standin' out there forever. What's up?"
"Uh, Dom," I muttered, not really wanting to say it. "I wasn't, um, able to get one. I mean," I looked up earnestly, trying to convey just how hard I'd tried for him, "I went everywhere. And no one had one. I'm really sorry."
He squatted down a bit, so we were eye level. "It's okay, kid. It's cool. Listen, Mia cooked for everyone tonight. Come in and have something."
I smiled, incredibly relieved to be off the hook. "You won't tell anyone, will you?" They'd tease me forever.
He grinned and shook his head. "Don't worry so much. You need to relax. Come on, already. Wash up and get out back."
I followed him through the house, feeling dwarfed in his wake and intimidated as always, but not threatened. There was a difference, I thought as I washed my hands in the kitchen, but I was still trying to figure out what that was exactly when I headed out back.
I did a total double take when I walked through the back door.
They were sitting around the picnic table, all five of them, and they were all wearing shiny cardboard party hats.
I goggled for a moment, and then I lost my footing on the steps, laughing so hard that I barely noticed when I hit the railing.
I slammed a hand over my mouth until I saw the grins they were all trying to hide. Then I just let loose and laughed until I heard it echoing against neighbouring houses. Soon, though, it was drowned out by another noise. One that had me laughing so hard I was on the ground clutching my stomach, it hurt so bad.
Vince had pulled out an acoustic I'd never seen before, and he was singing 'Happy Birthday,' slowly and with great ceremony. The rest joined in, and it was bedlam. Dom and Leon both had fairly good singing voices, actually, I'd heard them both humming before. But they clashed horribly with Mia's untrained tenor and Letty and Vince's well, whatever they were trying to do.
I damn near hyperventilated when a dog somewhere in the neighbourhood started howling.
I was still laughing when they were done, but I managed to stagger to my feet and make my way to the table where Letty pulled another party hat out and secured it on my head.
I caught Dom's smirk while she did. "Trying to give me nightmares, huh?" I teased, and he laughed.
"Just the good kind."
No one else got it, of course, but they grinned, clearly pleased by my response.
"Make a wish, Darry," Mia said, and that's when I noticed the cake on the table and all the decorations around. They'd hung up Japanese lanterns that would look cool as it got darker, I knew, and there were streamers tied to - well, anything and everything.
"Holy shit, you guys," I said, awed despite myself. It must've taken them all day to get this set up. And then suddenly I figured something out. "Let me guess, you're the reason I've been running around in circles all today."
"Sure am," Dom admitted, but he didn't seem too guilty about it.
"Jerk." But I was joking and he knew it. "So can we eat? I missed lunch - 'cause some jerk kept me running around in circles all day."
"Enough," Dom growled, and chucked a roll at me.
"Hah!" I shouted.
Everyone looked at me, trying to see what the fuss was about.
"He reached for the food first. So he has to say grace, right?" I looked around pleadingly, and everyone started laughing and nodding.
Dom shot me a look that promised retribution for all smartasses, but he bowed his head.
"The cake looks beautiful, Mia. Thanks," I said sincerely. She smiled in thanks and gestured for me to blow out the fourteen candles on top. I did, easily, and everyone cheered.
"What'd you wish for?" Dom asked.
Letty elbowed him in the gut. "She can't tell you."
He shrugged and handed me a knife to begin cutting. I stopped after the first slice, though, and looked up. "Listen, guys, I appreciate it, you have no idea. But, um, could we take off the hats? They're doing serious psychological damage here."
Cheering noisily, they all ripped them off in relief, Leon and Vince making a big show of smoothing out their hair. I didn't think anyone noticed when I took mine off and set it aside so it wouldn't get crushed. Maybe, if I thought of it later, I'd hold on to it, like a memento or something.
The cake was pretty good, actually. But the best part came afterward. They brought gifts. And man, when these people bought gifts
Vince went first, looking like a kid on Christmas. Pulling a stick-on bow off something behind him, probably off another gift by the way Mia slapped him, he stuck it on the guitar he'd been playing and handed it to me. "There," he said, like it was no big deal, "now you can keep your grubby hands off mine."
I ignored him to study the instrument. It was tuned and all, but I'd swear it was brand new. I looked up in awe. "Thanks, Vince, this is incredible. I'm definitely going to have to learn some songs that are worthy of this thing. Real piece of art."
He shrugged but looked pleased, and I knew anything more would just embarrass him so I let it go.
"Here," Leon said, shoving something big and wrapped in plain brown paper across the table at me. It was pretty heavy, actually, too heavy to shake properly. I grinned and made a big show of ripping the paper open in glee, although it became sincere as soon as I saw what was inside. "Holy shit!" I squealed, captivated by the way the buffed silver of the row of tools inside the plastic case caught the light. I looked up and almost laughed at the anxious expression on his face. I guess he'd worried that it might not be a good gift for a girl, or something. But I loved it. For one thing, they were the real deal, not some dinky crap that a lot of places pass off as 'quality' tools.
Feeling mischievous, I looked at him as seriously as I could. "So does this mean I get to work on your car?"
He looked freaked. He hadn't expected that one.
I grinned. "Gotcha."
Everyone burst out laughing at his obvious relief, even him.
"Jesus, kid, don't do that to me," he groaned, fist to his forehead like he was suffering from some serious pain.
"Don't worry," I reassured him. "I wouldn't do that to you. Now, Dom's car, on the other hand " I rubbed my hands together and tried to look greedy.
Dom shot up in his seat and started punching Leon in the arm. "You goin' down, man," he growled, and everyone laughed when Leon threw up his arms in surrender.
"Sorry, bro, I meant well."
Dom slapped him on the shoulder and sat back to watch me open Mia's gift. It was a big one, and she had Vince drag it over so I could turn around and open it while one end of the box was on the ground.
"Oh, cool," I breathed. It was a wind generator model kit, and a damned nice one. I scanned the contents list and squealed, completely forgetting that I had an audience. "Dude, it's modelled after the Bergey XL-1 Turbine 24V! Those things are decent – direct-drive permanent-magnet alternator, kick-ass low-wind action juiced by low-end boost circuitry, and virtually silent running 'cause the blade airfoils are toned. Hey, I wonder how much I can mess with this," I mused dreamily, ideas popping into my head. "I've always wondered what would happen if you pushed the tensile stress levels of the blades and messed with the rotor diameter -"
Suddenly aware that I had an audience, and a very quiet one, I looked up to see identical expressions of something odd, something I couldn't quite place, going around the table.
Dom blinked and shook his head. Next to him, a proud grin grew on Mia's face.
"How do you know all that shit?" Letty asked, sounding genuinely curious.
I flushed. "I learned about some of this stuff for school, and 'cause Dad used to take me out to see the wind farms outside of Palm Springs." I felt kind of ridiculous now. "I know, it seems kind of stupid, but -"
"Shut up, kid," Dom said. "It ain't stupid."
I looked up to make sure he wasn't teasing, and relaxed.
"So what'd you get me?" I asked, confident that he had gotten me something.
He didn't waste time pretending otherwise. "It's from both of us," he said, gesturing to Letty. She cocked an eyebrow at me like it wasn't a big deal, so I knew immediately that it was.
Dom set a well-worn envelope on the table. I looked up. "Jeez, I was hoping for a Viper."
That got a laugh from everyone else, but Dom just watched me pick it up and pull out the papers inside. I started reading them, and unable to believe my eyes, I upended the envelope to let some smaller items fall out.
Among them was a birth certificate under the name Darien Ortecho Conrad.
"Today's date," I noticed, feeling kind of dazed.
And some very official looking documents attested that the legal guardians of said person were in fact Dominic Toretto and Leticia Covas. Dom as a godparent and Letty as his partner. They were, the papers said, named permanent guardians in the wake of "Darien's" parents' deaths.
I looked up and looked first Dom and then Letty in the eyes. "Me?" My voice was low, and about a second from cracking. I knew what they'd done. I'd told Dom what I wanted, and he'd taken care of it, just like he said he would.
With a new identity, I could go to school. I could have a life, a new life, and if these stood up as legit as they looked, no one would ever be the wiser. I looked at the name again, wondering how the hell they got a name so similar that no one would think twice when I answered to Darry, or if I accidentally wrote "O'Con - " because I could make it Darry O. Conrad with no trouble. I've heard Bri talk about fake IDs before, and this was fucking brilliant, is what it was. And it had to have cost a shitload of money.
I couldn't see the words so I ran my fingers over them, needing to feel them under my fingers because all I could see were blurred blobs of black. I wasn't crying yet, not really, but it wouldn't be long.
Someone was talking but I'd tuned all of them out, feeling overwhelmed by everything. I'd never expected anything like this. Never. Then there was a hand under my chin pulling it up, forcing me to look up and directly into Letty's eyes.
"You okay with this, kid? It sucks to give up your family name, but we thought it'd be safer that way. And you'll always know who your family was, even if no one else does. I promise."
I didn't trust myself to speak. I could see Dom over her shoulder, looking real serious, like what I did next was real important.
I didn't know what the fuck to say or do. So I did the first thing that came to mind, and I threw my arms around Letty, hugging her to me like I'd never let her go.
She stiffened for a second, but then she hugged me back.
She hugged me back. And for the first time in a long time, almost half a year, I felt like I belonged somewhere.
I belonged here.
This was my family now.
I didn't let go of Letty when I felt Dom's muscular arms come around both of us, but I lifted my head and rested it on his shoulder.
I had no idea how long we stayed like that, but I must've fallen asleep, because the next thing I knew it was morning and I woke up in my own bed, and in my own room.
For the first time, I really did feel like they really were mine. I wasn't going anywhere.