"Hey Darry, we need someone else for football. You in?"
I lifted my head out of my arms and squinted into the sunlight. It was the guys, and three other kids I didn't really know but I'd seen around school. They were all on bikes.
"Sure. Gimme a sec, I'll go tell Mia."
Juke let his bike fall and came closer, eyes on the book I'd been using as a pillow. "You doin' homework?" he asked, disbelievingly.
"Sure, Juke. I just live for it, don't you?" I rolled my eyes sarcastically. "Don't be an asshole."
Of course, I conveniently forgot to mention that I'd finished my homework for the weekend the day before, when business had slowed down at the garage. No one else did it before Sunday night. Or admitted to it, anyway. I planned to act real surprised when I got into college. Maybe I'd pretend I bribed my way in.
"Nah, I'm learnin' how to use some of the simulation and diagnostic software they got at the garage," I admitted, then grinned cockily. "I'm gonna design me a car."
Everyone laughed, but Juke perked up, looking interested. "Can I see?"
I yawned and stretched the kinks out of my muscles as I stood. I'd sprawled out on the porch to read the workbook, enjoying the Saturday afternoon sun in shorts and my usual t-shirts, and I was stiff. "Knock yourself out. I'm gonna go throw on some jeans."
Juke grinned. "Why bother? Come as you are."
I gave him a withering glare. "'Cause I still got the scrapes from last week. You jerks coulda told me basketball here was a fuckin' contact sport."
The guys all laughed, Heck loudest of all. Mimicking a high 'girly' tone, he started mocking me. "Hey! You can't do that. That's a foul! Hey! You can't do that either! What the fuck? Bump into me again and I'll kick your ass. Hey - don't say I didn't warn ya'!"
I had to grin. I'd said and done all of that and more, but he sounded nothing like me I hoped. Besides, I hadn't actually beaten anyone up, I'd just, well, kicked that jerk in the ass. Literally.
Mike almost fell off his bike, he was laughing so hard at the memory, and Heck and Nick high-fived. The other guys didn't say anything, but they were watching me curiously. More amused than anything else, I smirked and headed into the house.
Mia poked her head out of the kitchen. She was prepping some food for another 'family' dinner. When I first got here, they only had them every month or so. For a while it was just Mia and I eating together, with Dom eating when he got home from the garage. Some nights Letty came with him. But we'd gotten into a pattern, sort of, where all the guys all showed up for dinner once a week, and every now and then one or two of 'em would stop in unexpectedly. Dom made it a few times a week. It was nice. "Yeah?"
"Can I borrow your bike to go to the park for a while?"
Mia nodded. "Take your cell. And be back before dinner."
I nodded my thanks and headed upstairs to put on jeans, a tight t-shirt that tucked firmly into under the waistband, and then a loose t-shirt on top. I tied my hair back into my usual ponytail and emptied my school stuff out of a backpack so I could put my phone and a bottle of water in it.
Out back I grabbed Mia's bike and wheeled it down the driveway to where the guys were waiting out front, Juke and Heck bent over my book and the other ones talking lazily about something.
"Here, gimme that," I said, holding out my hand for the manual. I figured I'd just put it in the backpack too.
Juke handed it to me reluctantly. "That's some cool shit. You really designing a car?"
I shook my head. "Nah, just learning how to put 'em together."
"Cool." Raising his voice, he called to the guys. "C'mon, let's get goin'."
I was a little surprised at how many kids showed up at the park, about twenty, but I figured there just wasn't much to do on a hot Saturday afternoon in the neighbourhood.
I didn't say anything as they were making up the teams, although the looks I was getting from some of the Asian kids who'd shown up were freaking me out a little.
"Hey, Juke?" I asked quietly, when everyone was getting into position. He was quarterback, of course. I was off to one side as usual.
"There somethin' going on that I should know about?"
He didn't pretend not to know what I was talking about. "Yeah, they're Trans. Two of 'em, anyway. Just don't make a big deal out of it and neither will they."
Heart hammering, I nodded and got into position across from a kid I didn't know. He looked at me kind of weird, probably trying to figure out why a girl was in the game, but he stayed quiet. And when the ball was thrown, he mowed into me without a word.
"Oof," I said as the wind was knocked out of me.
It wouldn't be the last time, either. It seemed like every time the ball went into play, I got targeted by a couple of the opposing team. I took the hits, of course; that's part of the game, and they didn't hurt that much. I was just glad I was getting grass stains on my jeans rather than up my freakin' ass like I would've if I'd stuck with shorts.
Finally Juke called a huddle. "Okay, I have an idea."
The guys all looked a little surprised. Nobody bothered with strategy in pickup games. You just did what you could to get the ball to the goal.
"They seem kinda distracted by Darry here," he said with a grin, and I wrinkled my nose at him.
"Maybe we can use it against 'em."
"Misdirection," Heck said. Juke nodded at his twin, although no one else seemed to know what he was talking about.
Juke explained. "Next few plays, keep the ball far away from her. When they figure out what we're doing, they'll start goin' after the rest of us. Then, on my signal, whoever has the ball get it to her, and Darry, you listenin'?"
"I ain't deaf," I shot back, but it lacked bite. I was busy thinking myself. "Juke, any of 'em runners? I mean, good at track or somethin' like that?"
"Leo," Mike, Heck and some guy I only knew as Trip, said together.
"'Kay. Then you guys keep him off my back and get me a little room to move, and I'll run it in. Whattaya think?"
"Worth a try," Nick said, kind of surprising me. I'd noticed that whenever other Asian kids were around he kind of ignored me, but it wasn't real obvious or anything so I didn't say anything. But now he gave me a look and a shrug and I smiled a little at him.
"Let's do it," Juke decided.
Two plays later, I was spitting out dirt and grass from a particularly nasty skid I'd taken, face down, under three or four guys. My knees and elbows were bloody and I ached everywhere, but damned if I was gonna let a bunch of thug wannabes scare me off.
Juke pulled a twig out of my hair and laughed himself silly at the look on my face. "You look like you're gonna murder 'em all. Leave a couple for the rest of us, will ya'?"
I didn't answer him right away. I'd managed to move on a lot of ways, but that word - the 'm' word - still got to me at weird times. Just like how I still couldn't get near a cop in uniform without breaking out in sweats, mostly 'cause I knew he had cuffs on him somewhere. "Yeah, whatever."
Suddenly he looked sorry. "Sorry, I didn't mean it like that, you know?"
I shrugged. I knew he didn't, and I let it go because I was studying the other team. They were huddled and I caught a few looks in my direction. Pride was stepping in, I knew, and they'd probably just decided that as much fun as bugging me was, scoring would be even better.
"Don't stress it. Hey, I think it's time for that play."
Juke nodded. "Yeah."
" - Hut!"
I moved right.
Trip hiked the ball back to Juke, who made left, trying to find an opening to get the ball to Heck, who was making his way up left field. To my immediate relief, the other team went after the two of them, leaving only one guy to block me. It wasn't hard to push my way past him; his eye was on Heck.
Suddenly Juke looked my way and nodded. Never losing eye contact, he shouted, "Now!"
I tensed to catch the ball, only dimly aware of the way the other team's guys had skidded to a stop, trying to figure out what was going on.
The ball hit me square in the chest, which hurt like a bitch but I held on. Instantly I turned and started running along the right side of the field, doing my damnedest to ignore the sight of a bunch of guys heading toward me, some of 'em looking mean as hell.
But I was running, and as always when I was running, I felt a little invincible. Cradling the ball in my right arm, I stopped and swivelled sharply, letting one guy slide by me. I heard him being tackled by someone - Mike, I decided - as I darted forward. A few seconds later, I found myself dodging someone else but he got tackled by Nick and Heck before he could get that close to me.
And then I saw them, two guys coming in to intercept in about twenty feet, enough to keep me from the goal.
I ran faster, wondering if I could somehow outrun them. I couldn't, not without going out of bounds, but just as I was tensing up for one hell of a hit, someone just flew in sideways, knocking them down right in front of me.
Unable to stop in time, I jumped over them, planting a foot in one guy's backside and just leaping for it, like I was going for the long jump in track. I came down directly on top of the goal line and skidded to a stop on the other side.
Hardly able to believe it, I stood there for a second, panting real hard and trying to absorb what'd just happened. Slowly I looked up, and it was something to see - the guys on my team were running to me with grins on their faces while the other team looked like a truck had run them over.
I got a look at who'd taken out the last two guys, and I laughed to see Juke climbing to his feet, looking as stunned as the guys beneath him.
And then the slow motion ended and I spiked the ball down and watched it bounce high, grinning so hard I thought my face might break. The guys began slapping and shoving me on the shoulder and talking real loud and fast about what a great play that was.
But my attention was off field, where I was shocked to see Mia, Dom and everyone else standing by their cars. And they seemed to be as happy about my performance as I was. Mia and Letty were cheering loudly, Leon was catcalling for all he was worth and Vince was practically jumping out of his skin in excitement. Dom was just leaning against his car, arms crossed over his massive chest, and watching me. I wasn't sure, but I thought he was smirking.
Laughing, I turned back to my team, and slapped a high five with a now ecstatic Juke.
"Holy fuck, Darry! That was awesome!" Juke looked like he was gonna hug me, but at the last minute he backed off, and I felt a twinge of - something. I didn't have time to think about it, though.
"Good game, guys, but I gotta go. I'm late for dinner."
A bunch of 'em protested, and I couldn't keep the grin off my face. It was definitely a rush, to be wanted like that, but I was starting to feel every one of the bruises and scrapes and I intended to leave while it was still good. Besides, they'd have one of the other kids taking my place in no time.
I was still smiling when I grabbed my backpack and walked Mia's bike over to the cars.
Vince reached me first and I guess he forgot himself, because he grabbed me up in a big bear hug, still bellowing gleefully. I guess I forgot myself too, because I couldn't help but giggle when he lifted me right off my feet and I lost my grip on the bike, letting it fall to the ground.
Letty elbowed him in the gut. "Give her some air, dumbass." But she was grinning and he didn't look one bit sorry as he dropped me back on the ground. Leon and Mia were laughing outright, and I joined them.
"Jesus, kid, you're filthy," Dom said then, and I looked down over myself.
"Holy shit!" I was a little shocked to see just how much dirt and grass and sweat I'd accumulated in the last hour or so. Even some blood from god knew how many scrapes. And to cap it all off, my stomach suddenly rumbled. Loudly.
Dom laughed, a deep bark of a laugh that had me grinning again.
"Come on, kid. Let's get home. Food's getting' cold."
I nodded and picked up Mia's bike. "Be right there," I promised, and he nodded. I watched them pile into their respective cars and peal out of the parking lot, enjoying the way each of them handled the tight turn onto the street.
Looking down at myself, I suddenly recalled my habit of wearing two shirts, and a second later I was peeling one incredibly grimy t-shirt off and over my head. The one underneath was sweaty but it was still an improvement, I figured, stuffing the dirty one into my backpack. When I was done I picked up Mia's bike and braced myself for a ride home on a rather tender backside.
I froze when I looked up to see Victor Tran in front of me.
He had his bike, but he was alone, and he was staring right at me. Suddenly all the sweaty heat was gone and I felt shivery and cold instead.
"Victor." Thank god I had a good excuse for my voice to sound all breathy like that. I'd be damned if I was going to let him know how much he scared me; he'd just have to think that I was winded from the game.
"That last play was pretty impressive."
I shrugged like it was no big deal. "We lucked out."
The way he was looking at me was starting to get on my nerves. It was bad enough that I'd stripped to a shirt that was too tight to be anything but an undershirt, but when he looked at me sometimes, I felt like he could see right through me, and that freaked me out.
"Did you want something, Victor?"
He didn't answer right away. I'd seen him do that before, like he was thinking very carefully about what he was going to say. He always spoke like that, precisely, and it made me feel like I was more than just a few months younger than him.
"I understand you're following in your family's footsteps."
And then my eyes were bugging out, because he was holding up a very familiar looking book. Immediately my hand went to my backpack, where I could tell without even opening it that my workbook was gone.
"Give that back." I didn't know my voice could sound that cold.
"Relax," he said, which of course made me so mad I would've screamed, if I wasn't still feeling like someone had replaced my spine with a cold steel pole. "I didn't take it. I took it off some kid who was going through bags during the game."
Alarmed now, I pulled my bag open, checking for the hidden compartment where I kept my tiny cell phone and my wallet. It didn't hold much money, because I kept bills in an inside jeans pocket, but it held something more important: my ID.
It was still there, and I could've fainted with relief as I found it and the phone. I didn't take them out, though. No point in telegraphing what I had that was so important to me.
I looked up at Victor. He looked mildly interested. "If you keep valuable stuff on hand," he said, although there's no way he could've seen what I'd been checking for, "you should have someone keep an eye on your bag during your games."
I nodded but held out my hand for my book, knowing there was nothing I could say to contradict him that wouldn't sound idiotic.
He handed it to me and watched as I tucked it away. "You really learning that stuff?"
"You saw the book," I reminded him, and there was silence as we both just looked at each other. I wanted to ride away, but for some reason it seemed important that it not look like I was running away from him.
"I'm getting a car for my birthday. A Honda, probably."
I was completely lost. I had absolutely no idea why he was telling me this. "You planning on racing it?"
He nodded. "My parents don't want me to. But I will. After I get some work done on it, of course."
I nodded. "Yeah, I don't know if Dom'll let me race when I get old enough, but I want to."
"Think he'll lend you a car?"
I snorted, and although I was a little embarrassed when I saw him smile slightly, I answered. "Not likely. I'm thinking of getting an old one cheap and rebuilding it."
He looked interested. "What are you thinking of?"
"Well, of course I'd love a Supra or a Skyline, or something dead cool like that, but the chances of getting my hands on one are pretty slim. To be honest, I'd settle for anything I can afford to work over." I was being honest too, which was surprising but oddly enough, not too uncomfortable.
"It's probably a good way to start. With my luck, I'd get out in the desert and get stuck because a red light will go on and I won't know how to find the release on the hood."
I laughed out loud at the image. He blinked a little, like he wasn't expecting that, and then smiled. Again, I couldn't help but be fascinated by the change that came over him. "Yeah, my goal is to avoid that sort of thing. If I get really ambitious, I may get one of the team to show me how to put in gas myself, or turn on the windshield wipers."
He actually grinned then, and started to say something else, but mentioning the team had jogged my memory and I remembered why they'd come looking for me in the first place.
"Oh, shit," I swore, checking my watch. They'd be home by now.
"Late for dinner, I know," Victor said, and I could've sworn he sounded disappointed.
Mentally I shook my head, hoping to clear it. "Yup. Bye, Victor. Thanks for getting my book back." I meant it, too.
"No problem. See you at Race Wars."
I laughed and took off then, taking a short cut through the park. With any luck, I'd be able to go right through; there was a bit of a hilly spot midway but I was an old pro at this now, and I bounced and slid my way down in record time.
Thank god I didn't fall. I didn't look back, but something told me Victor was watching me go, and I just couldn't bear the thought of wiping out after the incredible afternoon I'd just had.
I got home in good time, actually. No one said anything as I charged through the house to grab a hot shower, although I knew they were all watching as I threw open the door, skidded on smooth floors and thudded my way upstairs.