Title: Louder Than Words
Author: Jedi Buttercup
Summary: The first time Jensen heard his daughter call Case 'Mama', some three months after the woman tracked them down in Santa Rosalia, it brought a painful lump to his throat. 3000 words; slash.
Disclaimer: The words are mine; the world is not.
Fandom: Death Race (2008)
Notes: Refers in passing to the events of the "prequel", Death Race 2. Also includes a bonus Jason Statham reference to another franchise; yeah, it's the one you think it is. Domestic fic.
The first time Jensen heard his daughter call Case 'Mama', some three months after the woman tracked them down in Santa Rosalia, it brought a painful lump to his throat. He'd thought he'd been prepared for it- had been downright encouraging it, in fact- but something about the way his baby girl smiled up at her suddenly reminded him that Piper would never know the beautiful, compassionate soul who'd brought her into the world. The rank unfairness of it stole the breath from his lungs.
He swallowed hard, then forced himself to smile; he didn't want to upset either one of them. It wasn't Case's fault she was there instead of his wife; it wasn't her fault Piper had took to her so well; and it definitely wasn't her fault that Hennessy had lit on Jensen's record when she'd gone searching for an ex-con with a history as a driver.
Fortunately, she was too busy focusing on his girl to notice his initial reaction. Piper giggled, bracing her small weight against Case's legs, and Case bent down to lift her up. "That's right," she cooed, bracing the toddler in the crook of one arm, tickling her gently with her free hand. "Who loves you?"
"Mama!" Piper said again, shrieking and squirming in that overcharged way common to babies whose cup runneth over.
Case finally felt Jensen's eyes on her, then; she pressed a kiss to Piper's forehead and looked up. The soft curve of her smile, the sweep of eyelashes over her cheek, and the laughing toddler in her arms made for a perfect picture of motherhood, jarring against stirred-up memories of Suzy like a thumb jabbed into a half-healed wound.
"And what about Dada?" Case smiled, lifting her free arm to point in Jensen's direction.
Piper followed the motion with her eyes, then spotted him and reached for him with her chubby little hands. His smile grew a little more genuine at the sight, and he took her from Case's arms, pressing his lips to the same place on his daughter's brow.
"Dada," Piper repeated the more familiar word, tucking her little face into the angle of his neck and shoulder.
"Dada loves you, too," he assured her, voice rough with emotion.
In a perfect world, Suzy would still be alive; they'd still be living in that little house, surviving paycheque to paycheque, slaving the day away for those few perfect hours at night when the three of them could be a family. But it wasn't that perfect world; it wasn't even the sort of world that might play out in an action film, where the grieving but triumphant hero would be rewarded with a new wife to mother his child and a tidy yard in a quiet suburban neighbourhood. Jensen Ames was a violent fugitive, sharing bed and work with a man who'd killed at least a dozen other criminals without a flicker of remorse, and the gorgeous woman across from him had soul-deep scars and a cruel history all her own.
Once upon a time, a cold, ruthless bitch had looked down on him from her balcony and said the world had given him to her because he was not fit to be a part of it. Hennessy had been trying to make a point with that speech, but there were days he believed every word of it anyway. Wondered what the hell he was doing, thinking the three of them could raise Piper with no advantages other than love and hope without dooming her to a life as screwed up as their own.
But even on those days, he still firmly believed that no one else could possibly love her as much as he did- and that that was all that truly mattered. Not the foster parents the state had given her, nor any of Suzy's relatives, who hadn't so much as spoken to her since she'd married him. Piper was Jensen's main reason to keep going- and somehow, some way their little nucleus of a family had drawn in Joe and Case as well. He'd just been starting to trust that the situation might last beyond the next morning and the next quarter mile, given adequate defensive measures.
Piper snuggled closer into his chest, slowing down from a long afternoon at play; Case rubbed a hand over her back, smiling as warmly as if Piper were her own flesh and blood. "You know, I never really wanted kids with my husband, and after I went to prison..." She shook her head. "But Piper's such a doll. How did someone like you ever make such an amazing kid?"
"That's all on Suzy, believe me." Jensen aimed a wry smile at her. "You feed her?"
"Yeah. Some beans, a little chicken, and about half a banana; I tried the rice, but she spat it out again."
He sighed, his unquiet ghosts stirring up an answer. "It's probably the texture; Suzy used to say her mother had all sorts of stories about how picky an eater she was when she was little."
"Blaming that on her too, huh?" she replied, lightly. "Well, I'm sure Piper will grow out of it. In the meantime, though. I'll be out late tonight. You need anything before I go?"
"Nah; I'm sure Joe and I can manage," he said, nodding to her. "Go on; have fun."
He'd actually intended a quiet hour or two playing with Piper, then maybe a not so quiet hour or two with Joe, perfect for one of her evenings out, though he wasn't really in the mood anymore. It was still good to see Case reaching out, and it wasn't as though it was a hardship for them to be left with the baby; he and Joe had made it six months on their own before Case joined them. Though of course, Piper had been less mobile, then. It was amazing how fast that diaper clad bottom could move, now that she'd figured out what her legs were for.
Case's smile widened, a flash of the old flirtatiousness briefly lighting her expression. "Honey, you don't need to tell me," she drawled, as she headed out the door.
Jensen let his smile fade with a sigh, then jogged his daughter carefully in his arms. She was chattering nonsense about something or other, and he murmured encouraging noises as she tucked her little fingers into the collar of his shirt to investigate its texture. In all too few years, it would be her turn to dress up and go out. If he was borrowing nightmares anyway, that was probably a healthier one to worry about.
Joe stepped out of the master bedroom then, still only half dressed from his own shower, worn jeans riding low on his hips and dark, toned chest glistening with moisture. The nettled look on his face said he'd caught more of the undercurrents in Jensen's conversation with Case than Case had; he'd probably been watching the whole time.
"You look like someone dissed your car," he frowned. "What the hell's going on?"
The Death's Head tattoo on his bicep caught Jensen's attention as he crossed his arms in challenge; Jensen let his eyes linger on it for a moment as he sorted his tangled thoughts, then shook his head slowly. "Later," he said. "After Piper's down. You want to read to her tonight?"
Joe made a face at that; reading was far from his favourite leisure activity. But Piper sat still for his voice better than Jensen's; she liked cuddling against him, pressing an ear against his chest and touching the pictures on the pages as he did the voices for the different fairytale characters. He had a natural storyteller's gift for varying his tone, something that didn't come easily to Jensen.
"Aw, what the hell. Pass her over and fetch me a beer. Case leave us any leftovers?"
"Should be plenty. I'll make us up a couple of plates," he shrugged, then lifted Piper up and blew a raspberry against her belly. "Hey, little one. Joe's going to read you a story. What do you say to that?"
She giggled delightedly again, then turned and leaned out of his arms, happy enough to be passed around so long as someone who adored her was still paying attention. "Do! 'Towwy!" she exclaimed, aiming a smacking, open-mouthed kiss in Joe's direction.
Joe accepted it with a long-suffering air of offering the little princess her due, and waited to wipe his cheek until he had her settled her on his lap on the couch. Jensen shook his head again at the sight, pressing a closed fist briefly against his chest; then he headed for the kitchen and opened the fridge. He'd have an hour or so's reprieve before Joe reminded him about the question; maybe by then, he'd have some kind of an answer.
Despite his best intentions, Jensen was no closer to shaking his fit of melancholy by the time Piper was curled up in her crib, freshly nappied, sent off with the tale of Prince Hal and the Giant. He wasn't much for dwelling on his own losses, not once they'd been properly laid to rest, but something in him rebelled at the idea of letting his daughter lose touch with where she'd come from.
The lovingly maintained baby book given pride of place on the mantel. The heirloom glass Suzy'd kept in a cabinet in the living room for special occasions. The box of jewellery that had passed, mother to daughter, for generations. All of it was gone. Whether Suzy's family had kept, sold, or destroyed her belongings, he couldn't say, but he was never getting any of it back, regardless. He had money enough to buy Piper what she needed, but you couldn't buy memories, any more than you could buy happiness.
Was it selfish of him to want that connection for her? Would it just weigh her down to hear the truth? Would she be happier growing up with no more than the bare bones details, thinking of Case as her Mama in everything but technical fact? Or would that cheapen Suzy's contribution to their lives?
Jensen stood there, bracing his arms on the bars of the crib and watching her little chest rise and fall, until Joe appeared beside him, wrapping a callused hand around the base of Jensen's neck. He sighed, then nodded and followed the other man back out to the main room, pulling the nursery door fast behind them. No sense waking her if their conversation got a little loud.
"Last time I saw that look, we were talking about Hennessy," Joe challenged him with a scowl. "There some kinda problem I don't know about?"
Jensen shook his head again, though more for lack of words than denial. "Just. I don't know. I was thinking about names. The roles people play."
"Weighty shit," Joe snorted, disdainfully. "It is about the Mama thing, then. You regret asking Case to stay?"
Joe and Case were friendly enough, but not like Case and Jensen, and definitely not like Jensen and Joe; of the three sides to their household dynamic, that one was the weakest. And Joe didn't have much respect for the average human life to begin with; sometimes Jensen got the impression that Joe could still shuck Case as easily as one of his old navigators if she became a problem.
"No," Jensen shook his head, stepping around Joe to settle on the couch. There was no direct threat there, and he didn't want Joe reacting as if there was. He just felt- raw, as though a layer of scar tissue had torn away when he'd been least expecting it. "Caught off guard, is all. Was thinking about how we got here. Wondering, a bit, about the Frank before me."
Whoever the man had been, he'd been the indirect cause of everything that had happened to Jensen since Hennessy let Pachenko out on her leash. He'd avoided asking Joe about their rivalry, but that had been before the past had tightened its grip; he figured it was about time he heard the full story.
Joe rolled his eyes, disdaining the couch to park his arse on the coffee table where he could look Jensen in the eye. "What about him? Guy was an asshole. Good driver, but an asshole. Always kept himself to himself, didn't give the rest of us the time of day."
Coach had told Jensen that Frankenstein never talked to the other drivers. But he doubted an excess of arrogance had been the only reason for the mime act. "Kept himself to himself? Or was kept that way? The minute Hennessy told me about the deal, she threw me in lockdown so I couldn't talk off the track. What if she was doing the same with him?"
"Long damn time not to let anything slip." Joe reached up to absently trace the cross-hatching of scars on one cheek as he replied. "Man had been driving for years before he bought it. He didn't win every race, you know; and he wasn't even in the first one. Started out in the second."
"The second?" Jensen sat back at that, bracing his hands on his knees as he slotted that bit of information into place. "Hennessy told me he was so disfigured by crashes that he'd been forced to wear a mask. Crashes, plural. I might have lost my own license, but I'd have heard if there were a masked driver out there with that kind of talent."
"Yeah, maybe. On the pro circuit," Joe shrugged, sceptically. "I heard you used to hold some records. But most of the rest of us was getaway drivers and street racers, shit like that."
"Nevermind the records," Jensen snorted. "I was the legal driver in the family. Relative of mine out in France keeps much better tabs on the other side of things. Trust me. I'd have heard if there were a driver that good, that damaged, just about anywhere."
Joe lifted his eyebrows at that. "Sounds like there's a story in there I might oughta hear."
"Someday, maybe." Jensen lifted a corner of his mouth in a wry smile. "It's a little complicated. Like this one. Why the mask? What were they hiding?"
Joe tilted his head at that, staring at him a long minute, then glanced toward the door to Piper's bedroom. "You know, there was something," he said, slowly.
"There was this rumour. You ever see that first race?"
The first Death Race was actually the only one Jensen had seen; after he'd married Suzy, they'd mostly stopped watching reality TV. She'd been a bit nauseated by all the blood. "Yeah. Only a couple of drivers made it. 14K won, if I remember right."
Joe nodded. "Remember the guy whose car caught fire? Guy named Lucas. He'd gone down for killing a badge, felony in commission of, the works; and he'd refused to flip his backer for the DA."
"He drove the Monster, didn't he?" Jensen nodded back, remembering his first sight of the armoured Mustang. "Frankenstein's car, back before it was Frank's."
"Right. Which was about the only thing of Lucas' that stuck around. Two of his old pit crew copped it by the end of the year, and then Hennessy switched out his navigator for Case." He traced another of the scars on his cheek with his thumb. "Lists and 14K were about the only two left who'd known him to talk to, and that was the one thing Lists kept his mouth shut about."
"Lucas," Jensen echoed, shaking his head. He'd seen the footage of the fire; if anyone had survived that, they'd have been unrecognisable. "You're thinking he was Frank? Then why the secret identity?"
"He had a hit out on him, for starters. And September Jones was sick enough to do just about anything that would boost her ratings. Let's say she pitched it to him, and let's say he decided to do it just for the hell of it. Guess who Frank's first kill on the track was? Miss Fuckin' Universe. S'why I was gunning for him. I knew there was no way in hell they'd ever let him out, no matter how many times he won. Shoulda stopped trying to spoil it for the rest of us."
"You know damn well they'd never have let you get out, either," Jensen snorted.
"A dude can hope, can't he?" Joe smirked back. "And what the hell would you call this?"
"Point," Jensen acknowledged. Then he sighed, leaning his head back against the couch. "Quite the story. Guy fucked up, got hung out to dry, didn't know when to quit. At least he died like he lived: refusing to knuckle under."
Joe stared at him a moment, then shifted his weight forward, reaching out to wrap rough hands round Jensen's wrists. "Bullshit. Only honest thing the guy ever did was stand up for a friend who betrayed him. Didn't have a partner. Didn't have a daughter. Didn't have any reason to live."
Jensen frowned at that, searching Joe's face thoughtfully. "That why you never counted coup on him?"
Joe rolled his eyes. "No. I only take what I fuckin' deserve. Case is the one should be cutting her face for him, not me, and we all know it."
Jensen nodded, turning his hands in Joe's hold to return the grip, warmth percolating through him at the answers and loosening the tight bands around his chest. Maybe there was something to the talking thing, after all.
"What you deserve, huh. That include me?"
"Oh, I deserve something all right," Joe muttered, shifting a knee to press between Jensen's.
...Or maybe, certain actions had been speaking louder than words all along. He'd worry about what to tell Piper, and when, when the time came; meanwhile, there was plenty more living to be done.
"Yeah? Then show me," Jensen bared his teeth in a feral smile.