François was sitting dejectedly on a lonely pile of tyres far away from garages when Jackie found him after the race. He had yet to change out of his overalls, despite having crashed out on lap 32 after colliding with Jody. There was a slight frown pulling at his brow, hooding his eyes; he was clearly annoyed, an aura of if you value your life, don’t bother me visibly radiating from him in spades.
It wasn’t anything Jackie hadn’t dealt with before, what with having two young children, and he confidently made his way towards him with a purposeful stride; all too aware of the various wary, but relieved, glances being thrown his way. François rarely showed his frustrations so openly, and seeing the usual wide smile wiped from the Frenchman’s face was obviously a shock to the various team members scattered around.
Thankfully, the rain which caused such havoc during the race had finally eased, but muddy puddles had been left in its wake. Unable to avoid them, Jackie sloshed through the waterlogged paddock area without a second thought. He stopped in front of his teammate and held out his palm. "Show me."
François wordlessly lifted up his hand for Jackie to inspect. His wrist was swollen and he hissed through his teeth when Jackie prodded it none too gently.
"Have you had it checked?"
"Obviously," François said petulantly.
"And?" Jackie pressed.
"It's just bruised.”
Jackie nodded in satisfaction. "Your ankle?"
Relieved, Jackie rubbed his thumb soothingly over François’ wrist bone. "You're such an idiot," he said with fondness.
François pulled away, more harshly than he intended if the grimace of pain was anything to go by.
"Oh, because it was my fault Scheckter drove into me!"
Jackie rolled his eyes. “You know full well that’s not what I’m talking about.”
François huffed in embarrassment and looked away.
"Did that shunt dislodge a few brain cells?" Jackie tapped his finger against François’ forehead. "I know you were angry, but honestly François," Jackie laughed, unable to hold it back any longer. As soon as he stepped out of the car, Ken had told him about François’ little altercation. He’d spared a quick snort of bemusement before setting off to track down his wayward teammate.
François managed a vaguely offended look before gingerly hopping down from his perch.
“I’ve already had enough of this,” François paused and flapped his uninjured hand around in the air, “from Ronnie. I don’t need it from you, too.” The Swede had taken great pleasure in pointing out François’ uncharacteristic lapse in judgement, especially after his own less than successful race. And as much as François enjoyed Ronnie’s company, the teasing hadn’t helped his mood in the way it usually would.
“Stop being such a baby,” Jackie said, still chuckling, and grabbed at the back of François’ race suit to stop him from hobbling away.
François spun round, his eyes flashing angrily; something Jackie was unused to seeing directed at him. Not to say he hadn’t been privy to this side of François before. He’d often found himself calmly listening to angry rants in French after a particularly stressful day, happy to let François wrap himself around him once spent. He always felt closest to his teammate in those moments.
“I just want to finish where I know I can and where the team deserves,” he snapped. “How am I supposed to do that when the grid is full of stupid, inexperienced children?” He spat the last word, his accent curling around it in distaste.
Jackie set his jaw. “Now I know you don’t mean that,” he stated. “You love racing the new kids.”
“Only when they’re not trying to kill me.”
Jackie gave him a stern look and crossed his arms. François was an intelligent man and eternally forgiving, to hear him say something so blasé about the harsh reality of their sport left a bad taste in Jackie’s mouth. They’d both lost too many friends to joke about it.
“If I thought that was how you really felt, you’d have a lot more than just a sore foot and hand, boy,” Jackie growled. He hated using his seniority over the Frenchman, and rarely did so, but François respected his position so it was worth a try.
Luckily, it had the desired effect and he fell silent in surprise. Good.
“You’re pissed off, I understand that,” Jackie continued, “but no one wants to hurt you. We’re all in this together, despite there being room for only one on the middle step of that podium. And if you think otherwise, then maybe you have a lot more to learn than I thought.”
François’ face crumpled in realisation, the last drop of anger seeping away. He pushed his hair back off his face and sighed. “I’m sorry. That was an idiotic thing to say.”
Jackie eyed him. He looked tired. “You don’t have anything to apologise for,” he offered, gently smoothing his hand down François’ chest. “I know you didn’t mean it, but I don’t want you having regrets because of one silly mistake; verbal or otherwise. You’ll end up hating yourself as well as the sport. Never let it get to that point.”
“I know,” Jackie interrupted firmly.
François let his shoulders sag in defeated acceptance. He took a step closer and brushed his knuckles gently across Jackie’s cheek in silent thanks. “How is it you always know the right thing to say?”
Jackie laughed, his skin tingling pleasantly from the feather-like caress. “Not sure many would agree with you there.”
“Then they are not worth my time or yours.”
François already seemed more at ease, which in turn calmed Jackie; the cauldron of worry, sympathy and brief, brief disappointment bubbling away into nothing.
“Come on, admit it,” Jackie ventured and poked him in the ribs. “It was pretty funny.”
François cracked a grin and caught Jackie’s hand. “I suppose,” he admitted and twined their fingers together. Jackie spared a moment to enjoy the feel of François’ palm pressed against his, warm and dry, before reluctantly pulling away.
“I only wish I could have seen,” he added as he slipped an arm round François’ waist, intent on helping the younger driver back to their garage where they could talk properly and where Jackie could fuss away from prying eyes.
“I don’t,” François snorted, clinging onto Jackie as together they took each and every little step as carefully as they could manage.
“I bet Jody’s face was a picture when you came flying at him,” Jackie chuckled. “But then again, you wouldn’t know, would you? The first rule of a punch-up is to make sure you can actually see the other guy, François. Frankly, I’m appalled,” he teased.
François raised his eyebrows. “All this coming from a natural brute of a fighter, of course.” He slid his hand down from Jackie’s shoulder to his bicep and made a point of squeezing tightly.
“Of course,” Jackie agreed straight-faced, making François laugh loudly.
“I’m never going to hear the end of this, am I?” he asked, putting all his weight onto his teammate.
“Between me, Helen, the boys, your sister, Jean-Pierre…”
“Yes, yes, I get the picture,” François dismissed with a smile. “I probably deserve it, though,” he finished with a tinge of self-deprecation that didn’t suit him.
It’d probably prove to be a good learning curve, something he’d ultimately benefit from both on and off the track, but Jackie wouldn’t, couldn’t, say he deserved it; François didn’t deserve anything other than all the success and happiness in world as far as he was concerned. But then again, that was just in his own humble and ridiculously biased opinion.
“Helen and I are going to Bermuda before Watkins,” Jackie began. “Come with us, it’ll clear your head.”
“I couldn’t,” François automatically replied.
“It wasn’t a suggestion,” Jackie countered.
“I wouldn’t want to impose.”
“You never could.” Helen wouldn’t mind. The pair of them were inseparable and after today, Jackie was sure she’d be just as eager to have him at an arm’s length away for the next week or so.
He felt François melt against him and he knew instantly he’d won. “I’d like that.”
They continued to stagger along, eager to find shelter from the downpour that the large black cloud above them was threatening, when François gave a small, pained gasp and brought them to an abrupt halt.
"Jackie," he whined. "My hand."
"What about it?" Jackie couldn’t help the sudden spike of worry. Maybe he’d fractured it? They should probably go back to medical tent. He was about to suggest as much when François childishly pushed his cheek against Jackie’s.
"Kiss it better?" François purred.
Jackie laughed in surprise, a deep bark that brought a wide, cheeky grin to François’ face.
"My ankle, too," he trailed on. "And actually, I'm pretty sure I hurt my-"
Jackie cut him off with a pinch to his hip. “Save it for Bermuda.”