Jackie couldn't count the number of girls he'd seen with François. He certainly couldn't remember all their names; sometimes he wondered if François could. This latest one was Marie, or possibly Maria. Long, poker-straight blonde hair, figure-hugging white dress, a smile as dazzling as François's. Very easy on the eye.
She bent and kissed François goodbye, hands lingering on him, before sauntering away with Helen. Jackie raised an eyebrow in François's direction once they were out of sight. "You're keeping busy, then."
François shot him a bright grin, almost as bright as the sunshine glinting around the curves of his sunglasses, and gave a faux-innocent shrug. "I am here to have fun, no? When I don't enjoy chasing girls and racing cars, maybe I will stop. And then I will let the girls come to me!"
Jackie laughed. "Oh, I'm sure they will! They'd be crazy not to."
François lifted his chin and chuckled, almost preening at the compliment. Letting his head fall against the back of his chair, he gave a little sigh. "You know, maybe I will one day get bored of the girls."
"I really can't see that happening, François."
"Maybe I will," the Frenchman mused enigmatically. "Maybe I will."
"Who is your idol? Jim Clark, yes?"
Jackie turned his head at the out-of-the-blue question, stopping mid-chew of his lunch. He swallowed his mouthful and gave François his full attention. "Well, he's certainly the best driver I've ever had the pleasure of racing against, in my opinion."
"Did you ever think about him in ways..." François paused, picking at his own food, seemingly searching for the correct words. "...not to do with racing?"
"Of course. I still think about him now, and not just within the context of racing."
Something akin to relief flitted across François's face. "Good."
Jackie felt more than a little bemused. This was an odd conversation to have between practice sessions. "You've had some funny moods lately. I take it everything's alright?"
"Yes," François responded, in a measured way. Not quite as though he'd rehearsed the reply, but close. That it was the response Jackie wanted to hear, perhaps. Then, "I think I am learning things about myself."
"Do you want to tell me about these things?"
François looked at him for a few moments. The corners of his mouth turned down as he shrugged slightly. "Maybe now is not right. Maybe one day."
"Maybe, maybe, maybe. What if one day doesn't come?" Jackie said it in a lighthearted way, but there was no denying the darker implications of such words. It had been a good year for Formula One up until three weeks ago at Zandvoort.
François grinned, laughed. With a flourish of his hands, he dipped his head in an elegant, if facetious, bow. "Then, Jackie, I will forever be your mystery."
As he stood and took his leave, his grin faded, and that maddened Jackie. It certainly seemed like something was bothering François, though perhaps bothering wasn't the right word. Concerning? Preoccupying? Whenever he had a preoccupation in the past, he would usually share it with his teammate. That was how they were. Jackie wouldn't have it any other way.
Whatever it was, it seemed that Jackie's own preoccupation was quite plain on his face, because Helen looked worried as she returned from a trip through the pitlane with her camera. "What is it?"
Jackie blinked, rubbed his forehead to smooth away the frown and laughed a little wearily. "I have absolutely no idea."
In the days preceding the Canadian Grand Prix, both Jackie and François attended a sponsor dinner in a plush Ontarian hotel. Comfortable and charismatic in post-dinner conversation with a group of company representatives, Jackie was only mildly distracted by François and his date across the room. Their conversation wasn't unfriendly, but it certainly didn't look particularly warm; not once did Jackie see them make physical contact. Out of the corner of his eye he caught her gesture in his direction and her thin smile before she turned and left the room. In a way that gave Jackie cause for concern, François's own smile was entirely absent.
Perhaps he shouldn't have been concerned; François's love life was none of his business, after all. But her gesture towards him, coupled with François's unhappy expression, gnawed at him. They gnawed at him in the same way François's curious questions about Jim had for the last few weeks.
Did you ever think about him in ways...not to do with racing?
He was suddenly struck by a thought - Ken hadn't told François about his impending retirement, had he? Surely he'd never commit such a breach of trust, but then...what else could be affecting François so much?
Once he'd found himself between conversations, Jackie became aware that his teammate was nowhere to be found. On asking around for him, he received nothing but shrugs. Venturing outside, he eventually found François stood near the edge of the hotel's expansive lake, smoking alone. He didn't appear to notice Jackie approach, and the Scot slowed a little. Stood there in his dinner suit gazing silently out across the still, dark waters, one hand in his pocket, tendrils of smoke creeping around his slender form. Jackie shook his head; François really did look like a film star sometimes.
"I must say, it's a lovely night to be standing out in the dark on your own," he said aloud, stopping some feet away.
François looked over his shoulder, eyebrows raised, before that familiar grin bloomed. Drenched in moonlight, his eyes were even more striking than usual. "I cannot have some moments for myself?," he asked somewhat ruefully.
"Sorry," Jackie murmured. "I can go, if..." he trailed off, pulling a thumb over his shoulder. François waved him off, turning to face his teammate more directly, and Jackie found himself feeling relieved. He decided to voice his concern. "Is everything alright?"
François looked at him rather oddly, seemed as though he was about to respond, then let any words he might've formed dissipate into a heaved sigh.
"I take that as a no." Jackie glanced out across the lake, formulating his thoughts. "I can't help you if you don't talk to me."
François laughed. "Even if I talk, I really don't think you can help me!"
"How do you know I can't?"
"How do you know that you can?" François countered. "Maybe you are the person I cannot talk to about this." He then paused in sudden reflection, eyebrows drawing together. "But also I think I cannot talk to anyone else."
He moved a few steps closer to his teammate and spoke tentatively. "Remember when I ask you if Jim was your idol? And I ask if you think about him in ways not about racing?" He looked down, digging his toe into the damp ground, and took a deep breath before lifting his gaze again. His voice wavered ever so slightly. "What ways?"
The frown that became etched upon Jackie's face was one of exasperation, of bewilderment. This really was what it was about? This again? François's phrasing also seemed to eliminate the possibility that he knew of Jackie's decision to retire in two races time, which left Jackie without the faintest clue what the underlying problem was. Again. "Well, what a nice, humble guy he was, a good friend. Shy, really shy, but so lovely once you got to know him. It was an honour to be his friend, it truly was."
In that moment, it occurred to Jackie that he hadn't seen François take a single drag on his cigarette; it was just burning away in his hand. His eyes strayed to it as a segment of ash fell away, tumbling into the darkness on the cool night breeze.
François appeared to be holding his breath, staying very still. As expressive as his face usually was, there was something dancing just behind his eyes, something he was seemingly trying to keep back. "Is...that all?"
Jackie was beginning to feel truly worried. He opened his mouth to impart words of comfort, closing it again with the realisation that he wouldn't know for what he'd be comforting. He caught flickers of desperation in the Frenchman's gaze, and sighed quietly. "I'm not sure what you want from me, François," he said softly.
"I am..." François faltered. "I am not sure of many things at this moment. It's better if I don't say anything else."
"Jesus Christ—" Jackie was about to express his frustration in the kindest and most understanding way he could muster – you make it very obvious that there's something wrong, but won't tell me what? Are we not friends? At least, are we not the friends I thought we were? Have I been stupid to assume we were close this entire time? – when François moved in very close, close enough to smell the champagne on his breath. He dipped his head, hesitated, and angled his mouth away from Jackie's at the last moment, brushing a kiss against his cheek instead.
Distantly, Jackie heard the sound of laughter, of bright chatter ringing out from the hotel. He heard François's tremulous breathing. He saw clarity and warmth and aching need in devastating blue eyes.
"Oh," Jackie forced a reaction from his dry throat, forced the breath from his lungs. He blinked a few times, feeling a tremendous wave of shock roll through him, and realised that François was no longer near him; he'd returned to the edge of the lake. Jackie couldn't recall seeing him move.
When he spoke again, his voice brimmed with regret; he himself, even in years to come, could not say exactly what for. "Oh, François."
François stood with his body angled away from his teammate, his gaze turned towards the lake. He didn't seem to want to look anywhere else, least of all at Jackie. The breeze ran gentle fingers through his hair. Jackie couldn't tear his eyes away.
Did you ever think about him in ways...not to do with racing?
"I see," Jackie murmured rather helplessly, something in the back of his mind wondering where his usual verbosity had gone. He clenched and unclenched his hands, wrung them together. "Do you...shouldn't we talk? I-it seems like this is something we should talk about. Properly. It's... I mean, to me it does, at least, I don't know if you..." He trailed off as he watched François anxiously, willing him to look around.
Time crawled by. Still François watched the water in silence.
"I'm really not sure what I should be doing," Jackie mumbled, clasping his hands together in front of him and looking down at his shoes, unable to watch his teammate any longer. His head was spinning. How had he not gotten it through his thick skull before now, the cageyness, the questions about Jim? Why did it take something like this to happen? "I'm flattered, b—"
"It's okay," François interrupted. He seemed very still once again.
Opening his mouth to speak, Jackie scrabbled around for a response that wouldn't come. François filled the empty air on his behalf, finally turning to face his teammate. His expression was soft.
"I'm sorry, what I did was not fair to you."
"Oh no, no, you don't have to apologise," Jackie murmured, anguished. His throat hurt, as though he was holding back a sob. "Please don't apologise. I'm sorry for not...for not..."
"It is okay," François repeated. Then, correcting himself, "It will be okay. There is nothing I can say to change you in this way, so it has to be okay, no?" He laughed. It was the same laugh he had given before; only now did Jackie notice how brittle it was.
"I...I suppose it does." Fleetingly, Jackie hated himself, hated how thick and unwieldy his tongue felt in his empty head. He wanted to apologise, over and over, for more than he could truly fathom. He wanted to find the words to fix this. He wanted--
"Now maybe I can think of other things."
Jackie blinked at the words that broke through his distressed train of thought. At last, François smiled. It seemed honest. "Other people."
Jackie exhaled sharply. Sometimes François took his breath away.
He wondered if François had gone over these moments in his mind, run through all the possibilities and decided how he would respond to each eventuality with characteristic cool and ease. Analysed them, as he might on the racetrack. Or perhaps, Jackie thought with a weight in his heart, he had known that this was what would happen all along.
"Other people," he echoed numbly. Pushing through the shock, he took slow, purposeful steps towards François and touched his arm, brow furrowed in a slight frown. "I want us to talk about this," he murmured. "Not now, maybe not for weeks, but I won't find peace with it until we talk. I hope that's alright."
François's eyes had settled on the hand at his arm, his face suddenly desolate. He nodded minutely and spoke so quietly Jackie struggled to hear him. "Maybe one day."
Affected by François's expression, Jackie felt another apology rising within him, a roll of thunder that he could not halt. "I'm sorry I can't be..." His jaw moved without sound until his lungs found the breath for one more word.
François looked up sharply and Jackie froze, caught in his headlights. Confusion, hope, pain and such acute sadness lay in his gaze, each striking Jackie in his chest.
He could try and convince himself that the alcohol slipping through him had twisted poorly conceived words past his lips, but he'd only had two glasses of champagne all evening. And thus, all of this was more complicated than he wanted to believe.
"I mean..." he began, and fell silent, not knowing what he meant.
As words continued to unusually fail him, Jackie squeezed François's arm. Then he recoiled. There could be no other term for it; he recoiled before any more damage could be done. He walked backwards a few awkward paces. François did not move.
He forced a laugh, pushed it out of himself without believing for a moment that it sounded genuine. The statement that followed, however, was entirely honest. "I think you can do a lot better than me, anyway!"
It took a long few moments, but the horrible sadness faded from François's gaze. A wistful smile crept onto his face.
"I think not," he said simply. His smile brightened; it wasn't quite that blossomed grin, so familiar and so cherished, but it was close, and it gladdened Jackie's heart. François nodded at him; the gesture seemed rather noble on him. "If you ever change your feelings, you come to me."
Jackie smiled, doing his best to look relieved.
As he walked back towards the hotel, towards warmth, security and safety, and away from everything François had stirred within him, Jackie murmured the response that his teammate would never hear.
"You. Nobody else."