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The Epic Cars Fanfiction (Explicitly Not 'OF DOOM')

Chapter Text

THE EPIC CARS FANFICTION
(EXPLICITLY NOT ‘OF DOOM’)

Chapter One

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“So how do you feel now, kid?”

“Like I need a trip through the pressure washers,” Lightning said with amused resignation, as a side-mirror sized clump of red dirt dislodged from his wheel well and exploded into pieces on impact with the gravel road. A few of the smaller pieces rebounded upwards again, bouncing off the the coating of dirt that was almost totally obscuring the distinctive red and white paint beneath it.

With surprising fastidiousness, given that he was caked nearly to his roof in an identical coating of the red dirt, Doc ducked from behind Lightning to avoid having any of it bounce onto him, and pulled up next to his protegee.

“I meant about the race.”

“I know what you meant, Doc - eugh,” Lightning muttered, slowing to shake another clod of dirt loose from his undercarriage. “Why did we think running the Butte track this soon after our one major rainstorm of the year was a good idea again?”

Doc snorted softly, drifting a few inches to the right to bump gently against Lightning’s side. Numerous scrapes on both sides of his body, sporting either red paint transfer or bare metal, suggested it was far from the first time that particular action had been performed, just the gentlest - and shot a wry glance at him from the corner of his eye. “Because slick dirt is a lot more complicated than slick asphalt, and Daytona is supposed to be hot this year. The more practice you have running under adverse conditions -”

“ - the better of a racer I become, I know,” Lightning chuckled, giving himself another, all-over shake and dislodging a cloud of red dust that left them both hastily accelerating and trying to cough their intakes clear.

As he rolled easily over the slight bump in the road that marked the transition from roughly-maintained gravel to smooth asphalt, Lightning’s eyes lifted automatically to glance at the booms of the cranes visible over the rooflines of the shops lining Main Street.

The expansion of the Radiator Springs Racing Museum was something that the town had been debating almost since the Museum’s creation; the majority of the building had served as Lightning’s headquarters, with small area dedicated to Radiator Springs and the Willy’s Butte track, as well as a separate wing to commemorate Doc’s career.

It hadn’t taken very long, however, before Lightning’s own career started breaking records - Doc’s season-wins record included - and he’d eventually bowed to the inevitable, broken ground on a separate Headquarters, and let the Museum overrun the entire original building.

The Museum had been a labor of love for the entire town, and when Lightning’s budget had fallen short of his goal for refitting the old hotel, he hadn’t even had time to adjust his plans before the other residents had come forward.

Everyone had contributed what they could, and far more than Lightning would have dared ask, or dream. Much of it had been in cash - half of Sarge’s Army pension, a year of profits from both the Taste-In and the Casa Della Tires, and a hefty portion of Red and the Sheriff’s county salaries; but the other help had been just as valuable. Flo and Ramone had to be argued out of taking out a loan on their house, and had only agreed in exchange for helping with all of the repainting and decorating of the Museum. Lizzie and Mater had contacts with what seemed like every discount materials supplier in the surrounding counties, and had called almost all of them to get the materials needed to transform the old building. Sally had handled the entire legal end, from purchasing and incorporating through insuring, saving Lightning what would probably have been months of frustration and legal costs.

Doc’s contribution, though, had probably been the most valuable of all; he had finally cleaned out his garage.

The three Piston Cups, restored to their former brilliance under Ramone’s care, took the pride of the wing, but the newspapers that Doc had saved were the true treasures. They were a wide and clear window into the history of racing, from a time before most of the current racetracks even existed.

Despite that, nobody, least of all Lightning himself, had been expecting Tex Dinoco to roll into town just after the season ended the previous year and ask if they would be interested in expanding the Museum far beyond the history of just the Hudson Hornet-Radiator Springs Racing team, to encompass pretty much the entire history of the Dinoco Racing League.

“Like the Hall of Fame?” Lightning had asked, making the question come out in calm, almost-level tones. He’d toured the facility in Charlotte a dozen times before his tires had ever touched a track, dreaming of his own likeness on the walls next to the likes of The King and The Intimidator.

The fact that his likeness was on those walls now did nothing to squash his excitement.

“Well, at least like the Hall’s li’l brother,” Tex had answered comfortably. “Ya’ll have proven you’ve got the market here, and there’s not too many places out this way that can offer racers from both your generations.”

Which was the truth; although racers and their fans came from all corners of the country, the bright core of racing itself was the Southeast, rooted between mountain distilleries and Florida beaches. It had edged its way westward - the Piston Cup ran on tracks in California, Arizona, Nevada, and Texas - but the home state of racing would likely forever be North Carolina.

To have a Hall of Fame here, in Radiator Springs, Arizona, would mean so much, not just in tourism for the town, but to fans who couldn’t travel across the country to see the original Hall.

They’d barely been able to raise the question to the rest of the town’s residents before it had been heartily and unanimously approved. They had signed the papers, Tex had signed the checks, and there hadn’t been a moment’s peace in town since.

Lightning smiled as he picked up speed, speaking over the clamor of arc welders and rivet guns and the busy hum of the town center. “You think it’ll be done by midseason?”

“I’ll be surprised if it’s not,” Doc replied. “And you never answered my question.”

“Which question was that?” Lighting half-joked, accelerating a little more, but Doc pulled up beside him once again and bumped him halfway onto the dusty shoulder, leaving another streak of bare steel shining amongst the dirt.

“Don’t play games, kid, not with me. I’m not senile yet, I can see the racing getting harder on everybody. Too hard for some folks, ones I never thought would leave the track.”

Lightning winced a little at that. Jeff’s announcement of his intention to retire at the end of the season had been a bit of a shock for everyone, and there were rumors going around the pit crews that Tony was thinking of hanging up his stripes after next year.

“I feel in better shape this year than I have for any so far, Doc,” Lightning offered, more quietly, as they made the turn towards Main Street. “All credit to my Chief.”

Doc snorted. “Don’t kiss my bumper, rookie,” he rumbled as he dropped back to fall in the lane behind Lightning again, although he didn’t bother trying to hide the smile on his face when he said it.

Eight years into Lighting’s racing career, he was already a three-time champion - or perhaps four, depending on how you viewed his first Piston Cup - and Doc was perhaps the only vehicle in the world who could pretend the younger racecar was still sporting a yellow bumper-stripe.

“More than I did during training, you mean? I almost knocked out a tooth when you checked up on that turn!”

The grunt that Doc offered in response could, perhaps, have been interpreted as apologetic. “Miscalculated. Anything I need to take a look at?”

“Nah, I’ve gotten worse goofing around with Mater.”

“I know you have, I was the one who rebuilt your back end when Frank got you back before Chrystmas.”

Lightning winced at the memory. The lectures he’d gotten - from Doc, for getting himself injured; Ramone, for ruining his brand-new paint job; Sally, for getting himself injured; Filmore, for tormenting the combine; and Sarge, for getting himself injured - had hurt worse than the combine’s blades. “Yeah, were the three weeks of agility training on the monster truck course really necessary after that? That track makes me motion sick.”

“You’re a sorry excuse for a racecar, kid,” Doc snorted. “Has Frank gotten you since?”

He hadn’t been tractor-tipping since that incident, mostly because he was staying too busy to be pursing nighttime trouble with Mater. Which Doc knew full well. “Well, no, but -”

“Then it worked, didn’t it?” Doc shot back, his voice several levels drier than the surrounding desert.

“Yeah, I’ve stopped getting motion sick,” Lightning grinned, accelerating just enough that Doc’s attempt to knock into his bumper fell a few inches short. “You’re getting predictable, old man,” he teased, slowing to smirk back at the Hornet.

Only to grunt sharply as Doc’s heavy front bumper connected successfully with his own, significantly less substantial, rear bumper, knocking him forward several inches.

“Who’s getting predictable, again?”

“That would be both of you,” interrupted a third voice, and Lighting glanced up to see Sally rolling towards them, trailed by a champagne-colored Chevy Blazer toting an amused smile and a smartphone. “Your RSN interview was scheduled at Flo’s in an hour -”

Lightning’s welcoming smile vanished under an expression of alarm.

“ - which we knew you would completely forget about, so it’s been moved back to three o’clock so that you have time to wash up, have your paint fixed, and get something for lunch,” finished Anne, the Blazer, lifting the phone. The sound of a camera shutter bounced cheerfully off the gleaming shop windows surrounding them, and Lighting snuck a peek at himself in the nearest one and grimaced at his reflection.

If anything, he looked worse than he thought; his red and white paint was nearly invisible under the thick coating of dirt and a more-than-generous application of Doc’s deep blue, and he had more scrapes and dents on his frame than he’d managed to collect after the last Martinsville race. It was barely noon, but getting him camera-ready by three was still going to be an accomplishment. It was a good thing Ramone had that quick-dry paint to use for fast touch-ups - even if the stuff did itch miserably.

“I really should talk to Rust-eez about switching to a blue-based color scheme, I’ve got more of your paint on me than my own!” Lightning chuckled, casting a wry glance at Doc, who surveyed him with critical, narrowed eyes.

“You carry it pretty well, although I’m not sure it’s quite... bright enough to suit your personality,” the old Hudson rumbled, earning quiet snickers from their audience.

“Gee, thanks,” Lightning shot back, his grin widening until a clump of dirt dislodged from his hood tethers and bounced into his mouth. “Ugh! Ew!”

“Boys, interview?” Sally chided gently, as Lightning spat the last grains of mud out, then glanced back at Anne when he realized she’d been fiddling with her phone.

Hiring a PR assistant had become necessary after the tiebreaker race at the end of his first year, when the requests for interviews had come to thick and fast for Harv to manage. Anne, whose degree in Public Relations had been secondary to her love of racing, had been part of the media frenzy that originally tracked Lightning to Radiator Springs, and she’d been one of the first to return to the town when Lighting declared his intention to open his headquarters there. When the rest of the media had followed, she had quietly offered her help to the overwhelmed citizens in hopes of meeting Lightning or Doc in exchange.

She’d been stunned speechless when Lightning himself had knocked on the door of her Cozy Cone eleven hours after her arrival and personally requested her help, but risen admirably to the challenges. Now, years later, Lightning considered her an indispensable part of his team.

“You’re putting that picture on Twitter, aren’t you?” he grinned ruefully, already knowing the answer. While he did, occasionally, post to the account himself, it was far more frequently Anne behind the posts, usually with the most embarrassing photos of him she could manage. He couldn’t argue with the results, though; he’d been voted Most Popular Racer for the last four years running, to Junior’s amused gratitude.

“Already have done,” she corrected, passing the phone over for him to see. The picture, he and Doc in all of their filthy, battered glory and regarding the camera with resigned amusement, was captioned ‘Great morning of training with #DocHudson - but just remembered I have an RSN interview to film! Better get cleaned up!’

“No joke,” Doc chuffed, backing up and beginning to turn away, undoubtedly heading for the pressure washers and a quiet afternoon back at the clinic, but Sally quickly darted around behind Anne to block his route.

“And just where do you think you’re going?” she asked, and Lightning backed up an inch or two, laughing, at the sight of the smile on her face. It was the same one she’d worn all those years ago in the midst of that sunny courtroom - the smile that had heralded the biggest shake-up of Lightning’s life.

Doc knew that smile almost as well as Lighting did, and Lighting snickered when the older car’s back bumper dipped as his tires tightened instinctively, gripping the road in preparation for a hasty retreat. “Uh -”

“We thought it would be nice,” Sally began, gesturing between herself and Anne with a tire - Anne was studiously fiddling with the phone, which didn’t quite hide her smirk - “if you would appear with Lighting during the interview. It’s been almost a year since your last one, and the publicity’s always better when the pair of you appear together versus Lighting alone.”

“Thirty-seven percent higher share rates on social media, nineteen percent more likely to be shown on television news, and the Piston Cup site is guaranteed to post clips, still images, and the transcript of any interview you appear in,” Anne piped up, turning the phone around again to show a particular tweet.

‘@AKAMrsCrophopper: OMG can’t wait! Is #DocHudson going 2 be on interview?!’

The little retweet symbol was green, and below that was Anne’s response: ‘@Lightning_McQueen .@AKAMrsCrophopper - Maybe! See if you can get #DocHudsonInterview trending to convince him!’

It had already been retweeted three hundred and twelve times and had only been posted for two minutes.

The look that Doc sent the two women could have stripped paint, but he scowled in resignation anyway. “All right, all right, I’ll do it. Just tell Ramone he’d better have my decals ready. If I’m going to be making an idiot of myself on national television, I’d better look the part.”

Chapter Text

“...an’ then the beautiful Jaguar swooped down from the sky -”

Lightning gave a soft chuff of laughter as he rolled into the lot of Flo’s Cafe at a quarter to three, acutely aware of the half-dried patch paint itching on his sides. Mater was obviously trying to impress Kori and her camera team if he was breaking out that particular tall tale.

Everyone else was there already; Anne and Sally deep in discussion with Kori, Mater entertaining the camera van and the sound tech, and Doc at his usual pump, a can of oil in front of him. A second can, in Lightning’s preferred weight of synthetic, was waiting at his left front tire. Through the window of the Cafe, Lightning could see Flo and the Miata twins cleaning up after the lunch rush, and Sheriff was watching from one of the far pumps. The majority of the Radiator Springs residents tended to stay out of the way of the cameras, although it wasn’t uncommon for several of them to linger outside of the shot to watch the filming.

“Stickers, there you are! We were starting to wonder if you’d forgotten again,” Sally smiled, rolling up to greet him as he pulled in. Anne and Kori both nodded their greetings to him before going back to reviewing notes on Kori’s skyPad - probably approving the interview questions, if he had to guess.

“Nah, just waiting on the master artist to complete his work. Careful, I’m still wet,” he added quickly, and Sally backtracked away from her intended kiss to his fender. Doc had been in and out of Ramone’s in half an hour - his sturdier steel skin meant both fewer dents and faster repair, and his monochrome paint was definitely a faster touch-up than Lightning’s.

“ - an’ then with the rockets, I won the race!” Mater concluded, grinning broadly, as his audience exchanged bemused glances behind him. “Hey, Lightnin’! Ya just missed my best story!”

“That’s okay, Mater, you can tell it to me later, right?” He’d heard the story a few times now, and it always grew with the telling. The first version had simply been a global rally-race - probably because of all the news coverage of the Wings Around the Globe rally last year - but by the third telling, the story had been expanded to include international spies and a vast oil company conspiracy.

The fifth telling would probably involve invaders from Mars, but at least they were never bored in Mater’s presence!

“I’m still not sure why your story requires me to be dead,” Doc grumbled, hunkering down a little on his suspension, and Lightning glanced towards Doc in some concern at the tone of his voice. The old Hudson’s mouth was tight with something that wasn’t quite annoyance, although Lightning couldn’t put a name to it.

“Well, tha’s simple, Doc,” Mater answered, cheerfully oblivious to Doc’s irritation. “Lightnin’ wouldn’t do nothin’ that stupid with you around!”

“...I think I’ve just been insulted,” Lightning remarked, circling around the pumps to pull up beside Doc, who slid him his oil without comment. Lightning risked a light nudge of his tire against Doc’s, mindful of both their paint jobs, and the corner of Doc’s bumper loosened into a faint smile.

“Well, ‘s true!”

“Don’t worry, Doc, you’re merely joining the legions of characters killed off in fiction for the mere function of plot advancement. It’s something of a milestone,” Anne grinned from beside the camera, passing Kori back the skyPad as the reporter gave a startled snort of laughter.

Doc’s eyeroll might have been better suited to a car half Lightning’s age. “I’m flattered.”

“Usually, it’s for romantic purposes, though,” Sally remarked, scrolling through something on Anne’s phone. “I can’t count the number of times I’ve been written out or killed off for the sake of pairing Lightning up with someone else.”

Lightning couldn’t quite stop the incredulous noise that escaped him. “Seriously? They think I’d - with who?!”

Anne - who was, in some way, contractually obligated to keep track of such things - shrugged, not quite managing to stifle her amusement. “Mostly young, female authors’ avatars, but I’ve seen Junior, Mater... even you occasionally, Doc.”

“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.”

“I think I’m gonna pretend that too,” Mater declared, after a moment of speechless astonishment. “No ‘fense, buddy.”

“None taken,” Lightning answered, watching as Sally raised an eyebrow at the phone before tilting the screen for Anne to read.

The Blazer raised an eyebrow at the phone in an identical expression of surprise. “Pairing you with Dusty Crophopper, that’s a new one,” she remarked levelly. “Maybe we should try to do a publicized meet between you two, capitalize on people’s interest... We can emphasize the rookie championship and the mentor-trainee dynamic, too, his instructor is a retired Navy Corsair.”

“As long as you don’t expect me to kiss him, sure,” Lightning shrugged, earning another round of startled laughter from Kori and her crew and another eyeroll from Doc.

“Lightning, you seem remarkably comfortable with the fanfiction. Isn’t it a little strange, knowing people are writing stories about you?” Kori asked. It was her on-camera voice, more sharply enunciated and pitched slightly deeper than her normal speaking voice, and Lightning snuck a fast glance behind her at the camera, unsurprised to see the recording light on.

Well, it wasn’t the first time they’d started an interview in the middle and spliced the segments into a more logical order. Quickly toning his amused grin down to a slight smile - and so what if he’d copied it from The King? - he put on his own camera-voice and answered.

“Well, it surprised me a little at first. But to be honest, my friend Mater makes me a character in so many of the stories he tells that I got used to it pretty quick. And I’ve been really lucky, I get to talk to a lot of my fans, both face-to-face and through social media with the help of my PR Manager, and most of them are awesome people with great imaginations. I don’t see anything wrong with them having a little harmless fun with my public image.”

Doc pulled a face beside him. “I just can’t understand the whole concept. Playing around with someone’s name and face like you have a right to it, or their private life.”

Lightning chuckled, shaking his head. “You’re showing your age, Doc.”

“A reasonable expectation of privacy is showing my age?”

“I think our definitions of reasonable privacy are kind of different,” Lightning countered. “I mean, had they even invented color televisions when you were still competing?”

Doc shot him a narrow-eyed glare for that and took another sip of his oil before responding. “They caught on in the sixties.”

Lightning, very focused on projecting a mature and polite appearance, did not smirk, merely considered Filmore’s paint job for a moment and nodded. “Yeah, that makes sense. The sixties were... colorful.”

“Right on, man!” came Filmore’s cheer from the street off to Lightning’s left, predictably followed by Sarge’s groaned “Don’t embarrass us, hippie!”

Doc heaved a sigh, and Lightning shot the camera a full-on grin. “This is why I love living here. And as for the fanfictions, Kori, as long as they’re just stories, they’re not hurting anything. Naturally, I’d prefer they stopped trying to put me in a relationship with someone other than Sally, but a little fantasizing never hurt anybody.”

Kori, consummate professional that she was, had stifled her laughter at Sarge and Filmore’s banter and moved on to the next question with her usual calm. “Have some of the fans crossed the line?”

Doc shot Lightning a raised eyebrow, clearly remembering the incident during Lightning’s third year of racing. Lightning shot him back a grimace - it hadn’t been his fault the girl’s cousin had been working security. Although he still wasn’t sure how she’d slipped past Mack - or gotten the keycode for his trailer. There had been a few occurrences his rookie year, too, but ‘crossing the line’ depended a lot on where the line was...

“It’s happened a couple of times, yeah, and I give the Piston Cup security team a lot of credit for handling them! It’s been a few years now, though, so maybe they’ve gotten the message that I’m a happily married car.”

Behind the camera, Anne and Sally promptly began an animated discussion consisting entirely of sharp looks and tire waves. Kori glanced briefly back at them, making a small, questioning gesture with the tire not holding her microphone, to which Anne nodded vigorously and Sally shook her head.

Kori raised an eyebrow at them before turning her attention back to Lightning, who quickly planted his tires on the ground to pretend he hadn’t been beckoning to Sally as well. “You and Sally are coming up on your third anniversary, right?”

“Yup, July fourth!” Lighting answered, leaning slightly sideways to catch Sally’s eye around Kori’s fender. “We figured it was a date I probably couldn’t forget. And who’d notice a few more fireworks?”

That startled a bark of unscripted laughter out of Kori, and Sally’s wide-eyed look became significantly wider when Anne set her front tire squarely on Sally’s back bumper and pushed.

Grinning broadly, Lightning sidled over until his side was an inch from brushing Doc’s, making room for Sally as she circled behind the pumps to join them. Conscious of his still-damp paint, she pressed a very careful kiss to his front bumper and offered a shy smile to the camera.

“Sally, as always, it’s a pleasure to have you on,” Kori smiled, earning a more relaxed smile from Sally in return. “As a former corporate attorney, you’re both the legal advisor for the Radiator Springs Racing Team, and a business advisor and attorney for McQueen Enterprises, as well as Lightning’s wife. Are your current combined roles easier or harder than being a partner in your family’s Los Angeles law firm?”

Sally laughed softly, Kori’s matter-of-fact question putting her tires back on solid ground. “It’s definitely different! The work is more varied and diverse, so it’s helping me gain a lot of experience that remaining in L.A never would have offered. And even if it’s a little more complicated sometimes, working along side my husband and our team here in Radiator Springs makes every minute of it worthwhile,” she finished, pressing another careful kiss to Lightning’s bumper.

“And working together doesn’t put a strain on your marriage?”

“Well, it hasn’t so far!” Sally laughed, as Lightning chuckled and shook his head.

“Our first few months together, dating, were the hardest, I think. It took us a while to learn to work as a team, not just Sally and I, but Radiator Springs as a whole. Establishing my racing headquarters here and getting this town back on the map took a lot of effort on all of our parts. ”

“Especially with the way Doc was pushing your training during that first off-season.”

“Yeah, well, that paid off in the end,” Lightning laughed, as Kori nodded in agreement, moving smoothly towards the next topic.

“You proposed in Victory Lane, immediately after breaking Doc Hudson’s season-wins record following your fall Talladega win six years ago. You later said that you hadn’t planned for it -”

“I hadn’t!” Lightning interrupted, with a soft, disbelieving chuckle. “Either the win or proposing, I mean. Superspeedways aren’t my strong point, and I wasn’t at my best that week. But we pulled it off, and when I rolled into Victory Lane, I just knew that I had to ask, because her saying yes would make everything perfect.”

There was a sharp scrape of metal on concrete as Doc shoved his oil can, skidding it a few inches across the worn surface of Flo’s lot, loud enough to startle everyone to silence for a moment.

Doc wasn’t a consummate professional on camera - unlike Lightning, he still wasn’t accustomed to the media being an inescapable part of racing, and he was too firmly set in his mold of ‘cranky, secretive old man’. His team radio communications and Victory Lane appearances besides Lightning tended to mean bleeps, cuts, and the occasional FCC fine - but when he could be persuaded to join Lightning during off-season interviews, he generally did his best.

With everyone’s eyes on him - including the Sheriff’s - Doc frowned, gathered up the oil can, and muttered a low ‘Excuse me’ before slipping out from between Lightning and the pump and through the doors into the Cafe.

There was a moment of silence as Lightning, Sally, and Kori scrambled, before the cameravan shifted the focus of the camera and gestured to Kori with one front tire.

She shrugged gamely in response and kept going. “Was the lack of preparation the reason for the long engagement?”

It took Lightning a moment to track back to the conversation, and his laugh was probably a bit forced. “Everybody teased me about that. Four years isn’t that long! But no, not really. Sally’s the one who taught me how to slow down and live my life in the first place, so it didn’t seem right for us to hurry. Besides, she’d made things perfect for me by agreeing to marry me, so I wanted enough time to make sure our wedding was perfect, too!”

“Well, perfection is pretty hard to obtain, but you seem to be coming close...” Kori paused, her smile turning slightly fixed, and glanced towards the door of the Cafe as Doc rolled back out, a fresh can of oil balanced neatly on the corner of his bumper, and pulled back into his space besides Lightning.

“...especially following last year’s record-breaking performance,” Kori finished, the faintest thread of confusion in her voice and her eyes on the old Hudson.

“Kid’s leaving me in the dust,” Doc remarked, tone calm and level, a faint, proud smile on his mouth as he slid the oilcan off his bumper and onto the concrete with a practiced twitch.

“Oh, come on,” Lightning shot back, giving Doc’s tire a sharp prod - slightly sharper than it might have been otherwise, with the faint tightness still at the corner of Doc’s eyes. “You kicked my bumper eight runs out of ten today!”

“That’s because I’m old and smart, and you’re still young and stupid.”

Lightning gave an agreeable shrug to that - it was hardly the worst thing he’d ever been called, and really wasn’t that far off the mark - and pressed a quick kiss to Sally’s fender as she discreetly rolled forward. She threw him a quick wink in response before slipping quickly out of camera range, ducking around behind Kori’s crew and into the Cafe.

Lightning turned his focus back to the cameras again, poking at Doc’s tire as he did so. “Look, I’m racing against this guy every week, so I can tell you; he has not lost one bit of the drive or talent that made him a champion sixty years ago.”

“Oh, can it, kid,” Doc chuffed, swatting Lightning’s tire away, but he didn’t bother hiding the upward twitch on the corners of his bumper. “You make it sound like I’m going back on the track instead of you.”

“You could, you know, Tony’s practically begged you to come run at Eldora. I think you’d be a bigger draw at his track than he is.”

“Not a chance, kid. I’m retired. It’s up to young punks like you to keep setting crazy records now.”

“Hey, I’ve only got two crazy records!”

“In the past six years.”

“Well, it probably won’t happen again. I think the other racers would probably get mad if I won more than thirty races in a season.”

“Sporting of you to leave six for the other guys,” Doc drawled, exaggerating the roll of his eyes for the camera.

“You only left nine,” Lightning countered, poking at Doc’s tire again. “Twenty-seven wins in a season, old man.”

“Twenty-eight and twenty-nine wins in a season, brat,” Doc countered, poking him right back.

Kori, the concern from a moment before gone from her eyes - not forgotten, but at least well-hidden, chuckled softly. “So, do you foresee another record-breaking year in your future?”

Lightning glanced briefly towards Doc, who replied with a ‘go ahead’ motion of his tire and took a sip of his fresh oil. Two quarts in a day was a lot for him, even if they had run for a good three hours that morning.

“You keep guzzling oil like that, I’m gonna think you’ve blown a gasket, old man,” he teased, just loud enough for the boom mic to pick up clearly.

“Well, when you get your medical degree, I’ll listen to your opinion of my guzzling, you punk,” Doc shot back, not missing a beat, and Lightning snorted. If Doc was still snarking, then the world was still spinning. Whatever else was wrong, they could sort out later.

For right now, he had an interview to finish. “Well, Kori, racing is impossible to predict. But the last few years have been really good to us, and my team and I have been training hard the past few months, so with the support of my fans and my sponsors, I hope we can make this year the best one yet!”

“And cut. Perfect,” the cameravan declared, and the recording light on the camera blinked off. “We’ll reset for the introduction - if nobody else needs a top up?”

The question was asked with more than a touch of sarcasm, and the raised eyebrow the van shot at Doc made its target more than clear.

Doc, for his part, cocked his chrome-edged windshields in response, his bumper twisting into a faint sneer of annoyance. “Well, sonny, when you get to be my age, there are a few systems that start to degrade, including -”

“Uh, Doc, that conversation’s probably better off in your office than where we eat,” Lightning interrupted. “I think I’m still mentally scarred from driving in on you and Sheriff that one time -”

Kori dropped her microphone, Anne cracked up laughing, and Lightning nearly overheated on the spot. “That is really not what I meant, it was a perfectly valid medical exam.”

The Sheriff’s snickers were audible from where he was parked at the corner pump, but the ‘that’s what you think!’ that Lightning half-expected never came, just chortling and the familiar squeak of the old Mercury’s suspension. When Lightning risked a glance over, he saw the Sheriff rocking in a familiar, very deliberate motion, the very thought of which made Lightning want to clap his tire over his eyes.

Getting the rest of the interview done was going to take a while. And his patch-paint still itched.

Chapter Text

“So spill.”

Doc blinked, glancing up from the medical journal he’d been pretending to read for the last ten minutes. The cover of it touted an article on a customized airplane gearbox rebuild; probably a fascinating subject, if Doc had a plane as a patient more than every five years or so.

“Spill what, kid? Paint? Beans?”

“Secrets?” Lightning countered, nodding towards the muted television mounted on the trailer wall beside them. The interview they had filmed two days before was playing on the screen now, rather to Doc’s annoyance. He didn’t need to look at himself that badly, even if Ramone had done a spectacular job with his rushed touch-ups, and his decals looked damn good.

The RSN editing team had done a good job with the footage Kori and her crew had gotten; they’d managed to edit Doc’s abrupt departure and return into something a little smoother, filed down the rough edges on his temper in some of the answers he’d given, that sort of thing.

On screen, Lightning’s smile was bright and confident, Doc’s wry and amused as Lightning discussed making this year the best one yet.

Pretty damned high standard to live up to, considering the last seven.

“What makes you think I have any secrets left? You’re nosy enough, you should know them all by now,” Doc grumbled, dropping his eyes back to the article he still hadn’t processed more than a sentence of in a blatant attempt to avoid Lightning’s gaze.

Not that it was really that simple. The pair were parked nose-to-nose, barely three feet apart, just over one hour into the thirty-hour trip to Daytona. The pair had started sharing Lightning’s old hauler early in his second season, to allow for strategy discussion during travel, and had never really considered stopping. Lightning had gotten his main trailer upgraded to a slightly more spacious model - mostly at his own cost, given Rust-Eze’s limited budget - in his third year, and hired on an additional tractor-trailer and bought a second trailer to spare his pit crew the long drives - and spare Sarge from towing Guido, who couldn’t travel the highways under his own power, in a military-surplus trailer that Guido really could have complained about far more than he did.

So now they ran a miniature two-truck convoy to each race, the first trailer nearly identical to Lightning’s old one, save for the addition of Doc’s image behind his own on the trailer’s sides. The crew trailer, though, had been wrapped in a panoramic portrait of Radiator Springs, one side showing the town at night, neon signs glowing in the darkness, and the other side the stark beauty of the surrounding desert under full sun.

When asked why he’d chosen the design, Lightning’s answer had been as simple as it had been truthful - ‘Why wouldn’t I want to carry my home with me?’

Several of the other racers apparently agreed, if the murals that later cropped up on the insides and outsides of their trailers were any indication.

Lightning’s snort brought Doc sharply back to the present. “Yeah, right. I could develop super-psychic powers and read every thought in your head and still not know all your secrets.”

“You’re welcome to try reading the thought in my head right now,” Doc countered, the biting sarcasm in his voice doing little to disguise the thought in question.

Lightning chuffed a soft laugh. “I don’t need psychic powers for that one, Doc.” He paused, staring idly out the window for a moment, and Doc had a momentary hope that he’d dropped the subject.

“Was it me breaking your record, or me proposing to Sally?”

“Hmm? What, the fact that I wanted a second can of oil? Who said it had anything to do with you, rookie? Maybe you’re right, and I have sprung a leak.”

Lightning made a point of tipping his head to check the trailer floor under Doc’s frame. It was, of course, utterly free of any damning drips - Doc had never leaked a day in his life unless serious injury had been involved.

“All right, old man, you keep your secrets.”

“Thank you, I’m trying to.” The sarcasm was so automatic that it took him a second to process just how much of a wrong answer that had been - Lightning’s eyes narrowed with a cunning that few vehicles credited him with possessing.

“So you admit you have a secret!”

“Who knows,” Doc answered, shaking out the medical journal with a sharp snap and positioning it higher on its stand, blocking Lightning’s gaze. “Maybe I even have two or three.”

The article really was fascinating, he reminded himself, as the next hour of the trip passed in silence.

_____________________________________________________

 

The Daytona 500 was scheduled to start in less than forty-five minutes.

By this time last year, the entire field had been out for hours on parade laps, fan meet-n-greets, inspections, and race prep. This year...

“Rain! Why is it always rain?!” Chick Hick’s voice, not quiet under any circumstances, was raised to combat the sound of water pounding onto the corrugated metal roof of the garages, and Lightning winced a little at the volume. Guido, playing a very intense game of Go Fish - appropriate, given the weather - with a few other pitties from Junior, Jeff, and Tony’s teams, rolled his eyes and muttered something... well, Lightning’s Italian lessons were going that well enough to know that it was physically impossible for Chick to carry out that suggestion.

“Because it’s Daytona, Chick, now quit whining before I punt you into the lake!” Tony fired back from deeper in the garage, prompting laughter and a couple of whistles - the last from the Busching brothers, undoubtedly. Chick hadn’t exactly been anyone’s favorite since the King’s retirement - he’d retained a few die-hards in the stands, but most of the cars on the track had made their opinions abundantly clear. Chick usually had enough grass in his undercarriage after every race that his crew had started packing trowels in their toolkits.

Oddly, it was Tony, who still tended towards red-dirt style bump-and-run racing even on asphalt Cup tracks, that tended to clash with Chick the most nowadays, cheered on by a much larger contingent of fans.

“Oh, go back to sucking Kahne’s bumper, you -”

Whatever Chick thought of Tony would remain a mystery for the moment; both the camera crews and the officials descended at that point, and Lightning beat a hasty retreat towards the garage doors to escape the ensuing scuffle, the squeal of tires on concrete and Danica’s shrill curses echoing off the roof.

He was barely a length from the other car’s back bumper by the time Junior’s presence actually registered; the 88 was sitting silent and in shadow by the doorway, staring out at the track through the pouring rain. His expression was so melancholy that Lightning was already shifting into reverse to leave him in peace when Junior shook himself out of his thoughts.

“Hey, Lightnin’. Come over to look for your namesake?”

Forcing a laugh, Lightning rolled closer. “Just trying to get out of Chick and Tony’s way. I don’t mind getting dented on the track, but I’d like to avoid it before.”

“Know what you mean,” Junior replied, as a squeal-thump and a swell of shouting from the far end of the bay punctuated Lightning’s words. “Definitely better not to get between those two -”

The rising noise from the back of the garage was cut off as a familiar voice roared over the chaos. “THAT IS ENOUGH!!!”

“...unless you’re Doc,” Lightning snickered, as the bellowing continued, echoing through the garage and easily drowning out the continual roar of the rain.

“ - no more decorum or dignity than a bunch of go-carts! You’re all adults - act like it, and save it for the track!”

“Assuming we ever get on the track,” Chick shot back, and there was a resounding clang of metal on metal and a responding yelp.

Lighting and Junior simultaneously winced and quickly turned their attention back towards the door. The rain outside was ferocious; so heavy that the stands and even the track were almost completely obscured behind the curtain of falling water. Junior seemed to find the unceasing flow hypnotic - certainly he didn’t seem to have any trouble keeping his eyes on the pouring rain outside. But he was a bit older and a lot more experienced than Lightning, and maybe just more patient by nature.

Lightning stared at the little streams of water running on the asphalt outside, the rain, the duct tape on the bottom of the overhead door, the rain, the racks upon racks of tires, the rain, the white-painted official SUV attempting to lurk inconspicuously behind said tires, the rain... all the while shooting concerned glances out of the corner of his eye at the car next to him.

After about five minutes of this, Junior finally chuckled, shaking himself a little and settling down further on his suspension. “You’re really bad at being subtle, y’know.”

Lightning winced. “Yeah, I get that. Lack of practice.” Taking a deep breath and exhaling slowly, he shuffled around enough to meet Junior’s eyes, and blurted, “It’s just... Are you okay?”

Junior blinked, looking mildly taken aback. “Am I okay with...?”

“Okay in general, I mean. I didn’t want to bother you at first, because you looked really down, but then you talked to me and I figured you didn’t mind company, so I’m here, but you’re still upset about something, and - ”

The not-entirely-inconspicuous official lurking behind the tires gave a sharp cough and Lightning bit the side of his tongue in surprise, turning enough to glance at the official. The big Explorer was shooting him a look through the tire racks that Lightning had seen far too many times on Doc and Sheriff’s faces - shut up, you idiot.

At which point common sense and a smidge of pertinent racing history both smacked him like a full-speed impact with a wall, and he very nearly bit his tongue on purpose. He’d paid his respects to Dale’s statue out front, the same way he’d done every year now - just a respectful nod and a second of silence - but it had become so much a habit that he’d forgotten.

“I’m an idiot,” he announced, ignoring the official’s snort of agreement, and turned sheepishly back to face Junior. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t... I mean... he was...”

“Kid, as much as it helped you out your first year, put your tongue back in your mouth before you run it over,” Doc rumbled suddenly, his voice only feet from Lightning’s back bumper.

When Lighting had reversed himself back into the garage and shaken most of the water off his hood - and Doc, Junior, and the conspicuous official had all finished snickering at how easily startled he was - Doc jerked his hood back towards the depths of the garage.

“Tony’s begged a couple of stories out of me if you wanted to join us. Figure it’ll keep everyone occupied,” he offered. There was a streak of green paint on his left front fender and a twist to the old racer’s smile that usually preceded Lightning being reintroduced to the cactus patch at Willy’s Butte, which probably meant that Chick’s crew would be busy hammering out a dent or six once the red flag lifted.

It probably also meant that someone from the official hauler was going to come yell at Doc again, but the racing world in general was still so glad to have the old Hornet back that it rarely went beyond a slap on the fender. The one time he had gotten nailed with a fine for bad conduct (which hadn’t even been his fault; three different crews gotten into a brawl, and he’d been trying to haul Lightning, who’d gotten stuck in the middle of it completely by accident, out of the mess in question and damn near busted Kyle’s axle when he’d gotten in the way), six other racers had volunteered to pay it before Lightning could even offer. (Kurt had been one of the six, but he’d been arguing with his brother at the time, so Lightning didn’t read too much into it.)

“We’re all gonna park in a circle and you’ll tell us stories?” Junior grinned, looking genuinely cheered for the first time all afternoon. “Are we back in kindergarten?”

“If we’re judging by Tony and Chick’s behavior? Yes. Therefore, I’ve decided to treat them appropriately for the age they’re acting, before the race officials need to put them in time out. Just come over whenever you’re ready,” Doc added, glancing back to Lightning. “You’ve heard most of these before anyway.”

“Well, I haven’t,” Junior spoke up, his smile dimmed but looking more relaxed than he had moments before. “I’ll be along.”

“Will do, Doc, thanks!” Lightning called back as the old Hornet made a neat three-point turn and rolled away, before turning an apologetic glance back to Junior. “I’m really making a mess of stuff today.”

“Don’t worry about it, Lightnin’. Daddy made an impression everywhere he went and with everything he did. Even dying.”

Lightning winced. “Still, I shouldn’t have brought it up.” Especially with Austin now among their ranks, black-painted with the white three bright on his side. But apparently his tongue was determined to get him in trouble today, because the next thing that fell off of it was “Is it hard for you? Racing here?”

Junior sat silently for a moment, nearly long enough for Lightning to think his question would be ignored, before abruptly shifting into reverse and moving back enough to look Lightning in the eye. “If I let it get to me, it’d be hard to race anywhere.” Rolling forwards a little, he gave Lighting a light, friendly nudge with the edge of his bumper. “I try not to let it get to me. Now c’mon, I don’t want to miss Doc’s stories!”

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FOUR

“Well folks, four hours later, it’s finally a beautiful night for racing!” Darrell Cartrip announced, his front tires resting on the very edge of the announcers’ booth as he peered down at the track. The trucks towing the huge air dryers had nearly finished their work, the asphalt finally dry enough that the racers wouldn’t be at risk on their slick tires. “The sun is going down, our track is clean and dry, and it is looking to be one heck of a race!”

“Absolutely, Darrell,” Bob Cutlass continued, too accustomed to their educate-the-viewer banter to miss a beat. “Our racers are going to have their work cut out for them; with the temperature dropping rapidly and all of the rubber washed off the track, it’s going to be a very different surface than they’ve been practicing on all week.”

“They planned for a rubbered-up track under the Florida sun, and they get a green track under Daytona lights!” Darrell grinned, backing up a few inches when one of the camera techs muttered in his earpiece that he was blocking Bob from the camera view. “This is where we’re gonna see the most adaptable drivers rise to the top of the heap, Bob. Who’s your bet?”

“Well, Darrell, since you give me first pick, I’m taking the obvious - Lightning McQueen! After last year’s record-breaking championship performance, the Rust-Eze racer has everything going for him this season.”

“Well, if I can’t pick Lightning, I’m gonna go with our friend Jeff Gorvette. It’s his last year on the track, so he’s going to be pushing to end on a high note. Maybe he can steal a few wins from McQueen this year, whaddya say?”

“I’m more interested in what McQueen has to say!”

“Well, lessee if we can ask him,” Darrell answered, the techs performing their well-practiced dance at the verbal cues and patching him through to the appropriate radio frequency. “Lightnin’, good buddy, this is Darrell up in the booth, ya read me?”

There was no response on the channel, just a thin, static-laden silence, and Darrell couldn’t quite stop his frown as he leaned back over the lip of the booth, peering down at the track. Lightning was clearly there, weaving in tight serpentines within his lane to warm his tires, but there was no indication he’d heard the call.

“Lightnin’, this is Darrell, you read me?”

There was another brief silence, before an aggravated sigh gusted over the frequency; not Lightning’s, but Doc’s.

*I’d say we’ve got a bit of a radio problem, Darrell,* the old Hudson remarked. A glance at the monitor showed one of the cameras zoomed in on Lightning’s pit box, Sarge and Guido already scrambling over a new antenna assembly. *Hopefully we can fix it on the first caution, and you can interview him in Victory Lane.*

“Well, Doc, I was gonna ask how you feel about Lightning’s chances today, but I guess I don’t have to! Sounds like you think he’s a pretty sure bet.”

*I’m not the gambling type, you ought to know that by now.*

“I’d know it better if you weren’t here!” Darrell shot back, laughing, half an eye on the monitor. The half-smirk that curled the corner of Doc’s bumper in response was a bit of a relief; the Hornet had been snappish and tense for the entirety of Speedweek, and joking with him had met unpredictable results.

*Every lap is a roll of the dice,* Doc sighed, his eyes flicking from away from the track as Lightning rounded Turn Two and out of his line of sight. *But if you ask me to bet, Darrell, I’ll put my money on that kid every time.*

“You know, I hope his radio is receiving, just so he can hear you say that.”

*Ah, kid knows I’m proud of him. Now stop making me get mushy, Cartrip, you have a race to announce, and I have a punk kid to get to Victory Lane.*

“Yessir, Doc. Good luck to you both tonight,” Darrell laughed, and the tech cut their link to the frequency on his nod.

“Radio problems for Lightning McQueen!” Bob commented, sitting up a little on his suspension. “That lack of communication may be a serious issue for our reigning champion, who has grown very accustomed to constant contact with his crew chief, Doc Hudson.”

“You wanna change your pick?” Darrell teased, nudging his broadcast partner’s tire. “I’ll be happy to lay my odds on McQueen if you think this radio trouble’s gonna affect his chances.”

“Thanks, Darrell, but I think I’ll stick with my pick, and we’ll find out how right I am in five hundred miles. Green flag is in the air!”

“Boogity boogity boogity, let’s go racin’, boys! And Danica!”

__________________________________________________________

“All right, kid, two to go, you’re clear behind, three lengths,” Doc murmured into the headset, less coaching and more muttering into the void. The coaching was a hard habit to break, even if they had given up on repairing Lightning’s radio after the third attempt had failed. The likeliest culprit was condensation in the kid’s wiring from the rain - all the more reason to live out in the desert, rather than out here on the East Coast - but it meant that Lightning was essentially running this race solo.

The only upside to the entire mess was the company they were keeping in the pits - their stall was flanked by Tony’s on one side and Junior’s on the other. Both of those racers considered Lightning a friend, and were willing to relay messages to him when they got within shouting distance - like ‘Doc says pit for tires!’ or ‘Doc says stop driving like a rustbrain just because he can’t coach your every freaking move!’.

He hadn’t phrased it exactly like that, but asking Tony to relay any kind of message usually meant that it got a bit more colorful by the time it got to the recipient.

Still, running without his radio hurt Lightning’s chances less than Darrell might have thought - or the other racers might have hoped. The kid was good, genuinely talented, and had actually grown a couple of brain cells in seven years under the tutelage of the Fabulous Hudson Hornet, all of which had kept him out front - if not quite so easily as usual. But he had opened up a clear lead by now, with Tony, Jeff, and Junior battling for second place three lengths behind him.

“All right, white flag in the air, four corners left, just hold your line,” Doc instructed the static. There were probably a thousand or so cars in the stands with their radios tuned to Lightning’s channel frequency, listening to Doc talk to himself. At this rate, he was going to run out of excuses not to start a Twitter account; he was certainly proving only too willing to shout into the void. Or at the very least, grumble into it.

Stretching up on his suspension, he could see Lightning rounding Turn Four, the bolt stickers on his front fenders catching the light, reflections splintering off the SAFER barrier and the fence. “Good, kid, still clear behind, clear by four. It’s all yours, now bring it home.”

Even without his radio working, Lightning responded, pushing out a little more speed to open up the gap between himself and the other racers, and sailing across the finish line with an easy six lengths between him and Junior, Tony losing second place by a matter of inches.

Doc ignored the grin threatening to split his fenders as Sarge, Mater, Guido, and Luigi broke into cheers around him. “Good job, kid, that’s the way to - look out!”

But of course, Lightning couldn’t hear him. And he wasn’t aware Chick Hicks bearing down on him - not until the green Buick slammed into his side.

_______________________________________________________________________________________

Blade, parked on the cement apron in front of Maru’s workshop to enjoy the feeling of the weak February sunlight against his rotors, glanced towards the Main Hanger at the sudden outbreak of noise. Dipper’s shrill indignation rose above even Avalanche’s wordless bellow, and below that he could make out both Nick and Blackout shouting furiously in Spanish.

He’d been reluctant to agree when Dipper had asked permission to hold her Daytona party on the Base, but the team - at least, all of the team who was interested in ground racing, which was the Smokejumpers, Patch, and Nick - took turns hosting a viewing party for the year’s inaugural race, and Dipper’s main residence was still technically in Alaska.

While it wasn’t exactly fair for the Base’s permanent residents to have their peace and quiet brought to such an early end this year, neither was it fair to expect the Smokejumpers to travel to the exhaust-end of the continent in February. Which all of them were precisely stubborn enough to do, because this was their tradition, and Ford forbid they not be together to watch forty-odd cars driving five hundred miles worth of circles.

With somewhat resigned curiosity - undoubtedly, if he did not find out the cause of their shouting now, he would learn over dinner, and probably in a much less coherent fashion than he might wish - Blade nosed the updated Search and Rescue training manual closed and rolled to the Main Hanger.

The door had been left wide open, so it was no difficulty for him to stick his nose in, silently observing his team as they continued to howl at the television. Nick was shouting a suggestion that would have been anatomically difficult even for the slimmest and most flexible of cars; certainly the blocky green Buick on the screen would have found it quite impossible.

Particularly given that the Buick in question was currently on his roof in the infield grass, all four tires flailing indignantly, and from the look of things, bellowing some fairly creative profanity, while several large white SUVs with official decals tried to restrain a burly Chevrolet mix with a torn fender that half-obscured the blue number 14 on his side.

The camera slid away from the Buick - whom one of the officials was regarding with an expression that suggested he was contemplating turning the 14 loose on him once again - to a younger, sleeker red car with a stylized lightning bolt paint scheme and a 95 on his side. The kid was injured - front fender and side panel caved in, and it looked like he might have been nursing a broken front axle - and leaning heavily against an older blue car, a fifties model that Blade didn’t recognize.

A low, startled sound from the back of the hanger pulled Blade’s attention away from the television. He was a little surprised to find Windlifter lurking in the shadows there; he hadn’t even realized his Lieutenant was on the Base, let alone trapped in here with the viewing party.

He was a little more than surprised by the sound that was rolling up out of the Sikorsky’s throat; a low, throbbing growl that carried under the others’ shouts, a bass tone that shivered down into Blade’s very frame.

He’d heard Windlifter make that sound precisely twice before - once, about five minutes before they’d had to talk Cabbie down from committing homicide, and a second time, when Cad had first driven onto the Base. Not a threat-sound, despite how it sounded, but the acknowledgement of a threat; privately, Blade called it the ‘slag is about to hit the fan’ sound. Which, if the look on the Sikorsky’s face was any indication, was a fairly accurate assessment.

If it were anyone other than Windlifter, he would have said the expression was that of someone who had just seen a ghost - but there was no ghost in the world that would put much expression at all on his Lieutenant’s face, let alone that mixture of disbelief, anger, and hurt.

Windlifter snapped his gaze away from the television, executed a sharp pivot on his landing gear, and rolled rapidly out the door.

Blade didn’t say a word, just turned and followed his Lieutenant. Several of Blade’s internal alarm bells were chiming - anything that could distress Windlifter to this degree could, quite possibly, be a sign of the Apocalypse. “What’s the problem?”

The noncommittal noise he received in reply was only slightly reassuring. “A family matter, of sorts,” Windlifter murmured in reply, but there were sharp edges to his familiar, steady cadence. The door of his personal hanger was already open, and Windlifter rolled straight to his radio.

Blade lingered at his doorway, not concerned enough to invite himself in, but slightly too concerned to simply go back to his reading. “Anything I can help with?”

“Not at the moment,” Windlifter answered, rolling forward to key the microphone on. That radio was always set to the same frequency, so there was no tuning required. “Elizabeth.”

That was all, no proper query or hail, but it was barely a second before the radio squawked a response, Elizabeth’s puzzled voice drifting from the fritzing speaker.

*Silus? What catastrophe has befallen us that you’re calling in the middle of the afternoon?*

Blade wasn’t entirely sure if he should find it reassuring or worrying that Liz’s thought process mirrored his own.

“Can you turn on RSN?” Windlifter asked, in lieu of any kind of explanation.

*I can, but why on Earth -* There was a long pause on the other end of the line, broken only by a sharply indrawn breath.

“Is it him?” Windlifter demanded, fixing the radio with a stare so intense Blade wondered if Elizabeth could feel it through the connection.

*Dear Ford,* came the disbelieving reply, Liz’s voice soft-edged and a little frightened. *Yes. I’m almost certain, I’m looking at the picture now... I think it must be, but how -?!*

Windlifter snorted.

*Don’t be ridiculous,* she chided regaining a little of her usual aplomb. *We’d have heard about it if that were the case. Besides, Nick is quite special. Normal vehicles do not simply resurrect on a whim, otherwise there would be no basis for religion.*

Blade was the one that snorted at that; the thought of Nick being hailed as some kind of deity was both too absurd and too horrifying to contemplate. The celebrity-worship had been bad enough!

“Does the how matter?” Windlifter asked, his voice steady and guiding, and Elizabeth’s sigh crackled over the line.

*At the moment, I suppose not. However, I’d best inform Victoria regardless.* Another long pause, then; *She’s not going to take this well.*

“Perhaps not,” Windlifter agreed. “But I believe it will be better to tell her.”

*You would, dear, you’re too tall for her to bite anything of importance,* Elizabeth answered dryly. *She's somewhere in Tibet this month, I think. I’ll see about tracking her down. Lucas out.*

Blade waited with clench-jawed patience until Windlifter had gotten his radio properly shut off before poking a few inches of his nose across the threshold of his Lieutenant’s door. “And just what in the Pits was that all about?”

Windlifter, when he turned to look at Blade, bore a thoughtful frown that looked unsettlingly like the one he’d worn the night Nick returned. “That remains to be seen.”

“How much of it can you see right now?” Blade did not like mysteries happening under his nose, especially not when they affected members of his team, and if he could sarcasm answers out of his reticent second-in-command, he was damn well going to.

“Some very old family history has reared its head,” came the calm reply, and Windlifter rolled out of his hanger again, at a far slower speed than he’d entered it. “It will not affect us directly that I can foresee.”

“And indirectly?”

Windlifter gave an uncomfortable twitch of his rotors. “Much may influence us indirectly, from the direction of the winds to the -”

“Windlifter.”

“Blade, I do not know," the big Sikorsky sighed, suddenly sounding very, very tired. "The situation may never evolve beyond this, or it may become something beyond our imagining. There are things I cannot foresee, and this is one of them.”

“Well, get your inner eye checked and let me know when you figure something out,” Blade answered, his rotors twitching irritably, and, with his focus now thoroughly fractured, went to put his training manual away for the afternoon and join the others in a little therapeutic yelling at the television.

Chapter Text

There was noise all around him.

The thundering of the engines, the roaring cheers of the crowd in the stands, and the low, constant buzz of static from his radio.

And then the noise exploded into the scream of tearing metal and a blinding-bright flash of pain. The unfeeling darkness that followed, bump-draft close behind that flash, was a welcome relief.
________________________________________________________

“And Lightning McQueen has done it, crossing the finish line with six lengths to spare, taking home his third career Daytona victory!” Bob announced, the delight clear in his voice. Of course he and Darrell were supposed to remain objective, but it was nearly impossible not to be caught in the thrill of the race, particularly one as hard-fought as this one.

“And Junior, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gorvette and Chick Hicks follow to round out your top - oh, no!”

Beside him, Darrell gave a strangled cry of horror as he watched the impact, Lightning thrown out of the easy curve he’d been making towards the infield. The force of the hit spun him sideways, back up towards the outside wall, and directly into the path of the cars behind him. The first collision was a glancing blow against Junior, Lightning’s right side striking his nose, which spun Lightning further up the track, into Tony’s path.

Tony dodged as best he could, scraping between Lightning and the outside wall, but Lightning’s rear bumper still hooked the corner of his left front fender, peeling the metal back in a jagged tear.

The racers still coming in behind them scattered, clouds of smoke and dirt rising as tires struggled to stop on the asphalt or dodge through the grass.

It took only seconds.

“Oh no, no no no,” Darrell muttered, his voice hushed as he strained forward over the lip of the booth. “Oh, man, that was an awful hit that McQueen just took, I can’t see -”

The footage was already replaying, demanding their attention and analysis for those watching at home, eyes fixed on the television in demand for every dramatic detail.

“Hicks crosses the finish line in fifth,” Bob noted, eyes flickering between the slow-motion recap on the screen in front of him and the scene on the track down below. Darrell wouldn’t take his eyes from the track until he knew everyone was all right, which Bob respected. “And it doesn’t look like he even attempts to slow down here. McQueen had begun turning towards the inside of the track for his victory burnouts, and Hicks hit... oh, my.”

There was a flash of deep blue already hurtling up Pit Road as Doc sped to his protégé's side, and another, sharper flash of movement, white and blue and green, under the booth near the scattering of wrecked racers.

“What am I seein’ on this track today?!” Darrell demanded, his tone shrill with horrified indignation.

“What we’re seeing... is Tony Stewart using an unusual but apparently very effective maneuver against Chick Hicks,” Bob answered, fighting down a helpless and horrifically inappropriate burst of laughter as the green Buick rolled, side-over-side, down the banking of the track, finally settling on his roof in the grass. All four of his tires kicked furiously in the air, and Bob could read lips well enough to tell Tony’s ancestry was being insulted back about twelve generations.

“That’s just... there’s no call for that,” Darrell huffed fretfully, his front tires twisting inwards as he stared down at the track, unable to take his eyes from the scene below. “Oh, man, I hope Lightning’s okay...”

________________________________________________________

Doc was peeling out of Lightning’s pit before his protege had even skidded to a stop, leaving blue smoke and a double-streak of black rubber behind him.

Pit Road speed limit! a faint, nagging echo of his own voice chided from the back of his mind, which he dismissed with another surge of his throttle. The emergency crews were rolling out already, but there wasn’t a vehicle among them that could match him for speed - or maneuverability at speed, for that matter - and he dodged around a flatbed without thinking.

His mind was racing ahead of him, turning faster than his tires. Chick had gone into Lightning’s left side, contact point around the front tire, probably doing close to a hundred; slow for a superspeedway impact, but still fast, too fast. Impact at that angle and speed, damage to the suspension, axle, rollcage, maybe even engine mounts and firewall...

Not to mention that he’d gotten pinballed off Tony and Junior when Chick hit him. Both of them were fine - Tony was more than fine, in fact, he’d turned his skid into a one-eighty spin that set him right back on Chick, tucked his nose, and dealt Chick a hit to the side that sent the Buick barrel-rolling down the steep banking of the track and onto the grass.

Most of the racers were clustering to the outside wall, staying out of the way of the safety crews and the officials that were already rolling out onto the asphalt. A couple of cars - other racers, not safety crews yet - were between Doc and Lightning, blocking most of his view. All he could see was that the kid was still, and that scared him more than anything.

___________________________________________________________

 

There was a moment of blissful, quiet drifting. It must have been what gliders felt like; just the air across his body, nothing around him but silence.

Until a disdainful snort and a flash of black on the edges of his vision shattered the peace. “Nowhere near time for you to be here, boy. Back you go.”

And the dark, quiet peace went away, lost beneath light and sound and pain.

“Lightning? Come on, Lightning, say something! Ya ain’t gonna do this to us, right, buddy, Doc’d have your hood on his wall for it.”

Forcing his eyes open took every ounce of effort he could muster, and his vision swam nauseatingly as he did so, but the pain was receding a little, settling around his left front tire and axle.

When his vision finally started to focus, the first thing he saw were a pair of luminous blue eyes, staring worriedly into his own; neither Doc’s nor Sally’s, but a blue that nearly glowed with some inner light. He had a momentary flash of worry that he was dead after all, before his vision focused a bit more and he was able to make out the face surrounding those eyes; not an angel, but Kasey Kahne - an easy mistake to make, at least.

“Lightnin’? You okay, buddy?” Junior was butted up against Kasey’s side, his left front tire flat and his fender twisted inwards where Lightning had been knocked into him.

Lightning grimaced, working his jaw back and forth for a moment before he tried to speak. His jaw ached - the impact had probably knocked his bumper off-center - but not enough to stop him speaking, at least. “Ow.”

Relief flashed across both their faces, Junior exhaling hugely and sagging down onto his undercarriage on the track. He was shaking, Lightning realized, and grimaced as a wave of guilt joined the pain.

“I’m okay,” he began, but a wave of dizziness swept over him, not quite enough to send him back to the soothing, silent darkness, but enough to force his eyes closed again, fighting a wave of nausea and hiding from the sudden reappearance of the alarm on Kasey and Junior’s faces.

“What -” he began, hearing his voice slur and not quite able to control it. Then the taste of antifreeze and oil against his tongue struck him, and he glanced down to see a steady flow of his own fluids escaping onto the asphalt. “Oh, slag...”

_____________________________________________________________

The track downhill of Lightning was slick with spilled fluids, an ice-slick mixture of oil and coolant, and even Doc’s road-treaded tires slipped as he pushed himself up to Lightning’s side.

Kasey and Junior, both lingering at Lightning’s nose - half-destroyed though it was - glanced at his face and simultaneously reversed out of the way, giving him an unobstructed view of the damage - and clearing the way for the wave of relief that struck him when Lightning blinked his eyes open at the familiar sound of Doc’s engine and mustered up a pained smile.

A rapid glance told him the damage wasn’t as extensive as he’d feared; broken axle, unquestionably, a lot of panel damage, some bent framing, and a scrapload of leaks, although none of them were serious enough to be imminently threatening. “You’re dripping all over the track, punk.”

“If that’s your opening comment, I’m not doing as badly as I thought,” Lightning quipped back, but his eyes were threatening to drift shut again.

“Eyes on me, rookie,” Doc growled, even as he registered the approach of several other vehicles - a trio of pitties, an ambulance, and a rollback hauler.

“ ‘m not a rookie, old man. Longer career than you.”

Coming from anyone else, it might have stung. Coming from the boy he’d taught to run properly... well, it probably shouldn’t have made him as proud as it did. “Then stop acting like you’ve never gotten bounced off a wall before. Eyes open!”

“Grumpy,” Lightning accused him, but opened his eyes again anyway, smiling a greeting at the rescue crews. “Hi, guys.”

The nearest two pitties chuckled in response and set about removing Lightning’s destroyed fenders, while the third retrieved a bundle of line clamps from the ambulance. The urge to butt in and take over bit at Doc, but he pushed it away - right here and right now, with their slim tines and smaller size, the pitties were the better ones for the job. All he had to worry about was Lightning.

Whose eyes had just crossed at one sharp movement of the nearest pitty’s tine, and the steady flow of coolant out onto the asphalt immediately ebbed. Lower radiator hose, Doc realized. Putting a clamp on that stimulated a sneeze reaction something awful. Unfortunate, because sneezing was something you generally wanted to avoid when half your front end had been caved in or ripped off - or both, in this case.

“Don’t sneeze, punk.”

“I doe, I doe,” came the nasal, grumbled reply, accompanied by a rather over-dramatic eyeroll. “It idges.”

“I’m sure it itches,” Doc retorted, scuffing the edge of his tire lightly across Lightning’s uninjured wheel. “Would you rather keep leaking coolant on the track?”

“I’d radder dey reblazed id.”

“They’ll replace it once you’ve been taken infield, stop whining.”

“Bud id idges! Ad I sound sdupid!”

“If you’re so concerned about sounding stupid, maybe you should stop talking?”

Lightning subsided with a grumble, his eyes tracking the movements of the pitties as they swarmed around him and Doc, knowing better than to attempt moving the old Hudson out of the way. It didn’t take them long to get the leaks clamped off, Lightning’s axle immobilized so that it would at least not cause further damage before it could be replaced, and - much to Lightning’s delight - produce a replacement radiator hose and a jug of coolant to replace what he’d lost onto the track.

Doc did roll backwards half a body-length while the pitties got the hoses swapped, out of range of the inevitable attack of sneezing, but came back to Lightning’s side once it was done.

“Guess it was only a matter of time, huh?” Lightning managed, a bit weakly, as the pitties rolled away and Doc moved back beside his protege, inching sideways until his side was pressed against Lightning’s. While it put pressure on some of the kid's bent framing, it also took some of the weight off his broken axle.

Doc exhaled hugely, the sigh deep enough to rock him on his tires. “Yeah, kid. At least you did better than me.”

“Couldn’t have without you,” Lightning answered, grinning brightly, despite pain it must have caused his damaged bumper. “How long’s this gonna keep me out?”

“Not too long. Week, maybe two.”

“Guess you get to head to Victory Lane, then.”

“...what?!”

The kid’s grin would have damn near split his fenders, if they’d still been on him. “I can’t go in this condition, I’ll leak everywhere! That would just embarrass both of us, people will say you don’t take good enough care of me.”

Doc growled, the tone a mock threat that Lightning had long since learned to ignore. “Keep talking, Rookie, and I’ll take care of you all right.”

“You saying stuff like that is why people keep writing those fanfictions, you realize.”

Two of the nearby pitties choked, and the ambulance did a very poor job of concealing a snicker. Doc glared at the lot of them, who, satisfyingly, were not nearly as immune to his threats as the racer at his side.

“Just how concussed are you, punk?”

Lightning shrugged his good tire, his weight pressing heavily into Doc’s side for a moment. “Probably not very, my head feels fine. But seriously, Doc, I can’t go to Victory Lane like this, just go for me, please? It’s not like you don’t deserve it anyway.”

“Kid, I can’t just -”

Lightning shot him a grin - that ‘I’m gonna change your world’ grin that he’d picked up from Sally, dammit - and leaned a little harder into Doc’s side, aiming for the microphone on the headset that Doc had forgotten he was even wearing. Raising his voice enough for the mic to pick him up clearly, Lightning called, “I’ll say it again for everyone in the stands - who all’s on our channel here?”

The stands above them immediately erupted in a cacophony of cheers, tire-stomps, and flashes of cameras and headlights. Lightning grinned broadly and waved his good tire briefly towards them before leaning into the microphone again.

“Doc - I want you to go to Victory Lane for me!”

And the noise from the crowd above them doubled, tripled, kept increasing as the cheers and applause slowly solidified into a steady chant of ‘Doc! Doc! Doc! Doc!’

His throat tight, Doc blinked a few times, swearing to himself that it was only the fumes wafting off the spilled fluids making his eyes sting. “Kid, you -”

Lightning grinned at him, bright and unabashed at having reduced his crusty-old-grandpa trainer to damn near the point of tears. “Just go, Doc. I’ve got a ride to catch,” he added, and, to the cheers of the crowd, hobbled slowly away from his chief and down to where the rollback was still patiently waiting.

Doc stared after him a moment, still utterly overwhelmed by what had become of the kid. Amazing what a road, a few cacti, and a little drifting lesson could accomplish.

Smiling through the stinging in his eyes, he went.

Chapter Text

It was a memory under his tires, but it felt like a dream.

He’d driven into Victory Lane here twice before as Lightning’s Crew Chief, but it was always long moments after Lightning had crossed onto the black-and-white painted concrete, after the hubbub surrounding the victory had had a few minutes to die down. The kid was a natural at playing to the cameras, the steady patter of sponsorship acknowledgement rolling off his tongue, half-shouted into the microphones the reporters jabbed in front him to be heard over the surrounding noise.

Noise. There was so much noise in all of it nowadays - radio chatter and television crews with boom microphones asking questions, cameras clicking madly away, the shouts and screams of thousands of fans from every side.

He missed the old days, when racing was nothing but the dirt beneath your tires and the roar of engines around you, loud enough to block out the sounds of the crowd, when the brightest lights were the flashbulbs and headlights of the fans, not the paint-blistering glare of the spotlights exposing all his flaws to the cameras.

Almost a hundred times in Victory Lane on his own merits, and now over a hundred more following on the bumper the kid he’d trained, and somehow he still couldn’t make the shift within his mind.

Too much new, too much different. Too much to remind him of the way racing had left cars of his generation behind.

A pair of percussive thunks in close proximity, loud enough to startle even over the din, made him twitch in surprise, then spit as scraps of paper fluttered into his mouth. Damn confetti cannons. This was why he usually lingered in the pit box until the kid had gotten the initial chaos of victory over with.

When he shook his hood to rattle the last of the confetti off, the padded earpieces of his headset rubbed against his sides where he’d pushed them back off his ears, the staticky silence on the other end of them too much distraction when he’d been talking to Lightning moments before.

A glance up showed him the media boxes above the stands, and even at this distance, he could see Darrell bouncing on his wheels and Bob grinning fit to nearly split his fenders. It only took him a second to flip from Lightning’s channel to their broadcast.

*- feels a lot like witnessing a piece of history here, folks,* Darrell was saying, the faint squeak of his tires audible in the background as he continued to bounce. *Sixty years later, the Hudson Hornet remains the second most winningest racer in the history of the Piston Cup!*

*A record he lost only to his own protege,* Bob added, *making him the one of the winningest coaches in the history of the Piston Cup as well.*

Doc spit out another piece of confetti and snorted in amusement, wondering how much eye-rolling was going on back in a certain North Carolina bar, and tried to soften his face out of his near-perpetual scowl as the reporters descended on him.

_________________________________________________________________

 

The rollback eased Lightning into the bay of the Care Center with careful, practiced precision, and pair of pitties swooped in with a rolling jack before his damaged left side could even touch the floor.

“Thanks, guys,” Lightning said, offering them a shadow of his usual grin - his axle was still throbbing, and his bumper ached miserably when he tried to move his mouth too much. Grinning the way he had out on the track might have been a good idea for the sake of reassuring Doc and the spectators, but he was certainly paying for it now.

“Our job, McQueen,” chuckled the nearer of the two pitties, who Lightning recognized in passing from previous scrape-ups on the track. “Just like tearing yourself up on a track for our entertainment is yours,” he added, glancing up as the doors opened to admit another tow truck, this one towing an exasperated-looking Junior, who was maneuvered into the bay to Lightning’s left.

“Hey now, I don’t get torn up that badly. Don’t go confusing me with Tony!” Ford knew Smoke was prone to finishing half his races looking more like a pile of scrap metal than a racecar. And while Lightning was agile enough to largely avoid getting seriously injured during races, he’d gotten roughly introduced to both the walls and his competitors more times over the years than he cared to count.

“Yeah, that’s gonna happen, because we look so much alike,” grumbled the Chevy in question, limping through the door with his torn fender scraping sparks off the concrete, followed by his Crew Chief, clearly in mid-lecture.

“...really stupid, you do realize that,” Tony’s Chief was saying with strained patience, as the door swung open again to admit a pair of SUVs wearing official decals. “They were already using the phrase ‘conduct unbecoming the sport’ when -”

“Stuff a brake duct in it, Chad,” Tony interrupted, reversing neatly into the bay to Lightning’s right before anyone could object. “If you can save it until after I get my fender taped up, than everyone can yell at me at once, how’s that sound?”

Lightning winced for Tony’s sake - not that being chewed out by the Piston Cup officials was in any way unfamiliar to the big Chevy, though that probably didn’t make it any more fun - then winced again as the nearest of the pitties poked his left wheel. “Ow!”

“Sorry. Hicks did quite a number on you, didn’t he?”

“Yeah, you saw?” They usually had a television in the Care Center, as much to keep the staff updated on the race as anything - ah, there, across the room. Doc was just rolling into Victory Lane now, looking as disgruntled as ever as the reporters descended on him. Lightning squinted at the subtitles. “Can you turn the sound on?”

From the eagerness with which they grabbed the remote, he guessed they didn’t want to miss Doc’s comments, either.

Lightning didn’t bother to mask his snicker as Doc grimaced at the confetti canons; the old car never did join him for this part of the celebrations, and didn’t know enough to keep his mouth tightly shut as the scraps of paper fluttered down. But he spit a few pieces of confetti out and, even if he didn’t smile, at least remembered not to level a paint-peeling glare at the cameras.

Aside from the fact Doc was still working on his ‘public face’, Sarge was scowling enough for two vehicles as he and the rest of the crew rolled into Victory Lane behind Doc.

Kori was the first of the reporters to reach Doc, which was something of a relief for Lightning - they were familiar enough with one another that she was one of the ones least likely to strain Doc’s temper.

“I’m Kori Turbowitz, here in Daytona’s Victory Lane with Doc Hudson as he collects the trophy for his protege, Lightning McQueen, following a nasty end-of-race crash. Doc, how is Lightning?”

The old Hudson rolled his eyes - a habit he’d had for many years, though it had been made significantly worse with the time he spent in Lightning’s company - and let the faintest of smiles crack across his bumper.

“He’ll be all right. Broken axle and some frame damage, it won’t keep him down long. The kid’s tougher than he looks; he holds his own against me just fine during the off-season."

“Hmph,” grunted Sarge from behind Doc. “Hicks may be as ugly as a combine -”

There were a few snickers from both the racers and the staff at that one.

“All beings have their own beauty, man,” interjected Filmore, leaning into camera view at Sarge’s side, their mirrors bumping together.. He paused a moment, his eyes crossing slightly in thought, before adding, “Although I’m not so sure about Chick Hicks.”

Sarge heaved a frame-rattling sigh and rolled his eyes, the ‘don’t embarrass me, Filmore’ unspoken but clearly audible to Lightning’s ears. “ -but he can’t hit like one,” the old Jeep finished.

Doc shot them both a quelling look, ignoring Guido and Luigi arguing in the background. “Lightning will be out long enough for the axle replacement to integrate, but it shouldn’t hurt his chances for this season any, provided he receives a medical waiver for the missed race.”

“A relief for his fans to hear. How does it feel, Doc, being back in Victory Lane to collect a trophy after all these years?”

Doc paused for a long, thoughtful moment, his eyes growing unfocused as he surveyed the crowd around him, the gleaming silver and black trophy as it was wheeled out. Doc had missed his opportunity at that trophy by a few years, Lightning knew, although he knew it more than well enough from the two replicas Lightning had brought home over the years.

After a silent moment, Doc focused his gaze on the cameras again, the penetrating weight of his full attention behind it, and let a genuine smile slip over his face. “It feels like history. And maybe... like coming home.”

_______________________________________________________________

“Oh, for Ford’s sake, are you crying?” Tony demanded, nosing around the curtain separating their bays to side-eye Lightning, who blinked away the few drops of fluid that had escaped his eyes without shame.

“Doc just got nostalgic and smiled on national television. If that doesn’t make you tear up, you are dead inside, Smoke. Rust-ridden, scrapheap-bound dead.”

“Like you think I’m not anyway?”

“You’re a marshmallow, Tony. A burnt one. All nasty and crusty on the outside, but warm and gooey -”

“Oh, shut up,” Tony snorted, yanking the curtain back into place and ignoring Lightning’s snickers.

He was still chuckling when Junior poked his nose around from the other side of the bay.

“Y’ doing okay, Lightnin’? You looked awfully rattled out there.”

Lightning cocked an eyebrow, nodding towards the jack holding up his left side. “Aside from the broken axle, you mean?”

Tony snorted from behind his curtain. “A broken axle’s nothing, you’ll be out a week, two tops.”

Lightning shot a disbelieving glance in his direction. “You were out four when you broke yours!”

“Mine was more serious!”

“Also, you’re old,” Junior shot across at Tony, winking at Lightning as he did so. “Lightnin’s young, he’ll heal faster.”

Tony’s grumble of an anatomically improbable suggestion was quickly followed by a yelp and a screech of metal as the pitties set to work on his torn fender.

With the relative privacy of Tony’s cursing to cover their conversation, Junior tugged the curtain between their bays back a bit further so that he could meet Lightning’s eyes more comfortably. “Really, are you okay? You look like you saw a ghost out there.”

Lightning must have hesitated a bit too long, because Junior’s eyes widened slightly and he sat back on his tires a bit, nodding to himself. “Thought I saw Daddy out of the corner of my eye. What’d he say?”

Lightning blinked a few times, bewildered, before stuttering out “Just... that it wasn’t nearly time for me yet.”

When Junior merely nodded at this, Lightning leaned more heavily on the jack and exhaled hugely. “I thought I was going crazy when I heard his voice.”

“Nah, he’s around,” Junior answered with an easy shrug. “Follows the races sometimes, or me, but a lot of the time he’s here.” He paused, a thoughtful frown slipping over his features. “Just... don’t worry too much if you start seein’ more stuff like that, kay?”

Lightning blinked back at him in blank confusion. “Am I likely to?”

“Well -” Junior began, but Tony was unceremoniously shoved from his bay at that moment, his fender beaten and taped into serviceable condition, and rapidly collected by Chad and the waiting officials. Then the pitties descended on Lightning en masse, and any opportunity for conversation rapidly vanished.

Chapter Text

It took some forty-five minutes for Doc to escape Victory Lane, during which his demeanor with the interviewers and opinion on the theatrics of the celebration had slipped from ‘grudgingly cheerful’ to ‘tolerant’ to ‘aggravated’. By that time, the doctors in the Infield Care Center had gone over Lightning for any missed injuries, taken preliminary scans of his frame damage, and topped off the remaining fluids he’d lost.

They had also given Lightning something to help with the pain in his axle, which made his world go weirdly fuzzy around the edges. It also made the ceiling tiles look like they were rotating.

Chick, who had been towed in, snarling insults and profanity in all directions through a badly mangled mouth, while Doc had still been in the ‘almost cheerful’ stage, had evidently been given something a lot stronger, because he was snoring obnoxiously from where he was strapped atop a raised lift. Two of the doctors and Chick’s Crew Chief were clustered under the edge of the lift, arguing in hushed whispers and sneaking sharp glances upwards at something on Chick’s underside.

Their argument had been going on for at least ten minutes by the time Doc nosed his way in, the downscaled trophy balanced awkwardly on his hood. Ignoring Lightning’s startled burst of laughter, Doc rolled slowly over to his bay, granting the staff terse nods in response to their greetings.

“Got something of yours, Hot Shot,” the old Hudson grumbled, as two of the nurse pitties scrambled over to help remove the trophy from his nose.

“I can see that,” Lightning answered, struggling to maintain a level tone, but a few giggles slipped free. The fuzzy-making medication was fuzzying his ability to suppress his laughter. “But I don’t know how you could see around that!”

The look Doc leveled at him was sardonic in the extreme. “I’m your Crew Chief and a doctor. Believe me when I say that two places on a racetrack I can find with my eyes shut are Victory Lane and the Care Center.”

That was funnier than it should have been too, and Doc sighed heavily as Lightning burst into giggles again. “What did you give him?” he demanded of the nearest doctor, who passed him Lightning’s chart without reply and went to join the group staring at Chick’s undercarriage.

Doc glowered at the clipboard in front of him for a moment before shaking his head with a sigh, then glanced towards the cluster of vehicles under Chick’s lift.

“Trouble, Mike?” he asked, confusing Lightning for a moment until Chick’s Crew Chief glanced up in response.

“...kinda,” the pickup admitted after a long hesitation, during which Lightning watched the ceiling tiles rotating slowly in place. “Can you come give us another opinion?”

Doc glanced at the doctors - a pitty, a light-duty pickup truck, and a small station wagon, none of whom objected - before rolling over and surveying Chick’s undercarriage. It only took a few seconds before he emitted a startled grunt, which carried clearly across to Lightning despite Doc’s low tone. “You want my word to the officials, I take it?”

“We’re not exactly in a position to ask favors of anybody, especially your team,” Chick’s chief pointed out, sagging wearily on his suspension. His voice carried clearly, too. Lightning surveyed the ceiling tiles above him again. Still rotating. Maybe he could borrow an IV needle from one of the nurses and try to play the tiles like one of Filmore’s big vinyl LPs.

“Which is why it would mean more coming from me,” Doc sighed, glancing up at Chick’s undercarriage again. “You’re putting me in a tight spot, Michael.”

The pickup snorted sharply. “You’re telling us about tight spots? HTB is considering pulling Chick’s sponsorship because he’s dropped to twentieth overall. We had sixteen DNFs last year because he keeps getting knocked off the track, and there’s not another sponsor in the world that’s gonna touch him if the bank goes - which they’re likely to if he gets any more bad press.”

Doc grimaced, mulling that over for a minute or two. “I suppose convincing him to retire on his own terms is out of the question?”

“Got a baseball bat handy?”

“I’m not joking, Mike.”

“Neither am I. He’s not going to leave the track willingly.”

“Hard to believe he cares that much about racing,” Doc countered with a sneer, rolling back enough to look up at the heavily sedated Buick’s face.

“He’s bred, born, and raised to it,” the pickup shot back, straightening on his suspension and leveling a glare at Doc. “It’s not a matter of caring. It’s his life.”

Doc leveled a stare at the pickup, level and cool. “It was mine, too,” he said simply, and reversed away.

The truck’s face fell sharply, and Doc paused briefly at the point of his turn. “Have the officials call me if they need my medical opinion for the ruling,” he added, before turning back to Lightning’s bay. The flash of anger he’d shown at Chick’s side ebbed away as he crossed the floor, and was gone by the time he pulled up to Lightning’s nose.

“All right, Hot Shot, pop it and let’s get a look,” he ordered, nudging gently at Lightning’s hood.

Lightning giggled again. The ceiling tiles were rotating in the opposite directions now. “Pop goes the diesel!’

There was a long silence from Doc, followed by an exasperated sigh that left him sagging until his frame nearly rested on the concrete. “I’m putting a note in your medical file. No more hydrocodone.”

“The ceiling tiles are rotating,” Lightning informed him. “Can I borrow an IV needle and play them like records?”

“No more codeine derivatives for you period,” Doc amended, retrieving Lightning’s chart from where he’d left it. “No, you can’t play the ceiling tiles, they’d sound terrible. When you get back to the trailer, I’ll figure out that blasted mp3 system of yours and play something nice. Right now, pop your hood.”

“What’s the matter with Chick?”

“Do you want the list alphabetically or categorically?”

Lightning wasn’t entirely sure he could pronounce either of the options to respond, and elected to stare at the ceiling tiles a moment more, until Doc dealt a rather sharp jab to his injured tire.

“Ow?”

“Kid,” Doc sighed, and his voice was a muddle of enough exasperation and weariness that it finally pulled Lightning’s attention away from the rotation of the ceiling tiles. “Hood. Now. Or I will get a screwdriver.”

“Maybe I can play the ceiling tiles with one,” Lightning mused, but obligingly lifted his hood anyway.

“Kid, you are...” Doc paused. No, stopped, a hard, sudden silence like someone had snatched his voice away, and Lightning pulled his gaze back down from the ceiling tiles, squirming a little as he tried to peer around his own hood.

“Doc? Doc, what?” When there was no answer, Lightning slammed his hood shut again, half just to reassure himself that Doc was still there.

He was, but he looked... Lightning couldn’t find the words to describe the look on the old Hudson’s face. Terrified might have been close.

“Doc?”

“Let’s..” Doc swallowed heavily, clearly struggling to force the words out. He looked more scared than Lightning had ever seen him. “Let’s get you back to the hauler. You could use some rest.”

“Doc, what - what’s the matter? You look like you just saw a ghost in my engine block!”

A split-second of sheer panic flickered across Doc’s face, almost too fast to catch, before he tightened his jaw and shook his head sharply.

“There’s no such thing as ghosts, and your engine block is fine. Now can you roll on that axle, or do I need to get you towed?”

The painkillers left Lighting only distantly aware that his axles were even attached, let alone of the condition they were in, but he carefully shifted himself off the floor jack and rolled a cautious foot or two forward. The room spun around him - much less entertaining than the ceiling tiles - but there wasn’t enough pain to worry him.

“It’ll be fine if the room stops spinning.”

“Here,” Doc muttered gruffly, turning and presenting his side to Lighting. “Lean, kid. You’ll be all right.”

Lightning cautiously made his way forward, inching sideways as he did so, until his battered left side was pressed against Doc’s right, the old Hudson reassuringly still and solid beside him.

“You good, kid?” Doc asked, his voice oddly gentle. He still looked frightened, Lightning realized, sneaking glances from the corners of his eyes.

“ ‘m good,” Lightning answered, letting himself slump heavily against Doc’s side. The adrenaline rush of the race had long since ebbed, and being in Infield Care for any length of time always left him feeling drained - even when narcotic painkillers weren’t involved. “Can I go take a nap now?”

“That’s the idea, kiddo,” Doc answered, as the pair of them rolled forward at a cautious pace. “Nice and easy, now, just right along with me.”

The usual crowd of reporters and camera-cars had largely dispersed from outside the Care Center, which Lightning was grateful for. Between the exhaustion and the painkillers, he couldn’t have given a coherent interview at the moment to save his own life. They’d gotten their pound of steel from him already, he supposed, with his little post-crash show out on the racetrack, and Anne and Doc would have a statement to them before the late newscasts. Probably. He wasn’t entirely sure what time it was, and the painful brilliance of the floodlights made it impossible to gauge the stars of the sky above the way he might have done at home.

There was still a small cluster of photographers, all of whom turned their cameras on them as they emerged through the doors, but Doc’s snarl kept the lot of them mostly at bay as he and Lightning drove by.

The crew was waiting for them back at the hauler, their expressions all a mix of relief and worry as Doc and Lightning rolled into view, which meant they’d probably been gone longer than Lightning thought. It took a lot to make Sarge look concerned, let alone worried - plus the fact he was letting Fillmore lean on him in public.

Guido, Luigi, and Fillmore all rolled forward as Doc and Lightning drew closer, their voices blending together as they all began talking at once, a frantic tumble of questions that Lightning wasn’t entirely sure he could have kept track of even undrugged, and it took a sharp blare of Doc’s horn to silence them all.

“Lightning needs to sleep off his painkillers,” Doc announced to the group at large. “There’s something I’ve got to take care of, but I’ll answer all your questions in a few minutes. In the meantime, Sarge, call Sally and tell her I’ll have Lightning good as new by next week. She worries too much. The rest of you, finish packing up! You’ve got our equipment spread over half the lot!”

That wasn’t true at all. There were two or three - or maybe just one that he was seeing too many of - of the rolling toolchests and a rack of wheel rims still parked outside the trailer, waiting to be loaded, but everything else appeared to have been stowed already.

“Cranky,” Lightning informed Doc, poking him with a front tire. Or trying to. It was the left one, though, and it wouldn’t really listen when he tried to pick it up off the pavement. He tried picking up his right one instead and nearly fell over when the left one refused to support his weight, and Doc grunted sharply as Lightning dropped against him.

“Long day, kid,” Doc said, as much of an apology as he ever gave. “Let’s get you to sleep, okay?”

“You’re being very nice to me,” Lightning commented as Doc got the trailer ramp down. “But you yelled at them and you lied. That wasn’t nice.”

“When did you get the idea that I was nice, punk?” Doc shot back. “Turn around, you’re going in backwards. I may need to check your engine again later.”

“You said my engine was fine?”

“It is fine. I’m just paranoid as well as cranky.”

“Sei peggio di così,” Guido muttered from where he was tossing the wheel rims up to Sarge, annoyance clear in his tone.

“Stai zitto, Guido,” Doc retorted wearily, nudging Lightning around until he was properly lined up for the ramp and gently pushing him backwards when Lightning couldn’t make his wheels cooperate.

It only took a minute to get him situated in Doc’s usual place at the front of the trailer, and a few seconds longer than that for the painkillers and exhaustion to finally catch up with him. Lightning was distantly aware of Doc and Guido’s voices, followed by the press of a jack under his left side, before sleep dragged him down.