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The tendons in his leg twitched at the memory of slamming the breaks on to stop himself crossing the line to take the cup a year ago, when it flashed across his mind in the final 100 yards. He smiled at the thought, but instead dropped the pedal and blasted across as the flag flew above him. His senses went into white-out, hearing ringing with distorted voices going crazy down the line from the pit, skin tingling all over and vision erupting in technicolour as the stadium exploded. Fleetingly, he really needed to pee. He laughed out loud, shaking his head in disbelief even though he’d known for the last 5 laps that the championship was theirs. No going down to the line this time - no sizzle - he had made damn sure he got the clear, sure, indisputable finish he owed his team. 

 

Ladies and gentlemen, your podium finishers... 

 

Names were drowned out by the euphoric crowd. Their cries matching and exaggerating the roar of the stock car engines, creating the addictive cacophony racing lovers knew well and chased all over the country. Cars drew alongside him and he acknowledged the pumping fist and thumbs-up before putting his foot down again to lead the victory lap. A Mexican wave followed them around the bowl, a million flashbulbs sending the atmosphere stratospheric. 

 

Ladies and gentlemen, boys, girls, race-fans of the United States - your Dinoco 400 and Piston Cup Champion 2007 – the Rust-Eze number 95, Lightning McQueen! 

 

Lightning gunned the car’s engine, unfastening the mesh at the window to wave to the stands. He powered noisily around the oval. Not a soul could deny the outright sexiness of the sound of that V8. The place was on its feet, and on its knees.

 

Before heading onto pit row, he turned a series of tight donuts on the asphalt until he thought the burnt rubber might be about to give out. Head spinning, but not from the donuts, eyes stinging, but not from smoke, he motored down to the pit. Didn’t even get the parking break on fully before being hoisted bodily from the car. 

 

Wrenching his helmet off to return the crushing bear-hug he was now the recipient of, he clapped Mater on the back, each friend congratulating the other barely coherently. Then their awkward stance was almost completely toppled when Ramone launched himself onto McQueen’s back. Never one to miss out on a group PDA situation, Filmore soon joined the fray. Cheeks met with kisses so often as to embarrass some of the all-American crews looking on, when the Italian tire-team-of-dreams got to their driver. 

 

Reaching the bottom of the ladder down from the box, Sally’s beaming smile widened still more as she saw Lightning re-enact the skidding swerve they’d all watched him make to secure his lead. Every member of the crew talking at once. 

 

Hey - hot shot! She called. How’s about crossin’ another line, over here. 

 

Looking her way, he did just that in 5 long strides, breaching the painted barrier between work and home. Sally threw her arms around his neck and he lifted her shorter frame, curves swamped in his Rust-Eze branded hoodie, clear off the ground. Even if the wolf-whistles, hollers and desperate pleas for interview had had any chance of reaching his conscious he wouldn’t have answered them. She was the whole world, that moment.

 

He breathed in her scent and suddenly words failed him. Burying his face in her neck, he set her gently back down onto her toes. 

 

She gripped him tighter, every rehearsed congratulation falling from her mind. Turned her face to kiss his cheek. 

 

You got it... was all she could muster, saying it low in his ear, one hand tangled in his damp, blonde curls. She pulled away, he looked down, brow rested on hers as though she was the only thing holding him up. 

 

Her hands on his face, thumbs wiping away tears. He lifted his gaze to her green eyes and felt the cooling mist of the waterfall as though they were there on that mountainside right then. Peace soothed his system. 

 

I’m so proud of who you are, Lightning.

 

He smiled.

 

Y’did okay, kid.

 

Lightning looked over Sally’s shoulder, she dropped her hands gently, stepping to one side. He raked his hands over his face, through his hair, trying to come back down to earth. 

 

Okay, huh? 

 

Yeah, okay. You got a bit sloppy on your line that last five...

 

Lightning rolled his eyes, registered Sally’s indulgent, slow smile.

 

But hey, somethin’ to work on.

 

The old boy finished shrugging on his midnight blue jacket, white and yellow decals popping in the floodlights. Shades in place, not a hair out of. His hands went to his slim hips, one side of his mouth quirked up under the moustache.  

 

Unusually for him, Lightning threw caution to the wind. He stepped forward, not giving Doc Hudson chance to foil him by proffering a hand, and embraced his crew chief. For a fraction of a second he second-guessed his decision, feeling Doc’s back stiffen - he had been teasing, right? But then his friend’s arms closed across his back and he felt nothing but glad. So glad.

 

Well done, champ, Doc gruffed. 

 

All thanks to you, chief. 

 

They drew apart, the elder holding the younger by the shoulders and considering him a moment. Not for the first time, Lightning wished he could read Doc’s mind. Or maybe the other way around. Doc clapped his hand to the side of Lightning’s face before releasing him.

 

You ready for everything that comes with it? 

 

He nodded over Lightning’s shoulder to the gathering throng. 

 

Any advice?

 

Doc pulled Lightning’s shades from his pocket, handed them over, brows raised above his own. 

 

Lightning McQueen took a deep breath, turned around, reached for Sally’s hand, stepped up beside his team and into the limelight.

 

 

 

A week later...

 

The blue Porsche swung into the driveway and, in the blur of exhaustion, almost ploughed straight into the back of the Corvette unexpectedly already parked there. Sally’s eyes widened and she slammed on the brakes. Manoeuvring quickly, but more carefully, she drew up alongside the red coupé, fumbled the door handle and forgot everything she brought home with her on the passenger seat as she bolted for the front door of the house. 

 

Stickers? The call echoed down the cool hallway, blissfully quiet and low-lit after the crazy-bustle of work and the scorching heat of another late summer day in the desert. 

 

He appeared in the kitchen doorway at the end and she flew to him, letting him enclose her in his arms, not able to get close enough to his lean, solid chest.  

 

He kissed the top of her head, one arm encircling her shoulders and the other at the back of her neck. Perfectly fitting. When she lifted her face from his embrace and pushed herself up to meet his kiss he melted into her. Feeling his body come alive even though, moments before, he could happily have laid down on the floor and slept for a month. Driving for twelve hours practically straight, and after the week he’d had, would do that to a guy. But heck, he would drive another twelve - more - to get to this woman. His need for her overlook his senses. 

 

Strong hands spread over her lower back, pulling her in close, tipping her back a little as the kiss deepened. It was with immense difficulty that Sally broke away first, her tired mind and body reeling from the thrills coursing through her. Breath almost heaving, she kissed along his cheekbone, her hands in his hair, unwilling to let him go. The feeling of the curls, of the skin at the back of his neck, the salt scent of sweat and whatever it was which was undeniably, compellingly him clouded her reason, making her want to drag him to the shower and not just so she could wash the road from his beautiful skin. She wound her arms around his neck and he lifted her. She wrapped her legs around his middle while he placed her on one of the stools by the counter. 

 

Welcome home, Mr I Just Became Piston Cup Champion McQueen, she said, not entirely in control of her voice .

 

Oh Lord, that smile. Her stomach dropped deliciously. 

 

Why thank you, Ms That Piston Cup is Dedicated to Me... To My Beauty... she saw his eyes flick downwards... My Spirit... the fingers of his left hand pushed her shirt from her shoulder and his mouth moved over her collarbone... and to the fact that I’m the angel who saved the idiot behind the wheel... Carrera...

 

Heart soaring, her fingers found the waistline of his jeans, traced the muscles of his stomach. Made his breath hitch, the sound shooting straight downwards inside her.

 

Well, I don’t know about that...  she breathed.

 

His kisses trailed their sweet-slow progress up the side of her neck, his hand running down her arm, thumb grazing her chest. She had to stop him, didn’t want to. Had to - before she passed out on him. It had been one helluva day. 

 

You’re not exactly an idiot, per say...

 

He laughed. She loved the sound, loved the crinkle at the corners of his eyes, loved how he looked right into her. Loved him. 

 

Pulling him closer by his belt-loops, she laid her head on his shoulder and he wrapped her in his arms once more. Her hands moved up his back under his T-shirt, the achingly familiar gesture felt electric and somehow soothing at the same time. His head swam a little, the need for sleep battling to trump his other wants.

 

Sweetheart... Lightning had actually been a little relieved when she had said... I’ve been up since the crack of dawn - staff calling in sick, booking system going down, answering a million and one questions about when you were gonna be in town - I need to lay down before I fall down. 

 

That can be arranged, the gravel tone of his voice did all kinds of things to her.

 

Just take me to bed now, then you can take me to bed later.

 

Deal.

 

They’d crashed out within the half hour, a tangle of limbs and promise.

 

 

 

The next day...

 

The butte is the first thing you see when you drive over to the track from the town. Even before the HQ came into view he saw the rock-form, it’s solid presence reminding him of the unchanged and unchanging nature of his homeland, standing strong against the years. The glinting solar panels on the roof of the Hub (the fitting, affectionate renaming of his racing headquarters on account of its shining, modern exterior making it look like a chrome hub-cap in the desert sunshine) appeared in his vision and he began to slow to make the turn into the long driveway. 

 

It was then that he saw the dust cloud. Hard to distinguish in the heat haze rising over the brow of the hill between him and the track to anyone not used to looking. He’d know it anywhere. He checked his watch, he was late. But hey, the boss was too, so...

 

 

Closing the door he moved to lean on the front fender of the Corvette, training his eyes on the Hornet flying around the oval as if it were his first time witnessing the spectacle. He didn’t want to miss a second, not an inch. Each time he was at the track with Doc he practically had to pinch himself, floored every time that he’d been given a window to greatness. A magic pathway leading him to history’s best kept secrets. He was the luckiest racer alive.  

 

The blue paint and chrome rolled to a stop on red dirt wheels 10 feet in front of him and he watched as his mentor unfolded himself from the driver’s seat. Aviators on, slacks and pressed shirt. Like some sort of James Dean or Steve McQueen. Lightning scoffed - surely some of that cool could’ve come his way along with the name. Rolex said successful, heirloom chain around the other wrist said grounded. Even despite his new indigo jeans and team polo, Lightning felt adolescent and scruffy by comparison. Something about these guys from the mid-century; style was in their blood. Look at the car, for Pete’s sake! Don’t make ‘em like that anymore. 

 

Morning, chief. Lightning gave a salute.

 

Afternoon, hotrod, Doc Hudson corrected. Enjoy your lie-in.

 

Lightning laughed. I’m not the one who was late - I almost beat you to the Hub ‘til I saw the smoke...

 

Smoke?

 

... figured I’d better get down here, check that old rattletrap wasn’t on fire.

 

Upstart! This baby’s outlived every car you’ve ever owned! 

 

It’ll outlive us all, Lightning smiled. 

 

Doc harrumphed, folded his arms across his chest.

 

So - after the midnight getaway, is our Piston Champ too wiped to get put back in his place by an old rattletrap? 

 

Ha! Never.

 

 

An hour later, and almost two late, the drivers crossed the forecourt of the Hub and threw open the glass doors like they owned the place. But heck, they did, didn’t they? Lightning couldn’t have wiped the smile off his face if he’d wanted to.

 

You might wanna try lookin’ a little less smug, Doc smiled. Then - Y’know, I remember the press call after ‘51, back at the speedway...

 

Lightning pushed his shades up onto his head, watching Doc intently, hanging on every word, so hungry was he for detail when it came to the veteran’s history.  

 

There was prob’ly only a dozen or so reporters, but they all wanted to talk ‘bout the same thing. 

 

What was that?

 

What’s next? How’re you gonna move forward? What are you gonna change to get better, faster? On and on. It’ll be the same today, I’ll betcha. 

 

He stopped, Lightning turned to face him at his side. Then, Doc placed his hand on his protégés shoulder, gripping it. 

 

I might as well tell you now, seeing as nobody else in the wonderful world at large is likely to... he shook his head ruefully. Then steeled, fixing Lightning with his ice-blue gaze. You did great this season, kid. You didn’t just take that cup - you earned it. Your team’s real proud of you... 

 

Lightning though Doc might go on, hoped he would. But he didn’t. All the same, Lightning felt colour creep up his face and he cleared his throat to dispel the lump which had risen there.

 

Thanks, Doc. Means a lot. More than he’d ever say. 

 

Doc looked at the ground, lips pressed together. He dropped his hand from Lightning’s shoulder, clapping him on the back on the way.

 

Come on, let’s go unpack the loot. 

 

 

Well, shoot - that there’s what the place’s been missin’ the whole time!

 

Standing a couple feet back from the display to better admire the Piston Cup where it sat, front and centre, the #95 team and their nearest and dearest laughed at Mater’s remark. The cup shone like a beacon - the photographers were going to lap it up. Ramone admired the shine on the thing, Luigi talked dreamily about how beautiful it was. Stood shoulder to shoulder, the crew basked in the glory of their achievement and in the sated peacefulness which settled over each of them every time they got home to Radiator Springs. It was a heady mix. Lightning listened to the chatter, privately thinking that he actually liked some of the smaller awards better than The Big One. Up close, the Piston Cup was kinda brash. He scoffed at himself, he wouldn’t be giving it back, though. 

 

Feeling full up of energy, gratitude and love like some sort of giddy, heart-sick teenager, he bounced on his heels. Couldn’t wait to get the paparazzi in here so he could shout his team’s praises from the rooftops, like he had been doing all week wince the season ended. Bring them on, he thought, he didn’t give a rat’s if not one of the reporters told him how great he was - the most important people in his life had blessed him with their approval and he was happy with that. The happiest. But he’d make damn sure the others didn’t go unnoticed. To have them overlooked by history even for one moment was the worst thing he could imagine. He would give the cup back, give everything up along with it sooner than have any of them feel like Doc had all the long years. His heart constricted.

 

Then his eyes were drawn to the Piston Cup’s golden surface. Lightning saw there the smiling faces of the unlikely, crazy-awesome group he now thought of as family reflected back at him, and he figured that this was the best thing about the trophy. 

 

He leant fractionally closer to Doc, sensed his chief shift his attention towards him, momentarily couldn’t believe he had the ear of this legend. Spoke under the voices of the gathered friends so that only he could hear.

 

This one’s not empty.