Chapter 1: the blue hour
Daniel wakes up and the image of soft brown eyes is imprinted to his eyelids. He stares at the white ceiling of the room and blinks a couple of times, trying to calm down his rapid breathing. Small droplets of sweat coat his forehead and he covers his mouth to drown out the strangled sob that tries to claw its way up his throat. He presses his eyes shut, knuckles firmly pressed against his lips. But the images cling to his tightly shut eyelids, hazy and stinging. A warm smile, welcoming brown eyes, black-and-white photographs on a light blue bedroom wall.
A tear seeps through the floodgate made of his skin and deflection and steeliness. Daniel knows, it’s that time of a year, he knows what’s going to happen in the evening and it casts an outsized black shadow over the race, the weekend, the last weeks. Goosebumps spread on his naked chest and he lets a hand trace over the crook of his arm and the plain black ink there. It calms him down enough to school his breathing and the images ghosting through his dreams for days fade into the dim air of his hotel room, when he finally opens his eyes.
The sun is about to rise outside the large windows, soft rays of morning light seep through the thin fabric of the curtain. They draw silky patterns onto the neutral beige carpet and the white bed sheets. Daniel wipes his face and whisks away the remainders of images of the blurry face he dreamt about and turns around to the slouched sleeping form to his left.
The first word that comes to his mind whenever he sees Max sleep is young. Max looks like a child, curled up on his right, cradling the edge of his pillow in one hand and completely entangled in the blanket around his shoulder. His mouth hangs open a little bit and his soft exhales fill the air with a content rhythm of innocent carelessness.
Daniel smiles at the sight and closes his eyes again, leaning into Max’s warmth a bit more and hoping he won’t wake him up. Max deserves rest. Especially before the race.
Daniel scans his hotel room and grins wolfishly at the pile of dark blue and yellow clothes on the floor, nonchalantly scattered around the bed and a voiceless proof of how insignificant jarring colours can be in comparison to truthfully felt emotion. And feats of valour in the name of cunning love – a big middle finger to the world.
Daniel props himself up on his elbow and brushes Max’s cheek with his lips softly, before sinking back into the fluffy cushions and bracing himself for the day.
It’s a race day and that itself is special, even after all the years of racing and the rhythm of stress and built-up tension Daniel’s mind got used to over the past decade. His fingers itch and he feels the familiar excitement circling through his veins, but it’s tinted this time, mixed with blackness, inexplicable sadness and regret.
For several minutes Daniel watches the dust particles dancing through the twilit room and finally gets up, gives in to the itch and urge to move.
He grabs his phone from the night stand and his key card from the sideboard and leaves the hotel room as quietly as possible.
The early morning in Le Castellet is quiet, sleepy and lulled in by the tired chirping of birds and the ever milling ocean sending calm waves to the coast of the Cote d’Azur constantly. The streets are empty, the inhabitants of the small village still firmly cradled by the warmth of their beds.
Daniel gets coffee for Max and himself from a tiny café that serves the few early adventurers or stranded party animals the tide of the last Saturday night washed up at its rusty entry door.
Daniel makes a small detour through the older streets, through cobbled stone alleys and alongside medieval brick walls, in order to get some fresh air.
His dream clings to him together with the salty sea air, his aftershave and the chilly morning dew in his sweater. It’s not going to be a normal race day and Daniel dreads the upcoming hours, questions being asked, memories being forced back into his conscious.
Why are we doing this then?, he thinks partly angry and partly desperate. Are we all just masochists, who love the pain of thinking about him? Is that why we’re doing all this shit?
The seagulls circling through the cool breeze above the harbour, tiny white specks in the bright blue sky, don’t offer any answers and Daniel returns to the hotel cradling the hot coffee cups.
Max is awake, when he enters their room, awake and taciturn to an extent that scratches the borders of muteness. It’s nothing extraordinary. Max Verstappen is like a new born puppy when he wakes up, disoriented, clumsy and sulky in a way that doesn’t fall far from disagreeable. He’s still cute, though, Daniel thinks with a soft smile.
Before he can hand him the coffee as a peace offer or wish him a good morning, a phone chimes with a demanding and shrill metal riff.
Max grunts and lifts an eyebrow, when Daniel answers the call without taking any further notice of him, discarding the coffee cups casually on the side board.
He disappears into the bathroom before answering the call and Max draws a deep intake of breath to calm himself. Goosebumps spread on his naked arms and they aren’t sleep related.
This scene appears to him like a recurring punch to the gut and the hurt tastes familiar, yet bitter, expected, yet surprising in its severity. During the last weeks Daniel has abandoned him again and again whenever his phone demanded his attention and sometimes he downright ignored Max when he sat directly in front of him at the dinner table.
It tears at Max’s composure and his patience and today the latter finally snaps.
He doesn’t even try to eavesdrop the muted conversation Daniel has with an apparently very important person on the other end of the line and rummages through his suitcase on the search for his clothes.
When Daniel returns a couple of minutes later, Max is dressed in shorts and a loose black hoodie and almost bumps into him on his way to the hotel room door. True surprise flashes across Daniel’s face, who expected Max to be still in bed, and it settles in his brown eyes, when he sees Max’s clenched jaw.
“Hey, where are you headed?”
“As if you care!”
Venom drips from Max’s snapped words and Daniel frowns, blinks feverishly and takes a careful step in Max’s direction as if not to scare him.
“What’s going on?” His voice is calm, but his eyes are wary, scan Max and his body language, which is spoiling for a fight in its tenseness and defiance.
Max laughs sarcastically and shakes his head, one hand firmly clutching the door knob.
“I could ask you the same, Daniel. Every time your fucking phone rings, you run off to God knows where and ignore me. But you know what? I don’t care, please, carry on. I’m going for a run.”
Suddenly Daniel huffs and anger flickers across his tense features.
“You really have no idea, do you?” Daniel snaps and the muscles in his neck flex visibly.
“How?!” Max yells, throwing his hands up in a defiant gesture. “How the hell am I supposed to know, Daniel, huh? You don’t talk to me. I feel like an intruder at times and I’m done waiting for you to sort out your shit. I’m not a plaything.”
“Because you never asked.” The words are in Daniel’s mouth and out in the small room between them before he can think about them properly. His hands twitch and sour anger rises up his throat, makes him blind for the hurt in Max’s blue eyes. “You don’t know, what’s on my mind, because you only care about yourself and your success and nothing else! You don’t even know what I’m going through right now. So please, go on, fuck off.” Daniel’s voice grows louder with every word and the last two aren’t far off from an infuriated shout. Max opens the door without looking at him, he holds his breath and bites back an incisive remark.
“Get your act together before the race, Daniel. You shouldn’t drive like this.” is all he says and then the door falls shut behind him.
“Fuck you!” Daniel spits against the dark wood, vibrating in its hinges.
Suddenly all strength leaves his body, the tension drains and he slumps down onto the bed. His shoulders tremble with a voiceless, tearless sob that works its way up his throat and burns in his lungs. Daniel presses a hand to his chest with a pained huff.
He drops his head to his hands and closes his burning eyes. He rubs his flat palms over his curls, until the pain in his scalp drown out the one in his stomach.
His phone chimes again and it’s a message this time.
“Meet you in Nice at 9 p.m, as usual. Good luck for the race, mon ami. JEV.”
Daniel drops the phone to the rumbled mattress. Max’s warmth still lingers in the sheets and Daniel bites down on his cheek until the coppery taste of blood blooms in his mouth.
André wakes up to complete silence and that’s a first. Jev is an early bird and André’s gotten used to waking up alone with almost no warmth sticking to the sheets on Jev’s side of the bed anymore and the Parisian joining him eventually with freshly brewed coffee later on. Normally Jev is busy making breakfast or having a constructive conversation with cheetah – both things André grew inexplicably fond of over the years. The smell of roasted coffee beans or the mindless French blabber in an answer to high-pitched meows never cease to make the German smile despite the early hour. Other sounds fill the morning air, water running in the shower, music playing in the living room. Sometimes Charlie joins them at free weekends for breakfast. The fast tapping of her tiny feet and her carefree laughter compose a lively rhythm, resounding through the apartment. Usually she’d fling herself onto the bed and on top of André, pestering him with loving kisses from sticky lips smeared with fig jam. Jev would stand in the doorway, barefooted and with a broad smile.
Today the Parisian flat lays in silence. Grey morning dew outside filters the sunlight and makes the bedroom look like it is filled with ripples of ice. Andre’s hand searches for Jev’s warmth next to him, but the duvet is neatly arranged, the pillow wrinkle-free and André sighs at the meaning of it all, when his sleepy mind combines the indications.
He wipes his face and waits another second, before he gets up and starts his search for Jean-Eric.
Cheetah roams about in the hallway and rubs her head against André’s shin, when he prods toward the kitchen.
He feeds the hungry Bengal cat and continues his search for the Frenchman.
The beautiful thing about Paris for André has always been the early hours of a midsummer Sunday.
Despite the reputation of being a city that never sleeps it’s around sunrise that it’s the most calm and beautiful. The buzz of the night has ended, party folks staggered into their beds, and the stream of Vespa’s, delivery services and tourists on the streets runs dry in a monotonous dripping of engines and distinct conversations. It’s almost quiet in comparison to the energetic, borderline electric pulse the city vibrates with on a weekday.
André enjoys the lightness, the romance, the atmosphere. And he enjoys what it does to the light in Jev’s apartment, the soft blue stripes it draws onto the artwork in his living room and the white kitchen cabinets.
He finds Jean-Eric on the balcony, sitting on the bench, with one knee propped up against the glass table, smoke from a cigarette rising lazily into the already muggy urban air.
“Haven’t got any sleep, mh?” The German says instead of a greeting and Jev sighs deeply before shaking his head. André stands in the balcony door for a second and contemplates on what to do. He bites his lip, staring at Jev’s silhouette which screams tiredness and the distance, André’s grown used to during the last weeks. He knows, what’s going on.
He sighs and returns to the kitchen, switches on the coffee machine and gathers large mugs from the cupboard.
“Here, that helps against the tiredness and it’ll warm you up a little. You must be freezing.” He says, when he returns with the hot mugs filled with steaming brew and carefully sits down next to Jev. He wants to drape an arm around his shoulder, but Jev detangles himself from the touch without looking at André.
It’s not new to the German, but it stings nevertheless, the aloofness, the cold wavering around Jev lately. He takes a long drag from his cigarette, tilts back his head and exhales the smoke, while closing his eyes, ignoring or tolerating André’s glare.
André has never been a fan of smoking, the taste, the smell, but he’s never found anyone more attractive than Jean-Eric and somehow he even makes smoking look endearing.
There are photos of Jev smoking on André’s camera and they all have a certain energy and atmosphere to them. Jev smoking at the railing of a yacht in the Monegasque harbour, framed by a bright orange sunset. Jev holding a cigarette in one and his helmet in the other hand on an old racetrack in Belgium. Jev naked in bed, leaning against the headrest and lazy curls of smoke forming a soft curtain around his face.
It’s because he looks free, André thinks, while watching Jev closely. Free and relaxed.
Now he looks troubled and his reddened eyes speak of sleepless nights and hurtful thoughts.
“When do you have to leave?” He asks instead, keeping his tone neutral and features schooled.
Jev looks at his wrist just to realise he isn’t wearing a watch and wipes his face, before cradling the bright golden porcelain in his icy and ashen hands.
“The flight leaves at eight.”
André just nods, void of words, drained of opportunities to make this right.
He knows, what’s going on, what Jev is going to do today.
The annual meeting of the men who lost someone special forever.
André fidgets with the coffee mug and takes a cigarette from the pack and lights it with a deep frown. Camels. Jev’s old brand. He doesn’t smoke often, only around Jev and just a couple of times a year. In this month alone he has had more cigarettes than in the whole of 2018 combined.
The first drag doesn’t even make him cough anymore, the smoke fills his lungs and leaves them in a soft white cloud, when he exhales the bitter taste into the morning air.
Jev plays with his phone absentmindedly and they sit next to each other in complete silence, while the sun climbs up higher over the facades of the opposite buildings slowly, but undeterred.
André sighs voicelessly.
He sees the change Jean-Eric has gone through during the last weeks, the silence, the rift that has opened up between them and does so every year around this time, dark and consuming. He sees it and he hates it more than ever, because things changed. He changed.
“You don’t have to do this. You could stay here.” He says nevertheless, because he loves Jean-Eric with all his heart and to see him like this hurts like someone drove a spear of ice through his stomach.
“So I can watch you pack your bags?”
His voice is cold, but André sees blazing heat in the depths of Jev’s brown eyes. Anger. Betrayal.
André’s heart skips a beat.
“Did you really think, you could keep this from me? From me?! I mean, seriously?!”
He holds the cigarette in a tight grip, ash drops onto the glass table surface and crumbles into tiny pieces that get carried away by a soft breeze. “You signed with Porsche. Last week. You lied to me. For days.”
Like always when Jean-Eric is upset his accent grows heavier, more distinctive and sharper despite the almost lyrical soft flow of the French language.
André thinks about that, about the beauty of French, Jev’s beauty in order to shield himself from the thought his brain wants to put into words so badly.
“You know.” he states matter-of-factly. Jev snorts a sarcastic laugh and takes a quick drag from the cigarette, before nodding briskly.
“Yeah, I know. I got a call from Takako. She asked, when we will all meet up for one last dinner in Paris before you head to Stuttgart. Did you even think about telling me the truth before that?”
“Of course, I did, but…”
Blood rushes through his ears. He can’t continue that sentence and it fuels Jean-Eric’s anger even more.
“But what? You didn’t know, how? You didn’t know how to strike your camp here and break up with me?”
“No.” André cuts him off decisively, exhaling pungent smoke through his nostrils. “No, Jev. I’m not leaving you. I’m just…”
Jev stubs out his cigarette with a clenched jaw. André watches him like a deer stares into the headlights of an approaching car.
“Just what, huh? Just what, André?!”
“I had to. Jev, I can’t stay. I needed to get out.” His voice tumbles and André swallows loudly. “I’m suffocating. I can’t live like this.” He blinks feverishly, when burning tears cloud his vision.
Jev gets to his feet and shakes his head rapidly.
“No, you know what? I know, why you’re leaving and why you didn’t tell me earlier. You’re done fighting and losing against me. And you know that I’m in Nice tonight and why. You think I’m not strong enough to cope with you leaving, right? Not today. So you lied to my face instead.”
André’s brain soaks up the words, but can’t fathom their meaning.
“What?” he mutters instead, the cigarette in his hand having smouldered down to the filter and burning his fingertips.
“You heard me.” Jev’s usually warm eyes are filled with sharp coldness. He grabs his phone and the pack of cigarettes and turns toward the door.
His last words resemble a thrust to André’s heart with a dagger of steely ice. They turn the warm morning air into brittle freezing cold and his soul into a clot of black frost. They make his breathing hitch and heart stop mid-beat.
“Pack your things and leave, André. When I return tomorrow, I want you gone.”
Charles has only had two dreams in the recent weeks. A nightmare and good dream.
They are always the same and they alternate every night.
The nightmare starts with a race and rain. The race soon turns into chaos and the rain intensifies to a huge thunderstorm. The fine threads of rain droplets get replaced by pelting waterfalls, which hit his helmet like stones. Charles tries to contact his engineers, to ask them to red-flag the race, to do something, but his radio isn’t working. Heavy wind gusts catch the car on the straight and Charles’s breathing hitches every time one of the wheels slips from his decreasing control.
Suddenly he hits a curb forcefully, which has been hidden by a huge puddle of water, he loses the rear end of the car and slips over tarmac. His car spins around and Charles hits the brakes in order to get it back under control, but his damp gloves slip from the wet steering wheel.
Suddenly he gets hit. The impact knocks all air out of Charles’s lungs and his teeth clatter violently. Pain shoots up his legs and arms, although his body remembered to take the hands away from the steering wheel. He hears metal screeching and carbon fibre crunching. Green and grey and brown specks whirl in front of Charles’s eyes, when he gets pushed into the gravel. His mind goes blank at the dancing, intertwining colours. Then - blackness.
Charles wishes, the dream would end there, but it never does.
When he opens his eyes, he sees stewards and security rushing towards his wrecked car. He swallows the taste of bile. The impact has troubled his stomach. His laboured breathing fogs his visors and he lifts a trembling hand to open it.
Who hit me?! he asks himself. Who is that idiot that nearly killed me?
He repeats the question to one of the medics, who bends over him and tries to examine him.
Suddenly his attention gets caught by the wreck to his left and his eyes widen, before he hauls himself to his feet and crawls out his car. His ankle gets stuck in the mess that once has been his front wing and the metal cuts through the fabric of his suit. Charles doesn’t even notice.
His eyes follow the trail of blood drops leading to the pile of deformed silver carbon fibre.
“Oh, no. No. No, no, no, no, no.” He sees more red mingling in muddy puddles of rain water in the gravel.
“Oh, God, please, no.”
The vehicle is stuck in the wall. For some reason there is no barrier, no soft tyre fence, but a solid stone wall and the car smashed it at full speed, reducing it to pieces and chunks.
Charles feels, that this is bad. That this is terrible. He stumbles towards the wreck and his foot hits a plate, a part of the chassis. Silver with a black number and splashes of blood on it.
Charles sees the number and the piece of carbon fibre slips from his hand, as if it had burnt his skin.
A voiceless scream rises up his throat and Charles sinks to his knees.
No, no, no, no, no. Not him. Please, no. Not him. Not him. Oh God, let me wake up!
He feels like suffocating, drowning in grey and pain and God, no, please, I can’t breathe. His world starts to turn and he pulls off his helmet and balaclava, throws it aside and finally there is a scream. Soul crushing agony tears through the rain, when his forehead sinks to the red and grey and brown ground and his fingernails dig into the soil until they break off and his hands start to bleed.
He screams and screams and -
His own enduring scream wakes him up eventually and Charles cries and cries until he’s drained and empty and physically exhausted enough to fall back asleep.
The second dream is somewhat better and somewhat worse. It’s a blue dream. His brother always called them blue dreams, because they take place in the sky or in high towers, aloof and full of wonders, clouds and stars – or stairs. Charles stands in front of a wide stair and its steps get lost in the clouds. For some reason he isn’t able to look downstairs, only upward and there he sees a figure coming towards him. First the light dazzles him, but then he sees that warm smile and recognises his best friend, his brother, his soulmate. He sees his smile, the soft curve of his jaw, the untameable brown curls.
“Hey, Charles.” He says softly as ever, an open grin spreading his full lips. “How are you, man? I haven’t seen you in a long time. I’ve been waiting for you.”
And then he hugs him.
Not in their mandatory way of greeting each other with a side hug and clap to his back, but a true hug. One of those embraces, that knock all air out of your lungs and replace it with warmth and solidity and love.
He hugs him like they haven’t seen each other just yesterday. They have played cards on the sofa and talked about Charles’s next races and the possibility of him becoming champion.
It’s in that moment, that Charles remembers everything, the rain, the shock, the waiting, and a strangled sob detangles itself from his throat. He clings to the warmth, the solidity and love.
The second he wants to look up at his face and say something, anything, he feels the dream drifting away from him.
He wants to cling to it, stay there on these steps, but the image flees from him, evaporates into clouds, no matter how hard he tries to grasp it in his hands. It slips though his fingers like smoke and Charles wakes up with a dry sob that shakes his very core.
Both dreams scare him to death and today he wakes up drenched in sweat again. He groans and presses his palms against his eyelids. He waits until the sob builds up to the extent that it gets painful and curls up into his bed, pressing his forehead against his knees.
He doesn’t even cry anymore. He just waits until it is over.
Once the wave of pain washed over him and draws back into the depths of the pitch black ocean again, he sighs and wipes his eyes with shaky hands.
Then he gets up and starts his day. Because he has to. It's a race weekend and he has a job to do.
It’s the same routine as always. Coffee, bathroom, paddock-ID and phone. The quietude in the hotel room is crushing, but Charles grew strangely fond of the silence. He functions on auto pilot, gets dressed, drinks his coffee, texts his team and makes his bed.
Then he sees the bag on his kitchen counter and a cold shiver runs down his spine.
Why did we agree to this?
The unvoiced question remains unanswered. He grabs the bag and looks inside. A carton of cigarettes and a Whisky bottle, Camels and a Talisker Scotch, peaty and strong.
Charles grabs his purse and the bag, while clenching his jaw. His soft sigh is the first and only sound he makes this entire morning and it gets drowned out by the hotel room door falling shut behind him.
Chapter 2: phantom pain
So this goes out to my special and lovely friend lucianasunrise for cheering me on and being a brilliant motivation coach over the past days ;)
A quick warning: The tags still apply, so please be careful! I've been planning this chapter for almost two months now, I hope you guys like it despite the pain and all the negativity!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Jev gets a text from André the second he parks his car and turns off the engine.
”I’m scared, Jev. I wasn’t strong enough to tell you earlier. Not because of today, but because of us and what it means for us. I want to shield you from all harm in this world and I failed. I’m sorry. Let’s sort this out, please. Together. I miss you.”
He looks at the screen for a second, one hand covering his mouth thoughtfully. His fingertips ghost over his lips and reminisces all the times they have touched André’s. The first time was sloppy and tasted like alcohol, the next have been hungry, belligerent, euphoric and angry. They’ve had it all, kisses in all their variety, from a small, quick peck at the kitchen stove to a deep and meaningful valour of love in bed.
Jev sighs and puts the phone away, before getting out of his car.
Daniel arrived earlier, evading most of his press duties and being quick about everything else. He stood in front of the wooden balustrade marking the end of the viewing platform and the parking lot.
Now he leans against the hood of Jean-Eric’s vintage Maserati and clicks his tongue, when Jev approaches him. He changed his race suit for a pair of jeans a grey shirt. A tired smile decorates his lips, when he nods at the car.
Jev just chuckles and then they collide in a bone crushing hug, a true embrace. They’ve met earlier today, but under the watchful eyes of hundreds of people and thousands of cameras and they had barely any chance to exchange more than a quick greeting and some mandatory jokes.
Now they hug each other properly and Jean-Eric buries his nose in Daniel’s curls before pressing a light kiss to his cheek.
Daniel grins at him and draws a deep intake of breath before nodding.
“I’m good, man, it’s fine.”
“It’s not, you would have deserved points.”
“I know, but that’s the sport. Sometimes it sucks.”
Jev nods and they turn towards the ocean to take in the view presenting itself to them.
The coast road clings to the steeply rising cliffs behind them like an anxious snake and it’s accompanied by scattered trees forming a pattern of grey and beige and green. A cobble-stoned path leads down to the dunes and gets swallowed by the beach, until there is nothing left of it, only white sparkling sand dotted with washed out stones and rotten tree logs.
The Mediterranean Sea is calm and the murmur of approaching waves is a silent sweeping in the background. The water sparkles in all the colours of the rainbow as the slowly setting sun casts long stripes of orange light onto the dark blue surface. The white foam caps dance in the distance like mountain tops covered with snow.
“It’s nice.” Daniel says and nudges Jev’s shoulder. They still lean against the silver hood, when the roaring of an engine interrupts the silence and a car approaches the parking lot.
Charles is tired to the bone after an exhausting and emotional race day and he is the last one to arrive at the meeting place. He gets out of his cab and pays a hefty tip to the driver, before squinting his eyes against the sun and nodding at the two men waiting for him.
Jev kisses Charles on his cheeks and the youngster grins at them tiredly.
“Congratulations, great drive.”
“Thanks. It was fun today and calmer than I expected.”
Daniel nods knowingly and leads their way down to the beach. Jev toes of his slippers and digs his feet into the slowly cooling sand. A soft smile plays around the corners of his mouth and the fresh breeze tucks at his loose shirt.
“This is such a beautiful place.”
Charles points at a formation of rocks to their left, washed out by the constant tide and black in the fading daylight.
“We always met up there after dinner. Sometimes we would go for a swim or pick up shells and try to hear the whooshing inside.” Charles smiles at the memory. “After all the hours at the karting track we would be too deaf to hear a thing. But it was nice. My brother would come to pick us up later and sometimes we would hide behind those rocks, so he wouldn’t find us. Or we’d have a whole bucket of shells we desperately wanted to bring home with us.”
“Wow, your mother must have been really dotty about you two.” Daniel smirks ironically and slumps down onto a weather-beaten piece of driftwood.
“Nah, my mother liked it actually. His mother was a bit sceptical at times. We dragged along tons of shells.”
Charles wipes his cheeks and kneels down next to Daniel, rummaging through the bag.
A moment later Daniel looks at the unlit cigarette between his fingers. He remembers brown eyes smiling at him and inviting him into their warmth. They get replaced by blue eyes, coldness and resentment. He thinks about the way Max ignored him the whole day long and how he couldn’t do anything about it (and how it hurt, because last year he could have) and he lights the cigarette with clumsy hands.
The first inhale makes his lungs churn with a sharp sting and tears form in the corners of his eyes, but he can suppress a coughing fit. Jev next to him has obviously no such battles to fight and Charles wins it with a little less grace than Daniel.
He watches the ocean while Jev pours the amber-coloured whisky into way too big and cheap plastic cups.
They don’t say a toast, all the words in the world wouldn’t be able to express what they feel and how deeply they share that emotion. Daniel raises his cup to the ocean in front of him, though, before he downs all the liquor with one large swig. He flinches at the taste and if the nicotine didn’t make him cough, the alcohol sure does.
He feels the familiar burn, the warmth spreading in his stomach and realises he should have had a proper dinner.
Charles sips from his cup and the orange sunset makes his eyes look just like the whisky in its alabaster glass bottle. The warm breeze ruffles his hair playfully.
“It was here.” Charles’s voice sounds far away as if he’d speak from the depth of his memory. “They scattered his ashes in this bay.”
Daniel nudges his shoulder and pours himself another cup.
“I’m okay with that. He loved the sea. Do you remember how he always tried to persuade you to go scuba diving with him?”
Jev snorted at the paleness spreading around Charles’s nose.
“Bruh, yeah, I like my feet dry, thank you very much.”
They chuckle and Charles rolls up his trousers legs up to his knees, curling his toes into the sand. Remainders of the day’s warmth still stick in the tiny grains and tickle his soles.
Jev takes a sip from his cup and leans back against the wood, the hand casually holding the cigarette propped up on his knee.
“The last weeks have been hard.” Charles says then and all humour is drained from his voice.
Daniel licks the tangy taste of whisky from his lips and takes another drag from his cigarette before answering.
“You still got nightmares, don’t you?”
“Yeah.” It’s more an exhale than an actual word and Charles closes his tired eyes. “Always the same two and it gets worse every year. They sometimes follow me for days, even when I’m awake. But that isn’t the worst thing. The worst thing is, that I sometimes don’t think about it, about him, for a whole day and I’m almost safe. I almost made it, you know? And then something happens, a song plays on the radio or someone mentions a certain dish. You’re at a random place with random people and suddenly it hits you and the pain is back.”
Jev and Daniel look at each other for a moment, before Jev nods.
“Yeah, I know the feeling.”
“I wish, I could have said goodbye to Jules.”
It’s a punch to their gut, hearing these words from Charles, this name and the pain entailed.
“We’ve been to the hospital…”
“No, I mean, a real one, a proper goodbye.” Charles empties his cup, fills it again and empties that, too. Jev and Daniel just stare. They have been times and meetings like this where they had watched over Charles and stopped him from drinking too much, but now he’s old enough and their sad triumvirate is built on the very grounds of having equal rights – to pain, breakdowns and access to alcohol.
Daniel’s already slightly drowsy mind pre-empts him by opening his mouth before giving him the chance to collect his thoughts.
“Jules always left when the party was at its best.”
Jev lowers his head and chuckles so sadly, Daniel has to bite back tears at the sound and sniffles a laugh at the same time at a memory that just flooded his brain as if it was washed up the shore with the incoming tide at their feet.
“Yeah, do you remember the night, where he came home to the dormant late and got lost on his way to bed and curled up to Vettel instead?”
They all laugh and Charles nearly drops his cigarette.
“God, his face in the morning! And Jules just played along and tried to convince him that they went to bed together.”
Jev splutters and spills some of his whisky into the golden sand. Daniel laughs even harder at that and buries his face in his hands. Charles chuckles incredulously.
“He stopped drinking with us after that.”
“Yeah, unfortunately, but it was fun while it lasted.”
They sit for hours like this. They exchange memories, bask in Jules’s presence lingering around this beach, their memories of him and their own shared longing for someone who will never walk this earth again. They talk about Daniel’s time with him in Italy, the early beginnings. He reminisces parties and conversations and working on the karts for hours on end.
Jev remembers how close their battles were and how close they’ve been. Brothers, always ready to pull shenanigans and catch each other after disappointments and setbacks.
Charles is silent for most of the time, but every time he speaks, his voice his heavy with longing. He talks about their childhood, shell picking, karts and about their neighbour’s cat they overfed with tuna once until it vomited on his parent’s bed.
Slowly their memories blur into the chilly air and their words grow more slurred with freely flowing liquor and daylight fading. Finally their words stop and silence takes over.
The sunset got replaced by a bright moon and twinkling stars and their melancholy made way for drunk taciturnity.
At some point Charles gets up and struts towards the water, fairly swaying in the process. He picks up small shells and stones and throws them into the tide with wide movements. Daniel watches him and smokes his eighth cigarette of the night. Jev next to him lets sand run through his fingers and cradles his half-empty cup in the other hand.
When Daniel reaches for the whisky bottle he realises it is halfway empty as well. His movements are uncoordinated and slack and he chuckles at himself drunkenly.
Jev just shakes his head when he offers him a refill and tilts his head back to watch the starts. The silent plop-plop of whatever it is that Charles tosses into the water is the only sound cutting through the calm waves lapping against the beach.
Daniel nearly chokes on the pungent taste of his cigarette, when his phone vibrates in his jeans pocket. He tucks the smouldering cigarette between his lips and fiddles for the buzzing source of disturbance. The bright light of the screen dazzles him for a moment and he squints his eyes, when the words dance in front of his blurred vision. He inhales smoke with hollowed cheeks, when he sees Max’s name flash across the screen.
“I just realised, what day it is. Fuck, Daniel, I don’t know, what to say. I’m a huge idiot and I’m so, so sorry. Please come home, Daniel. Please.”
“And where would that be, fucker?” Daniel mutters around the filter of his cigarette and the smoke stings in his tired eyes.
Jev next to him pets his thigh and Daniel tucks away the phone without answering. He’s too drunk for that anyway.
Charles is still busy throwing stones and shells into the incoming tide, but his movements are growing slack and his jeans is soaking wet up to his knee pit.
“You think, he’s going to drown himself?” Daniel asks, stubs out his cigarette in the sand and takes a huge sip from the whisky bottle, because who needs glasses anyway?
“Nah, I don’t think so.” Jev murmurs, voice slurred with alcohol and grief. His head drops to Daniel’s shoulder.
“Have you ever thought about it?” Daniel murmurs and does so without thinking about it twice. He feels Jev going rigid next to him and still can’t keep himself from pushing. It’s how he’s wired. “Following him?”
There is a silence and it grows heavier with every second until Jev chuckles humourlessly and digs his naked toes into the cold and damp sand.
“It’s funny, but I actually haven’t. I mean, I was so close to starving myself to death, but I actually had no intention in dying.” Jev takes another cigarette from the pack and Daniel admires his smooth and still shockingly sober movements.
“I always thought I was immortal, you know?” Daniel does and it scares him. “I always thought, that no matter what I did, how often I vomited my innards out before races and passed out afterwards… I never really thought, I would actually be in danger. Not until I really broke down and-” he interrupts himself and shrugs. “You know the story.”
Daniel does and he hates himself for it more than he can fathom.
“I should have said something. They never should have done this to you.”
Suddenly, there is Jev’s warm hand on his thigh again and Daniel realises too late he’s crying.
“I’ve done that to myself more than anyone else. More than anyone else, you hear me? I just wasn’t ready for the task and forced myself into it.” He spreads his long skinny legs and crosses his feet in an almost relaxed gesture. A calm half-smile spreads on his lips. “I’m happy I didn’t make it. I’m not cut out for Red Bull Racing.”
Daniel laughs humourlessly and wipes his wet cheeks. His throat hurts and his lungs burn.
“Yeah, tell me about it.” He mutters and keeps watching Charles, who stands at the beach with incoming water washing around his knees and his hands hanging limply by his sides.
“Max is. You are.”
“I was, Jev, I’m not anymore.”
God, if I only knew, Daniel thinks and ruffles his hair. He wants to contemplate his next words, think them through, weigh them, but they stumble over his tongue and out of his mouth before he can second-guess a single one of them.
“I wasn’t able to save you. I wasn’t able to save Jules. And sometimes it feels like I’m not able to save Max. And you know, I love you, and you know, I’ve loved Jules, but Max is on a completely different level. He shook me to the core. He is everything, but he is so dark at times and surrounded by people that want to break him by lulling him in and making him believe he is unbeatable. But he isn’t and I know, because I’ve fucking watched my best friend die and I lost you and that was horrible. But Max, I mean, losing him would…” Daniel has to stop because there are no words left anymore. Emptiness fills his stomach and his heart and gets replaced by the calm murmur of the nightly ocean in front of him.
The hand on his thigh tightens and Daniel meets Jean-Eric’s smiling eyes.
“He knows, he’s only human, Daniel, Max doesn’t strike me as an idiot. A hot-headed, stubborn boy at times, yes, but not an idiot. He knows the risk. And more importantly, he knows you and what you’re capable of.”
Daniel snorts and massages his temples. He can already feel a headache knocking at the back of his scull that will certainly bank up into a crucial migraine come morning and hangover.
“Yeah, he knows me so well that he didn’t even have a clue what’s going on today.”
“You fought with Max because of Jules?”
It takes Daniel by surprise and his breathing hitches. His brain is slurred with liquor, synapses refuse to connect and he blinks a couple of times.
“I… I wouldn’t put it that way, but, yeah, maybe.”
Jev gets to his feet, stretches his stiff legs and shakes his head. He starts pacing back and forth in front of Daniel, his naked feet digging deep into the moist sand.
“That’s fucked up.”
“Yeah, tell me about it.” He says again but this time his voice is tinted with anger and irritation. He has to look up at Jev and it makes him dizzy.
“Yeah, and you know what? Fuck him! Fuck Jules!”
“Jev!” Daniel more or less shrieks and his head snaps up abruptly. He stares at Jean-Eric in a mixture of surprise and anger.
“No! It’s unbelievable how much power he has over us!” Jev continues without faltering or blinking. “It’s wrong!”
Suddenly, there is blinding wrath wavering around the Frenchman despite tears pooling in his eyes. But Jev isn’t done ranting and he kicks up sand and algae from the ground.
“A dead guy is about to ruin your relationship and he does it by the mere fact of dying. It’s not like he talked you out of it or gave wrong advice, he made you fight by fucking dying and leaving us behind! I mean, isn’t it fucked up that the way a person dies is more significant than the way they lived?! Isn’t that fucked up?!”
Daniel can’t hold back any longer. He staggers to his feet and spreads his arms in a wide gesture, cigarette in one, Whisky bottle in the other hand.
“Jesus, this is fucked up! Everything we’re doing here is fucked up. But do you really want to spit on him like that and turn your back on him for having that accident and losing his goddamn life?!”
“HOW COULD I?!” Jev yells, as his wrath breaks loose, and his voice gets carried over the beach and up the hills like rolling thunder. “He can’t defend himself, he won’t answer! He is dead, Daniel. Jules is dead and he will never come back!”
What follows is the deafening scream of all-consuming silence. Jev pants and presses his lips together, while Daniel stares at him in complete shock. He can’t blink, he can’t breathe, he can’t cry, he just stares. He sees regret flicker across Jev’s features and tears stream down his tired and pale face. He shakes his head and gulps loudly.
All of a sudden there is sob reverberates through the night and it isn’t Jev’s. Charles stands behind the Frenchman (and has stood there all the time) and now a ground shaking sob detangles itself from his throat and makes his whole body tremble.
“Oh god, he’s dead and he will never come back and I miss him. I miss him so much!” he cries and then the pain gets too much and his legs buckle underneath him. Daniel snaps out of his freeze, murmurs a soft “Oh, dear.” and stumbles in his direction.
He reaches and catches Charles just in time before his knees hit the wet sand. Charles’s head collides with Daniel’s collar bone and they both sink to their knees at the impact, Daniel steadying Charles’s upper body.
Charles doesn’t realise any of it. He breaks down and gets caught by Daniel’s firm grip, gets pressed into the warmth of his chest.
Daniel’s heart shatters into a myriad pieces just like the little grains of sand underneath his naked feet, when Charles’s soul breaks apart from all the grief and pain. It banged against the floodgates the Monegasque struggled for weeks to keep intact, but now the forces of nature break loose and tear down every wall he built around him ever since that goddamned day in Suzuka. It sounds like Charles’s lungs burst at any second when he sobs. His fingernails dig painfully into Daniel’s arm. The hurt washes over him in one gigantic wave, agony hitting him like a brick wall.
Daniel just holds him. He feels more sober now, startled and shook. He cups the back of Charles’s head and pulls him closer still. His whole body shakes with sorrow and desperation and the incredibly painful realisation of death itself.
Jev stands next to them and has a first firmly pressed against his lips in an otherworldly effort to suppress a yell of regret. He is drunk and a mess, but he shouldn’t have said that and he knows it.
He ruffles his hair and scrapes over his skull until it hurts so bad, the sting drowns out the gaping hole in his stomach, the place that belonged and will always belong to Jules.
“Fuck, I’m sorry.” He whispers and Daniel nods into Charles’s hair. Charles is a bundle of quivering sobs and tears in his lap and Daniel has no idea how to handle this situation. He knows, he cries himself and can’t stop.
The tears have found a way through his armour of steeliness and composure and now that enough alcohol circles through his system, he can’t hold them back any longer.
“I know, Charles, I know. I miss him, too.”
It’s a tired attempt to mirror Charles, guide him and show him he isn’t alone in this, but neither of them have lost their best friend, brother and godfather in one.
Charles mutters something into the moist fabric of his shirt and it makes Daniel groan in pain.
“No, Charles, no, you didn’t. That wasn’t your fault!”
Jev leans in closer the second Charles lifts his head an sniffles.
“I stole his seat. I wanted that seat with Ferrari so bad and Jules was the one deserving it and now it’s mine and it should have been his.”
“Oh, God.” Jev mutters before sinking to his knees and cradling Charles's cheeks. He talks to him in French and after a few seconds Daniel is lost in the soft flow of words and Charles’s sniffles and doesn’t understand a word anymore.
He doesn’t have to. So he simply stays where he is and draws long soothing circles over Charles’s shaking back.
Slowly his breathing slows down and he eventually stops shaking in Daniel’s arms.
His eyes are rimmed red and his cheeks are wet.
Charles doesn’t say a word, when he curls up in the sand and uses his own jacket as a pillow. Daniel doesn’t know what to say and neither does Jev.
Daniel takes a generous swig from the whisky and hands it to Jean-Eric, as they sit down next to Charles and contemplate what just happened in silence.
Daniel slings his arms around his upper body and tries to warm up his cold hands. Jev next to him clears his throat and hands him a lighter when Daniel can’t find his old one.
“Why did you fight with Max, Daniel?” Jev asks out of the blue, after he peeled his jacket from his shoulders and draped it over Charles’s sleeping form.
Daniel blinks and tries to remind his brain how thinking worked.
“He doesn’t care. And I’m done trying to make him care.”
“Yes, I get that. Have you ever thought that maybe he does care but doesn’t dare to ask?”
Daniel frowns and feels nausea rising up his stomach. He washes the sour taste down with more Whisky.
“Why wouldn’t he just ask then? He’s never been one to beat about the bush.”
Jev looks at him and Daniel can’t shake the feeling of being belittled an awful lot by all the care and understanding in Jev’s brown eyes.
“No, he is afraid to drive you away and you know, that he’s rightly doing so. The question is, is it because you don’t trust him with Jules or you don’t trust him with yourself?”
Daniel is taken by complete surprise again and he curses under his breath.
“What would you know about that?”
“I told André everything. It took me a while, but I opened up to him and it was the best decision I ever made. It was scary as hell, but André knows everything about me and Jules and you and what we are doing here. It was so fucking hard, but it was worth it. It is worth it.”
Daniel can’t keep himself from jeering.
“Yeah, when everything is so fucking peachy, why is he bailing off to Porsche then?!”
But they have shot their bolts and Charles huffing in his sleep is an unnecessary proof for it. They’ve already yelled at each other tonight and Daniel doesn’t want to put up a fight, if he’s being honest with himself (which he actually hasn’t been a lot lately).
Jev smiles sadly and rearranges his jacket covering Charles’s sleeping body.
“I’ll fix that. It’s true, what I said earlier, although I shouldn’t have said it like that. Facing a friend’s death is like facing death itself, the inevitability of the end. Most people don’t have to think about it, but we make a living from putting ourselves in danger almost every day.”
Daniel smirks at that because he couldn’t have said it any better. Jev licks his lips and shakes his head.
“And we do it, because we love it. Jules loved it. The danger is one thing, death is another. The worst part is that people seem to forget about Jules’s life. They only remember his death and the horror and the pain.”
He fumbles for another cigarette without letting go of Charles’s hand, the younger one still firmly clings to in his sleep.
“And it makes you think about life, right? Losing someone you love?”
Daniel stays silent, Max's smiling face ghosting though his fogged brain. Then he gets what Jev wants to say and lowers his head as new tears form in his eyes.
“You want us to stop, don’t you? Meeting every year, remembering Jules?”
Jev shakes his head and exhales cold smoke into the chilly night air.
“No, we will still remember him, but we can’t keep bottling it up for a whole year and then letting it all out in one go. We need to stop this for our own sake.”
Daniel doesn’t say anything and Jev doesn’t expect an answer. His throat is soar and his lungs feel like crunched paper bags.
“Isn’t it fucked up that his death affects us more than his life did?”
Daniel mutters eventually and exhales bitter smoke through his nostrils.
“It is, but I guess, it’s natural, too.”
“People only mention him in connection with safety concerns, the halo, Japan or France.”
And the both of us, Daniel thinks and sees the same thought flicker behind Jev’s brown eyes.
“Do you think, he’ll come out of it?” the grief, the pain, the darkness he adds mentally and trusts Jev to read his thoughts again.
“Certainly. It will take time, but I’ve never met a stronger person than him and I’m saying that in all honesty and sincerity. Charles is a warrior, armoured and sharpened and trained, but most of all he’s human and positive and – yes, he will make it through this. We all will.”
Daniel huffs and tries to imagine waking up tomorrow. His head hurts like hell and he feels a massive hangover forming in his churning stomach and droused brain.
I’d be okay with not waking up, too, he jokes narcissistically.
Jev next to him hums something in his delirious half-sleep and Daniel can’t stop himself from smiling.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
He murmurs nevertheless. Keep pushing, he thinks, Once in hell things can only get better.
Daniel leans back against the driftwood and closes his eyes.
Thank you guys for sticking with me through this one, that was tough to write.
Tell me what you think about it, it would really help!
Read you soon!