Down by the Riverside, it's Bound to be a Better Ride
(Than what you've got planned)
“He’s such a sensitive boy, my Franz; he can always tell when anyone is sad or happy, even if they are trying to hide it. I suppose if he had been born twenty years ago, he would have been a Guide. We did have a few in our family, through the generations.”
By the time Franz Heinel is born to Friedrich and Vanessa Heinel in Stuttgart, Germany two days before Christmas, 1994, the world had begun to realize that something was wrong with their Guides. By the time Franz was five, the last known guide to go online was almost 20 years old, which was disastrous when the average guide was online by the age of 10. Sentinels were being born as normal, however, and it was already becoming clear that if something drastic didn’t happen soon, there was going to be a whole generation of young Sentinels, men and women alike, that would probably be either mad or dead before they hit 30.
“That boy is little more than a stunted waste of space. I keep trying to get that through my husband’s head, but he refuses to believe me. Well, he’ll figure it out soon enough.”
Not that any of this mattered to the young Franz, who was spending most of his time alternating between playing with his toys, elaborate Erector sets that most people believed he was far too young for, poking curiously at his baby sister, or trying to keep away from everyone else, especially his mother, whose very presence often made him physically ill. It wasn’t her fault of course, well, she would’ve never believed it was, but Vanessa had written him off literally before he was born, and the levels of dislike she attributed to a little boy who was so painfully shy that only his father and now baby Lisa could draw him from his room was obscene, buried in the unfortunate fact that Franz had been a difficult pregnancy, forcing her to stay in bed for weeks before his due date, which caused her to miss most of the major parties that the Christmas season always brought. It was for this reason, and this reason alone that she hated him so, as sad and ridiculous as it was, and when it became clear as he got older that he was, to her eyes, emotionally fragile, instead of supporting him and helping him a good mother should, she belittled his every move, and would go out of her way to avoid him unless company required her to treat him politely. By the time Franz reached his teens, he had largely realized that there was nothing he could do that would get his mother to care about him, and after attempting to date a woman who his mother had all but announced was his fiancee, only to have that relationship come to a swift and emotionally jarring end due to her belief that he was little more than a toy for her to control as she wished, he gave up on his mother pretty much entirely.
“You always know just how everyone is feeling, don’t you, son? It really tires you out after awhile, doesn’t it?”
His father, however, loved him dearly, and while he had never managed to divorce Vanessa, he did his best to compensate. Friedrich could tell that his son was special; Franz understood concepts intuitively before he reached Primary that college engineering students often didn’t, and Friedrich just knew that there was a bright future waiting for his son. But when it became clear that Franz could not stay near anyone having any sort of extreme emotional response without becoming either agitated or drawing in on himself to the point that would take hours in some cases to rouse him out of the fugue he would immerse himself in, Friedrich knew that his son needed to see a specialist.
“Your son should have been a Guide, would have been if he hadn’t been born in this time, but I think you know that already. Franz stated that he feels like something is missing inside himself, something far larger than even an unbonded Guide feels, and I concur. Part of me hopes that perhaps the Guide gene is only asleep in these children, waiting for a trigger, but there’s been no progress in those studies. All we can do is wait, and pray.”
The specialist was actually a Sentinel-Guide pair, and after about two hours with the Guide, Franz was given a diagnosis. They didn’t believe he had any sort of mental or emotional defect, simply that he was very emotionally aware; it was as if he had some of the empathic awareness of a Guide, but without being one. It wasn’t common, but it also wasn’t entirely unheard of in family lines that had had many Guides born to them, almost as if residual bit of their ability managed to pass through the bloodline. There was no real term for the phenomenon, however, and all the pair could suggest was to actually teach him some of the basic ways Guides managed to emotionally and mentally protect themselves, largely through discipline, meditation, and solid focus. Friedrich took their advice to heart, and brought in tutors and instructors in multiple disciplines for Franz, hoping that something would work. After trying everything from yoga to piano lessons, it was boxing, of all things, that Franz took to, and within a few months, Franz was interacting with people with little worry, although he still avoided touching people unnecessarily, and he comported himself like a young man far older than his years, which was excellent for public events, but a bit distressing when one would realize that he was like that all the time.
“Father, I’ve been working on designs that could be used on the new Cyber Formula cars, as you well know, but I was thinking; I don’t think I can trust myself to make things perfectly without having raced myself. What is your opinion?”
Somewhere along the way, Franz became fixated on the new Cyber Formula racing that was promising to be even more popular than F1, and the designs he was drafting during his classes with his tutors evolved very quickly from fanciful to real, practical designs and ideas that could be put into real vehicles; Friedrich had incorporated several of his son’s ideas into Sturobrahms production vehicles by the time Franz was 13. The older Franz got, the more disciplined he got, and when he approached ZIP Formula in 2011 and asked if they would be willing to take a chance on him, they barely believed that the young man standing before them was only 16 years old. ZIP knew that a young rising star was transferring over from Indy in 2012 under an American team, and they decided to take a chance on what they saw as that American racer’s antithesis, packaged in a young, disciplined, and serious young man who wanted to start his racing career on his own terms, not under his father’s.
“You know I’m not entirely happy with this, Franz, but take care of yourself. I’m sure you will do well, as you are excellent in applying yourself to whatever you choose to.”
“All five senses? Are you sure? No, please, he’s our only son...”
In contrast, the Kentucky, USA-based Gudelhian family knew by the time their middle child and only son Jackie was 12 years old that he would probably be dead within 15 years. The Sentinel bloodline had always been strong with them, and unfortunately, he had inherited it. Had it been 20 years prior, it would have been a cause for celebration, but there would be no Guide waiting to meet their son. Sentinels were considered a dying race, their amazing abilities would overpower them in the end without a guide, leaving them little more then comatose shadows of their former selves by the time the majority of them reached the age of 25. Most hoped that their hearts would just give out when that time came, and Jackie was no exception. For a sentinel with no guide, he had excellent control, and the sensory flareups and fugue states that were rather common with unbonded sentinels were rare for him; a distant sentinel cousin once stated with much sadness that if Jackie had been able to find a guide, he would easily have been an alpha Sentinel, but that was neither here nor there, and Jackie swiftly came to the decision that he would do what he wanted to do with the remainder of his life. Although registering Sentinels was still the law, as their end appeared to be near, many families didn’t bother registering their Sentinel children, and the Gudelhians were no different. He wouldn’t have to worry about discrimination or being denied into things because they were worried about his future, not as long as he could keep his Sentinel status to himself.
“You have quite the talent there, young man. Did you know that IZOD is starting to allow racers as young as fifteen? There hasn’t been one yet that’s lasted more than one race, but you might just have what it takes. What do you think? Up to a hell of an adventure?”
When he announced to his family at only 14 years old that scouts from an Indy team had talked to him after a kart race he did, and that he wanted to take them up on their offer, his furious father had issued an ultimatum, stay home and help with the business, or leave and don’t come back. While his mother completely disagreed with his father, the resulting blowup ended with Jackie leaving the same day. She gave him enough money to survive until he was able to move into team-provided housing, which let Jackie concentrate on adapting the knife’s edge his senses skated on constantly for the reality of full-time race track living. He managed to keep his Sentinel status a secret, and after an excellent showing in Indy for the 2010 and 2011 seasons, he was offered a ride with a new Cyber Formula team based out of Texas, and he immediately leapt at the chance. While he had swiftly gained a reputation as a goofball and a serious flirt (although he rarely slept with any of his conquests, it was tiring keeping his senses from going berserk. He didn’t bother dispelling the rumors, though, as they were a cover of sorts.) it was clear that he had some serious talent, which led to Star Stampede taking a chance on him for the 2012 season.
“Only 16, son? They sure grow them big over in Kentucky, from the looks of you. How would you like to race in Cyber Formula?”
“Who’s the skinny guy they just pulled from his car over at the ZIP garage? He doesn’t look too good.”
Franz Heinel and Jackie Gudelhian didn’t actually meet until the second race of the season, when Franz had a bout of food poisoning and had to be pulled from the car post-race to rush off to the closest bathroom to be ill. It would be years before Jackie would admit that it was inexplicable worry that drove him to follow the other driver into the bathroom, worry that seemed to come from nowhere that was far more intense than most people would feel about a complete stranger. It took even longer for him to realize why.
“Hey man, sure you should be racing if you have such a touchy stomach? You are gonna have a lot of problems in the future if you are constantly vomiting like a kid on a carnival ride who’s had way too much sugar...”
Unfortunately, the sudden concern led him to say something rather stupid when he actually reached Franz, who had stopped vomiting and was trying to clean himself up. Neither of them would remember five minutes later what was said, but Jackie’s presence and the comment led for Franz’s iron control to snap for just a moment, something that hadn’t happened in close to ten years, and he hauled off and punched Jackie in the face.
“Damn rich spoiled brat, stop getting so worked up all the time! Your hair’s gonna fall out!”
The resulting brawl was short, as it ended up being broken off when Franz returned to the toilet to be ill again, but it was memorable, and from then on out, they were constantly at war. For the first few years, there was apparently little love lost between the two (although there was odd, stomach churning moments where they both felt like they were missing something, that there was something that should be happening, but wasn’t,) but as the 2015 season came to an end, Jackie was trying to decide whether to stay on with Star Stampede or seek other pastures, which was becoming more important as he was starting to lose control of his senses, even if only a little, but he knew it was a slippery slope. He was already 20, and at best, he probably had six to seven years left.
“I have a new car I’ve been working on for the last year, and I...will not be able to drive it for the whole season. I need a driver, and as ridiculous as I think you are, I believe you are the best choice, if you are willing.”
The last thing he expected was for Franz Heinel to approach him and ask if he’d like to join a new team he was forming, and no, he wouldn’t be racing in 2016 so he could get the team started, so he needed a driver, and by the way, would you be interested?
“Hey Heinel, I’m sorry it took me so long, but hey, your amazing work led to this! I suppose I should keep winning these championships, as it’s the only time we see that nice smile of yours for more than a few minutes once in a blue moon.”
“Hey, even the TV announcer agreed with me about the smiling thing! Stop hitting me!”
He was interested. Every cell in his body screamed for him to accept, which he did with near-record speed. From then on out, they were a team, and while they still fought, their fights had an almost playful edge, with any real intent to harm (not that there had been any in the first place, the worst they had done to each other in the past was some black eyes and bruised ribs, and as time when on, the fights largely consisted of Franz yelling and Jackie running away, with little to no blows exchanged.) When Jackie won the championship in 2019, at the ripe old age of 24, the smile on Franz’s face and the heartfelt embrace he got from the other man made Jackie float even higher on his winning high; Franz was not expressive with anyone, and had really only been expressive with Jackie when he was angry, so the sudden attention was heartening. Jackie knew he liked Franz, had known probably within a year of meeting him that he was possibly the most interesting person he had ever met and would ever meet, but he had realized just as quickly that Franz had no interest in people that way, as far as he could tell. Franz grinned for several weeks straight after that first championship, and Jackie resolved to win as much as he could for as long as he could maintain himself.
“Thank you, Gudelhian. In all seriousness, I had hoped, but never expected that this would happen again for us.”
“Oh come on, if I started living up to your expectations now, you wouldn’t know what to do with yourself.”
“By the way, ever hear that saying about the cat that got the cream? That’s basically the look on your face right now.”
“Owww, why do you keep hitting me? Accept the truth, Heinel, you are totally tickled pink over my amazingness. It’s a good look on you.”
“Gudelhian, please shut up.”
By the time 2025 had finished (and finally, a second championship, and Franz was even more giddy the second time around, and Jackie knew he was going to be in love with the ridiculous German for the rest of his very short life) Jackie knew that something was special about his friend. He had realized several years prior that his sensory degradation happened far faster off-season than on, and after puzzling it out, realized that it wasn’t the racing, it was Franz’s constant presence. But Franz, as amazing as he was, was no Guide, and by the time Jackie finished the 2025 season, he knew that his reprieve was coming to an end.
“One more season. I can hold on one more season, if only for Heinel. He’s the one who has kept me going this long, and...I don’t want to disappoint him. Not when it’s going to be the first season entirely in the new car. Besides, it’s never a good sign when the reigning champion can’t finish the following season, as Kazami proved back in 2017, after all.”
February 2026, Stuttgart, Germany (a week before the first race of the season)
“Where’s Gudelhian? He was informed about the staff meeting today, correct?” Franz Heinel surveyed his crew as he spoke, focusing in on his sister Lisa.
She nodded. “Definitely told, I reminded him several times yesterday.”
“And he acknowledged it?”
“Ja, said he’d be sure to set his alarm.” Lisa paused. “Want me to go check his coach?” Franz thought for a moment, then shook his head.
“No, I’ll go get him.” He turned to address the entire group. “Run over the settings we were talking about for qualifying, I’ll be back in a few minutes.” He turned and left the pit, heading back behind towards the trailers. Gudelhian had been off for months, pretty much ever since he had brought in that second championship. Normally, the man went home to the USA in December, after the awards ceremony and the associated publicity, and would reemerge sometime around mid-January for the car tests. That as how it had been for years.
He had only stayed in the US for two and a half weeks this time around, for the Christmas holidays (which were celebrated with the majority of his family, from what Franz had gleaned, but he knew there was some issues between Gudelhian and his father. Franz understood family issues all too well.) Only in the US for the holidays, then he showed up in Stuttgart on January 2nd, where he promptly took over his usual trailer. He didn’t have a lot to do, considering he wasn’t normally there until several weeks later, but he had been helping out where he could, and had basically just been there, hanging around.
And oddly listless. Something inside Franz was screaming at him that something was wrong with his friend, but every time he tried to bring it up, he stopped himself. Gudelhian would tell him if something was truly wrong.
Franz keyed in the code to Gudelhian’s trailer, stepping in as soon as the door opened for him. It looked much the same as always; the main room had the usual furniture placed around, with a set of weights and a treadmill tucked off to the side. At the races in North and South America where he used coaches instead of a hotel, the setup was pretty much the same there as well.
As long as Franz could remember, Gudelhian’s usual morning routine was to get up, do some warm up exercises, either go for a run or use a treadmill, then lift weights for twenty minutes or so before getting in the shower. There had been a few times where Gudelhian had been late to a meeting because he had lost track of time while exercising, but that clearly wasn’t the case here. Franz flicked his gaze over the weights, and realized that all but the handweights had a considerable amount of dust on them. He pressed his lips together in irritation as he walked towards the bedroom, which he had only seen twice in the past. While Gudelhian’s tastes seemed to be pretty straight forward in most cases (they had an agreement of sorts, Gudelhian didn’t talk about Franz’s hair, and Franz didn’t bring up his oft-ridiculous clothing,) the contents of his bedroom, where ever he was, was always a different story.
Franz knocked once, then slowly opened the door; the room was extremely dark, with blackout curtains across the windows. He turned on the light at low power, which revealed Gudelhian curled up in the center of his bed, apparently fast asleep. The silk sheets the man always insisted on were pulled up almost to his chin, and he was so still that Franz’s chest tightened in alarm before Gudelhian sighed a deep breath and moved his arm to cover his eyes.
He looked wan, and the arm that was over his face was thinner than it had been the previous year, the muscle definition not quite as sharp as it usually was. Franz scowled. He hated uncertainty, and he knew that Gudelhian was keeping something from him.
“Gudelhian, weren’t you supposed to set an alarm?” Franz got a quiet grunt in response, but there was no other movement from the bed. Sighing, he walked up and clasped Gudelhian’s bare shoulder, which had been revealed when he had moved his arm earlier. “Gudelhian, it’s time to wake up.” This time, he got a reaction, as the other man’s eyelashes fluttered as he dragged his eyes open.
“...ung?” Gudelhian groaned and tried to burrow his head back into the pillow, but Franz squeezed the shoulder under his hand, and Gudelhian arrested his movement, his eyes blinking open as he tried to focus his eyes on Franz.
“Heinel? Wha’ you doin’ here?” Franz tried to look stern, but the bleary eyes that were looking up at him were not Gudelhian at his best, and he sighed instead.
“The team meeting started over fifteen minutes ago. I came to see why you weren’t there, and found you still asleep.”
“Mee~ting?” Gudelhian’s eyes all but crossed as his sleep-muddled brain tried to remember, and Franz resisted the urge to sit on the bed and interrogate him while his defenses were down.
Why aren’t you telling me what’s wrong with you?
“Oh, yeah, damn, I’m sorry, I thought I had set my alarm.” Gudelhian sat up in bed, the sheets pooling around his waist; it was clear that he was nude under them, and Franz found himself inexplicably moving in towards the other man, before catching himself and turning back towards the door. “Sorry, Heinel, give me fifteen to get showered and dressed, and I’ll be over there.”
“Are you ill?” Franz blurted the words out, and immediately regretted them; Gudelhian’s response was a sharp intake of breath, and Franz forced himself to look back at the other man, who was looking down at his sheets, his mouth twisted in an expression Franz did not recognize.
“I’m fine, Heinel. I just didn’t sleep well.”
“Alright. Meeting is at the usual place.” Heinel heard Gudelhian grumble an acknowledgement behind as he all but fled from the trailer. He should have questioned him more, but he wanted to accept the thin excuse. He didn’t want to consider anything else.
Jackie levered himself out of bed as soon as he heard the door close behind Heinel, ignoring the scraping sensation against his feet from the carpet as he padded into the bathroom. He didn’t bother looking at himself in the mirror as he stepped into the shower, he knew how bad he looked, and turned on the water, allowing it to run cold against him as it warmed up.
He was getting sloppy. He had hoped that he could finish the season without getting anyone too suspicious, but it clearly wasn’t working. Hell, he hadn’t even started the season yet. Heinel clearly hadn’t wanted to say anything, but he had already reached the point where he had thought he needed to. Jackie sighed and ran his hands over his face. The first race was only a week away, and he just needed to work his way through them one at a time.
Jackie finished his shower and got dressed, putting on his game face before heading out the door. He squinted against the light before he even opened the door, letting himself adjust. He had to be careful. His plan to finish the year would be over with one zone-out.
After all, it wasn’t like he could tell Franz that touching him made him feel a little more in control. That wouldn’t go over well.
April 2026, Yeongam, South Korea (day before the race)
“Sorry to ask you to do this, Jackie, but the balance has been a bit off and we’ve exhausted every other reason for it. You have usually been pretty consistent in this regard, but Lisa thinks you’ve lost a little weight, and we think that might be the cause.” Jackie managed to give Roberts a wry smile as he stood on the scale. He knew damn good and well he was losing weight, it tended to happen when a person wasn’t eating very much anymore. Anything that wasn’t bland was getting harder to consume without risking losing himself, which made eating a rather boring experience.
“99.1 kilograms. That’s five kilos less than last November.” Roberts turned to Jackie, a mildly-worried look on his face. “That’s pretty marked weight loss, Jackie, is there anything going on?” Jackie shook his head and stepped off the scale.
“I’m fine, Roberts, it’s nothing serious.”
Roberts turned back to his computer screen with a nod. “Well, if you say so. Take care of yourself, reigning champion.”
Jackie chuckled for his expected reply and headed out of the pits, making sure to allow for his eyes to adjust. Heinel was off at a sponsor meeting, which luckily, he had been spared, so he had some free time. The race was tomorrow, and he needed to be ready. He smiled and waved to both friends and fans as he walked towards the parking lot, and was just distracted enough that he bumped into someone. He winced as his racesuit pressed into his skin at the contact; he knew he would have a rash there later.
“You seem distracted, Gudelhian.” Jackie blinked and looked down at Kyoko Aoi, who had braced herself from falling by grabbing his arm. More rashes. He must have blinked stupidly at her just a bit too long, as she sighed and poked him in the chest. “Disregarding that stunt you pulled back when Marie was hired to your team, I know you have a brain in there somewhere. Complete idiots do not become racing champions twice.”
Jackie scratched absently at the place on his arm that Kyoko had grabbed, her eyes following the movement. “Sorry, I was just thinking about something. You alright?”
Kyoko stepped away and nodded, brushing down the front of her blouse. Jackie thought over what she had just said, and frowned. “What about the thing with Marie? I admit, I was being stupid about that, but-”
“Gudelhian, you told Heinel that you didn’t believe women should be racing and pitched what pretty much amounted to a childish tantrum when he brought up hiring her to replace him as a racer. But I thought about it after; that’s a load of crap, you’ve been racing alongside women since the beginning of your career, and you’ve had nothing but the utmost respect for them, as far as I could tell.” Jackie’s jaw dropped, but she wasn’t letting up. “So I figured it either had to do with the fact that you were the only boy among your siblings-”
Jackie shook his head. “No, nothing like that, my sisters are great-” Kyoko held up a hand, and he shut up.
“-or, it had to do with the fact you’ve been carrying the world’s largest torch for a certain German car designing genius who might just be named Franz Heinel, and you didn’t want his attention divided with someone else.” Kyoko’s lip curled in amusement, and all Jackie could think of for one eternally long second was busted. He tried to get his tongue working for a rally, but he knew he was screwed. He had felt horrible about the whole mess with Marie after it had happened, but he had tried to forget about it. It must have been karma.
“Wait, wait a damn minute, I don’t, I mean, I-” Jackie trailed off, and Kyoko sighed. “I- oh damnit. I suppose I shouldn’t even bother.”
“I think the majority of us oldies know, Jackie, mostly everyone thinks it’s sweet. Marie didn’t deserve your insecurities being projected on her, but I know she agrees with me now.” She patted his arm again, and Jackie immediately started scratching again, which distracted him from the smirk that crossed her face. “The only ongoing guessing game is whether you two have slept together yet-” Jackie managed to choke on his own saliva at that, and Shinjyo, who had been walking by (but clearly hadn’t heard what she said,) gamely clapped him on the back before continuing on. “-but honestly, I’m almost positive you two haven’t. Not with you mooning even more than usual.”
That last statement made Jackie stop scratching. “Wait, what? I haven’t been mooning more than usual, what are you talking about?” Kyoko chuckled, a light musical tone that just made him more nervous, and she stepped around him.
“Nothing, Gudelhian. You might you want to find some lotion, with all the scratching you are doing.” Before Jackie could say anything, she was gone, calling to Shinjyo to wait for her as she walked away. He needed to get some long sleeved silk undershirts to wear with his suit, the short ones weren’t cutting it anymore. Not wanting to run into anyone else, he cut through one of the track yards, not stopping until he reached the car that he was using while they were in Korea. He’d place an order for the shirts on the internet as soon as he reached the hotel. Throwing the car into gear, he maneuvered out of the lot and out towards the main road, trying to forget about Kyoko’s claim that almost everyone knew. It’s not as if anything was going to happen anyway, even if Franz were to suddenly throw himself at him tomorrow, he wouldn’t be able to respond without serious consequences.
Jackie didn’t curse the fact he was born a Sentinel, but it was a definite drag on his life plans.
May 1st, 2026, New Jersey, USA (two hours before the race)
“Franz, what are you doing? Jackie’s supposed to be here any minute, and you aren’t in position yet!” Lisa Heinel had her hands on her hips as she glared at Franz, who sighed and put the computer he was working on into sleep mode.
“Are you all certain about this? He’s been preferring his own company lately, he may not like the surprise.” Lisa waved her finger at her brother, and Franz rolled his eyes as he leaned against the Schneid.
“That’s why we are doing it! He’s been kinda depressed lately, he needs a pick me up.” The rest of the crew seemed to mostly agree with her, by their expressions, and Franz conceded the argument.
“Very well, but if he’s not happy, I’m going to make certain he knows that it was your idea, Lisa.” Lisa blew him a raspberry in response. Marie, who was chuckling at the two of them, had once stated the truth of the matter. They were all so mature at Stormzender.
“Eh? Why’s it so dark in here?” Gudelhian’s voice echoed in the silent garage, and Lisa signaled a countdown with a quiet tap of her foot.
On the third tap, she threw the lights, and everyone yelled “Happy Birthday, Jackie!” in unison (Franz didn’t quite yell it, but he actually said it, first name and all, which Lisa noticed with a smile;) the pause after their greeting went on far too long, and Franz started forward when he realized that Gudelhian was motionless, his hands clapped over his eyes and wrapping back towards his ears.
“Gudelhian? Are you okay?” Franz found himself whispering as he reached up and lightly squeezed Gudelhian’s bicep; he could hear the mechanics muttering behind him on how this maybe wasn’t a good idea, especially right before the race, but he ignored them to focus on the stunned man in front of him. “Gudelhian, you need to snap out of it before I have to call someone.” The muscles under his hand started to relax, and Gudelhian grunted before slowly lowering his hands from his face. Franz was suddenly far too close, and he let go of the other man’s arm and took a step back.
Jackie shook his head as if to clear it, then gave everyone a rueful smile. “Sorry about that, I’ve got a headache, and I wasn’t quite expecting the whole lights and yelling thing.” He turned to Franz, clearly trying to give him a reassuring smile, but Franz was buying it less and less. He had been looking at the general settings for the car just a few hours earlier, and had discovered the changes to account for Gudelhian’s now six kilogram weight loss since last year. Gudelhian had always seemed to live his life relatively openly, but now, Franz found himself reevaluating the man he had worked alongside for over ten years.
Gudelhian still wasn’t budging on the issue of his health, though, and continued to state that he was fine. As he had heard him comment years ago about another issue, the bullshit was going to overflow the track at this rate. Franz scowled. It was going to drive him mad until he figured it out.
Lisa was teary-eyed with guilt when she approached him, but Gudelhian smiled at her as well, and she seemed to accept it, which clearly was a relief to him. Marie followed Lisa, apologizing for surprising him so badly, and Franz watched as Gudelhian again waved away their concerns, and thanked them for remembering. Whatever was wrong with the man, it was clear he wanted to continue to race. Franz had no problem with that, as long as he was able to safely. He decided to hold off on saying anything for now.
Well, maybe one thing. “Did you take any painkillers for the headache?” Jackie’s eyebrows rose, and he shook his head again.
“Nah, I thought about it, but I’m good. You know how restricted even basic drugs are, after all, I would prefer not to even have to work with those rules. I was just surprised.” Franz narrowed his eyes at the other man, but Gudelhian just looked back with an expression that wouldn’t melt butter. Franz could feel a headache creeping in around his temples.
“Let me know if you need to stop during the race, Gudelhian. I would rather you not kill yourself because you insist on racing when you aren’t at your best.” Gudelhian’s innocent look softened, his mouth twitching up on one side, and Franz sighed before reaching out and fixing Gudelhian’s collar, which had curled in on itself. For some reason, he was wearing his suit all the way closed, even though it was two hours before race start, which was strange, but strange seemed to be Gudelhian’s modus operandi as of late. If the man didn’t feel like flashing his undershirt to everyone, it was his business. There were far more important things to be concerned about.
“Jackie! We got cake! I know it’s not good to eat a lot right before the race, but maybe a little piece?” Gudelhian’s gaze fell away as Lisa popped back into view, taking Gudelhian’s arm and steering him over to one of the tables against the wall. Franz watched them walk away in silence.
“Looks like you guys have something going on. What’s the occasion?” A calm, even soothing voice, speaking English with a Russian accent. There was only one person who would pop into their pit with that voice, and Franz felt himself smile a bit as he turned to face Edelhi Bootsvorz, who was leaning slightly against the side wall by the pit doors.
“Nothing better to do, Bootsvorz?” Bootsvorz shrugged, everything about him read pleasant and curious, and Franz waved a hand in Gudelhian’s collection. “It’s May first. Which means Gudelhian has reached the auspicious age of thirty-one, and my sister thought to throw him a little party of sorts before the race. Feel free to join in, if you have the time.” Franz nodded and turned away, sitting down in front of one of the computers. He expected Bootsvorz to head over to speak to Gudelhian. Instead, the aura of curiosity grew stronger, and he looked up to see that the older man had moved over to only about a meter away, and Franz raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Something’s been off about Gudelhian for months.” Straight to the point, and it was almost a relief to hear; Franz was, well, not happy with the situation, but if outside his team were beginning to notice, it was clear they weren’t just hallucinating it.
“He won’t tell me a damn thing, just keeps saying that he’s fine. If he says that one more time, I’m tempted to do something rather unpleasant to him.” Franz muttered the last sentence, but Bootsvorz clearly heard.
“I would like to say no, but...unfortunately, yes.” Unfortunately was becoming an understatement.
“Ms. Aoi commented that he seemed distracted lately, also made a comment about him scratching his arms constantly, but she laughed when she said the last bit. Randoll referred to him as Diet Gudelhian, and said something to the effect that it sometimes looks like he’s just-”
“Going through the motions.” Franz whispered, looking away from Bootsvorz and staring blankly at the computer screen. He saw the other man nod out of the corner of his eye.
“Yes. Sugo said something much the same. He’s racing the same, but everything else...” Bootsvorz trailed off, and Franz nodded and sighed.
“Keep an eye on him, Gudelhian is a lot smarter and a lot more perceptive than most people give him credit for. I have no doubt he could be concealing something big...”
“Or something inconsequential that the idiot is blowing out of proportion.” Bootsvorz hummed, then pushed himself away from the wall. As he walked away, Franz heard him say one last thing.
“You don’t really believe that, though.”
No, he didn’t.
Franz stared blankly at the computer screen for a few minutes, then got to his feet. A little cake sounded nice, and he supposed he should wish his senior driver a Happy Birthday properly. Bootsvorz was enjoying a small piece while chatting with both the Stormzender drivers and Lisa; Marie was waving her fork around as she spoke, but when Franz reached the table, it became clear that Gudelhian hadn’t eaten any of the dessert.
“Does that headache include your stomach, Gudelhian?” Wide blue eyes looked at him, and the two locked eyes for a tense moment until Gudelhian raised a finger and waggled it in his direction.
“Better safe then sorry, I can always have some after. I don’t like eating before a race.” Which was true, if the race started early, Gudelhian tended to skip breakfast. That was nothing new. The other man motioned at the cake. “You have a piece for me, Heinel!”
Heinel snorted, but picked up the knife and served himself a piece. “Trying to fatten me up, Gudelhian?”
Gudelhian grinned, a sight that made the worry that Franz was sternly shoving deep down fade a little, and Franz smirked in reply and took a bite. It was good cake.
Jackie waited for the green flag, enjoying the white noise that both his own race car and the others around him provided. It had been close, earlier. The sharp noise combined with the sudden glaring light had driven him immediately into a mild fugue, and only Heinel’s quick action had helped him ease out of it. The man was surprisingly empathic, when he needed to be, but he wasn’t enough. He needed a guide, and there was no way of getting around that. He had avoided the cake, sampling too many rich flavors right after a zone out would have been a risky gamble. He knew everyone was starting to talk about how he was acting, but he figured that as long as he talked his way around it, he could keep the questioning from going beyond what he was willing to answer.
Heinel was the only hitch in the plan; Jackie didn’t know if he could resist the questioning from him for too long.
He really didn’t know.
The flag was waved, and Jackie stepped on the accelerator, letting the rest of his worries fly to the back of his mind. This was his element, his sensory calm, and he would make the most of it.
July 2026, Sochi, Russia (night before the race)
There had been a formal banquet, hosted by the city and the track owners, but it had long been abandoned for the bar of the hotel it was hosted in. Jackie had stuck to water, mild snacks, and vegetables throughout the evening, spacing his nibbling in hopes that no one would focus in on his choices in such a large venue, especially with Heinel hovering more and more as the months went on. He no longer held any illusions that Franz was believing a word he said when it came to his health (well, in truth, he had never had any hope in the first place, but denial was always a welcome friend at times like these.) The noise of the bar was constant and predictable, with isolated loud noises being quickly washed away in the din, so he had no problem socializing a bit longer before heading to bed. Two local ladies were lounging against the bar flanking him, but besides some attempted friendly chatter (his Russian was shit, their English wasn’t much better) he had been mostly sipping his water and just observing. Hayato Kazami and his lovely wife Asuka were making the rounds; he had spoken to them briefly at the banquet, but as much as he liked the two of them, getting on the radar of Doctor Asuka Kazami-Sugo was something he was hoping to avoid.
Jackie glanced around for Heinel, finding him deep in conversation with Bootsvorz and a probably-local woman he didn’t recognize. Judging by her attire, he would guess on her being a businesswoman, not race groupie, and he had a suspicion that Bootsvorz was helping with translation. Jackie let his eyes wander away from them, noting where everyone else he cared to note was before turning towards the bar, hoping that the Kazami-Sugos wouldn’t try to talk to him. The television behind the bar was set to some soccer thing with English captioning, which was a nice surprise, so he focused on that. After a few minutes, the game was interrupted with a breaking news segment, and he took the opportunity to check who was around him. One of the ladies from earlier had given up and left, but the other still remained, although she was focused on Leon Earnhardt now, who had clearly picked up some language pointers from his former teammate. The woman pointed at the TV and frowned as she shook her head.
“What’s the news?” Jackie watched as Leon squinted at the screen. “Ah ha! Yeah, I remember hearing about this freak back in the US.” Jackie looked up at the report, and the man’s face that splashed across made him freeze. “You heard about him, Gudelhian? They say he’s an old Sentinel that lost his Guide, and instead of dying, he went batshit crazy instead. He’s killed something like forty young Sentinels? Crazy shit.”
“...I believe the current theory is that the man thinks he’s saving the young Sentinels from suffering from their inevitable fate, if one considers the whole Guide crisis. If my memory serves, he’s one of the most wanted people in the world right now. It’s not every day a serial killer works internationally, after all. Spells ill for border controls and other bureaucratic nonsense. The man is a Sentinel, guide or not, he’s probably getting in and out of countries on less regulated transport using his talents.” Karl Lichter von Randoll moved smoothly onto the stool on Jackie’s unaccompanied side as he spoke, and Jackie tore his eyes away from the screen to look at the Austrian, who had an effected look of boredom as he called for some cocktail Jackie had never heard of.
“You seem lonely, Gudelhian, unusual state for you. Where’s your usual group of infatuated ladies?” Randoll’s drink looked like a galaxy in a glass, and Jackie found his eyes starting to focus in on the swirling drink before he blinked heavily and pulled his eyes up to Randoll’s face. The scar he had gained almost ten years prior under his left eye had not really quelled the pretty-boy looks, but it had given him a certain maturity in his features, which had sharpened with age. Randoll had never been a big fan of his, Jackie knew that the blue-blooded lordling had long thought him coarse, loud, and ill-mannered, if he remembered the phrasing right. However, Randoll also had a bad track record of being the one person most likely to have taken him out of a race, including once intentionally (something about interfering in a fight between Kazami and Kaga, but really, he could have skipped the forced retirement part and just gotten in his way to slow him down if he was so insistent about letting the two other men battle it out) and had appeared to have realized that he wasn’t exactly acting like the height of propriety himself. Understandings were nice.
Still, it wasn’t like the two hung out outside of events like these, however. Jackie shook his head and gave Randoll a tired smirk.
“I guess I’m just getting too old to draw them anymore, especially with Earnhardt being able to actually speak some Russian. It’s alright, I’m headin’ to bed soon anyhow.” Jackie saluted Randoll with his glass of water before downing the rest of it and setting it on the bar; a quick spin of his stool and he was on his feet.
“Only water, Gudelhian?” Jackie paused at the suspicious tone in Randoll’s voice, but kept a straight face.
“Well, it is gettin’ late, you know. Always better to flush out-”
“-the alcohol you never drank?” Jackie’s shoulders tensed under the scrutiny from the other man, a quick glance to the side showed that Earnhardt was completely distracted with flirting, and was not listening in.
“I was sitting diagonally from you, Gudelhian. You got water all night.” Randoll rose to his feet as well, tilting his head towards the exit; Jackie tried to give the younger man an innocent smile, but they both knew that it fell flat.
A minute later found them outside the hotel, leaning against a support column and staring out at the Black Sea, which was lovely in the night sky. It was views like the one in front of him that had made him always believe that traveling was the second biggest perk of racing internationally, and it was a perk that he would definitely miss. It was easy to distract himself from Randoll, but only for a moment. The other man demanded attention more than almost anyone else he knew (except, perhaps, himself, once upon a time.)
“Your actions this season have gotten Herr Heinel quite in a neurotic mess, Gudelhian. He’s trying not to look like it, but he’s failing miserably. While I understand that anxiety and Heinel are old friends, he’s reaching new, rather worrying levels. We went out for lunch a few weeks back, and I could barely get him off the topic of you.” Randoll pushed himself away from the column and moved in front of Jackie, crossing his arms. “He’s worried about you, you imbecile! Why can’t you just tell him what the problem is? It can’t be that bad!” Randoll gave a rather over-the-top sigh and reached a hand up to flick at his hair as Jackie moved sideways so he could maneuver around the other man. Randoll did not move to intercept, for which Jackie was grateful.
“It’s nothing important, Randoll. It’s just an off year. It’ll be over soon.” His stock reply was getting thin, but it would be even worse to alter it now. Randoll was clearly skeptical, but Jackie knew he was inquiring more on Heinel’s behalf than anything.
Despite being almost seven years apart in age, Heinel had met Randoll when they were both children at some upper crust party, and he knew the two men thought well of each other (although Randoll nearly started a small war with Heinel when he dared to knock the seating configuration when he was commissioning a car based on the Steel platform back in 2018. Wanting to be able to drink tea in a race car was not an acceptable reason for Heinel to change his designs, and he complained about it at length, to the detriment of Jackie’s ears, for upwards of a week before finally just doing the requested modifications.)
“It better, I’m tired of hearing the endless speculation about you. You’ve even got Miss Asuka talking about it.” Jackie couldn’t help but laugh at the pout that crossed Randoll’s face as he mentioned the young doctor.
“You know, Randoll, she’s been married to Kazami for, what, almost four years now? I don’t think Miss is exactly the right term to use anymore.” He ended his statement with a click of his tongue and waggled his finger at the other man as he headed back towards the hotel doors, listening as Randoll grumbled incoherently behind him.
It was always fun to wind the kid up.
Back inside, he headed straight for the elevators, barely avoiding Lisa, Asuka, and Marie as they headed out of the bar. He was done socializing for the evening. A short time later, he was freshly showered and ensconced firmly in bed, his silk sheets soothing against his increasingly sensitive skin. Heinel (or anyone else) hadn’t seen him shirtless since February, which was a good thing because the rashes and clear evidence of constant scratching had really taken their toll on his formerly smooth skin. By the time the season ended, he was going to look like he had rolled in poison ivy for a few weeks straight. Not exactly something that would impart being a picture of perfect health.
Jackie drifted off to sleep, sparing a stray thought for that news story before his thoughts turned towards the race. He was too damn old for some hunter of baby Sentinels to suspect him to be one, which was the same reason no one had brought it up, considering his symptoms. He needed to avoid Sentinel and Guide pairs, as the control that had allowed him to conceal his status was slipping as his body slid into decline, and he knew that Guides could usually sense another Sentinel, hiding or not, unless the Sentinel was trying his damndest to stay under wraps.
Thinking about the race was better, especially considering Sochi was definitely one of the more scenic locales that they had gone to.
He would miss it.
September 2026, Zárate, Argentina (evening after the race)
“Despite his solid showing at the Zarate Grand Prix today, Jackie Gudelhian’s increasingly solitary behavior, combined with signs that he may be in some sort of physical decline, are fueling speculation that something is, to poorly paraphrase, rotten in the state of the reigning Cyber Formula champion. Attempts to interview either Gudelhian or Franz Heinel, the former Cyber Formula driver that owns Gudelhian’s team Stormzender regarding this matter met with failure. Perhaps we are seeing things that aren’t there, but if I may insert my opinion, viewers, Jackie Gudelhian has gone from being the one of the biggest and most expressive racers in the sport to being a pale shadow of his former self in a very short time. If there is something wrong there, I sure hope that he returns to normal soon. His fans surely miss him.”
Lisa turned off the television and fell back against the sofa cushions with a sigh. “There’s been some small op-ed pieces regarding Jackie, but this is the biggest one yet. I’m half tempted to just tell the next reporter that he’s going through his midlife crisis early and see if that gets them to shut up.” Her lips quirked up at that, and Franz, sitting next to her on the sofa, rolled his eyes.
“Then the media would somehow extrapolate something ridiculous out of that and we’d never hear the end of it.” Franz looked at the black television screen as he spoke, his eyes drifting out of focus. With a sigh, he pulled off his glasses and cleaned them with the edge of his shirt before putting them back on.
“He still tells you that there’s nothing wrong, right? He hasn’t let anything slip?” Lisa sounded vaguely desperate, and Franz was really starting to be right up with her on that regard.
“No, nothing. Always the same answers, so, as much as I hate it, I’ve stopped asking. Gudelhian drives me mad, but he’s still performing well, so I don’t have legal grounds to question him.” Franz paused, and Lisa leaned in, a sad smile on her face.
“You wouldn’t do that to him anyway. To force him to reveal whatever might be wrong with him, or to sneak around his back to find out-”
“-is an unforgivable breach of trust at worst, and a permanent end to any decent relations at the best. You’re right. I wouldn’t do it in either case.” Franz pulled his glasses off again, glaring at nonexistent smears before doing another pointless wipe down of them on his shirt.
“You two argue a lot, but you both truly care for each other, Franz. Don’t try to deny it, we all know. It’s like that ancient American show, you know, the one with the silly lady and her hot exotic husband.” Franz drew a complete blank, both at Lisa’s statement, and at the allegory to some television show. Lisa huffed.
“You never watched I Love Lucy?” Wait, he had heard of that one. Cuban band director married to spastic and ridiculous (and funny) red-headed woman, if he remembered correctly. He was pretty sure he had seen small bits of it dubbed into at least a dozen languages, with all the traveling he did. That being said...
“Which one am I in this comparison, may I ask?” Lisa crossed her arms and fell silent for a moment, while Franz waited for her dubious judgement.
“I suppose you’d be Ricky, yeah? Always getting ranty and grumbly, but really loving goofy funny Lucy in the end.” Lisa grinned, swinging her legs and jumping to her feet, just as Franz parsed what she had actually said.
“Wait, what...excuse me?” Franz sputtered as Lisa laughed, executing a rather clean pirouette before bouncing to the door.
“Just give it up, Franz. I know how much you value keeping your emotional state as calm as possible, but the instant Jackie showed up, I got to see another side of you that I was too young to remember otherwise. Unless someone insults your work, you hardly ever get riled up unless it’s Jackie. I’d say it’s foreplay, but I don’t want to break your mind.” The cheeky grin she shot him only made the comment worse, and Franz was sure he was bright red.
“Lisa!” There were certain conversations one never wants to have with family, and Franz was getting steered right towards one. Luckily, Lisa appeared to have realized his limits, and opened the door and stepped out.
“I’ll head to bed now, my wonderful brother, have yourself a good night!” Before he could respond, she had closed the door behind her, leaving him feeling flustered.
Life was truly unfair to him. And that unfairness was named Jackie Gudelhian. Like usual, if he needed to be distracted, Franz could always turn to work. He pulled his his laptop and set to work; he was expected to submit final designs for a consumer vehicle inspired on both the Steel and Spiegel to the Sturobrahms board by the end of the year, and toying with those was far easier than confronting the irritating American thorn in his side.
A few hours later, he was pretty sure he had sorted out the problems of having a rolling cockpit in a car where people would be placing things such as drinks and various accessories, but he still hadn’t gotten past the urge to go corner Gudelhian and throttle him until he finally spit out what the problem was. He was no idiot, he knew that emotional confrontations of any kind tended to leave him flustered, due to a legacy of crushing down his above-average empathic ability, as they referred to it all those years ago, which was probably why Gudelhian was managing to skirt around answering any serious questions. The crew and the other drivers were, for the most part, friends with Gudelhian, but he doubted any of them felt like they knew him enough to seriously question him.
Gudelhian specialized, as Franz had come to realize a few months after they formed the Sturozech Project together, in presenting a very specific picture of who he was. While Franz knew he had a reputation as being more interested in the machines and their performance than the actual act of racing (also as a bit of a stick-in-the-mud, but he didn’t hear about that as much as he used to,) Gudelhian, on the other hand, was the spunky, loud, and boisterously friendly American who tended to take the spotlight on a regular basis. Only on a handful of occasions had he slipped in the role as the laid-back nice guy, most memorably the situation caused in the end by Henri (or, as Franz thought of it, discovering that kids who can turn on the puppy eyes could scam the pants off of Gudelhian,) and the mess with Luisa’s hiring, which Franz still hadn’t quite figured out why it happened in the first place. Kyoko Aoi had alluded to jealousy, but that was...
Franz pulled his glasses off and wiped at them absently. Again. When he had talked to Gudelhian about teaming up ten years ago, he had expectations of having to deal with his (apparent, as it turned out, more than actual) promiscuity, his inability to deal with anything seriously, and his...Jackie-ness. He hadn’t made allowances for possible illness and definitely depression of some sort regarding Gudelhian (he didn’t want to think about any alleged jealousy, that implied things that Franz wasn’t ready to deal with when he had too much else on his plate.) The man had always been the picture of health.
“Enough.” Franz slipped his glasses back on and hauled himself to his feet, ignoring the answering twinge in his lower back. Before he could talk himself out of it, he left his room, and walked down to Gudelhian’s door. He lifted his hand to knock, but held it in the air for a moment. Perhaps he should just leave the man alone. After all, he had raced earlier, and had a decent fifth place finish. That didn’t scream of a man falling apart.
...he was kidding himself if he really thought that. Franz knocked on the door, and waited. Then knocked again. After close to a minute had passed, Franz leaned his face towards the seam of the closed door.
“Gudelhian, are you in there?” Another minute passed with no sound from the other side of the door, and Franz stepped back with a quiet sigh. Either he was not in his room or asleep. After a pensive look at the door, Franz turned around and went back to his own room.
In Jackie’s hotel room, the man in question lay in bed, staring towards the door. He knew he should have answered the door, but he had a feeling that Heinel was planning to confront him again. He had caught part of the news report.
Jackie turned his face into his pillow, taking a deep, shaking breath. He was going to run out of willpower before he ran out of time, at the rate he was going.
He was beginning to wonder if that was a bad thing.
October, 2026, Suzuka, Japan (30 minutes before the race)
“Sir, Ms. Asuka is out back, she said she just wants to ask you a quick question.”
Randoll nodded in acknowledgement, signalling with a hand for Grayson to stay where he was. His...(manservant was far too limited a term to describe the older man, but it would have to do) was getting up in years, and unlike the stunts Randoll often forced on the man who all but raised him when he was younger, he knew better now (for the most part, anyway.) Randoll rose to his feet and had just turned to walk away when he overheard his crew chief speaking with the Bauers, and stopped to listen in.
“We need to pick up the last few sets of tires, they just arrived.”
Randoll locked eyes with his crew chief, then looked over at the matched set of the Bauers, one of only two Sentinel/Guide pairs in the pits in Cyber Formula, and motioned for them to follow him. They walked in silence until they met up with Doctor Asuka Kazami-Sugo, who smiled and fell into step along side the other three men.
“You always have an escort no matter where you go, Randoll. Either it makes you unbearably cool, or, more likely, means that you get lost a lot.” Dwight Bauer chuckled at her words, and Randoll groaned.
“Frau Asuka, I am truly happy that comedy was not your choice of career.” This time Chester joined in the laughter, and Asuka gave a contrived pout before laughing as well.
The four men walked along for a short while, with Asuka asking if Randoll would join her and Hayato for dinner after the race (of course,) when Chester Bauer stopped dead, sniffing at the air.
“There it is again. It’s close, this time.” Dwight frowned, and Chester shook his head. “Sad situation all around.” Randoll and Asuka had stopped with them, and both looked askance at the older men.
“There’s a Sentinel around here, but-” Dwight looked at his Sentinel, and Chester nodded.
“It’s one of the young ones; once you smell what a dying Sentinel smells like, you never forget it. Hard to believe that unless a miracle happens, Dwight and I are going to be part of the last generation of Sentinels and Guides.”
Asuka sighed sadly, shaking her head. “It’s so sad, the doctors and scientists still have no clue why the Guides have vanished, either.” Asuka looked at Randoll, who had a thoughtful look on his face. “Randoll? What is it?”
“How long have you noticed this Sentinel, Chester?”
“I seem to remember smelling a slight hint of him, and it’s definitely a him, probably around three months ago. He’s been degrading steadily since, whoever he is. I’m guessing that he’s got three to six months left before he just doesn’t wake up one morning.”
“And this person is at every race?” Both Bauers nodded, and Randoll looked at Asuka, who looked puzzled.
“Do you know who it is, Randoll?” Randoll remembered a quick conversation some three months ago, and a chilling statement that ended with “...it’ll be over soon.” Randoll scowled, and turned to Chester.
“Do you think you could pinpoint it?” Chester locked eyes with his Guide, before looking back at his boss.
“Honestly, we thought about it earlier, but we figured that the guy wanted his privacy.” It made sense, and Randoll rested his chin on his fist and thought for a moment. He was probably wrong, it was probably some pit crewman who wanted to keep working, but still...
“I’ll take responsibility, Mr. Bauer. If you wouldn’t mind-” Chester looked at his Guide again, then nodded. Without speaking, he sniffed again at the air, then set off in the direction they had been walking originally, only to turn sharply towards a heavily shaded area of densely packed buildings. Randoll and Asuka followed about five paces behind the two men. After several turns, Chester froze at the entrance to a very dark alley situated behind one of the FICCY offices.
“Oh, no.” Chester’s words were barely a whisper, but they all heard them; Dwight turned shocked eyes to his Sentinel as Randoll and Asuka both looked down the alleyway. Randoll caught a glance of a very familiar red headband and a hint of dark blond hair through the shadows, and his heart felt heavy. Asuka made no sound, but looked at Chester for confirmation; the man sighed, a sound that seemed to come from deep within, and Asuka’s face crumpled. Anger erupted in Randoll’s chest, and he shoved through the others, storming up to Gudelhian, seated on a concrete curb, who jerked his eyes up as he approached. Before he could stop himself, he reached out and grabbed Gudelhian’s collar, yanking him closer to yell at him. Randoll could hear the other three running up behind him, but he disregarded them to focus on his target.
“Damnit, Gudelhian, why haven’t you said anything?” Gudelhian looked confused momentarily, but Randoll watched as the other man’s eyes wandered over his shoulder...to focus on the Bauers. Randoll could see the moment that Gudelhian realized that his game was up, the normally bright blue eyes darkening as he slumped in his grip. Randoll thought of how worried everyone had been, how worried Heinel was, and wanted nothing more than to beat the shit out of the other man. His hand tightened on Gudelhian’s collar, only to loosen in reflex when Gudelhian hissed in pain.
Looking at Gudelhian like this, he could see how the man wasn’t well; he was clearly thinner than the previous year, his hair looked dull, his eyes glazed, and the exuberance he had always emitted was all but a memory. There was no honor in hurting the man further, at least physically. A good yelling wouldn’t be out of the question, however. He let go of Gudelhian’s collar, the larger man slumping back down to the curb, and Randoll realized that as much as he wanted to do something, he couldn’t think of where to start.
“Jackie, as much as I don’t agree with you being throttled, I do agree with the sentiment behind Randoll’s actions. Why have you kept this hidden? We could have tried to help-” Asuka sat down next to Gudelhian, but did not touch him, which Randoll found odd until it hit him: one of the first senses to go with Sentinels was usually the tactile senses, if the news reports were to be believed. Him grabbing his collar had probably rather smarted.
“There is nothing anyone can do for me.” Gudelhian’s voice was a touch rough, and Randoll shoved down his guilt. “I’ve known since I was twelve that I was probably going to be dead before I was thirty, it’s a miracle I’ve made it this long.” Asuka’s lips twisted in thought, but everyone present knew that he was right.
“Still, we could have at least been there for you.” Asuka’s voice was soft, and Gudelhian’s head dropped down.
“I didn’t want to worry anyone.”
“Well, to be crude, you fucked that up. Heinel has been a worried mess for months over you, and you couldn’t just-”
“I didn’t want him to know.” Gudelhian lifted his head, and for the first time since they had gone up to him, he had some life in his eyes. “I don’t want him to know. I want to finish this season for him, to show everyone how amazing his work is, has always been. He’ll try to pull me if he finds out, and FICCY will bench me if they find out.” Gudelhian pushed himself to his feet, forcing Randoll to take a step back. The desperation flowing across Gudelhian’s features, focused on all of them, made everyone shift their feet.
“Randoll, everyone...please. There’s only three more races, including this one, I want to finish the season. Please, don’t say anything. I want the season to end on a high note, not with Heinel dwelling on the fact that he’s going to be needing to hire a new driver soon.” Randoll opened his mouth to let Gudelhian know how stupid his statement was, when Asuka held up a hand to stop him.
“Jackie. I want you to answer me honestly. Have you ever once had any zones while on the track? Could you promise me that if you believed that you could not race without being a danger to yourself and others, that you would pull out of the race, even if it’s before the end of the season?” Asuka’s questions were sensible, and completely fair; the Bauers, Randoll, and Asuka all waited for Gudelhian to respond.
“I’ve never had a zone on the track. Ever. And-” Gudelhian looked at his audience again, before nodding. “I promise to excuse myself from racing if I find that I can’t keep it together anymore. I don’t want to take anyone out with me.”
Asuka visibly weighed his words, before crossing her arms and giving a short, quick nod. “Very well. I promise to not say anything to anyone else, my husband included, provided you stick to your promise.”
“Asuka!” Randoll hissed at his friend, but she shook her head firmly.
“Randoll, as much as I think he should have told Mr. Heinel ages ago about this, it’s not our business.”
“It’s not. Our. Business. Jackie’s been through hell, is probably pretty well encamped there at this point, and while we may not agree with all his choices, these are his choices to make.” Asuka looked up at Gudelhian, her stern look framed by her eyelashes. “And you, Mr. Gudelhian, are a complete idiot if you think the only thing Mr. Heinel will care about is that he’ll need to hire another driver. But I think you know that perfectly well, yes?” Gudelhian’s bleak expression took on a sad smile, and Asuka reached out and patted him lightly on the cheek, before stepping back.
“Yeah, I know.” Gudelhian looked up at Randoll, who was still torn between fuming and going along with Asuka. “I know, Randoll, but I don’t think there’s much I can do to make this better for him.” Randoll looked over at the Bauers, who had both kept their mouths shut throughout the entire confrontation, then looked at Asuka, who raised her eyebrows in response. He really didn’t want to do this, but he knew Frau Asuka was right.
“Very well, Gudelhian. I will abide by Asuka’s agreement with you as well. My only extra request is that you eventually explain yourself to Heinel properly, in some way or another. I have a feeling that Chester and Dwight will also both keep quiet.” The Bauers nodded in near-unison, and Gudelhian’s eyes slid closed as he took a deep breath.
“Thank you, everyone, and I’m sorry to put you in a situation like this.” Dwight glanced at his cell phone, and winced.
“We need to move, boss, you need to be in the car in less than fifteen minutes.” Randoll nodded, and turned to head out of the alley. Gudelhian did not follow them, and he stopped just at the exit, the shadows from the building cutting through him. One more thing.
“For what it’s worth, Gudelhian, I am truly sorry that you are in this position at all. I will miss having you at the track.”
There was no reply beyond a soft sigh from behind him.
Gudelhian ended up finishing second, Randoll third, Bootsvorz first. The smile Gudelhian dredged up for Heinel was almost like normal, and Randoll watched the two men interact in silence before Bootsvorz tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention. The older man raised an eyebrow in questioning, but Randoll shook his head slightly before smiling for the media.
Two more races.
November, 2026, Montmeló, Catalonia, Spain (one hour before the race)
Montmeló was the last race of the 2026 Cyber Formula season, held at one of the first tracks ever certified for Cyber Formula racing. Most of the drivers had been there many times over their careers, and car testing was commonly done at the site.
Jackie thought it was fitting for his career to end at the old institution. He stood silently at the back of the pits, watching Heinel, Lisa, and the rest of the crew as they prepared his and Marie’s cars for the race. Heinel was, as always, in his element; the long coats the man favored tended to flow (rather fetchingly, Jackie had always thought) behind him as he flitted from console to terminal to vehicle, and today was no exception. He observed the same sight he had seen for years unfolding in front of him, the sheer normalcy of it, and suddenly, he couldn’t watch anymore. He turned and all but fled from the pits, walking away as fast as he could get away with without looking too strange. He found a quiet spot, like usual, tucked away between some of the buildings, and sat down on a dusty old crate that had been long forgotten. The slats scraped his suit against his skin, but he barely felt it anymore. He felt very little anymore.
He didn’t want to go. He wanted to continue his eternal dance with Heinel, wanted to feel the adrenaline of a race surge through his body for another ten years (at least,) he wanted to win a million more championships, and watch Heinel’s face light up like a child at Christmas. He wanted to do so much more than he was going ever be able to.
He didn’t even realize he was crying until the drops fell from his chin to his hand, which was resting in his lap.
He had convinced himself that he accepted his fate, had understood it, convinced himself that he had done the best he had with the time he had been given.
It was a crock of shit.
Jackie managed to get himself under control fairly quickly, but it was mostly outward control. Inside, he wanted to run back over to the pits, grab Heinel and cry on the man’s shoulder for the next few hours, but that simply wasn’t an option.
Giving himself a moment for his face to clear up, at least somewhat, he managed to find his feet and started walking to the edge of the little hideaway. In the distance, he could see Randoll walking with a few of his crew and Mr. Grayson, and he sighed. Randoll and Asuka had held to their promise, which hadn’t surprised him, as angry as Randoll was and as clearly disappointed as Asuka was, they were both people of their word.
He almost wished they hadn’t been. A chill ran up his fingers and spread all through his body, and he was forced to grab at his arms to keep the accompanying tremors from leaving him shaking all over. He was so distracted in trying to get his rebelling body to settle down, that he didn’t notice that he had a neighbor.
“Gudelhian, you don’t look well. Do you need any help?” Jackie’s head snapped up at the voice, and he turned his head to see both Edelhi Bootsvorz and Osamu Sugo standing right next to him, concern on their faces; Jackie was tongue-tied until Sugo reached down to his belt for his cell phone, and before he could stop himself, Jackie snapped an arm out and grabbed Sugo’s wrist, arresting his movement.
“I- I’m fine, you don’ need to call anyone.” Sugo, to his credit, didn’t try to shake off his hand, but instead gave it a pointed look.
“Gudelhian, I can feel you shaking. What the hell is going on?” Sugo spoke quietly, but the demand for answers was crystal clear. Jackie let go of the other man and backed up a step, looking between both Sugo and Bootsvorz. Bootsvorz hadn’t said anything, but he leaned in to look closely at Jackie’s face for a moment before moving away, a thoughtful expression on his face that made Jackie nervous.
“What? Look, it’s just the flu, that’s all. You just caught me at a bad time.” Sugo looked skeptical, and Bootsvorz frowned.
“You don’t have the flu. You are ill, however; I’m not sure with what. Sugo is thinking drugs, but no, it’s not that, either.” The wounded look that Jackie shot Sugo actually got the man to shuffle with embarrassment before tilting his head in silent apology. Jackie would let them assume a lot of things, but not drugs. That was just-
“Bootsvorz?” Sugo looked askance at the man in question, but after a moment, the Russian racer shook his head.
“It’s slipped my mind. No matter.” Bootsvorz turned to Jackie, and looked the man directly in the eye. “Are you well enough to race today?”
There was only one answer to that. “Yes, I am.” The other man crooked a little smile, and stepped back to allow Jackie to actually leave the alleyway before falling in beside him.
“It’s time for driver introductions.” Translation: I want to observe you for a few more minutes. Jackie gave a tired smile in return, before gesturing with his arm.
“Lead the way.”
The three men walked towards the track proper in silence for a few minutes, Sugo breaking off to stand off to the side as the drivers congregated near a special podium for the introductions. A flash of blond hair caught Jackie’s attention, and he nodded to Lisa, who was also standing off to the side by Sugo, giving him a cheeky grin. She was a good kid, a good assistant; he had no doubts she’d be running the team someday. Too bad he wouldn’t be around to see it.
Leon Earnhardt’s voice suddenly carried back to him, and he couldn’t help but listen in.
“Didn’t they clear pit road already? That dude doesn’t look like the media or anything, considering those ancient shades and clothes he’s wearing.” A loud pop of what was probably chewing gum, then a snort. “Dunno why, but he’s giving me the creeps.” Jackie looked around to see who Earnhardt was looking at, walking down pit lane was a massive man, dressed in a plain grey hoodie that was half destroyed, the torn hood covering nothing of his head and only a tiny bit of his face, and yes, sunglasses; the proverbial bottom fell out of Jackie’s stomach, and fear set in immediately. And he had no idea why. He gasped, drawing Bootsvorz’s attention again, and Jackie found himself walking backwards for a few steps as the stranger moved closer to them. A security guard came from the AOI pit, jogging over to intercept the man.
“Sir, sir! I’m sorry, but pit road is closed to all but authorized personnel at this time, I must ask you to come with me for now.” The man stopped, looking down at the guard, then began to walk, completely ignoring him. The guard jumped back in front and grabbed for the trespasser’s arm. “Sir, you need to come with me- urk!” A horrified silence fell over the track as the guard staggered back from the man, a knife sticking from his abdomen.
“Do not get in my way.” The guard fell to the ground bleeding as the attacker began to move quicker, heading straight towards the assembled drivers. Some people began to run, but most were frozen. The hood fell away from the man as he ran, and Jackie realized that his time was up.
The murderous mad Sentinel from the news broadcasts stood only ten meters away, and Jackie realized that he had no qualms about hurting or killing anyone else there to get to his target.
He wasn’t going to be able to finish his season after all.
Jackie moved forward into the largest gap of space and stopped, ignoring Earnhardt’s horrified “It’s that crazy serial killer guy.”
The criminal sized everyone up, his eyes scanned over the crowd still assembled before stopping on Jackie.
“You may have fooled the others, but I know what a suffering Sentinel looks like. I have seen you on the television all year, and I planned for this. It is my calling to liberate you from your wretched existence, to save you the wasting death you were resigned to with your unfortunate birth.” The man moved closer, and everyone but Jackie took a step back. “I’m sure you had delusions of finishing your work, but enough is enough. It is time to end your suffering.”
Jackie had only a moment to hope that Heinel had fled so he wouldn’t see this before the man leapt, grabbing Jackie around the neck with massive hands and bearing him to the ground with a painful crunch; he saw stars from the impact as he brought up his own hands in an attempt to stop the attack. But he was far weaker than he would have been normally, and his hands batted ineffectually at the giant crushing his throat. He could hear gasps of horror around him, but knew he was on his own.
Human instinct kept almost everyone from interfering with what would be perceived as a duel between Sentinels, and the few Guides present at the track were old. It would be suicidal for them to intervene.
He was going to die on camera, in front of the entire world. That’s exactly how he didn’t want to go out. Jackie’s vision began to darken, and his hands twitched in midair before falling to the ground. He could hear Lisa and Asuka screaming for the bastard to stop, but there wasn’t even a twitch in the hands around his neck. Just as the last of the light began to fade, a beloved voice pierced through the fog of impending death, and this time, the hands loosened slightly, allowing him to gasp in a tiny breath.
“Oh my God, what are you- stop! Let him go!” Someone had once said (much to Jackie’s bewilderment) that they would have never expected someone as fine-featured and slender as Franz Heinel to have such a deep voice, and Jackie had just laughed in response. He couldn’t imagine Heinel’s voice sounding any different.
Except now, it did. There was a strangled note that would have made Jackie’s blood run cold if it wasn’t there already, and Jackie managed to bring his shaking hands up and relieve the pressure on his throat just enough to gasp “Go!” at Heinel. The man, for possibly the first time since they met, ignored him.
“I said, let go of him!” The hands still around his neck twitched again, before, to Jackie’s shock, letting go. Jackie was completely caught up in coughing, and almost didn’t hear the words his attacker was saying to Heinel.
“Interesting. Now I know why Gudelhian is still alive, even if you didn’t know you were doing.” Jackie managed to open bleary eyes to see see Heinel standing about two meters away, his face white with shock, before those giant hands wrapped around his neck again.
“Not enough to save you, though.” Without fanfare, he began to squeeze again, and Jackie fought again for air, his hands scratching weakly at the massive man holding him down.
“Let. Him. Go.” There was an odd wave of something that seemed to accompany Heinel’s whispered command, and for the first time in seconds? Minutes? He heard gasps and murmurs from the others, whom he had thought had left, but well, the more the merrier at this point.
Jackie’s awareness was slipping away again under the slow strangling, but he would have heard the next words even if he had already died.
“Let him go!” Heinel's shout carried what Jackie would have simply described as power, his chest seemed to fill with an amazing sense of rightness as the pressure on his neck vanished; he managed to pry his eyes open to see his attacker screaming and clutching at his ears. Jackie blinked stupidly upwards as drops of blood fell from from the man's ears, and cringed as the drops splashed across his neck and chin. What the hell-
"Gudelhian!" The weight on him vanished as Heinel barrelled into the bastard trying to kill him, knocking him off; Heinel's arms then wrapped around him and lifted him partially upright, Jackie's head immediately lolling against Heinel's shoulder as he gasped for breath. His throat felt like someone, well, had squeezed the daylights out of it, and he didn’t bother trying to speak. Between his slowly normalizing breathing, he began to notice that he was surrounded by the most amazing thing he had ever smelled, and he burrowed his nose into the bend of Heinel’s neck to try and get more of it; it was a side-effect of his near-demise that it took him a second to realize that he was smelling Heinel himself. He didn’t have a chance to enjoy it for long.
A voice coming from the direction that his attacker had fallen made them all freeze. “...Guide. You...” Jackie was flung away from his resting place then none other than Heinel himself, hitting the ground a few feet away as the attacker bowled into the other man, knocking him flat. Jackie expected to see those giant bear hands wrapping around Heinel’s neck, but instead, one hand pinned Heinel’s hands over his head, and the other...
Jackie struggled to get upright, as revulsion and nausea surged through him; get him off, dirty, not like this-
These weren’t his thoughts, Jackie realized with a gasp as he managed to reach a kneeling position. He was horrified, but these feelings-
A quick look around made him as he prepared to strike made him realize that he wasn’t the only one feeling the same way; Randoll, who looked almost frozen mid-movement, had turned ghost white, he looked moments away from vomiting. Bootsvorz looked horrified, as did Sugo, but they held themselves, at least outwardly, together. Asuka was crying, Kazami and Shinjyo looked almost as bad as Randoll, and Shinjyo’s lovely crew chief was green around the gills, but holding a giant wrench in such a way that Jackie knew she would strike if the fight suspended long enough for the inherent fear to fade. Lisa looked moments away from fainting, but she held her ground. Countless other people who hadn’t fled looked much the same.
“My Guide, not his- I have a mission to complete, and to have a young, healthy Guide at my side...” Heinel thrashed under the man’s giant form, but he was simply too large for Heinel to move, and Jackie could see the large hand stroking around places that made the waves of fear and nausea come even faster. With a choked-off cry, Jackie used the last of his energy to lunge at the bastard, knocking the giant off of Heinel before falling to the ground draped over Heinel’s torso.
Unfortunately, the other man recovered quickly, delivering a sharp kick to Jackie’s ribs and knocking him off of Heinel. He landed on his stomach, and as much as he tried, he could hardly move. He was done. A shadow blotted out his already restricted view above him, and he could barely make out the twisted visage of the murderer who had killed so many, had hurt him, had hurt his Guide-
Jackie managed to turn himself over just enough to avoid the foot that would have crushed his spine, his body tingling with realization. There had been studies and theories about the Guides having reverted to a dormant state, but he had never let himself hope.
Life seriously hated him.
Anger rushed through his veins, and he realized immediately this time that it was only partially his. Heinel came out of nowhere, delivering a right hook to his would-be-murderer that the heavyweight champs of the world would envy, but the other man was simply too big, too strong, and too insane; Heinel was again seized and thrown to the ground, this time falling onto his front.
“You are mine!” The bastard snarled as he all but threw himself on top of Heinel, again setting to fondling and groping him. The waves of horror from before came back in full force, but this time, Jackie couldn’t even move his arms enough to try and push himself up.
Heinel continued to thrash about in an attempt to escape, but all it seemed to be doing was excite the bastard more. Jackie’s vision began to dim, and he felt tears seep from the corners of his eyes.
Things had gone very, very wrong, and he couldn’t do anything to fix them. The realization made Jackie’s already cold body even colder.
His acquiescence would actually save them. The inherent fear and avoidance of Sentinels fighting faded with Jackie’s tenuous grip on consciousness; the last thing he saw before he blacked out was Crew Chief Miki and Kyoko Aoi both bashing the murderer over the head with a giant wrench and a tire iron, respectively. Looked painful.
Franz choked as the giant body fell across him, pinning him even further to the gravel; he could hear yelling around him, and grunted as the deadweight draped on top of him was shifted, then shoved off of him. Randoll was suddenly in front of him, helping him sit up and handing him his glasses which had fallen off after he was knocked down the first time. Franz slipped them on with steadier hands than he expected, but his head was swimming with everything that had just happened, the sheer overwhelming emotion he had felt from both himself, Gudelhian, and the person who had tried to kill both Gudelhian and himself...
Franz gasped, and scrambled on all fours over to Gudelhian, who was far too still. Something inside seemed to tell him that he was alive, but Franz immediately hoisted the unconscious man’s head into his lap as he tried to find a pulse. After a moment of fumbling at his neck, he finally felt it, and slumped in relief, his hair falling into his eyes as his hands framed Gudelhian’s face, stroking his cheeks lightly.
“Mr. Heinel, we are going to call an ambulance for Jackie, okay?” Asuka Sugo’s voice, and he was forced to look up when her hands came into view as she gently felt at the already blossoming bruises on Gudelhian’s neck. Her eyes were red, and streaks in her makeup, but her hands were steady and she knew what she was doing, as far as he could tell. Lisa came into view a few seconds later, looking like she was restraining herself from giving him a hug. After exchanging a look with Asuka, she took out her phone, only to pause when a hand wrapped lightly around her shoulder.
“Don’t bother with the ambulance, they can’t help him now beyond making him comfortable.” He didn’t recognize the voice, but the content made him shiver, and he again heard gasps around him. Two older men in Union Savior crew uniforms came into view, and dropped to their knees around him. Instinct told him before memory that this was a Sentinel and Guide, and without realizing he was doing it, he moved his arms so one was lightly resting on Gudelhian’s collarbone, and the other draped over the man’s torso. The man closer to them raised his hands, palms out, it was clearly a gesture meant to show that he meant no harm. Franz suddenly felt a calming presence trying to blanket him, but he wasn’t sure where it was coming from; he tensed and shook off the feeling, only to watch the man who he had just looked at to flinch and lose his footing. The other kneeling man reached out and steadied his friend before turning to Franz.
“Relax, Guide, we mean no harm to either you or your Sentinel.” Franz blinked at the man stupidly before his mind went over what was just said.
“...Guide?” Franz rolled the word on his tongue, not really registering the Sentinel and Guide pair looking at each other worriedly. “Are you saying-”
“I would be more graceful about this, but you have a limited amount of time. So, in short; congratulations, you are the first Guide in over forty years to go online, unfortunately, you are broadcasting all of your emotions to probably half of Catalonia at this rate because you appear to be both very powerful and, unfortunately, completely untrained. Also, your Sentinel has been dying because of his lack of a Guide for some time, after the injury and sheer energy he expended for both himself and you, I sincerely doubt he will survive the night without your intervention.” Franz’s eyes grew wide at the Sentinel’s words, and he clutched a little tighter at Gudelhian, who was starting to stir; he realized that the two men may just have a point when everyone around him, racers, crew, and police alike all froze and cringed pretty much simultaneously.
“I’m doing that?” Multiple people nodded, and Franz let his head drop, where he realized that he had moved one of his hands up to trace Gudelhian’s features. He didn’t stop, though. A short time later, the body under his hands groaned and shifted, and Gudelhian’s eyes opened, staring straight into his own.
“...hey, you okay?” Gudelhian’s voice was so scratchy and quiet that Franz almost didn’t hear him, even with his head less than half a meter away. Franz scowled down at Gudelhian’s half-conscious mug in reply. If the man hadn’t just nearly been murdered, Franz would have smacked him one.
“Your priorities stink, Gudelhian. Worry about yourself first.” Franz paused as Gudelhian started to audibly sniff the air, before groaning and turning his face towards Franz’s thigh. “...what are you smelling?”
“You still smell amazing, and you’re really warm, too.” Gudelhian mumbled, and Franz couldn’t think of anything to say about that, but the Sentinel and Guide who had been observing them started chuckling. Laughing? While Gudelhian was half-dead in front of them?
“What?” Franz hissed, and both men shook their heads, still smiling.
“It sounds like it’s already begun. We need to get you two back to Gudelhian’s trailer so you can work things out.”
Franz wasn’t following, although he was starting to feel oddly antsy. “What in the hell are you going on about?” The two men shared a look again, and Franz felt like punching them both in the face; they were spared by Bootsvorz coming into view. The Russian bent down, and before Franz could protest, began hauling Gudelhian to his feet. Franz scrambled up to support him, and after a few uneasy moments of listing and swaying, Gudelhian managed to remain upright. They each took one of Gudelhian’s arms and wrapped it around their shoulders while each wound an arm around his midsection, and after another unsteady step or two, they set off towards the trailers. Franz noticed that the Sentinel and Guide pair followed at a distance, as well as Lisa, Sugo, and Randoll, but they remained quiet. After they had maneuvered around the pits into the inner areas, Franz looked over at Bootsvorz.
“Do you know what those two were talking about?” The rather patient look Bootsvorz leveled at him just aggravated him, and he scowled. At some point during their adventure, Gudelhian had apparently given up on watching where he was walking, and had let his head droop where his nose was almost pressed against Franz’s shoulder...and he was still sniffing.
“You really don’t know what they mean, do you? They think you were being evasive because of the media around there.” Franz just glared, or, at least, attempted to. It was a pretty pathetic attempt.
“Don’t tell him.” Gudelhian scratched out, and Bootsvorz frowned.
“Gudelhian, I think you are no longer in a position to be...picky.” Gudelhian shook his head slightly, the motion clearly painful.
“Not...like this. It’s too late anyway.” Franz thought over everything that had happened in the last fifteen minutes, with both Gudelhian and that murdering psychopath-
Franz didn’t trip over his feet, but it was a close thing. He looked at Gudelhian, pale and clearly in pain, and his heart stuttered jarringly in his chest. They were talking about bonding. That’s what that madman had wanted to force on him, and that’s what everyone was skirting around now.
There was only one way to finalize a bond, as far as he knew. Another glance at Gudelhian, and it was clear that Gudelhian realized that he had connected the dots; his eyes were sad and clouded as he lifted his head from Franz’s shoulder.
“It’s okay, Heinel. I...not like this. I don’t want to drag you down with me.” Franz had no idea what he meant by that, but he definitely didn’t like the sound of it.
“Gudelhian-” The Sentinel had moved up much closer to them, and he interrupted Franz.
“He’s full of shit, Heinel, at least, the part that thinks that he’s not already going to cause you serious issues when he dies.” Again, death, and both Franz and Gudelhian hissed their displeasure at the statement.
“What- do you mean?”
“What I mean is that you two have half-bonded already, and that’s more than enough to trigger the usual fate of Guides who have lost their Sentinels.”
Even Franz knew how those stories usually ended. Gudelhian looked horrified, which was a look he never wanted to see on the man’s face again. There was a lot of expressions he had seen, just in the last twenty minutes, that he never wanted to see again.
“Look, if you both aren’t consenting parties, the bonding won’t take. I know it’s a hard thing to take in so quickly, but you two need to talk about it immediately.”
Gudelhian’s trailer loomed before them, and tuning out the Sentinel behind him, Bootsvorz and Franz guided Gudelhian into his trailer, lowering him onto his always-decadent silk sheeted bed. Except, now that he had context, Franz realized that it never had anything to do with being over the top, it had to do with being a Sentinel. Gudelhian groaned as they laid him down on his back, but didn’t protest; Bootsvorz stepped back after letting go, and looked at both Franz and Gudelhian, before clasping Franz on the shoulder and heading outside.
Franz stood there for a long minute, considering his options. The Sentinel and Guide pair, as well as Bootsvorz, had all but stated that Gudelhian was going to die later that evening if he didn’t sleep with him. Sleeping, bonding- whatever. He hadn’t slept with anyone in some ten years, since that last clusterfuck of an attempt to try and get his mother to actually give a shit by dating the woman she set him up with, and he had never slept with a man. And he had never really understood the hype over the act, anyway.
The thought of sleeping with Gudelhian, for some reason, made his skin grow warmer than it already was; his mind was beginning to buzz with something he couldn’t name, and he let his eyes trace down the prone man’s form. At the very least, he needed to get the other man more comfortable. Shucking his own jacket, he set to work on Gudelhian’s boots, unlacing and pulling them off one by one; the race suit was one piece, like usual, so he went up to his neck, unfastening the collar first, when he was stopped by a hand on his own.
“What are you doing?” His voice sounded even worse, and Franz barely quashed the impulse to just shove him on a ambulance. This was definitely not an ideal situation.
“I’m just trying to get this filthy suit off of you, Gudelhian. You cannot be comfortable.” Gudelhian looked at him, assessing, then let his hand drop. Franz carefully peeled the suit to the waist, seeing that Gudelhian was wearing a long-sleeved silk undershirt underneath. As he worked the legs down, silk pants were revealed as well. He had noticed a few red spots (that weren’t part of the emerging collection of bruises from the near-strangling) both around the neck, and the ankles. Gudelhian was wearing underwear, so he reached for the waistband of the pants, only to be stopped again, the hand around his wrist this time.
“Don’t...I look horrible.” Gudelhian, before Franz could say anything, managed to haul himself into a sitting position on the bed, then wrapped both his hands around Franz’s wrists. “You don’t have to do this, I don’t want to you to have to do anything you don’t want to.” Franz looked down at Gudelhian’s hands, then sat down on the bed right next to the larger man. He had made his choice, and it...it felt liberating.
“Gudelhian, this is a truly uncharacteristic thing of me to say, but I...” Franz trailed off, and he could tell his face was bright red; Gudelhian slid his hands up Franz’s arms before resting them on his shoulders. “I have no problem seeing this through. And honestly, the thought of doing the same with anyone else is simply...repugnant.” Gudelhian’s mouth dropped, and Franz ducked his head.
“Translation: You actually do like me, and I probably should have tried to ask you out years ago.” Gudelhian’s shock transformed to amusement as he spoke, and Franz rolled his eyes at the ridiculous statement, before lightly pinching the skin on the back of one of Gudelhian’s hands in reply. They looked at each other, no one speaking, then Gudelhian’s hand reached up to trace the side of Franz’s face. Franz leaned into it without thinking, and Gudelhian sighed. “Hei- Franz.” The use of his first name made Franz’s eyes fly open. “Are you sure about this? I don’t- I-” Gudelhian’s eyes slid to the side, his earlier amusement completely gone. “If this is going to be a one time pity fuck done because you feel you have to, I’d rather just...go to sleep. That bastard was right, you know, I had every intention of finishing the season, saying goodbye to you without telling you what was wrong after the awards ceremony, then go home and die. I’ve already got a pile of letters pre-written and everything.”
Franz wanted to hit him, but he also wanted to hug him. When Gudelhian finished his speech, he began to cough, and Franz immediately started to get up so he could get him some water, only to be held in place by hands that were growing clammy.
“Damn it, Gudelhian, stop trying to be the martyr.” Franz breathed, and sat back down, moving until he was able to wrap his arms around the other man; Gudelhian gave a shuddering sigh before letting himself slump into Franz’s arms, and Franz and Gudelhian both let their heads fall to the other person’s shoulder.
“...still warm.” Franz huffed, but didn’t move away. Gudelhian’s breath was hot against the side of his neck, and that buzz at the back of his mind came back with a vengeance, only getting worse when something that felt suspiciously like a tongue licked up the bend of his neck. “Mmm, you taste good, too.”
“Gu-Gudelhian! Wait a minute-” Franz gasped out, and Gudelhian pulled back immediately, his expression contrite.
“Yeah, I thought so.” Gudelhian waved towards the door as he let go of Franz, letting himself fall back against the bed; Franz blinked stupidly at Gudelhian as he tried to figure out what had just happened. When it hit him, he jumped to his feet and glared down at Gudelhian.
“Damn it, you fucking moron, once you get better, I’m going to kill you myself!”
“Eh?” Franz pulled off his shirt and undershirt, throwing them on the ground, then unbuttoned his pants and kicked them off. When he was done, he was standing before Gudelhian in his boxer briefs and nothing else, not feeling exposed in the slightest, but that would probably come later. The look on the other man’s face was positively classic. “Heinel-”
“I told you, Gudelhian, stop trying to be a martyr. I admit, I’m out of practice, and I never quite got the appeal in the first place, but stop trying to scare me off.” Something in Gudelhian’s expression cracked, and after a strained moment, the man was overcome with raspy, barking laughter, which lead, predictably, to coughing yet again. Franz sighed, pinching at the bridge of his nose. “I’m getting you some water, I’ll be right back.”
Without looking back, he strode into the bathroom, finding a cup and filling it from the tap, before setting it on the counter and looking at himself at the mirror. He could see where the bruises from the fight were beginning to appear, but besides that, he didn’t look any different.
“Guide, huh?” Franz whispered. He let his eyes fall closed as he let his mind open, emotions from without flowing in. It was something he hadn’t let himself do in over twenty years, and immediately, he felt Gudelhian; the man was a warm, welcoming beacon, bringing forth the sense of being in a earthy environment, smelling of fresh soil and grass, chased with a soft scent of aftershave. Gudelhian’s presence was fading, though, making Franz’s heart and mind shudder in a horrid tension, and he could finally see the truth of what that Sentinel and Guide had told him. For all his apparent energy now, Gudelhian would not survive the night. Franz opened his eyes, and picked up the cup of water. They were running out of time.
Franz walked back out, and without speaking, helped Gudelhian back to a seated position and handed him the water; Gudelhian drank from it slowly, then handed the cup back to Franz when he was finished. The two men sat next to each other silently, until Gudelhian looked over at Franz with a solemn expression.
“I look really nasty right now. Unfortunate side effect of my senses going apeshit.”
“I’m guessing you mean under your underclothes?” Gudelhian nodded, and Franz shrugged. “I’m guessing some sort of skin issue, by the fact that you’ve been meticulously covering yourself up all year?” Franz reached over and took the bottom hem of Gudelhian’s undershirt into his fingers. “It’s okay.” Gudelhian looked at him with narrowed eyes, before acquiescing, lifting his arms so Franz could pull the shirt over his head. Franz tossed it to the ground, then looked at what was revealed. He managed to hide the instinctive wince, but it was close. Gudelhian was covered with nasty rashes, especially in areas that scrubbed against clothing, and they were made even worse by the fact that he had clearly been scratching at them, leaving cuts and scrapes that looked even worse when framed by the rashes. Franz slowly reached a hand out and set it on Gudelhian’s chest. “Does this hurt?”
“No, it doesn’t.” Gudelhian whispered, and Franz nodded as he let his hands trace the still-firm torso as Gudelhian let himself fall back onto the bed. When his hands reached the prone man’s waistband, he glanced up; receiving a nod, he gently pulled the silk pants down and off, leaving only the man’s underwear. Gudelhian’s legs were more spotty with the rashes, but the areas that had them were possibly worse than the torso. Franz let his hands run lightly over Gudelhian’s legs, before crawling back up so he could look at the man face to face.
“You are still the biggest idiot I know, but...” Franz felt himself smile, and he watched Gudelhian’s eyes dilate. “You are my idiot. And I’m not about to let you out of your contract so easily, so don’t even bother trying.”
“F-Franz, never change.” Gudelhian croaked as he raised his head to meet Franz’s lips. Franz’s lack of experience came into play for a short time as their mouths moved together, but the moment of awkwardness faded swiftly as Gudelhian’s arms wrapped around Franz, pulling him on top of him as he deepened the kiss.
The warmth and buzzing in Franz’s head took over at this point, but he was far too distracted to care. Somewhere in the first few minutes, Gudelhian pulled off Franz’s glasses and set them aside, but Franz wouldn’t have been able to pinpoint exactly when. There was far more important things to attend to.
Outside, Lisa Heinel and Edelhi Bootsvorz had each found something to sit on, and they flanked the stairs into Jackie’s trailer. After everything that had gone down just in the last thirty minutes or so, they both had the suspicion that people were going to try and interfere. So there they were, with the Bauers, the Sentinel and Guide Union Savior crew members, resting against another trailer about five meters away, and Randoll and Sugo, who had done several loops back and forth between the trailers and the pits to keep everyone apprised on what was going on. The soundproofing in the trailers had gotten pretty decent over the years, and they hadn’t heard anything out of it since Bootsvorz had closed the door behind him. Lisa had been tempted a few times to go make sure they were still breathing, but both her own sanity and Bootsvorz’s subtle head shakes at her made her change her mind.
She jolted upright when an odd feeling flowed through her, cresting and splashing through her mind like a wave. It was utterly positive, but she felt like there was something she was missing.
A meter and a half away from her, Bootsvorz tensed up, looking around wildly for a moment before curling in on himself in his chair, carefully looking away from everyone else.
Well, that explained whether Heinel and Gudelhian were going to go through with it or not. Unfortunately, Heinel’s newly discovered status as a Guide meant that an untrained empath was broadcasting to the neighborhood, and what he was broadcasting...Heinel was never going to live this down. It wasn't anything specific, simply feelings and, unfortunately, some sensation as well; the fact that the ambient noise of the race track was fading in the background was a bit odd, but could his range be that wide? The track wasn't small, by any means, and what he remembered from a rather lewd tale from his Guide cousin involving his bonding, he had only affected his apartment floor and the one below, and had been quite proud of that.
But the sheer power of Heinel's wild attack against Marks, the Sentinel Killer, as he had been called in the news, had stopped everyone in their tracks; the broadcasting during Marks' attack had sickened all of them, the fear and horror coming from the most infamously stoic (when Gudelhian wasn’t around, at any rate) individual had been jarring, to say the least.
Bootsvorz supposed it would make sense that the first Guide in decades was at least an Alpha Guide. The media must be going mad.
Before he could muse any further, another wave of sensationemotionarousal smashed into him, and he realized that maintaining his current position looking away from everyone else was probably a good thing.
It only worked for a minute.
“Mr. Bootsvorz? Are you okay? The Bauers are acting kinda odd too.” Bootsvorz’s eyebrows shot up, even as he only slightly turned his head, just catching the edge of Lisa’s profile. It clearly wasn’t affecting her, as she looked only quizzical and not flustered in the slightest.
“The bonding...err...process bleedoff doesn’t affect blood relatives, Mr. Bootsvorz, and usually only barely affects ones brought into the family by either adoption or marriage. It’s a sanity saver, I think.” The Sentinel’s tense voice broke into both Lisa and Bootsvorz’s somewhat awkward interaction, and Lisa frowned at the words.
“What are you...” Lisa remembered the surge of positive feeling that had flowed through her a short time ago, and froze. “...please don’t tell me that’s what it sounds like.” Bootsvorz managed to keep a straight face, but she clearly understood what was meant by that, backing away from him and, judging by the thump, sitting back down on the crate she had been using as a seat. “So, basically, the fact my brother is getting laid for the first time in over a decade, as far as I know, anyway, is being broadcast to the whole area.”
“Try the whole circuit and beyond, Frau Lisa.” Bootsvorz looked up in surprise, his own silent embarrassment forgotten for a moment as a flushed and stiff-gaited Randoll stopped about three paces from Lisa, looking anywhere but at her face. The Bauers, curled up together, both popped their heads up as well.
“Is that true?” Randoll nodded, and Lisa’s head fell into her hands.
“This is going to be fun.” She grumbled, and everyone present, including Randoll, let out chuckles, even if they sounded a bit strangled. The Bauers looked at Randoll, then looked out towards the pits, a thoughtful expression on their faces.
“Broadcasting to the entire track, huh? Definitely an Alpha.” Bootsvorz looked back towards the trailer as they spoke, and closed his eyes.
“I don’t think they care right now.”
“F-Franz, are you doing....haaa...alright?” Franz pinched one of Jackie’s earlobes in reply, as he was feeling far too happily distracted to muster up a glare.
“I think...mmm...that most people would-” Franz gasped as Jackie moved just right. “-think that should be the other...w-way around.” Jackie chuckled hoarsely as he dragged Franz’s head down for a kiss.
“I’m feeling better already.”
Osamu Sugo joined the group loitering outside Jackie's trailer shortly after Randoll's revelation, his body language telegraphing his own nervousness. Like everyone else present, he kept a decent amount of space between himself and the rest of the group, shuffling slightly from foot to foot as he inspected the gravel just a little too intently. After a few minutes, he glanced up at Bootsvorz.
"I forgot to say, but FICCY officially announced that the race would be postponed, at least until tomorrow. The disruption is still ongoing, and the police will probably be around for at least for a few more hours. Turns out he stabbed and knocked out an industry representative with pit access to get the pass, so that's another crime scene." Randoll frowned, but nodded, Bootsvorz shook his head and sighed.
"All that effort just to kill Jackie? That's crazy!" Lisa grumbled, but she had seen the news too. Killing over forty Sentinels was not a sign of sanity. Guide Bauer cleared his throat, and everyone looked over at him.
"While you have a point, Miss Heinel, that's not what the media is focusing on right now. It's been over forty years since a Guide went online; your brother is going to make some serious waves, mostly from people hoping for a miracle, but there is some groups that have been applauding the apparent demise of what they often say is an unnatural system for decades. To suddenly have a sign that the Guides may be returning could be a blow to some of those loons, and they could lash out." The middle-aged Guide looked down the lane, and his brow furrowed. "Now what do we have here..."
Everyone turned to look, and the sight of seven very distraught individuals barrelling towards them got Bootsvorz to his feet, and everyone else to inch towards the entrance to Jackie's trailer. It didn't take a Sentinel to smell trouble. The first person to reach them was a young woman, maybe twenty or so, and Bootsvorz was forced to grab her when she dove for the trailer door. It only took a moment for all present to realize who these people were, and Guide Bauer stepped forward and gently drew the woman away from the trailer.
"I know, Sentinel, but he's already bonding with his." The woman didn't even try to speak, but shook her head wildly in denial; Sugo, Randoll, and Bootsvorz all were forced to look away from the distraught woman as the rest of the wild Sentinels lunged at the door. Luckily, they were also scuffling with each other, so their distraction allowed for the lot of them to be subdued rather easily.
Bootsvorz felt very old, wrestling teens and early twenty-somethings (not that he hadn’t done it before, but still) but at least it distracted him a bit from the rather sensual and encompassing aura that was still pouring out in waves from the trailer. The Sentinels could feel it too, and one young man actually wailed before fighting out of Sentinel Bauer’s grasp and rushing the trailer door; he managed to thump against it before Lisa knocked him off the stairs, and executed an underarm throw that would make any Aikido master proud. The stunned man lay on the gravel as yet another wave of emotion rushed through them, sharper and more visceral than the last, and everyone (excluding Lisa,) got the impression that things were going to be coming to an end inside the trailer. The pressure kept increasing, and Lisa watched as everyone present but her groaned or gasped, then promptly either slumped to the ground or against a trailer. She blinked at the sight before coloring and turning towards the trailer, away from everyone.
“Things I never needed to know about my brother, part the ten-thousandth. I have a feeling I should dig up some phone numbers of Alpha Guides or something, because if he’s broadcasting like this every time something exciting happens, he’s going to be labelled a public menace rather quickly.” This was all grumbled under her breath, but considering the sudden high percentage of Sentinels in the area, she was pretty sure almost everyone heard her. As she tried to ignore the gasps and teeth grinding from behind her, Lisa looked up and saw something that made her freeze.
“...what a strange rainbow.” It was a simple statement, but the words made everyone around her go completely silent, and she turned back around to see why. “What did I say?”
Bootsvorz’s jaw worked for a moment before he was actually able to spit out what he wanted to say, and even then, it was in Russian. Not that he needed any translation.
Franz and Jackie were curled up together, sticky and a bit sore (Jackie was running on pure adrenaline at this point, but afterglow was a great painkiller) but happily sated as well. Franz had just seemed dazed, but from what Jackie could tell, it was a good sort of dazed. He could feel Franz’s presence as a warm balm in his mind, and the absence he had always felt in himself was gone, gone, and filled with Franz. It was mind-boggling.
And absolutely wonderful. For the first time in a year, he didn’t itch, didn’t ache, he was able to stay focused while doing something that would have completely sent him into a complete zone, and he could just breathe. Franz had dozed off within a minute of (round one, if Jackie got his way) finishing up, and his lean, solid form was wonderfully tangled up with Jackie’s, with his head on the pillow only millimeters away. Franz’s eyelashes were insanely long, which was a lot easier to see close up with his glasses off. Jackie ran a hand lightly down the other man’s features, allowing his senses to expand, if just a little bit, as he explored. After a few moments, Jackie let Franz’s slow, steady breathing lure him into closing his eyes.
Just for a few minutes.
“It’s the aurora.” Guide Bauer spoke up after several moments of silence after Bootsvorz’s outburst, and a mix of shock and confusion met the statement.
“I know what an aurora is, but I have a feeling there’s a deeper meaning here.” Lisa muttered, and it was clear to her that although the Sentinels seemed to instinctively know something was seriously odd, only the Bauers and Bootsvorz seemed to know exactly what.
“The aurora only happens, and no one knows why, at the conclusion of the bonding of a Prime Sentinel and Guide. Sort of a supernatural celebration as the stories tell it, and considering it’s been one-hundred and twenty-two years since the last one, it’s not like anyone has been able to study the phenomenon.” The Guide looked up again, his eyes narrowing as he studied it again. “It’s just sitting there...I have a feeling that means that the two of them aren’t quite finished yet.” Bauer ran his free hand down his face, his Sentinel leaning into him at the same time; Lisa let her gaze drift away from them to give them some privacy.
“Prime. I suppose it makes sense, Gudelhian has lasted longer than any unbonded Sentinel that I am aware of. Thirty-one and a half...that’s three to five years longer than the usual lifespan.” Sugo, who had remained quiet for much of the debacle, finally spoke up, drawing everyone’s attention. “And, until this year, he was able to completely hide this fact. The man is a hell of an actor, at the very least.” Sugo paused, biting at a knuckle before continuing. “I can foresee several issues coming up immediately, and we can only help with one.”
“FICCY.” Bootsvorz stated, and Sugo nodded, Lisa and everyone else watching silently as the two men seemed to have an entire conversation through facial expressions before Sugo sighed and nodded.
“Should we take the initiative, or let FICCY make the first move?” Lisa ran what the two men were saying through her mind, then it clicked.
“Do you think they will try and kick the two of them out?” Lisa was already on edge from everything that had happened, but to think that Jackie and her brother could get removed from their sport, the thing that had framed so much of their lives, just because of what they were...
“Lisa! Calm down, we won’t allow that to happen.” Randoll’s voice broke through the red haze of anger that had quickly flooded her senses, her hands twinging as she realized that she was clenching them so hard that her fingernails were stabbing her palms. Lisa looked over at Randoll, who looked towards the trailer for a moment before meeting her eyes. “I, for one, will not stand by and let Herr Heinel get cut out or otherwise sanctioned for these new developments, and yes, that includes making sure the same doesn’t happen to Gudelhian.” Randoll sighed and stomped at the ground. “Damn Gudelhian, if only he had just opened his mouth and said something serious for once in his life!”
Lisa frowned at the statement, and looked closer at Randoll, his irritation clear, but it seemed...tempered. Randoll was not the most patient man in the world, so... “You- you knew! You knew about Jackie! Why...why didn’t you say anything?” Lisa hissed, but Randoll squared his shoulders and shook his head.
“I promised, Lisa. And I have not known for long.” Lisa and Randoll both noticed Sugo looking at them, and Randoll’s lips twisted.
“I was wondering what was going on with Asuka and Gudelhian, but I think I just had my question answered. She was with you when you found out, I’m guessing.” Randoll nodded, and Sugo ran a hand through his hair. “I know it’s easy to get mad at the lot of them, Miss Heinel, but think about it; Gudelhian just wanted to finish the season before he went home to die, I’m guessing-” Lisa’s sharp intake of breath made him pause, but after a moment, he continued. “-and your brother’s abilities were clearly latent, dormant- even if the lot of you had known about Gudelhian being a Sentinel, without Heinel coming online as a Guide, Gudelhian was a goner no matter what. He knew that, you knew that, Randoll, my sister knew that.” Lisa tried to rustle up a glare, but she was too worn out; Randoll squeezed her shoulder lightly and she deflated.
“For all of Gudelhian’s lack of gravity, even I have to admit that the man is no fool; and while he may have enjoyed living it up and being as loud and ridiculous as possible, he clearly had planned the manner of his end. Until Marks decided to make him his target, anyway.” Randoll let himself trail off as he looked at all of the young Sentinels who were still hovering around. “There are no Guides for you here, Sentinels. Go home.”
The Sentinels grumbled and clearly wanted to argue, but it was clear that the Austrian racer was right, after a few minutes, they all had cleared out, leaving the original group behind; a few minutes of shuffling and dragging later, and they all had something to sit on. The trailer was silent, but the aurora was still flowing in a loose sphere in the sky above, seemingly waiting for something to happen.
“I suppose that might explain something.” Randoll said quietly, and everyone turned to look at him, questions clear in their expressions. After a long pause, he continued.
“If you were told as a child that you were a ticking time bomb, and that you would be lucky to make it past twenty-five, how would you act? Would you give up? Or would you do your best to do everything you wanted to do in the time given? I may not have the same personality as Gudelhian, but I know had I been in his place, I would have certainly felt a serious drive to do all I could in the time I had available.”
“You need to go the hospital.” Franz murmured, letting his fingertips trace the bruising on Jackie’s neck. Jackie groaned faintly at the touch, but managed a slow head tilt that clearly implied his disagreement at the statement. Franz frowned. “Gudel-” He cut himself off, taking a deep breath before he let out an amused snort.
“Considering that we are currently rather undressed and in bed together, I suppose it’s rather ridiculous to keep calling you by your surname.” Jackie’s eyes widened, but Franz took no notice. “Calling you Jackie is...equally disconcerting. I know you prefer it to your full name, but to me...”
Franz trailed off yet again, and the only sound between them was their breathing, slow and steady from Franz, slightly wheezy from Jackie. After an unknown period of time, with Jackie slowly running his hand up and down Franz’s arm, Franz sighed again.
Jackie poked Franz lightly in the shoulder. “Franz, you can keep-”
“Jack.” Jackie froze mid-poke, and Franz smirked. “I know you hate being called Jackson, but you’ve never quite said anything about Jack, only that you preferred Jackie.” Franz reached his hand up and ran it through Jackie’s hair, the other man closing his eyes at the sensation.
“Jack, huh?” Franz barely concealed a wince when Jackie tried to follow his words with his usual clicks of his tongue, which quickly degenerated into coughing.
“You need to be taken to the hospital.” Franz knew he needed to throw some clothes on and call for an ambulance, but something was keeping him from moving, keeping him wrapped around Jackie instead of acting in the way any sane person would in the face of a seriously injured man-
“I d-don’t think the bonding is finished yet.”
“That’s why you-” Jackie coughed, then continued. “-that’s why you haven’t gotten up yet.” Franz’s brow furrowed in confusion.
“Then what do we need to do?” Franz hissed, and Jackie blinked before his lips began to twitch up wildly as he fought back a laugh. Franz frowned, then gasped as a hand ran down his back, tracing his spine before settling over his buttocks.
“Maybe...we should switch?” Fingers dipped into the cleft of his ass, and Franz let out a groan, although in irritation or something else altogether, he couldn’t say.
“I hate you, in case I haven’t told you already.”
“The aurora is starting to grow.” Bootsvorz looked up at the swirling mass of light, noting the truly lovely colors that ebbed and flowed as it spread in the sky. He was forced to look down as the emotional waves resumed from the trailer, and each was worse than the last. A loud throat clearing from a meter or so away got his attention, and he turned to Lisa Heinel, who looked torn between embarrassment and plain irritation. He almost felt sorry for her.
“Goddamn it, they are having sex again, aren’t they?” Lisa groaned; next to her, Randoll looked very uncomfortable, but he managed a dry chuckle, even as he hunched in on himself.
“I think you know the answer to that, Frau Lisa.” Lisa took pity on the lot of them and turned away, leaving Bootsvorz looking at the back of her rumpled outfit. Probably for the best.
“Jackie has got to be running on some sort of special Sentinel adrenaline, because he needed to go to the hospital before they got into it the first time around.” Lisa’s words were tinged with concern (although the irritation was still present, Bootsvorz had no doubt that heads would roll on principle once everyone was patched up.)
Sentinel Bauer nodded at Lisa’s words, his arm never leaving his Guide’s waist. “I suppose that’s as good a term as any to call it, they are hardly the first example of...should I say, bonding in adversity. Gudelhian will probably keep it together long enough to finish the bonding, and perhaps clean up a bit, before he’ll crash. Your brother will let us know when that time comes.”
Lisa’s response was drier than any desert. “Unfortunately, that sounds like what’s happening already.”
Bootsvorz couldn’t help the laugh that escaped at the words.
Franz couldn’t even think anymore. The sensations were new, coming from places he had never thought could bring such feeling, and he had Gudelhian...Jack...to thank for them. He couldn’t even dredge up sarcasm at the thought. The other man’s presence was all-encompassing, marking something inside him that would not wash away; from the emotions flitting through his mind that did not belong to him, he knew he wasn’t alone. He wouldn't be completely alone ever again. He knew the thought should frighten, even horrify him, but...
"You...are amazing and we should...have done this...years ago."
For a few minutes, there was no reply beyond the sounds of the most ancient of dances; it was only after the world seemed to explode, and they both had sunk into the sheets, gasping for air and clinging to one another, did Franz manage to answer.
"I might...be amenable to continuing...our association on this front...for the foreseeable future."
"Good." The lure of sleep came swifter than before, and Franz felt himself smile as Jackie nuzzled his face into his chest as they drifted off together.
Outside, everyone was watching the sky as the aurora grew with steady pulses, surging and retracting slightly before spreading out further than before; they were so concentrated on the phenomenon that they were able to weather the emotional outburst better than before, although they still (excepting Lisa, of course,) nearly collapsed at the climax, something that all present would agree that they would be happy going through the rest of their life never being aware of again.
They were quickly distracted by the aurora again, which pulsed in the sky twice more after the clear conclusion to events inside the trailer, before exploding outward in a blinding spectacle of light and color, covering the sky as far as they could see. It lingered in the sky for several minutes, brushing across every surface, before dissipating in the same way it had grown, pulsing at the edges as it faded away.
No one spoke for the longest time; only when mere hints of the aurora were left visible in the atmosphere was the silence broken.
“Well, I’m pretty sure that was the most spectacular celebration of a bonding ever.”
“So I suppose greeting my brother and Jackie with a sign saying “Congratulations, the whole world knows you two fu...” Randoll gasped in horror, cutting Lisa off.
“Lisa.” Randoll and Lisa stared each other down for a minute, before Lisa sighed and slumped back down on one of the crates.
“Alright, I’ll be nice. I’m just a bit...discombobulated at the moment, which I think you can all understand.”
Bootsvorz looked towards the trailer, his expression thoughtful. “I suggest we alert the paramedics that Gudelhian will need to be picked up soon.” Sugo had just put away his phone when the trailer door opened to a very frumpled Franz Heinel, his normally super-glued hair hanging loose around his face and wearing clothes he had clearly purloined from Gudelhian’s drawers. The two men might have been close in height, but Jackie had almost forty pounds of bulk that Heinel did not. It showed.
“Gudelhian...needs to go to the hospital.” His voice was rough, his accent on display far more than usual, and no one said a word as he leaned his head against the doorframe, letting his eyes fall closed behind his glasses.
“They should be here any minute, Heinel. Do you need...” Sugo moved closer to the exhausted man, but did not try to touch him. “...how about yourself? You fought with Marks as well.” Sugo watched Heinel’s eyes as he thought on the statement, before the other man gave a slight shake of his head.
“It’s only bruises, nothing serious. I’m just...a bit overwrought.” That was probably an understatement, but Heinel had never been one for dramatics unless he was chasing Gudelhian.
In hindsight, it was amazing that only a handful of people had truly thought that the two men were together, considering how wrapped up in each other they had been for close to ten years. Admittedly, a lot of that wrapping up was actually literal (at least on Franz’s part, there was a stunt involving bandages that no one had been able to replicate since...) but that should have only fueled the rumors.
Sugo and Bootsvorz shared a bemused look. No longer rumors. The sound of the ambulance jarred everyone from their respective musings, and after some awkward shuffling, Heinel was persuaded to move from the doorway and let the emergency workers into the trailer to fetch Gudelhian. After a few moments, the paramedics exited the trailer with Gudelhian, who appeared to be asleep. Sugo winced at the horrendous wheezing the man was doing with every breath, the necklace of bruising turning a vile shade of purple. Gudelhian’s neck would be black shortly, Sugo had no doubts. Heinel’s expression was haunted, and he did not move as the paramedics loaded the American into the ambulance. It was Bootsvorz that got Heinel’s attention, as limited as it was.
“Heinel, go with Gudelhian. You need to be checked out as well.” Bootsvorz’s words didn’t appear to be sinking into Heinel’s increasingly dazed countenance, and after an odd moment of silence, the older man sighed, gently took Heinel’s arm, and walked him over to the ambulance. Eye contact alone with the paramedics got the point across, and they shepherded the shocky man into the back of the ambulance as well. After a short exchange, the vehicle was closed up and on its way. Everyone watched it leave in silence until it turned a corner and vanished.
Randoll was the first to speak, giving an affected brush of imaginary dirt off his racing suit before straightening and facing the others. “We have work to do, otherwise the reactionaries are going to kick them both out of Cyber Formula before Gudelhian is even out of the hospital.”
Lisa shook her head to clear it, then faced Randoll. “Do you think they could be that ridiculous?” Randoll raised an eyebrow, and Lisa crossed her arms. “What?”
“Always assume the worst, Frau Lisa. I can think of several who disliked them simply out of the possibility they were involved, let alone the Sentinel variable being added in. So-”
“But the Sentinel thing might actually help in their favor! Many people who are otherwise...bigoted often let the Sentinel and Guide relationship slide.”
“You have a point, Miss Heinel, but there will also be those who will want to throw them out on a charge of ‘unfair advantage’ or some other nonsense. We had to deal with the same, and we aren’t even drivers.” Sentinel and Guide Bauer nodded to each other before facing the rest of those assembled. After a few moments of silence, Bootsvorz and Sugo nodded in near-unison.
“Right. Time for us to begin damage control.”
Still November, 2026, Montmeló, Catalonia, Spain (Three Days Later)
“You are not going to race tomorrow! You look like shit and you can’t even talk!”
“Fraan-” Coughing. “Frannzz-”
“I said no, you idiotic bastard, and if I have to tie you to this bed to enforce it, I will!”
There was a short pause.
“Issss dat-” More coughing. “-aa promiss?”
A deep sigh shook the room.
“Out of all the Sentinels in the world, why was I stuck with you?”
“Cuuuzzz youuu luuuv me-”
“That point, Jack, is strictly debatable.”
The door to the room opened, permitting a man with spiky black hair and a crescent-shaped cut on his head to slide in. Both Jackie and Franz stare at the man before Franz decides to say something.
“Kaga? You are possibly the last person I expected to see today. I haven’t seen you in over a year.”
“Yeah, well, shit happens. Speaking of, I’m still trying to decide whether to congratulate you two for the craziness involving the Sentinel thing, or just for the part where you two managed to make half of Spain relentlessly horny.”
“Thank you...I think. Forgive me if I pretend that never happened at the moment, Kaga. Is this a social call?”
Kaga grinned as he walked over to the bed and shook Jackie’s hand, or, at least, attempted to.
“Not entirely. I thought I’d offer my services if you need someone in Gudelhian’s car tomorrow.”
“-stay right in that bed and not think of sneaking off to the track, if the look on Heinel’s face is anything to count on. Seriously, Gudelhian, you look like shit. You got strangled half to death by a giant crazy guy. You can take the damn race off.”
“My opinion of you just shot up an astronomical amount, Kaga. Just so you are aware.”
“Ha! Well, I used to pull the same shit he’s trying to, but I wasn’t even close to being the wreck he is right now when I did.”
“Shut up, Jack.”
“Jack, huh? I suddenly feel like I’m interrupting.”
“Thank you for your kind offer, Kaga, but as excellent of a driver as you are, it would take more than twenty-four hours to retool the car to your specifications.”
“Yeah, I figured as such, but I wanted to offer.”
“I can dooo it-”
“Gudelhian, shut up and thank Kaga for taking the time to visit!”
“Youu aren’t myy moom, Frannz-”
“So, how much medication is he on?”
“I lost track.”
“Definitely a lot.”
February, 2027, Talladega, Alabama, USA (10 minutes before race start.)
“All checks are complete! We are ready to roll!” Lisa spun away from the monitors with a flourish, and the rest of the team stood as Jackie and Franz exchanged a charged look that they had been all seeing rather frequently over the last few months. As it was better than what the alternative would have been, no one was really minding.
“You ready for this, Gudelhian?” Franz’s eyes assessed Jackie’s physical condition with a glance, and after a quick mental note to attack the other man’s insane hair with scissors, he turned to Marie before Jackie could reply.
“Ready, Luisa?” Marie grinned and nodded just as Jackie stomped in front of her, blocking her from Franz’s view.
“You didn’t even let me say anything, asshole!” Jackie growled, but Franz could tell there was no real anger in it. Before Franz could reply, though, Lisa pushed herself in between them and frowned.
“This is no time for foreplay, you two! Jackie, get in the damn car; Franz, stop worrying! He’ll be alright.” She patted both of them on their chests, then grabbed Jackie’s arm and dragged him away. “Scoot!” Franz’s eyebrows flew up at his sister’s antics, but he really couldn’t argue with her.
Gudelhian closed up his suit neck and slid the neck brace into place, but did not put on his helmet before sliding into the Schneid. Franz moved closer to the car, but halted a few paces away. After yet another moment of silent communication (what Franz would have called it, anyway, Lisa called it foreplay,) Jackie waved Franz closer. “Come here for a second, Heinel, not sure I have everything attached.”
Lisa rolled her eyes, but could only smile as her rarely dupped brother was completely fooled into walking up to the car and leaning in; before Franz could react, Jackie wrapped a hand around the back of the German’s neck and pulled him down, laying a solid, completely over-the-top smooch on Franz’s lips. A mild shove got Franz stumbling away from the car, his eyes as big as saucers behind his glasses for one classic moment before narrowing dangerously.
“Gudelhian, what did I say about public displays of-”
“Sorry, I’ve got a race to win, catch up later!” Lisa grabbed her brother before he did something stupid like lunge straight into the side of Schneid as Jackie pulled his helmet on, fired the engines, and sped out of the garage all within seconds.
“Gudelhian, you bastard! Get back here!” Franz’s yells didn’t disguise the laughing from the team as they moved to let Marie out as well, her amusement clear even through her helmet and the windscreen as she too sped out of the garage.
“Better get used to it, big brother; you’ve ended up being the Prime Guide to the goofiest Prime Sentinel ever.” The team took their standard positions as the cars got in line, and Lisa and Franz both put on their headsets as they stared out at the track.
“He really is, isn’t he?”
Lisa chuckled at the half-amused, half-resigned tone of Franz’s voice, nodding as the cars began their revving as the count was given.
“You wouldn’t have him any other way.” Lisa met her brother’s eyes, and he sighed (but didn’t argue with her.) “...and that includes his overgrown mop of hair, Franz, don’t try to tell me you aren’t dreaming of scissors when you look at it these days...”
The green flag was waved, and Franz felt himself smile as Jackie floored it across the line, quickly taking first position.
2027 was going to be a hell of a lot better than 2026.