Chasing Lights

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Chapter 14: Protect your Peace

Florence

Saying Phoenix surprised me that day would be an understatement.

The way he'd opened up about what happened to him and his mom made me realize there's so much I didn't know about him. There was so much I didn't know about most of the people I worked with.

Truth be told, I didn't make much of an effort to get to know more about them. I was here to make my career, not friends. But the more I worked with these guys, the more I realized I actually wanted to get to know who I spent most of my time with. Jin and I spent the odd lunch hour together, so I've heard a lot about his family's history and how they found refuge in the states. There's a reason he takes his job so seriously, after all. He wants to give back to those who offered him the life they never had: His parents.

Connor, on the other hand, was as transparent as a windowpane. It was pretty easy to figure out what he was thinking, where his motives lay, even though he obviously thought he was hiding his secrets very well.

He wasn't.

"So, what's your plan for the week off?" Connor asked, leaning back on the lounge chair of the hotel pool area.

We just spent the entire day cleaning up the garage after last night's race, which was... Well, it was a disaster. A series of unfortunate events led to both cars retiring before they could cross the finish line, meaning we scored an imposing amount of zero points for the team. On top of that, we also had to repair Lucien's car, as well as install another power unit in Felipe's. It was a waste of time, energy, and money.

"I don't know," I replied honestly. The cinnamon latte in my hands helped keep me awake, but the rest of my body was exhausted beyond belief. The past weeks have been exhilarating and so damn interesting, but I was starting to feel how little prepared I was for the physical fallouts coming my way. Every weekend I've gotten little to no sleep, had to function under the extremest of conditions, and be on one hundred percent focus. All day, every day.

"I was thinking of flying to the Maldives." Connor's words made me glance over at him.

"You what now? The Maldives?"

He shrugged. "Yeah. It's pretty there."

I had to blink a few times, buying myself time to process what exactly he just said. "Connor... You're in Europe. We got Portugal, Spain, Italy, France... Those are all very beautiful countries. All of them are close by."

"Yeah, but the Maldives are perfect. The sand is white, the water is turquoise, the cocktails are supreme..."

"...And you'd kill the planet just a little more by getting on a private jet to go there, when you could simply enjoy what's close by," I added.

"What?" He laughed. "Florence, you work for Formula 1. That's literally destroying the earth with every single race. The amount of rubber our tyres send into the atmosphere, not to mention the tons of fuel we use each season... That's not exactly environmentally friendly."

For the first time since I met him, I was speechless. He wasn't wrong — I knew my job choice wasn't exactly CO2 neutral, but I just loved it so much. I was hoping I could be part of the change, make this sport a little more down-to-earth by introducing E10 fuels and similar. I knew the FIA was aiming toward CO2 neutrality in the long run, and I was planning to be a part of it.

"He's not wrong, you know." The French accent made me turn around, and I almost jumped at Viola's presence, her blue hair vibrating in the evening sun as she plopped down next to Connor. "Sometimes I wonder why I'm even here." She closed her eyes and faced the sky, sipping on her to-go-cup filled with some sort of green cocktail.

We hadn't really talked since the mimosa incident, not that I wanted to. Her behavior that night still confused me, and even though I enjoyed her presence before all of that, I felt uneasy having her around me. Especially when alcohol was involved.

"You okay?" Connor asked with a glance at the woman next to her.

Viola looked back at him, a thin smile on her face when she sighed. "Yeah. I guess. Just... Changes. Lots of changes."

Her gaze moved up to the sky again, and Connor and I shared a look that told me he had no idea what was going on, either. He had one advantage though: He didn't give a crap about social norms.

Granted, neither did I, but Connor was always one step ahead of me when it came down to it.

"Alright then. I hope the changes are good for you..." He got up and stretched his arms to the sky, leaning left and right. "But I'll be going now. Still gotta figure out where to go on vacation..." His gaze fell on me.

I laughed at the way he winked, almost as if he had something stuck in his eye. "You know you won't hear the end of it if I catch you in the Maldives."

"I do." He chuckled. "You already hate me, no need to fuel the rage, huh?"

"Absolutely right." A grin played on my lips from this unusually laid-back conversation, and I watched how Connor walked away with a little wave.

Given the bad first impressions I had at my first day in this job... I could live with this dynamic for another five weeks if I had to. Even though I was a little pissed he left me alone with Viola, when obviously that was the last thing I wanted to do.

Avoiding her gaze was so unlike me. I usually faced my problems head on, but this was different, somehow. The more time had passed, the more violated I'd felt. I've been very open about my aversion to alcohol, and yet I ended up plastered and making a fool out of myself in front of the team, and, well, Phoenix.

I didn't understand why it was so hard for people to comprehend that I didn't want to drink. And the more I thought of it... The angrier I got.

"Did you know what I was drinking that night?" I asked flat-out, obviously not caring about whatever humiliation I felt moments before.

Viola's eyes widened as she looked over. "Um... What?"

"Did you know I was drinking alcohol at that party when I specifically said I didn't drink?" I held eye-contact with her, letting my point come across.

She swallowed visibly and scratched the side of her head, her gaze now directed at her lap. "Um, I don't know. I think I did. I knew it was not just orange juice."

"But you didn't feel the need to tell me that?" The rage in my bones only grew with every word she revealed, even though deep inside of me, I already knew this was the case.

"No. You seemed happy, so I thought it was okay."

"Well, news flash: It wasn't. Especially not when you just left me alone there."

"I didn't leave you alone." She furrowed her brows at me. "I went to the bathroom and when I came back out I saw you talking to Phoenix, and I just thought... That you wanted to stay with him." Her cheeks turned crimson when she offered that piece of information, and it took a moment before I could connect the dots.

"You thought I wanted to hook up with Phoenix?"

She nodded.

"And you thought I was in the right state of mind to make a decision like that, drunk as I was?"

Again, she nodded, even though more slowly now. I could tell she was thinking hard, probably figuring out where exactly she went wrong. "I was confused. First, I thought you like me, because, you know..."

"Because we flirted?" I finished her sentence.

"Yes. But then I saw how you were around him, and then I knew it was different."

I stopped for a moment. "Different?"

"Yes. The energy... it was different. Alive. It's all about the energy, you know?"

The smile on her face made me freeze. It felt like she saw something she shouldn't, or like she knew more than I did. That feeling didn't sit well with me.

"Honestly, I still think you should've checked in with me. Phoenix brought me home, in the end. I was too drunk to function."

"I'm sorry..." she mumbled. "I didn't think it was that bad."

I could tell she felt awful about what she did, but that didn't matter to me. Where I grew up, there was an unwritten rule between women, or those who couldn't protect themselves.

Don't leave anyone behind.

The fact that she didn't abide by that rule made me realize that while Viola was fun to be around, she was not a safe space for me.

It was time to find the people I could rely on, the ones I could trust.

It was time to find my peace.

***

I woke up early the next morning. A restlessness lingered in my bones, and knowing that I was one of the very few who prolonged their stay to help out, I used my Tuesday morning to get some workout done. The past two-and-a-half weeks showed me I was nowhere near fit enough, even though I made health a priority.

Jumping into my running gear, I tied my hair up into a ponytail and put on my headphones, ready to get the day going. It's been a while since I went on a run. During my internship, I usually used the gym super late at night or early in the morning, just to avoid any male stares or generally curious glances.

Given that most of my coworkers already left last night, I didn't fear running into anyone. I hadn't seen Phoenix since Saturday, so he either left earlier than others, or just hid away in his room to avoid another confrontation with that vaping idiot Liam Drexler. Either way, I felt safe enough to run out the back entrance of the hotel and toward the park nearby, letting the navigation voice in my ear tell me where I needed to go.

The crisp morning air was a great change to the usually rather humid climate of an Italian summer, especially after a weekend as busy as this. I was still trying to wrap my head around everything that happened, to be honest.

Running was my go-to distraction from my thoughts, a method to clear my mind when every breathing technique I knew didn't help.

In one hundred meters, turn right.

But alas, with every turn I made, a different thought popped into my head.

Continue for five hundred meters.

Would I go home next weekend? It was the only weekend off in the eight weeks of internship, after all. I missed my family and Amara. Dad said we'd talk about it during dinner today, but I had no idea what he had planned. I just knew I'd stay here a little longer.

Turn left.

What would Phoenix do? Go home to his mother?

Continue for two hundred meters.

Did Dad know about Sebastian Williams and Phoenix's mom? Did he even care about it?

The questions kept plowing through my mind, and so I kept running and running, kept changing directions to give me more space to think and reflect.

By the time I spotted the hotel from my peripheral, I'd already run a solid ten kilometers, but I still felt like I could keep going, could keep pushing. With a quick glance at my watch, I opted for another lap around the park, figuring I could finish it before the sun became unbearable.

I was just sprinting around the last corner when I saw something that made me stop in my tracks. At a small glade off the path I was running on, Phoenix sat on the grass with a phone pressed to his ear. I slowed into a walk and found myself wondering who he was talking to.

Maybe this had anything to do with Liam Drexler's appearance, given he seemed less than enthused when he ran a hand through his tousled and sweaty hair.

It wasn't my place to ask, of course.

And yet, my legs moved in his direction as soon as he threw his phone on the grass. I tiptoed up to him, suddenly feeling like I was approaching a wild animal. "Are you okay?"

My question obviously startled him; he moved out of his position to glance back up at me, his palm shielding him from the oncoming sun. "Florence?"

I responded by walking further and sitting down cross-legged opposite him, pushing the phone back in his direction with a silent nod. "I thought you left already."

Phoenix looked at me like he'd seen a ghost, his gaze unfaltering and intense. His stare bore into my head for a long moment, almost long enough for me to get uncomfortable by its intensity.

Almost.

"I haven't," he muttered in a tone that pierced straight into my heart. There was something about him today, a raw and undiluted fidelity that was so unlike him that it was hard to believe who I was talking to.

"Do you want to be left alone?"

His green eyes sparkled in the rising sun as he swallowed deeply, thinking hard of what to say. This wasn't cocky Phoenix McCoy as we saw him every single day in the paddock. This was someone else.

"I don't know." He furrowed his brows, and I had a feeling he wasn't content with his own reply until he added, "I think so."

"Okay. How long will you still be here?" I nodded toward the hotel.

Phoenix shrugged, glancing at his phone. "I don't know yet. A week or so."

His answer surprised me. I knew most people went home for the longer breaks, but God knows what Phoenix was up to...

"That's pretty long. Don't you want to visit home?"

His head shot up at my question, the calm demeanor he portrayed just seconds earlier suddenly going up in flames. He grabbed his phone from the ground and shot up, casting a shadow over me as he countered, "I said it before and I'll say it again: This is none of your business, Florence."

And just like that, he stormed off. I could basically see the rage rolling off of him as he waltzed away, as if I triggered something within him by just being nice.

Goddamn. It was hard to see through this guy's head sometimes.

But as I watched him dash across the park, I couldn't help but wonder...

Who was part of Phoenix's peace?

***

"Dad!" I found him in the hotel lobby, phone clutched between his fingers as he glanced up at me.

"Sunflower!" He jumped from his seat and threw his arms around me, offering his signature tight hug. "How is it that we barely see each other even though we're literally in the same hotel?"

I laughed as we stepped back. "I don't know. Maybe you party too hard."

"Ha-ha." He nudged my shoulder. "If you ask me, it's because you do all that overtime work."

"Don't lecture me on that now." My brows raised at his accusation. Dad, of all people, should know how much this job asked of a person.

"No, no. I won't. I just hope you know not to overwork yourself."

"I won't. Promise. I only went for a run this morning and then did nothing for the rest of the day. You were the one who had to go on trips all day, if I may remind you."

To my surprise, Dad didn't try to defend himself for working longer yet again, when I knew Mom was probably waiting for him to come home.

Instead, he just stood there with a wide grin on his face. "Well, I mean... My trips were super im—"

"Ayo, Flo!" The familiar voice rang through the hotel lobby, though I couldn't tell where it was coming from. "Better come here and give me a hug!"

I already knew who it was, obviously. But I still started laughing out loud when I turned and found Amara skipping over to us, arms wide open and ready to embrace me.

And so I did just that. "What are you doing here?" We ran into each other's arms, squeezing the other tightly.

"That's what you say to me when I fly to another continent to see you? Nice."

"Shut up. You know what I mean." I laughed and squeezed her even harder.

"I do. I was just growing impatient, and I wanted to go see you before I need to get my shit together and start Yale without you."

"Come on, I'll only be a semester behind. You'll survive that."

"Eh. Not sure. Maybe. Probably. Still, it'll suck." She laughed. "Anyways, I think there's someone else you need to say hi to." Amara nodded to my right, where my father was just releasing his wife from a hug that I must've missed with Amara's attack on me.

"Mom!"

"Florence!" My mother broke away from Dad and quickly rushed over to me, her arms instantly thrown around my torso. "Oh, I've missed you so much, hija."

I pressed a kiss on her cheek. "I missed you too, Ma."

"Are you feeling okay? You get enough to eat, yes?" She stepped away and inspected me from head to toe, brows furrowed in fear that I magically lost a dozen pounds.

"Don't worry, Ma. I can look after myself, right? You taught me that."

"Yes, yes, but this is different. I just have to know you won't get sick." She pinched my cheek with a smile, the worry visible in her eyes. Dad's and Rafael's occupation haven't exactly made it easy on her; the bruises she had to tend to had been more extensive than people saw on TV.

"I know, I know. I take care of myself, though. Promise."

"Good." She nodded. "Now, what is the plan, Jeremiah? When will Rafael join us?"

My dad joined the circle, his arm wrapping around my mother's shoulder as he explained, "Well Rafael still has some Formula 3 event going on, but he'll be here tomorrow. We have a few days together before we all need to get back to our lives on Friday, so I'd say let's make the most of it, alright?"

"Five days in Italy? Hell, that sounds like a super cliche romance novel," Amara chimed in with a laugh. "I'm in!"

And as my best friend threw her arm around me, her warmth reminding me so much of home that I took a moment to acclimate to the new atmosphere, I realized that this was it.

This was my peace.

Now it was time to embrace it.
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