Chapter 39: Back to the Roots
It was four-thirty in the morning, so I had about an hour left before the sun rose and suffocated all of us in its warmth.
With every street light I passed, with every mile I left behind, my muscles burned. I wanted them to; I wanted to feel every damn bone in my body as I jogged my heart out and felt my heart race in my chest, sweat trickling down my skin.
After that disastrous first race weekend, which ended with Felipe and I bringing the car home in fifteenth and seventeenth place, I'd pushed my body to the limits. It was the best way for me to shut out the thoughts in my head, the fury and rage still lingering deep in my veins for not being able to score a damn point on my first comeback race.
The hardest part was that I couldn't even blame anyone. I was smart enough to know how the industry worked, and that the issue wasn't something just one person could fix. Still, I was getting agitated. With everything going on, my career was the only thing I could control.
Or at least so I thought...
A flickering street light made me glance up, and I suddenly realized I had no idea where I was even going anymore. The buildings seemed unfamiliar and I couldn't recognize any of the shops around. With a tap on my ancient smartwatch, I tracked my steps, seeing I was already on my feet for five miles. It was time to get back home.
Question was, how?
I could've just opened the Maps app on my watch, but decided against it. The old thing would probably crash on me the second I decided to use it. Instead, I looked around, trying to find a familiar street sign or shop in the area. The foreign Arabic letters didn't help, though, and so I heaved a sigh, looking up at the fading stars.
They stared down at me mockingly, not even trying to help me find a way back home.
Seemed like they only spoke to higher deities — I bet they'd speak to the Goddess of the night.
I smiled at the thought.
"Lost?" The sound of footsteps followed the familiar voice, and I glanced over to find Florence coming to a halt next to me. She was barely recognizable with her entire body covered in black clothes, only leaving her hands and face on display.
I almost laughed at how fate transferred my thoughts to reality, but when I watched her chest heave with deep breaths, the rare inches of her revealed skin glistening in the dim light, all amusement got stuck in my throat.
A grey headband holding a flashlight was strapped around her head that was covered beneath her dark hood, and yellow reflective straps enveloped her wrists and ankles. I furrowed my brows at her appearance, glancing down at my own shorts and tank top. She must've been hyperventilating in those clothes in twenty degrees Celsius.
Even so, she looked painfully beautiful.
"Uh..." I took a deep breath, scratching the back of my head to find a response. "No."
Wow. Great job.
"Well..." She cleared her throat and caught her breath, glancing over at me for a moment. A thin smirk played on her lips as she glanced at her smartwatch, one that looked way more modern than my own, before her gaze met mine once more. "I'm jogging back to the hotel now. What you do with that information is up to you."
She winked and, just like that, stormed off to my left, down a dark and narrow street that illuminated under her flashlight.
"Fuck's sake..." I followed her, catching up until we were neck and neck.
She didn't regard me, just followed her path like I wasn't even there.
I hadn't seen much of Florence in the past week. After the race, she'd disappeared in the offices with Michael, and then she'd just been gone. When we'd arrived in Bahrain last night, I'd been actively looking for her, but part of me had feared her friends had still been around, and so I'd kept to myself.
There was no need for me to throw myself into the fire, after all.
Not yet, at least.
"Isn't it dangerous for you to be out at this time?" I asked, considering the streets were pitch black apart from the moonlight and occasional lamp post illuminating our path.
Florence glanced over at me, careful not to blind me with the flashlight on her head as she responded, "I don't know. You're out, too, right?"
My brows furrowed as she looked back ahead, taking a turn to our right.
"Yeah, but this is the Middle East."
I stared at her. "And it's not exactly safe for..."
"For women?" She finished my sentence, an unreadable look on her face. It was something that'd changed over the years; reading her had become a lot harder than it used to be.
Couldn't say I liked it. And yet, that trait made her so much more alluring.
She'd always said she was an open book, but I'd never thought so. Florence Nyx was as mysterious as the night, writing her own story in braille with stars in the sky.
"Well, yeah." It was all I could say before glancing back in front of us, studying the dark street that seemed faintly familiar. We couldn't be too far now.
She was quiet for a moment. All we could hear was the faint chatter out of open windows and our feet hitting the ground, but the conflict in her head was so loud that I almost wanted to throw my hands on my ears.
Only when we reached the intersection that'd lead to our hotel did she glance over, her green-blue eyes glimmering even in the dim light.
"I won't let society stop me from doing what I love just because I'm a woman." Her gaze was fierce and determined when she looked straight ahead, facing every oncoming obstacle. "I know how to defend myself," she said while shaking her left wrist, revealing a sharp blade beneath her long-sleeve shirt, and a pepper spray in her right hand. My eyes widened, and I stared at the blade for a long second, only averting my gaze when the oncoming street light reflected on the metal.
Stepping aside, I avoided running straight into the pole before I glanced back at Florence, her weapons now hidden beneath her clothing.
"And just in case you hadn't noticed..." We stopped in front of the hotel entrance, waving her hand over her covered body. "I'm trying to be as respectful and careful as I can by hiding my body. I know where I am and what I can allow myself to do," she said, her chest heaving and skin glimmering with sweat. All she revealed was her face, and yet I felt so damn drawn to her in that moment, every ounce of me longing to just touch her flushed cheeks.
We were both inhaling deeply from our exertion, though I was convinced I had no chance of ever catching my breath with her in sight. It was as futile as reading the sky.
"Noted." It was all I could say; All my lungs would let me speak under her scorching gaze.
A smile curled on her lips. It was achingly beautiful and made my head spin in the best way possible. Everything about her was so damn stunning, no matter what she did.
"Good," she rejoined, shooting me a wink that seemed too effortless for my liking. "You better remember it. After all, we have quite a few countries to visit together, don't we?"
"Nineteen," I responded, unable to hide my own smirk. Nineteen more races with this woman, and I had no idea how my heart was supposed to survive it.
"Nineteen." With a nod, her smile broadened. "Bye, Phoenix. I'll see you at the garage."
With that, she disappeared inside the hotel, not even bothering to look back. Once again, she'd left me speechless. Once again, she'd taken my every brain cell and threw it into the darkness.
I glanced skywards, focusing on the vanishing stars above. The morning sun rose in the distance, threatening to wash away the night with its warmth. It was a poetic sight, really, knowing something as romanticized as the sun would annihilate what gave me more peace than anything.
Watching how all those celestial bodies dissipated with the raising orange light, I wondered... Maybe I'd have to find my own night sky. One that'd blind me enough so I could read braille with the stars.
"Flo!" The familiar voice echoed through the garage. "There you are."
Grinning, I turned to face my favorite mechanic, his frame now appearing in the orange sunlight seeping through the entrance. "Jin! You're up already?"
He threw an arm around my shoulders, pulling me in and ruffling my hair, which was still wet from the shower I'd taken after my interesting run this morning. "Well, of course. When Florence Nyx asks you for a favor, you don't sleep in."
"Yeah, yeah. I won't hear the end of this, will I?" I laughed, glancing at my old friend. His black hair had been graced with silver strands over the years, but he still looked just as boyish as he did a decade ago.
"Oh, most definitely not." Jin nudged my shoulder, glancing over at the car in front of us. "Now, let's get to work, shall we?"
He didn't waste any time; instead, he grabbed the tools he needed, attached laptops and tablets and any other technical devices he could need to read the data, and got to work.
After the Australian Grand Prix, I'd realized I had to change something. Kill was right; my ego was bruised, but a bruised ego wasn't worth bringing the entire team down.
Jin had always been an expert on downforce issues, so that's why he was my first choice. Well, and who better to go to than the man who'd taught me everything I knew to begin with?
Now, it came down to understanding what downforce was, exactly. It wasn't as easy as TV made it out to be, to be fair.
A Formula 1 car had hundreds of little aerodynamic surfaces, like wings, or slits in the car's side, or diffusers. It all helped make the car heavier on track, so much so that it could produce five times its weight as a force to the asphalt. This meant the car was more stable.
Lots of manufacturers reduced downforce to increase the speed, since a heavy car meant more weight to move across the track. Doing so could mean the car became unstable, which would cause over- or understeering, or a jittery steering wheel.
Most of these things were happening to us, and Jin was here to figure out why.
I'd brought him in last night, and we'd gone over all the data we had for half the night. That's also why I'd felt the need to clear my head this morning, and start the day on a fresh brain with enough capacity to take in Jin's knowledge.
And boy, had I underestimated just how much I could still learn from him.
"You'll have to promote me if we get this to work," he quipped, taking a sip of his soup. We'd spent the entire day in the garage, working to get things done with the help of what felt like two hundred laptops and a thousand words of advice from everyone who thought they knew better. They always did.
"I'll make you head mechanic if this works," I joked back, grinning ear to ear. "Just kidding, obviously. You're not stealing my job."
He laughed out loud and placed the empty soup bowl on the ground before leaning against the wall. "Believe me, I don't want it. I had it for three years. That's where all the grey hairs come from."
I was the one laughing now, watching how he ran a hand through his long dark mane that was tied into a ponytail. It made his boyish features appear even younger.
"Was it that bad?" I asked, genuinely curious.
Jin shook his head, glancing over at the mountain of papers scattered all over the garage. We'd always had a similar working style: efficiently precise, with an organized chaos that only we could decipher.
"No, not bad. Just stressful. It asked too much of me and my family."
"I can only imagine." It was hard enough for me without worrying about Dad day in and day out. I couldn't even fathom how it must've felt when you had a wife and kid to take care of. "How are they doing?"
His smile grew, an appreciative glimmer sparkling in his irises as he responded, "They're perfect. Juliana is an amazing mother to Hina, they both literally never stop laughing."
"Sounds like you have a great family."
"I do." He nodded, and I could only imagine how much he meant that. We'd been in touch over the years, and I'd even driven his wife and him to the airport when they'd flown out to Japan to adopt a little girl with autism.
Coming from a poor family himself, Jin had been passionate about saving those who couldn't afford a life for themselves.
The entire ordeal had been a bureaucratic hassle, and one reason he'd put his career on the sidelines. He'd never doubted that the sacrifices had been worth it, though.
"You'll let me know if you need to be with them, right?" I nudged my shoulder against his, shooting him a smile. "This is a part-time position and your family comes first. No questions asked."
"That's not how it works in this industry, I'm afraid," he retorted with a chuckle.
"It is when I'm your boss," I fired back.
Jin raised a brow at me, cocking his head to the side. "Damn, you're a bossy boss, aren't you?"
Pride surged within me. "As if you'd expected anything else."
"True," he laughed, "The prophecy has come to life."
The week flew by in a blur, and soon enough it was Friday, one of the most stressful days of the weekend. It was when engineers, mechanics, drivers, and team principals came together to plan the weekend, go over recent developments, and more importantly, talk about the car.
That was Jin's and my responsibility today, considering we'd spent day and night in the garage.
The opening of the conference room door made me glance up from the mountain of papers in front of me. Phoenix and Felipe entered the room, both wearing navy Azure Racing shirts and washed jeans as they headed over to us and took a seat at the other side of the table.
Felipe shot me a quick wave, to which I responded with a wink, before I glanced over at the tall, dark mystery next to him.
Phoenix's forest green eyes met mine, the spark in them almost as potent as it had been during the run on Monday morning. I didn't know what it was, but something about the way he looked at me disarmed me. It was like he knew where my weaknesses lay, and he wasn't afraid to show it, either.
The way he smirked at me made me aware of that, too. It was unnoticeable to anyone who didn't know it was there, hidden beneath his dimples and stoic facade, but I could see it.
It was a stupid and chauvinistic thought, but part of me loved that he'd show me these little crumbs of affection every so often. I definitely couldn't tell him, but I enjoyed thinking that what we'd had a decade ago was enough to make him react to me like that in the present.
And it wasn't about feeling significant or special; it was about understanding, about confirmation for my past emotions and actions. The past decade had been a rollercoaster, one that'd started the second he'd left my house that fateful stormy day.
It felt good to know he still saw me, too.
My lips curled into a smile, and oh my god — I literally felt my heart tumble in my chest when his eyes glimmered in appreciation, flicking from my gaze to my mouth and back.
What the fuck was I doing?
Only when Jin started coughing to my right did I redirect my attention, raising a brow at my friend and assistant while trying to hide the warmth in my cheeks. "You okay?"
Jin nodded, laughing while slapping his chest. "Yeah, yeah. I just forgot."
"Forgot what?" I glanced back to Phoenix for a split second, whose gaze was now settling on Jin.
"Oh, nothing." His chuckle made me furrow my brows, but he ignored my request and nudged my shoulder before looking over at Phoenix. "Nice to see you again, McCoy."
Phoenix nodded, the faint crooked smirk still lingering on his lips. "Likewise, Tanaki."
"Morning, everybody!" Michael interrupted our exchange, his voice echoing through the large room. He marched inside, an unusually sour expression on his face as he took a seat at the head of the table. "We have a few announcements today, but please, let us start with some good news."
His eyes wandered around the table and stopped at Jin and me, the hope in his irises obvious as ever.
"Well." I cleared my throat and opened the folder in front of me. "We think we found the biggest part of the issue and fixed most of it, too. Downforce should be more gentle now and the car runs a lot smoother in the simulator. It's up to the drivers and today's practice session to see where the car stands on track."
Michael nodded, his scowl slowly turning into a thin smile. "Good. That is good. Anything else?"
"Um, yeah." Sarah, head of the marketing department, raised her hand. "After not giving any interviews last weekend," her eyes flicked to Phoenix and Felipe, who both didn't seem to have a care in the world, "we are now contractually obligated to give multiple today, meaning one before and one after each session. Both of you."
Phoenix's sour face made me hide a smirk, but he glanced over at me with narrowed eyes, obviously knowing I was highly amused by his frustration.
"Contractually what?" I glanced at the other end of the table, watching how a way too familiar tall blond guy entered the room. He held a vape pen in his hands, and the camo sunglasses resting on his head almost fell into his face as he raised his brows skywards, asking for someone to answer him.
A groan from opposite me made me glance over, and I almost laughed at how synchronized both Phoenix and Felipe rolled their eyes, not even trying to hide their aversion toward the newest participant of the meeting.
"Contractually obligated," Sarah finally explained, her silver-blond short hair shaking when she cocked her head to the side. "We sign contracts with the news channels, as you should know. We can't just not do the interviews. They have rights, as do we."
Liam stood, his eyes scanning the room as he didn't even try to seem like he listened to a word Sarah said. They landed on Phoenix, and soon enough, a mischievous smirk conjured on his lips as he studied the driver up and down.
I'd kept my distance from him, simply because his department had no relations whatsoever to mine aside from the odd press release or two, and seeing him now... I was glad I'd stayed away.
He was still as disrespectful as I remembered.
And I still hated his guts.
"She's talking to you," I said.
Liam glanced over, and I couldn't help but recognize that he looked just like he did ten years ago, with the minor difference that his blond hair was now shoulder-length and gelled to the back. The whole style gave him Draco Malfoy vibes.
"Oh, right. Yeah." He shrugged as if it wasn't a big deal that he just completely dismissed Sarah's contribution, even though he'd asked for it. "Well, anyway... Pandora F1 just made an announcement. Here you go." Liam tapped away on his tablet, huffing one frustrated curse after another, until he finally shared his screen to the beamer projecting onto the white wall behind Michael.
Dozens of heads turned toward the news article displayed.
Pandora F1 announces new driver for the second race of the season
The French racing team took first and second place during last week's race. With Hans Mueller being one step ahead of his teammate, Esteban Morales, one would think he'd have the upper hand in the championship battle. Unfortunately, the German broke his leg on a bike ride on his way to the paddock earlier this week, and therefore cannot race for the next few months.
Pandora F1 decided to retire the driver for this entire season, and instead employ someone with a name that surely is worth something.
Spotted at the paddock this morning was Connor Williams, vice world champion Sebastian Williams' son, as he made his way into the Pandora garage. After years of driving NASCAR, never really finding his chance in F1, the Irish-American makes his debut in Bahrain.
What can we expect from the rookie? Will he be able to keep the team at the top?
I blinked a few times, reading the article over and over again.
Connor Williams? That was impossible.
The last time I'd heard his name was when he'd won the NASCAR championship three years ago. Never in my life did I think he'd go back to Formula 1; It was unusual after being out of the sport for so long.
My gaze landed on Phoenix, who was already staring at me, his eyes wide and confused. I wondered if he knew more about Connor, considering his mother's relationship to Connor's dad... Not that it was any of my business. Come to think of it, I didn't even know if they were still together.
Frankly, I knew close to nothing about what Phoenix's life looked like right now, and for some reason, that didn't sit right with me.
Still, when he looked at me like that, his entire being gazing into my own, I felt like I could sense who he was deep inside his core. Part of him was still the guy who'd gotten adoringly nervous when I was around, stumbling over his words despite his otherwise confident nature.
I shot him a thin smile, somehow wanting to calm his already raging features from this news. I didn't know what he was thinking, but had a feeling it agitated him one way or another.
Pandora F1 had been winning championships for the past four years, and even though Azure Racing and J. J. Morrison — my brother's current and Dad's former team — had given them a run for their money every other year, they were still unbeatable.
Or at least so they thought.
I was hellbent on proving them wrong, on showing the entire world that Azure Racing was more than just second-best. Especially with a team as we had it at this moment.
We were world champion material, and the rest of the paddock had better known that.
"Well..." It was Jin who made me look back from Phoenix, who hadn't moved a muscle since the news was announced. "I guess we're going back to the roots, huh?"
Happy Friday, folks!
Alright, the rollercoaster is on its way up! Fasten your seatbelts, and make sure you're ready for the ride.
So -- any thoughts of recent developments? Are we glad Jin is back? What about Connor?
And I mean... We still don't like Liam Drexler, right?
Stay safe and healthy! And as always: Lots of love.