--Author's Note: "jakes," for those who don't know much about big rigs, are jake brakes. Air brakes, in other words. ;3

Also, for the curious, parts of this story reference my last fic, "Of Things That Change." You'll know what I mean if you've read it.--

--Ring of Fire--

"Remember... if you get caught, that's it. I'm not involved."

The silence was thick between the two cars after that comment, with the black Thunderbird focusing his attention sharply on the green stock car. "Whatever you say. As long as you've got the money, I've got no connections. Your wheel wells are clean, and the job... well, it's as good as done."

The stock car nodded slightly, rolling back. "Good. That takes care of my problem nicely, then." He gave a deep sigh, grinning. "You've already gotten half your payment. You'll get the other half when you take out that racecar."

It was the last race of the season, and Radiator Springs was alive with action as fans of the little red #95 headed for his trailer, grinning and putting on a sharp turn to flash the bolt at the cheering crowd. This resulted in another round of screams and cheers, followed by a few disappointed groans from the ladies as Sally rolled up to give her hot shot a light kiss on the fender. "Make us proud, Stickers. We'll be watching and waiting."

"We're about ready," came Doc's voice, sharp and clear over the din of the crowd. "Come on, let's hustle. We've wasted enough time lollygagging around town. We've got one last race to put that Chick Hicks in his place, and we're gonna do it this weekend at the Piston Cup final."

That brought another roar from the crowd as Mater moved around from in front of Mack, checking to see that Guido was comfortable where he was settled in Fillmore's back. "We's all set up here, Doc! Let's git'r'dun!"

There was a brief ripple of laughter before Lightning, giving Sally's front fender one more affectionate rub, backed up into Mack's trailer, winking at the crowd as the door lifted.

"We are ready to roll, people," Doc called, pulling to the head of the convoy. "Let's move out."

It had been a long haul so far, and it was nearing the time Doc had scheduled for them to pull off. Mack was leading the pack by this point, although the truck was yawning, and Lightning was speaking lightly from the trailer. It was just a few more miles... they would make it.

Chuckling quietly at the conversations he heard around him, Doc stretched a bit and started to drop back. "I'm going to hang around the rear for a few, Mack. You and Mater hold up the front. We'll be at a rest stop soon."

Mack gave a nod, stretching as well. "You got it, Doc. Just honk if I start to swerve... I get kinda sleepy this late."

Doc laughed a little, settling to the back of the pack as Mack spoke, stretching again. "Well, son, that's understandable. Just hang tight."

Silence descended on the small convoy as it moved along... at least for the moment. In the darkness, no one saw the black Thunderbird racing up from behind, modified engine purring quietly as it moved, headlights off and a visor down over its eyes to aid in night vision.

No one saw it as it swerved up next to Doc, heading towards the back of Mack's trailer.

No one saw it coming as the Thunderbird all at once swooped hard to the right, clipping the front of the old racecar so hard that he immediately spun out of control.

As soon as Lightning heard the startled old racecar give a cry of shock, he started awake, looking around in a slight panic, trying to figure out what was going on outside of the safety of his trailer. "Wha...! Doc! Doc, what's wrong!"

Another sound of a crash. The black Thunderbird had sideswiped him again, this time sending the old #51 crashing over the guardrail, where he rolled and tossed several times before coming to a stop on his hood, battered and broken where he lay in the grass.

Mack was already shouting for the others to stop as he put on his jakes, the air brakes squealing loudly as he came to a halt. Emergency blinkers went on, and the group - those that could - started down the hill. Lightning was leading the charge, hollering for the old-timer to answer, newly acquired headlights blazing as they lit the ground ahead of him. "Doc!"

The old racer was still resting on his cab when they found him, breathing shallow and eyes closed. It was fairly obvious he wasn't conscious, and seeing him like this, Lightning felt he was fairly close to panicking. "Mater!" He turned to look at the tow truck, visibly shaking and his voice trying to crack. "We've... we've gotta get him upright and tow him up to the main street. Then... oh, Chrysler, we... we have to get him help."

"I'm already on the radio with the emergency crews, Lightning!" Mack called down from the street above. "And I got ahold of Sally back in Radiator Springs! They're gonna meet us at the next exit tomorrow!"

Lightning just nodded, watching as Mater - with the help of Guido, who had just joined them below - carefully maneuvered Doc onto his side and then his tires. Sarge maneuvered in close to lend an extra tire, a concerned look on his war-worn face. Doc looked as bad or worse as he had in the wreck that had taken him out of the game permanently... but now, Lightning was aware of just how serious this could be. Doc was a dying breed... one of the last of his kind. Getting what they'd need to help him was going to be... tricky, to say the least.

"Mack, how long until help gets down here?" Sarge hollered, turning his attention to the highway above, where a number of cars had already stopped, surprised to see the #95 trailer pulled over in the middle of nowhere like this. "We can't risk movin' 'im any more than we already have!"

There was a pause, during which the others were fairly sure that Mack was on the radio again, before the truck replied, "The hospital's sending out an emergency crew right now. They're at the next exit up, and that's not even a mile, so it'll only be a few more minutes!"

Silence descended and Lightning frowned, driving a circle around the older car, nudging him here and there to check the damage. At one point, Doc groaned, and the team perked. But little else happened, and slowly they returned to their quiet worrying.

Within ten minutes, the sound of sirens and the sight of flashing lights brought everyone back to life again, and immediately Lightning sped back up to the highway proper to meet a big, boxy ambulance and a couple of squad cars, both smaller and sleeker than Sheriff.

"What happened here?" the ambulance - Lightning noted that she sounded like a much younger version of Flo - questioned.

Shrugging slightly on his axles, Lightning could do little more than shake his front. "I really don't know... we were driving along and then... bam. I heard a crash. It sounded like something hit him."

Nodding, the ambulance glanced to one of the squad cars. "Fuzz, talk to that tow truck right there and get him to pull the wounded up slowly. Badge, talk to the truck... see if he heard anything."

Lightning fell silent then as the emergency team went about what they were doing. He did, however, overhear the questioning of Mack by Badge, and curiosity ate at him. What were they talking about...?

"Can you tell me what you saw, Mack?"

"Well, that's easy. I took a glance in my rear view mirrors and out of nowhere, I see this black car. Older model... definitely a muscle car. He comes up close - I noticed him when he got under the lights of my trailer. When he gets close enough, WHAM! He swerves hard right and clips Doc across the front left fender. Doc spun out, but this guy apparently couldn't leave well enough alone, 'cause he comes right back in and hits him again from the side... sends him sailing over the embankment."

Badge nodded slightly, frowning. "I see... and could you describe this car to me?"

That caused Mack to frown, glancing down and away. "I... I just know he was totally black all over. I couldn't even see his eyes... some kinda visor or something. And he looked like a sports car... an older one."

Nodding again, Badge backed up to meet back with his companion Fuzz. Lightning, taking initiative, drove up beside Mack, nudging the truck with a fender. "Hey, Mack... you okay?"

"I d'no, Lightning, I... I should've done something! I should've honked or... or maybe yelled at Doc, or..."

"Whoa, hey, easy buddy... seriously, there was nothing you could do without knowing. How were we to know he was after Doc, anyway? What if he was after you? Y'know, to get at the trailer?"

Mack sighed, sinking with dismay. "I know... I know, but still..."

The young racecar couldn't help but give a weak smile, nudging his friend again. "Hey. You called the emergency crews and you told us something was up. That's more than enough in my book, Mack."

The truck smiled a little at that, then turned slightly to face the ambulance who was approaching from behind. Lightning immediately spun, shaking a little. She was weighed down slightly in the back and Mater was nearby, looking as if he was about ready to start crying any minute. The ambulance sighed. "We'll get him to the clinic asap, but it looks bad, Mr. McQueen. You and your crew can follow us back. Fuzz and Badge can provide escort."

Worriedly, Mater pulled up beside Lightning, tow cable held low. "I know yer worried, Lightnin'... I'm worried to. Ain't never seen somethin' scarier'n this. You don't reckon Doc's gonna... gonna...?"

"He won't die, Mater," Lightning bit, eyes narrowing as his engine rumbled lowly. "He can't. Don't worry, Mater. He'll be fine."

The "clinic," as it was, was really a huge hospital, looming above a corded off section of Exit 42. The waiting room was sparse... there were very few cars waiting inside. Most, of course, preferred to stick with hometown doctors for their minor aches and pains. Hospitals were only for serious accidents.

Of course, most of this area was closed off now, as media was already swarming the building. Fuzz and Badge had stayed outside with Mack to ensure that the distraught semi wasn't bothered by questions, and inside, the small group of cars sat in stunned silence, waiting for the call.

When the door from the outside opened, it was Lightning who turned, and when he saw who it was, he sped over, bumping fenders with Sally as he sunk low and shuddered. "Thank Chrysler you guys got here safe."

The petite Carerra frowned, rubbing her fender against her companion's, watching his expression with a note of concern. "Lightning, what happened? Sheriff's outside talking with those cops, but..."

"Someone sideswiped Doc," Lightning replied lowly, voice heavy. He'd been forcing himself through this too much, and now he was tired and sorely depressed. "He spun out, then took another hit from the same car and flew over the embankment."

Sally's eyes grew wide and she sank back, sputtering for a moment. "Chrysler! But... who'd want to do that to Doc! He's... he's not a threat to anyone...!"

"I say it's a plan to take the kid out of the race," Sarge interjected. "Get him upset... too upset to race."

A murmur of agreement rippled through the others and Lightning bristled, although he shut his eyes tight. "I don't know who did this, but I intend to find out."

Mater shifted uneasily on his tires after that, rolling slowly forward. "I don't know nothin' 'bout this sorta thing, Lightnin', but... I d'no, this whole thing's a little weird t'me, y'know? Kinda... all secret agent like."

"You know, Mater," Lightning murmured, glancing at the tow truck, "you're right. This is kinda suspicious. I mean... obviously someone doesn't want me to race next weekend. I know one car who wouldn't, but I don't think Chick's that... I dunno, desperate."

Sheriff scoffed as he rolled in, pulling up into the group with a frown. "Those two cops outside say they found some bits at the scene that looked like they belonged to a Thunderbird."

At that, Fillmore nosed over, looking around before he frowned. "It was a hit, man. Had t'be. Someone put a hit on Doc."

There was no one who could disagree with him this time... not even Sarge. As the uneasy silence settled, the doors bumped once, and then in drove the old #43... the King himself. His wife at his bumper, he looked concerned, and tired. They must've driven through as soon as news hit the major stations.

"Kid, this is awful." The old baby blue stock car was genuinely concerned, and his wife pulled up to nudge her bumper lightly against Lightning's in a comforting fashion. "Figured you'd need all the support y'could get. Does anyone know what happened yet?"

Lightning just shook his front end as Mrs. Weathers made a sympathetic sound, nudging his bumper again. "I'm so sorry. We came as soon as we heard. Is everyone feeling okay?"

"We've seen better days, Mrs. Weathers, but thank you," Sally replied softly.

The others nodded as Lightning settled uneasily on his tires, glancing down. "We haven't had any news since we got here. They've been working on him--..." He paused when his voice caught. It wasn't like him to sound so pathetic, but when Sally nudged his fender lightly on the other side, he sighed and sunk lower. "First opinion when we got here was that if this'd been fifty years ago, he'd... be a lot better."

"Well, y'can't give up hope yet, kid," the King stated. "That ol' car's pulled through more'n you or me could ever hope to. I'm sure he'll be fine now."

Through the beeping of machines and the hurried rush of doctors as they frantically worked to repair the horrific damage done to the classic racecar, Doc's mind itself stayed quite active.

It was like watching a faded old movie, except it was crystal clear. Daytona, Florida... home of the Piston Cup. Driving around, with someone at his side... a softly purring salmon pink Crestline Victoria, her fender occasionally just slightly rubbing up against his.

As he watched, he couldn't help but give a soft sigh. What he wouldn't give to go back to those days, riding with Cassy and enjoying a life he'd left behind. A life that had taken away everything and left him with...


His frame gave a shudder and a sharp pain drew him out of the memory, eyes flickering open only briefly as one of the doctors frowned, glancing at a nurse near the door and murmuring something to her.

He fought to remain conscious now. Why was he in a hospital...?

Unable to stay awake any longer, the old racecar gave a weak sigh and settled back onto the lift.

Things had fallen silent out in the waiting room. Sarge had taken it upon himself to go outside and talk to Mack, followed by Fillmore. Inside, Lightning was rolling back and forth, muttering to himself in frustration.

Who would want to hurt Doc? Why would they do something like this? Was it a trick to try to get him not to race? A signal? Someone telling him that if he did race, there would be more accidents like this one?

All thought stopped as the doors to the emergency room swung open and a dirty old-fashioned doctor rolled out, his finish scuffed and turned a sickening shade of dark brown by oil... fresh oil.

Sally shuddered and rolled behind Lightning, closing her eyes tightly as she forced herself not to think of what that meant.

Lightning himself couldn't take his eyes off the doctor, expression bewildered, tired, and hurt. "Hey, uh... Doctor...?"

"Benz. Dr. Merc Benz." He sighed deeply. "Lightning McQueen, correct?" When the young racer nodded, the doctor rolled forward. "He got hit pretty bad, Mr. McQueen. I daresay I haven't seen an accident this bad in a while, and I've seen some racers brought in here in pieces. One of my nurses worked on the Intimidator... said the damage is on par with his last wreck..."

Immediately, Lightning seemed to deflate, shaking his front end sharply. "No..."

Dr. Benz gave another sigh. "He's still holding on... he's a tough old car. Tell you what, they don't make 'em like that anymore. Which is... admittedly... part of the problem. We... well, antique cars are tricky. Old car like him, we just... the parts are limited, and he may need a new cylinder block. We'll keep doing what we can, but..."

"Understood." Lightning's voice was low and he was not looking at the doctor. "Thank you, Dr. Benz. You'll keep us posted...?"

The Mercedes nodded in reply. "Updates on the hour. Don't worry, son. We're doing everything we can for him."

As he rolled back into the emergency room, Lightning shook all over, backing up to press against Sally's door, just sitting like that for a long moment as he tried to force himself not to think the worst.

The old #43 and his wife had fallen silent. Mrs. Weathers had her eyes closed, and even the King himself looked snowballed by the whole scenario. He, after all, had been at the side of the famous Intimidator - his best friend and rival Dale Earncar - up until the moment they'd announced there was no saving him. He knew what that sort of damage looked like, up close and personal.

He couldn't even offer a word of encouragement as Lightning let out a choked breath, muttering that he needed some air, before he headed outside and made a beeline for Mack. The truck turned slightly, watching his friend approach, blaring his horn loud enough to startle the media out of pictures for a few moments. Turning to open his trailer, he allowed the racecar access and shut the door, turning on the video feed as Fuzz and Badge moved in front of him. "Lightning... you okay, buddy?"

"No," was the quiet reply from the red #95 hunkered down in the back. "They said Doc's damage is on par with Dale Earncar's in the race that killed him. Mack... Doc, he... he can't survive damage like that!"

The big rig shuddered, the shake feeling comfortable more than unnerving. "Ya can't think like that, kid. Doc... he's a good guy. And if my intuition's right - mind you, it usually is... well, I think it is, anyway... but he'll be a-okay!"

Sighing softly, Lightning forced a weak smile, glancing up at the video feed. "...thanks, Mack. Seriously."

"Hey, no problem, kid," the truck replied. "I know it isn't much... but sometimes, y'just gotta remember that there's always a silver lining..."

As the night wore on, the news came by the hour as promised... not once did it improve. On the upside, it had not declined, so everyone pretty much kept their hopes up as much as they could.

Inside the room in the intensive care ward, the old Hornet was still and quiet, not doing much in the way of moving as the doctors worked on repairing him. He shifted only slightly, letting out an uncomfortable sound as without warning, one of the monitors started to beep frantically.

The old racecar's mind was just as frantic, as in his mind's eye, he was racing down a busy highway, following the tail lights of a salmon Crestline, calling out the familiar name and trying to get her to look back... to stop before something happened to her.

Until he realized that it was not the Crestline and her escort that he was following, but the familiar raised tail of a little blue Porsche and the sleek red spoiler of a young rookie racecar.

Nearby, he saw an old Ford truck, weaving due to lack of sleep. Immediately, he punched the gas, racing forward as he continued to try to attract the attention of his friends.

But all his efforts were for naught. The truck dipped to one side, clipping the front end of the red #95 racecar and sending him crashing into the little blue Porsche...

As the pair careened and spun out, flipping over the embankment nearby as Doc watched, helpless to stop it, he slowly started to come out of the nightmare, returned to some amount of rationality by the sudden jolt of electricity that raced through his engine block.

Nearby, Dr. Benz gave a heavy sigh. "We pulled him out of it. Good job, team." Sighing again, he glanced at the old Hornet. "You've got a lot of living left to do, friend..."

Out in the waiting room, the air was solemn. No one was speaking, really... no one knew what to say. A little less than a half hour before, Lightning had returned from Mack's trailer, and he was settled quietly next to Sally, dozing off more out of sheer exhaustion than anything.

Really, everyone looked tired. It was getting close to dawn, and no one could concentrate on much outside of Doc and how he was doing.

The earlier scare had many of the cars present on edge, but they all kept their hopes up. Doc wouldn't have wanted anything less out of them.

Calls had come in from a variety of places... mostly from those left in Radiator Springs to watch after the place. There had been a few actual, if quiet, words of encouragement from Red before the fire truck had immediately given the call back over to Flo.

Sally frowned after the room had settled down, glancing at Lightning beside her. The racecar was out like a light, leaning slightly against her, twitching and mumbling weakly in his sleep. She knew he was probably having a nightmare, but between that and seeing him actually resting through this ordeal, she just couldn't bring herself to wake him.

The doctor came out a once more as dawn broke, explaining the situation. The old racecar was stable. They could see him.

At that, Sally finally did rouse Lightning, frowning gently when he jumped and went in reverse rapidly, breathing heavily as he fought for a moment to get his surroundings in check. She nudged his bumper lightly, repeating to him what she had just heard, before the two headed in to the old Hornet's private room.

At first, Doc thought the whole wreck and hospital had just been a horrific dream brought about by some bad fuel on the way to the track. Was the race over already? Had they won?

He was heading back into Radiator Springs, but as he drove, he noticed something distinctly different. He was alone, and there waiting at the head of town was Sheriff. Beside him... a salmon pink Crestline with a soft smile and bright eyes, watching him and smiling wider with every little bit closer he came.

"Cassy?" His voice was almost breathless, pulling up until he was bumper to bumper with the Crestline. "It... this can't be. I have to be dreaming."

Smiling with a little shrug, the Ford pulled back, driving around until she was at his side. "Maybe so, silly... but that's okay. If it's your dream, you can do whatever you want."

For a moment, that was all that was said between them. Doc couldn't help but roll forward, Cassy at his side, wondering if he was dead. This couldn't possibly be real... Cassy had died fifty years before. "...I can't tell you how long I've been waiting to do this again, Cassy."

"I sort of know," she replied gently. "I'm in your mind, remember? I never really left."

Sighing deeply, Doc just nudged up against the classic Crestline. "I know. Still feels good, all the same." He smiled, glancing up as they rolled through. The residents he had come to love, that had come to see him as their protector and mayor, were by the roadsides, watching as he came through.

The lady he had loved fifty years before gave a soft laugh. "Aren't you going to introduce me to anyone?"

Doc chuckled at that, and as he drove, he pointed out those he had come to know so well in the past fifty years. Ramone and Flo, happily married about five years after he'd first come to Radiator Springs, a colorful pair who were absolutely perfect for one another.

Then there was Big Red. Red was such a sweet, shy character... Doc had never once known him to do any wrong to anyone. He had trouble even shooing the bugs from his precious flowers.

Sarge and Fillmore. Sarge had come to town after the end of the Korean War, and met Fillmore sometime during the middle of Vietnam. The two were neighbors and best friends, even if they would never admit it if asked. Sarge had saved Fillmore's life once... the van apparently felt he owed Sarge something.

Sweet old Lizzie. She was the town's oldest resident and while she was somewhat senile, one couldn't help but laugh at the sheer amount of tenacity she had. Doc swore she would live till she was 150 at the rate she was going.

Of course there was Mater, all covered in rust and missing his hood. It was impossible to dislike Mater. Something about him made him a sort of little brother to everyone, even if he was older than them. They protected him, and he provided a smile whenever they needed it.

Luigi and Guido. How could he forget them? He didn't quite recall when the two imports had shown up from Italy, but they'd been a mainstay and he couldn't help but be amused by their constant antics. He knew Guido spoke almost know English, but that didn't stop him from helping out as much as he could. Luigi, ever the race fan... it was a good thing he only followed the European circuit, because otherwise he may've been figured out sooner.


The end of the road saw the last two residents. Smiling as always, side-by-side, Lightning McQueen and Sally Carerra. That hot-shot rookie, and the charming little Porsche he had fixed up and help settle in a few years before. He had almost forgotten, but how could he? Sally was so much like Cassy, and Lightning was like a son to him, whether or not he wanted to admit it...

The old racer stood silent for a moment, looking at the smiling faces of Lightning and Sally in front of him. So young, so full of hope...

He glanced down with a slight frown. Oh, how he'd missed Cassy...

After a moment, he felt the nudge of her fender against his and he glanced over at her. "Cassy..."

Giving a soft smile, she kissed his fender lightly. "It's up to you, sweetheart. I miss you... and Chrysler knows how long it's been since we've been together. But..."

"I've got a new life." He sighed deeply, nuzzling his fender against the sleek Ford's. "I've still got a lot of living left to do, Cassy. Wait for me?"

The salmon pink Crestline smiled, nudging her bumper against his in return. "Of course I'll wait for you, silly... I've waited fifty years already. And I'll be right there on the other side when you come home."

The old racer smiled, giving the classic Ford one last nudge to her fender before he drove forward. This time he was alone... and with this decision, he knew there was no turning back.

"Chrysler, he looks awful," Lightning murmured as he sat beside Sally in the room where they had finally moved Doc. "I've never... Chrysler..."

Sally frowned, nosing up close to the racecar, not wanting to look at the old-timer. She'd never seen him like this... even those old pictures were nothing compared to his damage now. Sighing, she just lowered on her axles, until a grumpy groan from the old blue racecar caught her attention. Her eyes shot up and then widened. "Lightning... Lightning! He's waking up!"

Immediately, Lightning's attention shot back to Doc, watching as the old car shifted uncomfortably, eyes fluttering before he opened them into a squint, glancing back and forth between them. His voice was soft and he was mumbling, but his words were clear as day.

"Stop starin'. Haven't you ever seen a wrecked car before?"

Lightning smiled as much as he could muster, giving a shaky sigh. "Yep. That's our Doc all right."

The old racer frowned when the #95 car spoke, wearily glancing towards him to look him over. "What're you still doing here, kid? You've got a race this weekend. You should be out on the track practicing."

As Sally smiled, Lightning blinked, looking bewildered. "Buh--... Doc, I came to make sure you were okay... I mean, you're my pit captain."

"Sarge can fill in for me," Doc grumped weakly in reply. "He'll do you good. But for now, son, you need to get out there and win that Piston Cup. Because let me tell you something, boy..." He paused to take a breath, obviously trying to hide an injury they all were already well aware of. "If you don't win it, then when we get back to Radiator Springs, I'm going to drag your bumper out to Willy's Butte and ride you so hard around those turns you won't be able to get any decent RPMs for a month."

Sally laughed and Lightning blinked, making a face. "Aw, come off it, you old lemon," he groused, albeit good naturedly. "You wouldn't be able to catch me."

The young racecar smiled a little, then gave Sally's fender a nuzzle. She smiled as well, nudging him lightly. "Get going, Stickers. Make us proud. I'll stay here with Doc."

The old Hornet glanced over, watching as the red stock car started to pull out. "And mind you, son... I'll be watching. You do good out there. Ride it hard and hope it sticks."

"I will, Doc," Lightning responded, puffing up as his spoiler rose. "You can count on it."

At the stadium, things were even more loud and boisterous than usual. Sarge looked awkward wearing the set for the pit captain, but he was standing proud as could be on his tires. The trucks, most of them king cabs, snickered a bit at the little jeep, but no one dared to do it to his face... not to Sarge, whose bars spoke more than his words.

Lightning had already run several laps, and as the week passed, he got encouragement from making calls back to the hospital to check on Doc. The old car was recovering slowly and still in a lot of pain, but he was managing as best he could. He would pull through.

It was the morning of the big race when a sound around Mack's trailer caught Lightning's attention. Rolling out slowly, he blinked as another red stock car, a white #8 displayed proudly and a small #3 with wings on his back fender, smiled at him in greeting. "Hey there, Lightnin'."

"Oh... oh, hey, Junior... I didn't hear you coming into this area."

The red #8 chuckled, shrugging slightly before he stretched. "Yeah, well... felt like comin' over to see how you were doin'. I heard about the accident. Chrysler... I'm real sorry. Is he doin' okay?"

Lightning sighed quietly. "As well as he can be, considering. He's awake, but still in a lot of pain." He sighed, then gave a weak smile. "He's gonna be watching the race today."

"Well, that's good to hear," Junior stated with a slight nod. "We're all hopin' to hear that he's had a speedy recovery. You tell 'im that for me."

Smiling, Lightning nodded as well. "I will. Thanks, Junior... and hey. Great job up to this point. You're racing really well for this being your second year back."

Junior chuckled, rolling back slightly as he glanced at the sky. "Yeah, well... my old man'd be mad at me if I didn't at least try, Chrysler rest his tires. Got some big tire tracks t'fill. Glad I'm doin' right in someone's eyes."

"Your dad wouldn't be able to be anything but proud, Junior. You're not letting the Intimidator's name die... and that's what counts."

Junior smiled again at that, then flicked a spoiler at the younger racer. "Good luck, McQueen. I'll be lookin' forward to some good racin' out of you today... if you can beat me!"

Grinning wickedly, Lightning laughed. "You can count on me to be giving you a run for your money, Junior!"

As the #8 car rolled out of the back lot, he laughed. "Guess it makes it all that much more of a challenge, since we've both got someone to win for..."

Lightning took a place somewhere in the middle of the pack as the cars made their way through the first lap. He noticed the familiar sharp green coming up from behind and grumbled. Oh, he didn't feel like dealing with Chick Hicks today.

Not like he had a choice. The green #86 took his place beside the rookie and smiled in that patronizing way, glancing at the younger car out of the corner of his eye. "Hey, McQueen... heard about what happened to your pit captain. Awful pity, huh?" Lightning didn't reply, at first just focusing on not slamming into Chick and sending him flying right there. "But, y'know, you really shouldn't worry too much about it. He's old, right? Old rust bucket was bound to kick the gasket sooner or later."

Immediately, the young racecar bristled, glaring through narrowed eyes at his rival. Before he could get a word out, however, he heard Sarge's voice loud and clear over the radio. "Don't let him get to you! He's just trying to get you too mad to race! Doc's counting on you, boy, so don't you start acting like a fool yet!"

Growling lowly, Lightning agreed, ignoring the car beside him as best he could. After a couple of laps around, the green flag flew, and the race was on.

By the 397th lap, there were three cars with a big lead, and Lightning was one of them, fighting for the top right alongside Chick. The #86 car wasn't pulling any stops, swerving to cut off Lightning and Junior whenever they attempted to pass.

In a booth high above, Bob Cutlass and Darrell Cartrip were watching the race as usual, and Darrell jumped on his front axle when Lightning managed to pull around on the inside, glancing at his companion as he continued his commentary. "Bob, this has been an amazing race today!"

"You've got that right, Darrell. We're coming into the final three laps, and you know what, I'm really impressed with McQueen's racing today."

"So'm I, really. He's had a rough week, and he's shown amazing gumption and confidence on the track today, despite all't's been happening."

Bob nodded slightly, glancing down at the track. "He was late getting to the stadium this week because his pit captain, the famous #51 car Hudson Hornet, was involved in a serious accident on I-40. For a while there, it didn't seem like he was gonna pull through."

"A lot of people were cheerin' that ol' car on, Bob. Doesn't surprise me that he picked up soon as he could. In a pre-race interview with McQueen, he dedicated this race to the Hornet and said he would win it for him."

"That kid's really come a long way from that hot shot rookie of last year, Darrell. And we're definitely seeing some fantastic racing out of him today!"

"True enough, but with just three laps left, I wonder if he's got enough in 'im to beat Dale Earncar Jr. and Chick Hicks!"

Back at the hospital, Sally sat near Doc as they watched the televised race. The old car was hunkered down low, twitching his side view mirrors every so often, eyes narrowed. "He'll blow it if he keeps riding the throttle like that," he muttered. "He always forgets that."

Sally glanced over at him. "You can... tell how he's racing just by watching him?"

"Sally, when you've raced as hard as I did and lived as long as I have, you pick up a few tricks." He gave a weak smile. "Just watch how he takes the turns. Tight and to the inside. He's trying to pick up time by pushing himself. He's just gotta find that groove. He did it last year. He just needs to pull it out now."

Another turn and past the checkered line. Final lap. Doc lifted, just slightly, in too much pain to do much more than that. Sally rolled forward a little, eyes wide. "Come on, Stickers...! You can do this!"

"I know you've got it in you, kid," Doc mumbled. "Come on. I didn't pull through a trip off an embankment just to see you quit now. You can do this..."

As the race rolled on, the world outside continued to some extent. Sitting on a remote section of I-40, Fuzz and Badge were chatting idly over the events of the week. It had been a pretty sleepy day. With most cars in the area at the race, they could relax and enjoy a quiet afternoon listening to the announcers on the radio.

"Y'know, that McQueen isn't a bad kid," Fuzz stated idly, rocking back and forth on his tires. "He's doin' pretty good today, too. Still hangin' behind, though..."

Badge nodded a little. "Eh, he'll pull ahead. He's a smart racer. Did good last year, what with pushin' the King over the finish line and all, and--... hey, is your radar pickin' that up?"

After a moment, Fuzz blinked. "Er... yeah. Holy Chrysler, what's goin' that fast...?"

The two cops rolled out a little to look down the interstate, catching sight of a quickly approaching black classic car. Sighing, both of them turned on their lights. "Figures, doesn't it? Gotta have some party-crasher to ruin a perfectly good race."

"Let's go get 'im, Badge."

"You got it, Fuzz."


I am speed.

I'm faster than fast... I am Lightning.

The more he ran that through his head, the more he just couldn't focus. The accident, everything... but Doc was counting on him. Junior was too his left, focused and alert, as Chick rode hard on his tail, growling lowly; he could hear him even over the roar of the engines of the cars left on the track.

This was it. He couldn't blow it. Not this time.

On the last turn, Lightning shut his eyes tight for the barest of seconds and let loose of the throttle, punching the gas harder than he ever had before. He felt a burning strain in his engine block but ignored it, shoving up past Junior by several feet. It was getting hard to move... had he pushed too hard?

Gritting his teeth hard against the pulling feeling in his engine, he continued forward, and didn't stop until he spun out past the finish line, hollering and coughing as he tried to catch his breath. Junior passed him on the left and Chick, finishing a very frustrated third, nearly slammed into him on the right.

He did it.

He did it!

He almost didn't hear the roar of the fans as a track official came out to help him over to the winner's circle. He'd done it! He'd... finally won himself a Piston Cup.

He smiled when he reached the winner's circle, where his friends were waiting for him. Luigi and Guido drove a few circles around him while Fillmore cheered, albeit somewhat lazily. Sarge nudged his side, smiling brightly. "Way to go, kid. Doc'll be proud of that race."

"He'd better be!" Lightning laughed, rising on his front axle. "I think I threw a belt for him!"

Fuzz stretched slightly, driving around the side of the speeder. He blinked, then glanced at his partner. "Hey, Badge... before we let 'im go... c'mere. Lemme show you somethin'."

Badge peered at his friend, then smiled towards the classic they'd pulled over, nodding to him with a friendly smile. "It'll just be a few more minutes, sir, then you can be on your way." With that, he rolled over to give Fuzz a light nudge. "What's goin' on?"

"Put a parking boot on him. We just found ourselves a fugitive."

"Kid, that was some great racin' out there t'day. My dad woulda loved to've known you."

Lightning grinned as Junior rolled up beside him, smiling just as wide. "You did great too, Junior. You ran a really good race out there... I was starting to wonder if I'd be able to pull ahead."

The #8 car laughed, then glanced a few stalls down. "Chick Hicks ain't too happy about this whole ordeal. He was hopin' t'show you up this year. After what you did last year... folks really appreciated that. Ol' King deserved it, to go out like that."

Laughing somewhat, Lightning smiled, looking down to where Chick was busily yelling at his pit crew. "I think it's enough just to see Chick Hicks boil. He didn't deserve the Piston Cup, after his trick last year." He grinned. "Good to see him getting just what he deserves."

Radiator Springs. It was always good to be back after leaving it. The little red #95 car rumbled pleasantly in his trailer, waiting for Mack to park it and let him out. They'd gone back to the hospital to check on Doc after all the celebrations were through, and the old car had given him a congratulations worth having... although, as expected, he had scolded him for pushing himself too far near the end.

They had headed home with the knowledge that Doc would soon be on his way home as well.

When the trailer door opened, he grinned as he was greeted by cheering friends and fans alike. He zoomed up to Sally, nudging bumpers and nuzzling fenders with her. After a round of drinks at Flo's, everyone had nothing to do now but wait.

It was late evening when the big ambulance rolled into town, flanked by Fuzz and Badge. They were met by Sheriff at the edge of town, and everyone waited with bright smiles as the ambulance turned, opening the door to her trailer bay to reveal a quietly smiling Doc Hudson in the back.

The old car rolled forward, slow and careful, still sore from his ordeal. His paint had been redone and he'd been given a full wax, but he looked good for it, and considerably better than he had when he had first crashed. "What're you all staring at?" he questioned, voice much stronger than it had been at the hospital. "I'm in one piece. You're all a bunch of vultures."

Laughter rippled among his friends, and Lightning, still grinning brightly, rolled forward. "Doc... it's good to have you back."

"You're just happy to have someone around to gloat to that didn't hear it the whole way home. I'm surprised Mack didn't fall asleep on the road with all the yappin' I'm sure you did!" He laughed then, bumping the younger racecar. "You did me proud, rookie."

Lightning scoffed, rolling back a little as he settled back with a smug grin. "Yeah, yeah... look at you, movin' like you've got a spike in your tire... you're fallin' to bits, old timer."

Letting out a harrumph as he rolled fully out of the ambulance, giving a pleasant thank you to the lady for the ride, Doc stretched fully, settling back on his axles with a deep sigh. "Don't count me out just yet, rookie. You stunk out there on the first half of that race and you nearly threw a belt in the end. Once I'm back on my tires, I'm gonna see to it that you don't stop running laps until I very well say you're done running laps, and when you're done running laps, you're gonna do another set of laps."

"Ohh, man!" Lightning groused, sinking low on his axles. "You're like a slave driver! C'mon, Doc, gimme a break!"

Another roll of laughter rippled through the crowd as Badge rolled forward, clearing his throat. "By the way, Mr. McQueen. We already told Dr. Hornet, but we thought you'd want to know this too. We pulled over a black Thunderbirdwhile the race was onfor speeding. Turns out he matched the parts we found at the scene of the accident, and he was wanted on an outstanding warrant against a few other racers as well. Turns out the guy was a pretty well-known hit car: Tony Cruiser. We figure someone hired him, but if they did... well, he's not talking."

Lightning smiled, turning to the pair of cops. "Hey, we'll find out eventually, right? Whoever it was can't hide out forever. Besides, it was the hit car that wrecked Doc, and he's the one I really hold responsible."

This time, even Doc nodded. "I'm not worried about who did it. I'm just worried about staying alive. And seeing as how I managed that, I figure I've got nothing else to worry about." He smiled a little. "Come on, everyone. I'm feeling a couple quarts low, and I think Flo has just what I need."

The show car near the back laughed merrily, turning to head right back towards her diner. "Doc, you know me all too well! C'mon... drinks on the champ!"

"Man, you're all buzzards!" whined the red #95. "I finally win a Piston Cup, and all you guys want me for is drinks at Flo's!"

Ramone laughed, sidling up to his wife. "Well, when you're here, that's about all you're good for, man!"

Smiling as Lightning grumped, Sally nudged up against her racecar, tail rising. "Come on... after Flo's, you and me... we'll take a drive."

Finally, Lightning's face lit up and he laughed, nuzzling the Porsche. "That's exactly what I like to hear, baby. Come on... that drink at Flo's is sounding pretty good right about now... besides... I've got a race to gloat about!"