Author's Tip:

Normally, stories are silent affairs. But, to enjoy some of the special atmospheres and moments in this bonus chapter even more . . . you might want to have at least the last couple minutes or so of a version of 'Va' Pensiero', a famous and popular waltz-like chorus from Giuseppe Verdi's opera 'Nabucco', handy at the point . . . or rather points, plural, actually . . . later in this chapter where this chorus is mentioned. MP3s of both the chorus and entire opera are available online . . . but try searching with 'audio', even 'instrumental', next to the chorus title to get the music itself.

While I have tried — stretching out the key dance portions of this chapter's narrative for the full 4:19 of my instrumental CD copy of Va' Pensiero became somewhat impractical, without getting ridiculously repetitive, even at the slowest reading speeds! Screenplays don't necessarily lay out in words every second of the movie scenes they describe anyway. I'd recommend an instrumental or orchestra-only version (so as not to distract from the reading), but a full operatic version would work well also.

It might add a romantic, even tearful dimension, that you will hopefully enjoy, even be moved by. It did when I was writing and revising this chapter.

Norwesterner


"Aro, Sofia's still here waiting?" Mia exclaimed a while later as she made it out of the kitchen for a moment to check in at the maître d's podium.

"The second parking of diners is now in," Aro explained. "But there have been no cancellations, certainly no vacant tables, and not even any vacant parking spaces! We're turning the spaces around as fast as we can, but we're still running behind our promised reservation times here."

"You were supposed to get her a table on the west patio by now!" Mia quietly said to her brother-in-law through gritted teeth.

"There. Was. No. Space." Aro quietly said right back through equally gritted teeth.

"Sofia, I'm so sorry," Mia now apologized, turning to Sofia. "I wish I could keep you company myself, but I have to go back to running a kitchen and a full staff with Cam. Plus, it's just crazy in the kitchen. It wouldn't be safe for you to wait in there near me! We will get you a space," she assured, " . . . on the west patio," she emphasized again in a whisper to Aro, " . . . just as quickly as we can here. But, could you stay and cook at home with me tomorrow? Otherwise I might not see you at all this trip!"

"But I have no place to stay," Sofia noted.

"Mom's already got an aunt of ours staying in our guest room at home tonight, and I just know the Cozy Cone will be sold out as well," Mia sighed. "We could talk to Sally about having you stay up at the Wheel Well again."

"Lightning and Sally do not need me at home with them after all this busyness here," Sofia cautioned. "As you and I both heard, this is the first anniversary of theirs they have been able to celebrate together. Yet they are here, helping."

Mia turned and looked for a moment at Lightning and Sally each busy serving guests . . . at opposite ends of the dining room. She turned back, looking down and sighing with a mixture of guilt and yet admiration and gratitude as well.

"It is who they are together," Sofia knowingly counseled as she looked at them herself.

"Yeah, it is," Mia agreed with a gentle smile. "Well, Aro, is the Oil Pan still available?" she then asked, turning to him.

"It's refurbished, but we — McQueen Enterprises, that is — haven't assigned a use to it yet," Aro responded. "Don't worry, I'll take care of putting Sofia up there," he sighed. "Never thought I'd be adding 'innkeeper' to the list of jobs I have around this town."

"Concierge," Mia corrected. "It's a high calling to serve others. But wow, we still have so many patrons waiting to be parked!" she noted as she looked at the guest list in front of Aro.

"We're using all the spaces we can now on both patios," Aro reminded her. "But with you and Cam taking all the chef apprentices back to work in the kitchen again, the front house help is stretched thin here."

"Mia, I will help," Sofia volunteered, just feeling a sudden impulse to. "I have worked as a waitress before, in a number of places over the years. It is something I have fallen back on, anytime I had nothing else. Trust me, I can take good care of your patrons. Besides, I owe you . . . and it is better than just waiting!"

"Sofia, you're a lifesaver!" Mia exclaimed as she nudged her gratefully. "I'd love to feed you . . . sorry we didn't do that while you were waiting here somehow. But clearly, we really need the server help right now."

"Just a tray of your delicious hors 'd oeuvres and a hot oil on the serving counter in the kitchen to snack on as I work would be fine," Sofia assured.

"We'll try to feed you more than that at some point here," Mia replied. "But say, Aro . . . why don't we have her work the west patio, tables 25 through 32?"

"But I had just . . ." Aro tried to say.

"I actually think that server should be tending our bar," Mia hinted. "We don't want Sofia working a lounge, do we?"

Aro just sighed.

"Sofia, I at least promise that you won't have to bus your own spaces," Mia added, smiling mysteriously as she turned to go back to the kitchen.

"Aro, give me a table to fill!" Sofia invited, while she gave a lingering, curious look towards Mia as Mia returned to the kitchen.

"Johnson, party of four!" Aro professionally called out. "Please follow your server, Sofia, here. She will show you to your spaces."

"Take them to Table 31, Sofia, right there on the west patio," he then said to her, pointing with a tire on the chart in front of him.

As Sofia smoothly picked up four menus from Aro's station and proceeded to usher her party across the dining room towards a pair of side doors leading to the patio, she encountered Lightning going the other direction.

"Don't tell me they've shanghaied you, too!" Lightning said as they passed.

"Yes they have!" Sofia smiled. "I am part of the town now . . . at least for this weekend!"

"Sofia, you were part of our town well before now," Lightning assured as he went to escort his own next party of diners. "And you always will be!"

Sofia smiled one of her broadest smiles ever as she continued escorting her party of diners to the patio. "Here we go, ladies and gentlecars," she now invited her guests. "Park right here. May I start you with some coolants, our local signature Cadillac Falls Select?"

"Yes," her diners all said.

"Very well, I'll return with your coolants shortly," Sofia replied. "In looking at tonight's menu . . ." she paused as she scanned one as she passed them out for the first time, trying to learn the house offerings quickly, "I see they're offering . . . oh my goodness! Greaseballs Neapolitan á la Sofia! I shared my old family recipe from Napoli with the owners here, and cooked just that with them for their wedding after-party dinner! I would highly, highly recommend it!"

"They named it after you?" one of her diners asked.

"Apparently!" Sofia replied. "I was just a visiting friend, but suddenly, I am helping them on their opening night here!"

"Well, that makes it truly special then. We'll have four of those!" the lead diner responded.

"Thank you! I will make sure it is up to the Bugatti family standard myself!" Sofia accepted with a smile. "I'll get your order to the kitchen, and be right back with your coolants."

As she started backing, she felt herself bump up against someone behind her, accompanied by the sudden clatter of falling oil cans and dishes. "Oh! I am sorry!" she apologized as she now turned around to see that it was a car who had been carrying a tray of empty oil cans and plates, which were now in a heap on the patio. "Wait . . . you are my busboy?" she said, now looking at him. "Are you not a little old, and too polished, to be a busboy?"

"I'm visiting my Aunt Lizzy, and she said they needed help here," the silver-colored Audi Avant wagon replied as he got right to work picking up his tray and its contents. "So here I am."

"I'll have all this out of your way in just a sec, folks," he excused, noticing one party of diners was now trying to leave after their meal. Sofia began to assist him in picking everything up.

"I'm not normally a busboy in real life though," he continued as they worked. "I've been the owner of a small construction company in the Los Angeles area, but the market hasn't been so good. So I'm winding it down and looking to do something else. I've been building upscale houses, actually, and I memorably market them as, 'Castles by Prince,' as my name is Prince . . . Michael Prince."

A jolt ran through Sofia as she heard that. She now stared straight ahead of her. Despite being both a smooth, top-level executive, and a seasoned waitress — Sofia suddenly found herself speechless and almost frozen next to him, unable to look his way.

"But you're the Sofia behind Greaseballs Neapolitan á la Sofia?" he asked as he glanced towards her after everything was back on his tray again. "Sorry . . . I overheard you just now."

"Y-Yes . . ." she struggled to say, trying to snap herself back as they now backed out of the way together to let the patrons pass.

"I had that as a quick dinner before they put me to work here," he remarked. "I liked them, and one of the owners told me you were supposed to be a guest tonight that I might want to say hello to. I wasn't expecting you to be working here as a server though!"

"Well, I am a friend of theirs," Sofia was now able to reply, "and they needed my help, too."

"The . . . Your . . . greaseballs were very . . . good . . ." he said, slowing down as their eyes now met for the first time.

"Thank you . . ." she said slowing down as well, as she looked into his eyes. For reasons she couldn't explain, a favorite lilting, almost waltz-like melody of hers from Italian opera was now playing in her hood . . . Verdi's Va' Pensiero from Nabucco.

"What's that?" Michael asked, now looking around, hearing music suddenly playing from somewhere other than the restaurant's loudspeakers.

"Ohh . . . I'm sorry," she said, suddenly realizing her car stereo was on somehow and shutting it off. "It — It is Verdi. I am Italian . . . how could I not like opera?" she joked.

"I have Italian in my family," he replied, somewhat lost in wonder as well as he looked at her again. "So how could I not like it, too . . ."

"Excuse me, coming through," a chef apprentice said, interrupting them as he carried some more fresh stock ingredients from the mini-refinery nearby.

"Well, I better get all this back to the Scullery," Michael noted as they both snapped back and moved again, out of the apprentice's way, "and you might want to get those orders in. I'm sure we'll be seeing each other through evening here. I look forward to bumping into you again . . . just not too hard though!"

Sofia watched him go through one set of doors to the back of the kitchen, while she went through another set of doors to the serving counter. Despite the steam, clatter and organized chaos of the kitchen around her, Sofia just let out a gentle sigh as she now wrote up her table's order. When she put it in the queue, she found a smiling Mia looking at her.

"So . . . have you met Michael yet?" Mia asked warmly.

Sofia allowed herself a quiet smile.

"Once I heard his name and saw him, I just had this feeling," Mia noted. "So I made sure he had your greaseballs for dinner beforehand. He loves them. Once you volunteered here as well, I just took the liberty of making sure you worked in his section for the evening. Enjoy getting to know him . . . but don't forget about our diners."

"Mia . . ." Sofia said as she went to nudge her.

"I'm praying real hard for you, Sofia," Mia whispered to her. "Signs like this aren't necessarily one hundred percent reliable — but, at least check him out!"

"Have you told him anything about me?" Sofia asked.

"Let's just say I pre-screened him . . . and told him a little about the lady our greaseball dish is named after." Mia replied. "He seemed to like what he heard."

"He does not mind that I am, you know . . . C.E.O. of Dinoco?" Sofia asked nervously.

Mia smiled. "He's dealt with the rich and famous before in his line of work, building upscale houses in L.A. I didn't exactly have a chance to tell him about what you do for a living before we had to put him to work here," she fudged. "But this is your chance to be 'just Sofia', okay, and see what happens."

"Mia . . . sauces!" Cam called from the back of the kitchen.

"Coming, darling!" Mia assured. "Well, Sofia, we each have things to do here tonight. Hope you have as much fun as I intend to!"

— — — — —

Sofia soon found herself stealing glances at Michael whenever she could as they worked and passed each other. She couldn't help it.

VRROOOMMPPHH! a tableside flambé dish one apprentice chef was cooking suddenly went off right next to Sofia. Startled, she almost tipped over with the tray of meals she was carrying.

But she found herself unexpectedly buoyed up. "I got 'ya," a voice assured, "and your tray this time."

Sofia allowed her rescuer to relieve her of her tray for a moment, and then gently right her onto her four tires again.

"You alright?" he asked.

"I . . . I think so," Sofia replied as she turned and looked at him for a moment as she regained her bearings. "T-Thank you . . . Michael . . . for catching me."

"It was my pleasure, Sofia," he warmly assured. "Look, we even saved the food you're carrying here. We're getting better at this! Just watch out for these chefs and their flambé dishes! Gotta get back to it here though. Maybe catch you later . . . perhaps less dramatically, however," he smiled as he went back to clearing more tables.

While Sofia was wearing merely a subdued 'Mona Lisa' smile as she resumed delivering the round of orders to a table of diners . . . she was now feeling much more inside.

After that, she began agonizing about more chances to 'accidentally' steal a subtle nudge here or a gentle bump there with him on the crowded patio they were working together.

But then she began giving in.

" . . . Ohh, there I go again," she excused with a guilty smile after brushing against him for the third time in just half an hour. "Tight spaces! I am so sorry."

"I'm beginning to wonder about that," Michael smiled as he continued carrying another tray of dirty cans and dishes back to the Scullery entrance.

"Devo fermare quello!" Sofia quietly but forcefully whispered to herself in her native tongue, trying to rein herself in, as she proceeded to check on a party of diners at one of her tables again.

"Oh mio . . ." she then suddenly said, looking around her as the lilting strains of Va' Pensiero started playing on the restaurant's loudspeakers . . . the same music that had briefly played on the stereo inside her. For a moment, as Michael came out of the Scullery and passed by her this time, she practically waltzed around him. He waltzed around her as well, looking right at her.

Sofia then caught herself though . . . looking away, hesitating, holding herself back despite the nearly overwhelmingly sweeping romance, even passion, of the music around them as it continued to build.

Michael now wordlessly laid down the tray he was carrying on a briefly empty table next to him. He returned to her, offered her a tire, and ushered a speechless Sofia into continuing the waltz with him, as patrons around them began to watch silently . . . caught up in the moment, along with her.

As the music reached towards its crescendo, it was a dream . . . her dream . . . happening right now, all around her. She looked at him, and he at her. Neither of them said a thing. Sofia allowed the music to take over . . . to let the sweeping, lilting themes lift and move her with them. But she didn't take her gaze off his eyes . . . his deep, entrancing eyes.

The world now just spun around them.

Could this be it? she wondered in her mind and heart as they danced. Please, dear Manufacturer . . . is he? Could he be . . . a prince . . . for me?

Soon, such questions — such pleas — began to answer themselves as they danced. The notes, the melodies themselves became her answer. They had long represented, embodied, symbolized her dream . . . her long, cherished dream of true, harmonious, and lasting love. Now they became an affirming touchstone . . . a confirmation she could not deny. She forgot everything else for this one moment — this one magic moment where her wish, her deep desire, felt like it was coming true.

Sofia and Michael continued to waltz, turning and turning as the music built and built around them.

"Cam . . . come see this," Mia quietly invited as she looked out a back doorway of their kitchen to the patio. Cam had to make his way past the chef apprentices, even past Peugeot, to get beside her. Mia closed her eyes briefly in prayer again, even in tearful thanksgiving, as she leaned against her husband and watched.

Lightning and Sally, Dana and Mater, Tex and Mandy, Aro and Tia, Flo and Ramone, Doc and Dora, as well as Lizzy, Red, Filmore, even Sarge, the Sheriff, Luigi, Guido, and more . . . everyone now silently gathered around to witness, and be moved by, this moment of magic and romance. Word did not need to be spread . . . the music, and the miracle it was creating, were all that was needed to draw the growing crowd that was now watching as Sophia and Michael continued twirling and twirling around each other right in the middle of the tables and diners.

All too soon though, the music reached its peak and then gently wound down to an end. The tune on the CD that was playing then changed. The spell was broken. Sofia began to shake her hood as she looked at Michael now with tears in her eyes. He briefly continued to just gently smile at her as they stopped, before beginning to notice the change within her.

Sofia found herself now suddenly spinning her tires and running off confused, even terrified, as most everyone around them spontaneously broke out into cheering and applause. Michael could only watch her with growing concern and sadness as she went away, into the front of the kitchen.

Mia dashed across the inside of the kitchen to meet Sofia as she entered. "What's wrong, Sofia?" Mia asked gently as she nudged her closely. "I thought you'd like your favorite music. You looked wonderful dancing with him . . . everyone loved it."

"Do not ask, Mia," Sofia quietly cried. "Please do not ask . . ."

"Sofia . . ." Mia said sadly. She kept nudging her supportively as Sofia cried for a moment.

Eventually recovering herself a short time later, Sofia quietly noted, "I — I had better get back to work now . . ." as she looked down and stiffened herself up.

"You sure?" Mia asked with concern.

Sofia nodded. "You need the help. My diners . . . they are waiting . . ." she simply said as she turned away and left through the double doors out of the kitchen.

— — — — —

"Hey, how're you doing so far tonight? Michael, isn't it?" Lightning asked a moment later, motoring up next to Michael.

Michael was shaken out of his stunned silence, staring once again off towards the kitchen doors that Sofia was now emerging from. "W-Well . . ." he stammered now looking at Lightning while he tried to recover himself, " . . . they have you, Lightning McQueen, working here, too?"

"Yep," Lightning confirmed. "It's all hands on deck in Radiator Springs to help Cam and Mia launch what's supposed to be their 'little' restaurant here!"

"You . . . your wife, Sally . . . Dana Starlighter, the former Hollywood reporter . . . they certainly have a celebrity crew on here tonight," Michael tried to casually note as if he was unaffected by what had just happened.

"Well, you know who you're working with, don't you?" Lightning added.

"You mean Sofia?" Michael asked, now unable to avoid briefly glancing her way again.

"Yep," Lightning confirmed, " . . . Sofia Bugatti. She's now C.E.O. of Dinoco."

"Oh," Michael replied, feeling even more deflated now inside, but trying to hide it as he continued to look her way.

"She may be C.E.O.," Lightning tried to note encouragingly, "but it can be lonely at the top. It was for my Sally when she was C.E.O. at Dinoco. But at least she had me. I know it's not easy for Sofia though. She has good friends in Sally and I, Mia and Cam, and a number of us in town here . . . but I don't think we're quite what she ultimately wants, or needs. Whoops, I see I've got more diners to park now though, if you'll excuse me. Sofia though . . . she's good cars, she really is."

Lightning then passed Sally who was subtly smiling in approval as he headed back to Aro to pick up the next party of diners. "Hope it was helpful, Sal," he whispered.

"It was," she warmly assured, giving him a quick kiss on the fender as he passed her. "You're just lucky right now though . . ."

"Oh, why's that?" he couldn't resist stopping and asking with a slight smile.

Sally just bit her lip as she continued to look at him, smiling.

"I think I'd better let you focus on something else for the moment here," Lightning suggested.

"Good idea," Sally replied.

"L.Y.A. . . . Love You Always," he said as he left.

"Y.M.L.!" she responded in turn.

Lightning stopped and turned around. "What's 'Y.M.L.'?" he asked.

"You're Mine Later," Sally said quietly, now forcing herself to turn and leave.

"Wow," Lightning observed to himself as he watched her go. "If that doesn't say, 'I love you' . . . I don't know what does!"

— — — — —

Trying to shake her deep but also wild thoughts about Lightning out of her hood, Sally noticed Michael's once again downcast expression though as she passed him. Then she noticed Sofia moving across the other side of the patio. Sally could see a few tears still lingering in Sofia's eyes. Sally had an idea as to why she had been crying.

"This needs just a bit of 'Sally' here," she decided to herself as she took a deep breath.

"Hi, Michael," Sally greeted as she approached him again. "You're Lizzy's nephew, right?"

"Sally," Michael replied in recognition, straightening himself up. "Nice to see you again. You've certainly changed your appearance . . . but it's easy to see who you are. Great paint scheme."

"Thank you. But listen, we each have a lot to do," Sally suggested. "So I'll just cut to the chase here. That was no ordinary, impromptu waltz tonight, was it?"

"No, it wasn't . . ." he admitted, looking down.

"Michael, it was beautiful," Sally quietly encouraged. "Something most any lady would die to be given. Look, I'm both Sofia's boss at Dinoco, and I'm her trusted friend. So I'll just ask . . . please do Sofia a favor . . . give her another chance, another try, okay? Talk with her. She's been through something really hard in her past. Her heart was once hurt, very badly. Trust and openness don't come easy for her now. But she needs someone who can see and come to understand her . . . as who she is, not what she is. She needs that so much."

"I've got to get back to work here," Sally concluded. "But just give her another shot. Even I'd owe you one for that."

Michael just looked at Sally as she left now, before he sighed and resumed clearing several more tables around him.

"Hi, Sofia," Sally now said as she passed her.

"Hi . . . Sally," Sofia said, trying to refocus on her work while still struggling to maintain her equilibrium.

"Look, we've each got a lot to do here," Sally said, using the same approach again. "But I understand what's going on . . . at least in part. I can see it."

"I do not know what you mean," Sofia tried to dismiss.

"Sofia!" Sally responded in surprisingly exasperated tone.

"I cannot talk about it," Sofia quietly said, looking down. "Mia tried to get me to as well."

"Then just listen, Sofia," Sally replied firmly, while trying to be as supportive as she could. "I almost blew it with Lightning starting out, when I let my past haunt me and get in the way, too. It hurt to confess the mess I felt I'd once made of my life. But I'm glad I faced up to it, and overcame it with him. I am so glad now.

"I could see something good, even wonderful, here tonight though . . . everyone could," Sally continued. "Don't let your past ruin a chance for what you've been wanting now. I'm saying this as your friend, okay? I gotta go here, but let him in, Sofia. Let him in, and just tell him why. Do it . . . please," Sally concluded earnestly.

"I . . . I cannot," Sofia said, looking down and shaking her hood.

"Sofia . . ." Sally empathized with concern. "Remember what you shared with me at our Houston track barbecue a while back? Well . . . here it could be. Here he could be. Don't bury what you want because of this 'cloud' hanging over you again. I can see now that you have. That's why you're still alone, isn't it?" she said as gently as she could.

Sofia cringed at the uncomfortable truth she was hearing, now reminded of the several opportunities she had let pass in the intervening years as well.

"Are you going to leave again?" Sally knowingly asked.

Sofia briefly closed her eyes and shook her hood. "No," she whispered, drawing at least one line now in a battle she had known for a long time.

"Please . . ." Sofia asked, basically unable to contain her tears as she looked at Sally again, " . . . let me just get back to work. Please . . ."

"Sofia . . ." Sally began to object one more time.

Sofia now just earnestly shook her hood while continuing to tearfully look at Sally.

"Alright," Sally sighed, relenting. "I'll do as you ask. But . . . and this is the first time I've ever said this to a real friend . . . I'm doing as you ask, Sofia, under protest."

Sofia now looked with sad amazement as Sally turned and left.

Sally then encountered Michael as she went back towards the kitchen again. "I tried . . ." she sighed as she passed by him without making eye contact.

Michael looked at Sally in surprise, before glancing over at Sofia trying to dry her tears before facing more customers. He wanted to go to her, but he surmised it wouldn't help.

"I'm sorry," he whispered to her from across the patio. "I've messed you up enough, haven't I?" He then just went back to collecting more dishes and cans.

"One of these days," Sally said to herself as she entered the kitchen to pick up more orders, " . . . helping folks like this has got to get easier!"

— — — — —

"Okay, that's a wrap everyone!" Cam finally announced to the staff as he and Mia came out together onto the west patio where everyone had wound up gathering. "It's more than an hour and a half past our posted closing time here, but it's finally a wrap for tonight!"

"Our thanks to all of you," Mia added, "especially to our friends who volunteered to help make what turned out to be a huge opening night for us such a success! If any of you don't want or need your pay, we'll gladly split it between the McQueen Foundation and the Radiator Springs Community Fund. But it's Irish oils or your favorite nightcap from the bar here for everyone!"

Having restricted herself to her tasks at hand . . . throttling, even choking back her emotions now for the last couple of hours, and striving to avoid exchanging glances with Michael . . . Sofia just parked exhausted at one of the patio tables by herself. Even though Mia had finally just given her a proper plated meal to enjoy, Sofia wasn't hungry.

"Care to divide up our tips?" she heard a voice from behind her say.

"If you have found out who I am," Sofia softly replied, still looking out in front of her . . . feeling more trapped, even haunted, than ever, "you will know I do not really need any tips."

"Well," Michael sighed, " . . . if you've found out who I am, you'll know that 'Castles by Prince' was seized by creditors a while back now. A good idea, but a victim of the real estate market. So the tips here will be helpful."

"Please . . . have mine as well then," she sadly invited without looking his way.

"I enjoyed our waltz though, Sofia," Michael bravely continued, despite his better judgment. "Thank you."

Sofia now couldn't say a thing in reply to him. She was frozen. It all seemed eerily close . . . to both her lifelong dream, but also her past experience.

Michael waited behind her . . . looking, hoping for her to say something more.

Finally though, he restarted his engine and began to turn away, emitting an audible sigh. He looked up to see both Mia and Sally sadly looking at him from nearby among a small remaining group of restaurant employees. Michael paused and just shook his hood sadly at them both. He was giving up.

Mia started to move towards Sofia, wanting to intervene . . . but Sally held her back.

"I've been through something like this," Mia urgently whispered to Sally.

"This is something Sofia has to overcome," Sally quietly replied. "She has been avoiding resolving her deep pain and heartbreak for a long time. It's why she's left everything she's ever known . . . more than once. But she's the only one holding her back now, and she knows it. Either of us urging or pushing her will only increase her resistance. However . . ."

Sally now looked at Michael, catching his attention as he was beginning to move away again. She then held up a tire and silently mouthed to him, "Wait . . ."

Michael now stopped. He left his motor running though to let Sofia know he was still there behind her, but also still on the verge of leaving.

Sofia lowered her hood as she closed her eyes tightly.

"I once waltzed to that music," she found herself saying, now opening her tear-filled eyes and staring downward, " . . . back in Italy, years ago, on the night of my rehearsal dinner . . . before I was left the next day, at the altar. I was briefly able to forget that . . . for a moment tonight . . ."

Michael then turned back around.

"Sofia, I'm sorry that happened to you," he empathized as he now returned and parked beside her. "I'm so sorry. I should tell you though that it was my fault . . . tonight. I asked Mia to play that tune. I heard you play it briefly on your stereo when we first met, and I realized what it was after you said 'Verdi'. I thought you'd like it."

"It has long been the music, the theme, of my dream . . . even before, and despite, what happened," Sofia sadly continued. "Somehow, it has served to sustain me. What happened then though was not the music's fault — which is why I have continued to like it anyway. But, it was not your fault either."

Sofia turned away from him slightly, trying to hide her tears . . . the anguish of her memories, feeling that they might overwhelm her.

"I . . . I'm just messing you up, aren't I?" Michael noted, deciding to be honest with her. "Maybe I'd better go . . ."

Still facing slightly away from him, Sofia gently shook her hood. "No," she said, trying to reach past her sadness. "Could . . . Could you stay? Would you mind?"

"Not at all," Michael gently assured her. "I'd like to stay."

Sofia tried to smile slightly amid her tears as she at least managed to look up ahead of her out into the nighttime desert.

"Here," he then offered, " . . . I brought you a hot mocha oil. They're smoother and more soothing than an Irish oil. These help me wind down and sleep."

"Thank you," Sofia accepted, now feeling somewhat warmed by his small, thoughtful gesture, but still trying to recover herself. Even though she wasn't playing Va' Pensiero on her stereo, it was now haunting her mind, calling to her . . . encouraging her to dare to live her dream again.

Michael looked at Sofia as she continued to stare, almost lost and numb, off into the distance. He cared for her now . . . he could no longer help it.

"You've got some good friends here," he finally noted as he looked out into the desert as well beside her.

"How . . . How so?" Sofia asked, looking at him out of the corner of her eye, now trying to hold not only herself, but both her sadness and hopes in check.

"They've been talking to me about you all night," he smiled.

"I'm sorry," Sofia apologized, finally beginning to smile, and laughing a little herself.

"No, don't be," he replied. "Anyone with so many votes of confidence has got to be worth getting to know, don't you think?"

"Maybe . . ." Sofia tentatively replied, taking a breath. "I have had a car or two talk to me about you tonight, too."

"Hopefully not Aunt Lizzy," he countered. "Half the time, she still thinks I'm married to my ex-wife. I was left, by the way . . . for another car . . . on my sixth anniversary . . . after I'd arranged a nice celebration no less. I'm better now, after a number of years here. But I understand how much things like what you experienced can hurt."

"I'm sorry that happened to you, Michael," Sofia quietly responded as she began to allow herself empathize with him. "But no, your Aunt Lizzy just told me that you were a 'lonely prince' in your 'castles'."

"I understand you're kind of by yourself in your own tower, too," he said directly.

"Yes . . ." something inside her compelled her to admit, against her own normal sense of reserve in such situations.

"Hey, mind if I see those eyes again?" he suggested as he looked at her. "They've been surreptitiously glancing my way . . . most of the evening."

Sofia cautiously looked at him again, involuntarily smiling.

"There you are," he said gently to her, smiling as well.

That caused Sofia to smile more now. "Ritengo ancora comé una scolara!" she blurted out as she looked down again.

"You feel like a schoolgirl again?" he picked up.

"Oh my heavens . . . you speak Italian?" she quietly exclaimed in embarrassment.

"I told you there's Italian in my family, on my mother's side," he explained with a smile. "It's not my first language, and I don't speak it anywhere near as well as you speak English — but I can understand you, Sofia . . ."

"You can . . . ?" she asked, looking at him earnestly and taking his meaning slightly differently . . . wanting him to understand her, not just the language she spoke.

"Yes . . ." he confirmed, looking back at her, and picking up her intent — her heartfelt request. "I can . . . and I'd like to."

"You do not mind that I'm a C.E.O.?" she asked nervously. "Of a really big company?"

"Finally, someone who doesn't want me just for my lifestyle and assets . . . even though most of them are gone now," he quipped, once again resting his gaze directly on her. "You don't mind that I'm a failed C.E.O.? Of a really small company?"

"Michael . . ." Sofia said, still almost with tears in her eyes as she struggled to maintain control of herself, but wanting so much to let down her guard with him. "No . . . I don't mind," she reassured.

"That's actually a surprise," he admitted.

"Why?" she now asked. "I feel trapped by success, and perhaps you feel trapped by failure . . . one not really of your own making. I am aware of what has been going on in the real estate market. Success and Failure," she sighed, "sometimes they feel like two sides of the same thing . . . life. Like Comedy and Tragedy. They are ancient masks of the Theatre, but they are always depicted together, are they not?"

"Yes, they are," he had to agree with her unique insight. "Two sides of the same decal . . . even often sharing the same side of the same decal."

"I have experienced both, you know," Sofia softly noted. "Lately, success has seemed to come so easily to me that I am not sure I deserve it . . . anymore than you probably knew what you had really done to deserve failure in life right now."

He looked at her for a moment, silently.

"I am sorry," she finally said. "You do not need me talking about failure with you here, do you?"

"Sofia . . . thank you," Michael responded.

"For what?" she asked in surprise.

"Well . . . after my confession here," he admitted, "I wouldn't think you'd want to talk to me."

"After the way I have treated you at times this evening," she countered, "I would not think you would want to talk to me."

"Well, I do," Michael warmly asserted.

"Thank you . . ." Sofia replied, beginning to feel not just charmed, but moved by his interest now.

"You're welcome," he responded in turn. "I feel it's just nice sometimes to be accepted for who you are, and where you're at . . . have someone be willing to relate with you, as just you."

Sofia looked down and tearfully smiled for a moment.

"Have I touched a nerve again?" he asked hesitantly.

"No," she assured, still smiling as she looked back at him now. "You have only said what I have been feeling myself at times . . . especially in my job now."

"I've heard it hasn't been so easy for you . . . work, I mean," Michael replied cautiously.

"Well, the job is not so bad," she noted. "It is just the off-hours. They have not been so good, no matter what the job has been . . . for a long time. But there has been almost no one, especially in my current job and work now, that I have been able to relate with as just me. That is why I come and visit here to Radiator Springs when I can now. I can be 'just Sofia' with my friends here . . . not boss, not subordinate."

"I'm sorry," he said, with genuine concern.

"Don't be. I am not sorry . . . now . . ." she replied, shifting closer to him.

Sofia felt a jolt as they touched fenders.

"Sorry, static electricity," Michael apologized. "I've been doing a lot of running around tonight."

"No," she gently said as she now touched her tire against his as well. "I don't think it was that. I don't . . ."

"You know," he said, looking into her eyes again, " . . . I think you're right . . ."

— — — — —

Having watched them from a short distance across the patio, Sally finally allowed herself to quietly sigh and relax against Lightning. He looked at her knowingly. She looked back at him for a moment. Eventually, she motioned with her eyes.

"Y.M.N." she then quietly added.

He gently smiled and nodded, and they began to leave together, almost bumping into Mia and Cam in the process.

"Thank you," Mia said to them. "Thank you both."

"You're welcome," Lightning replied, now feeling fairly tired.

"And thanks for the surprise for our folks," Cam added.

"We'll make sure they're both ready to go in the morning, along with Tia," Mia assured.

"It's our pleasure," Sally replied. "Lightning and I will be flying there now by helicopter . . . not that I mind the later wake-up time, actually. But Mack will be at your door by 9:00 A.M. Aro doesn't mind having to stay behind and help Dana though?" she then queried.

"When I had a chance to check with him on a quick break this evening after Mia let me know," Cam explained, "Aro told me it's just the opportunity he's been looking for to get to work on surprising Tia with a nursery addition to the house for their coming child. Just don't let on while she's away with you all."

"Not a problem!" Lightning pledged, " . . . right, Sal?"

"Absolutely!" Sally pledged as well. "But that's so sweet of him!"

"Well," Cam sighed as he looked at Mia, "our ladies are worth stuff like this."

"Our guys are, too," Mia warmly admired. "I just hope we haven't stolen your anniversary from you this evening, however."

"You haven't," Sally simply assured as she looked at Lightning.

"Go, have a wonderful anniversary together then. Take care, you two," Mia replied as the two couples now went their separate ways.

"Lightning . . ." Sally then paused, sighing, and looking at him.

"Let's say good night to them, too," he agreed as they then turned around.

"Excuse us," Sally gently said as they now approached Sofia and Michael at their table. "We probably won't be seeing either of you again for a while here, so Lightning and I thought we'd say good night."

"Sally," Sofia responded slowly as she and Michael now held tires together, "I do not know what to say . . . except thank you, for telling me a truth . . . one that I had found so difficult."

"And thank you, Sally," Michael echoed, "for helping me to . . . hesitate . . . just a bit more."

"That was your doing?" Sofia asked Sally, now looking between both her and Michael.

Sally just smiled next to Lightning.

Sofia came over and nudged Sally tightly for a moment.

"I am not leaving anymore," Sofia finally whispered with relief to her. "I might not even leave this valley," she then noted, " . . . or at least maybe I will have a second home here. I hear Michael is good at building those."

"That's what I hear, too," Sally gently agreed.

"I am holding you up from your anniversary though," Sofia noted.

"And I'm holding you up from your date," Sally whispered with a big smile.

Sofia nudged Sally one more time with a deep, tearful smile of her own. "See you at the track, sometime," Sofia finally said.

"Enjoy, you two," Sally warmly advised as she now turned to leave with Lightning. "Just enjoy."

Sofia then sighed as she looked cautiously at Michael. "I know we have only just met," she noted, " . . . so please excuse if my friends might be a little presumptuous."

"It's alright," Michael gently smiled as he extended a tire to her again.

— — — — —

"Sofia, Michael . . . sorry to interrupt," Mia apologized as she approached them with her husband a short time later. "Cam and I are heading home, we're bushed. You're welcome to stay as long as you like though. Here, enjoy a bottle of fine Italian distillate, Castello di Roballa, from our bar. Fortunately, we have a somewhat seasoned Sous Chef overseeing lunch here tomorrow — so if you like, see you at my home for a late breakfast sometime after our folks leave on a surprise trip with the team . . . say Ten or so in the morning? But, if you wind up wanting to take a drive instead," she added knowingly, " . . . I'll understand."

"I hear Michael likes Verdi though," Mia suggested with a smile as she turned to leave with Cam. "You might want to play some for him . . ."

"Mia," Sofia said, as she now deliberately nudged and glanced at Michael, " . . . thank you."

"Yeah," Mia decided, " . . . I think it's the drive tomorrow for you now. You're not here for that long. Besides, you two could go places, you know. And Sofia," she added as she returned, quickly nudging her now, " . . . you're welcome."

Sofia closed her eyes as she nudged her. "Molte grazie, Mia . . . especially for your prayers."

"I'm not stopping yet," Mia warmly replied.

"My dearest friend," Sofia sighed as she let her go.

"And always will be. But get back to your date here," Mia smiled as she returned to Cam's side. "Goodnight."

Sofia sighed deeply as Mia and Cam left. Michael just gently rubbed her tire with his, looking at her once more. Sofia was now almost crying again.

"Hey," he said softly to her, " . . . you gonna eat your dinner there? Those namesake greaseballs of yours are awfully good!"

"Would you like to enjoy some with me?" she sniffed with a slight smile.

"Enjoying Greaseballs á la Sofia . . . with the real Sofia herself?" he warmly replied. "How could I possibly say no to that?"

Sofia looked at him again with a tearful smile.

"But here, let me also pour you a glass of Castello di Roballa," he offered. "And you tell me where everyone thinks we should go on our drive tomorrow."

Sofia laughed, tearfully, as she just broke down and nudged tightly against him now. Michael began gently rocking her, soothing her.

"I'm sorry," she apologized, suddenly trying to straighten herself up again.

"No, relax . . . right here," he said, inviting her back against his side. "It's safe . . . I'm safe . . . and even better than a stiff drink!"

Sofia allowed herself to gently both laugh and cry at the same time as she resumed leaning against him.

"Sofia . . . alla vostra salute ed alla felicità . . . to your health, and happiness," he offered, raising his glass with his other tire in a toast.

"Alle possibilità . . . To possibilities . . . between us," she now countered in her own toast, still leaning against him and sniffling slightly.

"I would hope they might be probabilities . . . more than possibilities," he suggested.

"You think so?" she asked.

"Why not?" he offered. "We've each waited a long time — for someone else who knows what it feels like . . . to be left behind . . ."

"Yes, we have," she softly agreed as she continued looking at him. "You can see me . . . as an equal though?"

"I see you as Sofia," he replied. "A really nice lady, with a really nice job. I don't have the nice job . . . or the nice stuff anymore right now . . ."

"But I see you as Michael," she assured. "A really nice guy . . . a true prince, even without a castle."

"Sofia . . ." he admired.

"Michael . . ." she began allowing herself to admire in return.

They shared a moment of blissful silence leaning together. They then looked around, and realized they were now alone on the restaurant patio.

"Mind if we hear more of that Verdi?" Michael now suggested. "You still have Va' Pensiero cued up?"

"Yes . . . I do," she replied, as she allowed the waltz to begin playing within her once again as she turned up the volume a bit this time on her stereo.

"Would you dance with me?" he invited. "I'd just like to give you a good memory for a change . . . to go with that tune."

"Michael . . ." she openly cried with a grateful smile now, looking at him as she began waltzing with him again. "I am sorry though," she added, " . . . I am not always like this."

"Hey," he reassured, " . . . you had a bad break. I can understand that."

Sofia just closed her eyes and pressed tightly against him as they danced, while he looked at her for a moment.

"The 'successful empress' and the 'pauper prince'?" he then felt compelled to ask — to blurt out.

"I could call myself the 'jilted bride' . . . at least you made it to 'abandoned husband'," Sofia gently countered as she looked into his eyes now. "But no," she calmly decided, looking at him as the world swirled around them. "Just Michael and just Sofia. That is what I want to explore. That is what I really want."

He nudged her tightly, closing his eyes now as he turned with her.

"Could I tell you something honestly though?" Sofia now asked him, stopping for a moment as she looked into his eyes.

"Always, Sofia," Michael both assured and invited her.

"I just want to be understood," she allowed herself to confess to him, "and really . . . to love and be loved, truly so. That is what I desire now. But," she hesitated, " . . . before that can happen, before I can do that freely . . . I would like to . . . I need to hear someone pledge that they won't do what has been done to me before."

"Well, having been left and involuntarily divorced myself, I'd kind of like the same thing," Michael admitted. "Sofia . . . I'll be honest with you, too. We both know that we have some exploring to do yet, down this road. But . . . I know what you're asking, and I can imagine why. I understand. I'll let you know though that I'm beginning to feel something good about you. You can probably already see that, actually!"

Sofia just warmly smiled.

"So," he carefully but deliberately continued, " . . . I'm willing to pledge . . . and to promise that there will be no sudden changes of heart, or unpleasant surprises from me. At the very least, I won't deceive you. I hope we can discuss things between us as they come up, and it's important to me that we're honest with each other. If it isn't working for me, I'll let you know. If it doesn't work out for whatever reason, I would like it to be because we both agree that it's what is best . . . for both of us."

"But if it does work out for us?" Sofia now boldly asked.

"Wow," he could only sigh.

"Good . . . just checking," she assured with a gentle smile. "Given what I have experienced, accepting good things has seemed almost more difficult at times than being ready for the bad."

"This is some topic to be talking about on a get acquainted date though, isn't it?" he asked.

"For some it might be," Sofia replied. "But for me, and hopefully for you, it allows us to begin something. That is what I am interested in."

"Then let us begin," he invited, " . . . with this dance . . ."

"Oh, Michael . . ." she could only say to him as they resumed dancing again, as she closed her eyes and practically buried her hood against him.

"This is a wonderful dream of yours, you know," he added softly to her as they twirled around together as the music played.

Suddenly, Sofia couldn't help herself anymore as she stopped them both . . . and kissed him . . . tearfully, freely, fully kissed him . . .

— — — — —

The strains of Va' Pensiero were once again softly spreading and echoing across an Ornament Valley bathed in the light of millions of stars and a crescent moon.

"Never heard that before tonight," Lightning noted to Sally as they emerged from their own lingering kiss, while continuing to finally enjoy a quiet moment alone together, just parked in the desert beside the road leading back towards town. "It's nice though," he added.

"It's a sign now," Sally said with a smile as she looked past Lightning towards Shangri-La.

"Think we'll lose her out of Dinoco?" he asked.

"If Sofia wants to go," Sally replied, " . . . I couldn't be happier for her. But one way or another, she'll be sticking around from now on. Plus, she's a car who values commitment. I don't think she'll leave us hanging . . . with Dinoco, or anything else."

"But hey, anniversary guy," Sally now said, "and I am so glad it is our anniversary, no matter what the number or fraction . . . you ready to continue on back to the Wheel Well here?"

"And then hit the road — or I guess the air now — again tomorrow, to the next race?" Lightning added.

"It's home for us, my Stickers . . . all of it," Sally sighed, leaning against him, as she looked at both him and the world around them. "I love this, and I love you, Lightning McQueen."

"We are home now, really back," he agreed, " . . . and I love you, my Sally Carerra McQueen. Hey, why don't you go ahead and peel the paper strip off my other side here?"

Sally moved around him and gently tore the strip off, this time with her teeth. "Hmmm . . . it says you belong to me," she noted warmly while she continued to seductively nuzzle his side with her bumper.

"Ohhh, Sally," Lightning replied, involuntarily shuddering at her touch. "I . . . belong to you . . . totally . . ."

"But there's one more thing," Lightning noted with satisfaction as he now looked off into the distance towards town. "Turn and take a look at the drive-in's marquee . . ."

"Why?" Sally asked, still looking at him from the side. "The last show's over for the night by now. The theatre's closed, and they should have turned it off."

Lightning just smiled and looked at Sally, as she then proceeded to turn anyway and her eyes fell on the drive-in's still brightly-illuminated marquee as she saw . . .

SAL & STICKERS
18 MONTHS OF HEAVEN
TONIGHT

They turned back towards each other by the roadside, and cried openly together.

"You . . ." she whispered intensely through her tears.

"You, too . . ." he said softly right back.

"What can I do for you?" she simply but earnestly asked.

"Nothing," he replied. "You're already doing everything I could ever ask for."

Sally just buried her hood against Lightning.

"This journey . . . our journey," she cried softly, " . . . it just keeps getting better and better . . ."

"Kaa-choww . . ." he slowly whispered in deep agreement with her.

Finish


Hold onto your dreams. And don't be afraid when they come true . . . or forget to share them.

Best wishes,

Norwesterner