For a moment, the environment could have been cut with a knife, given the accumulated tension. Sally and Alex kept looking at each other―he, incredulous. She, suffering the unspeakable inside by remembering, like flashes, everything he did to her. And Tex, Naya, and Lightning observed the scene with very different feelings flowing through their respective circuits. At least, until Sally’s best friend decided to take the initiative and ignoring the look of contempt that Mustang gave her as soon as she crossed in front of him, she leaned in next to Sally and said:
“Come on, Sal. I want to show you something”, and after casting a very unfriendly glance at the other lawyer, she said. “The atmosphere here is becoming somewhat poisonous.”
“You’re right, Naya,” Tex corroborated acidly. “Let’s go.”
And, seen and unseen, all three disappeared behind Alex and his companion, leaving them alone with Lightning. Of which, to say he was shocked was a very, very short time. The former center of the party had come to feel like a mere spectator of a power game. One which he neither understood nor knew if he wanted to understand about. More than anything, because Sally was in the very center of that mess, and Lightning was burning in desire to know why―although he was not sure if he would like the answer in the least.
Luckily or not, Alex Mustang’s shuffling voice suddenly brought him back to reality.
“Well, this is a surprise–”
Lightning felt as if he had been pricked in an unpleasant area of his anatomy. He didn’t like the look of it, at all.
“What do you mean, Mr. Mustang?”
To which the other, apparently natural, responded:
“Oh, nothing! Just the fact that I found my racing idol and my former intern together at the same party” he remarked the adverb in a way that Lightning was on edge and Alex must have checked his bewilderment; because he added, in a quieter voice. “Wow–I can see Sally hasn’t told you anything about her beginnings–”
Lightning swallowed oil and tried to calm down. Maybe that pedantic lawyer had the answers he needed, but he still didn’t know for sure how much he wanted to know about his current girlfriend’s past.
“No,” he admitted dryly. “Sally hasn’t told me much about… her past here.”
Although, it might be enough for me to know that she was not happy. Ever.
And the racer suspected, painfully, that the one in front of him might be largely to blame―but how? That was the horrible million-dollar question that Lightning didn’t even want to imagine the answer to.
“Well…” Alex pretended to meditate then, seeming unaware of his discomfort. “I admit she was one of my best apprentices–Too bad she decided to leave it at the top of her career. I missed her so much when she left–I don’t know if you understand.”
When Alex winked at him in a gesture that intended to be complicit, Lightning thought he was going to throw up―it couldn’t be true. But, with his insides scrambled, he was still able to replicate:
“Oh, ah–Yeah–I–excuse me, I have to…”, he waved his nose past the lawyer’s trunk before forcing a fake smile. “I’m the hero of the night, you know–”
Alex nodded in agreement, although he put on a sickly windshield.
“Of course, champ. We’ll see each other soon, I imagine–”
“Yeah, right. Of course. See you later!”
And, not caring to be rude, he circumvented the conceited couple by the first gap he found and tried to get lost in the crowd―he had to find Sally without delay. Unfortunately, many more guests wanted to congratulate him and stay to chat with him, so it took the desperate young champion almost fifteen minutes to find his first target.
The millionaire, who was talking to another businessman, immediately turned around when he heard his name.
“Kiddo!” He greeted him, before excusing himself with his partner, and approaching the boy. “So, what? You got rid of that Mustang firecracker already?”
“Do you know where Sally is?” Ray asked hurriedly, unresponsive to Tex’s question and eaten up by nerves.
“Well… I think she and Naya’ve gone up to the roof. Is everything alright?” he asked, somewhat worried when he checked his anxiety.
“I guess so,” replied Lightning quickly, turning to leave. “Thank you, Tex.”
“It’s always a pleasure, kid!” Shouted the other, reflecting on what could have made him so nervous as the car drove away among the guests.
“Sal, you can’t let this get to you,” Naya chided her lovingly as the two watched Los Angeles sprawl under their wheels. “I thought you were happy with Lightning”.
“And I am, Naya,” said Sally, hotly, before looking away again and feeling a few light tears on her windshield. “But I never told him what happened, and when I came to Los Angeles, this was what I feared most.”
“You have to talk to him–”
“I know, but–”
The two girls turned around at the same time as if they’d been poked. Lightning was looking at them alternately; with a contrite expression, his heart shrunken and his blue eyes clouded. Sally felt something squeeze inside her but was unable to say a word. On the other hand, Naya knew right away that she was in over her head.
“I’ll leave you two alone,” she muttered as she directed a mute encouragement to Sally.
When she left, the couple stared into each other’s eyes, saying nothing. At least until Sally sighed, in pain, and looked back towards the city. Lightning didn’t know how to convey everything that was going on on his dashboard―luckily, they were in an area more or less apart from the rest of the people attending the evening. If they argued, few would know. And, for a selfish moment, Lightning thought it would be better that way―he didn’t want a scene in his third Piston Cup.
“Why–” he started, insecure, “–you never told me?”
Sally pressed her windshield and her lips together, with her back to him.
“It’s not a part of my life I’d like to remember,” she replied roughly.
Again there was silence for several seconds. Until Lightning asked in a trembling voice:
“Were you with him?”
Sally moaned to herself. Of all the things she feared in the world, that was number one, no doubt.
“As I was saying,” she whispered with a choppy voice and turning only to him, who had already approached from her side, “it’s not a part of my past that I’d like to remember.”
Then, in Lightning’s brain, some pieces of the puzzle fit together.
“You knew he’d be here, didn’t you?”
Sally snorted, disgusted.
“No, but it was an option,” she acknowledged, again without looking at him.
Lightning noticed that his insides were starting to boil without him being able to stop them.
“And you didn’t think to tell me?” He faced her head-on.
Sally opened the hood, surprised, before backing up a few inches. Something she never used to do.
“I don’t even want to think about him.” She fought back, hurt. She knew, deep down, that Lightning had reason to be hurt too. But she would have preferred him to let it go. “He doesn’t deserve it.”
Lightning’s face went from anger to pain in an instant. To a search for understanding that Sally wasn’t sure she wanted to give him. It would mean opening a window into her past that was too painful, and she didn’t want to suffer. She would be lying if she didn’t say she was terrified, but she tried not to break down while he was asking:
“What did he do to you?”
Sally swallowed in a vain effort to hold back a treacherous tear that ended up rolling down her fender.
“He humiliated me,” she cowered while looking intermittently at the roof door as if Mustang might appear at any moment to torment her again. “He sank my career and made sure that no one would ever want to hire me again. Happy?”
She immediately turned to the balcony, praying that the crying would stop and his frame would not tremble. She expected another outburst, an argument that would escalate to a horrible end. But all she heard was a broken voice saying:
“That’s why you left–That’s why you left everything here.”
“That was just the last straw,” she admitted quietly.
“Sally–I’m sorry,” so he apologized. “If I had known–”
She sipped, holding back tears and looking at him sideways.
“Never mind. Now you know.”
After that, they were both silents. At least until Sally opened the hood again to say:
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, Stickers. I just didn’t feel up to it.”
That was not entirely true: his insides were still seething with doubt, and he was hurting, but he preferred to let it go. Especially seeing Sally’s depressed state. She then turned in on herself, barely looking at him.
“Do you mind if I–Go back to the hotel?” She asked quietly, “I don’t feel very well.”
Lightning, flooded with mixed feelings, could only nod again like an idiot and say:
“I’m gonna get Sarge to come with you.”
She smiled, understanding, which broke Lightning’s heart. It was a sea of doubt, but he did not express it aloud. They would talk back home.
A few minutes later, Sally and her military neighbor were quietly leaving the compound in the direction of the hotel. She understood that Lightning would not accompany her, it was his night, and he could not leave just like that. But someone like her could go more unnoticed–Right?
When the other car said goodbye, Sally kept holding back tears until she reached the room. Once there, by the window, she gave vent to her frustration and pain. The images of her past kept haunting her. She saw, as if in a scene, everything Alex had done to her, what she had thought was happiness, and then it collapsed like a house of cards―all because of him.
She spent a long time, not even knowing how long, glued to the glass and looking into the Californian night. At least until she heard the bedroom door open and instinctively stepped back into the sleeping area, pretending to be asleep.
Lightning, on the other hand, after the party had ended, had returned with Ramon in uncomfortable silence, immersed in his bitter reflections. He was upset. He painfully regretted that Sally had never told him anything about certain aspects of her past and, in particular, that he would have had to find out from others. Specifically, the biggest player in the kingdom.
However, as soon as he entered the bedroom and saw Sally curled up, asleep and barely lit by moonlight, he felt his anger melt away only to give way to a pang of deep and terrible sadness―for, in part, he understood her pain. And, as Naya had said, the Sally he knew did nothing without reason. But, on the other hand, the Sally he knew wouldn’t mix with someone like Mustang either―had she changed that much, or was it just a front?
Doubts were eating away at his soul, but the uncertainty of not knowing what Sally, his beloved Sally, had suffered on the wheels of that pedant was greater. Lightning had been trusting her blindly for years, and he hoped that would continue to be the case. He didn’t believe her capable of deceiving him or hiding the truth from him without a good reason.
So when he went to bed, he couldn’t help but kiss her gently on the fender, trying not to wake her up. She stirred a little and turned her nose towards him, a movement that Lightning took advantage of to curl up against her body before closing the windscreen and falling into a not-at-all-refreshing sleep.