A/N: This was written a year and a half ago as a response to a challenge on the Whitebrook Farm message board, and at the time I was quite proud of it, but it has been a long time since I read it, so it's just for posterity that I'm putting it up here.And... okay, there are quite a few stylistic errors that I have since noticed and am now a little embarrased by, but I think I should post it as is because I like the story idea. Anyways, AU: Perfect Image broke down in the Kentucky Derby and was euthanized. Now Melanie is left to pick up the pieces, and she finds that her life is drastically empty now that her favorite horse has died. In fact, does her life mean anything at all without racing?

Disclaimer: All Thoroughbred characters belong to Joanna Campbell and Harper Collins.

Stepping Beyond the Wire

Melanie could feel the water seeping into her pants as she knelt on the ground. She knew that she would invariably get a grass stain on her knees from sitting there so long, but she was only aware of it in the back of her mind. The blood had ceased to run into her feet, which were now numb inside her paddock boots, but that didn't matter either.

Not much had mattered since Image had died.

She could still feel it, that one unsure step. The one falter that would lead to destruction. She felt so exhilarated, so perfectly content, perhaps for the first time in her life.

All the hours, the days spent conditioning Image into a racehorse had boiled down to the last two minutes. Perfect Image, the black daughter of racing royalty, had been no easy job. Melanie could remember being thrown from the filly countless times after only asking to sit in the saddle. She remembered the heartbreak of nearly losing the filly to the financial failures of Fredericka Graber, her former owner. And then how happy she was when her father purchased Image to be her very own.

But not her very own. Image was co-owned by two businesses, Graham Records and the rock star "Jazz". Luckily for all of them, Jazz was a willing and quick learner about horse racing and had left many of the decisions to the trainer, Melanie herself. But when Will Graham entered Image in the Florida Derby which led to a devastating loss to the colts, Melanie had become very discouraged. Not only had her father gone against her wishes, but Image had also proved in need of much more racing experience. The courageous filly simply had not been able to beat the boys that day, which meant they all had a lot of work to do if they wanted to win the Kentucky Derby.

So they trained, conditioned, schooled, and prepped every spare moment of the remaining weeks. Perfect Image, the beautiful filly with the feisty temper, had pulled every trick to make things more difficult for her trainers. Melanie knew that so much of Image's future rested on her. She was part owner, part trainer, and also the sole jockey of the racehorse. No matter what kind of choices had been made in the past, everything came down to a jockey's decisions on the track. Luck had stayed with her before, but would she be able to ride Image to victory in the most important race in the world?

And in the ultimate test, she had proved true. She could still feel it, the surge of power that pulsed through Image as she made the triumphant strides to the lead. She could hear it, not the crowd, but the pounding of hooves beneath her and behind her. She could taste it, the wind whipping through her mouth and the victory that lay just beyond the wire. She could smell it, the sweat on her mount and the moist dirt of the churned up track. She could see it, the crowd of thousands upon thousands of people blurring together as she raced past the stands.

Victory was before her, but tragedy would befall her.

As they swept past the wire with the rest of the pack a few lengths behind, everything stopped for just a moment. She raised in her stirrups and finally had it: she was riding the perfect horse, and she had wont he perfect race.

Then everything changed forever.

It was only one stride wrong, just one. But as Image's leg dipped slightly, her head began to bob. Colors, sounds, heat came rushing at Melanie. The blood pounded in her ears as slowly, surely, Image's head nodded harder with each step she took. That smooth, beautiful feel to the gallop was marred by a sickening limp. Thoughts were chasing each other through Melanie's head as she desperately tugged on the reins, choking Image to slow her down, doing everything she could to bring the exhilarated filly to a halt. We won, but what's wrong, this can't be happening, we just won, did I miss it? Why didn't I see it coming, how should I have ridden her? What's going to happen, what happened? Where's Ian, where's Mike, where's Dad and Jazz? Where's Ashleigh, what must I do?

At last the horse came to a prancing, bobbing stop as the rest of the field whisked past her, still blowing out after the race. That's what Image should be doing. Melanie leapt off her mount and kept a tight hold on the reins. Image, who normally would be dancing and neighing in contentment, had dropped her head and cocked one hoof off the ground. Her breath was short and ragged, steaming out of pink flared nostrils. Melanie reached out one shaking hand and touched the rested leg. She ran it up and down the silky black hair, and she felt it.

She could still remember feeling the hot muscles of the leg as Image whickered in a pained manner. Melanie lost her breath and sweat poured out from under her helmet. It stung her eyes, and suddenly the sun was much too bright and the dirt was blowing in her nose. She pulled back her hand and wiped it over her face, then turned to the stands.

She was lost. Her eyes, searching for her family from Whitebrook, held every emotion that was racking her heart. Without the vet, without anyone, alone, she knew the truth. We lost today. Image is lost, how could everything happen? What did I do, why couldn't I hear it, why couldn't I hear the snap? Why didn't I hear her bone breaking, did it happen before or after the wire, what did I do? Where is everyone, why aren't they coming? They know it, they know as well as I do that they can't help us, no one can help us. Image, don't go yet, Image we won, why can't we all celebrate? Image, don't be like this, I can't let you go yet, we have so many races to run.

The crowd was quiet. Officials were running up now, and the sun hid behind the clouds. Ashleigh was there now, things could be okay, Wonder had been okay. But things weren't okay, Ashleigh was tugging her arm, pulling her away from her beloved horse as a veterinary team set up a large gray sheet. Ashleigh, where are we going, why are you taking me away from her? Why are they putting that shield around Image, why is everything so quiet but I can hear too many thoughts in my head, why can't we just win and go home? I can't see her anymore, I can't see her anymore but I can hear her why can't I be with her why is she going so fast why are they taking away Image from me why is she going so fast she needs me now more than ever I can't see her anymore I can't feel her but we won I know we won we won but I've lost her.

And then Melanie didn't remember anymore from that day. Nothing but the last whinny from her beautiful black filly from behind a gray screen and falling into Ashleigh's arms as tears blurred her vision.

Image was home again, home at Whitebrook Farm, the only place that she'd ever seemed content. They had buried her in the little field somewhere in the backwoods of the property where they buried all the heroes. Ashleigh's Wonder… Storm's Ransom… a couple unmarked graves. As Melanie sat beside the little stone brick that read Image's name in bronze letters, along with the words "Winner of the Kentucky Derby", her mind wandered. She turned her gaze to the dry creek bed that ran along the edge of the clearing in the trees. She could just make out the light brown dirt snaking through the grass, perhaps that had once been teeming with life and clear blue brook. It was April, but Kentucky saw no rain or the typical signs of spring. A strange drought had stricken the state and proved detrimental to the signature bluegrass fields of many of the farms. Of course, the horses had survived on the old hay left over from the winter, but what they all needed now was the rain, rain to bring life back to the parched and cracked paddocks. Without bright green grass, the cemetery almost seemed haunting. Except for the flowers that Melanie had just planted over the graves and desperately watered, no colors stood out against dull brown. As a wind blew across through the trees and over the tombstones, Melanie could hear it sighing, sighing like a horse home again in its stall after a day of hard work. In the ground near the trail, she imagined that she could see hoofprints. And maybe, that bent grass over there had been chewed by a hungry filly looking for a snack.

Melanie was suddenly brought back to the present by the cracking of twigs and weeds. She whipped her head around to see her boyfriend Jazz approaching. She smiled wistfully, but not happily. Jazz was very handsome, with lively eyes and a way of smiling so that it always looked like he knew a bit more than everyone else. But even seeing her boyfriend couldn't make Melanie forget why she was in the cemetery.

"I thought you'd be here," he said softly as he walked up. His eyes traveled to the grave that she sat next to, and he sighed quietly.

"You knew I'd be here," she quipped, reaching up to take his hand. Her other held another bouquet of flowers, roses.

"Yeah, I asked Ian where you were. But I also know that it's a month until the Derby."

Melanie winced slightly. Ever since the accident, she'd done everything but quit riding altogether. She helped out a great deal at Whitebrook, but other than that she seemed to avoid jockeying in the big races. Her win in the Derby had definitely propelled her career to staggering heights, and for a while she was taking offers left and right. But then… then… she just couldn't do it anymore. She couldn't ride three, sometimes five horses in an afternoon, and feel nothing. Even when she won, she just slid off her mount and gave it a pat on the shoulder before turning in. With Image, she had spent hours with her, just watching her eat, or even telling her about her day. Since… since Image had gone, Melanie just didn't connect with the other horses. She was so used to loving the thrill she got just from sitting on Image, and being dropped to anticipating the end of the race just so she could go to the jockeys' room and take a nap was horrible. She'd tried, tried so hard to let it all get behind her and to focus on the young racers in Whitebrook's barns, but eventually she lost all her courage. And without her heart, she began losing races, and losing offers from other trainers. So she stopped riding for outside owners and stuck to living every day at Whitebrook. Once jockeying had just become another job, she knew that she couldn't do it anymore.

Jazz looked down at the gravestone again, then squeezed Melanie's hand. "Mel, I want you back."

"What are you talking about?" she questioned, confused, but also nervous. "I'm right here, I never left."

"You did leave, Melanie. You left the day that Image died, and since then you haven't been the Melanie I used to know and love. Remember when you couldn't get up early enough to go riding? Now look at you."

"What?" she asked again, her voice hollow.

Jazz sighed for the second time. "I think you know what I'm talking about, but I'm going to say it anyway: it is time that you took your life back. I'm sad that Image is gone, too, she was a big investment…"

"That's all she was to you!" Melanie shouted, jumping to her feet. "Image was my horse, and practically my best friend, and she was taken away from me before I got to say goodbye! How can you talk about money…"

"Let me finish," Jazz said, his voice growing more stern. "Image was important to me, too, not just because she made me a lot of money, but because she got me into horse racing. And she led me to meeting you, and I also knew she was the most important thing to you. And it is sad that she died so young, but now it's time to move on. You've got to get over your grief and stop being frightened of riding."

"I'm not afraid to ride."

"Yeah? Then why did you turn down Ben al-Rihani, Wayne Lukas, and the other offers you got for the Breeders' Cup last fall? Don't tell me it's because you just wanted to watch, because I know you, Mel, and I know you can't let anybody else take your mount and go out there and win. You're afraid that Image died because of you, and you don't want that to ever happen again. Now, we're all going to help, and soon you'll be riding and acting like you used to."

"We? Who's we? You've been talking about me to everyone else, haven't you, Jazz? Well, I can't do everything you want just because you think it's good for me, and especially not if everyone's thinking I'm sad. I've just changed my interests, that's all, why can't I change?"

"You can, Mel, but I know this isn't how you want to be."

Melanie could hear how the sympathy had entered his voice. She could imagine how everyone back at the farm worried about her and where she was going now. She knew it, and she'd known it since the accident, they all wanted her back. But how could she go back when she knew what it was like to get hurt?

"I want to ride," she finally said as a tear dripped down her cheek. Jazz watched her steadily. "I'm not afraid… maybe… but Image is gone, and what horse can replace her ride? None." She still had so much to say, but the words that could describe her loss couldn't come to her.

"You don't have to replace her, Mel. You've just got to keep going, and someday you'll learn again that other rides are okay, too. I mean, Ashleigh kept training and riding even though her horses have gotten hurt lots of times, and she loves her job more all the time," Jazz added helpfully.

"Ashleigh told you to say that, didn't she? Because she thought that I wouldn't listen to her because I would just think that she was giving me some stupid anecdotes," Melanie asked, one corner of her mouth curving up in a smirk.

"Yeah," Jazz admitted as he ran one hand through his hair. "I guess you know her pretty well. But she knows you well, too, and she knows that deep down you want to ride again like you used to. You don't have to continue on alone just because Image is gone. We can help you, if you want."

"I want to ride," Melanie said again, this time firmly. "Image was the best, but if I ever want to be the best again I have to keep going." She twined her fingers around Jazz's hand. "So let's go."

Jazz smiled and brushed the tear off her cheek. "Good, because I think you're more pretty when you've got mud splashed all over your face after a race, and I haven't seen you like that for a long time."

Melanie shoved him with her shoulder. "If you like that look then you better buy me a Derby candidate for next month. How about that colt that Brad Townsend owns, by Sunday Silence out of Townsend Baroness…"

Jazz laughed as they began to walk back down the path that led to the barns. "I suppose money isn't an object with you when it comes to horses."

A warm spring rain began then, with a crack of thunder. Melanie and Jazz ran, giggling and stumbling, all the way back to the farm, leaving behind the red roses to rest on the newly growing bluegrass.