Summary: Sometimes, belief is not enough.
A/N: Perhaps Fleet Goddess loses her second race. She loses her third, her fourth...and continues to lose. Maybe she's nothing more than a flashy pedigree and an unrealized dream. What would Ashleigh do then? (Eventually Brad/Ashleigh, set after Ashleigh's Dream.)
He didn't believe in Fleet Goddess's abilities. He thought she was overmatched. She shrugged his arm off her shoulders.
- Ashleigh's Dream
A bead of sweat rolls down Ashleigh's back, soaking into the damp tank top that clings to her form like a wrinkled second skin. Moisture collects in all the aggravating places: on the nape of her neck, along the brow band of her crash helmet, streaked through her slippery wet hair. It is in her eyes, and it stings.
Her fingers twitch unnecessarily at the rubber reins, and Goddess lifts her head in annoyance, snorting a ragged breath out of red nostrils. The filly drops into a walk, her feet slipping in the muck, and it is an effort for Ashleigh to unfurl her fingers, but she does. She loosens her clenched fist, the mud cracking on her skin, and places one hand on Goddess's hot shoulder.
A storm is still working out the last drops of rain, settling the grandstand in a fine mist. Samantha stands at the base of it, her face carefully blank. It is a look Ashleigh recognizes as resignation, as acceptance.
"Cool her out for me, Sammy?" Ashleigh asks, sliding from the saddle. She leans for a brief moment against the filly's shoulder, but Goddess moves away, rolling her eyes and flicking her ears back, unwilling to be touched. Samantha moves forward with a lead rope, taking the filly in hand.
"She'll get the special treatment, Ash," Samantha says comfortingly. Ashleigh nods, pulls the saddle from the filly's steaming hide and turns before she can see the pair walk unceremoniously back to the muddy stretch of Belmont Park.
The scales clang to the right numbers and Ashleigh walks back to the jock's room. Her mind is scattered, her fingers tug at the soaked maroon and silver silks, and despite looking directly at the ground, she trips. The toe of one boot catches precariously on cracked pavement, and she catches herself on the railing before she can dive down face first.
She wraps her fingers around the warm metal rail tightly, standing with her heart beating in her throat. Her silks are undone and trembling slightly in the stagnant summer air, and she knows she must look winded, exhausted, but she doesn't particularly care. That is when she sees him.
The sun is coming out again, brilliant and far too hot, pouring through breaks in the lingering clouds. It catches and sparks off of the gold blond hair of a man she would know from miles away, and it stills her breath to look at him. She is so thankful that he doesn't see her, is too busy frowning over the form, talking so intently into a cell phone, too far away to even grasp for his attention.
Her throat closes, muscles tighten, ribs constrict. She wants the very opposite of his attention, and beats a hasty path from the railing to the jock's room, hating every second that she does this, but despising more that he is here and he has witnessed yet another moment she wants back. Ashleigh shoulders her way into the jockey's room, and rips at her silks, peeling them off her arms and wrists and leaving them in a heap at her cubby. She thinks of him. She can imagine his thoughts during the race, wants him to feel nothing, but knows that instead he feels pity. Mike is too good a man to feel nothing, and she is too awful a woman to want only that.
She stands for a long while in the shower, takes forever to wash away the grime. Afterward she allows herself the luxury of blow drying her long suffering hair, blasting it every which way and coming up with stringy imperfection. Standing in the bathroom, she waits for the jockeys to come back from the last race before she will entertain the notion of leaving. Ashleigh knows what this makes her, and she holds this truth in a deadly grip.
The jockeys come back eventually, and she still packs up her things slowly, lifts the duffel to her shoulder like it weighs more than she has ever carried in her life. When she convinces herself to go, she is so quick out of the jock's room that she speeds by Jilly with only a glance and a nod, slowing down for nothing. She does not stop until she arrives at the Townsend Acres stabling block, breathing like she's run a race.
Samantha gives her a look out of the corner of her eye as she sweeps a rag over Goddess's glossy dark coat.
"My dad told me this morning," Samantha says, staring at Goddess's side like she's reading something off a wall. "I meant to tell you about it, but with Goddess running it didn't seem like the best time."
"It's okay," Ashleigh says, but she's really not so sure if it is. She has not spoken to him, will not speak to him, and runs away at the sight of him. How can this be okay?
"He's running Jazzman in the Suburban," Samantha continues, finally looking up, her eyes widening at Ashleigh only slightly, just enough for Ashleigh to notice. "He's brought a small string with him…"
"And then he'll go to Saratoga," Ashleigh replies. It is just where she is headed, but she had known all of this, hadn't she? If not known, anticipated. Where else has Whitebrook ever run?
"That's how it normally goes," Samantha says softly, trailing her fingers down Goddess's neck and then dropping her hands, stepping out of the filly's stall. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"I'm okay," Ashleigh says, but it's mechanical. She is not okay. She wants to pinch herself and wake up in another life, where bitterness is foreign. She wants to take so many words back, and doesn't at the same time. She regrets and stands by everything, and that, she knows with certain calm, is why she runs.
"I'm glad to hear it," says a voice she doesn't expect, and turns to find Charlie and Maddock standing in the shedrow's open doorway. The two men look uncomfortable, which is not unusual. Despite that they work for the same farm, they do not collaborate often, or at all, even to show up in the same place together.
"She looked good today, Ashleigh," Maddock says after a beat. No one knows what to say, and she knows this is a blatant lie. The filly never fired, yet again, finishing up the track. It is a finish that can have no excuse.
"Eventually she'll get her act together," Charlie grumbles, but Ashleigh knows Charlie and this is as far as he comes to putting on a false front. They hope she will get her act together. As of yet, she has shown no inclination that this will ever happen.
"Still a beauty," Maddock says, putting a hand on the filly's neck, admiring her despite her inability to run. "And rare lines on top of it. She'll be an asset as a broodmare."
Ashleigh wants to snap at them, but she holds back. They are easing into something, trying to glide into a conversation that has nothing to do with Goddess.
"Thank you," she wants to say, but the words stick at the back of her throat. So she just looks at them expectantly, and Maddock is the one who nods first.
"Charlie and I were talking," he begins, because this is supposed to astonish her. A rare meeting has occurred, and something will hinge on her. This is why they're here. "We were discussing the farm's options with Panther, given Jilly's recent decision to ride Jazzman in the Suburban –"
Ashleigh blinks, wants to laugh. But then she remembers that Jilly is not a hired hand for the farm anymore, not like her. There is a quick stab of something like hurt in her chest, but she pushes it away as swiftly as she can. It still throbs.
"—and," Maddock says, looking from Charlie to her, "I want to offer you the chance to ride."
"Ride Panther," Ashleigh says, and she cannot help the incredulousness that seeps into her voice.
"Panther isn't especially sensitive about jocks," Maddock says, "but he liked Jilly, and I want this transition to be as seamless as possible leading up to the Suburban."
"But Brad makes the decisions concerning Panther," Ashleigh tells him, as if he has somehow forgotten. "Shouldn't he be making this call?"
There is a pregnant pause before Maddock shakes his head. "Brad has given me full control of decisions regarding his horses."
Ashleigh scoffs. "Brad?"
She thinks she sees the ghost of a smile on Charlie's mouth, but it is gone in a flash. Maddock only nods.
It is not possible, for countless reasons. Ashleigh would lose track trying to name them all. Still, the more important number is how many horses she has ridden for Maddock, the overwhelming answer being none. She remembers vividly the situation she had with Charlie after Wonder, how Fleet Goddess was supposed to show them that life after a horse like Wonder is not all mediocrity. Instead of lifting them up, the filly has only added frustration, and Ashleigh's record at Belmont speaks for itself. They are spinning their wheels, and she is in desperate need.
Charlie offers her no help as to his thoughts. He is a study in neutrality, but she cannot stand here and war over her thoughts, over his feelings, over this sense that riding a horse that is not trained by Charlie Burke would be desertion. She needs a horse, and if that horse is Panther, she might laugh and cry at the same time, but she will take it.
"Okay," she says, and Maddock looks pleased. Samantha frowns, her eyes at her shoes. Charlie just looks at her. Then she thinks of Brad, and knows what she must do.