A/N: Comment fic! I know comment fic is supposed to be short, relatively sweet ficlets you can keep to a comment, but lambourngb AU where Ashleigh is the "farm's little spoiled princess" and Brad is the "hard-working, dirty-boot son of the breeding manager and is crazy about his wonder-pony." Clearly, I went kind of wild. Ashleigh/Brad, to a certain extent.
The first time he meets her they're both fifteen. Her cheeks are flushed pink, and there's mud on his boots. The colt she sits dances, flings its head, while she gives him a cool appraisal. Just a sweep of her eyes before she turns her head, dismisses him so she can say something clipped and stern to the trainer standing by her feet.
"Don't mind Ashleigh," Maddock says later. "The girl is just driven."
Brad thinks there's another word for it. Something coils in his gut, nameless and solid. Maybe something a little like hate.
He tells himself not to, time and time again. Ever since Edgardale, since giving up everything, he's tried not to get sucked in. Although, really, it's like holding back the tide.
In the mornings, he watches the works, inevitably starts to watch her. Ashleigh Griffen, the princess of Griffen Acres, the only one out there in pristine breeches and shining boots. It's like she's a displaced show jumper, lost in a sea of rough riding and sweat. He notices, not belatedly, that she more than holds her own.
They never speak. Not once.
When he gets off the school bus in the afternoon, there's turmoil in the breeding barn. He finds his father in the aisle outside Three Foot's stall, the chestnut mare quietly standing guard over a damp, pathetic bundle at her feet.
"Not much we can do for the little guy," Clay says, clapping one warm hand on his son's shoulder. "We'll just have to wait it out and see."
Brad has a reaction to that. It's somewhere along the lines of screw that.
Later, when he's got the colt standing on his own, he sits in the straw, back against the wall, and watches the foal nurse. It doesn't take long at all before the colt crumples back to the ground, curling up and blinking slowly. It's an effort not to scream in frustration.
That's when she shows up, her face pinched, like what she's looking at is an abomination.
"It's too bad," she says, shaking her head.
"He'll be fine," Brad insists, but she gives him that silent stare that speaks volumes.
"You know, Holly foaled about the same time. Nice, big filly. It's a wonder too, considering the mare's age."
Ashleigh purses her lips, and says, "Don't get too attached to him, okay?"
He can't think of something snide to say. Can't think of any answer at all, and she leaves well before any might have entered his head.
He's lucky that Charlie shows up later, bottle in hand.
People start to call the colt Townsend Prince. He hates the name, especially when Ashleigh laughs so riotously at it.
"More like Bradley's Little Runt," she says, watching the mare and foal trot in tandem in their separate paddock. Three Foot stretches her legs, and Prince scurries to keep up.
"That's a little redundant, don't you think?" Brad asks, and her mouth snaps shut.
He's not all that surprised when the colt falls through the cracks, allowing Charlie to take over Prince's training. The colt's first year on the track is a bitch, but Brad never expected it to get easier. He knows they're working toward something, something big. He knows this because every so often he catches Ashleigh worrying her bottom lip between her teeth, her eyes on the colt as he grows and grows, goes faster and faster.
When they win their first race out, a maiden with a nice field and a respectable purse, she stops him in the barn aisle the next day, a hand on his wrist.
"I just want you to know," she says, "that he might make something good of himself. A nice, solid allowance runner is really useful around here."
He laughs, and she scowls, right before he realizes she hadn't meant for it to sound like such a backhanded compliment. She drops his hand and turns on her heel, matching out of the stable without another word.
He doesn't feel sorry for his reaction. Not one bit.
In September, Wonder wins the Spinaway. Ashleigh is all glee, spins in her spot next to him in the stands to kiss her boyfriend warmly on the mouth. Brad rolls his eyes, bypasses the winner's circle to head to the backside. Saratoga slides in warm waves around him.
The Prince stands in his stall with his nose in his hay, leaves it entirely when he hears Brad's footsteps.
"Hey, guy," Brad murmurs to the colt, scratching the chestnut between the ears and absorbing Prince's enthusiastic nudges. It's the equivalent of an equine pat down, and Brad produces a peppermint to the colt's delight.
The filly comes back to the barn awash in sweat, her coat dark. Ashleigh arrives soon after, her wide-brimmed hat in one hand, curled hair tumbling halfway down her back. She's still riding cloud nine, her hazel eyes bright.
"Good luck in the Hopeful tomorrow," she tells him as she passes, her eyes slip sliding right over the Prince.
They come in third.
It doesn't matter. They win the Champagne instead.
There's a space of time he wishes back. From the minute Ashleigh puts her foot in the Prince's stirrup to when his colt crashes to the ground, the farm's princess thrown to the dirt.
His breath is pale in the chilled air. He's so pissed off he can barely see straight, but this girl stands in front of him with her arms crossed protectively over her chest, her gloved hands balled into fists against her sides, and apologizes. He doesn't want that. He wants her gone.
"That was the last thing I wanted," Ashleigh says.
"What the hell did you want?" he asks, and she sighs into the air, like she can't bring herself to find the real answer.
"I wanted to ride him for once," she says, her temper beginning to crack. "I think I have that right."
He just looks at her. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you wanted to ruin him."
Her mouth opens, a hollow laugh softly slipping out. "That's not it at all."
"Yeah?" Brad asks, his fingers flexing, energy everywhere. "Well when you come up with the real reason you rode him like you had a score to settle, you can get back to me. Until then, keep your fucking apologies."
He doesn't bother to wait around for her lies.
She never tells him why. He never expected an answer, and if he wants to be honest, he would have called anything she could have said an excuse. In the long run, it doesn't matter. They're on the Triple Crown trail, and his colt is winning. He notices she holds her breath every time the Prince strides by the finish line unscathed.
The night before the Kentucky Derby, he stands outside the colt's stall in a tux and super shiny shoes, feeling like an idiot. The Prince stares at him brightly, and he thinks that if a horse could laugh, the Prince is certainly having a riot of a time at his expense. Next to the colt, Wonder watches him calmly.
He certainly didn't think he'd be here.
Ashleigh voices these thoughts quite perfectly out loud. "What are you doing?"
He looks at her over his shoulder. She's wearing a goddamned evening gown, shimmering satin and taffeta or whatever the hell that material is. A smile quirks on his lips, because maybe they're a little too alike in the small ways. The ones that don't count.
"Galas get a little old after the first hour," he says, unwrapping a peppermint and giving it to the colt. Wonder stretches her neck out a little, nickering enthusiastically while the Prince savors his treat. Brad unwraps a second one, giving it to the filly, who gobbles it up and tosses her head happily.
Ashleigh walks up next to him, putting her hand on the filly's forehead and nodding. She gives him a sideways glance while she rests her cheek against Wonder's nose.
"You clean up good," she observes.
"You just like guys in tuxes."
She laughs. "Maybe."
He wonders how this could be happening. The owner's daughter and the breeding manager's son standing here together, in evening attire, observing her daddy's horses on Kentucky Derby eve, like this is normal. He's suddenly annoyed by her presence, so filled with choking want for her absence, for a moment without her constant reminder that none of this is his surrounding him like a warm, wet blanket.
He looks at her, and wants to win. Wants to win so badly she could probably see it in his eyes if she looked hard enough.
She doesn't look at all.
The red roses resting on the Prince's neck smell sweet. He wonders if the red rims around her eyes aren't a little sweeter.
They take the gloves off after the Derby. Wonder wins the Preakness, the Prince shatters them all in the Belmont. It's a Griffen Acres Triple Crown, not that Ashleigh and Brad care. He admits that he may not care at all.
Both stare down the Travers in a manner that borders on obsessive. Maddock and Charlie stand at the rail in the morning, sharing grim expressions, while the horses work under like minds. Ashleigh and Brad, Wonder and Prince, race after race.
He knows she's dead set on winning, if her set jaw in the mornings and her propensity to not look at him is any indication. He gleefully feels the Prince reach out in ever longer strides, skipping and strengthening, glorying in everything that indicates yes. This, he thinks, will be no contest.
It certainly isn't. Not when Wonder pulls up one morning and a sob comes out of Ashleigh's mouth like a scream.
The Prince puts away Mercy Man easily in the Travers, goes on to win by five solid lengths. She stands with him in the winner's circle and forces a smile.
He watches Wonder's come back with as much trepidation as anyone else. When Maddock gives Ashleigh a leg up into the saddle, he even says it out loud, "Hey, Ashleigh? Don't push it."
She gives him a look, but he has his reasons. She knows him as well as he does, which is probably why she stays silent. So she takes the unexpected route, and doesn't push it. When she comes back to the gap, he doesn't say anything, but she has something to tell him. Something that he has a feeling she's been wanting to tell him since Louisville.
"Hey, Brad?" she says to him, demanding attention. He looks over at her scowl. "Go fuck yourself."
He can't help but smile.
For a second there, he thinks they're done. She pushes to enter Wonder in anything other than the Gold Cup, and her father agrees. Wonder makes a successful comeback in the
Beldame, and the Prince demolishes everyone in the Gold Cup. It's a day full of smiles despite the rain, but Brad would be a fool to dismiss the glint in Ashleigh's eye.
Later, she walks up to him, stops him right there in the shed row to push up on her toes and say, right in his face, "I'm putting Wonder in the Classic."
"Good for you," is his response.
She lifts her chin, angry.
When she breaks up with her boyfriend, he knows. He couldn't possibly not know, because she speeds off in her Porsche, a cherry red blur that doesn't come back until nearly dark. She parks outside the training barn, and he only notices when he walks out after checking on the Prince before lights out.
She's just sitting there. The engine's off, but her hands are locked in a death grip on the steering wheel, like she's afraid the car might take an unsupervised turn.
Fuck, he thinks, right before he walks up to the car.
He knocks one knuckle against the window, and she ignores him. So he checks the door, finds it unlocked, and swings it open.
"Go away," she says, using that voice. That do-as-I-say-now voice.
"Fuck that," he says in return. She flinches, and then sets her jaw.
"What the hell do you care?" she asks him, swinging her gaze from the windshield up to his face. He notices the tear tracks, the red eyes, the puffiness, and pushes them all away. It's not his issue. In truth, he doesn't even want to know.
"I don't care," he counters. "I just think you need to go home."
"Bullshit," she laughs, putting her hands in her lap. "Brad Townsend cares more than anyone. You probably even care about me, deep down."
"That's pushing it."
"But that doesn't mean it's not true."
She looks a little too victorious for his liking, a little too sure of herself, so he does what she doesn't expect. Or perhaps it's what she wants.
"Fine, Ashleigh. Have it your way."
The Breeders' Cup is back in Louisville, the place that arguably started it all. He thinks it's fitting, somewhat, for the year to end here. It's fitting that they find each other again, dressed stupidly extravagantly, stuck in an elevator for eleven floors worth of snide comments aimed right at the heart.
This time, he notices, she doesn't treat him like he's half there. She's full on in his face, telling him just where he can shove his moral superiority, electricity crackling over every nerve ending in his body as every instinct shrills at him to get the hell out of this space right now before something undeniably bad happens.
Right now. Right as she pauses in her rant about where he gets off thinking he's better, grips the lapels of this stupid tux, and hauls him down into her face so she can say, "You're not better."
Her mouth meets his in a hot crush. She parts her lips, parts his, presses up against him and kisses him so hard it's difficult to not get swept into her point.
Maybe he's not better. Maybe it's all some fucked up game they've been playing between them, a game that comes down to this moment. The moment where he puts his hands on her waist and pushes her away, turns her into the side of the elevator car and comes back to her mouth.
Her fingers are warm on the nape of his neck, in his hair. He kisses her, reacts in kind, because maybe she's right.
Maybe he just wants to kiss her.
Maybe the elevator doors open a little too soon for either.
Maybe the moment is lost.
His colt crosses the finish line first. Her filly is a half-length behind, still driving. He's surprised when Mr. Griffen takes his hand and says, "We wouldn't be here if not for you, son."
Then something crazy happens. Something off the wall and sudden, that leaves Brad with a half-interest in his colt. His colt. Mr. Griffen smiles, and tells him to accept. He does, despite his racing heart and his pulse ringing in his ears. He sees Ashleigh's smile, fleeting, before she's lost to the crowd.
He tells himself to look ahead, toward the Prince, toward home.