Fire and Ice in our Blood
By Syrinx, for lambourngb
Summary: Ashleigh falls into a creek. Brad plays the knight in tarnished armor.
A/N: Hypothermia fic! (I am probably officially going to hell. lambourngb will be there with me.) Let's say that this is a companion to Good Chemistry, but not of the Chimerical series.
Goddess is a temperamental witch. Ashleigh knows this full well. The mare on a typical day is spooky and bullheaded, but on a day when she's in season she's the equivalent of riding a homicidal bull that has been set on fire.
Today is a day Goddess would rather not be touched, poked, ordered, told, asked, or very kindly given the suggestion to do anything. Anyone with sense would have given the mare a day off, but Ashleigh is not one of those people. She likes to think it's not because she has no sense, but because there's no way she's letting this mare think she can get away with anything. Days off are for the injured or the sick, and Goddess is neither.
Usually this outlook works just fine. It's ideal. Usually Ashleigh rides through the tantrums and the indignant outrage, because she is nothing if not professional and really damn good at her job.
Sometimes, though, she makes a mistake. She's just human, after all. And Goddess takes full advantage, because she's a horse on a mission, and that mission is to get the human off her back and get the hell right out of Dodge.
Today, the mistake is asking Goddess to cross the creek. Goddess puts two feet in the gentle, crystal clear water and bolts. When Ashleigh is flying off the side of her horse, landing in water that is entirely too cold and soaking through every article of clothing she's got on, she realizes what a phenomenally awful idea that was.
Goddess scrambles back up the bank and she goes thundering off, no patience or decency or loyalty to stand by her owner. Most of the time, Ashleigh likes that spirit. She likes the drive that pulls on Goddess, makes her more than a typical racehorse. It's that obstinate nature she stood up for when many others wrote her off, when Mike wrote them both off, and now look where they are. They've won a few graded stakes and she's going to die of hypothermia in a Townsend Acres creek.
Ashleigh groans and gets up, feels the smooth pebbles digging into her skin. There will be ugly bruises later. Standing knee-deep in the water, every part of her is dripping. A bone-cracking shiver runs down her spine, and she looks around for her horse, hoping without hope that Goddess is on her way back when she knows full well she's completely and utterly alone.
To add insult to injury, it starts snowing again. Ashleigh sighs at the little flakes settling on her soaked skin and wipes at her face, takes off her helmet, and smooths an ice cold hand over her wet mass of hair.
"Fantastic," she says, and hauls herself out of the water, arriving on the bank and nearly slipping in the icy trail Goddess has left in her wake. It takes clawing her way up the bank to get back to the trail, mud and snow clinging to her hands and knees.
She can't know how far she is from civilization. There's just the trail, the trees, the creek, and her. The farm is somewhere miles off, because this is what she gets for riding alone in the snow with a mare who'd rather do anything than this.
Grudgingly, Ashleigh admits to herself that Goddess was right. Today truly sucks.
She shivers again, walks a little faster down the trail, which is relatively clear thanks to numerous thaws, refreezes, and dozens of hoofprints. It's close to dark, her second big problem, and despite not being able to feel it due to her general state of freezing, she knows it's going to get colder still when the sun sets.
If she wasn't such a nice person, she could kill Goddess. Mainly, though, she just wants to berate herself and leave her horse out of it.
She doesn't know how long she's been walking when she hears hooves on the snow. Her body aches, and she's shivering so hard her teeth are chattering. She thinks there might be ice in the strands of hair that have fallen into her face.
She is so dead. For one intense moment, she wants the approaching horse to be anything other than Fleet Goddess. She's not sure she has the energy to mount up, much less control her half-wild mare. That's when she feels a desperate spike of adrenaline, a sudden awareness flood her system. She's so groggy already the change is swift and frightening.
There's no option. She'll get back on Goddess and ride down to warmth. She will.
But there is no Goddess. Instead a chestnut horse canters over the rise, and she nearly sobs in relief.
She hears the words, but she actually is crying and can't respond. Can't be mortified that her savior is Brad Townsend, of all people. Instead she just leans against the horse's shoulder, and barely recognizes the warmth for the terrifying cold and numbness that is settling all through her.
He jumps down, and his hands are on her. They're probably warm, but she'd never know it. He puts both palms on the sides of her face and looks at her, worry in his eyes and the way his lips are pulled into the straightest of lines.
"Can you ride?"
She doesn't know if she nods or not. She doesn't know if she's capable of doing anything but stand here with her knees locked. Her eyes slip closed, but his fingers on her shoulders and a firm shake drag her back up.
"Wake the fuck up, Ash," he commands. "Can you ride?"
A laugh bubbles up in her, but she shrugs and nods. He doesn't look at all confident in her ability, the jackass. Like she can't freaking ride. It's what she does for a living, you know. She pushes his hands off of her and shoulders into him on the way to the stirrup, which looks way too far away for her to do anything with.
He notices. "I'll give you a leg up."
She wordlessly lifts her leg and he boosts her into the saddle. She's barely any help at all, clinging to the horse's mane and using whatever remaining strength she has to pull her leg over the animal's back. When she gets herself in the saddle, she doesn't bother to sit up. Her fingers wrap in the horse's thick, snow-speckled mane and she rests her head on her hands.
He mounts up behind her, pushing her further up the saddle. She winces and sits up, feels his arms on either side of her waist. One of his hands steadies her in front of him, pushing her back so she can lean into his chest. She resists for the smallest of moments, makes a pathetic little grunt in the back of her throat, but she's so tired and how can she resist such common sense?
"Sit back," he says, and she loosens up, goes lax in his grip. The horse makes the first tiny step forward.
He keeps up a running commentary.
"I don't know what the hell you thought you were doing."
"Goddess was a wreck when we found her."
"If you died of hypothermia, it would probably be justified."
"Fuck, Ashleigh, wake the fuck up."
She barely hears anything he says, but she notices when the horse stops far too early and his weight is no longer a comfort behind her back. Hands on her hips tease her to the side, and she falls without much thought right into his arms. Her legs give out, and she sags down his body.
It's a comfortable body, she thinks. She also thinks she might be delirious, but it's really too hard to tell. She laughs again, waking up only slightly in order to see the humor in the situation. He sees none, and that's how she finds herself in the air again and in his hands.
He's taking her somewhere. She peers around his shoulder, up at the darkening sky. Dark sky. When did it get dark? She blinks, and her eyelashes stick.
Then they're in a house. A cabin. The tiniest little cabin ever. She's noticed this place before, because Charlie's always made comments that he'd like to come up and live here when he finally really retires. She always thought he was making what he thought was a joke. It always sounded so semi-serious.
If she was even halfway cogent, she would have noted that they were about three miles of twisty trails away from the farm complex. She isn't near halfway cogent, so she just stares at the four walls and the fireplace, the little double bed, the chair, the table. There's a hotplate on the table, a collection of soups and bottled water and crackers collected underneath. She stares at it and doesn't even know what she's seeing.
Brad puts her down near the fireplace. There's a huge basket of wood by the fire screen, and Ashleigh looks at it a little forlornly. Then her knees give out and she starts sinking to the floor while Brad grasps for her, at least softening the fall.
"Ashleigh," he says, looking down at her while she folds her legs Indian style. "I'm going to untack the horse, get him situated. You need to take off your clothes."
She hears that, and it's so damn funny to her that she blurts out a crazy laugh. He apparently doesn't find anything funny about that, and moves across the room to the bed, pulling off the folded quit and tossing it to her. It lands in a lump by her legs.
"Seriously, Ashleigh, take everything off and wrap yourself up in that."
She just gapes at him, dumbfounded.
"Okay," he pauses by the open door. "I'll give you two options. Either you take the opportunity to take everything off while I'm gone, or I'll do it for you when I get back."
Then he's gone, the door slammed shut behind him. She looks around the cabin from her spot on the floor for a minute, straining to hear him or the horse while she wonders what she's doing here. Then she remembers the threat he'd left her with and grins like a maniac. There's something absurdly funny about the notion that Brad Townsend would ever say such things to her. Then she just feels pathetic and sick and tired, too tired to tug off her coat.
She remembers his threat, so she sets about undoing the buttons. By the time he tromps back through the door, she's managed to do as asked. She feels only slightly better, sitting damp and naked as ever in a worn old quilt with her soggy clothes in a heap by the woodpile.
"Is that everything?" he asks her, nodding to the clothes. Her soaked bra is sitting on the top of the pile because she couldn't bring herself to care, but she can summon up something of a glare. That seems to satisfy him, so he turns his back on her shivering and pulls the screen out of the fireplace.
It looks like they're going to be here a while. Ashleigh quivers and stretches her numb fingers, clenching at the quilt that sags around her shoulders. Brad keeps his back to her, piles the wood, and strikes a flame.
"Is this place," she says through the chattering, "even heated?"
"Nope," he says, looking at the flames beginning to eat at the wood. She groans and pulls the quilt around her, unable to stop shivering.
Brad pulls a phone out of his pocket while the fire licks at the wood, beginning to crackle and sizzle. He puts the fire screen back in place and speed dials someone, lifting the phone to his ear while Ashleigh contemplates the flames.
"Yeah," he says. "I've got her."
Then, "No, we're up in the caretaker's cabin. That old place we keep stocked. It looks like she fell in the creek or something, because she's soaked and practically frozen half to death. I couldn't get her the rest of the way down to the farm."
There's a pause. Ashleigh tucks her feet underneath her, feels how frigid they are even in comparison to the cold of her thighs.
"We'll be okay," he says. "She just needs to warm up and we'll come back down in the morning."
"Yeah, tell her family. She'll be okay. See you then."
He puts the phone on the table behind her and she turns to look at him. He's not very interested in acknowledging her, so she watches him pull the mattress off the sparse bed frame and haul it over to the fire place.
"Move," he tells her, and it's that brusque attitude that has her rolling her eyes and scooting a few feet out of the way. She inches closer to the fire, thinking she can't get close enough. He lets the mattress fall to the floor, then goes back over to grab the two bedraggled pillows in yellowing cotton cases.
She climbs onto the mattress and sits, crosses her legs underneath her so she can lean closer to the fire. He rummages around behind her, opening a closet door and finding another blanket, pulling it out and tossing it in her general direction. She pulls it toward her, lumping it up in her lap.
The fire feels so good, and her eyes are already sinking closed when she sees him pulling off his coat under her eyelashes. Then goes his sweater. And the shirt he has on underneath. Her eyes, despite how much they really want to shut, fly open.
"What," she asks, almost slurs, "are you doing?"
"Hypothermia 101," he says. "Come on, Ash. Where were you in health class?"
She shakes her head, tugs at the quilt again, then looks at him over her shoulder. His jeans are unbuttoned, and she feels her mouth falling open again.
"No," she says, as authoritative as a hypothermic girl can when she's naked save for a quilt. "Keep your pants on."
He rolls his eyes. The pants come off, and she spins around.
"Keep your boxers on, at least," she insists as she feels the mattress dip behind her.
"I'd never sully your innocent little eyes, Ash," he says behind her, and she hides her face in the quilt.
"Look," he says against her shoulder. He's too close, too close entirely, but he's warm and she can already feel herself melting a little at the very thought. "I don't like this any more than you do, but this is the best way."
"The fire is the best way," she says against the quilt.
"It's one way." He tugs the quilt back from her upper back and rests a hand there. It's so warm she nearly hisses through her teeth. "One way isn't good enough. No one wants you damaged because you fell in a fucking creek, Ashleigh."
"I swear," she says, lifting her head and looking at him over her shoulder. He's busy pushing her hair over her shoulder, not looking at her. "If you touch anything you know you're not suppose to I will..."
He looks at her, and she stutters to a stop. "Will what?"
"Just," she lets out a breath when his hand slides down her spine. He's warm and dry, and she can't help leaning into it.
"Don't worry about it," he says to her, moving his hand back up her back to rest against her neck. She can no longer tell if she's shivering because of her own mistakes or because of him. She's starting to think her body is more than happy to rebel against her brain. Anything for warmth, it seems to be saying. Don't be stupid, Ashleigh.
She pulls at the sheets that are loose on the mattress, burrowing under them while she's still wrapped in the quilt. Brad gives her an amused once over, watching her as she wiggles and maneuvers, pulling the quilt out from under the sheet and spreading it over her.
"Well?" she asks him as he just sits and stares at her. She doesn't wait, just turns over on her side to face the fire. He puts the other blanket over her and she squeezes her eyes shut when she feels him shift up behind her under the sheets. She jumps when his chest meets her back, keeps her eyes shut because it's like fire racing from her chest to her toes.
It's hard not to think about it, especially when his hand rests on her waist, moves down to her hip, slides down to her stomach. She keeps her eyes closed, because she's not sure she can open them. His breathing is even behind her, and she can feel it rise and fall in his chest.
Her shivering slows, slows, until it stops.
When she opens her eyes in the morning, the fire has died down to smoking coals. Her clothes are spread out in front of the fire screen, and she reaches out to finger her shirt, finding it dry. The room is cool, so she slips her arm back under the covers and burrows back into the warmth of the bed. Warmth that is being provided partially by a half-naked man at her back.
Then she remembers that absolutely nothing separates them. In fact, his arm is still snaked across her waist. His hand is tucked between her ribs and the mattress. His thumb is brushing against the curve of her breast with each breath she takes. She cannot believe this is happening.
This must be what it feels like to be beyond mortified. Ashleigh's pretty sure that's what this is, especially since she can feel every point of him against her back, thighs, legs. Even their feet are entwined. It doesn't help matters that he is so very...awake.
She tries to shift away from him, wonders if she can slip out of his grasp and go for her clothes before he really wakes up. It doesn't take much movement before his arm strengthens practically on its own. A breath catches in her throat, and she's pulled back to his chest.
Honestly, she doesn't know why she's trying to be sneaky about this. She should just hit him and get the hell out of bed, but then he'd really be awake and there's something much nicer about the idea of getting dressed while she doesn't have to worry about his eyes and his smirks and him.
She feels his nose against the nape of her neck, his breath on her skin, and sighs.
He mumbles something under his breath she doesn't understand, and then says in a gravelly voice, "Sad the night had to end?"
"You are disgusting," she tells him, reaching for his arm and peeling it off of her. He rolls onto his back, laughing and pushing both hands into his hair, finally resting his head on his arms. Ashleigh tucks the blankets over her and scowls.
"Yeah," he says, "I'm sorry to point this out to you, Ashleigh, but I'm a guy. This is how guys act."
She lifts herself onto her elbows and glares at him. "No, it isn't," she tells him. "The worthwhile ones do not act like this."
"Right," he nods, gives her a smug look. "Because finding you, hauling you back here, and warming you up wasn't worthwhile. How am I disgusting again? Because I've done something in my sleep I can't very much help, much less attempt to control?"
Ashleigh flops on to her back and mumbles, "Never mind."
He smiles to himself.
"Why didn't we just keep going?" she asks the ceiling, because it's better than looking over at him. "This cabin isn't that far from the training barns."
"You couldn't do another couple of miles when you were falling asleep on the horse," Brad says. "Safest thing to do was get you warm fast There was no way we were going to get a truck up here, so here we are. This is the unfortunate result."
"No," she shakes her head. "This is my unfortunate result. You're probably pleased beyond words."
"That would suggest I'm some sort of masochist."
"I don't know, Ashleigh. I suppose you're assuming that I really enjoy torturing myself with your emotionally draining presence, and the fact that you're naked is just a bonus."
She really doesn't know what to say to that. Somewhere between her being emotionally draining and naked she wants to yell, "Well, don't you?"
She's pretty sure he does. "You do," she says, like it's an accusation. "You totally do enjoy it, and my being naked is a bonus."
The look he gives her clearly indicates that she's thrown him for a loop, and she's glad for that.
"Admit it," she demands.
"No," he says, borrowing her petulance for the moment. She rolls over on her side and pokes him in the chest.
"Admit it," she says again. "You like it that I'm insufferable or whatever it is. And you like that I'm naked."
"No," he says again.
"Ashleigh, this is absurd."
"I don't care. It's relevant."
"Only because you're naked and insufferable now," he points out.
"I'm not insufferable every other time?"
"Does this even have a point?"
"Just admit it, Brad."
"Okay," he says, shoving her hand away because she's been poking him in the same spot way too much. "Your being naked is a bonus."
"That's not good enough," she says, sitting up and revealing the lean path of her back. His eyes travel up it. "Admit the rest."
He gives her a little smirk and moves his hand to her back, tracing her spine from her shoulders all the way down until she swats him away. "Okay," he says. Her lips quirk in a half smile.
He pushes the covers off and she clings to hers, covers what's necessary because he's suddenly right there in her face. "Yeah, sure, you're insufferable, melodramatic, and sanctimonious the vast majority of the time. When you're not busy being any of that, you've somehow merged all those things together to become the biggest fucking bitch I have ever met in my life, and I put up with it because I'm given absolutely no choice in the matter. Maybe over the past seven fucking years, Ashleigh, I've gotten used to it. Maybe I like bringing all of that out in you. Maybe I've grown to enjoy it. And maybe you being gloriously naked is helping right at this particular moment. Are you happy?"
"You are such a prick," she tells him.
He nods. "And you enjoy it."
She does that indignant girly squeak of outrage that she hates to admit that she does. "I do not."
"Sure you do," he points out, gets very close to her. Her fingers feel clammy and hot on the sheet she has pinned to her sides. "You like that I do absolutely nothing you want me to do, that the only predictable thing I do is drive you totally crazy."
"That is not something I enjoy," she says, juts her chin out a little. "At all."
"Ashleigh, if you were allowed to live in your desired predictable world you'd be bored shitless."
"I don't want my life to be predictable," she says, "and I don't think you are the only person constantly throwing obstacles at me."
"Shut up," she says. "Life is an obstacle. You're not behind everything that hasn't gone my way."
"But I'm not talking about obstacles, Ashleigh," he says. "This isn't about you not getting everything you want."
"Then what is it about?" she asks, looks him right in the eye because she wants an answer. She wants a goddamned definition for this thing about him that she likes. She wants to know, because very far down, so far she barely recognizes it at all, she thinks he's right.
He pushes her hair away from her neck, drags his fingers across her skin, and pulls her into a kiss. A slow kiss. She opens her mouth against his. She would liked to act shocked. She isn't.
"Maybe I want something," he says against her lips. She puts a hand on his chest, keeps the sheet where it is with her arm.
He tugs her back to him, and she goes while her thoughts are a muddled mess and her heart is pumping out a frantic rhythm in her chest. She kisses him back, presses her hand against his flushed skin in the cool room and kisses him before she can stop herself.
"This is so unhealthy," she says when he pulls away, moves his hand down her neck to her collarbone.
"Not really," he says against her jaw. "It's ill-advised."
"Shut up," she says, kisses him again.
He pulls away. "No."
She groans, and falls back down onto the mattress. "See, that's our problem." He pushes her legs over, tugs at the sheet she keeps right where she wants it.
"You're all uptight," he starts, her hips in his hands as he pulls her over to him.
"And you border on stubbornly ruthless," she says.
"Those are some of the reasons." He leans over her, rests an arm next to her head and kisses her. She doesn't trust him, but she lets go of the sheet to tug at his hair. He lifts his head.
"Those are screwed up reasons," she states, licks her lips.
"Well, who's normal?"
He gives her that knowing smile, tugs the sheet down before she can stop him. She squeaks, shoots him a glare she can't enforce when he covers one breast, thumb doing this stupid, soft slide until she arches into his hand.
"No one is normal, Ashleigh."
"I'm trying my best to be normal," she says. Pushing his hand away is an effort, but she gets the sheet back in place and shoves him onto his back. She pushes up, looks down at him.
He weaves a hand into her hair and tugs. "You're failing beautifully at it," he says, and she laughs a little, right against his lips.
She puts a stop to things, makes him go outside to take care of the horse so she can get dressed in private. Ashleigh is unswayed by his points that he has already seen her mostly naked, has definitely felt the vast majority of her mostly naked, and has just gotten dressed in front of her. Tit for tat, or something to that effect. She ignores the flush on her skin and sends him outside. She waits until she's sure he's with the horse to slip out of the covers.
Her clothes are blissfully dry. Her boots are still a little damp, but she'll take it. When she's dressed she snags a packet of crackers and starts eating as she walks out of the cabin and back into winter wonderland. It's probably snowed another two inches over the night, and everything is covered over with a fresh layer of white.
Brad is with the horse. She slips up next to him while he's tightening the girth, hands him a few crackers when he's finished.
"You're remarkably domestic," he says, swallowing the crackers. "Did you make the bed, too?"
She smacks him in the arm. "You clearly don't know me that well."
He snorts at that. "You ready, Ms. Disorganized?"
"Really?" she asks, puts a hand on her hip. "How could you possibly know that?"
"I dated your sister, didn't I?" he asks her, and she levels a look at him. He mounts up and pulls his foot out of the stirrup for her. "What don't I know about you?"
"We are so never doing this again," she promises him, not talking about riding double. She puts her foot in the stirrup, grabs his hand, and swings up behind him. The horse huffs and tosses its head at the weight.
"You say that now," he says, looking at her over his shoulder. "But you're not the sort of person to do anything halfway, are you?"
She sits there behind him and holds his look, considering this for a minute. The horse shifts underneath them, obviously anxious, so she leans into his back and says, "Usually not, but there can always be a first time."
Then she kisses him, slides her tongue into his mouth at the first opportunity. Before he can react she pulls away and smirks. It might be an evil smirk.
He just lets out a breath and says, "This will be the fastest trip down this damned trail that two people on one horse can fucking manage. Hold on."
She puts her arms around his waist and grips onto his coat just in time. The horse bolts forward, and she may have let out a little whoop of excitement.
She may have.
He won't hold her to it.