A Hole in Memory
By Syrinx, for lambourngb
Summary: Brad suffers amnesia. Ashleigh suffers a crisis of conscience.
A/N: Amnesia fic! The jar of obvious literary tropes used most often in soap operas and Full House episodes has been opened. God help us all.
There are different types of memory, different ways to lose pieces of your life. This is what Ashleigh learns.
When they're in the stall, her breath came in ragged bursts against his mouth. One of his hands rested on the smooth wood wall, the other gripped her hip. She could feel the pressure of each fingertip digging through the denim that clung to her skin. Her cheeks were flushed. It was hot despite the winter chill.
She licked her lips, and he slid her body up against his. It's their first kiss.
He won't remember it.
"Do you remember her?" she'll ask him later, much after the fact. He'll shrug.
"I'm sorry," he'll say.
Ashleigh will rest a hand on Wonder's nose and say, "She kind of started it all, in more ways than one."
He'll narrow his eyes a little at the unassuming mare, thinking this through. Then he'll turn to her and say, with unexpected ease, "I thought it all started with you."
Ashleigh doesn't like it. She hasn't liked it since he got back from the hospital. It's too easy, too hard, too weird, and too impossible to grasp. He watches her from the rail, like innocence masking an ulterior motive she keeps expecting to present itself, and she has to catch herself every time. She has to reel herself back from the biting retorts and what she realizes now was the playful certainty that Brad Townsend is a pain in her ass, and she is the thorn in his side, and that's the way they like it.
Because that is all gone, wiped clean. She's got a blank slate to work with, and damn it all if she'd rather have the turmoil and second guesses. The consideration that she's doing the wrong thing in the hope that it's right. She'll never know now.
"It's almost funny," Jilly says, pulling up next to her as Ashleigh walks Pride down the outside rail, roving closer and closer to Brad, who's still watching like he can't quite place her. "Who would have thought a little smack in the head would be all it took to get some peace and quiet around here?"
It's becoming a common theme. Ashleigh grimaces and flexes her fingers on the reins. Pride bobs his head.
"It's not the same," is all she says.
"Damn right," Jilly laughs. "It's better."
"Quiet isn't necessarily better," Ashleigh reminds her, because there are greater things at work. Brad Townsend ran a farm, raced a fleet of successful horses, knew his business inside and out. She knew that well enough.
Jilly groans. "Come on, Ash. Enjoy the temporary reprieve for a while."
Pride lets out a little squeal and ducks to the inside, shouldering against Jilly's mount right in front of Brad. Ashleigh expects a swift reprimand, an insult half spun with jarring truth thrown their way, but he just watches them churn through the dirt, going their merry way.
They'll stand on the farm sometime later, the dead grass crushed beneath their boots.
"This is where I'm supposed to be," he'll say. The wind will play with her hair and she'll clench her fingers on the reins.
A laugh will build up in his throat, dies coming out of his mouth. "I don't know how I know that," he'll say, squinting into the cold wind.
Townsend Acres stretches all around them.
He catches her while she's unsaddling Pride, surprising her and making her lose her grip on the leather.
"Sorry," he apologizes as she picks up the saddle and pauses there in the aisle. He apologizes more than he used to, and she notices every time. This is mainly because he never apologized before the accident. It takes her a minute to remember that, considering.
"It's okay," she gives him a brief smile and puts the saddle away. "How is everything?"
He pauses, like he's considering between truth and white lies. Again, that's a difference. She'd never known before now how much she actually desired his brutal opinions, his desire to never lie to her. It's a sickening thought, that the people closest to her could never hold a candle to Brad Townsend's honest appraisal. She supposes that's why they wound up where they did.
She supposes that's why they're here now.
"Honestly," he says, beginning slowly, like he's testing the water. She waits him out, smiles slightly to encourage. He's a different person, a stranger. It's this fact that has so many people holding such private celebrations, because Brad doesn't know anyone from Adam. Wouldn't know her from Eve, she suspects, despite the fact that he keeps looking at her, like any moment their history will reveal itself and she'll be stuck with their words and their actions and deeds.
"It's okay," she says into the void. "Did you need something?"
"Well," he says, "this will sound weird, but I've got a question."
"Shoot," she says casually, because she decided at the outset to act like this. The person he knows but doesn't know. Maybe it was a selfish decision. Maybe it's too late to go back.
"Who even likes me around here?" he asks, and she pauses in her work to give him a glance. Her bangs fall into her eyes, and she shoves them away. "Seriously," he adds. "Am I some giant asshole?"
She's very quiet for a minute, then looks down at her hands. "What makes you say that?"
"Come on," he says. "You've seen it."
"Sure," she says, looking up at him. "It doesn't mean you're a giant asshole."
"What does it mean?"
"That you're just different."
"Different in a good way."
"No," she says, almost laughing. He looks at her a little funny, and she swallows it all down because this isn't amusing. It's not even appropriate. "No," she says firmly. "You're just different, so now we're all adjusting."
There's a beat of time in which they watch each other carefully.
"I was such an asshole," he says.
Ashleigh sighs. "Yeah," she admits. "Maybe you were, but you at least made it work."
"How in the hell do you make something like that work?"
He looks nonplussed, perfectly and utterly turned around. She feels an absurd urge to frame his face in her hands and look right into him, try to pull him out of himself.
"I don't know," Ashleigh says, stamping everything down. "You didn't care, I guess."
She can still feel his hands on her hips, his breath hot on her neck. A smirk against her skin.
He wouldn't have cared. Brad Townsend, after all, always had his own agenda.
"Did you remember my face?" she'll ask later. His answer will worry her.
"Should I have?"
She catches him saddling up Bachelor in his stall, the little gray pace horse standing quite still and Brad focused on the girth. His hands run over the leather. Ashleigh stops to watch, unnerved. It takes her a second to realize why.
He knows what he's doing.
"Want company?" she asks, and he turns his head just enough to see her there in the stall door. Not shocked, not annoyed, just there. He nods.
"Sure," he says. "Should make this more interesting."
Ashleigh tacks up Cinnamon, walks the mare out to into the yard in time to watch Brad mount up with all sorts of practiced ease. He doesn't bother with a helmet. Neither does she, but then she's not the head trauma victim.
"I'm pretty sure your doctors will have a collective heart attack if they saw you right now," she says, mounting up and gathering the reins. He only smiles, eyes ahead.
"Yeah, well," he shrugs. "What do I have to lose?"
She's been reading up on this in her spare time. It's been a curiosity she can't quench.
"Your future?" she asks.
He looks at her curiously now. "Did I have one?"
They rushed in. After years at a slow boil, of course they would rush in. Afterwards he laughed, because he would recognize the impossibility facing them both.
"So what do you suggest?" he asked, turning to look at her while she rubbed her lips across the point of his shoulder.
When she caught his eyes, she had to smile. "Brutal honesty."
He smoothed her hair from her face, turned on his side to pull her closer. "Brutal honesty is an immature defense mechanism."
She wondered what he would have said to selective memory loss. She could see him grinning. Teeth flashing, eyes bright. She could imagine him saying that would be so like her.
Every so often, it's like a punch to the gut. For no reason at all, she'll stop and gasp.
"Apples and oranges are fruit from trees," he'll say. "Horses on average have eighteen vertebrae. The words I'm speaking are part of the English language. I can do calculus, and what's more I know that I'm good at it."
She won't know where he's going with this.
"Why are you telling me this?" she'll ask, tipping her head back against the wall. He will stand in front of her, his arms crossed, his eyes dark. She'll recognize this from somewhere far behind them both, in the time from before.
"There are certain things I know," he'll tell her. "Abstract facts. Names, random details."
She'll hold her breath, because he'll look at her in that way she recognizes and something inside of her will unfold. She'll keep her mouth shut.
"Small facts," he'll continue. "Like how I know how to push all of your buttons."
"This is ridiculous," she argues. "Tell me again why we're even listening to this?"
"Because he's..." Maddock pauses, gestures at Brad a little helplessly. "Because he's him."
"No he isn't," Ashleigh says. "He's got a memory bank lasting three months. What's more, Charlie and I handle Pride. We don't need input from someone with three fucking months of experience, be he in Brad Townsend's body or not."
Maddock looks besides himself. Brad looks bored. Charlie stands next to Ashleigh with a hand on her shoulder, pulling her away. She shrugs him off angrily and shoots a glare at Brad, only to be hauled back to the horse. Pride shifts anxiously.
"Listen," Charlie says while Ashleigh fumes.
"He shouldn't be over here in the first place," she tells Charlie, nearly spitting in fury. "He shouldn't be here, and we really shouldn't be taking his opinion into consideration. It's complete stupidity."
Charlie says, "Do the breeze, Ashleigh."
"What?" she nearly shouts, pulling herself out of his grip. "You can't be serious."
"It's a week out from the Blue Grass," he says, "and as fucked as this is going to sound his point has some merit. A long work today and then a short tune up the day before is going to be a better prep in the long run."
"Am I the only person who sees any sense anymore?" Ashleigh asks. "He doesn't know what he's talking about, Charlie. He's got some vague intuition and no facts to back anything up. On top of that, he's Brad Townsend and when do we ever listen to him regarding Pride?"
"Since he started to have good ideas," Charlie shrugs, then nods to the horse. "I'll give you a leg up."
She thinks about refusing, but in the end she breezes the colt. She does it, because that's what she's always done. Brad stands by the rail, watching.
"So I did that sort of thing a lot, huh?" he'll ask later. He'll say it easily, in that way she detests.
"Don't," she'll warn him. "Don't presume to know anything, and don't assume you can make what you just did a routine. There's recklessness, and then there's plain stupid. You're being both."
His mouth will quirk, because he'll know he hit a raw nerve. She'll be irate, because she thought she was far past this.
"Sorry," he'll say, but she'll know that he's not. "I thought Pride was half mine. Figured that meant I had the right to be reckless and stupid, make all the assumptions I want."
She'll want to punch him in the face. But he'll wander off, away from her. He'll do this because he deems the conversation done. Ashleigh will curl her fingers into fists, because it is far from done. Not when she has their history locked in her heart.
"I'm not speaking to you," she informs him, because she's not. He stands next to her, his eyes on some blond. The gala is a sea of silk and perfume, alcoholic breath and crushing social hierarchy. She doesn't want to know what this is like for him, because it it too huge for her to contemplate. Also, she doesn't care.
"Too bad," he says, taking a sip of something in a crystal glass. Her fingers tighten on her flute of champagne. She finishes the last of it. "Although I think it's remarkably telling that you've held on to this grudge for so long. It's commendable. Here we are on Derby Eve and you're pissed about how we got here."
"That's because you don't know me," she remarks, trying her very best to be snide. She puts the empty flute down on the closest table, notices that he does the same with his nearly full glass. There's a set glare on her face, but that doesn't seem to dissuade him. He follows her as she heads to the elevator, because she's done with this.
He is just started.
The elevator opens up when she presses the call button, and she strides onto it.
"Where the hell do you think you're going?" she asks him, while he punches the button for their floor. Their rooms are adjoining, and there's something about that she thinks he would have found funny.
"For someone who's trying to ignore me, you're talking a whole lot," he says, and she sends an annoyed glare at the ceiling of the car, which lifts them silently up to floor sixteen.
"Because you're insufferable," she mutters, leaning against the wall.
"Because you can't help yourself."
"Again," she says. "You don't know me."
"No?" he asks, and she doesn't bother saying anything to refute him. Her silence will stand by itself. He shrugs, taking it for what it is. "Because here's the thing," he says, "in the past few months I've learned two things. The first is that I'm going to rely on my intuition before I believe anyone's flawed memory."
"Good idea," she says. "We'd all love to feed you lies."
He grins, and it disturbs her. "The second is that of everyone I know, knew, you are the most likely to give me half-truths. You'd reconstruct history to keep me in the dark."
She looks him in the eye. "We all hated you," she says monotonously. "Congratulations."
He doesn't stop smiling, and now it looks smug. "See, that's a lie."
"You'd never know," she says.
He takes a step toward her and she winces. Instead he reaches past her and hits a red button on the panel by her arm. The elevator lurches to a halt between floors.
"See," he says, "that's where you're wrong."
It always starts with hate, so she wonders if she'll ever be able to distinguish it from love. Brad Townsend wormed his way in, confusing and disorienting and searing hot. She mistakes passion for lust and antagonism for chemistry, or maybe it was all the other way around. The only sure thing she knows, down to her bones, is the way he looked at her like he wanted her.
She supposes she could have mistaken that, too. Want for control.
Brad Townsend always did have an agenda.
She expects the alarm to go off, for a tinny voice to fill the space with worry. Nothing of the sort happens, and she's disappointed.
"I was a jackass," he tells her. "Hell, Ashleigh, I am a jackass. The thing is that I have your number, without even having to try. It's just there, in everything I do. It's in how you react. I could ask you how your day was, and I'd know because you'd stand there and run through all your options before you'd say it was fine."
"It's a fact."
"No it isn't, because you're wrong."
"Can we move past your simple denials and get to what you aren't telling me?" he asks. "What were we?"
"Antagonists at best," she informs him. "Enemies at worst."
"And yet," he says, shaking his head and getting so close. "You're standing here in a stopped elevator with me. You seem to think the silent treatment is supposed to matter with me. I look at you and you practically turn pink."
She clenches her jaw, feels the wall at her back.
"You seem like a virtuous person, Ashleigh," he says, puts both hands on her shoulders. She tenses. "It's not like you to hold something like this back."
"I'm not holding anything back," she argues, starts to tremble while he inches closer still. His hands move from her shoulders to her neck, thumb tracing up her jumping pulse. It wouldn't take much to know she's lying, and the way his eyes watch her so steadily lets her know.
This is a manufactured truth, spoon-fed and shoddily maintained. It's falling all around her feet.
"Ashleigh," he says, and she feels his hips press against hers. Chest to chest.
"No," she says, pushes him away, watches everything fall. He steps back from her, and she hits the red button with a shaking hand.
The elevator bounces and climbs.
She'll be beautiful in her silks, and she'll be victorious in the end. Pride will win the Kentucky Derby, giving her something she'll remember until the end.
He'll be right there, the murky gray point of a shiny fit of memory.
"You know what I'll always remember?" he asked her once, fingers tapping out a rhythm on her skin. "Right after Wonder dumped you in the galloping lanes. The look on your face when I brought her back."
"That was mortifying," she said, trying to cover his grin. He pulled her hand away from his mouth. "I was so sore afterwards."
"You still rode the hell out of that mare later," he said, looking at her in a way she recognized somewhere, deep down. Awe, maybe. Appreciation. They were foreign emotions with him, so it's hard to pin them down and write Bradley H. Townsend all over them. It will be hard to apply them to him later, so she wanted to start memorizing now. "Besides, it was Wonder. Not me."
"It was you," he told her, shook his head. He pulled her into a kiss, watching her all the while. "Ashleigh, it was always you."
It is not her.
She stands after the race, listens to the enthusiastic congratulations pushing at her, and feels him staring. Her neck is warm from knowing. Her body thrums. She stands perfectly still.
It is a world of her own creation, and in that world she doesn't move.
She's still human, still weak enough for second glances. When she finally allows herself to break away, take a look back, she sees flashes of him. Flashes of blond. She spins away, cheeks burning.
She will ask him a question.
"Did you remember me?"
His answer will always be the same.
"No. Should I have?"