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Let Go Of The Reins

Chapter Text

Dan wasn’t sure why he had thought it would be a good idea to apply for a job literally mucking out horseshit during the summer. It wasn’t very appealing work but Dan had felt dread at the prospect of going home to his parents over the summer with his bad marks from finishing the first year of law school at Manchester.

He felt like a failure. He had been given a scholarship and yet he was completely bombing. And his parents had been so proud when he’d said he wanted to study law. When he had complained to one of his classmates and new friends from his year, she had told him that she knew of a horse stable that would need someone to help muck out during the summer. Bonus: it was just outside of Manchester in a beautiful setting. Board and lodging would be provided in addition to the small salary.

Dan didn’t really know the first thing about horses. His friend Caroline who had told him about the job opening had a dressage horse herself but he had never met it. However, this opportunity had seemed like an easy summer job with plenty of time to contemplate how he was going to deal with this university crisis without going back home to his childhood bedroom and being under the watchful eyes of his parents.

However, at the moment he was contemplating if agreeing to spend three months surrounded by strangers and lots of big scary creatures, which slightly terrified him, would be a good idea at all. He had talked to someone called Katherine on the phone and she had been happy to hire him when he said that he had heard about the opening from Caroline who apparently had some sort of history with the family that Dan hadn’t been aware of. He had been assured that that the Wi-Fi connection would be stable despite being in the countryside and that he would get his own room above the stables, which was essentially a small flat. He had also been promised that he wouldn’t have to deal with any of the horses, only their excrement.

He excited the bus on the stop that his phone had told him to and pulled his suitcase close to him while he pulled out his phone and looked at the walking directions to this place. It was a nice warm summer day and Dan was slightly regretting the black jeans and black long-sleeved shirt but then again, he usually wore back no matter the weather.

According to his phone app, it was just shy of a kilometre to get to the address. He frowned down at his phone and once again wondered if this was a good idea at all. It felt a little like running away from his problems but he had already agreed to take the job and the woman on the phone had sounded so happy, so he could hardly back out now.

The wheels under his suitcase didn’t agree with the gravel path that Dan soon enough found himself on and he grumbled as he pulled it along. However, he was soon enough distracted as he began looking around. After a ten of minutes of walking, and coming up over a little hill, vast green fields opened up around him on the gravel path and he had to stop to take it all in. The grounds looked huge. The woman on the phone, one of the owners, had said that they were just a small stable, housing around 20 horses.

Dan kept walking and he looked over the fields, grass beautifully green. Wood fences divided the grounds up with smaller groups of horses clustered together. The horses didn’t look too scary out far away, heads bend to graze.

Struggling along with his treacherous suitcase that kept picking up tiny stones from the gravel, Dan finally made it towards the main house and the stables. By the looks of it, the main house was right in front him and a stable flanked it on either side, and that created a courtyard between the buildings.

Off to his left, a dressage court was placed next to the field. Dan was proud of himself from being able to recognise the letters, even if he had no clue why those specific letters mattered to a dressage rider. He had learnt from Caroline that it was indeed a very big deal and riding precisely mattered when competing.

“You must be Dan,” someone called out while he was busy looking around.

A woman in her early thirties who had her right arm in a sling approached him with a smile.

“I am,” Dan said and straightened up a bit, though he almost felt compelled to slump down again when he realised just how much taller he was than the petite brunette woman.

“I’m Marianne,” she said and reached out her left hand for a handshake. “I’m the usual stablehand but as you can see, I’m a bit injured at the moment, so we appreciate you jumping in to help with the stable duties.”

“Happy to help,” Dan said and took one more look around the area. “It’s beautiful here. I would never have imagined something like this could be so relatively close to Manchester.”

Marianne offered him a small smile. “There are probably more stables scattered around in the British countryside than you realise but this place is quite special. It used to be a small riding centre before the Lesters bought it fifteen years ago. Now it only houses their own horses, though we have a few riders coming in to borrow our facilities on occasion.”

Dan didn’t really care about all of that but he nodded and smiled politely.

“We should get you settled. Come along, I’ll show you your room,” Marianne said and indicated for him to follow her. He was bumbling along with his suitcase and its unreliable wheels but when Marianne noticed she took the fold out handle from him, folded it up and grabbed the suitcase by its carry handle and lifted it as if it wasn’t full of most of Dan’s possessions, or as if she wasn’t injured and unable to use one arm. How strong was this tiny woman?

She thrust it into his hands. “You’re going to ruin the wheels if you keep doing that. Carry it.”

Dan was a little speechless but he simply nodded and carried his case by hand, even up through the narrow stairs that appeared inside the side of the stable to the right when Marianne opened an almost invisible door.

Dan’s room was a lot nicer than he had been expecting, even if it did smell quite a bit like farm life and horses. He supposed everything smelled like that around here. It was certainly a lot nicer than his accommodation back at University of Manchester and free on top of it, so Dan was making no complaints. He even had an ensuite and a mini fridge.

“It’s from a time when the stablehand usually lived on top of the stable, and it hasn’t been used in a while but Mrs Lester cleaned it out for you and put on fresh sheets and such, so it should be good to go,” Marianne explained.

“It’s nice,” Dan remarked as he sat down his suitcase by the bed and walked over to his window. He had a nice view of the other riding course, not the dressage one but one that was without letters, completely circular and with a high fence rather than the low one around the dressage course that a horse could just step over. “What’s that?”

“That’s our rotunda. We use it to train the young horses or just exercise a horse without their rider. Someone will stand in the middle and have a long rein tied to the horse’s bid and then they will make the horse walk in different gaits,” Marianne explained and then seemed to consider something. “Are you not familiar with horses?”

Dan hesitated a little and felt like his face might be getting redder. “No, not really.”

“Huh,” Marianne remarked, surprise evident in her intonation. “Well, you’re only handling the stables, not the horses themselves, so I suppose it doesn’t matter. It does strike me as odd to take a job in a horse stable when you have no horse knowledge. If you’re in doubt of anything, grab hold of me, Martyn or Cornelia. You’re most likely to see us around the stable. Oh, and I suppose you might spot Phil lurking around too.”

“Phil?” Dan asked, intrigued by the odd description. “What do you mean lurking around?”

“It’s a long story, Dan. But if you’re in doubt about something, just ask any of us. Martyn and Phil are sons of the owners and Cornelia is Martyn’s girlfriend. Martyn and Cornelia both ride in competitions, Martyn in dressage and Cornelia is a jumper.”

Dan nodded and wondered how the third person fit into it. If he had grown up here in the stables, he probably rode too? Maybe he just didn’t start competitions like the others.

“Right, daylight is burning. Want to come down to the stable with me and I can introduce you to the work? My arm should only be in the sling for a couple more days but I have strict orders from the doctor not to muck out because of the strain it puts on my dislocated shoulder. Hence, why you are here. Why don’t you change into your work clothes and I’ll see you outside in five minutes?”

Work clothes? Like work-out clothes?

“I’m sure this will be fine,” Dan said.

Marianne did a quick sweep over his appearance and Dan didn’t like the way she frowned at him.

“You’ll get to hot in all black like that, and frankly ripped jeans seems impractical. But it’s your clothes to ruin,” she said with a sigh. “However, we have to get you some different footwear. Sneakers and stable work don’t match, I’ll go grab you a pair of old wellies.”

They walked back down the narrow staircase and into one of the adjoining rooms to the stable. With his sneakers parked in the room where they kept the saddles and brindles, and borrowed wellies on his feet, Marianne took him into one of the stables. It was void of horses currently, which Dan was thankful of.

He was quickly introduced to his instruments, a wheelbarrow and a dung fork and cleaning out horse poop turned out to be around as much fun as he had expected. Worse, Dan could see how it itched in Marianne to take the fork from him and do the work herself as he kept doing it incorrectly according to her standards. He wasn’t sure that there was a wrong way to shovel shit but he had a feeling that Marianne would disagree.

By the third box stall, Marianne apparently trusted him enough to leave him with the shit. The moment she was out of sight, Dan paused, leaned on the fork and tried to regain his composure. He felt sweaty and uncomfortable and he was seriously wondering how he would survive three months of this. Marianne said that it shouldn’t take him more than few hours to clean out all the box stalls when he had gotten the hang of it. Other than mucking out, his responsibility was to sweep the stable floor and the outside area but in total, his tasks should leave him with plenty of freedom.

He tried to remember this as he was standing in shit in borrowed wellington boots while feeling way too hot.

Dan was still standing and contemplating whether or not it was too late to back out when he heard the sound of horse hoofs and voices. He wanted to do something to call attention to his presence but the horse stopped before it reached the end of the row of stalls and the chatter continued. Dan knew the people probably couldn’t see him from where it sounded like they were and he felt so awkward that he decided to keep quiet.

“Cornelia, we need to think about what to do at the showcase. We can’t just pretend that I’ll get better in time,” a male voice said.

Dan heard the rustling of equipment and the horse snorted.

“I know. I know… But you might get better. We don’t know that for sure yet.”

“It’s been four months already and I still can’t focus when I’m on a horse. Never mind that Mum doesn’t want me to even be on one before the doctor gives the go ahead.”

Dan had a feeling he really shouldn’t be eavesdropping on this conversation but he had already waited for too long to suddenly announced his position. Someone let out a deep sigh and Dan heard more jangling of equipment.

“You might, Martyn. And it’s our only chance. You know how sensitive Black Paladin is. He certainly won’t let a stranger ride him and he doesn’t like female riders, even if I could ride dressage well enough to show him off.”

“I know,” Martyn replied.

“So what are you suggesting?” Cornelia asked and it sounded like she was brushing the horse now.

“You know exactly what I am suggesting.”

“No. He said no. He might never get back on a horse again. There’s no way you’re getting him to ride a free programme on a stallion at a huge showcase in three months.”

Dan heard the clicks of the locks at the end of the robes Marianne had showed him earlier, which were used to keep the horse in place when standing between the stalls, and soon the clacks of hooves sounded anew. Cornelia and Martyn’s voices faded as they left the stable and Dan felt both a little guilty but also curious as to what their conversation had been about.

He started sorting out the bedding while his mind wandered. It sounded like Martyn had suffered some sort of injury, so clearly Marianne wasn’t the only one who was hurt. Dan wondered if it had some connection or if it was a coincidence. Dan also wondered if the he that Cornelia and Martyn had been talking about could have been the other brother, Phil.

Dan had finished with the sixth box stall when Marianne came back into the stable, only she wasn’t alone. She had two horses with her, around the same large size – which was too big and intimidating – and one was brown with black mane and tail while the other was a funny spotted dark grey.

“Here, hold her,” Marianne said and handed off the tow robe tied to the brown one to Dan while she kept walking down with the grey one and put it into one of the newly cleaned stalls. Dan felt a little frightened as the horse he was holding trust her nose up to his face. For a moment, he wondered if he was about to get his face bitten off and he froze up but the horse just snorted hot air into his face, which caused him to wince.

“That’s Miss Moneypenny,” Marianne said. “First foal the Lesters bred, a year after they bought this place. She’s a sweetheart, though she can be a bit of a handful at times too.”

Dan was just about to question how she could possibly be both when the horse placed her muzzle on his shoulder and moved it back and forth in a rubbing fashion. Dan was sure that he was about to have taken a bite out of his shoulder but nothing happened. He still didn’t appreciate being used as a scratch post but he daren’t move.

Marianne closed the box stall of the grey horse and laughed a bit at him as she walked up to take hold of Miss Moneypenny.

“Martyn and Cornelia will be by to pick the two of them up for an evening forest ride shortly but you can keep mucking out,” Marianne said as she moved to settle the brown mare into her box stall, another one Dan had just cleaned.

“Sure,” Dan said and moved the wheelbarrow into another dirty box stall. “But…”

He almost asked if Martyn wasn’t injured and prohibited from riding but Marianne would wonder how he had gotten that information and Dan didn’t want to come off as a creep who enjoyed to listen in on people’s private conversations. It had been a pure accident with no malicious intent.

“Forget it,” Dan rushed to say and moved a big forkful of poop and bedding into the wheelbarrow.

“Dan, did you forget what I said about separating the clean from the dirty bedding?” Marianne said.

When Martyn and Cornelia came into the stable again, Dan made sure to step out and introduce himself to both of them properly. He noticed how they both looked at his clothes with an amused smile and Dan knew he would need to get some new clothes. He didn’t appreciate that everyone thought of him as a city boy or whatever and he was very much not enjoying sweating through his favourite pair of jeans.

“Thank you for the help, really,” Cornelia said as she pulled out the grey horse. “The shop keeps us so busy during the day and the hours we have in the stables are better spent training the horses, now that Marianne isn’t able to help like she usually does and Martyn can’t ride much at the moment either.”

“I get migraines,” Martyn explained. “And the shop, Cornelia is referring to, is the riding gear shop that we run in Manchester. Dahlgren Riding Gear.”

“Oh, that’s cool,” Dan said.

“Say, if you wanted to take a ride sometime, I’m sure that could be arranged,” Cornelia said and looked at Martyn. “We have a couple of horses that could use some light exercise and such, if you’re a competent rider.”

Dan shook his head instantly. “No, no. I’m not. I don’t even really know horses,” Dan said.

Both Cornelia and Martyn gaped at him.

“You don’t know or you don’t like horses?” Martyn asked and he had a contemplative glint in his eyes.

“Both?” Dan confessed.

“Maybe you and Phil will get along then,” Martyn grumbled under his breath and Dan wasn’t sure if he was supposed to hear that.

“Stop it,” Cornelia said with a strict look in direction of her boyfriend. “Well, you’ll get to know the horses while you work here, even if you’re just in the stables and not actively handling the horses. This is Misty, she’s a five year old mare who was breed here and she’s one of Martyn’s dressage horses,” Cornelia said and showed the grey horse that Marianne had come in with. “That one Martyn has is Money, she is basically the one that started the Lesters passion for breeding. She’s been Martyn and Phil’s shared horse for years, though only Martyn competed with her.”

“And now she’s neither of ours anymore,” Martyn said, mouth pinched together as he tightened the girth of the saddle on Miss Moneypenny.

“Excuse him,” Cornelia said in a hushed voice to Dan. “Bad day.”

Dan just nodded. “Anyway, I better get back to mucking out.”

“Sure, but we’ll see you at dinner later,” Cornelia said with a bright smile.

“If you haven’t yet, you can meet my parents and my brother. They probably won’t be out in the stables as much as we are but you’ll undoubtedly see them around.”

By the time Dan finished up with the last of the nine occupied box stalls in this stable, his shoulder was aching. Marianne had disappeared again and Martyn and Cornelia had walked out with their horses. Dan drove the wheelbarrow to the tip Marianne had showed him earlier and he tipped over the content onto the growing pile.

Marianne had mentioned something about box stalls in the other stable as well, so Dan diligently put the bedding fork onto the wheelbarrow and made his way over there. The light was off in the stable but it was still bright and sunny outside so Dan had no trouble spotting the man who lingered outside of the box stall in the corner.

The layout of this stable seemed very different from the other one, which had ten stalls, five lining each wall and then a wide walkway down the middle. Here two box stalls were located in the corner, there was a place that looked like it had been a stall once but was now somewhere to shower a horse and in the corner opposite the box stalls, a wall had been put up and led to the place that Marianne had called the saddle room where Dan’s sneakers currently resided.

Dan flipped on the light switch by the entrance, which was on the side of the stable rather than at the end of the building like the other one. The stranger startled as the light flickered on and he stepped quickly back from the box stall that he had been leaning against.

Though they had never met, Dan had little doubt that this was Martyn’s brother Phil. The family resemblance was quite easy to spot, though if someone had asked Dan, Phil was prettier than his brother.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” Dan said when the silence hung between them.

“No,” probably-Phil answered and shook his head. “It’s fine. I just didn’t expect anyone in here yet.”

He looked over Dan but unlike the other three people he had met today, most-likely-Phil didn’t frown at his clothes.

“Sorry, where are my manners? I’m Phil,” definitely-Phil said and stepped forward to shake Dan’s hand. “You’re the kid from Manchester Uni staying with us over the summer?”

“Yes,” Dan confirmed and shook Phil’s hand. Unlike Marianne, Martyn and Cornelia’s hand, Phil’s didn’t have the same coarse skin on his hands from manual labour.

“Big horse rider?” Phil asked.

“No. Terrified of them,” Dan replied and accidentally ended up being a bit more honest than he had intended.

However, he didn’t care because for some reason, it made Phil toss back his head and laugh loudly and his tongue poked out between his teeth ever so slightly when he laughed. Dan felt himself smiling instantly. Smitten.

“Why take a job in a stable then?” Phil asked, interest and mirth in his eyes.

“Seemed like a good idea at the time,” Dan said vaguely. That time being two days ago when he had finished exams and hadn’t wanted to take the train home.

There was something disarming about Phil and Dan really didn’t want to find himself rambling about how he worried that he was on the wrong path with his choice to study law. It would be embarrassing to confess to this stranger that he would have to hang around for three months. No one needed to know why Dan wanted to have this place of escape.

“Fair enough,” Phil said, instantly dropping the topic even if Dan could see that he was still curious. “Anyway, I’ll better let you get on with your job. But I suppose I’ll see you at dinner?”

Dan nodded and tried and failed to wipe the smile off his face. There was something charming about Phil, the way he held himself a bit awkwardly and how adorable he looked when he laughed. The last thing Dan needed was to develop a crush though, so he told himself that he shouldn’t try to seek out Phil like a smitten schoolgirl.

Phil probably had a girlfriend just like his brother, so it really didn’t matter. Dan rolled the wheelbarrow into the box stall that Phil had been standing in front of as soon as Phil left but he did stop in the entrance to notice the name sign hung on the door.

Black Paladin.

Wasn’t that the name of a horse that Martyn and Cornelia had been talking about? Why had Phil been standing outside of here, alone, in the dark?

Chapter Text

It had been a week since Dan had started working in the stables. Phil still wasn’t sure what to make of the guy. He seemed almost awkwardly charming and he didn’t ask Phil any questions about riding like Phil had thought that he might.

Maybe it was because he wasn’t a horse person to begin with and he had little care for the creatures. Phil almost wished that he himself would be able to feel indifferent towards them. It would make everything so much easier instead of feeling fear coil in his stomach every time a horse snorted or sidestepped when something spooked it.

Phil was seven years old when his mother bought him and Martyn a pony. It was a small pony, around 13 hands tall, and it was white with a muzzle that looked like he was always smiling. Phil had been scared of Mr Bogart at first. He had cried when he had fed the pony a carrot on that first day, even if the pony had taken the carrot from Phil’s hand with the most care. It had taken a while but gradually Phil had learnt to trust his small pony.

Two years later, his parents bought the stables and horses became even more part of their everyday life.

And since February this year, Phil couldn’t look at the horses without feeling regret. Over the years of growing up, he had managed to combat his fear of this potentially dangerous sport and these very powerful animals. He had started to become carefree – though now it seemed like carelessness – and he had even started riding out without a saddle and take Bogart swimming when he was twelve.

He had adored the horses and he hadn’t seen them as something that could harm you. If you knew how to handle a horse and if you knew how to read them and how to react, it didn’t seem dangerous at all. But last February, Phil had seen just how dangerous it could be. Twice within just a couple of weeks, when his brother had gotten injured and then Phil himself.

Martyn’s injury was so much worse: whiplash that could have severely crippled him. He still suffered with almost daily migraines and he couldn’t concentrate on dressage exercises like he usually did and he ended up just confusing his horse.

Phil had fallen off and got the wind knocked out of his lungs but he felt back to normal after just a day. Though, not really normal because his fear had been reignited and he wasn’t able to power through it anymore.

All the summers before since going off to university, Phil had longed to come home to the stables, hang out with his family and the horses all summer but this time he had dreaded coming back. He would rather have stayed at York University but he had graduated, so he didn’t have any reason to stick around anymore. That also left him with a daunting new task in front of him: figuring out what he wanted to pursue with his degree in video editing.

Martyn didn’t seem to understand why Phil refused to even get back on any of the horses.

“Because I don’t want to, Martyn,” Phil snapped when Martyn cornered him in the kitchen like he had done all week. So far Phil had just shut his ears and left the room but this was getting increasingly uncomfortable.

Phil was thankful for the new guy Dan’s presence at the dinner table because that meant that Martyn hadn’t been able to bring it up while Phil was trapped while having dinner but his brother found other creative ways to trap him.

Phil had just wanted to make himself a piece of toast, not argue with his brother for the thousandth time.

“I didn’t even say anything,” Martyn argued and raised his hands like he was the one being pushed around.

“I know what you were going to say and I already told you, I’m not doing it. Why can’t you just respect that?”

“Because being invited to participate in that showcase is a freaking honour, Phil. You and I both know it. Black Paladin has had more mares to visit all throughout the spring months this year because of how well you presented him at the stallion show in February. A lot of people will attend the showcase and if they see him, we might have even more mares coming to see him next year. You know what having him, a homebred Lester stallion, become more recognised can do to the reputation of our stables and how well our young horses can sell in the future.”

Martyn wasn’t telling Phil anything he didn’t already know and Phil reached up to pinch his nose in frustration as he abandoned his toast for a moment. Martyn might be correct about the prestige it would bring to the stable and how it would look to people looking for a stallion to use on their mares and even bringing the Lester horses more recognition when they sold their young horses. But something Martyn was completely disregarding was the fact that Phil would need to do a good job as his rider and have a kickass programme and he hadn’t even been in the saddle for almost half a year. And the last time he had been in a saddle, Black Paladin’s saddle specifically, he had a rather unpleasant experience getting down.

“I know, Martyn. I know but do you remember what happened at the stallion show in February? Or has that conveniently slipped your mind?” Phil said and stared angrily at his brother. If their mother had been around to hear his tone of voice, he would have been scolded despite being 24 years old.

“I have not forgotten about your fall, Phil. But it was not Paladin’s fault. A loose horse almost ran into him. He startled and you fell off. You hardly got hurt.”

“I was only in his saddle because you got really hurt two weeks before, Martyn. Tossed from a spooked horse too. And you couldn’t just get up afterwards. You might never be able to focus like you could before.”

It was a low blow for Phil to bring up Martyn’s injury and Phil quickly turned around and focused on his toast to not see the hurt on his brother’s face.

“You’re right, Phil,” Martyn said and Phil could hear the hurt and barely contained rage, probably partly directed at Phil but mostly on the whole situation. “I got hurt when I fell from that horse. It was young and spooked and its rider inexperienced and I thought I could calm it down. I was wrong and I got hurt. But you know Black Paladin.”

“He can get spooked just like any other horse, Martyn,” Phil said and clutched tightly onto the butter knife in his hand.

“Is that why you refuse to get up on any of them? Huh? Not even Money? You haven’t been riding since your fall and don’t give me that bullshit about being too busy at university to come home. You used to be here every other weekend before.”

“I don’t want to ride anymore, Martyn. People grow out of it,” Phil argued.

“You’re unbelievable,” Martyn said. “I know you, Phil. You’re scared. You’re scared like you was when you had to feed a carrot to Bogart for the first time and you were convinced he was going to bite your whole hand off. But you and I both know what’ll cure that.”

Phil knew what he was going to say and he braced himself as Martyn approached him. Phil still didn’t turn around to face his brother. He couldn’t but he moved his hands to grip onto the counter.

“Get back in the saddle,” Martyn said, in an almost whisper.

Phil was relieved when Martyn turned around and walked out of the kitchen. The toast didn’t taste as good as Phil had thought it would and he chewed more out of duty than anything.

It wasn’t fair of his brother to keep bothering about this. Phil had talked to his parents and explained that he didn’t want to show Black Paladin and they had been understanding of his stance. Phil knew they had gotten quite the fright when Martyn had to be rushed to the hospital and they didn’t approve of how Martyn insisted on going out on forest rides despite the doctor telling him to be careful.

It was a beautiful day outside and so far Phil had been holed up in his old room, looking at any kind of freelance work he might find as a video editor. But the conversation with his brother had really unsettled him and he found himself outside not soon after and as usual he headed towards Black Paladin’s box stall.

He thought back to when the horse had been born. It had been a hard birth for their first and oldest broodmare Gaia when the umbilical cord had ended up almost choking the newborn. He was the only foal they had that year as their other pregnant mare had sadly lost her foal. Sixteen-year-old Phil had thought that it was so sad, so he had made it his mission to be a playmate for the foal who didn’t get to enjoy the company of other foals growing up.

Back than, Phil had imagined that Black Paladin was going to be his horse. A nice and mellow gelding that he could take for forest rides or maybe practice dressage on, for fun rather than competitions. But Black Paladin had grown into a beautiful horse that moved excellently and his parents had decided to keep him as a stallion. Martyn had taken over his training and soon enough he had been Martyn’s competition horse and the breeding stallion.

“Is this a normal Saturday thing for you?” a voice asked behind Phil and he turned around to find Dan standing outside with the wheelbarrow and a bedding fork.

Phil smiled at him. He hadn’t talked much to Dan on account of avoiding the stables most of the time and keeping relatively quiet at the dinner table as Martyn and Cornelia usually dominated the conversation with their extrovert personalities.

“No,” Phil said and turned around and leaned back against the door to the box stall. Dan was wearing more sensible clothing today, old somewhat baggy jeans and a brown T-shirt with the same old pair of wellies from before. Phil had a feeling that Dan was wearing the old pair that Phil had left abandoned in the saddle room but he didn’t mind. It was good that they were put to use by someone.

“It just seems like it’s a recurring thing,” Dan said and something flickered over his eyes. “Are you okay?”

Phil let out a little snort and contemplated Dan’s question. He was newly graduated, unsure what awaited him and his brother seemed adamant about pressuring him to do something that he didn’t want to. Phil wasn’t sure that would fall into the okay category. But he didn’t want to explain all that to Dan.

“I’m fine,” Phil said. “So, a whole week of mucking out stables. Bored of it yet?”

Dan bit onto his lower lips and Phil zeroed in on the movement. It would be wrong to say that Phil hadn’t thought about how cute Dan was but he adamantly locked those thoughts away. Dan was an employee of Phil’s parents and he was probably five years younger than Phil. It was a bad idea.

“Would you blame me if I said yes?” Dan said shyly.

“No,” Phil said and smiled wider. “I wouldn’t. It’s not the reason why most people like having horses. That usually comes down to the riding or that very least the bonding with them.”

“I thought you didn’t like horses,” Dan noted. Phil wasn’t sure what exactly he meant by that. But Dan had been hanging around here for a week and who knows what he might have picked up on from Marianne, Martyn and Cornelia.

“I… I do like them,” Phil said. “I’ve had horses since I was seven years old. I like them but… it’s a long story.”

Dan looked extremely curious and Phil could see that he was struggling not to open his mouth to ask more questions. Before the temptation became too much, Phil spoke again.

“Do you want to take a break and go see the foals?” Phil asked. “Have you seen them yet?”

Dan looked slightly confused as he shook his head.

“Well, let’s go see them. You said horses terrified you, right? I get that but when you see these tiny clumsy babies, you might consider changing your opinion. Come on.”

Phil wasn’t sure why he felt the need to even change Dan’s mind. Phil very much agreed with the sentiment that horses could be terrifying. He felt that every time he thought about putting his foot in the stirrup and getting on the back of one of them. But it wasn’t all that horses were.

“Can I just…” Dan asked and indicated the wheelbarrow and the fork.

“Just leave it. If Marianne notices, you can just blame me,” Phil said as they exited the stable together. “It’s just a short walk to the field out back. That’s where we keep our broodmares. When it’s summer, the mares and their foals just sleep out here under the stars so you haven’t had to muck out for them yet, though I have no doubt Marianne will order you to sweep the field for poop at some point.”

“Exciting,” Dan said sarcastically.

They walked in silence until they reached a fence. Dan looked sceptical as he looked out over the seemingly empty field. But Phil raised his hands to his lips and let out a loud whistle that startled Dan.

Soon enough the thundering of hooves could be heard and three mares came cantering towards them, two foals at their side.

“The red one is Gaia, our oldest and my mother’s old riding horse. The brown one is Montana and the black one is Solanaceae,” Phil explained as the horses approached with rapid speed.

Dan was watching with his mouth slightly open, eyes seemingly focused on the two foals almost effortlessly following along with their mothers.

“Solana-what? What kind of name is that?” Dan asked.

“We can her Sol, usually. But you’ll find that most breeders might pick out obscure and complex names to make the horse seem more, exotic or pricy.”

“So what kind of a name is Black Paladin?” Dan asked.

I named him,” Phil said and he couldn’t keep a bit of pride out of his voice. “I’m a nerd. And you’ll find our foals have rather obscure names. We pick a theme for each year of foals and give them names that fit. Black Paladin was the only foal of his year and I know that might it seem even more odd to pick that name for him but it just came to me and it fits.”

Dan hummed and moved back a little as the mares had now reached them and all three of them were extending their heads towards him and Phil. Phil laughed a bit at Dan’s reaction and reached into his pocket to fish out the horse treats he always carried when he was home. It often came in quite handy.

As the muzzles strokes over Phil’s flat palms, he was reminded of how he didn’t dare to feed the horses when he was younger. He hadn’t reverted quite that far and he mostly got scared or wary when he had to get on their backs.

“What is this year’s naming theme?” Dan asked as he watched the two foals, hiding slightly behind their mothers but still advancing forward gradually.

“Star Wars. Those are Luke Skywalker and Princess Lea and they’re both after our Black Paladin. Gaia here,” Phil said and put a hand on the side of the red mare’s head. “She’s Paladin’s mother, so we used a different stallion on her and she’s been due for a week but she’s keeping her foal in her belly for now. I’m hoping it will be a colt and we can have the whole trio.”

“Colt?” Dan asked.

“Young stallion. Male horses are called colts when they are young and females are called fillies,” Phil explained.

The red foal had made it all the way up to the fence and Phil crouched down and extended his hand towards her slowly. “Hi Lea, aren’t you a little sweetie?”

“Do you ever ride?” Dan asked unprompted and if Phil hadn’t been so focus on keeping his posture relaxed for the sake of the foal, he might have winced.

“I used to,” Phil said slowly and smiled as Lea nudged his hand. Luke came up to Phil too and now he had two foals seeking his attention. “But not anymore. Come here,” Phil said and beaconed Dan.

Dan didn’t seem to move, so Phil looked over his shoulder and motioned for Dan to come closer with his free hand. Dan eyed the mares with a cautious glance.

“They won’t hurt you, Dan,” Phil said and he hated how repeated a phrase that Martyn had used on him over the past week numerous times.

“Don’t mothers protect their young?” Dan asked and he sounded worried as he crouched down next to Phil. “I’m scared one of them is going to reach over the fence and take a bite out of my skull.”

“They won’t,” Phil promised. “They’re used to us coming by to say hi to them. As long as you remember to pay attention to the mother first and read whether or not she will allow you close, you will be fine. Here.”

Phil reached out and closed his hand around Dan’s wrist and dragged him closer to the two curious foals. Dan was tensing against the grip, even as he let Phil guide him. Lea was the oldest and the bravest of them and she reached forward to sniff and nudge Dan’s hand.

“Oh… they’re so soft,” Dan whispered and his eyes widened.

Something in Phil’s heart melted at the look of total adoration on Dan’s face. It took him several moments to remember that he still had his hand around Dan’s wrist and he let go reluctantly.

“Horses’ muzzles are always so soft,” Phil said. “Well, expect this bit sometimes.”

Phil reached up toward the nearest mare, Sol, and indicated the part of her upper lip.

“That can get pretty tough because they drag it against dirt when they graze. They’re also quite soft, here behind the ears,” Phil said.

Dan watched in awe as Phil explained and the velvet noses of the foals continued to nudge him. Phil had forgotten what it was like seeing a foal for the first time. When Miss Moneypenny was born, he remembered wanting to pick her up and take her into the house with him. Part of him had wanted her to stay that size but he also remembered the joy of getting to sit across her back when she was three years old and how he had been awed that that little foal could grow into a big beautiful horse.

“Why don’t you ride anymore?” Dan asked carefully.

Phil frowned. Dan was ruining this tranquil moment with all his questions. Why did he even want to know? Unless…

“Did Martyn put you up to this?” Phil asked defensively.

“What? No,” Dan hurried to say and he made a frantic movement as he withdrew his hand, which spooked both of the foals to make a swift retreat.

The look on Dan’s face was one of heartbreak.

“I’m sorry!” he called out after the foals.

Phil smiled a little at Dan’s obvious worry that he had scared the foals away, even if the mares stayed by the fence.

“It’s okay. Foals get spooked pretty easily. They’ll be back in a moment,” Phil said and reached up to stroke Montana’s neck.

“Why’d you think your brother would make me ask you about riding? Martyn seems nice but I haven’t talked much to him outside of the dinners and a quick hi when we pass each other.”

“Sorry, it’s nothing. I’m just on edge about something with him today. I didn’t mean to drag you into it.”

“Something to do with your riding?”

“Why do you want to know?” Phil asked, less hostile this time but still on guard.

“I’m curious,” Dan explained and he sounded sincere. “You clearly like horses. It’s evident from the way that you talk about them and how you interact with them. But I thought most people who have several horses at their disposal would be riders.”

It wasn’t an unfair point.

“I was never much for the competition aspect of the sport. I did love riding but a lot of things happened. Martyn got badly injured in February and it scared me. I fell off myself a couple of weeks later after presenting our stallion at a show and since then… it just seems like it’s too dangerous. I still love the animals,” Phil confessed and reached up to scratch Sol behind the ear and he smiled when the black mare let out a snort.

“It is dangerous, isn’t it? Just handling the animals from the ground seems terrifying to me. I couldn’t imagine voluntarily getting on the back of one of them.”

Phil let out a soft chuckle and forced himself not to look over at Dan. He had a feeling that he would have a fond expression on his face and he really shouldn’t be distracting Dan from his work. But it was oddly therapeutic to speak to someone who was more scared by horses than he was himself, even if it did make him want to come to the defence of his animals.

“It is,” Phil concurred. “It’s a powerful animal. Have you never ridden before? Even as a boy?”

“My family isn’t exactly wealthy enough to get involved with horses, though I can’t say that I had any interests in them growing up. I never quite saw the appeal of it, I suppose,” Dan said and Phil looked over to find him crouched down again, and how carefully still he held his hand as Lea and Luke approached anew.

It was an endearing sight.

“You’re still terrified of them?” Phil asked and nodded towards the foals.

“Not these two guys. Their mothers, hell yes,” Dan replied and cast a wary glance up at the mares lingering by the fence, though all of them had taken to grazing again now that they had discovered they couldn’t worm more treats out of Phil.

The two foals seemed fascinated by Dan and they were getting braver by the minute.

“Would you ever ride a horse?” Phil asked.

“No, I don’t think it’s for me,” Dan replied as he reached up to stroke down Luke’s neck. “Too dangerous as you say.”

Phil felt a wave of shame at the thought that he had managed to inflict his own bias onto a non-rider who might now never even considering getting on horseback. It shouldn’t bother him but it did. In the last few months, he hadn’t focused on all the great experiences he had had with horses, and instead he had zeroed in on the few negative instances instead.

Phil secretly pondered if he would be able to convince Dan to get up on a horse over the three months he would be working in the stable. But he immediately dismissed the notion. Phil’s own brother was pressuring him to train Black Paladin for the showcase and he hated that, so it would be extremely hypocritical to attempt to convince Dan to do something that similarly frightened him.

Even if it broke Phil’s heart a little that Dan would never be able to know the joy of moving in sync with your horse and feeling like you could conquer the world.

“Thank you for showing me the foals, Phil,” Dan said and slowly got up from his crouched position. “But I better get back to work before Marianne spots the abandoned wheelbarrow.”

“Yeah,” Phil agreed. “We don’t want you to get you into trouble.”

“I’ll throw you under the bus if she catches my tardiness,” Dan warned but the bright smile on his face undermined the threat quite a bit.

Phil found himself wondering how someone like Dan, who was scared of horses, had agreed to take a live-in job mucking out box stalls in a horse stable for three whole months during the summer. He could be out going to festivals, hanging out with friends, travelling the world or so many other things and yet he had chosen to come stay and work at Phil’s family stables.

“That’s fair. I’ll see you around, Dan,” Phil said as Dan slowly made his way back to the stable.

Phil lingered by the fence and Gaia looked up from the grass, took a few steps closer to him and nudged her nose against his hand.

“You’ve already gotten a treat,” he lightly scolded her but there was no edge in his voice. “Gaia, I think Dan is going to be trouble. He’s a disruption to the routine and he’s pretty cute.”

Gaia snorted and Phil laughed at her perfect timing.

“Well, I think he’s cute,” Phil admitted in a whisper as he looked back towards the stables. He had promised himself not to spend too much time around the horses because he hated how he saw them as a dangerous situation waiting to arise. It hurt Phil but if Phil did want to know more about Dan, he might just have to break his plans of staying away.

 

Chapter Text

It probably wasn’t the most responsible thing to stay up past 3 AM just browsing random Wikipedia articles but Dan didn’t really want anyone to call him responsible at the moment. In fact, he felt almost rebellious, having taken this job to stay away from facing his parents at home. Besides, it wasn’t like he couldn’t muck out a couple of stables while tired and his shift didn’t even start that early.

Marianne had threatened to make him participate in the feeding of the horses, which apparently took place like three times a day and quite early in the morning. However, she hadn’t made good on her threat just yet. By now she out of the sling but still taking it easy, so Dan doubted that she would when it had been an empty threat for two weeks already.

As promised, the Internet connection had been stable and Dan could browse to his heart’s content. There was always something calming to him about being awake in the middle of the night when everyone else was asleep. It was like the world stopped spinning for a little while and no one would require anything of him.

Some nights, it turned into him staring at the wall or laying down on his stomach while contemplating his existence but he hadn’t felt compelled to do that since he had come here. He had never quite understood when his friend had explained how she loved being around the horses because it gave her a sense of calm and refreshed her energy.

He understood it a little better now. Last week, when Phil had taken him to see the tiny horses, Dan’s heart had melted a little. They were just so utterly adorable and their noses were so damn soft. Dan had feared he would get a set of teeth in the shoulder any moment but the mother horses seemed calm just like Phil promised him that they would be.

And Phil… well, he was still a bit of a mystery to Dan. He had gathered from snippets of conversations picked up while he was mucking out that Martyn was still determined to have Phil ride in that showcase or whatever it was called. Dan didn’t blame Phil that he didn’t want to. The first time he had seen Black Paladin, a huge black stallion, in his stall box, Dan had hesitated to move closer.

It wasn’t that the horse was mean-looking at all. It had the same soft and kind eyes that Dan had seen in the other horses around here but it was a big horse and Dan saw how it moved when it clanged a hoof against the side of the box stall. It was a powerful animal and Dan was sure he heard something about stallions being more unpredictable somewhere, easily distracted by the females probably, like the average teenage boy.

Dan had stopped paying attention to his Wikipedia article as his thoughts circled back to Phil and how sweet he had looked, leaning on the fence to the pasture with the horses as he spoke in hushed tones. Dan was sure he had heard a longing in Phil’s voice when he talked about riding but he had already pushed Phil enough.

Maybe it was his diverted attention that made him notice how the light down in the courtyard flickered on. It was only just visible from Dan’s window but he got up to take a closer look. It was motion activated and Dan worried that it was a thief or something at this time of night, but he was much more surprised when he saw Phil crossing the courtyard with determination in his step.

Dan knew he shouldn’t be snooping. Phil could go into the stable whenever he wanted, though Dan did recall Marianne lecturing him about how horses needed uninterrupted peace and he shouldn’t disturb them between 10 PM and 6 AM. Dan suddenly felt even less tired and he pulled on his stable attire and headed downstairs. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do if he ran into Phil, but he would try to stay hidden.

Though that sounded a lot creepier.

Dan was still contemplating how to approach it as he stood in the courtyard and took note of how the two doors to the stables still were closed and there was no light inside of them. If Phil had gone into any of them, he had sought to hide his presence very well. Dan didn’t quite feel brave enough to open the doors and disturb the horses, so instead he wandered back towards the pasture with the mother horses because Phil could have been heading back there from the direction Dan had spotted him from his room.

He was just about to turn back and call it a failed recon mission when he noticed Phil sitting against the fence on the inside, watching the horses carefully. Dan followed his graze and saw that two of the big horses were standing up but the third one, the red one that Phil had called Gaia, was lying on her side. Her pregnant stomach looked absolutely massive when she was lying like that.

“Is she okay?” Dan asked out loud without thinking and he made Phil jump.

Phil got to his feet, clumsily and placed a hand over his head and pressed down while he stared at Dan like he was insane.

“Dan? What are you doing out here?”

“I saw the courtyard light activate,” Dan said honestly. “I wondered what you were doing out in the middle of the night.”

“What are you even doing awake?”

“You’re not my mother,” Dan shot back and crossed his arm. He immediately regretted the defensive answer but it wasn’t like he could take it back.

“No, I know. Sorry,” Phil said and as his face fell, Dan shifted awkwardly on his feet. “You just startled me. I didn’t expect anyone to be up. I’m on foal watch tonight and I got a beep from the alarm Gaia is wearing and it looks like tonight might be the night. She’s certainly getting ready.”

“You can tell that this far away?”

“I’ve seen a lot of foals been born of the last fourteen years. I’m no veterinarian but I can spot the simple things, which is why I came out here. Horses are normally quite good at birthing on their own and they can take care of everything themselves as long as complications don’t arise.”

“Complications?” Dan asked and walked closer until he was leaning his forearms against the fence. Phil didn’t sit back down but he did return his attention to Gaia and leaned back to rest his lower back against the fence.

“Yeah. A lot of things can go wrong that will either kill the foal, or the mare, or both. Actually, you know our stallion Black Paladin? He almost didn’t make it. First, he was placed the wrong way, which meant he wouldn’t come out with his head first. The vet managed to turn him around but then the umbilical cord got wrapped around his neck and he almost died. We were so freaking happy when we finally got him out and he was healthy, especially because our other foal that year had been stillborn.”

“Oh, that sounds horrible.”

“It is but unfortunately it happens sometimes. We were just so happy that Black Paladin was with us. His sire was an international stallion that was only in the UK for a single season, so his pedigree was quite important to us as well. Though, that was more my parents’ concern than mine. I was just happy he was alive and well. I didn’t even think about losing the blood in our breeding if we lost him.”

Gaia let out what sounded like a groan.

“Is she okay?” Dan asked anxiously.

“She’s just pushing. She seems fine and Montana and Sol are both very relaxed. I don’t think it’s ever been proven but I’m sure that the flock members can sense if something is wrong with a birthing mare, especially other broodmares. As long as they are calm, I’m calm.”

“Shouldn’t she be inside in a box stall? Won’t the little baby get cold out here?”

Phil let out a little chuckle, like Dan’s worry amused him. Normally, Dan might feel embarrassed by probably asking a stupid question but he was too focused on remembering how Phil’s subtle laugh sounded.

“No, it’ll be fine. There’s a reason horses give birth while it warm and it’s late in the season now and warmer than when most foals are born. Besides, Gaia is a pro. She’s been delivering a foal for twelve years straight at this point.”

“Twelve years?” Dan asked in awe. It sounded almost impossible.

“Yeah. She had Moneypenny fourteen years ago and then we let her wait a season but since then she’s been with foal every year. I know it might sound like a lot and it does definitely put a stain on her. I won’t argue with that but she’s happiest with a foal at her side. She’s the perfect broodmare and in the wild mares get a foal every year as well.”

“Sounds like a lot of hard work,” Dan remarked and Phil chuckled again and Dan tried to pretend that his heart didn’t skip a beat.

“I suppose it is,” Phil replied when he was done laughing. “But horses are tough. Did I ever tell you that Gaia used to be my mother’s riding horse? She was also the first horse that I ever rode because we didn’t buy Mr Bogart until a year later. Granted, I couldn’t do much riding with how tiny I was but I still remember the awe of sitting across her back and looking around at the world.”

“It sounds like you miss it,” Dan noted but he refrained himself pushing on with the curious questions in the back of his mind.

“Are you sure Martyn didn’t talk to you?”

“He didn’t, Phil. Though I did hear about him wanting you to ride the stallion at a show or something,” Dan confessed.

“Of course, you did,” Phil said and sighed and turned his sole attention away from Dan and back to Gaia. “He can’t do it himself. Or rather he can’t do it well. His injury makes it hard for him to focus and him and Black Paladin have not been in sync for too long. But I don’t know why he can’t realise that I can’t do a better job.”

“Aren’t you as good a rider? Even if you never cared for competitions?”

“You remembered that, huh?”

“I remember everything you tell me,” Dan said with a little more honest than intended but Phil turned and smiled right at him. It was a shy and surprised smile but in this moonlight setting and the intimate feeling of being alone, it felt like it knocked the air out of Dan’s lungs.

Phil didn’t look like he knew how to respond for a moment and Dan worried that he had somehow let on that he might be crushing on Phil. He had been determined to keep it quiet but he wasn’t doing a stellar job of hiding it with statements like that.

It seemed Phil decided to file that little confession a way, and Dan was thankful.

“I don’t ride quite as well as my brother, if you ask me, but I am good. Was good,” Phil corrected. “But it’s more about the fact that Black Paladin is very selective in who he listens to. In the spring, when Martyn was still recovering and I was at university, several riders tried to train him but none of them made it past the first couple days and he refused to relax and listen to their commands. He doesn’t care for female riders at all and the male ones we have found handle him too roughly in our opinion. He’s a gentle soul despite being a stallion and none of us wants to see him ruined by a rider. Besides, I’m usually the one who designs the freestyle programmes for when Martyn competes.”

“That sounds impressive? Isn’t that something about mapping out the different exercises or poses or something to music?”

“I thought you didn’t know anything about horses?” Phil asked cheekily.

“I don’t. Not really but I remember my friend who ride dressage complain about getting the exercises, the horse’s step and music to match.”

“It can be difficult but it becomes easier when you know your horse or know how to edit music. It was actually the thing that inspired me to pursue video editing at university. I had experience fiddling with editing audio tracks but I would like to actually know what I was doing.”

Gaia let out another groan like sound and it looked like she kicked her legs back slightly.

“I think that might have been the foal’s head? Want to come with me to take a closer look?”

Dan really wanted to say no. He knew that births could get pretty messy. He still felt a bit scarred from the first time his school had been on a field trip and he had seen some farmer shove his whole arm up a cow’s bum hole.

But it wasn’t like he was going to decline anything Phil offered with so much enthusiasm in his voice. It was probably a miracle of nature and none one said that Dan had to get too close.

“Won’t she be disturbed?” Dan asked in a whisper.

“No, she’s focused on her baby. Also, she’s used to having an audience. We always keep an eye on our pregnant mares. Now, come or you’ll miss it. It happens quite quickly.”

Dan wasn’t sure what was happening but Phil grabbed his hand and started pulling him along only to realise that Dan was still on the wrong side of the fence. Rather than do what a normal human being would have done, which was let go of Phil’s hand and go to the gate and let himself through, he proceeded to climb over the fence all the while holding onto Phil’s hand.

Dan almost lost his footing when he noticed how Phil glanced up at him with an unreadable expression. He was ever thankful that he only stumbled a little and didn’t fall flat on his face and took Phil with him.

Dan wanted to crouch down and approach with slow steps but as soon as he tried, Phil yanked him back up.

“You don’t sneak up on a prey animal unless you want to scare them. Walk normally. I’ll make sure she sees us coming so she doesn’t freak out,” Phil said and squeezed Dan’s hand.

Dan just nodded. Who even held hands anymore? And furthermore, who the hell held hands when going to inspect a birthing horse? Was there some conduct that Dan was unfamiliar with or was Phil just a touchy person who thought of holding hands as something natural and completely platonic?

Dan wasn’t sure but he didn’t get much time to dwell on it because soon, all he could focus on was the tiny thing lying behind Gaia still in some kind of sac. Dan didn’t want to utter a word and he actually held his breath when the red mare raised her head and looked directly at him.

Phil let go of his hand and knelt down beside the horse and the foal and Dan thought he was way too close for comfort but Gaia didn’t seem to mind one bit. She just craned her neck back and started rubbing her nose on the foal’s butt while Phil pulled back the clear-ish sac surrounding the foal.

Dan had never seen anything quite as precious as the little creature raised its head and looked around while blinking. It was a whole new world to take in and explore. Dan felt a bit mesmerised and he didn’t even like horses.

“You did so well,” Phil complimented Gaia and stroked a hand down her neck, which was only mildly sweaty. “What a beautiful foal. Another black beauty, huh? And what a nice star.”

Phil ran his hands over the foal a couple of times, checking something, before he leaned back until he got on his feet and walked a couple of steps back to stand beside Dan while Gaia kept shoving her nose at the newborn.

“She’s talking this rather calmly.”

“It’s her fourteenth foal. I suppose some of the novelty might have worn out for her at this point,” Phil said and Dan could tell by his voice that he was smiling, even though he wasn’t looking at Phil.

“Fourteen kids is a whole lot.”

The little foal let out a snort and looked utterly surprised by itself.

“I think he’ll make a fine Han Solo,” Phil commented.

“It’s a boy?”

“A colt, yes. He looks a lot like his half-brother Black Paladin did when he was born. Maybe, he’ll be a future stallion as well. Though, we can’t accommodate more than one, maybe he can be that for someone else.”

“I think I might still be asleep, Phil,” Dan said and looked up at the almost full moon above them. There was a gently breeze in the air, and Dan could feel how it was making the tall grass gently graze his legs. The two older foals had apparently been woken up by the excitement but rather than paying attention to their new flock member, they approached Dan and Phil while swishing their short fluffy tails around.

“Why?”

“This doesn’t seem real,” Dan said as the brown foal, Luke, almost shoved his nose into Dan’s stomach. It took a little hesitation before Dan dared to reach down and stroke down the foal’s back. Luke didn’t seem to mind at all, as he pulled on the zipper on Dan’s jacket.

“What’s not real about it?” Phil asked, no criticism in his voice like Dan might have expected.

“One does not wake up and go out into a field and see a horse being born under glorious moonlight, Phil.”

“Yes, one does. If one lives on a stud.”

“A stud?”

“It’s a term for a horse breeding stable,” Phil said and raised an eyebrow at Dan’s suggestive tone. “Mind out of the gutter.”

“I didn’t say anything!” Dan argued and let his hand run down Luke’s back again. Leia walked over a couple of steps from Phil to Dan and she seemed equally interested in his zipper. He was feeling a little like he was under attack and he was so scared to make any rapid movement.

“They like you,” Phil said, his voice only a whisper.

“I’m scared to move,” Dan confessed in a whisper as if raising his voice to normal levels would also scare them.

Luke chose that moment to push his nose rapidly into Dan, making Dan stumble back and almost lose his footing if it wasn’t for the fact that he felt a hand reach out to stabilise him. But more than anything he focused on how the two foals became spooked and turned around and ran back to their mothers.

“See?” Dan said and he tried not to take not on how Phil was still holding onto his arm.

“That’s their own fault. Horses often do things because they’re curious but then they get spooked. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked with our young horses and they stepped on something or moved something and subsequently jumped when the thing made a sound or something moved. But they learn in time… well, most of them do.”

With the foal distraction done, Dan focused on Gaia and the little new foal and Phil slowly let go of his arm.

“Is he really going to be called Han Solo?”

“Yes,” Phil said adamantly. “Once when I was younger my parents promised me that I would get to name all our future foals and I took that very seriously and I won’t let them go back on the promise. I pick the name theme with a lot of consideration. And it turned out perfect with two colts and one filly for this year. The three main characters.”

“You could always had added Chewbacca if it had been all boys,” Dan commented.

“Chewy is very a cute name,” Phil agreed.

Little Han Solo was already getting ready to get up. However, it looked almost comical how much trouble he had straightening out his legs. He was basically all legs. It oddly reminded Dan of his own teenage years where he felt tall and like all limbs himself. He could sympathise with the little guy.

Han Solo blinked and seemed to look around while Gaia kept nudging her nose into his side. That little foal was seeing everything for the first time. He had a whole world to explore. It was a beautiful thing and Dan felt touched that Phil had invited him out to bear witness to it.

“You did so well, Gaia,” Phil said and kneeled by her head.

She turned towards him, ears pulled back and even if Dan wasn’t sure about horse behaviour he knew by the glint in her eye that she was not happy. Phil stayed calm, however, and kept stroking down her neck while completely ignoring the foal and the mare’s ears tipped forward again.

“A lot of mares can be really protective of their foals, especially when they are newborn. She was just reminding me that he is her baby. Right, Gaia?” Phil said and reached up to run a hand down her nose.

Dan watched in awe as the little Han Solo attempted to find his footing again, only for his legs to fold under him again. It still looked somewhat comical but after two more attempts the young colt managed to stay on his hooves.

His legs were still sticking out a bit far, like he was bambi on ice but he stayed standing even as his mother nudged him. Phil stepped back from where he was almost sat by Gaia and she got to her feet with a great heave of effort. Dan didn’t blame her. It couldn’t have been easy pushing out a foal.

Phil stepped back to give the mother and son some room and he found his space next to Dan who had just been observing quietly.

Here he was standing in the middle of the night, in the middle of a field watching a horse give birth and now bond with her newborn foal.

He found himself wondering what was the point of everything. This foal, Han Solo, was born brought into the world because the Lesters had wanted to create him. They would raise him, teach him to carry a rider probably and then either sell or keep him but either way he would be ridden and taken care of until he would one day die.

The colt was not even an hour old yet and Dan as an outsider was able to map out the whole horse’s life.

It felt horrible that he was making subconscious parallels to his own life; grow up, go to university, get a job, get a partner, have a family, grow old, die. Was that truly everything life was? Just an endless cycle of meaninglessness? In all likelihood nothing he would do, or nothing the foal would do, would have an impact on the world.

He must have been frowning while he was thinking because Phil nudged his arm to bring his attention back to the present time.

“Stop frowning while looking at a baby horse,” Phil said. “It’s the miracle of life.”

“Why do you breed horses, Phil?” Dan asked.

Phil seemed a little stumped at the question.

“What do you mean, Dan?”

“I mean, why do this? Why choose to breed horses? Why keep the female horses - mares was it? - and make them have foals? What is the point of it? Profit?”

Phil snorted. “Nah, we don’t breed nearly enough to make a real profit on them. The business side of things break about even from what I know. The motivation isn’t monetary, Dan. It’s because we love the animals and we wanted to bring more good horses into the world. My parents pick the breeding horses very carefully and the match of the parents. We usually keep them until they’re four years old and broken in. And then most of the horses will be sold.”

“But I just don’t get… why? When you’re not making money on them? And it is quite a big hassle to have the horses? It’s a lot of shit to deal with. Literally. I would know,” Dan joked but he felt the insecurities creep in.

He shouldn’t have asked Phil about this. It felt like it was a little too close to home.

“It is,” Phil replied and Dan could hear from his voice that he was smiling even if he didn’t dare to look over at him at the current moment. “But we do it because we love taking care of the horses… and their shit. But more so, we want breed horses that will bring joy to riders. We want to sell the horses bred here to someone who will love and treasure them. Unlike some other breeders, we don’t really care if the riders don’t want to compete. We just care that they are going to have a good life with the horse they buy, for their own sake and for the horse.”

“Huh…” Dan said and kept looking down at his worn wellies. “I suppose that makes sense. Sorry for asking, if it was rude.”

“Oh no, it wasn’t, Dan. It’s fine. Just… are you okay?”

Dan absolutely hated that question. He had gotten it increasingly often during these past few months. He did not need Phil – part of this place, which was his escape – to start asking him as well.

He faked a yawn. “I’m fine, just tired. I get contemplative late at night. I better head back to my bed. Goodnight, Phil. And thank you for this. It was… something.”

Dan cast one look back at Gaia who was running her muzzle down Han Solo’s back. The little guy might have his whole life planned out for him but he looked very happy and content as his mother guided him to her udder.

Dan looked at Phil one final time too but he couldn’t make out his expression in the soft moonlight. Great. He should just have kept his mouth shut. Now Phil probably thought he was mentally unstable or something. He might just be overreacting. He knew that but he also had a feeling he wouldn’t be getting much sleep tonight.

Too many thoughts and worries about having said the wrong thing would likely keep him awake.

Chapter Text

Phil was wasting the day away and he knew it. It was all too easy to fall back into the lull of just staying inside, playing a video games and watching something on his computer. It was odd being home in his childhood bedroom and slowly but surely acknowledging that he would not be going back to university after the summer. He had graduated.

He could find the odd one-off editing job online when scouring posts and that kept him busy but it wasn’t enough. Phil wanted and needed human interaction, which was made increasingly difficult as he tried to avoid one-on-one conversations with any of his family members at the moment.

His parents would both ask about how the job hunt was going and Phil wasn’t sure he could give them a sufficient answer. After all, finding the odd small editing job was hardly a proper job. Martyn was still adamant to convince him to get back into the saddle and he had recruited Cornelia into his schemes as well. Phil could hardly blame that she chose to back up her boyfriend, but he still didn’t appreciate how they all ganged up on him.

Even sweet Marianne would ask for his help with the horses if she saw him lounging around. She hadn’t gone so far as to suggest he should go for a ride but he still didn’t feel comfortable handling the horses. He couldn’t quite shake the feeling that any moment something could go wrong.

He knew his nerves would transfer to the sensitive animal instantly and Phil might trigger the very reaction he feared.

So Phil was actively avoiding everyone on the grounds, except for Dan. Dan was still quiet during the family dinners, even if he politely answered the questions that Phil’s parents or Martyn and Cornelia asked. But mostly he just ate quietly and politely.

Phil couldn’t help but wonder how his family appeared from an outside point of view. Maybe he would ask Dan about it some time. Though, if he should be asking Dan about anything then it should probably have been what he had said during the night that Han Solo was born.

The tone of Dan’s voice and his words still stuck in Phil’s head. He sounded so lost and Phil could all too easily recognise the way that Dan had brushed it off and pretended like it wasn’t a big thing. He was repressing something but it wasn’t Phil’s place to pry, even if he wanted to. They weren’t friends and Phil couldn’t be expected for Dan to act like they were.

He felt like he had seen a new side of Dan out there in the middle of the night as they watched Gaia give birth. Phil hadn’t even wanted the shift to watch the broodmare in the first place but he had caved and accepted it, so the rest of his family could get some sleep. Of course, Gaia would choose that night to give birth and Phil had only been mildly annoyed by it.

Phil always worried that something would go wrong and it would be up to him to spot it and if he didn’t, then both the mare and the foal could lose their lives. But at the same time, Phil knew objectively that experience had taught him what to watch out for and Gaia had done brilliantly like she usually did. And as much as he wanted to protest and shy away from the horses, seeing a foal being born was a special experience.

Seeing Dan had been a pleasant surprise, once the initial shock from the jumpscare had settled.

The companionship was appreciated.

With that thought in mind, Phil put down his computer and got dressed as he went to go out and locate Dan. It was early afternoon and Dan would likely still be mucking out the box stalls.

Phil found Dan at the tip, emptying a wheelbarrow. Out of the corner of Phil’s eye, he could see Cornelia ride one of her red geldings. Even from this distance it was easy for Phil to recognise Hermes, whose only white marking was the a round star hidden under his forelock. Cornelia’s other red jumper Adidas had a large irregular blaze and high stockings to match.

Phil got momentarily distracted watching how Cornelia and Hermes moved together, flying in sync as she instructed him into collection. Phil knew that Cornelia disliked riding too much dressage and that she preferred the jumping where speed was key compared to the minute precision expected when riding dressage. She would often say that she wasn’t a good dressage rider but Phil knew it wasn’t stickily true because she was very good when she put her mind to it, like she was currently doing with Hermes. For jumping horses, it was still very important to train the basics and make sure that the horse would listen to the rider with and without jumps on the course. Phil knew that she had a big competition coming up in two weeks, so she was already laying down the training foundation.

“Phil?”

Phil pried his eyes away from Cornelia and turned around to face Dan, who had finished with the wheelbarrow. Phil did realise that he must look slightly ridiculous standing in the middle of the courtyard just staring into the distance.

He had just been distracted. His mind tended to jump around against his will at times.

Like now, when he looked at Dan in those damn black jeans with rips and he instantly decided that he needed to take Dan shopping. His attire was not appropriate for his job.

Phil also tried to justify to himself that he wasn’t just thinking of this because he wanted to spend some time with Dan. Obviously.

“Yes! Hi,” Phil said. “I was just wondering if you’re finished up for the day yet?”

Dan crooked his head slightly to the side and he put down the wheelbarrow that he had been holding.

“I just finished with the box stalls, so technically yes. I did promise Marianne that I would come find her when I finished and she said she might put me to work elsewhere,” Dan explained.

Phil couldn’t help but notice how Dan stared fidgeting with his hands. Dan looked nervous. Phil wasn’t sure why. He hadn’t meant to make Dan uncomfortable. Wait, he hadn’t even asked him about the shopping trip yet. So why was Dan nervous just talking to him? Phil felt like he was the least intimidating person you would ever meet.

“Why do you ask?” Dan added when Phil was too busy being wrapped up in his head to say something.

But this spurred him on.

“Well, I wanted to take you to Dahlgren Riding Gear to get you some more appropriate clothes. And my old wellies have also seen better days, so perhaps some footwear as well.”

Your wellies?” Dan asked, shock clear on his face as he looked down at his feet as if they had betrayed him somehow.

“Yeah,” Phil said with a smile and he found Dan’s expression quite adorable. “I got some new ones but I left those in our saddle room. It’s fine. I don’t mind but I just thought that you might want something to wear that isn’t worn and cracked in the sole.”

“That shop you mentioned, that’s the one Cornelia and Martyn run, right?” Dan asked and shifted his weight from side to side.

“Yes, they own it,” Phil confirmed. “Which is why we can get the stuff for free. I feel we could sponsor you some proper clothing. What do you say?”

“I think Marianne would want me to sweep the courtyard,” Dan said hesitantly but he moved a step closer to Phil already.

Phil’s smile widened naturally. “I’m sure it can wait until we get back. Hold up, let me just go tell Cornelia that we’re going to raid her shop. Don’t move,” Phil said and held up a finger at Dan like he had used to do so often when he was leaving a horse tied in the stable while going out to fetch something.

He jogged lightly over to the dressage course. Cornelia and Hermes were in excellent form and they would probably do brilliantly at their upcoming competition. Phil would not be going.

He always had a little trouble watching jumping competitions but after the scare with Martyn and himself, he could not watch without feeling the urge to close his eyes constantly. Riders had gotten severely injured or even died if something went wrong while jumping, as had the horses. It was even more terrifying than dressage.

Cornelia had never thought so. She was carefree and even now as she spotted Phil, she extended Hermes’ reins and let him stretch his head down while keeping a steady canter until she pulled him into a halt right next to Phil. He obeyed her signals flawlessly.

“Hi Phil. What’s up?” she asked, smile on her face and cheeks reddened by the exercise. She looked so happy sitting on Hermes and something in Phil’s heart dislodged a little.

He would – could – not let himself miss it.

“I just wanted to say that I’m taking Dan to Dahlgren’s and getting him a few things. Is that okay?”

“Of course, Phil,” Cornelia said. “You can get something yourself too. Martyn isn’t working there right now but just tell Sarah to put it on the tab. You know the drill.”

Hermes snorted and extended his neck to give Phil a gentle shove. Instinctively, Phil reached out to caress the side of his muzzle.

“Great,” Phil replied. He was actually happy that he could avoid his brother. He did not need him to meddle or try to persuade him to get back on the horse yet again. “Have a good rest of practice. The two of you… look good, Cornelia.”

Phil added the last bit hesitantly but it was worth it to see the smile on Cornelia’s face. Before everything, Phil had loved watching Cornelia and Martyn train for competitions and even give them feedback. He wasn’t more competent than they were but sometimes you could see things differently from the ground and every rider has bad habits that they could slip into if not paying attention.

“Thanks, Phil,” Cornelia said and reached down to stroke Hermes’ neck. “Now, go get Dan. He looks a little lost.”

Phil turned around to see Dan did indeed look at little lost standing in the middle of the courtyard next to the wheelbarrow. He hadn’t actually moved. Phil let out a chuckle. Why was that so endearing?

“Don’t buy my whole shop!” she called over her shoulder as she gathered up Hermes’ reins and turned him towards the middle of the course again.

“No promises,” Phil shouted back before he jogged back to Dan. “All good. Let’s go.”

Dan still looked a little unsure but he followed Phil diligently to the parking lot where Phil found his parent’s deep green Jeep. It wasn’t really necessary on the British roads but his father had always wanted one and his mother had eventually caved.

Phil hated driving the thing but he knew that the keys would be under a hollow stone placed next to it and he preferred that to going back into the house to ask either his mother or Martyn for the keys to any of their cars. And a good thing about the Jeep, it was durable as hell, which was a bonus considering Phil had jumped the curb more times than he would want to admit.

When Phil bent over to pick out the key, he turned back around to find Dan with a complex expression on his face.

“You keep the key… under a rock… next to the car?” he asked and looked shocked.

“Yes,” Phil said and shrugged as he unlocked the car. “It’s not like there’s lot of people are around here. You have to drive past our fields to even get here and no one knows about the key.”

“I do now,” Dan mumbled.

“I didn’t pick you for a car thief,” Phil teased.

“No!” Dan sputtered and Phil cast a sideway glance to see Dan growing flustered. “I just mean… other people might see where you hide the key. Aren’t you worried someone will tell or decide to steal it?”

“It’s my parents’ idea but I don’t oppose it. We trust the people we invite onto our grounds, into our home,” Phil said as he carefully backed out of the space and started driving.

Dan was an anxious passenger or he was just reacting to Phil’s slightly sub-par driving. It wasn’t his fault! He hadn’t been driving a car for a very long time. It wasn’t like he had a lot of reason to do so. And the Jeep was a huge monster of a car.

Still, he made it safely to Dahlgren Riding Gear’s parking lot, even if Dan quickly unfastened his seatbelt and bolted out of the car. He was being overdramatic, which would normally annoy Phil but on Dan, he didn’t mind that much.

“I’m not that bad of a driver!” he still argued, even as he couldn’t keep the smile off his face.

Dan clutched his chest. Again. Drama queen.

“Did you see how often you almost scratched the car? And you hit every available pothole on all the roads!” Dan said with teasing in his voice, even if it was tentative and his eyes looked a little unsure.

Were they becoming friends? Phil wondered.

“You can drive it home then,” Phil said nonchalantly.

He shouldn’t be saying that. It wasn’t his car to let someone drive but he would rather Dan drove, to be fair, if he had a license. How old was he again? Probably over eighteen, even if he looked young at times.

“Really?”

“Sure, but first we are getting you something other than those ripped jeans that are probably more expensive the more rips the fabricant placed in them,” Phil said, going off the banter from before.

Dan looked appalled, but he was playing it up again. Phil could already tell the different between the joke face and the sincerity face, even if they had only known each other for three weeks and not talked that often.

Phil pushed open the door to the shop and looked over to the register to see Sarah, a brunette with short hair who always managed to rock a nose ring, nail polish and rings despite also being an avid horse rider. Phil wasn’t sure how her nail polish wasn’t constantly chipped.

“Phil!” she exclaimed happily and stepped out from the register and ran towards him.

Phil was wrapped up in a hug before he had a chance to react but once his mind caught up, he quickly wrapped his arms around her and hugged her back.

He had forgotten how long it had been since he had been in the shop. It would have been before February. Since then, he had refused to have anything to do with the horses and he had dropped the hours he used to do in the shop on weekends immediately.

“It’s good to see you too, Sarah,” Phil said.

He had missed her. She always gave the best hugs.

She pulled back and looked up at him with a determined expression. “Going back in the saddle? Need some new jodhpurs that aren’t coming apart at the seam?”

“My jodhpurs are fine,” Phil argued. Yeah, they had seen better days but they were broken in and comfortable, even if he hadn’t worn them in months.

“They were on the brink of falling apart last time I saw you ride in them,” Sarah remarked and then seemed to take notice of Dan who lingered in the doorway, not quite coming in. “Hello!”

“Hey,” Dan said and raised his hand and did a weird hand movement that vaguely resembled a salute.

“Who is this, Phil?” Sarah asked and looked at Phil with a suggestively raised eyebrow.

“It’s Dan. He’s helping out in the stables since Marianne injured her arm. He’ll be here all summer. Dan, this is Sarah, old friend and employee here.”

“Hi,” Dan repeated but now he was stuffing his hands inside of his pants’ pockets.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you. I hope the Lesters are treating you well,” Sarah said and smiled brightly at Dan.

“Of course,” he rushed to say.

“Dan is actually the reason that we’re here today. I wanted to get him some pants for working in the stables and some new wellies or boots. I cleared it with Cornelia that it just goes on the usual tab.”

“Great,” Sarah said and noticed a customer approach the empty register. The shop wasn’t busy but there was still a few people milling about. “I’ll do that. Give a holler if you need any help.”

Sarah went back to the register and Phil motioned for Dan to follow him into the pants section. Phil couldn’t help himself from running his hands over all the new styles of jodhpurs that had been brought in since he had been here last. Some of them looked really nice.

“What did Sarah say that you needed? Jodhpurs?” Dan questioned in a hushed voice.

Phil kept forgetting that this whole world was entirely new to Dan. Phil knew so much about horses and the equipment from having been around it for years and years but he vaguely recalled how it had been overwhelming to learn about all of this stuff when he was a kid. He had found it exciting too.

“Jodhpurs are riding trousers,” Phil explained and pulled out a pair of black Pikeur jodhpurs that looked very nice. “They’re tightly-fitted trousers that all have some sort of padding or different fabric here where you would be touching the saddle. A couple of styles even have stuff that it actually sticky to help you remain in the correct position with your legs, but mostly it’s suede or silicone or something.”

Phil handed over the trousers to Dan who took them carefully.

“These do not look comfortable,” he remarked with a frown.

“Dan, I have seen you wear skinny jeans. It’s not really that different,” Phil assured him but he kept smiling at Dan’s sceptical glance.

“It’s different with jeans,” Dan argued and touched the fabric of the jodhpurs. “This seems like it would cling to you entirely.”

“That’s the point. You don’t want unnecessary material between you and the horse. You already have a hunk of leather in form of the saddle. And I promise you that they are comfortable once you get used to them. I always feel a little weird if I’m by the horses and not wearing jodhpurs,” Phil confessed.

He tried not to let his thoughts wander but they did and the confession slipped out. When he was in his riding trousers then he felt like he could always be ready to help and to ride. He hadn’t touched his old pair since Black Paladin has accidentally tossed him after the stallion show in February.

He had almost thrown them out but he had noticed how his mother had found them and she had surely put them somewhere safe. Phil hadn’t bothered to ask where but he knew that they never let anything go.

“Show me,” Dan said and Phil was too lost in his memory to understand what Dan meant.

“Huh?”

“Show me that they’re comfortable. I don’t believe you.”

“How would I be able to show you? If you want to know, why don’t you just try out a pair?”

“Because I am not cramming my legs and ass into that before I can see on you that it isn’t the torture device they look like,” Dan said. The teasing was still in his voice but there was now an added element too.

Challenge.

Dan was challenging him. He was daring him to do it.

Dan didn’t know that Phil hadn’t worn jodhpurs since his fall. He didn't know anything specific about the fall because Phil had made sure to brush it off like it wasn't a big deal. He knew that no one around the stable would be talking about it. Dan might have been able to pick up Martyn wanted Phil to compete in the showcase with Paladin but Phil severely doubted that anyone else would reveal why Phil was so hesitant. Dan probably assumed that Phil's fall had been bad to scare Phil like that. It hadn't. Not objectively.

It made Phil feel almost stupid because it had not been a big deal. It had just been one fall, and not a serious one.

Riders fell off all the time. It was practically what they signed up for. But it had been a long time since a horse had managed to dismount Phil because he had gotten very good at reading his horse’s mood and sensing the environment.

He had felt Paladin move then, before he had fallen off but it had been one of those movements that he just couldn’t stop, even as he tried. He knew he was going to hit the ground the moment the stallion tensed and started pulling sideways. He was helpless to stop it.

Martyn’s fall had been only weeks before and in the second it took Phil to fall, he was consumed by dread and fear that he would be severely injured like his brother. When he couldn’t breathe immediately and when he couldn’t move he had thought he might be paralysed. If you landed wrong, almost anything could happen.

He had managed to pull himself up not ten seconds later and thankfully, it has just been the air being forced out of his lungs but the fear of what could have gone wrong would not leave Phil’s mind. He had just been bruised for a couple of days but the mental injury still clung to him.

It returned anew when Dan was standing there and extending a pair of jodhpurs to him.

He didn’t need riding trousers because he wasn’t a horse rider anymore.

But then Dan was looking at him with that glint in his eye and Phil couldn’t make himself say no. It was just a clothing item and they were comfortable when you got used to the feeling of them and Phil did miss it, as much as he dreaded admitting.

“Fine,” Phil said and took the jodhpurs. “But once I show you that they are comfortable, you are wearing a pair too.”

Phil left his finger lingering in the air as he pointed at Dan and he stayed there until Dan hesitantly nodded. His stare felt hot and intense on Phil, and he quickly turned around to go to the little changing room.

New jodhpurs never really fit like the ones you had broken in but it still felt a little like coming home. The way the fabric hugged his legs felt calming and right. He looked at himself in the mirror as he held up he loose T-shirt to see even how they hugged his waist.

He had not worn a pair in over four months.

The notion stung a little because no one was making him give this up. It was just his own worry and fear that stopped him. Nothing but his own head was standing in his way of getting back into the saddle. But that was obstacle enough.

Phil reached behind him with his free hand and pulled back the curtain, while he kept his other hand pulling up his T-shirt. He turned around to face Dan and show off the fit.

“See?” Phil said and did a little twirl.

It was just a clothing item, he told himself.

Once he spun back around to face Dan, he just barely caught Dan’s eyes scanning him up and down. He was probably just checking out the jodhpurs but Phil couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being checked out.

He was probably mistaken. Dan was a very pretty guy and he was probably attached to someone, if he even liked guys.

“That’s… they’re good. Looks good, I mean,” Dan said and he sounded nervous again. The easy banter and teasing had disappeared and Phil frowned a little at it.

“They are really comfortable, Dan, even if the new ones always cling to you a little tighter. But you’re about to find out yourself,” Phil said as he walked over to the rack of jodhpurs and picked out a brown pair that he estimated to be in Dan’s size. He tossed them at Dan who clumsily caught them.

“Your turn,” Phil said and raised an eyebrow.

“I’m not going riding, so I shouldn’t…”

“That was not the deal, Dan. And a deal is a deal. I’m not going riding either but look at me,” Phil said and extended his arms.

And Dan did another scan of him but Phil would hardly count on that when he encouraged it.

“Out with the ripped jeans and in with the jodhpurs,” Phil said, jokingly as he gently pushed Dan into the small changing room and pulled the curtain closed.

Somehow, Dan being there made Phil forget slightly about the emotions whirling in his chest, at least a little bit.

They were always there. Always bubbling under the surface the moment he was around horses or horse equipment. He thought about it every morning when he woke up and looked out his window and saw the broodmares and foals graze peacefully.

He had loved his view for many years but it wasn’t the same anymore. He just couldn’t shake his worry and it was ruining him whenever he even thought about getting back in the saddle.

Dan pulled back the curtain and stepped out.

Phil clenched his jaw so tightly it hurt.

Dan looked good. Phil hadn’t really thought about it before but the way the jodhpurs hugged and showed off Dan’s thighs made Phil’s brain short-circuit for just a moment. Thankfully, he quickly regained his composure, even if he had to clear his throat.

“See? Comfortable, right?”

“Not as bad as I thought they would be,” Dan admitted. “They’re a little tight though.”

“Trust me, they’re the right size. You look good,” Phil allowed himself to say. “You’d make a handsome rider.”

Okay. That one might been a little too much. But Dan broke into a shy smile at the compliment, so Phil couldn’t bring himself to regret it.

“Maybe but horses still scare me,” Dan said.

“The horses are sweethearts, Dan. They are not scary.”

“But riding is. You think so.”

Phil did but he couldn’t help but hate that Dan was using his words as an excuse to never even consider riding. You could take safety precautions. And most of the time you would be fine. It was just that there was a risk of getting hurt when you were dealing with a large and strong prey animal that could get startled.

Phil had always known that. His parents had made sure to drill it into his brain so he would always behave with respect around the horses and do everything he could to make sure he would be safe. Almost all of the time you would be fine if you did that.

Almost.

Phil had never feared the almost. Not like this. His childhood fear of horses had been very different. It had been there because he didn’t understand them and it had gone away as he had learnt about them.

“Riding can be a dangerous sport. Things can go wrong. It’s always been like that,” Phil said.

“But most of the time it’s fine, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, of course. When you know how to behave around the animals you will usually be fine. You just can’t be a hundred per cent sure when you’re dealing with horses.”

“Phil,” Dan said and Phil had never heard anyone outside of his family pour such intensity into his name. His eyes locked with Dan. “You can’t be sure about anything… with horses or with life in general. But you have to try and trust that it works out, right? If it’s something that makes you happy?”

Phil felt like his throat was growing dry under Dan’s intense graze and he swallowed to attempt to remove it. It didn’t work. The feeling lingered.

“I suppose you’re right.”

“So maybe you should consider it.”

“Consider what?” Phil asked dumbfounded, too busy staring into Dan’s mesmerising eyes, which crinkled up into a smile at Phil’s reply.

“Riding. Maybe you could get back on the horse, Phil.”

Phil broke the eye contact and turned away while he balled his hands into fists. He did not need this from Dan. Dan had been his one safe spot. He had been the only one who hadn’t pressured him about riding in the showcase. Clearly, Martyn had got his clutches in Dan somehow.

Phil felt deflated.

“Hey,” Dan called softly and he didn’t say anything until Phil had lifted his eyes off the floor and looked at Dan again. “I don’t care about when, Phil. And I don’t think you should have to ride the stallion for that thing. I’m not talking about that. I don’t mean you have to do it now. Just… don’t let yourself think that you can never return. I can hear how you miss it in your voice when I say I don’t want to ride. You feel sad for me but you also feel sad for yourself.”

Phil had not expected Dan to see so expertly through his defences. Perhaps Dan had been more observant than Phil had given him credit for.

It did ease the pain a little to know that Dan wasn’t trying to pressure Phil like Martyn did. Dan was just trying to help. He saw that Phil wasn’t okay and he wanted to help.

Phil almost wanted to laugh because just a week ago, Phil had stood with the exact same feeling in his chest when he heard Dan speak about the meaningless of everything. He didn’t think he was allowed to think like that about Dan but evidently it was going both ways.

“Thanks, Dan,” Phil said, even if that one word wasn’t enough to explain. It would have to do.

“Of course. And who knows? If you get back on the horse, I might just be brave enough to try as well.”

Dan’s eyes were warm and sincere as he shot Phil a smile that Phil returned immediately.

“You mean that?” Phil asked.

Dan seemed to consider it for a moment.

“Yeah, I do.”

Phil felt like something had changed in the air between them. He wanted to show Dan that horses were gentle and wonderful creatures. He wanted to show him how much joy riding could bring.

But Phil would have to face his own fears and the voice muttering worst-case scenarios into his head whenever he thought about putting a foot in a stirrup if he wanted to show Dan.

They left the shop with several bags, including two pairs of new jodhpurs. Dan hadn’t commented on it and neither had Sarah other than a smug smile when she scanned the items. Dan drove the Jeep home like Phil had suggested and Phil begrudgingly admitted that Dan was a better driver.

But he would be a new rider. He had never ridden a horse before. Phil so desperately wanted to see that but could he make himself get back into the saddle after over four months of absence?

Chapter Text

Dan hadn’t quite thought it through. He hadn’t meant to make the promise to Phil while they were standing in Dahlgren trying out those riding trousers for fun. In fact, he almost entirely blamed his promise on the fact that Phil had looked too fucking good in those trousers and it made coherent thinking a little difficult.

But there had been another part of his mind in play, as hesitant as he was to admit it. He had been around Phil for long enough to pick up on the fact that Phil missed horse riding. Dan saw it when Phil got a distant glance in his eyes and seemed lost in good memories. He heard it when Phil spoke of the horses, always so eager to get Dan to understand that they could be wonderful creatures, even as he couldn’t quite shake his own hesitance and underlying worry.

Dan didn’t particularly have a desire to get on the back of a horse but he did desire to see Phil smile and help him with this. Seeing him in those riding trousers again would just be a bonus.

When Phil bought the riding trousers for Dan and himself, Dan had thought that he might already have made a choice and he waited in anticipation, for the first couple of days. Once almost a week had passed without Phil even remote bringing it up, Dan was beginning to think that it wouldn’t be a reality.

He couldn’t help but be a little relieved. He had seen how the horses ran around out on the field with the occasional raising of their hind leg in a speedy jump that seemed to roll through their entire body. Dan didn’t want to be sitting on one of them if they were capable of doing that.

Still, Phil started coming out to see him almost every day to just talk. At first, Dan thought that Phil was just bored inside of the house and seeking out his company as a last solution. But as they started talking, first about music and video games, Dan could see that Phil really wanted to talk to him and that he enjoyed it.

A tentative friendship was being formed, which seemed inevitable by the fact they had a lot of things in common.

They talked about the most random things but a couple of topics were still off limit. Phil didn’t ask about Dan’s degree and Dan didn’t ask about Phil riding. Sometimes, they would get close to those topics if they fell into the conversations about their families but they quickly learnt to read each other’s boundaries.

It was easy and Dan was enjoying it far too much. Dan still tried to pretend that he most certainly wasn’t starting to crush on Phil. He boxed it away in the back of his mind as unrealistic. Instead he enjoyed connecting with someone properly for the first time in forever. Dan had never had a best friend before and he had always been envious of people growing up.

He had friends but they would always have better friends and it hurt that he was never anyone’s first choice. It was still early with Phil but Dan felt at peace whenever he talked to Phil in a way he hadn’t with anyone before.

He knew that it was still way too early but it felt important.

“Hi Phil,” Dan called as Phil walked into the stable and looked around.

Dan put down the fork and exited the box stall and waved at him. As soon as he saw Phil’s intense expression, he furrowed his brows.

“What’s wrong?”

“Dan! Let’s do it,” Phil exclaimed and he seemed to think that was sufficient.

Dan tried to force away the image Phil’s words brought up in his mind before he spoke. It was very unlikely that he meant… that.

“We’re doing what?” he asked and cleared he throat.

“Riding. We are going to ride. I’ll go first and then you will go afterwards.”

Dan tightened his grip on the fork so much that the skin over his knuckles probably went white.

“You’re serious? You want to get back on the horse? Literally.”

“Yes,” Phil said but he looked very anxious.

Dan placed the fork against the side of the box stall and walked out to stand in front of Phil. He wanted to reach out and place a calming hand on his shoulder but they weren’t quite at the stage of causal touching in their friendship yet.

“Phil, I know what we agreed but you know that you don’t have to do it. It has to be when you’re ready.”

“Ready is an illusion,” Phil said and held Dan’s eyes intensely. Phil didn’t hesitate to reach out, placing a hand on either side of Dan’s shoulders. “You can never be ready for anything. You just have to decide to do something and then do it. There will never be a moment where you are truly ready.”

Dan blinked a couple of times, as if he was trying to retrain the information. What Phil was saying made sense to a degree but he wasn’t sure if he was ready to ultimately agree that there was no such thing as better timing in certain moments than others. But it wasn’t like he was going to argue when Phil was looking at him like that.

“But it has to be our secret, okay? I don’t want my family to know. Martyn and Cornelia are currently working at Dahlgren, my parents are visiting old friends and Marianne is in Manchester with a friend. No one is home. It’s the perfect time.”

After their conversations this past week, Dan had managed to find out a bit more about Phil’s relationship with his family, especially his brother. He knew why Phil didn’t want Martyn to know that he would have been in the saddle again because he would instantly start insisting that Phil had to do that showcase with the stallion.

Dan didn’t want to say it but he had a feeling that Phil was so extensively avoiding talking about it because deep down he felt like he should do it. He felt responsible for it, despite his claims of the opposite.

“Of course. I won’t say a thing,” Dan said and mimicked locking his lips and then throwing away the key.

“You’re a nerd,” Phil said and the fond edge in his voice almost made Dan stumble backwards. “But come on, we don’t have that long. I’ll go fetch Money from the pasture. Could you grab the saddle and brindle labelled with her name? Mum bought a label maker and went a little nuts in our saddle room about a year ago, which hardly made any sense since we already knew whose equipment hung where but I suppose it’s coming in handy now.”

“Sure thing,” Dan said. “I’ll just go tip the wheelbarrow and then get on it.”

“Great,” Phil replied before he dashed out of the stable.

Despite Phil’s initial hesitance, it was easy to see that he was excited. Dan smiled at that. He supposed that if you had been holding yourself back from doing something for a long time, then it could be quite liberating deciding to go for it despite your fears. At least a decision had been made.

Dan hated decisions. He hated that he still had one looming over his head that he was pointedly ignoring by escaping to this place instead of having to talk to his parents about how university was working out, or rather wasn’t working out.

By the time Dan had found what he assumed to be the correct equipment, he dragged it back to the stable and hung the saddle on the fold out hanger thing that came down from one of the support beams. He’d seen Martyn and Cornelia use it before but he had never quite estimated how difficult it would be to fasten it, so it stayed extended instead of folded in and dumping the saddle on the floor. It would be easy enough if he was not holding a saddle at the same time and those were definitely not as light as they appeared when even someone as small as Cornelia could just pick one up and carry it around like nothing.

It had been four weeks since he started working here and he has grown very familiar with the very distinct sound of a horse walking. He could easily recognise the sound based on what he had heard in films involving horses but that was usually that fast run thing, canter, he believed it was called?

The fall of hooves that he heard approach now were slower and softer. It didn’t sound like it did in films. Nor had Dan ever seen any of the horses here rear up on their hind legs. Phil told him that horses very rarely did that in real life and no rider would intentionally train their horse to do it with the exception of people from the Spanish Riding School or similar institutions. It was entirely unnecessary and just done for dramatic effect in films.

Phil walked in with Miss Moneypenny in tow, the rope loose between them. Dan had started to like that particular mare quite a bit. She would always look straight at him with her deep brown eyes and when she begged for treats or attention she did it by softly calling out rather than banging her hoof against the box stall door. And Phil had told quite a few stories of her when she was growing up. As she was the first foal that they raised, she was submitted to all sorts of odd ideas but Phil insisted that she was a good horse, even if she had her distinct quirks.

Phil looked a little unsure and tense but Dan wasn’t sure how to make him feel better. He knew nothing about horse riding, or at least very little despite Phil’s best efforts to educate him. Dan was pretty sure that Phil thought he was being subtle about it when they talked and he randomly slipped in a horse fact here and there. He wasn’t but Dan didn’t mind.

He liked hearing about Phil’s passions. And riding and horses remained a passion of his; Dan could tell by the way he spoke about it. Still, Phil looked slightly frightened now and Dan worried that he had pushed him into doing something he wasn’t comfortable with.

“Phil, you don’t-“

“Dan,” Phil interrupted and locked eyes with Dan. His gaze was so intense and Dan could do nothing but stare into his determined eyes. “I am doing this. We are doing this. Come on, let me show you how to get her ready.”

As Phil spoke, he moved to stand closer to Money and placed a hand on the side of her neck. Despite his hesitance, he looked very much in his element. Dan wasn’t sure if he had changed or not but he now noticed that Phil was wearing riding trousers – not the new ones he bought but a pair that looked well worn as well as tall leather boots. He looked good.

“Teach me your ways,” Dan said teasingly and bit down on the senpai that almost slipped out. He had learnt that they both liked anime but it might still be a bit of a stretch. It wouldn’t be soon because their light and comfortable banter and teasing grew naturally and they were becoming bolder with every day.

“Okay, let’s start with the most important bit then. Horses’ hooves need to be checked essentially every time they walk across any type of terrain that can cause something to get stuck in the shoe. Sometimes, it’ll be really obvious and your horse will become limp the moment something gets under their hoof but occasionally it’ll only bother them over time. So always start with checking the hooves, so you don’t forget to do it later,” Phil explained and moved so he was standing parallel with Money at her shoulder but with his back turned to her face.

He simply leaned a little bit of his weight into her shoulder and she automatically lifted her leg for him to hold and check with the hoof pick. Dan was mildly impressed how the horse had seemed to just read his mind.

When Phil let go of the hoof and straightened out again, he just caught the astonished expression on Dan’s face before he managed to school it.

Phil let out a hearty laughter. “She knows the drill, even if I haven’t done this in a while. We’ve had her for fourteen years, so she knows us and what the signals mean. Both on the ground and when we are on the back of her, which is the reason I picked her out of all our horses. She’s the one I have the most history with.”

Dan nodded as if he understood but it was still not that easy for him to grasp. He could understand forming a close bond with your dog like that or maybe even your cat but the horses lived outside of the house. Obviously, people daily handled them but Dan was still lumping them into the category with cows and sheep and other farm animals and it was foreign to him how someone could have such a deep understanding.

It was intriguing.

When Phil told Dan to check her opposite front hoof, he tried to carefully mimic Phil’s movements and he felt a surge of pride when Money gracefully lifted her hoof to him just like she had done to Phil. Afterwards, Phil brushed her down and started to tack her up and Dan helped whenever he was asked to do something but mostly he just watched Phil.

If you asked Dan, you wouldn’t have been able to guess that Phil hadn’t tacked up a horse in over four months. His movements were fluent and with the exception of double-checking the placement of the saddle, he appeared entirely confident and at peace. It might just be running on years of practice and muscle memory but it was impressive to watch all the same.

However, the air of confidence seemed to evaporate the moment that Dan, Phil and Money were stood on the dressage course by the ascension stool. Once Phil had explained that it was better to mount the horse from a bit of height as to not pull the saddle unevenly or slightly hurt the horse’s back, he seemed like all the air just whooshed right out of him. Perhaps because he realised that there was nothing more to be done than mount the horse.

“Should I hold her?” Dan offered quietly, because it felt as if a loud voice would startle and spook Phil rather than the horse. Dan was willing to face his own fear and stand by Money’s head, even if Phil had just moments ago shown Dan her flat but no less intimidating teeth.

“Okay,” Phil said hesitantly. Then he nodded, seemingly to himself, and got on top of the stool and reached out to tighten the reins a little.

The reins moved in Dan’s hand but he just let his fingers follow. Phil took a deep breath and Dan thought he might be shaking a little but he couldn’t be sure. Money let out a snort with caused Phil to startle a little.

But it only lasted a moment and then Phil was placing one foot in the stirrup and gracefully swinging his other leg over the horse’s back to securely land in the saddle. His eyes were closed as he sat there. Money did not seem to care or notice Phil’s moment because she pulled forward, ready to walk now that her rider was clearly on.

Dan kept hold of the rein and she stopped when she felt the pressure but not before Dan noticed just how strong she was. If she had wanted to pull through and ignore his pressure, she absolutely could have and he would just have been shoved aside.

He was reminded that horses were powerful animals that just chose to listen to humans because that’s what they had been taught. He gulped a little at the knowledge that he would soon be getting on the back of a horse as well.

But all his worries temporarily evaporated when he glanced up to see Phil had opened his eyes and they looked misty like a single tear might spill from his eye at any moment. Dan’s breath caught and he wasn’t sure if he had ever seen anything more beautiful.

Money let out another snort that made Dan jump because he had been too caught up in watching Phil’s reaction. As Phil did still not move, Money decided to take another step forward unprompted and this time Dan was barely holding onto the reins, as his grip had gone slack as his focus has been diverged.

Dan stepped aside as Money started walking, energetic but it didn’t look like she was about to move up to another gait.

Phil let out a little laugh and moved his head back to look at Dan.

“I should have warned you. She’s always had a bit of impatience in her. I thought we were past her moving without my instructions, but clearly this little mare has forgotten who is the boss.”

Phil was talking so endearingly and Dan had trouble connecting him to the Phil who had mounted Money with shaking hands just moments ago.

“That’s okay,” Dan said dismissively as he allowed himself to watch the impressive sight of Phil on a horse.

Phil was sitting up straighter, dipping his heels down in the stirrups and gathering up the reins while he had been talking. He didn’t even seem to notice that he was correcting his position, or at least Dan assumed that was what he was doing.

Money walked around the course once and Phil looked more at ease with each of her steps. He had tightened the hold of the reins a bit but they were still a bit of slack between the horse’s mouth and Phil’s hands. Dan caught a little concentration frown on Phil’s face as the two of them moved past where he had taken residence just outside of the course.

Money let out yet another snort and it caused Phil to smile and reach down to gently and briefly stroke his hand down her neck, while still holding the rein.

Dan didn’t know why snorting prompted that reaction and he didn’t try to curb his curiosity. He asked instead.

“Why did you smile at that?”

Dan’s question caused Phil’s smile to widen.

“Because she’s talking to me, in her own way. It’s been a while since I’ve heard that sound like this.”

Phil continued to ride around the course for over ten minutes. Dan had been watching intently at first but now he felt his focus start to slip. Phil looked great on horseback and the sun was shining down on them brightly. Dan knew that getting back in the saddle had been a big hurdle for Phil but he still couldn’t help feeling a little bored at seeing Phil and Money walk in circles, again and again.

It wasn’t very entertaining in the long haul.

“How long to you want to keep going?” Dan asked as Phil passed him again.

“Huh?” Phil said and looked sideways to where Dan was stood shifting his weight from foot to foot. “How long have I been on?”

“Almost fifteen minutes,” Dan said shyly. He didn’t want to seem like he was rushing Phil.

“Bored?” Phil asked teasingly.

Dan tried to reply but he mostly just sputtered and formed no coherent words.

“Dan, it’s okay,” Phil said to reassure him while sporting a big smile. “I lost track of time. I hadn’t planned to just ride around. But it feels comfortable. Like… coming home. As long as I don’t think about it too much,” Phil said and as he said that an uncomfortable expression flashed across his face.

“Then don’t think, just ride,” Dan advised, even if he wasn’t sure what he was talking about. He was just trying to be supportive and not thinking about how he would have to mount a horse himself afterwards.

“You’re right,” Phil said and tightened up the reins, so that Money raised her head from the more relaxed position and seemed to curl her neck together. Her gait shortened and her ears tipped forward in what Dan assumed to be alertness.

Phil had been trying to teach him how to read a horse’s mood based on how they moved their ears but it wasn’t still entirely natural to Dan.

Dan had thought that Phil making Money walk more collected meant he was about to stop and jump off her but instead the horse moved forward in trot. Phil started moving up and down in the saddle, his movement matching the way the horse beneath him moved.

Dan might have been bored just before, but now he felt his fascination ignited anew as he saw an animal that looked a very different horse move across the course as Phil had shortened the reins and moved up in tempo.

Now Money’s movements were almost elegant, her hooves flying over the sand beneath them and her head beautifully held so that her forehead from the side was completely vertical. Phil moved up and down and he looked entirely in control of every muscle in his own body but also of every muscle in the horse’s body. Dan wasn’t sure if that was even possible but it looked like they moved as one.

Phil only did a couple of laps around the course before instructing Money to halt, which she did perfect and she even readjusted her legs so they were completely parallel and Dan barely caught the slight movement of Phil’s foot in the stirrup to elicit the reaction.

Phil’s cheeks looked flushed and he looked so happy. His smile was entirely contagious. Dan noticed how his chest moved, his breathing obviously quickened by the exercise.

If Phil kept insisting he wasn’t a horse rider, then he was lying to himself.

Phil swung down from Money’s back, landing a little clumsily after coming down from the height of Money’s back. Dan gulped. He had agreed to ride if Phil did. He would have to stand by his word but he suddenly did not feel like getting on.

Money pulled impatiently on the reins as soon as Phil was off her. He reached over to stroke her neck and a small smile stayed on his lips as the glaze in his eyes softened.

“You did so well, dragging this sack of potatoes around in this heat,” Phil said in a soft voice. He let his hand stay on the side of Money’s neck and tightened the reins for just a moment but it was enough that Money seemed to give up any attempt to walk away. “Ready to get on?”

“Err… Does it have to be her?” Dan asked a little nervously.

“What? You don’t like her?” Phil asked and he looked shocked and a ready to jump to his horse’s defence immediately.

“No!” Dan rushed to say. “I do. She’s a nice horse. I like her a lot. It’s just… she’s very tall.”

“She’s actually the smallest riding horse we have on the premises. Well, unless you count…”

Phil trailed off and seemed lost in his head for a moment but then his eyes lit up and it was easy for Dan to figure out that Phil had an idea. He just wasn’t sure what that idea entailed.

“I guess we could make the transition a bit easier. I know an old boy who could help you out,” Phil said excitedly and Dan had never seen him this animated before.

He had also not stopped smiling since he got off Money. It was very contagious and Dan kept returning Phil’s smiles.

“Why don’t you walk Money around the course a couple of times, just to make sure she is cooled off. She hardly did any exercise, so it won’t take much,” Phil said and handed off Money’s reins to Dan.

Dan held onto them in a bit of awe, mixed in with fear. How was Phil just handing over the reins like that? Dan wasn’t qualified to handle a horse at all! Even if Phil made it sound like it was as easy as walking a dog.

A huge massive dog that was stronger than Dan.

Phil seemed to realise his mistake as he caught Dan’s expression and he started to reach out to take back the reins and an apology was clearly on the tip of his tongue but Dan moved the reins out of Phil’s reach.

If Phil could get into the saddle after his fall and look so happy, then Dan could walk a horse around the course. Marianne still occasionally joked that it would be nice if he helped with talking the horses back and forth from their box stalls and the paddocks. It didn’t seem like something that would require a lot of experience.

Maybe it was just like walking a dog. Hopefully.

“Dan, you know you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. I wouldn’t hold it against you,” Phil said sincerely.

Dan wasn’t sure why but Phil’s words made his chest tighten and he knew if they kept talking about this he might actually start to feel like crying. He could not let that happen. It was just… Phil was so kind and reassuring, even if it was about horse riding and not questioning university.

Dan had a feeling Phil would be kind and reassuring about that too, unlike Dan’s parents who would likely heavily encourage him to stick it out no matter what.

“I’ve got this, Phil,” Dan said and put his hand on the side of Money’s neck like he had seen Phil do moments before. Money responded by turning her head towards him and give him a nudge that forced him to take a step back.

Phil looked like he was choking down laughter.

“Horses are sweethearts, right?” Dan said teasingly and threw Phil’s words back at him.

“They are,” Phil said, laughter bubbling just under his words. “And she will behave. You will be nice to Dan, Money,” Phil added and pointed straight at his horse.

Walking around with Money alone after Phil walked off proved to be a pleasant experience. She didn’t pull on the loose rein that had been flipped over her head and she stayed at Dan’s side. At one point, Dan stopped and immediately without any pull on the rein, Money came to a halt too. Dan tried shortening his steps and then later extending them and Money followed suit next to him. What a peculiar horse, or were all horses like this?

Phil reappeared with the brown pair of jodhpurs and a different riding helmet. He had taken his own off and it had resulted in probably the cutest hat hair that Dan had ever seen. Phil’s short black hair was sticking up on its own accord and lifting out of his face.

“Why don’t you go get changed and I’ll take care of Money. Just come back here and I’ll have your noble steed ready for you when you return,” Phil said.

Dan had an idea of what Phil had planned for him, which made the noble steed comment even funnier. Dan shook his head as fondness swelled in his chest.

It was easier to get into the riding trousers the second time around or maybe Dan was just adjusting to them. They were still very tight but they were nowhere near as uncomfortable as Dan had initially thought they would be. And like Phil had observed, they were not that different from Dan’s skinny jeans.

He put on the helmet too and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror in his little flat above the stables, where he had retreated to get dressed. He had put the new boots on as well again because while they didn’t move up to cover his calves, Phil had noted that they were made to be ridden in as well. Dan thought he looked ridiculous but he would endure it for Phil and he was gradually warming up to those strange horses too.

He found Phil on the dressage course walking around with a significantly smaller horse. Dan recognised it as the one that walked together with the stallion on the paddock and had a box stall located next to it. He had assumed it might be the childhood pony that Phil had spoken of before but Dan hadn’t imagined that Phil would actually expect him to ride it, even if he had asked for something shorter.

“Dan, meet Mr Bogart,” Phil proudly introduced. “He’s probably more suited for a beginner than Moneypenny. And I even dug out our old cub saddle, so you have a handle to hold onto if you need it.”

Dan felt heat rise in his cheeks. Instinctively, he felt like Phil was treating him like a child, which he didn’t appreciate one bit. It actually stung a little.

But Phil didn’t look mean – Dan doubted that man had a mean bone in his entire body.

“Phil, I know what I said but that is ridiculous. Isn’t Bogart super old? Also, my legs would be almost touching the ground if I sat on him.”

“You’re exaggerating, Dan. And I did consider that, which is why I dug out the old pony pad. I doubt you would be able to comfortably fit in Bogart’s normal small saddle but this way you can still have the feel of the stirrups, even if you do not get a lot of support from this flat saddle imitation. And… Bogart was my first pony. He has a special place in my heart and he is very kind to beginners. I promise, it’ll be fine and he is perfectly capable of carrying your weight if you’re worried about that.”

Dan eyed the white pony. He was probably only about 30 centimetres shorter than Moneypenny but it seemed like a whole lot. It might also be the almost charming look of his face. His muzzle was pink and it looked like he was smiling as he just stood there watching Dan. His back was curving down slightly, probably due to his age but he looked perfectly healthy and Phil certainly knew more about horses than Dan did.

If he said it was okay, then it was okay.

Dan still felt a bit like he was a child needing a hand when he looked at the saddle thing with the clear handle to hold onto.

“Are you still in, Dan?” Phil asked.

No judgement detected in his voice at all. He would truly not mind if Dan backed out.

But Dan had been backing out of so many things lately. Or at least, he constantly felt like he was saying no to things because he was afraid of how it would turn out. He used to jump into scary things much easier when he was younger and he tried to channel that part of his youth.

“No, I’m good,” Dan confirmed and walked onto the course.

“Let’s start with making sure that the stirrups are the right length for you,” Phil said. “So we pull them down and here if you extend your arm so that the bottom of the stirrup reaches your armpit when you touch your fingertips where it’s fastened on the saddle, then that could be the approximate length that you’ll need.”

“Really?” Dan asked sceptically. How would measuring his arm’s length determine how long his legs would be? Were humans that symmetrically built?

“Just trust me,” Phil asked.

When Phil said that, it dawned on Dan that he did. He really did. He had only known Phil for a couple of weeks but he did trust him. A whole lot. More than he had realised until he thought about it. He was getting on a horse for Phil! Well, a pony but apparently that distinction between those two names was the height of the animal.

“Okay, so you just have to make sure to start with the correct leg, so that you don’t accidentally end up sitting backwards,” Phil instructed.

The way he said it…

“Has that ever happened to you, Phil?” Dan asked mirth barely contained.

Phil looked embarrassed for a second but it quickly melted away. “Shut up, I wasn’t that old. Now, it’s a good idea to train yourself to mount from both sides of the horse to equal out the strain you put on the leather strips of the stirrups. A lot of beginners are taught to always mount from the left side. That’s because back in the day, soldiers had to mount from the left because that was the side their sword was placed on for them to reach with their right hand. If they mounted from the right, they risked sitting on their sword. It bled in to a lot of handling of horses in general, like how we always lead them from the left too.”

Dan absorbed yet another titbit of information and he wondered how Phil probably had so many different small anecdotes. Dan was honoured that Phil was inviting him into the horse world, even if he was still sceptical.

He placed his foot, the correct foot, in the stirrup and moved to swing up over Bogart’s back. It was not as easy as it had seemed when Phil had done it. Dan almost missed the cub saddle entirely and barely managed to catch himself before he tumbled over Bogart’s back. It was not as easy as it looked when an experience person did it.

He tried to sit up straighter, like he had seen Phil do and he started to gather up the reins too, determinedly missing the extra support element added to the front of the cub saddle. Dan was surprised to feel that his legs felt comfortable and the stirrups appeared to be the correct length. So perhaps Phil’s arm length trick wasn’t entirely bogus.

“Stop smirking. I can hear it,” Dan called to Phil when he finished correcting the way his feet fit in the stirrups.

He was actually on horseback. He never thought he would do this.

Unlike Moneypenny, Bogart remained entirely still as Dan got used to sitting across his back. His ears tipped back and forth like he was listening back to Dan for a moment before turning his attention forward.

Horses looked a lot different when you were staring down their neck and ears from this angle instead of seeing them from the ground. A little less scary, which Dan found comforting.

“Ready to move?” Phil asked carefully as he walked around to stand directly at Bogart’s shoulder but he was facing towards Dan rather than the pony’s face.

Dan managed a tight nod.

Phil reached out to place a hand on Dan’s knee, which was probably meant to be comforting and encouraging but the touch just made Dan so distracted that he hardly caught that Phil spoke simultaneously.

“Dan?”

“Huh?”

Phil narrowed his eyes a little but he was still smiling, like he could see right through Dan.

“Move your calves closer to Bogart’s flanks, and if necessary touch him with your heels a little. He’ll know that it means you want him to move forward. If you want to pause him, you focus pulling your weight back just slightly and squeeze with your thighs momentarily and you can also hold onto the rein a little for a moment. Give it a go,” Phil said encouragingly and stepped away from Bogart’s side.

Dan moved his heels and the lower part of his legs carefully but nothing happened.

“You can do it a little more firmly. He isn’t made of glass. He needs to actually feel the command,” Phil said and it sounded like he found Dan’s soft instructions funny, but in a soft way. “Horses don’t like uncertainty.”

Dan did it a little more determinately and Bogart moved forward to a walk without a problem. Dan felt the movement under him and tried to take in how it felt. It was a little odd and he was glad that the tempo wasn’t too fast at the moment because he did sway back and forth a little. It helped when he tried to imitate how he had seen Phil position himself.

Once he had gone two rounds of the course, he tried to do as Phil has said to stop the pony. Bogart stopped obediently and Dan was in awe that such a strong and powerful animal would be willing to obey such small and almost hidden instructions.

He looked over at Phil with a big smile. Riding was quite something.

Dan had a feeling this wouldn’t be the last time he would find himself on horseback. He likewise thought that Phil might attempt it more over the summer as well, if the permanent smile on his face was any true indication of how much he had missed riding.

Phil had gotten a taste of what he had given up and Dan was just getting introduced to the flavour. They could help each other navigate this new craving.

Chapter Text

Phil did not get back on horseback week that followed but he did managed to get Dan on one every other day. He had a feeling that Dan was mostly humouring him, as Phil couldn’t bring himself to put his foot in the stirrup again.

He would much rather focus on teaching Dan to ride. It had mostly been rides on Mr Bogart, gradually allowing Dan to get a feel for riding and adding on the two faster gaits, trot and canter one by one. Seeing Dan attempt to keep his balance while Bogart’s legs thundered on under him was quite the sight. The very first time he had tried canter, Dan had instinctively gripped onto the handle of the cub saddle to steady himself. Phil saw it and he had teased him about it in a good-natured way. Dan had playfully told him to fuck off.

Phil had trouble peeling the smile from his face after that.

They were spending more time together and with every passing day, Phil could feel the friendship grow. Phil had a lot of friends from university but none of them were quite like Dan. The better they got to know each other, the more the different parts of them just seemed to slot together. It was easy and comfortable and Phil was having a great time hanging out with Dan.

The riding lessons were a good excuse and Phil could help but delight when he made Dan laugh or look at him with that soft gaze in his eyes.

But just because the riding lessons might have been partly an excuse to spend time together, Phil noticed that Dan was picking up on it quite quickly. He was trying very hard and Phil appreciated it.

He was living a little vicariously through Dan’s riding and seeing him discover the joy of it.

Yesterday, he had convinced Dan to get on Moneypenny instead of Bogart but Phil had kept a leading rein attached her bid, so that he could help from the ground if it was needed. But Money had been on her best behaviour. Her ears had switched from focusing on Phil at the centre of the course or flipping back to listen to Dan.

It was calm and tranquil and it was lighting a fire inside of Phil.

It burned more and more with each passing day that he allowed himself to be so close to what he wanted while not giving in. The fear was still there. It hadn’t magically disappeared because he had a good ride a week ago.

All that time he was on top of Moneypenny himself, he had kept an iron grip on his emotions and focused only on her and radiating positive vibes. Horses were extremely sensitive to their rider’s mood and if Phil was scared, Money would have sensed and instantly started tensing and trying to locate the threat that was making her human freak out.

Phil had managed to keep himself in check – just barely – but that one ride would have to do. It was to prove to himself that he could still do it but he wasn’t a horse rider anymore. It wasn’t supposed to be like that.

He wasn’t supposed to have to fight with his own brain every step of the way to accomplish something that had once provided him with a sanctuary from his thoughts. Usually, when he would go out here and start training with a horse, all the other thoughts and worries would wash away and he would only focus on how the two of them moved.

The one time after his fall was to show that he could do it. But two times would be the start of a pattern. He didn’t want that and he most certainly didn’t want Martyn to know that he had been back on horseback because he would instantly start pestering Phil more than he was already doing.

It was a secret.

Dan had kept it.

Phil hadn’t actually doubted that for one second. He had a good sense of what type of person that Dan was by now. Phil felt very drawn to him because Dan made everything feel a little easier. Like with riding dressage, Phil felt like talking to Dan washed away other thoughts and he captured all of Phil’s attention.

It was another Saturday, and Phil was wondering if he could persuade Dan to go riding two days in a row. Dan had looked a bit ridiculous on top of Mr Bogart but now that he had graduated to a bigger horse, Phil wanted to teach him all the things. He was determined not to make himself wary since he knew how sensitive Money could be.

Nothing would go wrong. Dan would be fine. It was okay.

A knock sounded on the door that demanded Phil’s focus.

“Phil?” called Cornelia on the other side of the door.

Phil quickly jumped out of his bed before he told her to come in. He was still in his pyjamas but Cornelia was used to that. Even if her and Martyn had a flat in Manchester, they would often sleep over in Martyn’s old room here for convenience with the horses and to take advantage of Martyn and Phil’s mother’s cooking.

Still, it was a bit unusual for Cornelia to come knocking on Phil’s door.

At his request, she swung the door open and Phil noticed that she had already changed into her competition clothes. She was wearing the black pullover pants to preserve the colour of her competition jodhpurs and she was wearing a white shirt with her lucky pin in the collar.

“Hi? Is everything okay?” Phil questioned.

Cornelia shot him a sheepish grin and Phil had the distinct feeling that he was about to get dragged into something.

She had come by seven years ago to try out the two four year olds they had at the time. Instantly, Martyn had been smitten by her and it had turned out to be mutual. She ended up buying Hermes and a year later she moved him and her other horse Adidas to stay here when she moved in with Martyn. The two of them had not married yet and based on Cornelia’s stance on marriage they might never do it but she felt like a sister to Phil regardless of that fact. It had been a long time and he knew she was up to something.

“Phiiii…”

“Spit it out, Dahlgren. I’m not falling for those puppy eyes. I’m not Martyn.”

Cornelia raised her left eyebrow.

“I bet that’s not true, if the eyes were brown,” she said but before Phil could stop to ask her what she meant, she swiftly moved on. “I need your help. I need you to act as my groom for the competition today. Martyn just got a call from a prestigious dressage rider from German who spotted the for sale ad for our four year olds. He really wants to try Elvis and he’s only here on holiday, and he’s leaving tonight. Martyn agreed to show him Elvis in a couple of hours and Marianne is at that wedding today. I don’t have anyone else. So Phiiiil.”

She was still pouting and putting on her puppy eyes but Phil knew it was to be overdramatic and make him crack a smile rather than being mad. It was working like a charm, as it always did. She was endearing and Phil had always liked her but he still didn’t feel comfortable with her request.

One thing was riding in secret but another was going out to competition and feeling that sense of anticipation, nerves and jittery horses. Phil had not been to any competitions since he had fallen from Black Paladin in February. New horses coming together in a new place was just a recipe for disaster.

Phil didn’t want any part of that. Nervous riders would make nervous horses and nervous horses could mean injuries.

“What about my parents? Can’t they help out?”

“They are coming to watch, like usual, but you and I both know that they get too distracted with shop talk to actually help me with the horses. And I might be able to handle just one of the horses on my own but I’m bringing both and I will have to have help making sure Hermes is being walked warm while I’m jumping Adidas. You know the drill, Phil. You used to help out Martyn and me all the time. It’ll be like the good old days. I promise, you won’t have to do much.”

Phil could recall the jumping competitions all too vividly. When Cornelia had first come into his life, young and bright, he had been fascinated how she would move her horse through a jumping course but it had always been with his heart in his throat whenever her horse leapt off the ground.

So much could go wrong in jumping. If either the rider or the horse misjudged the distance just a little, it could spell disaster. It would take so damn little and both horse and rider could come tumbling down and get hurt.

It was the reason Phil had always preferred dressage, even if he couldn’t deny the rush he usually got on the rare occasions that he had allowed himself to practice jumps.

“Why don’t you bring Dan along as your helper?” Cornelia suggested when Phil remained quiet. “I’ve seen how you’re teaching him to ride and it looks like the two of you are having fun together. Another pair of hands is always appreciated.”

“Dan’s scared of horses,” Phil blurted out without meaning.

Phil was fairly certain that it was still true; even if he had seen Dan grow a lot more confident each time he got in the saddle. He was still a bit nervous to ride and he didn’t quite understand how horses behaved yet. The unknown part was still scaring him.

“Oh, is he?” Cornelia asked. “Well, I think you’ll find that it’s healthy to face your fears. And Dan would appear to agree since he has allowed you to drag him on horseback four times already. I’ll see you by the trailer in half an hour then. We’ve almost go the boys ready to go.”

Phil wasn’t sure when he had agreed but Cornelia’s tone had not left any room for argument.

She turned to walk away but paused and turned back and leaned against the doorframe and the teasing attitude melted away and she turned serious for a beat.

“Thank you, Phil. Really. You’re saving my butt. I appreciate it.”

Phil nodded back at her. Now he could hardly argue but the knowledge that Cornelia seemed so sure that Dan would come if Phil asked was taking up the forefront of his mind.

He got dressed in what had used to be his usual riding clothes. The old jodhpurs that he had dug out of the back of the closet fit as nicely as they had when he had been sitting on horseback a week ago. He had considered wearing the new pair that he had bought but there was something comforting about wearing his old stuff; the pair that Phil had haphazardly tossed at Martyn when he had kept pestering him about getting back on the horse months ago.

He had said he would never ride again in a fit of rage.

It had felt real at the time. It had felt real for the months that followed.

But then Dan had strolled right into his life and Phil felt the spark reignited. He wasn’t sure if he would be able to put the fire out again. It had hurt to suffocate it and Phil wasn’t sure if he wanted to inflict that kind of pain on himself all over again.

Dan was diligently mucking out the box stalls, so it was easy for Phil to find him. During the last week, Phil had taken to helping out with mucking out, despite Dan getting paid to do so as his primary job. It wasn’t fun work but it felt good to mindlessly working his muscles a little and he got to talk to Dan, which made the manual labour well worth it.

“Hello Phil,” Dan said with a big smile as he saw Phil approach but then his smile dropped. “Are you okay? The last time you came in with that expression you wanted to go…”

Dan caught himself before he said it and he did a quick sweep of the stable before adding it in a whisper: “riding.”

Phil found it so considerate and his heart melted a little.

“No, not today. I… Well, actually, it’s Cornelia. I mean- We… you and me are helping- Only if you want, of course- We’re helping with-“

“Phil, take a breath and collect your thoughts,” Dan instructed as he abandoned the wheelbarrow in the box stall and walked out to join Phil. “What are we doing?”

“Martyn has to stay here to show one of our horses for sale, so he can’t go as Cornelia’s groom to her competition. She asked us to help her instead. If you want to.”

“A competition? How are we helping? What would we have to do? I only went riding last week for the first time and I doubt I can be of much help.”

“We’ll just have to look after Hermes and Adidas while she walking the jumping course and then we have to walk Hermes while she’s warming up and competing with Adidas. We have to switch horses mid-way through and then walk Adidas to cool him down. Cornelia is a complete pro so she can do a lot of it herself but it’s always good to have another pair of hands. And you’ll get to see the competition – a lot of people think jumping is more entertaining to watch than dressage.”

“What do you think?” Dan asked and pinned Phil down with a look.

Phil had not expected Dan to ask for his opinion.

“Err… I prefer to watch dressage. Jumping scares me a little because they are moving through the course fast to win. In dressage, it’s all about the small adjustments and how the horse moves but it takes a trained eye to be able to pick up on the differences between one horse and another doing the same exercises. However, there’s a level of subjectivity to dressage because the judge will, subconsciously or deliberately, grant point based on how they like the look of the equipage. It’s easier to distinguish with the scoring in show jumping. But it takes just as much skill to ride either or. I just have a preference, I suppose.”

Phil didn’t even catch himself ranting. It was just always so damn easy to talk to Dan that he kept running his mouth off. But Dan hadn’t run off yet and it seemed like he didn’t mind listening to Phil at all, quite the opposite in fact.

“I’d love to help, if you just tell me what to do.”

Phil instantly felt like his spirits were lifted a little higher. Everything would be easier with Dan next to him for support, even if Phil would have to take the lead in handling the horses because of his experience. With Dan next to him, he felt like he could do almost anything.

Shortly after, Dan and Phil walked over to the trailer that Martyn was parking out front for an easy loading of the horses. Martyn jumped down from the Jeep and he was smiling knowingly when Phil approached.

“She roped you into it, I see,” Martyn teased. “Perhaps, I should let her be the persuasive one.”

“Don’t joke about that. It’s unbecoming,” Phil said, half caught between teasing his brother and being pissed at him. “Cornelia needed help. We’re just helping her,” Phil added and pointed to himself and Dan.

The we rolled off Phil’s tongue easily, like it had always belonged there.

“Of course. How is the horse riding going?” Martyn asked and turned away from Phil, so that his question was clearly directed at Dan.

Dan shuffled his feet a little and for the briefest moment he glanced at Phil for reassurance.

“It’s fun. It’s also difficult but Phil is a great teacher,” Dan said.

“I’m glad to hear it. Remind my brother how fun it can be, would you?” Martyn said and raised an eyebrow in Phil’s direction.

What was it with Martyn and Cornelia and their eyebrows today? It was getting on Phil’s nerves a little.

Before anyone said anything else, Phil heard the familiar click-clack of horse hooves and Cornelia walked out of the stable with Hermes on one side and Adidas on the other. With her two red horses and her own red locks it was hardly surprising that people at jumping competitions had taken to calling her Red Lighting as she often managed to snatch one of the rosettes with her speedy rounds.

She walked Hermes and Adidas right up to the open trailer, swung the robes around their next and told them to walk in. They both did it like they hadn’t done anything else their entire life. They were completely chill as she put the beam down behind each of their butts. They were used to competitions and none of them had ever been allowed to make a fuss about walking into the trailer.

Cornelia was a no-bullshit kind of horse trainer, which worked out very well since horses preferred clear instructions. She trained most of the young horses to walk into trailers and they were all very good at it by the time they left their birth home. Only a couple of horses from before Cornelia’s time as fixed feature here, like Moneypenny and Black Paladin, ever kicked up a fuss when having to be transported.

“Ready, boys?” she asked Dan and Phil, who both nodded.

“Good luck, my love,” Martyn said and leaned in to press a kiss to her cheek. “You and your red boys will do great. I’m sorry I can’t be there to see it.”

“Just focus on showing Elvis to the potential buyer. We’ll be fine.”

The drive to the stable where the competition was held only took about half an hour. Dan seemed very fascinated with the little hand-held screen, which showed a life feed of the horses back in the trailer. Cornelia explained that they had bought it to be able to see if something went wrong with the horses during the drive.

Arriving at the grounds, Phil felt the tension seep into him instantly. Riders, grooms and horses were milling around like they always did at the bigger and busy competitions. Today, Cornelia was competing in a local cup for the district that you had to qualify for with other competitions throughout the first half of the season. Cornelia had done so well that she had qualified with both her horses. Thirty equipages would be competing for the title but the organisers had some other jumping classes too.

Dan seemed a little nervous but otherwise indifferent to the sight that met them. Cornelia, however, was very visibly excited. She always enjoyed the competing aspect of the sport because it was an opportunity test herself and her horse’s abilities and show off what they could do after all those long training hours.

Cornelia parked on a paddock that had gotten temporarily assigned as a massive parking lot. They were just one trailer out of many.

“Okay, after I walk the course, I’ll get Adidas ready to ride and head to the warm up area. My trainer will meet me there, so I don’t need your help with that part. But if you tack up Hermes and start walking him around, so that I can come and switch out around 2 PM, then that would be perfect.”

“Understood,” Phil said and he easily slipped into his groom role.

Since both Martyn and Cornelia loved competing, through the years he had been the one helping from the ground to make everything work smoothly. It was especially important when they were taking the four year olds to their first competitions, usually in the spring. Phil knew that it hadn’t happened this year on account of Martyn’s injury and because Cornelia had to focus on her jumpers.

But it meant that they hadn’t been able to showcase the young horses that were for sale and thus they still had all three of them still in the stable. Phil knew it was the reason that Martyn had to take any opportunity to show a horse of to a potential buyer. They liked to sell of their horses when they were through with roughly the first year of riding education as that allowed them to focus the horses born the year after.

Cornelia disappeared to walk through the jumping route on foot along with the other riders but she was back soon after. She tacked up expertly and quickly and Adidas was completely cool. Phil offered to boost her up on Adidas and Cornelia happily accepted the assistance. Adidas was barely even glancing at the other horses around him. Cornelia had him for ten years and he was getting on in age at seventeen a little bit, so Phil knew that Cornelia would start looking for a new horse soon.

Cornelia turned half around to wave as them as Adidas kept walking forward calmly.

“Good luck,” both Dan and Phil called out, accidentally in unison.

Cornelia huffed out a laugh and then thanked them before turning around and facing forward and getting her game face on.

“She’s very chill,” Dan commented. “And her horses are so calm, even in all this noise.”

“Yeah,” Phil said and leaned over to put a hand on Hermes’ neck and stroke him. “She is a very calm person and thus she inspires that in her horses. And if they do try anything with her, she instantly puts them back in their place. She’s tough but fair and there’s no running around corners with her. It creates very good horses. But I just can’t do that, I’m too soft and easily influenced by a nice pair of brown eyes.”

Dan was quiet for a moment and Phil had the feeling he was about to say something but then he let out a little sigh and asked about the horse instead.

“Hermes was born at yours, right?”

“Yes,” Phil confirmed, moving down besides Hermes a little and now stroking his flank instead.

Dan moved closer and took Phil’s position by Hermes’ head and slowly ran his hand down the red gelding’s neck.

“He was one of my favourites. It was the first time we had chosen a stallion with a history of jumping competitions instead of dressage, just to mix things up a little. We got a very nice horse out of it. But he’s out of Gaia and like you might have noticed, I’m a little biased by her foals. The whole family is.”

“Moneypenny, Black Paladin and Hermes,” Dan listed. “You do sure keep a lot of hers.”

“Yeah,” Phil said with a little smile. “Expect Misty. She’s out of Sol but she’s sired by Black Paladin, so she’s still Gaia’s granddaughter. But if you find something that works, someone you love, why would you change it? Want to grab a brush? I know Cornelia did it at home but we have some time to kill.”

“Sure,” Dan agreed and went to the car and pulling out the case with all the supplies.

As they groomed and later tacked up Hermes, Phil noticed how much Dan had learnt in the span of just a week. He knew which type of brushes worked for different things and roughly where the equipment needed to be placed. He was picking up on all of it fast and Phil was impressed.

On the radio, they heard the announcer call Cornelia and Adidas’ name. Phil was secretly happy that he hadn’t been in the audience watching this but he knew that they would just have enough time to watch her ride Hermes after cooling Adidas down and tacking him off. Phil couldn’t escape that round but at least he didn’t have to watch Cornelia rush around the course twice.

A handful of minutes later, the announcer thanked Cornelia and announced her time. She had been fast and without any knockdowns. She was currently in second place but because of the way the listing was constructed the best riders would ride last, so she would likely be pushed from her spot but she still had another chance with Hermes and he was her best horse.

It took Cornelia a couple of minutes to get to the parking lot but she was one big smile as she handed off Adidas and took the reins of Hermes instead, who Dan and Phil had been walking around for the last fifteen minutes.

“Congratulations,” Dan said.

“Thank you, but I’ll probably get pushed from my position. It’s okay. I didn’t want to push Adidas too hard out there but Hermes is more agile and he loves speed as much as I do.”

“Oh, okay. Well, good luck again.”

“Thanks, Dan,” Cornelia said and pulled Hermes to a halt. “Phil, I’ll see you in the audience, right? You have enough time to cool down Adidas and you can just put him in the trailer and bring the screen to keep an eye on him.”

“Err…”

“Promise me that you’ll try to make it?”

Phil didn’t know how to say no to such a sincere request.

“We’ll be there,” Dan said on Phil’s behalf and Phil found that he didn’t mind it.

“Great,” she said and Hermes tried to pull forward again.

Hermes was almost tripping in his spot but he didn’t dare take an actual step while his rider was commanding him to stand still. But Phil could see how he was fired up and ready. Unlike Phil, he loved this atmosphere, probably because it always made his rider happy.

It didn’t take more than fifteen minutes to walk Adidas, wipe him down, give him treats and get him installed back into the trailer. He was happily munching on the hay when the announcer called for Cornelia and Hermes to get ready after the next rider.

Phil reluctantly and a little slowly closed up the trailer and went in to pick up the screen and lock the car. He turned to face Dan who had been so nice about this whole thing and helping out with little jobs all along the way.

“Come on, Phil. I know you say that horse jumping is scary but Cornelia would like you to watch her. And if I’ve learnt anything today, then it’s that Hermes is a solid horse. He didn’t even flinch when the other horses got spooked by the bumbling trailer and I’ve watched Cornelia ride before and she seems in perfect control.”

A small part of Phil’s brain, unhelpfully, supplied that there was no such thing as perfect control or a completely unflinching horse but he pushed it aside. Dan was saying things that Phil already knew but it was different hearing someone else say it.

It was a good different.

“You’re right,” Phil said.

“Wait, what was that?” Dan said, clearly teasing. “I don’t think I heard you.”

“I said you’re right,” Phil forced himself to repeat but then also took the chance to playfully shove Dan a little.

They made their way to the jumping course and Phil saw all the colourful jumps that a brown horse was currently clearing. It landed by one of the jumps on front of where Dan and Phil came to a stop and the audience erupted in claps. Both of them joined in and Phil watched as the other rider and Cornelia passed each other at the entrance.

She was on. Her last shot to get the title.

Her ride on Adidas was still highly placed at a fourth spot and Phil could see a lot of the other riders must have gotten a knockdown or several. Phil’s expertise had never been jumping but he had been on the sidelines when Cornelia competed often enough to know a little about it.

It was a difficult course and one jump in particular seemed to be extremely tricky. The last rider had knocked it down and helpers were walking in to assemble it again.

Phil could see why it was easy to knock it down. You could come at it from two possible angles, around another jump or going within it but that would cause you to have a very sharp angle and hardly more than two proper canter step before the horse would have to take off. Despite not having seen Cornelia’s ride on Adidas, he was certain that she had taken the slightly longer route to not push him too much. But judging by her time, she had still had a fast pace throughout it.

Hermes looked fired up and Cornelia was a mix of concentration and excitement. She let him canter in long languid movements around the edge of the jumps as the helpers fixed the jump. Then she rode him to the start position and awaited the signal. Hermes’ ears were turned back towards his rider and Phil knew she would be whispering encouragements to him.

The signal sounded and Phil jumped as Hermes took off. He gravitated towards Dan who was standing beside him and Phil hardly noticed how he gripped Dan’s sleeve and pulled his arm closer.

He was watching with every fibre of his being as Cornelia took on the first jump. His heart felt like it leapt along with her but she was in control and they landed flawlessly and quickly moved on.

Phil’s brain kept seeing potential places where it could go wrong, but Cornelia and Hermes was speed and grace all rolled into one and no one could stop them. As they neared the penultimate jump, the one where she would have to sacrifice a few seconds or risk a knockdown, Dan surprised Phil by moving the arm that Phil was still clutching onto. Phil was either about to apologise or complain but he did nothing as Dan moved to interlink his fingers with Phil and give him a little squeeze.

It startled Phil but he couldn’t take his eyes of Cornelia as he saw her go for the shortcut. If Hermes lost his footing in the narrow turn…

Dan squeezed Phil’s hand again and Phil forced himself to stop worrying. Cornelia and Hermes were flying over the jump but Hermes’ hooves came close enough to make the top beam wobbly a little in its place. Phil’s eyes stayed on Cornelia as she came towards them for the final jump, which they cleared with ease. Only then, Phil allowed himself to look at the difficult jump and it was still intact.

Cornelia had no knockdown and her time brought her to the top of the leader board by two whole seconds.

Dan and Phil cheered together and Phil wasn’t sure when they let their interlocked hands drop but it was soon compensated by an excited hug. Phil wasn’t sure how to feel but he was just so happy that Cornelia had made it through okay and then done so well on top of it.

There were still seven riders after Cornelia but five of them got a knockdown, one took the long way around and the only rider that took the shortcut and didn’t have a knockdown was half a second slower than Cornelia and Hermes.

Phil watched proudly as Cornelia and Hermes took to their victory round with the winning rosette proudly fastened to Hermes’ brindle. On a whim, Phil pulled out his iPhone and captured her victory on video. Martyn would have been sad to miss it but Phil was a little glad that something had come up that had prompted him and Dan to be here instead.

Dan had taken his hand to comfort him. They had hugged properly. And Phil felt as if his fear had been placated a little. Things could go wrong but most of the time they didn’t. If you let the possibility of hurt hold you back from doing something you loved, you were already losing, weren’t you?

Phil wasn’t sure but he had a feeling that this would be the summer that he figured it out, if he just got to keep Dan beside him.

Chapter Text

Dan had been riding every other day for two weeks now and he felt like he was finally starting to get a hang of it. His body had ached quite a bit after the first couple of times and he had felt like a complete dork on the horse after he had watched how elegantly Phil had moved Money around that first day.

Phil hadn’t said anything about getting back in the saddle again himself but Dan could see how he glanced behind him at the saddle as he walked out Money for Dan to ride. He wasn’t doing particularly well with hiding that longing in his eyes and the words to ask whether Phil didn’t want to jump on instead had been on the tip of Dan’s tongue numerous times. He had bit them back every single time because he didn’t want to pry or pressure Phil.

Phil hadn’t pressured Dan to ride – he had simply asked two days after Dan’s first ride if he fancied trying again. It had taken no convincing, as the prospect of getting to spend more time with Phil was plenty of incentive to Dan. They were becoming fast friends and Dan couldn’t recall that he had ever gotten on so well with anyone else.

Phil was something special and he fascinated Dan beyond measure.

When they had been at the jumping competition last week, Phil had been so hesitant about watching Cornelia ride but once he was at the side of the course, he hadn’t been able to take his eyes off her. He was watching her every move, undoubtedly seeing a lot of things that Dan’s inexperienced eye couldn’t catch.

He just saw a happy rider and her energetic horse run and jump around like they were having the time of their life. Phil on the other hand had grown more and more tense as the pair had moved through the collection of jumps and Dan had felt helpless with how to help him. Phil kept a tight hold of Dan’s sleeve the entire time and it had been on a whim that he had reached over to hold Phil’s hand.

Dan had felt a little awkward about it and he almost dropped the touch immediately as Phil didn’t even look at him. But he had risked a second squeeze and Phil had finally breathed out for the first time in over a minute and the tension over his shoulders lessened, even as his eyes were still targeting Cornelia and Hermes.

And then they had hugged for the first time ever and that had become a common occurrence whenever they saw each other around the stable or when they were going their separate ways. Dan loved it quite a lot and he was so thankful that it didn’t feel weird for two male friends to hug like that.

It was casual and nice and so much better than those half-arm hugs or bro-fists that so many dudes from university preferred. Hugs were a good thing and Dan loved he had a new friend in his life that he could hug without judgement.

The handholding hadn’t become part of their norm but that was okay, no matter how much Dan had initially enjoyed it.

Phil usually appeared with Money from the paddocks just after Dan had finished dumping the content of the last wheelbarrow of the day. The system had formed accidentally, but Phil always seemed to know just about when Dan would have finished with his work. However, today Phil was nowhere to be found and Dan walked around to check and confirm that Money was still standing out on the field in the summer heat.

She looked up when he approached the fence but didn’t make a move to go near him. Dan looked over the rest of the horses beside her and he recognised Cornelia’s two jumpers Hermes and Adidas and the grey mare Misty and then five other horses that he couldn’t remember the names of. He was pretty sure that Phil had mentioned them before as he explained the four and three year olds walked alongside the other riding horses.

Dan wondered if the time had just gotten away from Phil or if they were breaking their riding every other day agreement. It wasn’t really so much an agreement as an unofficial pattern that had just formed because Phil appeared and asked if Dan wanted to go riding.

He was warming up to the horses, Money in particular as she was always the one he rode around the course. He also had a soft spot for the foals out back because animal babies in general were the cutest things ever, even if these particular babies had somewhat scary mothers protecting them. Phil kept assuring Dan that the mares wouldn’t hurt him as long as he paid attention to them first but he wasn’t entirely convinced.

Stood in the middle of the courtyard, debating whether or not he should just go back to his room since there was no sign of Phil, Marianne walked past him.

“You done for today?” she asked.

“I did all the jobs you told me to do,” Dan replied.

He had quickly learnt that simply answering yes would prompt Marianne to find another type of job for him, like cleaning the riding equipment or something. It wasn’t that he minded but he definitely preferred to spend his time on something else other than more work.

“Good,” she said and smiled at him. “But why are you standing here then?”

“Err…” Dan uttered. “I’m just waiting for Phil, I guess. We usually ride around this time but he hasn’t shown up yet.”

“He’s probably just caught up in something. Why don’t you go knock on his door? It’s the first one on the left on the first floor. But I should warn you, it’s very hot to ride right now. You should wait until the afternoon instead.”

“Oh, right. Yeah, maybe that’s why he isn’t here.”

“Dan, you can go ask him,” Marianne said and she had a knowing tone, like she was picking up on Dan’s hesitance to walk into the house without it being dinnertime. “None of the Lesters will mind.”

Her words relieved his worries a little and he gave her a nod before promptly turning on his heels and walking up towards the house before he lost his nerve. He knocked on the door slightly just to be polite but he received no answer from the other side. Dan debated just turning around and going back to his little flat above the stable but he would likely run into Marianne on the way and he didn’t want her to think that he was a coward.

So he carefully opened the door, and then called out once more. Again he didn’t get a reply. He pulled off his shoes and placed them on the tray next to the door like he usually did in the evenings when he came over for dinner but then instead of going into the kitchen, he walked up the stairs.

Every step creaked as he walked and he had the anxious feeling that any second someone would shout at him in surprise when they found him in their house. Marianne was probably right and the Lesters had been nothing but lovely so far but Dan just knew how much he would hate to have people come into his home uninvited.

He wasn’t a stranger but he was technically their employee and while he might have made friends with Phil, Dan still wasn’t sure if they were close enough that he could just walk into his house and go directly to his room.

Dan desperately wanted that kind of friendship. He had always envied it when others would simply walk into a friend’s house like they owned it because they had spent so much time in it and with the whole family. It was a comforting thought and Dan had almost given up finding someone like that himself.

He had always been too awkward or his good friends would have at least one better friend, which meant that he was never the first choice. He wanted to be someone’s first choice.

His aforementioned awkwardness was also the reason he found himself stood outside what he hoped to be Phil’s door but he was slightly to afraid to knock on it. What if he hadn’t heard Marianne correctly? What if Phil didn’t like that Dan had just strolled right into his house and he was knocking on Phil’s bedroom’s door?

Phil’s bedroom.

As they were growing closer as friends, Dan had tried to submerge his growing crush on Phil. He had been somewhat successful but still the notion of Phil and his bed just on the other side of the door, made Dan’s thoughts run off in a particular direction.

It wasn’t his fault, really. Phil was very pretty and such a wonderful person.

Before he made this even more awkward and to stop the thoughts forming in his head, he forced himself to knock on the door.

“Who is it?” Phil’s voice called out.

“It’s Dan,” Dan said and almost instantly he heard a big crash like something had been knocked over. “Phil? Are you okay?” he asked worriedly but he didn’t dare to open the door.

Two seconds later, Phil flung open the door and Dan was greeted with the sight of a somewhat rumbled looking Phil.

Phil’s hair was sticking out in different directions and he was wearing glasses that Dan had never seen before and a grey T-shirt that hung loosely on his shoulder and made him appear smaller. He was also in very yellow pyjama pants that had emojis on them, which was oddly adorable even if they were ugly as hell. Dan realised he had accidentally given Phil a once-over in his pyjamas. Dan promptly snapped his eyes back to Phil’s face where he took note of how nicely the glasses framed Phil’s face.

His mind must have been lacking a bit of filter as he blurted out: “I like your glasses.”

Dan was just about to smack himself in the face for being awkward when Phil broke into a big smile.

“Thank you,” Phil replied sincerely and reached up to adjust them a little. “Sorry, if I scared you, I accidentally knocked over the lamp when you knocked,” Phil explained and pointed behind him to the lamp lying awkwardly next bedside table.

“Then I think I’m the one who should apologise for scaring you with my knocking,” Dan said a guiltily as he subtly tried to take in Phil’s room.

It was bright colours and had trinkets on every shelf and windowsill. It looked nice. It looked like Phil. It made Dan feel like his monochrome minimalistic style could use some colour and trinkets.

“No, I just didn’t expect you to knock on my door. It’s totally fine. You can come by any time you want. Speaking of time, what’s the time?” Phil asked while he walked over to grab his phone. “Wait! I’m late. Sorry, Dan! I didn’t realise. If you just let me get dressed I can be right with you and we can go riding. Well, you can go riding.”

“It’s fine, Phil. I actually just talked to Marianne and she recommended that we wait until later to ride, as it’s so hot outside.”

“Oh, she’s probably right,” Phil said and then looked a little lost. “Do you just want to hang out until the early afternoon then? We can saddle Money with just enough time for you to ride before dinner instead? I wouldn’t want you missing out on your lessons. If you still enjoy them, that is?” Phil asked with a hopeful note in his voice that also let a bit of insecurity shine through.

“I do,” Dan said without hesitation.

The riding lessons with Phil were always fun, even if they were also hard work. Phil was an excellent teacher and Dan was getting comfortable being on horseback in all three gaits and Phil wanted to show him how to do different easy dressage exercises. But the thing that Dan enjoyed most was how Phil would just talk and talk while Dan was on horseback concentrating on his posture. Dan would talk too but if he got too distracted Money would stop listening to him. Phil would talk about anything and Dan immensely enjoyed listening to him.

“Good,” Phil said and that bright smile wiped away the moment of insecurity entirely. “Give me a couple of minutes to change out of my pyjamas and I’ll be right with you? You probably think I’m lazy being in my pyjamas until noon, right?”

Dan shook his head. “That’s the dream on the weekend, Phil. Besides, you were working on an editing job, weren’t you?”

Phil frowned in confusion. “How did you know that?”

“You didn’t come and talk to me this morning, like you usually do. I figured you had something else taking your focus. Also, you’ve never been late to meet me with Money before.”

“And here I thought you would say it’s because you can see that my laptop is open on my editing software in the background,” Phil said with a quick glance behind him.

“Well, that answer wouldn’t be as fun,” Dan said and threw in a wink as well, which made Phil roll his eyes as he was fighting the corner of his mouth from turning upwards into a smile.

“Smartass. I’ll just get changed. Feel free to look around. You haven’t been on the first floor yet, have you”?

“Never really been anywhere but the kitchen. Oh and then the living room that one time where you parents insisted on inviting me to family movie night. That was nice of them by the way.”

“Of course, you were invited,” Phil said like it was the simplest thing in the whole world and Dan’s heart melted a little. “Now shoo. I’ll be out in a minute.”

Phil closed the door and Dan decided to take Phil up on his offer and explore the place a little. Opposite and besides Phil’s door were more closed doors, probably leading into bedrooms as well.

Dan continued down the corridor until he was met with a large open space that had a little sofa area but most importantly, it had a grand piano standing in one corner. It was white, glorious and a classic and Dan walked straight up to it and started tracing his hands over it. It had been nearly a year since Dan had played a proper piano and the small keyboard that he had brought to him with university just wasn’t the same.

It wasn’t a real piano and it didn’t sound the same.

The one that Dan had used to take lessons on hadn’t even been this fancy. This model was glorious and Dan wanted nothing more than to sit down and play something but he would need to get permission from Phil first.

Dan wondered who in the family would be able to play it. He somehow doubted that it was Phil, since he hadn’t mentioned it, but Dan realised that he’d never told Phil that he had taken lessons and could play.

He must have stood next to the piano, with his hand resting on top of it, for longer than he realised because suddenly Phil was standing next to him, now with his hair looking under control, glasses swapped for contacts and a properly fitting T-shirt.

“You play?” Phil asked excitedly when he noticed Dan, who nodded in confirmation.

“I took lessons when I was younger but I had the most horrible piano teacher. You don’t even want to know. So I stopped learning properly but I have been playing ever since, just learning by myself.”

“Could you play me something?” Phil asked and Dan felt himself flush a little.

He hadn’t even needed to ask permission to play, because Phil beat him to it by requesting that he played something.

“I guess. It might not be very good. I’m a bit rusty,” he said as he lifted the protective cover of the keys and sat down on the stool.

It might have been a year since he had played a piano but he seemed to slot back into his old posture easily. It was like coming home, like how you never really forget how to ride a bike or a horse in Phil’s case, Dan noted.

He was a little stumped with what to play, however, as he first just let his hands hit random keys to get a feel being back playing the piano. But then he remembered a specific song that he had learnt ages ago. He started playing Interrupted By Fireworks and he let himself get lost in the music.

He could tell that his fingers were a little out of practice but it still flowed pretty easily. He remembered many hours he had spend playing this song because it always brought a sense of calm to him. It did the same now.

When Dan finished, he jumped as Phil started applauding rather loudly. Dan was sure he was blushing at Phil’s overexcited and unnecessary praise.

“I can’t believe you know that song. It’s in my favourite instrumental playlist,” Phil said. “I love it!”

Dan smiled brightly at that because it was yet another commonality between them. They had discovered that they had quite similar taste in music and in video games, so it wasn’t really a surprise but Dan liked whenever it turned out that he and Phil liked the same things. It made Dan feel a sense of belonging.

“You play very well. I wish I could play like that but at most I can play Itsy Bitsy Spider,” Phil said with a laugh.

“So who is the piano player in the family?”

“Well, none of us Lesters. It’s an inherited piano. But Cornelia can play just about any instrument. She’ll just pick it up and play around with it. I’ve had her help me design music to Martyn’s freestyle programmes for years.”

“How do you do that?” Dan asked.

“Scoot over,” Phil said and sat down to Dan on the piano stool almost before Dan had moved off to one side. “You know how I told you that for usual dressage classes, the riders all follow a programme combination of exercises that must be done at specific locations throughout the course and in a specific order. When you design a freestyle programme you have to incorporate certain exercises because they are required for that level of difficulty but you get to decide the order and placement. All of it has to be played to music and the music has to be adapted to the different gaits, so it’ll sound softer and slower when it’s an exercise in walk but it’ll be more upbeat and fast in canter. You can take one song or multiple and mix around the elements in editing, which is how I mostly do it. But if Cornelia and I have the time, I’ll get her to play different things for me, putting our own spin on it and sometimes mixing in something original from her too.”

Dan nodded in understanding. He didn’t voice how he thought it sounded quite sweet that Martyn was riding and competing to some music made by his girlfriend and then edited by his brother. It was quite a cool teamwork.

“You never fancied doing one of those freestyle programmes for yourself?”

A small smile, twisted with melancholy, briefly crossed Phil’s face.

“I did make rough draft of one like a year ago. I thought it would be fun to attempt a performance, even if it would just be here at home, you know? I had all these plans of filming it to capture that I could ride just as well as my brother. I wanted to show how I could move with my horse as one. I never really got around to it and then Martyn got injured and I fell off and I just forgot about it. I only had a draft of the exercises’ order and placement and I had just started thinking about the music.”

Dan caught how differently Phil talked above his riding abilities from before the fall. Back then, he had considered making a freestyle programme to show everyone that he was a good rider but recently when Dan had first met Phil, he had told Dan that Martyn was the best rider without any doubt in his voice. It seemed like he had lost faith in his own abilities after he had fallen off but he had never lost them in his brother, who had been an a more serious riding accident and might never be able to ride the same again. It was confusing and Dan wondered if he was wading into uncomfortable territory for Phil but he didn’t want to stop talking now.

Phil clearly needed to talk about this stuff with someone and from what Dan had picked up on, Phil didn’t feel like he could talk to his family about it, which Dan sympathised with. He was more than willing to be a patient ear if Phil needed it.

“Which horse was it?” Dan asked.

Phil let out a snort. “Black Paladin. Ironic, isn’t it? I had considered doing it with Moneypenny but Black Paladin’s technical level was higher than hers and I wanted to incorporate some of the more difficult exercises to show off. And he… He is a special horse. Sweetest stallion you’ll ever meet. He was a dream to ride.”

The question was back on the tip of Dan’s tongue. Why didn’t Phil just get back on the horse? But Dan knew that if he said it, then he would be no better than Phil’s brother who had probably asked him the same countless of times and Phil was clearly tired of hearing it. Dan didn’t want to ruin the quiet and nice moment they were having, sat at the piano stool while Dan absentmindedly played with the keys and listened to Phil.

“What do you like about dressage?” he asked instead.

“Dressage? You sure you want to hear me rant about that?” Phil asked.

“Of course.”

He loved hearing Phil talk passionately.

“Well, it’s a way for a horse and a rider to work together. Every movement of the rider triggers a movement in the horse and those movements are so miniscule with experienced riders. It’s the slightest shift of your weight or tug of the reins. And it can feel like you can fly together and like anything is possible when you can get this 1 tonne animal to dance with you on its back. You’re a team every step of the way. If you don’t give it all your focus, your horse will take on your distraction too.”

“Maybe that’s why Money is messing with me sometimes,” Dan commented.

“It is,” Phil said with a little smile. “She needs constant direction and if we talk too much, she feels like she can relax and doesn’t have to listen to you.”

“Is there anything you don’t like about dressage?” Dan asked and he expected Phil to answer something about the dangers of riding but instead Phil surprised him by getting up.

“Not about dressage in particular but just something about riding in general that I think about time from time. But before I tell you, I want to show you something. Come with me?” Phil asked.

Dan got up but he was slow to let go of the piano, and Phil clearly saw his hesitance because he laughed fondly and told him that he could come back to play the piano whenever he wanted. Dan was taken aback by the promise and he knew that he would have to take Phil up on that offer later because just playing for ten minutes wasn’t nearly enough.

He was craving it again. He’d missed playing more than he realised.

As they walked from the house out towards fields at the back of the house, Dan wondered if riding felt like that to Phil. Like once he had allowed himself to get back on horseback, just for one time, if it had ignited something inside of him – something that he had once loved and still did love despite not having done it for a while. If Phil had been feeling that for two weeks straight then he surely had some willpower, or maybe Dan was just reading into it.

“Where are you taking me?” Dan asked when Phil walked him past the paddock with the broodmares and their foals. He had figured that they would be heading there based on the direction but he was lost now.

“Out to our one year old and two year olds. They live on a field the farthest from the stable, but I thought a little walk would be nice either way. It’s lovely weather.”

“Taking a walk and taking about the weather? Are we an old married couple that don’t know what to say to each other anymore?” Dan joked and even bumped his shoulder into Phil’s as they walked.

“That would never happen to us,” Phil said with such certainty that Dan almost missed his step in surprise. “We would find something to talk about no matter how long we knew each other.”

The tone was light and teasing to match Dan’s previous one but Dan wasn’t even sure if Phil picked up on the implication of his words, no matter the breezy tone.

Phil thought they would always find something to talk about. He hadn’t even dismissed the married comment. Dan wasn’t sure how to interpret that but his heart felt a little warmer at the words without his permission.

Phil finally came to a halt at a place where two paddocks met each other. Unlike the fencing on other places where the two would have shared a fence, these had separate fences and about a horse length between them where a little path ran.

“We dive the tractor up through here in the winter to give the young horses hay,” Phil explained. “There’s a shelter on each of them with bedding and everything, like one huge box stall.”

As he finished talking, he let out a loud whistle and then started calling out names and if Dan hadn’t known about the odd naming thing that Phil did with the foals, he might have thought that big carnivores and Destiny’s Child would come running instead of horses.

Surely enough, the faint sound of horse hooves could be heard instantly and four horses on one side, three of them brown and the smallest one a beautiful golden colour, and two on the other, one dark brown and one red, came cantering for the fence.

For a second, Dan feared that the horses wouldn’t stop and just keep going until they ploughed through the fence but he breathed a sigh of relief as they finally turned to the side at the last minute. Phil just smiled and laughed as they almost ran into each other.

“Hi guys,” he told the horses, “I know you expect food but it’s not quite time yet.”

A few of them snorted and all six of them, in their two different paddocks, stepped up until their heads were reaching over the fence.

“Meet our young horses, Dan. All the brown ones on here are 2 year old mares, named Michelle, Kelly and Beyoncé and the little palomino one is just one year and named Cheetah. Over here we have Bear and Lion, who are also one year old. None of them have been through serious training yet. We only go get them occasionally to teach them how to walk besides us and make sure they know what it feels like to be groomed and have their hooves checked. Otherwise, they live out here and mind their own business.”

“Hi,” Dan said in a soft voice as he walked up to Bear and Lion who nudged each other to get close to him as they tried to see if he had something in his palm. Phil just smiled and reached over to catch Dan’s wrist and placed some treats in his palm.

He had gotten more comfortable giving Money treats after their rides, so he didn’t flinch when the two young stallions took the treats from his outstretched palm.

“They’re cute, Phil. But what did this have to do with not liking riding?”

“I just wanted to show you mostly untrained horses to make you understand better. You know that riding can be a dangerous sport because we decide to get on the back of a wild prey animal that we have just domesticated for our own purposes. We teach them to obey us and carry us but sometimes, I found myself wondering if it was a good thing. I’ve seen people mistreat horses, if it’s out of ignorance, by accident or from a lack of caring. It always ends with the horse getting hurt. Inexperienced riders usually hurt horses, just a little bit as they’re learning, and if they are being taught incorrectly they can do a lot of hurt, both then and in the future if they don’t respect the animals.”

“So you think they would be better off if we had left them wild animals?” Dan asked as he reached up to stroke Bear’s neck, just like Phil was going with one of the brown mares opposite him.

“Not necessarily. People own dogs and cats and mistreat them too. But it’s just that I sometimes see people at competitions getting angry at their horses and punishing them. You should never punish a horse, in my opinion. You should only use positive reinforcement and simply ignore when a horse does something bad. Horses hate being ignored and that’s punishment enough. Show them what you want from them instead and praise them when they do that correctly. Never mind the fact that a horse usually makes a mistake because the rider made the mistake or it simply misunderstood what the rider wanted from it or it could be scared by something, which is in its prey nature and we can’t really blame the horse for that. So that’s what I dislike about riding.”

“But you still love it? Despite the danger you know it comes with from handling them and how some riders are don’t treat their horses right?”

Phil let out a deep sigh and he didn’t speak for a while, so Dan thought be might just choose to ignore the question but after a pause for contemplation, he answered.

“I do still love it. Whenever I ride, or Martyn or Cornelia, we always try to ride on the premises of the horse. We try to take into account their nature and we try to be as gentle about riding as possible. Horses are naturally inclined to follow a leader and as a human we just step into that role. And a lot of the horses love it. You probably saw how happy Hermes looked last weekend and you’ve seen how Money snorts contented sometimes after you finish. And like I said before, riding is about teamwork and every good rider knows that. You work together and I think it’s beautiful that a horse and rider can share that kind of bond across species.”

The golden horse Cheetah walked all the way over to Dan and tried to reach out to him. He walked away from Bear to stroke her instead and despite her interest in him she backed away slightly as he approached. He could see what Phil meant when he looked at the young horses. They were domesticated from a young age but there was still something wild about them.

He looked over at Phil, who looked so at peace while petting the horses and Dan gathered up his courage.

“Phil, can I ask you something? I know you have probably heard the question enough but I think you need to be asked it right now.”

Phil looked over at Dan and their eyes locked together. Dan had feared that Phil might look angry because he could obviously realise what question Dan wanted to ask him but Phil just looked a little tired, which Dan understood.

“Why don’t I ride anymore if I still love it?” Phil guessed.

“Yeah, but more so why you deny yourself something that you love when you can have it? I know you are still scared that you’ll get hurt but… Phil, you still love it and I saw how you looked on Money two weeks ago. You miss it, right?”

“More than I realised, yes,” Phil confirmed. “And I know what you mean, Dan, it must seem stupid that I don’t want to do-“

“I never said that,” Dan interrupted. “I would never say that, Phil. You’re not stupid. Your feelings and fears are not stupid. I understand that I can’t know how it feels for you and I respect that. I just want you to consider it again because you don’t have to be locked into that old commitment of not being a rider anymore. You can break out of it if you want to.”

“Oh,” Phil said in the weakest and softest voice and he was looking away from Dan, glancing into the eyes of the horse he had called Michelle whose head he held in his hands. “It’s just… I know my fear is irrational and that makes me even madder at myself whenever I experience it. Riding isn’t more dangerous than it was before Martyn got injured or I fell off. I’ve fallen off before and gotten back in the saddle. I know falling off is part of the deal, which is why I get so angry with myself that I can’t shake the nerves and spiralling thoughts when I put my foot in the stirrup. I want to go back to when riding was something I enjoyed and something I looked forward to. I don’t want to be afraid of it.”

Phil sounded so defeated and like he needed a hug, so that’s exactly what Dan gave him. He stepped away from Cheetah and walked up to wrap Phil in a big hug and Phil clung back to him instantly.

“Phil, I think the only way feel comfortable on horseback again is practice. You told me how you tried to do things that scared you to improve while you were at university. I think the solution is getting back-“

“Don’t you dare say it,” Phil threatened but Dan couldn’t be stopped and his smile just widened at Phil’s threat because he didn’t sound choked up anymore and that was progress.

“-in the saddle.”

“You’re a dork,” Phil muttered and hugged Dan tighter.

“Yeah,” Dan admitted. “I couldn’t resist. It’s a perfectly good saying.”

They stayed in their hug, which was probably more of an embrace at this point but neither of them made a move to break it up.

“Hey Dan?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll think about it. For real. Not just as a one time thing to show that I can do it. If you’ll help me?”

Duh,” Dan said because of course he would.

Chapter Text

Phil hadn’t stopped thinking about it for the days that followed his promise to Dan about seriously considering riding. He hadn’t really been able to shake the feeling of needing to get back on the horse, ever since he had gotten on the back of a horse after the five months’ break. He had been scared of messing up and he had silently cursed whenever his mind ran off with him and he had started to tense up when he had been on the back of Moneypenny those weeks ago.

He just wanted to be able to relax and enjoy it like he had before but he also knew that he couldn’t just slot back into it like nothing had changed.

Hindsight was 20/20. If he had gotten back into the saddle immediately after falling off, he would only have been nervous for possibly as little as a few minutes while he got used to being back on. Martyn had tried to get Phil to jump back on Black Paladin immediately and go for a couple of rounds but Phil had adamantly refused and just brushed it off.

The riding portion of the day had been over and the stallion had been cooled down. Phil had no trouble arguing that it was better if they just packed him into the trailer and headed home instead.

But then the following day, when Cornelia had asked Phil if he wanted to accompany her on a forest ride, Phil hadn’t been able to agree. He had brushed it off then too by stating he wasn’t in the mood. It was picked up pretty quickly by Phil’s family and friends that he kept dodging out of riding whenever someone asked but no one had blatantly called him out on it until he stopped coming home from university during the weekends like he used to.

After that text telling them that he was staying the weekend at university, Martyn had called him for the second time that day and Phil had reluctantly answered.

His brother had asked if he was coming home to help out with the horses. Back then Martyn was still just a few weeks into recovery and he couldn’t get on the back of a horse no matter how much he wanted to do it. Phil knew they needed help with the horses but he just didn’t want to go home because the mere thought of doing so formed a lump in his throat.

He had said that he was busy with university, which wasn’t entirely untrue, but Phil had always been busy and he had always prioritised making time to go home and spend time with his family and the horses.

Martyn had sounded a little confused and then he had gone quiet on the line for a good ten seconds. It had been enough for Phil to pull back his phone to see if the connection had dropped. It hadn’t and Martyn had clearly been debating whether or not to say something. Phil would never forget what he said. It was mean and malicious and even if Phil knew the words were spoken out of frustration with Martyn’s recent whiplash injury, it had still hurt like hell.

“Phil, you can’t be this selfish. You had a tiny fall. It’s nothing. You can still ride perfectly well. Why are you being so damn stubborn? You just have to get back in the saddle.”

The agony in Martyn’s voice would have been enough to stump Phil and those words had sent him spiralling entirely. He felt so guilty because Martyn had been right. Phil had fallen off before and he hadn’t even been seriously injured. Phil wouldn’t have potentially life-long consequences like his brother would from being thrown for the horse he was schooling when he got his injury.

But to have Phil’s apprehension and newly form fear dismissed to blatantly had also made Phil angry and he didn’t usually get angry. Anger burned red hot and uncomfortably in his chest and he had just hung up the phone and not spoken to his brother for weeks.

But a lot of time had passed since then and being back home for the summer had meant that he was surrounded by the animals he had been avoiding at every opportunity up for the months between February and June.

It had been so much easier to stand firm with his proclamation that he wasn’t a horse rider anymore when he was away from the horses and he had other things to keep him busy. Now they were literally outside of his door.

And he had been prepared to hole up in his old room like a mole to diminish the temptation but Dan had been hired to help out and Phil had found himself pulled towards the stables by not one but two things.

On some level, he might have known where this would go. He had tried to tell himself that the one riding trip was just to prove it to himself and he had adamantly and ferociously batted away any thoughts of doing it again as best he could.

But then he had promised Dan to think about it. Once he tried to think about it objectively and be honest with himself about his desires, he knew he had been gone for.

Of course, he wanted to ride.

He hadn’t when he had first arrived home after graduating but showing Dan how to ride for weeks now had meant that Phil regularly groomed and handled the horses again and he had sensed how the permanent tension had started to drop out of his shoulders day by day.

It was difficult to hold tension when you were laughing with Dan.

So Phil started riding again late at night every day with Dan by his side. Phil wasn’t quite ready to announce to his parents and brother that he was riding again, so he preferred to do it when the place was mostly deserted.

Dan didn’t seem to mind one bit even if it cut into his free time in the evenings. He hadn’t gloated about convincing Phil or made Phil feel self-conscious about his choice at all. He had just been there to offer a helping hand.

Dan was happy with just riding every other day; so on the days where he didn’t ride Money during the day, Phil would ride her in the evenings and on the days where Money had been ridden once already, Phil would instead take the five-year-old Misty.

Despite her young age, Misty was a very solid horse to be on and Phil found out that she was quite lovely to ride. She was officially Martyn’s and Phil hadn’t been on her much except when she was being taught to carry a rider originally but he always knew how much Martyn praised her calm temperament.

She went where Phil told her to and she worked hard to comply with the orders. Money had always been very eager and good at listening to her rider too. Phil found he quite enjoyed training with the mares, even if his body was aching for jumping right back into riding every day after such a long break.

To keep Phil from overthinking when he was on the back of either of the horses, Dan would just talk to him on-and-off. It turned out that Dan could talk about almost anything and Phil immensely enjoyed their reversed roles with Dan talking and Phil riding and listening. When Dan wasn’t talking, he would just sit and watch Phil ride and on the rare occasion where Phil cast a glance at him while riding, his heart would soften a little at the genuinely impressed look on Dan’s face.

It was good. Sometimes, Phil would tense a little and it would immediately go into his horse but they had developed a system where he would let Dan know he was tensing up by saying a specific phrase.

Cherry blossom.

They had picked it because they found out that they shared a love for anime and both of them would really like to go to Japan and see cherry blossoms in real life.

It was ridiculous but it worked and Dan would do his best to distract Phil. If Phil said cherry blossom, Dan would often start talking about his own riding and suggest different exercises Phil could try out.

He was far from being a proper trainer but it always just helped Phil keep focus to have someone help him move on if he was just riding around in circles and working on the form endlessly.

After five days of riding in a row, Phil awoke on Saturday morning with an idea in his mind that he just couldn’t shake. He wasn’t sure when he had thought about it but it stayed at the forefront of his mind as he got dressed and went down to eat breakfast.

His mother greeted him in the kitchen.

“Good morning, Philip,” she said with a warm smile. “I made you coffee, if you want it?”

“Thank you,” Phil said and accepted the steaming cup. Even in this heat wave and record temperatures, Phil still needed his caffeine.

“What’s on the plan for today?” she asked with an edge of caution in her voice.

Phil knew she was a little worried about asking that because she didn’t entirely understand the freelance work Phil did on the computer but she didn’t want to make him uncomfortable.

He hadn’t cleared his idea with Dan. He hadn’t even told his parents that he was riding again. He was sure Marianne at the least had figured it out and possible Cornelia too but Martyn had been pulling extra shifts at the store and Phil’s parents did a number out of never sticking their nose where he didn’t want it.

Yet, he felt so compelled to say something.

“I want to go on a picnic ride with Dan. I just need to clear it with him first.”

Katherine’s eyes showed surprise but she quickly broke into a big smile.

“That sounds wonderful, Phil,” she said.

She didn’t ask when he had been riding again, even if she must know that he had been doing it before deciding to take a horse out into the forest. She didn’t question when he and Dan had gotten close or Phil’s want to have a goddamn picnic. She didn’t say a damn thing about how this might mean that he could ride Black Paladin at that showcase, even if the stallion was officially her horse and showing him off as a breeding stallion could help the business.

Phil decided in that moment that his mother was awesome and he felt compelled to move forward and wrap her up in a hug, which is exactly what he did.

She laughed as Phil almost threw himself into her arms and she hugged him back tightly. A mother’s hug was something quite special and Phil hadn’t realised just how much he needed it before he had gotten it.

He felt safe and secure and like nothing could hurt him. It was very calming feelings to have considering the fact that his picnic idea wasn’t without the slight undercurrent of worry as riding out on horses gave them a tonne more stuff to be scared of.

“I’m going to make you boys sandwiches,” Katherine declared unprompted as Phil pulled out of the hug.

“What?”

“I will make you food, Phil. You should go out and fetch Dan now, so you can enjoy the lovely weather. You are taking Money and Misty, correct?”

“You don’t have to do that, Mum. And Dan still has box stalls to muck out. I’ll go help him but we won’t be done for a couple of hours,” Phil said.

“Do it when you get home. The horses are out already. They can wait. Go get your boy.”

Phil was so thrilled to have his mother’s permission that he wasn’t paying close attention to her words. He just leaned into peck a quick kiss to her cheek, downed the last of his coffee and ran out the door.

He stopped running when he neared the stables because you should never run around horses, and despite knowing that all the horses would likely be out on the fields, it was still a rule so ingrained in him.

He spotted Dan down at the box stall where he would usually begin his shift and Phil walked over to him with swift steps.

“Hi. You look happy today,” Dan said as he greeted him with a smile. “Did you get away with stealing your brother’s cereal this morning?”

“He doesn’t live in the house anymore, so he can’t reserve cereal,” Phil said, “but no, that’s not why I’m happy. I woke up with a great idea.”

Instantly, Dan perked up and shifted all of his focus to Phil. Phil had noticed that Dan did that sometimes. He would just listen and watch so intensely and Phil had never quite felt like anyone had paid so close attention to him before.

It made him feel a little flustered but he carried on anyway. They were just good friends. Dan was probably just an active listener and he looked like that at all of his friends.

“I want us to go on a forest ride together, if you feel comfortable. We could bring food and have a picnic while we’re out there too,” Phil explained. “Riding through the forest used to be one of my favourite things before, you know. It’s a very different type of riding than when you’re actively training to get exercises right or focus on achieving the perfect form. It’s loose and relaxing. I used to always go on a forest ride when things got a bit to hectic.”

“You mean like riding out, together? And setting up an actual picnic? What about the horses?” Dan asked and Phil could swear that Dan now looked a little flustered too but it could just be the heat and the manual labour catching up to him.

“Yes and we’d just tie the horses to a tree and they could graze while we ate,” Phil said excitedly but then his boost of confidence wavered a little. “Only if you want to, of course. And I know riding out on a horse can be quite scary. I think so too, but I just woke up and thought… but maybe it’s a bad idea?”

“It isn’t, Phil,” Dan said and his eyes turned fonder and his smile softer. “It sounds… really nice actually. I don’t know if I’m capable enough to ride out on a horse but if you’re there with me, I’m sure it’ll be fine. And it does sound like a good time.”

Dan thought things would be fine just as long as Phil was there with him. Phil felt like he couldn’t breathe for a second at that small confession. He went quiet until Dan leaned forward and put a hand on his shoulder. Then Phil’s brain short-circuited a little but he forced his mouth to unfreeze.

“Does that mean you want to do it? Ride together, I mean,” Phil added hastily.

Dan huffed out a laugh and he was smirking a little. “I just need to finish mucking out and then we can get ready.”

“Oh, we can just do that later,” Phil said. “I okayed it with my mum and everything, so you won’t get in trouble or anything. It would be better to get started fairly early because I suggest we will just go on a ride in mainly walk, since it’s your first time and I haven’t done it for so many months.”

Dan’s big brown eyes blinked a couple of times processing the information. Phil stared right at them and he had to force himself to look away before he made things awkward but Dan just had so pretty eyes.

“Oh, that’s cool. Thank your mother from me, would you?”

“I will,” Phil said. “Now, let’s go fetch Money and Misty.”

Phil grabbed two leading robes from the wall and handed one over to Dan. Since Phil had started riding again continuously, he had also started involving Dan in more and more handling of the horses from the ground. Dan was comfortable enough to walk out into the field and fetch a horse now. He still got a little overwhelmed the couple of times he had helped Marianne take them in for their evening feed because all of them would come running excitedly and the two three year olds, Thor and Loki, were still learning their manners.

When Phil had clipped the rope to Misty, he surprised Dan by handing it over to him and taking hold of Money himself.

“I’m taking her?” Dan asked and he sounded a little worried. “I have never ridden her before and isn’t she your brother’s competition horse? I don’t want to mess up anything.”

“So is Money technically and Martyn isn’t starting any competitions right now. Misty is calmer in the forest than Money, who has always been a little too interested in watching all the stuff that happens around her and consequently getting scared.”

Dan and Phil moved out of the paddock, each with a horse in hand, and Phil let himself remember this seemingly insignificant moment. It made him feel happy. He hadn’t thought he would find himself here again and he certainly wouldn’t have been able to predict the boy he was sharing the space with.

“Wait, are you okay to ride out then?” Dan asked.

No judgement in his voice. A little concern but it was well hidden. His tone didn’t make Phil feel like he was questioning his abilities but simply whether he wanted to ride out knowing that he would be on a horse that could get somewhat easily spooked.

Seven weeks ago before Dan had arrived at Lester Stables, Phil would not even have considered this idea that had gone off in his head in the morning. But over the weeks since then, he had gradually let himself become more and more comfortable around the horses again. The past five days had given him confidence in his riding and the fact that he could handle his horse.

The worry wasn’t gone but it was severely diminished. The thought of riding out didn’t terrify him like it would have before. He was a little on edge about it but he was looking forward to sharing this experience too much to let that get in the way.

“I will be fine,” Phil said and he inwardly cringed a little because how often had Martyn told him that?

But it was different when he was saying it himself without being coerced. Phil knew that Martyn meant well but he had never been able to put himself in Phil’s shoes about this. It was probably because he would have loved to escape with a simple fall like Phil had rather than getting properly injured.

They saddled up their horses together, which was something they hadn’t done before. Usually, they just had one horse and they were both helping each other out. Dan was moving around with comfortable and practiced ease for most parts. He wanted Phil to double check the placement of the saddle but other than that he could do everything else by himself. Phil felt proud at that.

Once the horses were almost ready, Phil went up to the house to pick up the bag pack that was sitting on the kitchen table packed with a blanket, sandwiches, juice and a note telling Phil to have fun. As Phil walked back into the stable, he heard Marianne and Dan talking from inside and he was about to step through but the conversation he picked up stopped him in his tracks just outside of the door.

“That sounds fun, Dan. And I’m glad Phil is riding again,” Marianne said.

“I guess he showed me that horses aren’t as bad as I thought,” Dan commented.

“You’re good for him, Dan.”

“Err… I don’t think this is about me. This is Phil’s choice. I don’t care whether or not he would ever want to ride again. I’m just happy to spend time with him.”

“I stand by my statement,” Marianne said.

Phil hadn’t meant to eavesdrop on purpose and now he stepped forward and announced his presence. Marianne left them and shot him a smile as she passed him.

“What were you talking about?” Phil asked Dan.

“Oh, just riding. It sounded like she had figured out that you were riding again. Sorry, I know you wanted to keep that secret.”

“I knew that it would only be a matter of time,” Phil said and handed Dan Misty’s brindle and took Money’s himself. “And if I wanted to keep it secret, I would not go on a ride with you at this time. I already told my mother, hence why she made us lunch.”

They walked the horses outside and first Phil helped Dan up before jumping up himself. Dan reached up to tug one of his curls under his riding helmet and Phil adjusted the bag pack straps on his shoulders. There was something slightly domestic about this.

It was nice.

Phil had always envied Martyn and Cornelia a little when they would ride out together and just disappear for a couple of hours in each other’s company. Phil would usually ride out alone before and it was a good way to clear his mind but sometimes he just wanted to talk to someone.

He wasn’t entirely proud of it but sometimes he had just started talking to his horse out loud. It had always been easier for him to talk to horses because he knew there would be no judgement for his weirdness and he could just say whatever he wanted. It was liberating.

Lately, he had been opening up more and more to Dan. It was becoming quite commonplace for Phil to just blurt out his random thoughts when he was alone with Dan and he had never felt any judgement from Dan either.

Money and Misty both moved forward with excited steps but they also fell into step beside each other easily. At times, they would even step so close that Dan and Phil’s stirrups would knock together.

When Phil looked over to his right, he would see Dan smile back at him.

Conversation flowed easily. Dan told Phil about the latest Wikipedia late night search he had done and the time he had ditched a party at university to go home and play Guilt Wars 2. Phil told Dan about a computer game he made when he was 14 with RPG Maker and how he had nearly lost all his progress on the files he was editing on his computer because he spilled Ribena across his keyboard.

“The keys still stick to my fingers when I lift them off,” Phil said and adjusted his hold on Money’s reins a little. She was usually fairly well-behaved when she was just being asked to walk. It was once she was allowed to canter and let loose that it could take a lot of convincing to get her back into a calm tempo.

“You’re a danger to yourself, Lester.”

Phil had been leading the way but he hadn’t realised just how close they had come to the meadow where he wanted them to have the picnic. They must have been riding for over an hour already but it felt like it had passed way too quickly. Misty and Money had been a little eager at first and Money had indeed snorted at the little stream they rode along for some of the way but Phil had quickly been able to correct her and she had relaxed again.

“It’s just up ahead,” Phil informed Dan and he made sure to watch Dan’s face as they came out from the trees and Dan got his first look at the idyllic meadow.

“Phil,” Dan said, sounding awestruck. “This is place is too pretty.”

“I know,” Phil said, and pulled Money to a halt and jumped down. “I found it a couple of years ago by accident. I had gotten lost because I took a wrong turn. Now I’m happy I got a little lost because otherwise I might never have found this place.”

They had brought headcollars to comfortably tie up the horses and give them an opportunity to graze, so together they quickly got the brindles switched and Phil forced his heart to calm down as it speed up the moment he pulled off the brindle. If Money or Misty tried to make a run for it at that point, a slight hold of their mane wouldn’t do much to retain them but they stood obediently still.

As Phil spread out the blanket, he wondered briefly if this was a bit date like. Picnic in a beautiful forest meadow with no one around but their horses? He quickly shook it off. He had gone on picnics with his family before and it didn’t have to mean anything. He and Dan were just friends. Friends should be allowed to go on solitary picnics.

That Phil might want it to be something more was his own problem. Dan was first and foremost his friend.

The sandwiches were delicious and Dan turned out to love Ribena just as much as Phil did and as usual Phil treasured a similarity between them. They ate, talked and laughed until they had finished it all off and the sun had inched closer to high noon.

“I could get used to this, you know?” Dan said and lied down on his back.

He was partly lying outside of the grass but he didn’t seem to mind at all, as he stretched his hands out and let them run through the grass. Phil felt the urge to pull out his phone and film Dan, as he lied there with his eyes closed and just enjoying the sunshine and tranquillity. The horses happy grumbling could be heard behind them, the birds were chirping along and the gentlest breeze swept over them as Phil watched how Dan’s chest rose and fell as he breathed deeply.

Phil filmed only for a handful of seconds but it was enough. He should probably have asked Dan permission first but he just wanted something to remind him of this time.

“Hey Dan?” Phil asked and Dan opened just one eye. “Do you want to take a photo together?”

They didn’t have any photos together and Phil hadn’t craved it until now because as comfortable and at peace as Dan looked lounging around in the grass, Phil felt reminded that he was just here on borrowed time. He would just be here for fourteen weeks and over half their time together had already passed. Phil would blink and then Dan would be back in Manchester at university.

It wouldn’t be a big deal because they were friends and Phil knew they would keep in touch. But he wasn’t sure if it would ever be like this again. He felt very much like it was just the two of them living in their own little bubble and he knew that the bubble could not last forever.

“Yeah that sounds like a good idea. Come here,” he instructed and padded the place to his left. “I’m not getting up.”

Phil chuckled but he went to lie down next to Dan anyway. To get them both properly into frame, as Dan lifted the phone in his outstretched arm, Phil had to scoot pretty close, which he couldn’t very much complain about.

They did a few smiles and then a few silly grimaces but Phil’s favourite photo by far was the one where Dan had said: “Say cheese” which Phil had replied to with “I don’t like cheese” and both of them had looked away from the camera and instead into each other’s eyes as Dan pressed the button.

When he came home later that day after a ride back without any problems at all, Phil pulled up that photo on his phone and just watched the mirth in their faces and how intensely they were looking at each other. He went to the printer, stuffed some old photo paper into it and sent it to print. It came out with slight lines as the printer struggled to print properly but Phil held it carefully in his hands anyway.

It had been a perfect day. He had gone on a forest ride without freaking out. Dan had been right by his side to make him laugh. They had stuffed their faces with food and just lounged around in the grass for way too long. Martyn had shot him a look when he saw Phil on Money and Dan on Misty returning home hours after they had left in the morning but he didn’t say a word, for which Phil was thankful.

He wanted to treasure this moment. He had always wanted to have someone he could take on a forest ride and just disappear together for a few hours. He felt like he could talk to Dan just like he used to talk to his horses and it was wonderful.

The horses were great listeners but they couldn’t answer back. Dan could and he did and Phil loved learning things about his past, how he thought about things and how he saw the world.

Dan might just be here on borrowed time but Phil was determined to make the most of it.

Chapter Text

Dan was having the time of his life. He had never quite felt so free and content. He wasn’t sure if he should ascribe it to the absence of stressful university, being surrounded by nature and horses or simply the presence of one Phil Lester.

Dan might be inclined to say that the last one had the biggest impact.

They were hanging out all the time.

It was constant and normally Dan would have quickly tired of being in someone’s company all the time.

But that just didn’t happen with Phil.

He wanted to be near him all the time.

Phil would come out and help Dan muck out the stables. They would saddle their horses, either to go on another forest ride together or to in turns so Phil could give Dan lessons on Money and then train Misty afterwards.

In the afternoons, they would just chill in either Phil’s room or Dan’s space above the stable or they would go out back and just sit down in the grass at the edge of the foal’s paddock.

One day, Leia had lied down next to Dan and ended up with her head in his lap and he had absolutely melted. It was the most adorable thing he had ever seen and he was a little sad that she’d grow up and be unable to do that anymore.

Even on the occasion that Phil had some work to do on his computer, Dan would just be in the room on his own computer and they would have some laptop time together.

It was a simple existence and Dan knew it couldn’t last forever but he felt very blissful at the moment anyway.

He played on the piano almost daily too.

Phil had given him unlimited permission to do so and Dan wasn’t sure he could express how much that mattered to him. It was an incredible gift and Dan was quickly getting back into the swing of playing properly.

He and Phil would listen to a song a couple of times and Dan would play around with the notes to try to emulate it. He had tried teaching Phil a little but it hadn’t stuck.

Phil still played itsy bitsy spider to perfection, though.

Dan saw Marianne, Martyn, Cornelia and the Lesters around but he still felt like him and Phil was living in their own little bubble.

It was a sense of comfort that he hadn’t realised that he needed.

It was another Saturday morning, and Phil had decided to ride Misty before giving Dan the lesson on Money. Dan sat on the bench next to the dressage court and watched how Phil worked to teach the young mare.

Dan still didn’t know much about horses but he could see that that the grey horse looked a little more elegant with each day that passed. Her movements were smoother and Phil applauded her loads.

It was very cute.

“I think I want to do some sideways movements and I could use a dressage whip to help her hindquarters to follow more correctly. Would you mind going into the stable to get me one? They should be by the saddles.”

“No worries,” Dan said and jumped to his feet to get it.

It had been an accidental side effect but he could feel that his physicality had massively improved since he had started riding. He had never been much for mindless exercise but riding never really felt like that.

It was hard as hell but he wasn’t working to train his body, he was working to be able to do better as an equipage.

As Dan walked into the stable, he almost ran into Martyn.

“Oh, hi!” Dan exclaimed. “I thought you and Cornelia were going to that horse market?”

“We are. I just needed to pick this up,” Martyn said and held up a bag of horse treats.

Dan wasn’t under the impression that the two of them were looking to bring in new horses, since most of the horses around here had been actually bred and trained from they were foals.

“Why are you going to the horse market?” Dan asked. “Are you looking to buy something?”

“No. Not particularly. It’s just a tradition with Cornelia and myself. We like to go look at the horses and keep up with some of our friends. Sometimes we take four year olds or five year olds with us to show off but not this year. Because of my injury Rihanna and Adele aren’t quite as far along in their training as we would have hoped. So far we just have them listed on the website, which is how that other buyer found out about Elvis. We’re happy sell to the right buyers but horse markets aren’t always the best way,” Martyn explained.

Dan hummed like he understood completely. He didn’t really but he wasn’t going to admit that to Martyn.

He wasn’t sure how to talk to Phil’s older brother, especially since he had grasped more and more of how much Martyn had pressured Phil about getting back on the horse.

It hadn’t been done in a good way and Phil had been so guilty about his original decision to stop riding.

“Dan, can I ask you a question?” Martyn said as Dan had grabbed the dressage whip.

He reluctantly paused in the doorway.

Dan had a feeling that he wasn’t about to like the question but he couldn’t be rude to Martyn and not at least hear him out. He could be mistaken. He nodded.

“How did you do it?”

Dan’s stomach dropped. Did he really mean to go there? It wasn’t Dan’s place to talk about it.

“Do what?” Dan asked, not because he didn’t know what Martyn was asking but because he wanted to give Martyn a chance to drop the question.

“Get Phil to ride again,” Martyn said with a frown as if Dan was completely oblivious.

Dan fought the urge to reach up and pinch his nose. It was something he had never done before but he had seen Phil doing it countless of times whenever he was facing an editing snag and Dan had taken to doing it as well.

“I didn’t get him to do anything, Martyn. It’s Phil’s choice. It was always his choice whether or not he wanted to get back into the saddle.”

“But you did something, Dan. He hardly wanted to be out here anymore until you came along. Now he’s out here all the time, even lounging in the foal paddock. He’s training dressage with Misty. He should be riding Paladin and getting him ready for the showcase. It’s important.”

That,” Dan emphasised, “like riding in general is Phil’s own choice. I won’t try to persuade him for you, Martyn. Don’t you think he’s heard enough about how he should train and show your stallion for the good of the business? I can understand why he’s fed up hearing it.”

Something in Martyn’s expression shifted and he suddenly wore a look of sympathy.

“It’s not just about showing our breeding stallion, Dan. It never was. Phil is scared of Black Paladin and he used to adore that horse. He was never much for competitions but he would still plan out programmes and train them. I don’t want him to be scared of doing that.”

Dan suddenly felt a little less hostile towards Martyn. Maybe his intentions weren’t that bad. Dan was quickly developing a fiercely protective streak when it came to Phil.

“It’s still Phil’s decision. You can’t push him and put a deadline on his progress. I have to go, he’s waiting,” Dan said and indicated the outside.

He had already been gone for far too long. Phil might start to assume that Dan couldn’t locate the dressage whip, dismount and come get it himself.

“I’ll see you, Dan,” Martyn said as Dan hurried out of the saddle room.

When Phil saw Dan approach with the dressage whip in hand, he smiled brightly.

“I thought you might have gotten lost in there,” Phil joked as he took the outstretched whip.

Misty instantly started backing up, just a few steps and her ears were spinning around. She was nervous.

Dan watched Phil.

He radiated calm. He put his hand that wasn’t holding the whip down to her neck and talked softly to her. He kept the whip close to his body. And only when the young mare looked less tense did Phil collect the reins and move her along.

She got a new bounce in her step now that Phil had the whip in hand.

But that wasn’t what fascinated Dan the most.

Phil didn’t look scared. Not like he had done the first week where he had been riding every day. Back then, whenever his horse tensed up, so did he. Dan had found that part easy to read because he had grown accustomed to reading Phil, even if he might still struggle a bit with the horses.

But as Dan watched Phil guide the horse across the course diagonally while facing straight forward, which made the movement of the four legs look pronounced, he watched a man in deep concentration without an ounce of tension in his shoulders.

He looked in his element on horseback.

Could Martyn be right?

Dan wasn’t sure.

Was Phil still scared of properly training dressage?

It certainly didn’t look like it.

“You’re been awfully quiet,” Phil noted as he dismounted Misty and started walking her towards the stable. “Something on your mind?”

Dan wasn’t sure if he should tell Phil but he didn’t even like the idea of keeping secrets from Phil. He never wanted anything to come between them, least of all something like that.

“I ran into your brother while I was fetching the dressage whip,” Dan explained.

“Oh no,” Phil noted as he pulled Misty to a stop and started to take her brindle off. “What did he say now?”

“He talked about your riding. How I got you to do it. Why he still thought it was important for you to ride Paladin at that showcase thing.”

Phil rolled his eyes just as Misty shook her head and tried to rub her sweaty ears on Phil’s back.

“I wondered why he hadn’t said anything to me yet. Maybe he just plans to go through you.”

“I know I didn’t make you ride, Phil. That was your own choice. Right?”

“Of course,” Phil said and shot him a reassuring smile. “You might have inspired me but you didn’t make me ride. You’ve been so nice and understanding about this whole thing. Even as confusing it must be for you.”

“No, I get it,” Dan said and took the saddle of Misty’s back. “I get being scared of things if you’ve been hurt. No one else can decide what’s a big enough amount of hurt. Only you can know that.”

“I feel like there’s still something you aren’t saying. You know that you can tell me everything, right?”

Dan’s heart melted a little. Phil had that effect on him a lot lately.

It wasn’t so much that Phil spoke the words. It was such easy words to say and some people threw them around carelessly. What touched Dan was the fact that he could feel that Phil actually meant it.

“It’s nothing, really. Martyn just seemed sad all of the sudden. I think he means well. He said that you used to adore Black Paladin and now you won’t go near him,” Dan commented.

Phil froze mid-movement. He had been removing the tack from the horse’s leg but his hands just still completely. For a second, Dan worried if he was having a stroke or something.

He sat unnaturally still.

“Phil, are you okay? Do I need to get someone?” Dan said and crouched down next to Phil, who finally turned to look at him.

His eyes looked on edge.

“Martyn said that?” Phil asked in a whisper.

“Yeah,” Dan confirmed.

Phil reached out to place a hand on Dan’s knee, which almost made him lose balance but he managed to keep it and he also reached over and placed a hand on Phil’s shoulder because he looked a little unsteady.

It would look ridiculous to anyone who was to pass them.

They were both crouched down by a horse’s legs and finding support in each other.

“I never really thought about it like that. It’s not… I’m not… I don’t hate him. He’s a good horse.”

“I know, Phil.”

“But I haven’t gone near him every since. I never go into that stable when he’s inside. I don’t go near him. At all, Dan,” Phil said and his voice grew more insistent.

Dan remembered clearly how he had found Phil by the stallion’s box stall on that first day when he had just arrived, directly from university and been a little overwhelmed with it all.

He had flipped on the light and startled Phil who had been leaning against what Dan would later learn to be Black Paladin’s box stall. But the stallion hadn’t been in. In fact, Dan had never seen Phil go anywhere near the stallion.

They would usually saddle up in the main stable and the stallion lived in the other smaller one where they never had much reason to be.

“I watch Marianne exercise him sometimes,” Phil confessed. “They’ve been keeping him in shape, moving around in the rotunda for long reins. Keeping his physique maintained a bit, you know. I hated it at first because I thought it was just Martyn’s plan to keep him ready and in shape for whenever he would convince me of riding him, you know?”

Dan nodded and he tried to move as little as possible, even if his legs were cramping up and he felt himself growing hotter under Phil’s touch.

“Dan, I want to see him. Let’s get Misty finished up and then go see him. Come with me?”

“Yeah. Of course, Phil.”

They tacked off Misty and got her cooled down faster than they had ever done before. Phil moved with resolution and Dan had a feeling that he was trying to keep from backing out.

It was an opportune time.

Marianne wasn’t here at the moment and Martyn and Cornelia had left for the horse market.

Once Misty was back in her box stall and happily munching on hay, Phil walked over to the wall and grabbed down two leading reins.

“Just in case,” he had told Dan.

Dan wasn’t sure what he meant but he went with it regardless.

Black Paladin shared field with the little pony Mr Bogart. As they walked towards the somewhat secluded paddock out front, Dan immediately found the difference in the two hilarious.

Black Paladin was a huge, black and muscular stallion and Mr Bogart was an old small white and swaybacked pony.

They were grazing peacefully but both of them looked up as they heard footsteps approaching.

As a result of Phil avoiding the stallion, Dan hadn’t seen much of him.

He watched him now and he could understand why Phil or anyone scared of horses would be afraid of that black stallion. The size of his neck seemed double the normal riding horses and he seemed taller too, though that might be partly because he was standing next to a small pony.

Dan couldn’t be sure.

The stallion and Phil just stared at each other as Phil came to a halt a little away from the fence.

“Hi Paladin,” Phil called out and he didn’t speak very loudly but both Paladin and Bogart’s ears tipped in their direction, so his words must have carried.

In one big swoop, Paladin turned around on the spot and effortlessly jumped into a beautiful canter.

He moved like when Phil was riding on one of the mares and made them work on their form.

It was beautiful to see.

Dan could understand why he was the stable’s pride and joy.

Paladin with Bogart hot on his tail ran directly towards them. For a beat, Dan worried that at least the stallion might leap over the fence because he made no indication of stopping until the very last second where he veered off to the side.

He let out a snort and arched his neck while watching the two of them.

“Hey old boy,” Phil said in the softest voice. “It’s good to see you.”

Phil took a careful step forward and Paladin willingly marched up to the fence and extended his head forward. Phil put his hand on Paladin’s nose and the stallion remained completely still.

“It’s been a while, huh?” he said.

Paladin tipped his head forward into Phil’s touch.

“It wasn’t your fault, boy. I know you didn’t mean to drop me,” Phil told the horse.

Dan felt a little like he was intruding on a private moment but then Phil turned half-towards Dan and started to speak to him instead of the horse.

“Did I ever tell you about him as a foal?” Phil asked.

“No,” Dan replied. “You don’t talk about him that much.”

Phil hummed and ran his hand over the white marking on Paladin’s face. The stallion still stood perfectly still, even as Bogart moved around a little restlessly.

“I suppose I don’t,” Phil said, his voice so deep and quiet. “He was the only foal of his year. We almost lost him during the birth. The umbilical cord got wrapped around his neck and he almost choked. For the first couple of days, I practically lived in his and Gaia’s box stall while we monitored him. And then, when he was finally let out on the field with his mother, I was right there next to him. As he was just a young colt, and I a teenager, I would do this thing where we played tag. It was a horrible game from an obedience perspective but I loved it. I never even considered how dangerous it could be to have a horse run around me after that. I had grown out of my initial fear of horses by then. Until recently.”

Paladin let out a low rumbling whinny and Phil looked like he might cry.

“I miss you too, buddy,” Phil said and moved in to rest his head against Paladin’s while he moved his hands down to cup his muzzle.

“He’s beautiful, Phil.”

“I know. That’s what everyone says. He’s such a beautiful horse. He moves so well. He’s got an incredible pedigree. He passes on his qualities to his offspring. He’s the whole package. But… most of them forget about the most important part. He’s got a good head.”

“A good head?” Dan questioned.

Phil shot him a little quick smile.

“Like a good head on his shoulders. He has a wonderful temper and he’s very well-behaved. People tend to overlook that at times when they’re looking for a breeding stallion for their mare but it’s the most important part of a horse. If you’ve got a horse that’s good and it is willing to listen to you, then you can do almost anything. You see how chill Misty is. She’s got her father’s temper.”

Dan walked a little closer as Phil pulled his head back from where it had rested against Paladin. The stallion curiously extended his neck to give Dan a sniff and after a quick reassuring glance at Phil, he extended a flat palm and let the stallion smell him.

“This is Dan,” Phil introduced as if the horse would actually be able to understand. It should have been a little weird but Dan just found it endearing. He was so freaking endeared by almost everything Phil did.

He couldn’t bring himself to regret it. Phil was great and Dan was lucky to have him as a friend, even if that was all that they were.

“Hello,” he found himself saying and as he did so Phil’s smile widened.

“He likes you,” Phil commented. Dan wasn’t sure how he could know or if he was just saying it to be nice.

“I like him too. Even if he is scarily big.”

“I know. He’s a big boy. But… and this might sound ridiculous but when I see him and look into his eyes, I just recall the colt that I used to play tag with on the field, you know? Before he became a dressage competition horse and a breeding stallion. Back when he was just Black Paladin and I thought he would be my personal horse.”

“Wait, he’s supposed to be yours?” Dan asked.

“I thought so. We had a special bond. But then he grew into this beautiful stallion and Martyn wanted to start him for competitions and my parents had been wanting one of our home-grown foals to be a breeding stallion for years. It fit with this boy. Martyn is a great rider and they have done amazing work together.”

“But Phil, if he’s yours then you get to decide what to do with him, don’t you?”

Phil let out a little huff of laughter.

“Not really. All the horses born are technically my parents and he needs to be showed. He excels at it. He deserves an audience. You’d know if you ever saw him move. Actually…”

Phil reached down and picked up the leading ropes that he had brought along and handed one off to Dan. He then walked over to the gate and Dan followed obediently, even if he wasn’t following Phil’s train of thought.

When Phil clicked his rope onto Paladin’s headcollar, Dan mimicked the gesture with Mr Bogart but he still wasn’t sure what was happening. Phil seemed a little too caught up in his head, so Dan didn’t try to speak.

As they walked the horse and pony out of the paddock, Phil suddenly came to an abrupt stop and Paladin stopped immediately next to him. Dan pulled Bogart to a stop too.

Then Phil moved forward a couple of steps more and then stopped again. Paladin stayed on his right side, right next to him and his hooves never went past Phil’s feet. Suddenly, Phil took a couple of steps backward but even this the stallion followed.

The leading rope hang loosely between them at all times.

“You remember that, huh?” Phil asked the stallion and reached up to ruffle Paladin’s forelock.

He started to walk again. “I want to show you something, Dan. I just need a brindle and a long rein on him.”

Dan didn’t dare to say anything so he just followed Phil with Mr Bogart in tow and deposited the pony into his box stall while Phil positioned Paladin outside the box stalls. As Phil went and fetched a brindle and the long rein, Dan had a moment alone with the stallion.

“You better be on your perfect behaviour,” he told Paladin.

He knew the horse couldn’t understand him but he had grown used to Phil always talking to his horses and it was just another habit that was rubbing off on Dan.

By mid-September, he would probably have adopted all Phil’s habits. Dan found that he really didn’t mind all that much.

Phil’s hands were shaking a little as he removed Paladin’s headcollar and replaced it with a brindle.

“Phil, you don’t have to do this, if you don’t want to,” Dan reminded him.

He knew he reminded Phil of it a lot and maybe it was a bit too much but he knew that Phil always felt like there were things he was supposed to be doing and he would get upset with himself if he didn’t do them.

“I want to show you how he moves. He’s a sight to behold, Dan. I’m okay. These past two weeks have been good for me. It’s much easier now. Just trust me that you’ll want to see this.”

Dan found himself at the edge of the rotunda after they had walked around with Paladin to warm him up a bit. Dan was still impressed with how carefully the stallion was watching Phil’s movement and sought to constantly match them.

When he was a bit to slow on the uptake, Phil would gently correct him and he would do it perfect the next time.

Phil took his position in the middle of the circular course and Paladin stood next to him, only attached by the long rein that had been pulled through the bit.

They were in their own little bubble. Phil reached up to rest his hand on Paladin’s jaw and it looked like he whispered something to the stallion but Dan was too far away to hear.

With a click of the tongue and a brief motion of his arm, Phil sent the stallion out to run in circles around him.

“Trot,” Phil told Paladin who immediately moved forward into a bouncy trot.

For the first round before he flung his head upwards and started to canter wildly.

Dan’s heart jumped into his chest because he wasn’t sure if Phil should be handling a wild stallion.

Phil pulled one hard tug on the rein to get the horse’s attention and told him no. Paladin came to a halt and let out a snort while lifting his head high.

But Phil didn’t look scared of him.

“It’s okay,” Phil told the stallion. “I know, I’m a bit rusty but we know each other too well for you to pull that. Try again.”

He spoke with complete calm and he ordered the stallion to trot around again.

This time he didn’t tense up. He didn’t fling his head. He just moved his legs perfectly, while he had one ear constantly turned towards Phil.

Phil ordered walk, trot and canter at different intervals and every couple of minutes, he’s order the stallion to return to the centre and adjust the rein to have a go on the opposite side. Every time, he would give Paladin a treat and stroke his neck and praise him.

It was magical to watch Phil command this huge stallion around like he was the symbol of obedience.

And Dan also understood what Phil had wanted him to see.

Paladin’s movements were incredible. Subconsciously, Dan kept imagining a string of piano keys running. With every fall of his hoof and every movement of his back and neck, Dan could imagine the music.

He pulled out his phone and started to film.

Dan wanted Phil to be able to see this.

He didn’t want to show Phil the movements. He could see that just fine from his position and his eyes never left his horse.

No, Dan wanted him to be able to see the brief but important interactions between human and horse when they changed directions. Phil was one big smile and Paladin looked completely at ease.

They looked like they had missed each other terribly.

Dan was suddenly thankful that Martyn had cornered him this morning. He hadn’t realised how much joy Phil was shutting himself off from by avoiding Black Paladin.

He was the horse that had thrown Phil, so Dan could understand Phil’s behaviour but it was still a bit heart-breaking.

As Phil was wrapping up, Dan put the phone back in his pocket. He would tell Phil about it later.

“Do you see what I mean?” Phil asked.

He was stood close to Paladin’s left leg with his arm resting over the stallion’s shoulders.

The horse that stood next to Phil now was very different from the one Dan had watched Marianne train on occasion.

It was clear for everyone to see that the two of them had history.

“I do. He’s quite magical. I kept hearing piano in my head as he moved. He’s something special, Phil.”

“Piano music?”

“Yeah, you know how I told you that I sometimes just hear music if I’m walking around and imagining that I had my own soundtrack?” Dan said. It was something he had shared on one of the numerous late nights where they had just stayed up late to talk, despite both of them being tired.

“You did that just now?”

“Yeah.”

“Dan, can I tell you something?”

“Yeah, you know you can tell me anything,” Dan echoed Phil’s words from earlier and he hoped that Phil was able to sense the sincerity in them.

“I missed him. I missed walking with him. I missed training with him. I miss riding him, I think. Even after everything that happened.”

Dan nodded. “That’s okay.”

“I’m not sure it is,” Phil said and bit into his lip. “Martyn has been trying to get be back to riding him for months and if he sees me riding him, he’ll immediately demand that I train for the showcase.”

“You can ride him without committing to anything more, Phil. He’s your horse, right? If you want to ride him, you can do that.”

“Isn’t is stupid when I have been avoiding doing it for months?” Phil asked and looked sideways to the horse waiting patiently by his side.

“People change. Opinions change. It isn’t stupid.”

“I might just do that,” Phil settled on and reached over to stroke Paladin’s neck.

“I’m willing to help with whatever you need,” Dan volunteered.

Chapter Text

Phil started approaching Black Paladin’s box stall again. He had purposely only gone by the box stall when he knew the stallion wouldn’t be there up until now but things had changed.

After Dan had told Phil about how Martyn had spoken about Phil and Paladin, Phil had felt caught in a bit of a moral dilemma within himself.

In an argument with his brother months ago, he had shouted that he never wanted to ride “that damned stallion ever again.” It had been said in the heat of the moment but Phil had embraced the anger he felt at Martyn continuing to pressure him to get back in the saddle and get ready to show the stallion in the autumn now that Martyn was out for the count.

Phil had gotten better over the summer. Phil had noticed how he was out with the horses for longer hours and he complained of headaches a whole lot less. Phil was glad to see him improving.

Maybe Martyn would be fit enough to take the reins for the showcase in mid-September.

Only… if he did manage to get well enough, he still wouldn’t be able to start.

Black Paladin hadn’t been ridden in months. He had tossed every new rider who had been on him since February. He would be tense and anxious with new riders and after a while they had just stopped trying to find someone to ride him.

He had always been happy to work under the Lester brothers but they had been in his life since he was just a little colt.

For months, the most exercise he had done had been when someone, usually Cornelia or Marianne, took him through the paces for the long rein. They could strap him in, so that he was working a little like a dressage posture but it was nothing like the real thing.

The day after Phil had showed Dan how Black Paladin could move, Phil casually had asked Marianne if he should take the session with the stallion when he saw her walking in with the long reining equipment.

Okay, Phil might have hung out around the corner, talking with Dan who was mucking out and kept an eye out specifically for her to walk by.

It was totally casual.

Marianne had been surprised at the offer but she had thanked him for the help and handed over the equipment without fuss or any comment. She knew that Phil hadn’t been near the stallion for a very long time but she didn’t make him doubt himself when he came to ask to train him.

It was a small mercy and Phil was happy with Marianne being so cool.

The next few days, he took to long reining Black Paladin every single day. Phil was pleased to see that the stallion continued to listen to him for most parts and if he did occasionally buck or pull against the rein, Phil could quickly correct him and he did as asked again.

It was odd when Phil called him into the middle of the circle to switch sides because Phil was face to face with the horse that had scared him away from riding for months. He was watching the dark intelligent eyes hover over his.

The stallion was big and impressive and if Paladin wanted to, he could just take off in one direction and Phil would be dragged along like he was nothing if he didn’t let go of the rein.

But Paladin didn’t do that.

He obediently came towards Phil, stood still when asked and moved through his gaits with his one ear constantly pointed towards Phil. Like he had been taught to behave. Like Phil had taught him to behave when he was just a young stallion and he had been full of young teenage trouble-making tendencies. Paladin had questioned Phil’s authority again and again for almost a year but Phil had been patient with him.

He was still patient with him now but it was much smoother to get reacquainted than when Phil had first had to show the horse how to behave.

It just slotted into place.

He was still riding with Dan daily as well. It had gotten to the point where they always saddled Misty and Money next to each other and they would either ride out on a forest ride or they would train on the dressage course together.

When doing dressage, Phil would make Misty complete some moves and Dan would have to imitate them on more experienced Money to the best of his ability. Phil was actually teaching some of the more complicated exercises to the young Misty along the way as well.

Two birds, one stone and all that.

On the forest rides, Phil would be in front on Money, who would usually be pulling along impatiently, while Misty and Dan just followed behind. The silver mare just followed Money’s tempo.

By accident on one of their trips, Phil had found the old gallop path. He hadn’t really dared to go on it, as he felt Money grow anticipatory as she recognised it. But Dan had asked why Phil made halt and once he had explained that they had found the path where Martyn and Phil would usually lean forward, give the horse the rein and just let them gallop as fast as they could, Dan had asked if they should try it.

For someone who was so new to horse riding, he was already putting a lot of trust in his horse. Phil had been a little nervous but he and Money had started in a steady canter, side by side with Dan on Misty and they had both leaned forward and with a click of their heels, they had been flying.

It was something special.

Phil had almost been a little unnerved by the fast pace, but he had looked over to Dan who had just been smiling and that was contagious.

For a week straight, Phil had exercised Black Paladin with long reining and his family had noticed but none of them had commented on it quite yet until Martyn had to come strolling into the stable while Phil was getting ready to train Black Paladin.

He was bend down and brushing the stallion’s flank, but Dan was with him and called out Martyn’s name, as he seemed to attempt to sneak in.

“Oh, hi, Dan. I didn’t see you there. And Phil. And… Black Paladin.”

Phil could tell just by the way he said the stallion’s name that he was about to get the talk. The why-don’t-you-get-in-the-saddle-and-train-him-and-show-him-in-September talk. The same talk he had been hearing again and again.

As the week had passed without incidence, Phil had thought that maybe Martyn had just given up and that his talk with Dan had showed him that he needed to stop trying to make decisions on Phil’s behalf.

Now Phil wasn’t so sure.

“Beautiful day, huh?”

“The weather? Really?” Phil said as he went back to the rhythmic feeling of brushing Paladin. The horse would have no way to know that the humans around him were discussing his future potential as a breeding stallion. He curled up his lip in contentment, as Phil moved past a spot that itched.

“Fine. But you’re killing me here, Phil. You’re helping muck out box stalls. You’re training Black Paladin from the ground. You’re practicing dressage with Misty. You’re going on forest rides with Money. You’re back to your normal self or at least it seems like that,” Martyn stated.

When Martyn phrased it like that, Phil was almost inclined to agree. It made sense. He was just about to open his mouth and agree with Martyn but Dan spoke before he managed to say anything.

“Phil says that normalness leads to sadness, so I don’t think you need to worry about the normal status,” Dan chimed in and left both Lester brothers a little speechless.

Martyn just looked genuinely stumped, while Phil was trying to calm his beating heart.

Dan just quoted him. How was that a thing? He also stood up for him when Phil had been about to cave. How did he get so lucky to have someone like that in his life?

And he might just also feel a little flattered. Who wouldn’t be when their crush acted like that?

Phil had tried to deny it for weeks but the attraction that he had felt for Dan when he had first met him had not faded away as they had formed their special and close friendship. It had only grown deeper within Phil’s heart.

Dan was an incredible person and he had a beautiful mind and he wasn’t bad to look at either. Anyone in their right mind would be crushing on him, if you asked Phil.

But Phil wasn’t going to act on it. They were friends and it was the most amazing friendship Phil had ever been apart of. It had come to matter the world to him in just the two months that they had known each other.

Phil didn’t want to rock the boat by confessing his attraction or acting on the impulses he sometimes felt around Dan.

But right now it was so much more than that. It was just a profound appreciation for the wonderful being that was Dan Howell.

“Yeah,” Martyn said, seemingly still lost for words. He scratched the back of his neck and Phil followed the movement.

“How are you feeling recently, Martyn?” Phil asked. “You seem in better spirits.”

Martyn shot him an optimistic smile. “The doctor says that it’s getting better. I might be able to ride again soon, she said. I refrained from mentioning that I have gone on the odd riding walk around these past months. I just… it feels weird not to be in the saddle. It’s like a craving. I guess, you might feel differently,” Martyn said awkwardly.

It wasn’t entirely true. Phil had felt the craving. It was the thing that had driven him out to visit Black Paladin’s box stall and hang out by the foals from the moment he came back from university. It was easier to ignore when he had just stayed in York and not gone home to be surrounded by temptation all the time.

“Do you think you’d be ready for the showcase?” Phil asked thoughtfully, as an idea started to from in his head.

It was crazy. It would probably not work but… Phil did sort of want to give it a shot. Just to see.

“Maybe?” Martyn said. “But getting on a stallion that hasn’t been ridden in moment with an old that I haven’t trained in months either wouldn’t do us any good.”

“What if we made a new freestyle programme?” Phil asked and nodded towards Dan, who looked very confused. “I’ll map out the exercises, Dan will make the music on our piano and then… I’ll practice it with Black Paladin. If you can stay in shape yourself, we can get your horse and programme shaped up for you. Then you’d just need like a week to work out the kinks and you could show Paladin at the showcase.”

“Are you sure, Phil?” Dan asked.

“Yeah,” Phil said with a shrug. “I think it might just work.”

He wanted to ride on Paladin again and it would be good to have something to work towards, as long as he didn’t have to perform it in front of all the people. Also, since Dan had suggested that he could make music completely tailored to Paladin’s movements, Phil hadn’t been able to get it out of his head.

He wanted to sit huddled up with Dan on the floor with drawings of the different exercises and listen to Dan try out different tunes on the piano. It could be a cool thing for them to do together.

“I think that’s a wonderful idea,” Martyn said and he was smiling so bright. Phil hadn’t seen him smile so wide in a long time. “And Dan can do that? Make a piano piece from scratch?”

“I think so?” Dan said a little nervously.

“Of course, he can. You haven’t heard him play. This boy knows so many songs and he doesn’t even really read sheet music. He just listens to a song a couple of times and remembers how it sounds and he plays around with the notes until it’s right. It’s rather impressive.”

Phil could be mistaken but he was almost sure that Dan’s cheeks looked like they were getting redder at the compliment.

“I’d love to see what you come up with,” Martyn said. “I’ll leave you to it, I guess.”

Phil walked up to Paladin’s head and put a hand on the side of his neck.

“It seems like we’re digging out the saddle, old pal.”

The stallion let out a snort. He didn’t know what his old rider was saying but he was probably just glad to have any attention directed at him again.

It was familiar to walk out to the dressage course. Phil had hold of Paladin’s rein and Dan was walking right beside him. Dan seemed almost more nervous than Phil and Phil somehow found that oddly adorable.

“You’re nervous for me?” Phil asked as he pulled the stallion to a halt by the stool and started to adjust the girth, which earned him an irritated head toss from Paladin.

“No,” Dan said but he didn’t sound sure himself. “It’s just… he’s a really large horse, Phil. And his muscles look enormous.”

“You have seen me long reining him for a whole week. He’s been on his best behaviour,” Phil countered and now moved to adjust the stirrup length.

“Do you feel completely okay with getting back in his saddle?” Dan asked. “You seem very chill about it.”

Phil took a moment to consider Dan’s question.

“I suppose… it’s just been a gradual thing of snapping back into place. I’ve been riding for weeks every day now. It feels familiar and good to be back. I’m a little nervous because you never know with a stallion but I’ve been building up on my good experiences with horses for weeks and weeks now. I’ve had it reaffirmed that they are nice and lovely most of the time, even if I know it’s still a dangerous sport. Hold down the opposite stirrup for me, will you?”

Dan walked around and assisted and Phil got up on the stool and swung his leg over Paladin’s back.

He was significantly larger than either Misty or Money. Firstly, those were both mares and smaller in statute, but Money was also a good bit shorter and Misty landed somewhere between in height but she was a very narrow horse.

Paladin felt huge to sit across by comparison.

Phil allowed himself to take one deep breath and adjust his position before asking Paladin to move forward.

Phil didn’t ask Dan to do it, but he walked by Paladin’s head all throughout their walk warm-up. He kept chatting away as Phil focused on his hands and getting the stallion to relax. It had been months since he had carried a rider without tossing him.

Phil seemed to have conveniently forgot about that piece of information until just now.

“You’re doing great,” Dan said just when Phil needed assurances the most. “You look really good together actually. Your long legs fit him well.”

Phil breathed out a little easier and forced the tension away. He let the stallion stay in walk for longer than her normally would and he only started to move up into trot when Dan removed himself from the course and sat down on the bench just outside.

But he was only sitting for about five seconds before he got up.

“Hey Phil, I just had an idea. How about I film the two of you? That way, I can use the footage to help create music later. And you always complain about how it’s annoying that there’s no mirrors here on the outdoor course, so you can look back if there’s anything you’d like to see improved on.”

It was not a half-bad idea. It was a very good idea, even if Phil felt a little self-conscious at his probably still stilted movements were to be filmed and Paladin hadn’t walked under a rider for a long time.

But maybe it could also serve to show Phil their improvement. If they were going to get serious about this, then they needed all the help they could get.

“It sounds like a very good idea, Dan. Please do film away, as long as you keep talking to me.”

“Won’t my voice on it afterwards annoy you?” Dan asked.

Phil rolled his eyes. As if he would ever be annoyed at hearing Dan’s voice. He loved Dan’s voice. He loved Dan’s presence in general and he wanted it sprinkled on as many things as possible before both of their lives had to move off in different directions again after the summer.

“It’ll be fine. Or I’ll just mute you if I get too tired of listing to posh Winnie the Pooh.”

Dan gaped in exaggerated shock. Phil could instantly tell it was an act.

“I told you that in confidence!” he complained loudly. “Jerk,” he added but he had no real intention behind the word.

It was all consensual banter and Phil’s heart sung a little at the fact he knew so many old anecdotes from Dan’s life and that he knew just how to push Dan’s buttons without taking it to far. Phil felt his muscles relax and he felt more confident in the saddle already. Dan always seemed to have that effect on him. It was quite something.

As they started to perform some of the easier exercises like leg yields to get some air under the stallion and between the Paladin’s legs and work on his flexibility, Phil just let himself get lost in the training.

It helped that he had been doing a lot of the same things with Misty just the day before.

But it was very different from riding the young inexperienced mare to a big trained stallion on the way into his best years.

This felt better than Phil would admit out loud as long, as Martyn might be lurking around. He didn’t need his brother to gloat, even if he wouldn’t mean it in a malicious way.

“You’ve been riding for half an hour,” Dan said and pulled his phone down. “My battery is dying. Should I grab yours or are you about to finish up?”

Had it been half an hour already? It felt like ten minutes at most. Paladin moved smoothly under Phil. Phil reached his hand forward to place it on Paladin’s neck and it was quite damp. As he was in a halt, Paladin corrected his head into the position he had struggled to keep just a couple of years ago.

He was a wonderful horse and it was a shame that no one was riding him at the moment. He was much more than a breeding stallion, even if he created gorgeous foals.

“I’ll finish up now. I just lost track of time,” Phil said and asked Paladin to up the gait.

Phil rode in rising trot and allowed the stallion to get a bit more of the rein and stretch out his back as he started to cool off.

“I could see that. You stopped paying attention to me like twenty minutes ago. Did you even notice that I stopped talking?” Dan said.

“No. What? Sorry. I know how-“

“It’s okay, Phil. I don’t mind. It was actually nice to see you just get lost in it and be completely focused. You look very impressive on the video.”

“I bet we look a bit stilted and tense,” Phil countered, but as Paladin moved beneath him with long loose strokes, Phil knew that they had come pretty far on the first day. It was a good thing because they had less than a month to get him ready for Martyn to start the showcase on the 16th of September. It would be a lot of hard work.

Phil was pretty beat, so Dan offered to wash down the stallion. Phil had just forgotten to warn him that Paladin was more like a big dog when it came to water. The moment Dan turned off the hose and lowered it, Paladin started shaking his entire body.

Dan let out a shriek like Phil had never heard before and Phil toppled forward in laughter while sat on the bench in the corner where he was removing his riding boots.

Dan’s mouth was agape, his clothes, face and hair was appropriately sprinkled and he looked offended at the stallion.

“You’re a big baby. You’re wet, so now I have to have a shower too?” Dan complained to Paladin, who looked as innocent as possible.

Dan then comically shook his head like a wet dog as well. His hair was curling at the tips and Phil found it a cute look on him. He knew Dan straightened his hair but he could easily have forgone that, if you asked for Phil’s opinion.

They finished up with Paladin, who was then situated in his box stall with a mash treat, which he was slurping up happily. Dan was still looking a little miserably down at his clothes.

“Come on, we’ll go out in the sun and get you dried off,” Phil said and grabbed him by the arm.

As Phil spotted Cornelia and Marianne walking around with Thor and Loki on the dressage course, he dragged Dan just right back there, even if it meant sitting next to Martyn on the bench.

“How did it go?” his brother asked.

“Didn’t you spy on us?” Phil countered.

“No, Phil. This is your show. You decide what you want to happen. I’m done budding in. But you’re still smiling so I assume that it went well?”

“It did,” Phil said without offering any form of elaboration.

“Aren’t those two really young?” Dan asked and nodded towards Thor and Loki.

“Yeah, they’re three years old and they haven’t been ridden before. Usually, we’d start with their training earlier in the spring, give them the summer off and then pick up around now but things…. happened,” Phil said.

“Phil means that I’m usually the one to break the horses, along with Cornelia and my doctor would not have been happy if I had gotten on the back of an untrained horse. If I’m thrown now with my injury…”

“Martyn, it’s okay. We’re just doing it a little later than usual now. It’ll be okay,” Phil said to make his brother stop the self-wallow. Martyn couldn’t help that he’d gotten hurt. It could have happened to anyone.

It could be dangerous to get on the back of such powerful animals.

But Phil was starting to remember that it was worth it anyway.

“Martyn, could you come and walk Thor?” Marianne asked. “We’ll start with Loki.”

Martyn was about to get up but Phil went and took Thor’s rein from Marianne.

“Shouldn’t I take him just off course, so you have enough space?” Phil offered.

“Yeah, just keep him close. I don’t want Loki to be all alone out here and the two of them are quite close.”

“Got it,” Phil said. It was the standard procedure that they usually used.

It was scary enough that a rider would suddenly put their weight over the young horse’s back for the first time. They didn’t need to think that they had been abandoned as well. Phil took Thor just off the dressage course and came back to stand by Martyn and Dan.

Thor was one big softie and he tried to muzzle Phil’s hair.

“Cornelia has her sights on Loki as her future jumper,” Martyn told to Dan.

Phil watched as Marianne took the position by Loki’s head and Cornelia went up on the ascension stool. She was a little too far away for Phil to pick up on what she was saying but he could see her mouth moving. She was probably whispering calming words.

Horses liked to be talked to and they could read a lot in your tone.

“Why not Thor?” Dan asked and looked back at Phil and the red gelding. “He seems to fit better.”

“Because he’s red?” Phil asked.

Dan had a thing for symmetry and when things matched. He looked a little like he had been caught out but he was still smiling.

“It would just be cool to have three red horses, wouldn’t it?”

“It’s an accident that her two other horses are red,” Martyn explained. “She had Adidas when I got to know her already and Hermes was picked for his amazing speed and agility, but even more so because he has the right build and temper to be a good jumper. Look at Thor here, he’s still young and narrow but his limps are much bigger than Loki’s. He’ll be heavier to get off the ground and he’s a sweetheart but a little slow on the uptake. I don’t he’ll have that spark to chase towards the finishing line. Loki has more of a jumper’s build and he might be a little mischievous, Phil picked his name well, but he’s also got a burning fire in him. Thor will probably be a great dressage horse.”

Phil had been avoiding his brother for a long time, because he had constantly been worried that he would be subject to pressures to ride when he didn’t want to. But he had missed just hanging out with his big brother.

Because of their shared interest in horses, that had been a lot of what they talked about growing up. Phil had missed hearing him rant about horses’ builds and which stallions to use on their mares to get the best foals. It was officially their parents’ decision but Martyn had been taken a bigger and bigger part in it lately.

Phil pulled his focus back to Loki, who now moved forward with a few anxious steps as Cornelia was lying on her stomach across his back.

“Is she… I’m guessing that’s on purpose?” Dan asked a little worriedly.

“Yeah. It’s to get Loki used to weight being on his back. We’ll usually do it like this for a couple of times before she’ll sit upright.”

“It can’t be comfortable,” Dan said and wrinkled his nose.

It wasn’t.

Phil hadn’t usually been the one to volunteer to get on the back of the young horses as they were breaking them in. It had usually always been Martyn and then both him and Cornelia after she joined the family.

The only horse Phil had been the first to be on had been Paladin. Martyn had been a little worried when nineteen year old Phil had expressed his wish to be the one to break in the young stallion.

They had never broken in a stallion before. All their colts had been castrated before they reached their third year and been geldings by the time they were being taught to carry a rider.

But Phil had a special bond with Paladin and Martyn had relented and let him be the rider but Martyn had been there every step of the way to help him. And just a year later, when they saw how Paladin could move under rider, Martyn had taken on the role as primary rider to start the stallion in competitions.

As Phil watched Cornelia lie on her stomach, he could almost feel it himself. It was very uncomfortable but it was worth it. Phil had just been on the back of the horse that he had broken in about five years ago and he was a dream to ride.

It was worth it to take it slow and endure the uncomfortable feeling of getting bumped in your stomach with each step that the horse took.

If you did it right, you could get a wonderful horse out of it for years and years to come.

Phil felt the itch in his skin and his mind was spinning. He had kept himself distanced from this world for a long time but it didn’t matter. Entering back into it felt like coming home and it was all started again because he had decided to show Dan how nice horses could be.

Dan was watching Loki and Cornelia with Marianne at the rein, with razor focus, so Phil took the moment to glance at the back of Dan’s head and just smile a little. Thor nudged Phil’s shoulder with his nose.

“I know, buddy,” he whispered to the horse.

Phil probably looked completely enamoured but he couldn’t bring himself to case. Dan had brought so much joy back into his life without even trying.

Chapter Text

Dan loved working on creating music from the freestyle a lot more than he had anticipated. It had been ages since he had been sat at a piano and done something other than just play the songs that he had memorised.

This was a new kind of challenge but it was fun.

When Phil rode Black Paladin the following week, Dan would film his progress and the different exercises he was trying out. Phil was still taking it easy to ease himself and the stallion into serious dressage training but even Dan could tell that the two of them were improving over the course of just one week.

In the evenings, after dinner with Phil’s family, the two of them would go up to the piano and work. They’d watch back different parts of the video filmed and try out different themes. Dan borrowed little pieces from different songs he already knew and weaved them into the design of the song.

Phil was very excited about the whole thing and he was praising Dan every step of the way. Dan did the same with Phil’s riding. He had come so far since Dan had first arrived.

Still, Dan did notice that he sometimes got a little spooked if Paladin did a misstep or got a bit spooked. A flash of fear or worry would usually seize his features for a beat and his shoulders would go up and tense but Phil was getting expertly at snapping himself out of it.

Usually, he would bring the stallion to a halt, take a deep breath and reach forward to stroke Paladin’s neck while he spoke in soft and calming tones. It was quite adorable.

Phil would get frustrated with his own lack of ability at times, when he felt like they couldn’t do an exercise properly. He would never put any of the blame on his horse. He always took full responsibility because, as he stated, it was the rider’s responsibility to show the horse what you wanted it to do.

You could never just expect that it would know how, even if it had been trained in the principles for years. You had to show it, again and again.

But things were still starting to come together nicely. Phil had a loose skeleton of the order of the exercises and Dan had jotted down a lot of possible music that could only be finalised when Phil was sure of how the programme would look.

At some point they would have to practice so that the horse’s movement and the music matched perfectly.

As part of their evening routine, Phil showed Dan some of his favourite Grand Prix rides and Dan was completely awed at them. The horses looked like they were legitimately dancing and for most parts it looked like their riders were just sitting still on top of them.

Phil said that the easier it looked, the harder it usually was. You had to make your signals as subtle and hidden as possible when you performed on that level.

Phil also insisted on giving Dan riding lessons, even if they had gone back to every other day now that they spent so much time working on things for Black Paladin. Some days, they would also saddle up Moneypenny and Misty together and go on forest rides and both of them were growing bolder each time and it was becoming a wonderful habit.

Dan wasn’t sure how he was supposed to leave all of this country bliss behind in just three weeks. Time had absolutely flown by.

Late at night, Dan sometimes got the urge to yell at the universe to slow down. Just pause for a little while and let him live in this bubble with Phil.

He didn’t want to go back to university again. He didn’t want his life here to end because he had found immense comfort in it.

In the beautiful grounds, the beautiful horses and the beautiful… Phil.

But try as he might, the hours still kept speeding by, especially when they were working and having fun and it would suddenly be midnight without any of them realising.

“Dan and Phil, are you coming to the competition tomorrow?” Phil’s father asked at the dinner table on Friday.

Dan looked over and locked eyes with Phil who squirmed a bit in his seat. Clearly, he had forgot to mention something.

“I think we’ll be busy, Dad,” Phil said and he shot a look at Dan recruit his help in backing up his refusal.

Phil hadn’t even needed to look at him. Dan was on-board instantly. He would have followed Phil’s lead either way.

“We still have so much to do with the free programme,” Dan confirmed and twirled his fork around in his pasta.

“You boys could use a break from all the work. And I know you like to see the four year olds compete, Phil. You always said that it was magical to see our homebred horses be admired for the first time, especially if you saw them years later at big competitions and you could reminisce about when they were just four and starting out,” Phil’s mother added.

“I did used to say that, didn’t I?” Phil remarked and started down into his plate.

“Phil, it’s only if you want to. I just figured that you wanted to show Dan,” his mother continued.

“It would be nice with a couple of extra hands,” Martyn chimed in. “If you want to. Paladin and the free style programme will still be here when you get home. You’ve done incredible progress.”

Dan caught how Phil’s head almost snapped up to look at Martyn. There was tension in the air for a moment and Dan wondered if he was about to be witness to a family squabble.

But Phil didn’t look angry, hurt or uncomfortable. He just looked a little stunted.

“You think so?” Phil asked his older brother.

Dan was fairly certain that Phil would never admit it out loud but after having gotten to know Phil and spent so much time with him, Dan could tell just how much Phil admired his big brother and sought his approval. Maybe it was even a subconscious thing.

But he cared what his brother thought, so very much, and he wanted him to be proud.

“Of course,” Martyn said and reached over to place a hand on Phil’s shoulder. “I’ve caught glimpses of your training and you’re looking great, Phil. Both you and your horse.”

Silence fell over the dinner table again but this time it wasn’t tense at all. Phil’s shoulders slumped a little.

“Thank you, Martyn.”

“I’d love to have your support at the competition, Phil,” Cornelia added with a brief smile and Dan knew that Phil would cave already before he spoke up and agreed.

Over the past two months, Dan had started to get to know the Lesters quite a bit and they were a special bunch. It seemed only natural that someone as special as Phil would come from an equally extraordinary family.

They were all nudging Phil a little but Dan could tell that their intentions were pure. They wanted to help Phil and to get him out of his comfort zone so that he could grow.

“I guess we’re going to a competition tomorrow, Dan,” Phil said and looked across the table to meet his eyes.

Dan nodded and smiled.

Unexpectedly, he was hit with a wave of fondness. Phil’s words were spoken with utmost certainty, like it was completely natural for Dan to go where Phil went.

Dan could get used to that.

It was nice to be thought of and instinctively included. He was starting to feel more and more at home with Phil and his family.

The following morning they woke up early and went out into the stable to wash and ready Rihanna and Adele for their competitions. Dan had seen Cornelia or Marianne ride them on the course on occasion but he had never spent much time with the two four-year-old mares.

Rihanna was sleek and black and Dan correctly guessed that none other than Black Paladin sired her. Adele was a light bay who had a heart shaped mark on her forehead and she was another one of Gaia’s foals.

That old mare seemed to the foundation of most of the Lester’s foals in one way and he mentioned his observation in the car with Marianne, Martyn, Cornelia and Phil.

“One of the most important things in the horses that we breed,” Martyn said, “is that they have a good head.”

“Good head?” Dan said a little confused.

“It’s just an expression,” Phil clarified. “It’s that they have a good and sensible temper. You can get some wonderful horses that are beautiful and incredible movers but sometimes focusing only on the pedigree and achieving beauty and movement you get horses that have bad tempers.”

“Some breeders don’t spend much consideration on the parents’ tempers as long as their parents have had success,” Cornelia added.

“Speaking of that,” Marianne interjected. “Our old pal Mike is competing with his brand new stallion imported from Germany.”

“Mike?” Dan asked in confusion.

“He’s one of my rivals,” Martyn explained. “We’ve been competing against each other for years. He imports the best horses that money can buy but he’s detached from them. He never does any of the stable work himself. He leaves that all to his team of groomers. He’s got an eight year old black stallion that Paladin and I have been going neck and neck with since we started to compete.”

Phil had suddenly gone very quiet next to Dan in the back and he was leaning back and glancing out of the window.

Martyn and Cornelia were continuing to argue about this Mike person while Dan leaned close to Phil and whisper asked if he was okay.

Phil nodded but he cast a nervous glance to the front of the car where Cornelia was now pointing out that Rihanna and Adele would beat his new stallion out of the park.

“You don’t like Mike, I take it?” Dan asked.

“No. I really don’t. He reminds me of the ugly parts of the sport but I’m okay.”

As Phil said it, he placed his hand on Dan’s knee and gave it a light squeeze. Dan wasn’t exactly proud of the way his heart leapt inside of his chest at the touch.

Phil had started to become more and more touchy over the past week. It wasn’t unusual for him to place his head on Dan’s shoulder when they were looking at the screen to see Phil ride or for him to scoot as close as possible when Dan was playing the piano.

It was just small casual touches but Dan had never had any of his friends touch him so much, even if every single one of the touches could be seen as platonic.

It made sense. Phil was a tactile person.

But Dan really wasn’t, so every time he had that reaction. Just a little part of the back of his brain telling him that the touches meant something and maybe Phil wanted to be more than friends.

Dan firmly shut the unproductive voice off.

They arrived at the competition ground and they got the horses unloaded without much trouble. The two young mares looked around curiously and Rihanna snorted loudly and moved back and forth on her hooves a couple of times.

But Cornelia had hold of her and she immediately corrected the behaviour and asked the horse to focus on her by order the black mare to take five steps back and then five steps forward.

Dan had picked up from Phil that it was important to correct unwanted behaviour as soon as possible or the horse would just assume that their behaviour was acceptable. They couldn’t know better if no one told them.

They started to get Rihanna and Adele ready and saddled. Phil said that Cornelia would ride Adele first and then she was the penultimate rider on Rihanna. The class was quite big but it had already been going for an hour and they would only have about five horses between the two young mares, so Marianne would walk around Rihanna to keep her warm and ready.

“Well, if it isn’t the Lester clan,” someone said and approached their little station outside of the trailer.

Dan didn’t know need to be told that this must be Mike.

He was a probably around Phil or Martyn’s age, tall as well, and then with blond hair and blue eyes. Dan couldn’t help but note that he was classically attractive too, but he wasn’t interested in him in anyway.

If Phil didn’t like him, then he wasn’t a good person.

“Mike, good to see you,” Martyn said, his voice just a little strained as he moved forward to shake his hand.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you, Martyn. How’s the neck?”

“Healing well, thank you,” Martyn replied and his voice was chipped and cold.

“Cornelia, my darling! You look marvellous. I take it you’re the rider of the Lester horses?”

“I am,” she confirmed hesitantly and awkwardly tried to touch Mike as little as possible as he strolled up to her with open arms. “And I’m going to kick your arse.”

Mike laughed and it was over the top and staged. “I’d like to see you try but you know most top riders are men. And my new stallion Viktor is quite the find. He might be able to keep up with Shêtân in a couple of years. Speaking of black stallions, how are yours?”

“He’s great,” Martyn replied.

“Oh? Really. That’s marvellous news. I heard that you had trouble finding a rider for him for the showcase in September. Something about neither of you Lesters being capable of riding him? Did you get injured in that fall last time I saw you, Phil?”

Dan clenched his jaw and stepped a little closer to Phil. He was glaring daggers at this Mike guy. How dare he just stroll up and start insulting everyone? Bringing up Martyn’s injury? Claiming Cornelia was an inferior rider because she was a woman? Talking condescendingly to Phil?

“Oh, who’s this? I don’t think I’ve seen you before,” Mike said and pretended that he saw Dan for the first time. “You stopped riding and got yourself a boyfriend instead, Philip?”

“That’s enough, Mike,” Martyn said before either Dan or Phil had a chance to react.

Martyn actually stepped forward and shielded the two of them.

“Touchy subject? I’m sorry. I didn’t realise,” Mike said but it was clear that he was feigning innocence.

“Mike, go back to your grooming team and your imported stallion. Cornelia and our mares will show you how to ride a good programme.”

“I look forward to it. A bit of competition is healthy. It’s all in good fun.”

Mike thankfully turned around and walked away.

“Is he always like that?” Dan asked.

“No, it’s not usually that bad,” Marianne answered. “I don’t know what’s up with him.”

“I haven’t been competing against him all season, so he has probably been building up the insults. He likes the rivalry,” Martyn said and shrugged. “Phil, are you okay?”

Phil nodded but he still looked a little unsettled.

“Can Phil and I take a walk?” Dan asked as the three others went back to tending to the two horses.

“Sure, we’ve got it covered,” Cornelia said after a glance at Martyn and Marianne. “Just come by and watch me ride, yeah? I’m a little out of my element with this dressage as is and I could use the support.”

“You’ll do wonderfully,” Martyn said and leaned in to press a quick kiss on her temple. “And Dan, just steer clear of Mike?”

Dan nodded and then looped his arm around Phil’s and started to drag him towards the dressage course.

He bumped their shoulders as they walked.

“I’m sorry that you had to meet him, Dan,” Phil said. “And for what he said.”

“He’s a jerk. Don’t worry about it, Phil. I just hope that you’re not letting him get into your head.”

They walked a couple of paces before Phil spoke again.

“What if Martyn isn’t ready for the showcase?”

Dan knew what Phil wasn’t adding. What if Martyn wasn’t ready and Phil would have to do the showcase instead?

Dan wanted to tell him that he could just back out of it. He had never promised to ride at the showcase. He had just promised to train the stallion and make the free style programme with Dan.

But Dan knew Phil and he knew that he felt committed to it now. If Martyn wouldn’t be ready, Phil would likely feel obligated to ride. Dan wasn’t sure if he should say again that everything was Phil’s choice.

He felt a bit like a broken record but if it served to help Phil, and it seemed to do, then he would say it again.

“It’s your choice, Phil.”

As they strolled past the warm-up course, Phil suddenly came to a sudden halt and started out at the horses.

“What is it?” Dan asked. He doubted that Cornelia had somehow made it past them, even if they were walking fairly slow.

“That horse isn’t clean in its gait,” Phil commented.

“Which one?” Dan asked and squinted over the course where several horses were being ridden.

“The pinto,” Phil said and then correctly realised that that description did little to help Dan. “The spotted one,” Phil said instead.

Dan found the horse easily now.

It wasn’t diffuclt considering all the other horses were solid colours like red, bay and black with just small white marking in their heads and on their legs. The one Phil was talking about was painted a bit like a cow.

It wasn’t a fair comparison to the horse because it looked elegant and nice but it had big black and white spots all over. However, unlike cows who looked like they were white with black spots, this horse looked like it was black with white spots.

It was gorgeous.

Dan could see that it moved around a little off-beat and the rider looked a cross between nervous and angry, as she drove her heel into its side and made it jump forward. But a lot of the other horses moved a little hesitantly, as they were taking in their environment and Dan couldn’t see that the horse was limp.

But Dan did trust Phil’s eye so much more than his own.

“If it’s not okay, then you should probably tell the rider.”

“Don’t you think that she can feel it?” Phil asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe not?”

Phil looked a little anxious about the whole thing.

“I can tell her if you’d like,” Dan volunteered, even if it scared him too. If it could help Phil he was prepared to do it. “Just tell me what to say.”

Phil looked like he was seriously considering it but then he shook his head and started moving forward with determined steps. When Dan didn’t immediately followed, Phil stopped up and looked back at him.

Dan was clearly meant to follow. He could do that.

“Excuse me, miss?” Phil tried to say as she passed them but either she didn’t hear Phil or she was ignoring him.

“Hey,” Dan said a little louder the next time she came around and her eyes snapped to him.

She pulled her horse to a halt and it was nervously glancing around and it looked ready to jump up and run off any moment.

“What?” she asked annoyed.

“Your horse isn’t entirely clean in its gait,” Phil explained. “Have you noticed an anomaly from the left hind leg?”

“What?” the girl asked with a frown. “No. He’s fine. He’s just not paying attention,” she said and yanked on the pinto’s rein, which caused it to throw his head in the air.

“I think you should drop out of the competition and get his leg checked out,” Phil suggested. “It’s almost unnoticeable, so it’s probably nothing but it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

“I’m sorry but you don’t know my horse. He always walks like this. He’s out of gait when he isn’t concentrating. He’s my new hope and I’m not dropping out, okay? Can you please mind your own business?”

With that remark, she rode off and Dan felt bad for the poor horse. Phil stayed by the side of the warm-up course and he kept eyeing the pinto, even as Cornelia entered on Adele and Marianne started walking around with Rihanna.

Martyn came over to join Dan and Phil.

“What’s up, Phil?”

“Martyn, look at the pinto’s movements,” Phil instructed. “Am I seeing things?”

Martyn turned his focus to the course and the pinto but they must have called her name on the loud speaker because she started to head off course.

“I’m not sure, Phil. I didn’t see enough. It could just be a balance issue,” Martyn said. “Did you talk to her?”

“She didn’t want to hear that I thought there was something wrong with her horse.”

“Why don’t we follow her over and see her ride?” Martyn suggested. “Cornelia is still walking Adele warm but I promised to be back to coach her.”

The three of them moved from the warm-up course over to the one with the competition and the pinto and female rider rode up towards the judge as they came up and took a place by the fence.

Martyn and Phil were watching intensely and Dan was trying to see what they saw. He couldn’t really see anything until the pinto had to prolong his steps in an extension. Then he saw how the horse was moving choppily.

Both Martyn and Phil looked about ready to scale the fence but before they could do anything, the judge had gotten out of her little house and blown a whistle.

The rider seemed confused but she pulled her horse to a halt and then started asked him to trot towards the judge who was waving.

The three boys were too far away to hear and Martyn left to check up on Cornelia. The girl was crying as she rode out of the course but both Dan and Phil flinched with how she yanked her rein and dug her heels into her poor horse.

“That didn’t look good,” Dan commented.

“It’s not. It’s never a good idea to ride on a horse that can’t move properly like that. You could be lucky that it’s just something muscular that can be solved by warming up properly and then it disappears but you shouldn’t keep riding if it doesn’t get better.”

Neither Dan nor Phil was able to forget about the pinto entirely but soon enough, it was time for Cornelia and Adele. Martyn came back and took his spot next to Dan and Phil.

“She’s nervous. It’s been a while since she’s written dressage.”

“She’s still very good at it,” Phil added to Martyn’s comment.

Dan watched how Cornelia rode around on the young mare, taking her time with the exercises and being precise and guiding. It was a world different from when he had seen her jump with her own horses.

During that competition, she had been a ball of energy and nudging her horse to go faster but it was a completely different style of riding now. She was smiling as she rode off the course. She got a percentage that Dan wasn’t entirely sure what meant but Phil assured him that it was a good score.

Martyn went back with Cornelia to help with Rihanna and Dan and Phil decided to follow along. By now, Mike was riding around on a huge red stallion, supposedly this Viktor, and while Dan didn’t like the guy at all, he was able to recognise that he was a competent rider.

He was a bit rougher than Dan had ever seen Cornelia or Phil be with their horses but he seemed to move with efficiency.

As Cornelia’s name was called for the second time, they followed along with her.

“Good luck,” Mike called out, as she left and she told him thanks.

Phil whispered to Dan that Mike and his stallion would be the very last equipage of the class and he was probably counting on beating Cornelia’s score.

“Well, you said Rihanna is one of Paladin’s daughters, right?” Dan asked as they found their spot again.

“Yes,” Phil confirmed.

“So, I’ve seen her father in action and he’s incredible. You said that he passes on his good temper to his offspring and Rihanna has grown up in good and capable hands.”

“Since when did you become Paladin’s spokesperson?” Phil said teasingly as Cornelia and Rihanna started to ride towards the judge.

“Since I saw how much the horse matters to you,” Dan said, offhandedly.

But Phil clearly didn’t take it as such because he tore his eyes away from Cornelia and just stared at Dan without saying anything for a few seconds.

Dan was just about to get self-conscious and ask what Phil was staring at when Phil wrapped an arm around Dan and pulled him into a sideways hug. They stayed like that during Cornelia’s whole ride.

As Cornelia exited and passed Mike they exchanged words but the boys were too far away to be able to hear them.

Unlike at jumping competitions, it took a while for the dressage score to be announced. The Lesters, extended edition, waited was they watched Mike ride on Viktor.

The horse looked impressive. He moved very well and his rider was clearly capable but Dan could start to see what the others had spoken about regarding the importance of a good temper.

Adele and Rihanna had looked a little nervous while on the course but Cornelia had taken them through the paces slowly and they have relaxed more and more throughout the dressage programme.

It was like it was the opposite with Mike and Viktor. The stallion looked increasingly ignored and like he could explode any second as he was guided around.

But the exercises for the four year olds were performed to perfection.

When Mike finished, applauds sounded a little louder from the crowd.

“We’ll see what the judge values most,” Phil commented under his breath. “You can never know with dressage as the judge’s personal preference usually comes into play. At least we know Cornelia placed seventh with Adele, which is very impressive in such a big class.”

Cornelia came back, still sitting astride Rihanna, and then the scores were announced.

Rihanna and Cornelia had come second to Mike and Viktor.

But she was still smiling and in good spirits.

“Both of them did so amazingly. I’m so proud of them,” she said.

“And I’m proud of you,” Martyn said and put a hand on her knee and gave it a little squeeze. Dan had flashbacks to the car journey.

It turned out that Mike was a somewhat gracious winner and he congratulated Cornelia. Dan hadn’t expected it from him.

“Oh, and Martyn, or Phil, for that matter,” he said as he was riding off, “I’m expecting to see you at the showcase with your black stallion.”

Both of the brothers tensed at his words but thankfully he turned around and he didn’t look like he expected a reply.

Dan thought it was probably for the best, even if he could imagine that Phil’s mind was already running off with him.

Both of the young mares were very tired but they walked back up into the trailer without any hassle at all. Dan recalled that Phil had told him that Cornelia made sure to trailer train their horses from a young age, because it was a problem for a lot of horses and it was good if they were taught it right from a young age.

One horse that didn’t seem to be trained to walk into a trailer properly was the pinto that they had spotted before. Cornelia hadn’t seen anything about it being disqualified, but she still walked up and offered to help load it.

An older man, seemingly the young girl’s father was with her and he was yanking violently on the rope.

“You’re an impossible beast,” he grumbled.

“Hey, do you need a hand?” Cornelia asked.

“Dad, please let them help,” the girl said and her voice sounded tight. “We just have to get him home.”

“You heard the vet. You can’t ride him for a month! I almost just bought the damn thing and he’s already broken.”

“Dan, can you bring our long lead over?” Cornelia called and Dan did as she asked.

Phil followed right behind him, even without being asked.

Dan was fairly certain that she had asked him and not Phil on purpose because she didn’t want to force Phil to come near the spooked horse. But clearly, Phil just followed along with Dan naturally by now.

“He’s upset, so we have to help him a little. If we put this long rein around his back and help pull him up, then we-“ Cornelia started to explain but the father cut her off.

“Whatever. I’m not paying for his stable fee for a month if he’s broken.”

“Sir, with all due respect, that’s part of owning animals. Horses get injured from time to time,” Phil said politely but Dan could hear that he was angry at the man’s words.

“You an expert?” the man snarled.

“Mr,” Dan said, “yes, they are. These people breed and train horses.”

“Interested in buying this piece of crap?” he said.

“People don’t buy injured horses,” the girl said. “We’ll have to wait to sell him until later. He’s clearly not the horse for me.”

Phil looked like he was ready to boil over, as did Cornelia. Dan had spent just enough time around them to know what they were both thinking. This was a young horse and an inexperienced rider who was out of her depth with a father that couldn’t care less for the animal. It was a recipe for disaster and the poor horse was caught in the middle of it.

Dan watched the horse who was still pulling against the lead clipped to his headcollar. If Dan was a horse, he would probably also have tried to move away from the shouting and angry man.

“Let’s get him up for you,” Cornelia said with a clenched smile. “Dan and Phil, take the rope will you? And you can give me the horse.”

Cornelia almost yanked the leading rope out of the man’s hands and immediately she walked up to the horse and started to stroke down his neck while telling him that it was okay. With the long rein around his butt and a calm but firm leader at his rope, he got into the trailer without too much trouble.

“Are you serious about selling him?” Dan couldn’t help but ask.

The horse was gorgeous, a monochrome masterpiece, but realistically who would buy a horse that couldn’t be ridden for a month?

“Yes, it’s just one of my daughter’s latest hobbies. A too expensive one,” the father grumbled. “But thank you for your help.”

Dan’s heart was breaking. The horse was spooked and frightened and it needed to be handled by people who understood it. But he wasn’t in any position to help it.

He felt a kindred sense with the horse for some reason.

The pinto was young and had been thrust into his riding career but now he was crumbling under it. He had been injured and felt bad but he was asked to keep going and so he did. He just kept going and going. From what Phil had said, he could have been permanently damaged if it had continued.

Dan felt a lump in his throat.

Was he like the horse and just kept studying law because he was in the system of university and he couldn’t find a way out, even if he didn’t enjoy himself?

“Martyn,” Phil called and jogged off to talk to his brother.

Dan stayed standing next to Cornelia with the long rein feeling heavy in his hands. No matter how incapable of handling the horse the father and daughter seemed, their neglect had come from misinformation and it wasn’t done with malicious intent.

As the father started to get into his car, Martyn and Phil came running up and asked him to wait.

“We want to buy the horse,” Martyn said, after a quick glance at Phil. “We’ll buy him.”

Dan wasn’t sure what to say, he just stared at Martyn and Phil with his mouth hanging slightly agape and Cornelia was wearing a matching expression next to him.

“You serious?”

“Yes,” Phil confirmed.

“Deal then.”

Chapter Text

It had only taken one glance at Dan’s face and Phil’s heart had broken. He looked devastated and Phil shared the sentiment.

He wasn’t even thinking as he pulled his brother aside and suggested that they bought the pinto. Martyn didn’t look surprised at Phil’s suggestion but he did remind Phil of all the practicalities.

It was an injured and young horse. It might never become a good riding horse. It was a lot of money to buy a horse and they generally didn’t buy horses – they breed them. It ensured that they could not only pick a good genetic match for the foals, but they also assured that the horses grew up in a safe and good environment that enabled them to become good horses.

Phil knew all of this already and Martyn knew he knew it too, so it wasn’t a long conversation.

Phil was aware that Martyn could just flat out reject Phil’s suggestion, because it was clearly based on sentimentalities rather than logic, but he didn’t. Phil wasn’t sure if it was his attempt at puppy eyes that was working at Martyn or something else but his heart leapt in his chest as his brother agreed.

It stayed beating rapidly when Phil saw Dan’s shocked expression and then the bright smile.

The drive back to the stables had been quiet and the father and his daughter had followed behind them. In the courtyard, they unloaded Rihanna and Adele first and Martyn and Cornelia took them back towards their box stalls.

Phil and Dan walked over to take the pinto. The spotted gelding was nervous as he backed out quickly and started snorting loudly at the new environment. Martyn came back and started to talk to the owner while Phil started to lead the pinto towards its new home.

Dan was walking cautiously beside Phil and he kept glancing at the new horse.

The pinto calmed down significantly when he was in a box stall and munching on his hay. Phil tried to get a good look at the leg but other than it being too warm, he couldn’t determine much else.

Martyn came in to find the two of them still outside the box stall and he handed over the pinto’s papers to Phil.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Martyn said and then nodded to Dan. “I’ll see you boys at dinner.”

“What did he mean?” Dan asked.

Phil shrugged as he glanced over the papers. When he stopped on the horse’s name, he just burst out laughing for a beat before he remembered to lower his voice while next to the nervous horse.

It was such an odd coincidence.

The pinto was named Gemini.

Phil remembered almost everything Dan had shared about himself, including his birthday, which meant that Phil knew Dan’s star sign. The fact that it matched with the pinto was ridiculous.

Dan was curious and grabbing at the papers in Phil’s hand and when he spotted what Phil had laughed at, he just frowned.

“That’s a stupid name,” Dan commented.

“Sure, Gemini,” Phil said and nudged Dan’s arm a little.

“He should have a cooler name. He’s an aesthetically pleasing horse, you know? A nice monochrome.”

“You could always call him that. None of would mind a nickname.”

“Monochrome?” Dan asked. “Or maybe just Mono?”

As soon as Dan suggested it, he heard it and him and Phil shared a glance. It probably wasn’t the best idea to nickname a horse after the slang for kissing decease.

“You could always go with Chrome instead. Your favourite browser, right? No, excuse me, your preferred browser. I know you get weird about favourites.”

Dan looked dramatically outraged and he clearly felt very called out. But he was smiling again and it was so much better than the sad look in his eyes when he realised that the pinto wasn’t in good hands.

Chrome stuck and it suited the gelding. Dan started theorising that he had been called Gemini because the markings on his head looked a bit like the Gemini symbol. Dan spent some time studying the horse.

Phil could recognise the fascination and it made his heart feel warm.

He remembered when Miss Moneypenny was born and Phil would constantly stop by to see her. She was something new and excited and Phil had gotten to name her and he would be taking care of her. He made his parents swear never to sell her and they hadn’t.

Phil had gotten likewise attached to Black Paladin.

Chrome quickly became a part of Dan and Phil’s every day life at the stables. They would spend hours on the programme and Paladin’s training but they also started to hang out even more with the horses.

Consequently, they also spent a lot of time with each other.

They hardly spend a moment apart during the week that followed Chrome arrival. They would muck out all the stables together. Phil would ride Paladin and train the segments of the programme they liked and Dan would film it and in the evening they would work on the music and making everything fit together. They would also either go on a forest ride with Misty and Money, or Phil would be giving Dan lessons on either of the mares. They would spend some time walking Chrome together, and Dan made a joke that it was like they had a huge dog, as they walked him around on a lead. The pinto was settling in well and Dan was constantly sneaking him carrots, so the two of them became fast friends.

Phil couldn’t remember a summer where he had enjoyed the horses so much, at least not since he was a child.

However, because he was so wrapped up in getting Paladin ready and hanging out with Dan, he didn’t have any time to search for freelance editing jobs. He was so focused on everything else that it just drifted to the back of his mind accidentally.

It was only when August turned into September that he even seemed to remember that he was job hunting and that he needed something out of the lovely bubble that was his parents’ stables.

He would have to find a proper job at some point.

He couldn’t stay living in this fantasy world with Dan and the horses where nothing else existed but them. It was glorious and Phil loved it but it wasn’t a long-term thing. Dan would be going back to university in just a couple of weeks and then things would have to move on.

Since Phil had graduated, he felt like he had blinked and two and a half months had passed. He was fairly certain that it had something to do with a certain brunet stable hand but he didn’t blame Dan.

It had been wonderful but it just wasn’t ideal.

Phil’s mind was still swimming with those thoughts as he put his foot in the stirrup of Paladin and started to ride. He tried to discipline himself to focus on the exercises and the horse beneath him but he was distracted and he lacked focus and Paladin could sense it easily. If his rider’s utmost attention weren’t in the riding, the stallion would be slacking off.

Paladin wasn’t the only one who noticed Phil’s distraction.

“Hey Phil,” Dan called and lowered his phone and pocketed it. He had been filming like he always did. Phil did the same thing when Dan was playing the piano, he would stand behind Dan’s shoulder and capture his fingers when Dan was making up new elements that he worried that he might not remember afterwards.

Phil pulled his horse to a stop, and Paladin’s legs were far from properly parallel.

“Phil, what’s going on with you?”

Phil wanted to feign innocence but he couldn’t do that with Dan.

“I just have a lot on my mind today,” he confessed instead. “I’m having trouble focusing on my riding.”

“Okay, then let’s call it a day. You’re the one who told me that every moment the horse is learning, including how to do things incorrectly if you keep doing that over and over.”

“You’re like a sponge for knowledge, huh?”

“Right, Mr I remember your star sign and preferred browser,” Dan said with a fond eye roll.

At that moment, Phil was glad he was already wearing a bit of blush in his cheeks because of the exercise or Dan might have picked up on his reaction.

Dan was the sponge for knowledge; he picked up on a lot of random facts that seemingly had no connection. Phil only picked up on things that he had a vested interest in, like animals, editing, and… Dan.

Phil knew it was completely normal for him to remember a lot if not everything his crush told him but it had always been a bit more intense with Dan. Over the past couple of months, they had spoken so much together that Phil was sure it wouldn’t be possible for him to recall everything.

But then again, he seemed to remember a lot of weird little details that his mind had helpfully filed into the Dan folder.

As they tacked down Paladin, Dan asked if Phil wanted to talk about it.

Normally, Phil would have shied away from such a question. He didn’t like to talk about things before he had started to figure them out himself. However, the bond he had formed with Dan was quite special and Phil knew he would be able to talk to Dan without receiving judgement of any kind.

If Phil needed someone to listen, then Dan would just listen.

If Phil needed advice, then Dan would try his hardest to offer some.

Whatever Phil needed, Dan would probably try his best to meet his needs.

He seemed like that kind of guy.

So Phil chose to ignore his usual defences and tell Dan a bit about what had his mind distracted.

“It’s just… it’s September already,” Phil started.

“Oh, yeah. I know that sucks,” Dan said and he frowned towards Paladin’s flank as he brushed the stallion. “I’m not too keen on leaving either.”

Phil instantly felt horrible. Dan leaving wasn’t strictly the thing that had Phil upset.

It wasn’t because he didn’t care about Dan being gone. He cared about it very much, which was why he had strictly forbidden his mind to even go there yet. He was worried about their time coming to an end only on a peripheral level.

If he allowed himself to think about how much it would suck when Dan left, he felt like he might just burst into tears. It took a bit to get Phil to cry but he was certain that the absence of Dan would do it to him.

“But it’ll be good to get back to university, right?” Phil asked.

“I thought we were talking about you here,” Dan said. “Changing the subject?”

“We can get back to me later,” Phil said. “You’re frowning. Maybe you also need to talk about what’s on your mind.”

“I won’t let you distract me, Lester. But fine, we’ll come back to you. As for university, I don’t know… it feels like it’s a millions years away, and not just a couple of weeks. Life here is… different. Everything seems to move at a different pace when you’re just outside and handling horses all day, and then playing the piano and watching series and films with you in the evening. We’ve got this nice routine here, you know. And it’s so different from how my life was before I met- before I came to live here. I think I might have spent more time outside this summer than I had in the whole past year.”

Phil was chuckling a little but he did take note of the slight hopelessness in Dan’s tone.

“It does feel like our whole own little world, doesn’t it?” Phil agreed and brushed Paladin a final time before leading him outside and back to his field.

Dan followed along.

The stallion was on his best behaviour. For most parts, he had been in the weeks that Phil had been training with him. He seemed like he enjoyed having his old rider back in his life and he was content to do as he was told.

“I don’t think anyone could have made me go outside as much as you,” Dan commented and then leaned against the fence while Phil walked Paladin out to the paddock where Mr Bogart was quietly grazing in the corner.

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Phil said.

“And exercising too. It must be a special type of Phil witchcraft.”

“My grandmother was psychic,” Phil said as he let go of Paladin and watched him trot off happily and throw his head back.

It had always been one of his favourite parts of owning horses; watching the sheer joy they had in just running around.

It felt like affirming to watch them be so excited about something so very simple.

When Phil turned to face Dan, he was looking sceptical.

“Psychic?”

“That’s what she said,” Phil said and shrugged. “Want to go see Chrome?”

“Yeah,” Dan confirmed. “But I don’t think your grandmother was psychic, Phil. It’s… a bit farfetched.”

“I know you don’t believe in that stuff, Dan,” Phil said as they walked. “But there might be something more out there that we don’t quite understand. Maybe something that science isn’t able to explain yet.”

Chrome was in his box stall, still on rest besides his brief walks, and his nostrils flared slightly and his ears tipped forward when he saw the two boys.

“Hello,” Dan said in the softest voice and walked up to the pinto, who he then sneakily fed a carrot.

It wasn’t so sneaky when Chrome was munching on it loudly.

Phil if possible found the attempted sneakiness more adorable.

“But you’re not excited to go back to university?” Phil asked as they took Chrome out of his box stall.

Dan let out a sigh and let his hands stroke down Chrome’s tobiano patterned neck repeatedly. Phil noticed how the horse relaxed at the touch.

“I don’t know. I wasn’t excited when I finished my first year. I don’t think I ever properly explained to you why I came here, did I?”

“Not really,” Phil said and moved the grooming box closer.

Dan’s hand kept petting Chrome and he looked lost in thought but then he spoke again.

“I wasn’t happy with my marks from the first year of studying law. I managed to pass everything, just barely, but I… it was just not a whole lot of fun. And I didn’t want to go home to my parents to have them ask about it. I didn’t want to have to lie to them the whole summer.”

“But you never wanted to visit them?” Phil asked.

He had noticed that Dan rarely talked about his family and it had struck Phil as a bit bizarre that Dan hadn’t seen his family even once during the summer. Phil had never gone without seeing his family for a month at most because then he would miss all of them terribly. However, he knew Dan had a different experience with his family, even if he had never opened up about it.

Phil hadn’t pushed.

It wasn’t their thing. They didn’t push for information. They didn’t push for actions. They just talked and gradually everything had come out between them anyway. It was much more pleasant to choose to share instead of feeling forced into it.

“It’s been nice to be here and I told them that I was busy, which might not have been true in the beginning but since we started riding it was the truth.”

“You know you were allowed to have days off, if you wanted.”

“I know,” Dan said with a little smile. “It’s not that. I just doubt that they understand.”

Phil didn’t say anything. He didn’t ask for clarification but he looked up at Dan and caught his eyes.

“I never liked horses growing up, or any big animals really,” Dan said. “I don’t know if they’d understand why I’m suddenly riding and enjoying it or the fact that I’m making music to a dressage programme. It’s a little out of their comfort zone.”

Phil contemplated Dan’s words for a minute as he busied his hands with brushing Chrome.

The pinto was standing perfectly still and he was enjoying the gentle touches and attention. Chrome was a little attention seeker and Dan fell for it constantly but it was good for the both of them. They were bonding rather quickly.

“I hope they can come to see that it’s your decision. You get to decide what things you want in your life. They just have to accept you as you are, you know?”

“It’s easier said than done,” Dan acknowledged and Phil hummed in agreement.

He knew that.

“I’m glad you like horses now and I’m very thankful for your musical expertise. It’ll be a kick-ass programme for Martyn and Paladin.”

The exercises in the programme were essentially finished by now and Dan had most of the music elements done too but he was being a perfectionist and he wanted to make tweaks to make it the best it could possibly be. Phil appreciated it.

“I’m glad. And thanks for never pushing about why I came here, by the way.”

“It’s not our style,” Phil replied with a glint in his eye and they shared smiles for a beat.

“But I’m hoping that I’ll feel different going back to university,” Dan said. “I’m hoping that this calm and wonderful summer will have recharged me and that it might be more fun now that we’ve got some of the basic stuff covered. I’m just worried that I’ll feel the same when I go back, you know?”

Phil wasn’t planning on saying it out loud but his brain almost made him blurt out that Dan could easily take a gap year and stay working here at the stables. But Phil kept his mouth shut. It wasn’t fair to present such an option to Dan and he probably didn’t want to be shovelling manure for a whole year, even if he got to ride and be around the horses.

It wasn’t practical for Phil either. He should be much more focus on his job hunt and he never knew where he might have to move for employment. He couldn’t count on being in his family’s house for a whole year. He should be working to get an office job somewhere.

It didn’t sound all that appealing to Phil right in that moment.

“Okay, we covered me. Now it’s your turn,” Dan said playfully as he kneeled down beside Chrome’s front to brush the gelding’s legs.

“Didn’t forget about that, huh?”

“I told you I wouldn’t,” Dan replied and then winked.

It was cheesy as hell and obviously just done in a humorous way but Phil’s heart still felt like it skipped a beat with the way Dan was grinning up at him while winking.

“I… I just starting thinking about how it’s autumn now and things are so different from me this year. I’m not going back to university and I should be working hard to get a job now.”

“Yeah, I did notice that you haven’t been doing those freelance jobs for a while,” Dan said and got up and walked around Chrome to brush him on the other side.

There was no judgement in Dan’s voice. He was merely showing something that Phil already knew; Dan was observant.

“Since I started training with Black Paladin and making the freestyle programme, I’ve just not had as much time. We’ve been pouring hours and hours into his training and I’m so thankful for your help but part of me just started wondering a bit… Why am I putting so much energy into this when I’m not even the one who’ll be competing? It’s so much of my creativity, energy and time that I could be using to do other things. More practical things.”

Dan started chuckling softly and Phil wasn’t sure why.

“It’s a classic case of guilt, Phil. You’re enjoying yourself until you remember all your responsibilities and then you suddenly feel bad. I know the feeling all too well. But that doesn’t mean that you’re doing something wrong, even if the thing you enjoy might feel a little tainted now. It’s not because of the actual thing, you know? You still like that. You just feel bad for liking it because it might not objectively be approved of.”

Phil blinked a couple of times while he was attempting to process Dan’s words. It sounded like it was something he had given a lot of thought.

“Something you’re very familiar with?”

“A bit,” Dan said with a shrug. “Like, I used to like drama in school and I think I was quite good at it. But then I started to get affected by what other people thought of it and I dropped my interest like a hot potato. I thought I didn’t like it anymore. But looking back, I didn’t stop liking doing drama, I just felt bad for liking it.”

“I can see that. It’s something you’d want to do? Drama?”

“Not anymore. But I just wished I had stuck with it at the time, you know?”

“Is law the thing you really want to be studying?” Phil asked, on a whim.

It wasn’t a topic they usually touched on.

When they had first started to become friends, they didn’t speak about Phil’s riding or Dan’s university experience but things had changed. Dan had been nudging Phil to talk about the horses and indirectly got him to spend more time with them and Phil couldn’t thank Dan enough for that.

He had missed the horses so terribly and he was feeling confident on horseback again. He had never thought that he would get there but with every great ride, it had slowly come back to him. He was now confident enough to practice high-level dressage on a stallion. He had come a long way in one summer.

Phil wondered if Dan might need a nudge to consider his degree as well. He had never sounded enthusiastic about studying law. Ever. It had been quite the opposite in fact. Phil wondered if studying law might be one of those practical things Dan had thrown himself into out of guilt something else that might not have been as useful.

Dan ran his left hand down Chrome’s back with a thought frown on his face. Phil didn’t push. He focused on checking the gelding’s hooves so his eyes were diverted from Dan.

“I don’t know,” Dan said in a whisper and Phil dropped the hoof he was holding and he was looking at Dan now.

He looked a bit lost and fragile and he had pulled one arm around his torso, like he was hugging himself a little. If Phil didn’t think it would startle him or make him clam up, he would have wrapped Dan up in the biggest hug ever.

“It seemed like a good idea at the time. I got the scholarship, so it was cheaper. It’s something with a relatively low unemployment rate. Some of the courses are okay. And I’ve committed to it now.”

“You can always change your mind,” Phil said and then he repeated something Dan had told him a couple of weeks ago when he was feeling bad for riding Paladin after having avoided it for so long, “People change. Opinions change. It isn’t stupid.”

Dan recognised the words and the arms that had been digging into his stomach was dropped and he was smiling again.

“Throwing my own words back at me?” he asked, smile still shining on his lips.

“It was solid advice. I figured that maybe you could use a little of it right now.”

“Maybe. But Phil, back to you, I have just one question.”

“One question for the rest of our friendship. Better make it a good one,” Phil teased.

“Smartass,” Dan said and he walked past Phil and made sure to bump their shoulders together.

Normally, if they had been away from the horses, Dan might have moved to smack Phil’s arm but he was always calm around the horses.

He had picked up on that rather quickly.

“What did you want to ask me?” Phil asked.

“Do you enjoy it? Training Paladin? Making the programme?”

“Yes,” Phil answered without any hesitance. “I do.”

“Then you have your answer. You aren’t wasting your time. When you’re doing something that you enjoy, you can never be wasting your time. You might be pouring hours and hours into something but if it’s bringing joy to your life then it’s never time wasted.”

Phil thought that must be why he never really felt like he wasted time when the two of them were hanging out in between activities. They were just talking and spending time breathing the same air but it brought Phil more joy that he could properly describe to be near Dan, even when they weren’t doing anything.

Chrome let out a snort.

“See, my boy agrees,” Dan said and smiled at the pinto and stroked him on his muzzle gently.

Seeing Dan interact with Chrome was a complete opposite to when Phil had first seen the pinto be ridden around by his old owner. The girl had been too rough with him and she had absolutely no patience.

Dan was nothing but soft touches and patience.

“Will you be the one riding him when he’s ready to carry a rider again?” Dan asked, as he moved closer to Chrome’s head and went to lean his forehead against the horse’s.

It was a precious moment and Phil managed to pull out his phone and snap a photo. Chrome was standing completely still and being careful.

“I don’t know,” Phil replied. Chrome wouldn’t be ready for a rider for the next few weeks and Phil had no idea where he might be at the end of September. With Dan gone, he would probably find it much easier to focus on job hunting and he might have to move away, possibly far away.

The thought made Phil’s heart ache. What if he’d have to move somewhere scary like London to get a job?

“But whoever it’ll be, we’ll be gentle with him. He’ll be in good hands.”

“I know that,” Dan said. “I just hope that the next owners will be good to him too.”

“Next owners?” Phil asked.

“Yeah, when you sell him. I’m not naïve enough to think that you’ll keep him around here when he won’t be anyone’s personal riding horse. All the horses on here have a purpose. You’ll put him up for sale with Rihanna and Adele when he’s better, won’t you?”

Phil hadn’t actually considered it at all.

He supposed that it made sense. Chrome was 4 years old and he could be taught with the others, who were indeed for sale. It would be a way for the stable to profit off him. He could spend half a year being trained to carry a rider properly and trust his rider and then he could be sold at a higher value than they at bought him at.

It was the business way to go about it.

Phil had never been very good at that. He supposed that Martyn had seen it like that as well and that might have been why he hadn’t put up that much of a fight. Even if it was an unusual situation for them, he might have thought it was a good way to fix a bad situation.

But it hadn’t crossed Phil’s mind. He had seen how Dan had bonded with the horse from the very beginning and it only reminded Phil of his own relationship with Bogart, Money and Paladin.

They were his, at least partly, and he knew they would never be sold.

But they couldn’t expect Dan to be able to buy Chrome. Horses were expensive and Phil knew Dan wasn’t in a great financial situation and he might not have time for a horse with university.

Still, Phil didn’t want to sell Chrome to anyone else.

“It’ll be decided once he’s starting to get better,” Phil said vaguely because he couldn’t confirm or deny it.

He would have to speak to Martyn and their parents first. It was their money that had bought the horse and it wasn’t Phil’s call what would happen to him, even if Phil might want that.

An image appeared in Phil’s head.

Dan sitting on top of Chrome and smiling like he did when he was at his happiest and Phil sitting on a horse next to him, that morphed between Money and Paladin.

Phil wanted Chrome to be Dan’s horse but Dan had never expressed interest in having his own horse before. It wasn’t fair of Phil to project his fantasy onto Dan’s life.

“But we never sell a horse to someone we aren’t sure will be good to it,” Phil added to reassure Dan. “We’re turned down people in the past because they seemed clueless or too inexperienced to handle our young horses.”

Dan nodded and ran his hand down Chrome’s neck again.

Phil wanted to freeze everything in this moment.

Before Paladin would possibly perform at the showcase.

Before Dan left to go back to university.

Before Chrome might be put up for sale.

Before Phil would have to find a full time job.

The bubble felt so lovely currently and Phil felt like the days were slipping through his fingers. He still focused on making every single moment count and he had done a pretty good job so far but it still wasn’t enough.

Time was cruel and running out and soon the every day he had established with Dan would be flipped on its head whether he wanted it to or not.

He watched how Dan gently groomed Chrome and his heart ached because he was starting to realise just how he wanted his life to look like if he could have anything he wanted. If he could have the one thing that would bring the most joy into his life but it wasn’t something that could be granted with a simple wish.

Chapter Text

With less than two weeks to the showcase, Phil started freaking out more and more. He was still training with Paladin daily with Dan on the camera at his side but Dan started to pick up more and more nervous waves coming off Phil.

Paladin evidently picked up on it too. The stallion was becoming more clumsy instead of more elegant in his movements, despite improving his stamina and familiarity with the exercises. Dan was pretty sure that it wasn’t supposed to go that way.

And he knew the main reason that Phil wasn’t happy on the back of the stallion anymore. He had expected Martyn to step in by now. It had been the condition that had made Phil even agreed to training towards the showcase but it hadn’t happened so far.

Phil had asked Martyn about it but the older brother said he wasn’t ready yet.

Phil was stressing out because Martyn needed to get a feel for the programme if he was to compete properly with it.

Dan was in the process of doing the absolute finite tweaks to the music and he was being an utterly perfectionist with it and pouring much more effort into it than he had ever done his university assignments.

It probably helped that he was allowed to be creative while sat at the piano and the fact he was constantly able to discuss the different elements with Phil. Phil’s point of view made Dan’s music better and Dan’s enquiries about the order of the exercises forced Phil to properly think through his process.

They were making each other better and it showed.

Dan still didn’t knew dressage like Phil did but he had learnt a whole lot during his months living on top of the stable and working with horses every day. Phil had also showed him some of his favourite freestyle programmes from the big competitions.

The two of them would usually had film or series marathons but one day they had swapped it for a whole list of YouTube videos of freestyle dressage and Dan had been surprised that he had been so entertained. It was truly an art form and Dan had come to appreciate that in a way he had never expected to.

It was so fun to see the final product of clearly a lot of hard work, especially now that him and Phil had been building up a routine from nothing. Dan had yet to see the whole thing set to music but they had practiced elements of the routine and it had looked amazing to see Paladin walk in step with the music, even if Dan knew it was the other way around in reality.

He had purposely written the music to match the stallion’s gaits after a lot of observation and trial and error. It still looked insanely cool.

“Will the showcase be recorded?” Dan asked Phil one day that they were mucking out the box stalls together.

Dan still got paid in full for his mucking out job, despite the fact that Phil had been doing half the work for nearly months now. When Dan had brought it up and tried to offer Phil a portion of the money, or suggest that he should get less from Phil’s parents, Phil had just waved it off.

He said that he knew how expensive it was to be a student and having student loans, so Dan should keep everything. Phil worked for free and his parents had planned and allocated those funds to pay Dan for the three months already. It was completely fine.

It was a small but so considerate action that Dan felt his heart melt a little more. He wasn’t sure how it was even possible at this point because he had been fairly certain that his heart had been in a puddle for weeks, if not months.

Phil had claimed it, gradually and day by day, with his bright smile and unwavering kindness. He was magnetic and Dan had been drawn right in. The friendship had blossomed beautifully and Dan was scared of ever even mentioning wanting to add a romantic aspect to what they had.

Phil had never indicated he wanted to be more than extremely close friends, so Dan wouldn’t ruin it or make it awkward by confessing feelings.

Phil considered Dan’s question as he moved the fork. “I don’t think so. It’s a pretty big competition but they usually only record big national or even just international competitions. This is a showcase for stallions and mostly it’s just for the people in the breeding business who show up to see it in person.”

“That sucks,” Dan said and put his fork down as he finished a box stall. “I would have love to watch back a recording of the free programme, you know?”

“Like the ones we watched this week?” Phil inquired thoughtfully and he perked up noticeably.

Dan could see that the wheels were turning in Phil’s brain and he wasn’t surprised when Phil started to wave his hands about and look excited.

“You’re right. That would be cool. And good for business because we could put it up on the website, you know? I could edit a video together. We’d probably need three angles ideally, which should be doable if you hold a camera, Cornelia hold one and then myself as well.”

Phil trailed off but Dan could see that the excited dialogue had just turned internal.

Dan wasn’t much for mentioning the obvious issue.

Martyn still wasn’t fit for riding and by now it was only a week, to the day, until the showcase had to be performed. Phil was worried that Martyn wouldn’t be able to properly learn the programme in a week but Dan was more worried about Martyn not becoming ready at all.

Whiplash was not to be messed with and Dan could understand why Martyn’s doctor had forbidden him from riding seriously until his neck was better healed.

If Martyn didn’t recover enough, then there wouldn’t be a free programme to film.

No one else would be able to ride Black Paladin. Except for, of course, Phil who had trained him.

But Phil didn’t want to compete and he had dealt with too much anxiety and stress about the showcase that Dan was fairly certain that Phil would never agree to ride it.

It would be a shame to see all their hard work go to waste if Paladin wasn’t showed but Dan couldn’t blame Phil for that. Phil had been adamant from the beginning. He would ride again and he would even train Paladin but he had never promised to ride the showcase.

Dan didn’t want anyone, whether that be Phil’s family or not, to guilt him into doing it. Dan simply wouldn’t allow it and if anyone tried he would gladly put himself between them and Phil.

Dan would be gone and back at university in a week, so at this point it really didn’t matter if he stepped on someone’s toes. He would gladly trample on anyone’s feet if it were done to protect Phil.

Phil didn’t need his protection and Dan knew that. Phil was an adult and fully capable of taking care of himself but it didn’t stop Dan from wanting to help so damn badly. It was almost an instinctive urge and Dan wasn’t sure if he could control it, even if he had wanted to.

“It would be cool to record it,” Dan agreed, but his voice fell a little flat with doubt and Phil knew him well enough to pick up on it instantly.

“What is it?” Phil asked concerned.

Dan frowned but he quickly relented and told Phil his worries. He never wanted to hide anything from Phil, except the fact that he was attracted to him, which he only did because it would make things weird. He didn’t want to be dishonest with Phil otherwise.

“You don’t think Martyn will be ready?” Phil asked in a small and hesitant voice. “Really?”

Dan rushed to explain and reassure. “I don’t know, Phil. He might be. I hope he will be. But he still isn’t better and there’s only a week left. I think we need to consider the possibility that he might not get well enough to perform, as much as I don’t like it. And I know it must have been on your mind as well.”

“Why do you figure?” Phil asked but he had the distinct look of a kid being caught with his hand in the cookie jaw on his face.

“You’ve been distracted during training this past week. It’s made the exercises more sloppy and Paladin listens to you less as you aren’t so clear in your signals.”

“You picked up on that, huh?” Phil asked and reached up to scratch the back of his head.

Dan almost said that he always picked up on things regarding Phil but he caught the words before the escaped. He wanted to be completely transparent with Phil but he probably shouldn’t confess stuff like that, unless he wanted to make things awkward.

It had never been awkward with Phil before, so a slimmer of hope made Dan feel like maybe he could be honest and it wouldn’t be awkward regarding Dan’s crush either. However, he was too scared to test it.

He didn’t want to risk alienating Phil, so he would keep his trap shut.

“Paladin was more rowdy than usual,” Dan said with a shrug. “And you’re the one who told me that horses behave like that when their riders are distracted.”

“Since when did you become such a horse expert?” Phil asked with a glint in his eye.

“Since I started hanging out with someone who grew up around horses,” Dan said and grabbed his fork and tried to stab the end into Phil’s leg. It was plastic and not sharp at all, but Phil still dodged out of the way as if Dan had attacked him with a deadly weapon.

“Attacking me with poop, really?” Phil asked. “What are we? In primary school?”

Unhelpfully, Dan suddenly imagined the two of them as young children and Dan pulling Phil’s pigtails, even if he imagined them as extremely short ones on account of Phil’s short hair. The image was still utterly adorable in Dan’s mind and he was distracted enough that he did not manage to dodge Phil’s attack with the fork.

The stable was empty from horses and the boys indulged in their play fighting longer than was probably socially acceptable. But eventually, they managed to finish mucking out the box stalls and tipped the last wheelbarrow onto the tip.

“So what do you want to do now? Train Paladin?” Dan asked.

Phil hummed. “I’m not sure. I think my nerves would just get to him again because you were right that this past week has been less than ideal. I also think he’s just tired of running around on the dressage courses. He’s got a bit of a sandbox syndrome.”

“I’m guessing that’s not a good thing?” Dan asked. He always loved to ask question to Phil about horse things that he didn’t understand, partly because it was interesting to learn new things but also because Phil clearly enjoyed teaching Dan about his world.

“If a horse is just constantly doing the same thing over and over again, then they can get bored of it. They like variety in their training to keep their mind fresh and alert and Paladin has been practicing the same dressage exercises for weeks now, almost every single day. He’s been incredibly patient but he’s getting bored and I’m letting my nerves get to me, so we aren’t being very productive at the moment.”

Dan nodded in agreement. “Why don’t you go for a forest ride then?”

Phil’s head whipped around and he stared at Dan like he had said something outrageous. It wasn’t really. Dan and Phil went on at least a few forest ride with Money and Misty every week and Dan enjoyed the relaxed rides very much. It was clear that the horses enjoyed them as well.

He had just figured that Phil had never taken Paladin out because he had to focus on dressage training but if it was good to get some variety, then he couldn’t see what would be the problem would be with taking the stallion out to the forest.

But Phil was tensing up at the mere suggestion, so Dan had a feeling he might have been mistaken about something, so he felt compelled to take the idea back.

“Or not. You don’t have to, Phil.”

“No, it’s not- I just… You know that horses can be spooked by new stuff. You’ve seen that Money does it on occasion when we’re out and about.”

Dan nodded. Misty, despite her young age, was a very chill horse while Money was more awake and she found various normal forest features scary. But Phil was always the one on the back of Money and he had always been able to handle anything she had come up with. He had done it flawlessly most of the times and Dan had felt like Phil had managed to put his fear of getting injured behind him.

Maybe it wasn’t quite the simple.

“And you think Paladin won’t be calm?”

“Yeah. He’s only been long reined for months and now ridden for the past three weeks. And during the winter we wouldn’t ride out on him, so it was late autumn last time he saw the forest and he’s a stallion, so he’s more sensitive. I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking him out. Let alone if we were going out just him and me because taking a mare out with him might also make him wild or distracted, even if he’s usually well-behaved. You can never know.”

Dan saw all the confidence that he had seen Phil gather for months just disappear a little and Dan felt like he was let behind the curtain for a moment. Phil might be riding again and he might have gotten a lot of his confidence back but that fear that he had been struck with hadn’t just vanished, even if it might have seemed so.

It had probably diminished through the continuous positive riding experiences but Phil clearly still had some unresolved issues with it.

“It’s okay, Phil. You know you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.”

As Dan finished speaking, Phil looked over and caught Dan’s eye and the intensity in Phil’s gaze made Dan’s breath catch in his throat.

“I’m doing it again, aren’t I?”

“What?”

“I’m backing out of things because I’m scared. I’m letting fear hold me back. Again. I thought I was over this. I’ve been back in the saddle for weeks and weeks now and I’m still not back to normal.”

“Fuck normal,” Dan said bluntly. “You’re special. You experienced something and it made you more cautious. It’s not a bad thing. You don’t have to go backwards to feel good again. You can find something new and good by moving forward.”

“You’re right,” Phil said resolutely. “We’re going on that forest ride.”

“We?”

“I… I’d like you to come along. You know, for moral support and so Paladin isn’t alone.”

“I doubt I’d be able to keep up with you on foot,” Dan joked.

“We’ll borrow Hermes from Cornelia,” Phil said.

“Wait, what? He’s a big jumping horse and her competition star. I’m still a new rider.”

“Misty is one of Martyn’s competition horses, as is Money. And you’ve been riding them for weeks,” Phil pointed out.

“That’s different. Martyn isn’t currently competing. Cornelia is constantly going out to competitions. And remember, I’ve seen Hermes move. He’s insanely fast.”

“He’s also one of the most well-behaved horses on the property and he is an angel to beginners. Last year, we had Cornelia’s nieces visit and you should have seen Hermes carefully trot around with a five year old on his back. You’ll be fine,” Phil said and reached over to grab hold of Dan’s arm as he started to drag him out of the stables.

Dan supposed that if Phil were facing his fears, Dan would be there right along with him. He trusted Phil’s judgement of Hermes, because he knew Phil had been completely right about Misty’s temper but it still felt a little scary. Hermes was a big horse and Dan just kept imagining how the gelding and Cornelia had jumped and sped around with narrow turns. It had look insanely impressive and Dan wasn’t sure if he would be able to ride a horse like that.

Cornelia had just finished up exercising Adele and she was just letting her cool down.

“Hi boys,” she said with a big smile and pulled the young mare to a halt.

“Cornelia, could we possibly borrow Hermes for Dan?” Phil asked. “I’d like to take Paladin on a forest ride but I don’t want to bring any of the mares out with him. I know how well-trained Hermes is.”

Cornelia seemed to consider it a moment and her eyes shifted between Dan and Phil.

“You don’t have to agree,” Dan blabbered. “I wouldn’t let me ride my competition horse either.”

“Oh, it’s not that,” Cornelia said with a smile. “I’ve seen Phil give you lessons and you’ve become a quite capable rider over just the summer. I would trust Hermes with you for a forest ride and Phil is right that he is trained well. I’m more worried about the idea of taking Paladin on a forest ride. He hasn’t been out there all year.”

Phil looked a little worried now as well, but if this was the issue, then Dan felt confident in stepping in.

“Phil can handle him,” Dan said with full confidence. “And it’s good for his head to see something different.”

For just a beat, Cornelia’s mouth curled into a small smile that was probably supposed to go unnoticed, as it seemed extremely fond.

“You’re right, Dan. Phil is an extremely capable rider and I trust him to handle our stallion. If you’re ready for that, Phil, then I do think you should go for it. And Dan you’re welcome to take Hermes. Just remember he’s fairly sensitive to your weight.”

Dan nodded and now he was the one dragging Phil along. As the two of them went out to the fields to fetch the horses, Phil was quiet and frowning.

“Having second thoughts?” Dan asked and bumped his shoulder into Phil’s as they walked.

At the question, Phil physically shook his head and perked up. “No. Not anymore. This is a good idea. Paladin and I need a distraction and it isn’t fair to expect him to be a machine that will just to dressage exercises all day every day. It’s not a good horse life. I owe him a chance to stretch out his legs properly.”

The two of them saddled up together, like they usually did and Dan found it easy to fall back into the routine, even if he was tacking up a big red gelding instead of the brown or grey mare he was used to. Hermes was delighted to be groomed and tacked up and he seemed excited.

Paladin was a little restless, so Dan wondered if Phil was emitting nervous energy that he wasn’t aware of. But Dan had watched the stallion under rider for weeks and at most he would do a little step to the side if he were misbehaving. He had been so obedient and Dan figured that it would transfer naturally to all aspects of riding.

Hermes was the largest horse than Dan had ever been on so far but he fit comfortable in the saddle with his long legs. At the slightest shift of Dan’s weight, Hermes was moving forward and he could recognise what Cornelia had meant with his sensitivity.

“He’s been taught to make very narrow turns when Cornelia just shifts her weight slightly to the side,” Phil explained as he mounted Paladin. “But you’re got a good centre of balance, so it couldn’t be a problem.”

Dan nodded and gathered the reins. As Phil did the same, Paladin started tossing his head up which Dan had never seen before.

“You still want to do this?” Dan asked as Paladin stepped back and forth.

“Yeah, he’s just excited. He has figured out what’s going on because he’s been saddled up with a friend and not alone. He knows we’re going out.”

Dan watched a little cautiously as he saw how Phil fought to let go of the tension trying to claim his body. It was a struggle in his mind but it showed itself in his body.

Paladin calmed down more as they walked away from the stables and towards the forest paths. Hermes easily matched the stallion’s long steps and they fell into sync. Dan tried to pretend that they were just on Money and Misty, like they had been so many times before, so that he wouldn’t be nervous.

A rider’s nerves transferred right into the horses and they didn’t need nervous horses.

They kept the horses in walk for a long time and gradually Paladin’s steps started to even out and the stallion started to relax more in time with his rider.

The warm summer was coming to an end but it was still pleasant riding weather, even with some skies overhead. The forest was quiet and Dan found himself appreciating the nature as they were surrounded by forest sounds and the steady beat of the horses’ hooves.

“I’ll miss being outside when I go back to university,” Dan said as he kept glancing around. “It’s not something that I would ever have imagined saying.”

Not before he came here. Not before Phil showed him the benefits of nature and bonding with animals and taking time away from the screens.

“I’m glad,” Phil said. “Maybe it’ll get you to visit more.”

It was the first time Phil had brought up visiting, or even acknowledged that Dan would be going back soon. Dan’s heart leapt a little at Phil’s words.

“You’d want me to visit?” Dan asked.

“Of course,” Phil said like it was the most obvious thing in the world. He even shot Dan an expression that said duh!

Dan suddenly felt warm all over. “I’d love that. In the weekend and stuff?”

“Yeah,” Phil said and cast a glance over at Dan. “That would be nice.”

It felt like a moment and Dan almost wanted to say something else. But he chickened out last minute and said something else instead.

“Want to try a trot?”

Phil leaned forward to stroke Paladin’s neck and the stallion was walking relaxed now as opposed to when they started the journey.

“Yes, let’s give the boys some exercise.”

The gelding and stallion quickly found their sync in trot as well. It was pleasant and easy and both horses obeyed their riders and kept the tempo. They kept trotting for a long time, enough that Dan felt a little tired from rising trot. Phil picked up on it, if the smirk on his lips was any indication, and eventually they changed the gait back to walk.

“Holding up okay there, Howell?” Phil asked in a teasing tone.

“We don’t usually ride for that long,” Dan protested.

“True. But these two have great stamina and it’s good for Paladin to ride in long loose strides. Evidently not so much for you.”

“Shut up,” Dan bit back but there was no real bite to his tone. He just sounded enamoured to his own ears but he hoped it didn’t come across like that to Phil.

As they came to a fork in the road, Hermes’ ears perked forward and his steps became a bit more insistent as he started pulling toward the right. Dan took tightened his hold on the reins just for a moment and the gelding slowed down again but he was still eyeing the path to the right.

“What’s that way?” Dan asked and nodded towards the right.

They were in a section of the forest that they hadn’t been in much. Usually, they would stick to the same paths near the stables because they had to get back to going other things, such as training Paladin or working on the freestyle programme. Dan couldn’t recall being here before.

“Oh, it leads out into an open field. I think Cornelia usually takes her horses out here to let them properly stretch out. It’s a bigger stretch than the gallop path that we usually take,” Phil explained.

Hermes was still pulling towards the right as they neared it and Phil was carefully watching the gelding. He was probably considering the same thing that Dan was.

On their forest rides, they liked going down the gallop path because Money and Misty highly appreciated the opportunity to stretch their legs and it gave the boys a great rush as well. It felt like they were flying together with their horses and it was an addicting feeling.

But they were further away from home than usual and Dan was on a horse he had never ridden before and Paladin hadn’t been in the forest for ten months or so. It was a ridiculous notion but anyway the boys locked eyes, and Dan allowed Hermes to pull to the right as the path split into two.

Now that he had gotten his way, Hermes returned to his normal walking pace but he kept his head lifted a little and his ears were tipping forward. He looked excited. Paladin didn’t seem to realise what was going on until the trees stared to disappear and a great open field seemed to expand in front of them.

Now the stallion pulled forward on the reins slightly but with a quick correction from Phil, Paladin slowed down again.

It was a beautiful place. The grass was tall and it swayed gently in the breeze. Not a person or anything manmade in sight.

Dan felt a little like him and Phil were the only people in the world. He had felt like that a lot lately but he knew that it would stop soon. In just a week, they would have to say goodbye to each other. Even if Dan would visit it wouldn’t be the same.

It had been the best summer that Dan had ever had.

He could never have dreamt that he would have such an amazing time when he had agreed to shovel horse shit for three months.

It had been a hidden paradise with a very special man at the heart of it.

Dan looked over at Phil as both of them pulled their horses to a halt. Hermes impatiently lifted his front leg and Paladin quickly mimicked him. Both of them craned their necks down and forward and Dan was sure it would have looked impressive to see the two big horses stand like that.

“You in?” Dan asked.

“With you? Duh.”

Dan didn’t even get a chance to confront the butterflies suddenly fluttering around in his stomach before Phil started to gather his horse’s reins and Dan copied. Hermes and Paladin waited impatiently for the signal that they were allowed to move. Paladin shifted on his hooves in anticipation.

“Go!” Phil shouted and you would have thought that it was racehorses and not a dressage horse and a show jumper with the way they flew out of the metaphorical start box. From the very first step, the gelding and stallion were in gallop and moving so fast that Dan felt the skin on his face being strained by the wind.

Hermes was fast, just like Dan had seen, and Paladin didn’t want to be left behind, so the two of them thundered forward next to each other. Dan was sure it was faster than he and Phil had ever ridden together, partly because of the size of their current horses and those horses’ fitness level.

It felt incredible and Dan managed to catch a glance of Phil smiling out of the corner of his eye.

Dan should have been scared because he was moving extremely fast but he trusted his horse, even this horse that he had never been on before.

Of course, that’s when it went wrong.

It wasn’t even Hermes’ fault.

Paladin saw something in the grass or somewhere, they were moving too fast for Dan to see it properly, but it made the stallion get spooked and it pulled right into Hermes, who was galloping next to him.

Hermes got knocked out of balance and everything happened so fast.

Dan felt the horse under him move irregularly and as he was standing up in the stirrups to give the Hermes the best opportunity to move smoothly. Hermes ran faster to keep his balance and not get knocked on his side but it caused Dan to dangerously tumble forward.

In the moment, Dan didn’t see it but Hermes tried desperately to help his rider. He was an experienced show jumper and he tried to slow down to a halt and raise his front as to catch his off-balanced rider.

It might have worked if it was Cornelia on Hermes’ back but Dan was heavier and entirely inexperienced in almost falling off horses, so he didn’t stand a chance. He tumbled right off despite Hermes managing to slow down a lot.

The impact with the ground knocked the air out of Dan’s lungs but the fall didn’t hurt that much. The soft ground and grass had managed to soften the impact of the fall but Dan still couldn’t get up right away.

He could hear the sound of galloping hooves and then Phil’s panicked shouts. Dan instantly worried that Phil had gotten hurt or fallen off as well since his horse also had thrown him off balance.

“Phil,” Dan managed to croak out but it wasn’t a real shout, since Dan’s thought felt tight and stunned.

It took a moment but Dan soon felt feeling in his limbs again and he started to sit up. He was sore from the impact but he felt okay. He lifted his hand to the helmet still fastened securely around his skull and he was thankful for its protection. He understood why Phil had been so adamant about always wearing it.

Phil came running through the tall grass with panic in his face and Paladin trailing behind him in a slow trot, held by the rein flipped out over the stallion’s head. Dan realised that Phil must have jumped down from his horse rather than having been thrown from it. He breathed a sigh of relief to see Phil was okay.

“Where’s Hermes?” Dan asked Phil and tried to look around for the red gelding.

If something happened to him…

“Dan, what? Are you okay?” Phil said and kneeled down next to him. His face was flushed and he looked like he might have tears in the corner of his eyes but that could just be from the wind whipping in their faces from the fast gallop.

“I’m okay,” Dan rushed to say.

Only then, Phil dared to tear his eyes away from Dan and he lifted his hands to his mouth and let out a loud whistle. Paladin neighed and a moment later, Hermes came trotting towards them.

He seemed utterly unimpressed with the whole spectacle and he walked straight over to Dan and put his muzzle on top of Dan’s riding helmet. He thankfully didn’t seem to be hurt.

“Hey bud,” Dan said and reached up to pet him. His hand shook slightly, which Dan credited down to pure shock and adrenalin but Phil was eyeing him carefully.

As Dan reached to take Hermes’ rein, still sitting in the grass, he watched Phil watching him.

He could see all the tension again.

Phil was terrified. He was terrified on Dan’s behalf. He was probably blaming himself, if Dan knew Phil. He would feel guilty and responsible for getting Dan in a position where he could fall of a horse and get injured.

Dan felt okay. He was just a little shook up. It was scary tumbling off a horse going that fast but Hermes had managed to slow down to almost a halt.

But Dan knew that Phil had been okay when he had fallen off Paladin in February. It had been a minor fall, just like the one Dan had experienced. Nevertheless, Phil had just felt spooked and nervous and it had taken him nearly half a year to get back in the saddle. Dan liked riding.

He wasn’t ready to give it up just yet.

Over dinner once, Cornelia had playfully said that riders had to fall off at least a hundred times before they got really good. Dan supposed that he just had his first tumble.

Dan knew that his next move was utterly vital, not just for himself but also for Phil.

“Dan, I’m so sorry,” Phil muttered and he looked traumatised. Dan expected it might not be fun to see someone tumble down from a horse that went from a fast gallop to almost a complete halt.

Phil had seen his brother be thrown from a horse and get whiplash that might impact him from the rest of his life. Dan could see how Phil’s eyes were frantically scanning Dan’s body to desperately determine if he had been seriously hurt.

“It’s okay, Phil. We’re all okay.”

“Let me help you up,” Phil offered and put and extended his hand, which Dan took.

He accepted the help getting to his feet and then stretched out when he was standing. He felt sore and a little banged up and he would probably be a little bruised but nothing was broken at least. He would have been able to feel that.

He wasn’t sure what to feel or what to say but he reached up and stroked Hermes’ neck. It hadn’t been his horse’s fault; it hadn’t even been Phil’s horse’s fault. Paladin had gotten spooked and that happened to horses. Phil had explained that enough times for Dan to know so.

“Do you think you can walk back?” Phil asked carefully.

Dan knew what to say to that at least.

“Walk? We’re riding back.”

Phil was just staring at him. Point blank with pure confusion on his face.

Dan wanted to keep things light-hearted. He needed to do this or he might never be able to get back in the saddle.

“Riding?”

“Yes,” Dan confirmed. “When you fall off your horse, you get right back in the saddle. That’s what horse people do.”

Dan tried not to let his voice shake or let the stunned expression on Phil’s face take away his determination.

Now, he walked over to Hermes and tried to get his foot into the stirrup but he found it entirely impossible. His leg couldn’t stretch that much and he had never mounted a horse without a stepping stool because Phil taught him that it was important to mount from a height as to not pull and wear the strips on the saddle and more importantly put unnecessary pressure on the horse’s spine.

Mounting a very tall horse from the ground wasn’t something he had done before and he couldn’t do it, even as Hermes stood completely still and waiting patiently as his rider fumbled.

Oddly enough, it seemed to be Dan’s failed attempt that finally shook Phil out of his paralysis.

“Let’s find a big rock or a tree stump, shall we?”

Dan was red in the face from straining himself and probably the fall as well. He looked over at Phil and just burst out laughing and Phil followed suit immediately.

The horses must have thought that they were crazy.

“You never told me it would be impossible to mount from the ground.”

“It’s not impossible if you’re fit enough,” Phil said.

Dan made an offended noise as they lead their horses to the edge of the open field where they quickly found a rock that could get them at least half a meter off the ground. It was much easier to mount from there and Dan was so focused on getting back in the saddle, to show that he could indeed mount a horse, that he didn’t even think about what had happened just minutes ago.

“Aha!” Dan exclaimed triumphantly as he was back in the saddle.

His hands still shook a little and he felt shaken up but Hermes seemed to sense it because he stood completely still and awaited Dan’s instructions before moving. Dan made Hermes step forward so the rock was free for Phil.

Phil eyed it for a moment and Dan could see how tightly he was gripping onto Paladin’s rein. His hand was wrapped around it tightly and the horse couldn’t feel the pressure but Phil was holding on uncomfortably tight.

Dan waited with baited breath as he could see the hesitance and worry in Phil’s eyes as he eyed the rock.

Then it got settled, not by the action from any of the boys but rather Paladin growing impatient and nudging Phil’s shoulder with his muzzle. Phil turned to face his horse, who at the attention took the opportunity to nudge Phil again.

“Back in the saddle, huh, boy? Like real horse people?” Phil asked with a quick glance in Dan’s direction before he reached forward to stroke Paladin down his forehead.

Phil closed his eyes and lingered for a moment with his hand pressed flat against Paladin’s head. When he opened his eyes, he swiftly positioned his horse by the rock and mounted in a way that looked effortless.

They let the horses walk back for a long rein. None of them felt the need to change the gait and the horses were happy to walk calmly after the draining gallop.

As Phil dismounted Paladin in the courtyard, he turned to face Dan.

“If Martyn isn’t ready, I’ll show Paladin next Saturday.”

The words were spoken with complete sincerity and Dan wasn’t sure what had made Phil change his mind so radically but he sounded completely confident in his statement.

Chapter Text

It had been horrible to feel Paladin tense up and pull sideways straight into Hermes. Phil’s instincts and training had kicked in and he had managed to steady himself and clam his horse but he had felt panicked the moment he spotted Hermes stumbling and losing Dan.

Phil heard the thud as Dan’s body hit the ground and Phil had been terrified. Paladin tensed even more under him but Phil didn’t care, dismounting even before Paladin had been slowed down in his gait. He was shouting Dan’s name and running towards where he had seen him fall.

He worried that Dan would be severely injured and it was all Phil’s fault because Phil had gotten him into riding in the first place, Phil had suggested that he ride Hermes and Phil couldn’t think straight as Dan disappeared in the tall grass.

Dan was okay.

Phil had kept telling himself that over and over again in his head.

It didn’t take away the worry at all or the guilt accompanying it. He felt so horrible and felt that he might never be able to forgive himself if something had happened to poor Dan.

Dan who Phil cared about more than he was willing to admit.

They had become fast friends and it was the type of friendship that seemed to bypass even the label of best friends and it was the best thing Phil could ever have imagined. Phil cared for Dan so deeply and he wanted him in his life forever.

It felt more intense than any friendship Phil had ever been apart of before.

The crush, no matter how much he had tried to crush it down, still remained strong and Phil couldn’t stop his mind for imagining him and Dan in the future. Growing up and intertwining their lives is a way that wasn’t strictly platonic.

It almost tumbled out over Phil’s lips when he saw that Dan was okay.

It wasn’t weird to love your friends, so maybe Dan wouldn’t have minded it. But being in love with someone wasn’t a friend thing. It was the emotions of something more and Phil felt it only blossom bigger in his chest when Dan had insisted on getting back in the saddle immediately.

Phil could see that he had been shaking but Dan had taken it with a stiff upper lip and he had done it despite his fears. Just like he had taught Phil to do the same thing.

Dan pushed Phil to want to face his fears. He made Phil want to prove himself and show what he was capable of.

He still wasn’t he biggest fan of competitions but he knew he didn’t want to let all his and Dan’s hard work go to waste. Paladin and the carefully crafted programme with the piano music had to be showed.

It was too special to not share with people.

Phil wanted everyone to see the wonderful stallion but he also wanted to see all the hours poured into getting ready to that point. It made it real, which made it scary but it wasn’t so scary to face when he had Dan by his side.

After they came home from the forest ride, they had their usual film night and Phil might have shuffled a little closer to Dan. He ended up falling asleep and waking up on Dan’s shoulder being gently jostled awake. Phil should have been embarrassed but Dan’s eyes were just warm and fond as he teased Phil about having missed half of the film.

Phil almost said it then too but he bit down the words yet again.

They had a good thing going here; a friendship like no other.

It was enough. The bond they had formed would be enough, even if Phil occasionally felt the craving to lean in and press a kiss to Dan’s lips.

It wasn’t worth risking the friendship, so Phil held himself back.

He didn’t hold himself back with training for the last week. With a newly ignited focus, him and Paladin were training more seriously than ever and Phil could feel visible improvements from the past week where he had been distracted and aimless.

Dan noticed too as he stood by the fence while fulfilling his role as Phil’s personal cameraman and capturing the performances. Two days before the showcase, Phil did a final run through the programme with Dan moving around the course to film him. The day before, Paladin did best with a day of rest or long reining, so this would be the last time Phil rode him before the showcase.

Dan had promised to do so at the showcase too, so they would be able to capture and share the footage. It had taken some time for Dan to get used to filming a dressage horse but over the past couple of weeks he had really gotten a knack for it.

Dan had the track out with him and when the music started playing, Phil just got into the zone. It was the first time they did the whole programme in length, having only practiced elements out of order before, because Paladin had always been quick about picking up patterns and if he learnt the routine too well, then he might become sloppier in his movements or focusing forward rather than staying in the current exercise.

It was just Phil and his horse in his little mental box, and he only realised that Martyn had joined to watch as Phil pulled Paladin into the final halt and practiced the final thank you to the judges after the finished programme.

“He’s looking incredible, Phil,” Dan said as he lowered his camera.

Phil focused on Dan’s bright and happy expression and it ached in his heart that Dan would be leaving in just a couple of days. The day after the showcase, Dan would pack up his backs and head back to university for the new semester.

The three months seemed to have passed by in the blink of an eye. Phil had tried to enjoy every moment and he felt like he had done it somewhat well but it still hadn’t been enough time. He wanted more time seeing Dan every single day and living in the same place. When he allowed himself to daydream, he would think of how he would like that to be his reality: sharing a home with Dan.

“I agree,” Martyn said in support of Dan’s comment. “You wouldn’t think that he had hardly been ridden for nearly half a year until a month ago.”

Phil let Paladin walk over to the fence where Dan and Martyn were standing. Martyn immediately reached out to stroke down the stallion’s neck and Paladin let out a low rumbling whinny to greet his old rider.

Phil’s breath caught in his throat. He had been so focused on not wanting to ride in the showcase that he hadn’t stopped to consider how much it must hurt to Martyn that he was unable to do it.

Unlike Phil, Martyn loved competing and showing off his horses and their joint skills. He was an extremely talented rider with a great feel for his horse but since his injury he hadn’t been allowed to ride properly and he had just snuck out on the occasional walk because he couldn’t not ride at all.

Phil sympathised with his brother and the last bit of resentment melted away. He didn’t want to be angry with him anymore for pushing Phil to ride again. It had been uncomfortable and the wrong way to go about it but Phil knew that it hadn’t come from a bad place.

“You know I won’t be ready by now, don’t you?” Martyn asked in a low voice as he reached out to pet Paladin’s muzzle. “Besides, I don’t think that anyone could ride that programme like you could, Phil. Please consider showing him? I know you said that you didn’t want to do it but it is a pleasure to watch what the two of you, or rather three of you, have created.”

Dan and Phil had kept quiet about Phil’s change of heart until now.

Phil hadn’t wanted to add pressure to the situation, so it had seemed like the best solution. However, it was time that he came clean.

It was scary to admit it to Martyn. Phil felt his heart pick up.

“I decided that I wanted to show him if you weren’t ready,” Phil said, his voice shaking ever so slightly.

Martyn blinked in surprise and he looked genuinely taken aback but it only lasted a moment before he broke into the brightest smile that Phil had seen his brother sport since the accident.

“That’s… that’s really great news,” Martyn said and reached forward to stroke Paladin again. “Did you hear that, buddy? You and Phil will get to show together.”

Paladin snorted and Phil could swear that the horse sometimes understood what was going on. It was more likely that he was getting somewhat impatient after being asked to stand still while his muscles were still warm but Phil liked to think about it the other way around.

“Thank you, Phil,” Martyn said. “I know it can’t have been an easy decision but I’m proud of you. And I’m sorry if I’ve been a bit of an arsehole about the whole thing. It’s just…”

“Hey,” Phil interrupted. “It’s okay. I get it.”

Martyn looked thankful for being interrupted form barring his heart. He looked away from his brother on top of the stallion and instead focused on Dan.

“And thank you too, Dan.”

“Me?” Dan asked with a surprised frown. “What are you thanking me for? The decision to start was all Phil’s.”

Dan might claim no responsibility but Phil knew that wasn’t true. Phil would never have been able to get here without Dan’s support or strength. It had been inspiring to get to know Dan and he had affected Phil’s life in more ways than one.

But Dan was a sweetheart and he didn’t want to take any credit, even if Phil would gladly shower him in it.

“Aha,” Martyn said with a quick side-glance to Phil, which distinctively said that Martyn saw through it. “Thank you for the music still. It’s been a long time since any of us have competed with such a beautiful piece and it’s so incredibly well tailored to Phil and Paladin. Anyway, I’ll see you boys for dinner tonight?”

The two of them nodded and Martyn left them alone. An idea was forming in the back of Phil’s mind, just a little spark, and now wasn’t time to address it with such short time until the showcase but he filed it away for another day.

“It was absolutely incredible to watch, Phil,” Dan repeated. “You looked even better than all those Grand Prix dressage programmes we’ve watched together. It’s like Paladin is flying across with perfectly measured steps and you’re elegantly guiding him with just the occasional tilt of your weight. I know it’s much more than that, obviously, but it’s looking so effortlessly and it’s just… beautiful.”

At Dan’s praise, Phil’s breath caught in his throat again. The way he said that final word, Phil felt like it might not have been entirely directed toward the dressage performance but he couldn’t let himself get lost in that hope. Dan was leaving soon and they had to get ready for the showcase.

The day before the showcase was mostly filled with getting all of the equipment ready and gently exercises Paladin. Dan and Phil also went for a forest ride on Money and Misty and they spent almost an hour walking around with Chrome while just chatting. The gelding had made great progress already and he would be ready to carry a rider again in a couple of weeks and get back into shape. Phil was sad that Dan couldn’t be that rider because the two of them were getting along splendidly, and Dan constantly joked that Chrome matched his aesthetic.

On the day of the showcase, Phil woke up too early in the morning and he felt like he was back in university and it was the day of a big exam. He decided to go find Dan to help calm the nerves.

He snuck out of the house on socked feet and he didn’t even bother to put on shoes as he crossed the courtyard and approached the stables and the door that would lead to the stairs and Dan’s little flat above the stables.

It was too early and he wasn’t even thinking clearly but he was nervous and restless and he couldn’t sleep and he just somehow knew that seeing Dan would make it better. He did pause outside of Dan’s door as insecurity suddenly swept over him.

It wasn’t very nice to be awoken early in the morning and Dan was sometimes grumpy in the morning when he had stayed up too late. But Phil still knocked his knuckles gently against the door.

Nothing happened and he was about ready to turn back around and make his way back to his bed to just lay restlessly but then he heard the creaks from old floorboards inside the little flat and the door was being swung back to reveal a rumbled looking Dan.

It was Dan like Phil had never really seen him before and he froze and just looked at him.

Dan’s hair was a mess, curly and rumbled, and his face seemed squishy and he was squinting. He was wearing pyjamas pants and an old T-shirt and all of it looked so soft, just like the boy wearing them.

The competition nerves melted away at the sight of Dan but a new type of nerves overtook them almost immediately.

It was like a longing in Phil’s heart.

Dan was beautiful and Phil felt like he might love him in a way that wasn’t strictly platonic.

“Hey Phil,” Dan said as he was rubbing his eyes. “Trouble sleeping?”

Phil’s throat felt dry and hoarse and he hadn’t spoken a word after awaking and he knew he would sound as sleepy as Dan did.

Even as Phil didn’t make a verbal reply, Dan stepped aside and moved his arm out to signify inviting Phil inside.

They spent their majority of their time either out at the stables or in Phil’s room or in the upstairs lounge with the piano, so it had been a while since Phil had been in here. He knew his mother had cleaned it and made it nice for Dan’s arrival.

Dan yawned and went over to sit back down on his bed.

Phil stood in the middle of the room and he didn’t know what to do with himself.

Dan let out a low chuckle and moved over on the bed. Phil shot him a thankful smile and sat down. The bed really wasn’t wide enough for two guys of their height but it didn’t matter.

“You are ready for today, Phil. You and Paladin are in excellent shape,” Dan said and then slid down to lay with his head on his pillow while Phil sat up against the headboard with his one leg still hanging off the side.

“I know. I just always get restless before a big presentation, no matter the kind,” Phil said and his voice came out low and hoarse and barely louder than a whisper. “Sorry for waking you.”

“It’s okay,” Dan said and let out a deep breath. “I don’t mind. What can I do to help?”

The sincere offer made Phil’s heart ache and he wanted so badly to wrap Dan up into a hug but the fact that they were sitting on Dan’s bed and clad only in their pyjamas and that it was still night made him pause.

It would come with insinuations and Phil wasn’t ready to bare his heart yet.

“Can I just chat to you? Get things off my chest?” Phil asked.

At that Dan’s eyes snapped up and for a beat his eyebrows scrunched together but quickly he relaxed again.

“About the competition nerves,” Phil clarified.

“Of course, just nudge me if I start to doze off?”

Phil started speaking, he told Dan about how he had been so nervous when he had to step in in February and show Paladin after Martyn’s injury and how he had been so terrified when he had been thrown from the stallion. Dan was nodding and listening and Phil kept going, moving onto stories of childhood competitions.

At some point, Dan did doze off but Phil didn’t wake him. He did allow himself to look at Dan’s sleeping face, just for a couple of seconds.

He looked so peaceful and beautiful with his features relaxed and Phil felt himself fall even deeper for this young man. Dan who didn’t complain at being woken in the middle of the night and Dan who immediately asked how he could help.

He was such a good person and Phil felt honoured to have become his best friend.

Dan was so amazing and he didn’t even realise it himself most of the time.

Phil slid down the bed, so he was lying on his side like Dan was. He closed his eyes and listened to Dan’s soothing and deep breathing. They were lying close but not touching and Phil’s ass was almost hanging off the bed’s edge but it didn’t matter because this was perfect.

Phil felt sleep move into his consciousness but he held it off a little to just bask in the feeling a little more. He allowed himself to daydream about how this could be them.

About how he could fall asleep next to Dan in the future and it hurt in his chest.

They were both awoken by Dan’s alarm a couple of hours later. As they woke, none of them addressed the sleeping together by accident, at least on accident from Dan. They just shared a smile and went about getting dressed. Phil managed to sneak all the way back to his room without being spotted and he was thankful for that.

He didn’t need his family coming to the wrong conclusions. They knew that Phil liked boys, so he wasn’t scared of being outed but he was scared of making things awkward with Dan if it was brought up in front of them.

Phil got dressed quickly and as he exited his room, he ran into Martyn and things got back into the routine. Cornelia was already in the stable and she quickly joined the team to get Paladin ready.

The stallion himself seemed to sense what was going on almost immediately. He whinnied loudly as the four of them entered and Phil couldn’t keep the smile of his face. His nerves felt in control, even if he knew that they would come back once he arrived at the warm-up course.

He was enjoying it right now and he didn’t want to let anything ruin his mood.

Martyn started braiding Paladin’s mane and the stallion stood quietly and obediently as he was being readied. He was only eight years old but he had spent the last four years being show and starting dressage compeitions and he easily slipped into the old routines.

Only this time it wouldn’t be Martyn riding him. It would be Phil.

Phil brushed Paladin’s coat as Martyn stood on a little stool and plaited into braids and then sowed them into rosebuds. Martyn was speaking in hushed tones to his horse. Phil had heard it many times before. It was a pre-show ritual for Martyn when he was readying his horses.

But this time he was saying something different.

“You’ll be a good boy for Phil, right? The two of you will show everyone what a Lester is capable of. You’ll blow them away.”

Martyn was inside of his own little bubble, only focused on the work his hands were doing and his horse, so Phil was fairly sure that he wasn’t even aware that Phil was standing so close by.

It touched Phil’s heart and made it hurt at the same time. He wanted his brother to get better.

“You’ll get back to riding again, Martyn,” Phil said and Martyn’s head snapped in Phil’s direction in surprise. “I know you will.”

Martyn’s mouth fell open slightly for a beat until he was smiling.

“I know. It’s gotten even better over the summer. I will be back to riding again. But you wouldn’t want to do it? I’ve seen how you and Paladin have worked together for this past month.”

“No,” Phil said with a shake of his head. “It’s fun to do the occasional thing but I don’t like competitions. It’s your thing. It’s never really been my thing. You’ll be back to compete with Paladin again. I just know it.”

“Thank you, Phil,” Martyn replied.

Dan had been helping Cornelia ready the trailer and he also confirmed that he had all three cameras ready. As they finished readying Paladin, Phil wanted to go over the filming plan with the three of them again but Dan cut him off.

“You just focus on your horse, Phil. We’ll make sure to shoot some awesome footage. Trust me.”

Phil did. So very much, so he shut his mouth with a smile.

The drive was actually the worst part. Cornelia had lead Paladin into the trailer without a problem and they had packed up all of their stuff and Phil had changed into his competition clothes.

From their arrival on site, they would have about an hour before it would be Phil’s turn to show. It was plenty of time to get a good warm-up, so Phil wasn’t anxious about that. He was more anxious about having too much time and his mind starting to freak out.

He kept asking if they had remembered this or that and all of his three companions humoured him and diligently told him that everything had been packed.

It was only when Phil’s parents came out of the house, ready to leave, and Katherine pulled him aside that he managed to calm down. It was only because his mother literally told him to stop fussing and get going in that loving but strict tone she had perfected over the years.

Cornelia was driving, Martyn was in the passenger seat and Dan and Phil was in the back. It was so different from accompanying Cornelia to a show jumping competition or a dressage competition with the young four year olds. This time Phil wouldn’t just be the helping hand. He would be the rider.

He would be responsible for showing Paladin in the best way possible.

Only twelve stallions had even qualified to be showcased today. Phil had managed to qualify Paladin after just the one competition from February. He had won that class with a percentage just over 75%, which had earned him an automatic place at this show.

Most had competed at other of the qualifying competitions to earn over 65% at least three times to be allowed to enter.

It was also only for stallions registered as breeders within the English Warmblood society.

It was a fairly big deal and a lot of stud owners used this yearly showcase to determine which stallions they would want to cover their mares the following years. It was a big deal.

Dan seemed to be able to sense Phil’s spiralling thoughts, even as he just stared out of the window. He felt tense and on edge.

His hands were resting in his lap and he was fidgeting with the edge of his shirt until he felt a soft hand reach over to cover his.

Phil didn’t dare to look away from the window and focus on Dan because he knew that his expression might make Phil crumble. But he did turn his hand over and Dan’s easily slotted into it and their hands intertwined.

Phil remembered how Dan had done the same thing while Phil had been watching Cornelia ride on Hermes. He had done it to calm him then, just like he did now and again Phil found himself wondering how he was so lucky to have someone like Dan in his life.

When they arrived at the competition, routine overtook again. Phil had been a helping hand at enough of competitions to know what needed to get done.

Paladin was brushed over a final time, tacked up and all too soon Phil was in the saddle. He knew from the listing that he would be the penultimate rider, as they always put the “best” horses towards the end in showcases like this. Paladin’s single qualifying round had earned him the second best spot.

It also came with a lot of pressure if you asked Phil but there wasn’t much he could do about it. Mike and Shêtân would be starting just before them, which meant that Phil would have to warm-up with them for almost all of the warm-up time. It wasn’t ideal because Mike lowed small talk and Phil had often felt too polite to tell him to shut up and focus on his riding.

But a lot had changed over the summer in terms of Phil’s confidence and he might just do it now.

He knew that they had a good chance of winning. The freestyle programme was undoubtedly the best one Phil had ever made. From the way the exercises flowed together effortlessly to show off Paladin’s many strengths and the music matching down to a tee in a way it had never done before. Not before Dan had come into Phil’s life and helped.

Martyn and Cornelia when around to pick up something, or rather Phil had a feeling that they were giving him a moment alone with Dan, for which he was grateful.

“I’m still nervous,” Phil said and reached forward to stroke Paladin’s neck.

The stallion was alert to all the new sounds around him and the new horses he hadn’t seen before. Phil tried desperately not to think of how this place looked so much like the one from February where Paladin had unfortunately thrown him when he had been spooked.

He seemed calm at the moment but if Phil got nervous, it would go right into Paladin.

“Hey,” Dan said and placed a hand on Phil’s knee. “It’s okay to be nervous, right? Nerves can help you perform better. That’s what my horse friend always says, even if she was usually speaking about exams. It means that you care about what you’re doing, so you’ll perform better. You know the programme backwards and forwards. You won’t forget it. Just remember to ride and perform every single exercise instead of focusing on what comes next. And if it helps, once you’re in there, you can pretend that it’s just the two of us and Paladin back home, like it’s been all these past weeks.”

Home.

Back home.

Phil felt his heart swell with emotions. He wasn’t sure when Dan had started seeing the Lester Stables as a home but it was a much too pretty and distracting picture. But Dan was also offering good advice, repeating some advice that Phil had once explained to Dan in the first place.

Martyn and Cornelia came back and Dan let his hand drop but it was okay. Phil gathered up the reins and nudged Paladin slightly to get him to walk forward.

As expected, Mike and Shêtân was already riding through their warm-up exercises. Most riders like to give their horses at least twenty minutes to get their muscles ready but sometimes much longer and that was without the ten or fifteen minute walk warm-up that you usually did off the warm-up course as a curtsey.

Depending on the sweat on Shêtân’s neck, Mike had been going hard at it from the beginning.

“Philip! What a pleasure to see that you could make it,” Mike said and pulled his stallion to a halt by the entrance. Phil saw how the horse corrected his head a little too noticeably and he knew it was something that could often happen when the horse had been corrected too violently too many times.

Eventually they would just try to move in, whether it felt natural and comfortable or not.

As a response Phil reached forward and stroked Paladin’s neck.

He could hear the murmur around them already. He understood it. They two stallions were very similar in size and form. It was only really Paladin’s white marking on his head that would distinguish them from each other on the first glance if you weren’t familiar with them.

They were likely competing for some of the same mare owner’s attention.

To Phil, it wouldn’t have been a competition as all. Paladin had a good head on his shoulders and his good temper should have to be taken into consideration. Phil had seen Shêtân enough times to know that the other black stallion was easily irritable and he had a short temper.

Phil would never have picked someone like that if he had any say over his parents’ foals. But Shêtân’s pedigree was stacked with one premiere horse after another, while Paladin’s was plainer in comparison.

“It’s good to see you too, Mike,” Phil said and allowed Paladin to walk into the course.

Mike asked Shêtân to move out of the halt and to Phil’s, and Paladin’s annoyance, he rode right up next to them.

“So you’re the competing Lester now?”

“No,” Phil bit out. “Martyn will be back. When he gets better from his injury.”

Phil spit out the last word because Mike was being insensitive.

“Right, right. Well, I look forward to showing everyone who is the best black stallion.”

“Oh, Paladin will certainly enjoy the spotlight,” Phil said cheekily. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

He asked Paladin to go into trot and the stallion happily moved forward to get away from Shêtân who had been throwing his ears back and sending evil glances to him.

Phil forgot about Mike’s hassling. He forgot about the pressure to perform well. He even forgot about his feeling for Dan for a moment.

It was only him and his horse.

He took Paladin through his paces and he made sure to feel every shift of his horse’s feet. They were an equipage and at the moment Phil felt like they had melted together. When Phil moved Paladin moved and visa versa.

Phil didn’t even need to urge on Paladin who moved forward energetically all on his own. Phil just focused on directing the energy into the right things.

He wasn’t even paying attention to the speakers because he knew Martyn would be listening out for him. He did hear when they called his name to announce that he was the next rider.

Mike was heading out of the warm-up course and Phil pulled Paladin to a halt by the fence to shout after him.

“Good luck, Mike,” Phil said in a loud voice and Mike turned around and he looked slightly surprised.

It was good sportsmanship to wish each other good luck but normally people didn’t go out of their way to yell it across the courtyard. But Phil had felt like it was important to do so.

“Right, Phil, a few gallop extensions and then I think you’re good,” Martyn said.

Phil had been riding on his own but every time he had ridden by where Martyn had been standing, his brother had spoken brief suggestions or advice to correct small errors in Phil’s posture.

Now it was just him and the last rider of the class, a woman on a beautiful red stallion, so he had more space to let Paladin stretch out, which he did happily when asked.

He was bouncy beneath Phil, he was light on the bid and he was just a pleasure to be sat across.

“Well done, boy,” Phil said as he pulled Paladin into a halt. “You just have five more minutes and then you’re done. But we’ll make those five minutes count, yeah? Dan’s music will help.”

Martyn started waving them forward and Phil let Paladin walk off the dressage course.

Mike and Shêtân was just finishing up as the final notes of their music rang out and the stallion came to a final halt in front of the judges. The applause was loud but Mike had always been a fan favourite at things like this.

He and Shêtân had been participating at this particular showcase for three years in a row now and their pop music programme was always a big hit with the crowd. It was very different from what Phil and Paladin would be doing but Phil wasn’t worried.

The piano tunes expertly moved from soothing to upbeat under Dan’s expert hands. Phil was definitely keeping the music file on his computer and listening to it when he would miss Dan after he moved back to university.

“Good luck, Phil,” Mike said as he rode out and he even tipped his helmet.

“Thank you,” Phil said back.

“Go get them, tiger,” Martyn said, using an old nickname Phil had gotten while on holiday golfing.

“You’ll do great,” Cornelia added.

“I can’t wait to see it,” Dan said.

Dan’s words were so sincere and full of hope and Phil’s heart swelled again. It must have grown since Dan came around because it seemed to always be affected around him.

Phil gathered up the reins and rode into the dressage course. Paladin’s ears tipped towards the audience.

“Shh, it’s okay. We’ve got this,” Phil told his horse as they moved around in trot until the whistle would sound and allow them to begin. “We’ve got to make Dan proud.”

The whistle sounded and Phil started moving Paladin toward their starting position. As they arrived, the piano music started and Phil’s focus was on one thing only.

He felt Paladin move beneath him, rhythmically to the music. Phil focused on accomplishing each exercise before moving forwards. It was moving smoothly and Paladin was doing great.

They nailed exercise after exercise and the music guided them smoothly through the transitions. Paladin’s gait was collected and he moved great. Phil was completely focused and Paladin mimicked his rider.

Before he had started, he had been worried that the five minutes would feel like forever but in reality, it seemed like Phil had blinked and they had reached the final exercise.

They pulled into the final halt and Phil took a deep breath and the smile on his face widened, even as it ached. He let go of the reins and leaned down to stroke his horse’s neck.

They had done it. They had performed a stunning dressage programme and if the loud applause was any indication, it hadn’t been half bad.

Phil was leaning forward, almost hanging off Paladin’s neck and he just couldn’t stop smiling. It had been wonderful to perform to the music because he felt like he had not one but two beings with him. Paladin and Dan. It had been all three of them who had made this come true.

Phil started laughing and Paladin’s ears perked up as he walked towards the judge house at the middle letter, with his reins swinging loosely around his neck and a happy rider on his back.

Phil felt like he had held onto a tension for so damn long and he was finally really to let it go.

Over these past months back in the saddle, he had never once let go fully of the reins when he was riding. He had extended them, so his horses could reach down their necks but he hadn’t let go fully. He had always been prepared to grab it if something went wrong.

But not anymore.

Even as Paladin got excited and almost moved into trot, Phil didn’t make a move to grasp the rein hanging loosely around his neck. He was too busy laughing and being happy. He rode off the course and just barely remembered to wish the last rider good luck before he was surrounded by Dan, Martyn, Cornelia and his parents.

Martyn grabbed hold of the rein and Phil swung down from Paladin. He moved to immediately swing his arms around his horse before letting go and turning around to do the same with Dan.

He properly embraced Dan and his legs felt weak but Dan didn’t seem to mind the armful of Phil he was suddenly holding. Martyn was moving Paladin away to ensure that he wasn’t distracting the next rider but Phil couldn’t move.

He could hear his parents and Cornelia singing his praises but he didn’t care. He was just so happy and relieve and his ears seems to be buzzing.

It took him almost a full minute before he pulled back from Dan’s embrace and he was greeted with a happy smile from his composer.

“The best ride through ever,” Dan said proudly. “And we got it filmed on three cameras just like you wanted.”

“I think you might actually win, Phil. Mike is the one to beat at the moment, with 76,16 % and I think your programme smashed his out of the park,” Cornelia said.

Phil cast his eyes to the red stallion currently competing. An excellent rider was riding him and he moved incredibly but the programme lacked the same coherence as Phil and Paladin’s. The rider, horse, exercises and music had all come together wonderfully.

The red stallion finished and they anxiously awaited the results together. Martyn was walking Paladin to make sure his muscles didn’t tense up. They withheld Phil’s results until they had the red stallion’s percentage as well.

The five of them were watching the scoreboard nervously and Phil wasn’t ashamed to say that he was the one to reach out and interlock his fingers with Dan to get a sense of calm. Friends held hands. It was okay, Phil convinced himself.

He was cheating a little because he wasn’t as anxious about the results like his parents’ or Cornelia. He wasn’t as naturally competitive and he didn’t care about where he scored. He knew in his heart that him and his horse had done a brilliant job and that was more than enough for him.

“You know, no matter where you place,” Dan said in a hushed voice and gave Phil’s hand a little squeeze, “it was still amazing to watch and I’m proud of you and Paladin.”

Phil would have happily just accepted that praise and recognition because it mattered so much more to him.

The scoreboard finally updated and Phil couldn’t believe his eyes.

81,55%

Phil couldn’t freaking breathe. He was actually gasping for air. They had won with an over 3% gap down to the red stallion who had come in second place.

Phil was still not breathing properly so it probably wasn’t the best idea for his family to wrap him up in a group hug but Phil still wouldn’t have it any other way.

Martyn had heard the results and he came back with Black Paladin and he was wearing such a big and proud smile.

“I knew you could do it,” Martyn said. “Congratulations, Phil, and thank you.”

Phil’s hands shook as he took Paladin’s reins and mounted him again.

Paladin had scored a few placements at competitions before but usually, the ceremony would just be held with the riders stepping up on a podium. But because this was a showcase at a rather high level, they liked their riders to mount their horses and ride a victory round for the crowd.

Phil rode in on Paladin and the female rider on her red stallion and Mike on Shêtân soon joined him. His heart felt like it was beating out of his chest.

They three of them congratulated each other and Mike was being a gracious loser for once.

“Well done, Lester. Your programme was awesome. You’ll have to give me the name of the person who made it,” he said.

Phil didn’t even have time to explain that he and Dan had made it together, because several people with their arms full of rosettes, prices and a trophy approached them and the ceremony began.

Paladin wasn’t keen on having a rosette strapped to his brindle by his ear but Phil offered to take it from the girl struggling and Paladin didn’t dare to put up a fight against his rider.

They took a victory run around the course in gallop with Phil leading the three of them. He had to admit that it was an amazing feeling. It didn’t quite beat when Dan had told him that he was proud of him but it was still very cool.

All summer had been building up to that moment in one way or another. It had at least felt like that at the time. At first it had been Martyn pressuring him to do it and later it had been Phil starting riding again and feeling the urge to train with Paladin. But now looking out at the crowd and spotting Dan, Phil had a feeling that maybe he had got it wrong.

Maybe it wasn’t about performing in the showcase at all but rather the journey Phil had gone through with Dan by his side.

Becoming friends and getting a reason to leave his room; teaching Dan to ride a horse and sharing that joy; working on the freestyle programme with Dan; going on forest rides and laughing like he had never laughed with anyone before; the small touches of reassurance and the heartfelt words shared.

It had shaped his summer even more than starting to ride again.

The showcase was now over and even with the brilliant result, Phil couldn’t help but feel a little sad.

This weekend also marked another big moment.

Dan was leaving. He was leaving in the morning. The summer was well and truly over now.

Their little bubble would finally burst and even while riding around on a high, Phil felt his heart shatter a little.

Chapter Text

Dan didn’t cry when he had breakfast for the last time with the Lesters Sunday morning.

Frankly, he was smiling from ear to ear as the Lesters took invited to brunch but instead of going out somewhere to an overprized café, the whole family came together and made a smorgasbord of food filling their old dining table to the brim.

Cornelia and Marianne were there as well and everyone was celebrating Phil and Paladin’s big victory from the day before. Katherine did also say that it was a brunch to thank Dan for all of his hard work and show how happy they were that he was able to help them out over the summer.

Phil’s parents had even gone as far as gifting him a red jacket with the Lester Stables logo on the bag. He had seen all of the other people wearing one on and off and especially when they went for competitions. Katherine apologised that it took so long for it to arrive and it was only then that Dan noticed that his name was stitched into the front. He almost cried then out of sheer emotion.

He was leaving but now he would always have something with him from this place. The colour might not be up his wheelhouse and Phil did shoot him a cheeky look when Dan opened the gift. But Dan would make pillar-box red work if he had to.

Dan didn’t cry when he shared a final hug with Phil at the bus stop.

He did hug him really tightly and they stayed in the embrace for longer than they ever had before. It was stupid. They had already agreed that Dan would come for a visit on Saturday and stay until Sunday. They would be about six days; it wasn’t like they wouldn’t see each other soon.

But Dan could feel the bubble around them burst as he let go of Phil and boarded the bus. He could sense it shattering and hurting as the bus drove away and he didn’t even care that he kept staring out of the window to watch Phil. Sweet Phil who kept waving until the bus turned around the corner far down the road. Dan felt the shock of the realisation that his summer was really over. He almost cried as the realisation settled.

Dan didn’t cry when he arrived at university and spoke with his hallmates.

He was tired and sad and unsociable but everyone was coming home after summer and they were having an impromptu party in their accommodation’s shared kitchen and Dan got dragged into it involuntarily.

People had gone home to spend some time with their families. People had travelled around the globe. People had worked shitty service jobs to make a bit of money to help with the crushing student debt.

Dan hadn’t touched any of the money he had gotten from the Lesters and his mucking out job. He practically hadn’t used any money for three months and for the first time in his life he had a bit of savings. He hadn’t needed to pay for the rent or the food and he hadn’t needed to buy stuff because all he had done had been hanging out with Phil in the stables and taking care of the horses and their shit.

When his university mates asked what Dan had done he just said that he mucked out horseshit for three months and earned money. It was met with understanding nods. Dan almost opened his mouth to add that he had met the most wonderful person, possibly ever in existence, and had the summer of his life but the words died on his tongue as emotions bubbled up. He just managed to rein it in before he started crying in front of his mates.

Dan first allowed himself to cry in the middle of the night, alone in his room.

He hadn’t planned on it. He had thought that he could keep it together and he felt angry with himself because it wasn’t like Phil was gone. Phil was still living at the stables, less than two hours away with public transportation, and he would see him within a week.

But it felt like they had lost something.

It might just be the fact that Dan felt like he had missed his opportunity to say something, or rather to confess his feelings. Things would be different now when he came back as a guest and they weren’t spending every waking hour together for months on end. The bubble had truly burst and with it so did Dan’s hold on his tears.

He didn’t want to open his computer and look at the readings for tomorrow. He didn’t want to know anything about his stupid law classes. He didn’t want to do anything. He just wanted to be back with Phil, exchanging inside jokes and breathing easier for the first time in a year or more.

He had felt free and like everything wasn’t crushing him. He had remained in contact with his family through occasional messages to his mother to say that he was still alive and doing well. She had been a little hurt than Dan hadn’t wanted to come home at all but she hadn’t pried or insisted upon it. He was thankful for that but he also felt guilty.

He wanted to live up to his parents’ expectations and be a good student but he was just so tired of it already and he hadn’t even started the new semester yet.

His hands played on his thigh, mimicking the canter section of the freestyle programme that he had worked so hard on, while he felt quiet tears running down his cheeks. First, it had been a sob that had broken the surface but now he felt like he was just leaking.

He felt empty and aimless and he didn’t know what to do.

Dan texted Phil and he got an immediate reply. Dan had just written that he had arrived but Phil had replied that he missed him too. It cut right into Dan’s heart and another sob wretched out of his chest.

Why hadn’t he told Phil how he felt while he still had the chance?

He was so fucking stupid.

But he still loved Phil, as a friend as well, and he was thankful for the texting distraction. They kept messaging back and forth until it was well past midnight and Dan stumbled into his 9 AM class with dark circles under his eyes and an inability to pay attention.

The first couple of days were horrible. Dan felt like he was losing his sanity.

On Wednesday afternoon, he got a message from Caroline who insisted that they meet up for coffee and talk about their summers because she was so excited to hear about Dan’s experience at the stable. Dan tried to decline but she was persistent and eventually he agreed if she could come to his accommodation and bring Starbucks.

Dan wasn’t really in the mood for socialising at all. Except a passing comment to people, he hardly spoke to anyone other than Phil over text messages and FaceTime in the evenings. It was so good to see his face but it still had made Dan’s heart ache a little because watching him on the screen was nothing like seeing Phil in real life or being able to reach out and touch him.

He dragged himself out of bed, which he had immediately tumbled into after returning home from classes. He hadn’t moved in the last couple of hours but if he had a friend coming over he had to at least make the place look somewhat presentable. He cleared out the trash accumulating on various surfaces and quickly made his bed.

A moment later, there was a knock on the door and Caroline was standing on the other side with a bright smile and two cups in her hands. She was exuding happy energy and Dan felt a little bad that he might bring her down with his moping.

However, it was easy to return her smile and exchange quick hugs. They weren’t extremely close friends but they had moved in the same friend circles for the past year and Dan liked her. He liked her even more now that she had been the one to introduce him to Phil.

 

It counted for quite a lot.

Without her suggestion and recommendation for the job, Dan would never have met Phil. His world would have been a lot bleaker without that ray of sun in his life.

“You look so tan, Dan. Spent a lot of time outside this summer?” Caroline asked happily and Dan looked down his arms.

He hadn’t even noticed that he had gotten a tan but it made sense because he had been outside quite a lot and it had been an extremely hot summer. He had only really noticed that Phil would get a slight red twinge when he had been outside for too long and it would make all his freckles come out. He looked good with freckles.

“Yeah. We were outside a lot.”

“We?” Caroline asked with a quirked up eyebrow. “Do you mean the Lesters? Aren’t they great? How are Phil and Martyn doing?”

“Wait, you know them?” Dan asked in surprise.

When Caroline had suggested him the job, it had just been a quick conversation after they finished their last exam of the semester and a couple of them were chatting about plans for the summer. Dan had expressed that he wasn’t really sure what he wanted to spend his summer doing.

Caroline seemed to have picked up that he wasn’t so keen on going home to his parents’ for three months, so she had told him that she knew of a stable outside of Manchester that needed a hand and would provide housing along with the job.

Dan had jumped at the chance to avoid having to lie directly to his parents’ faces about how much he was disliking studying law and just barely scarping by with his marks. It had seemed heaven-sent at the time.

Dan would never have been able to predict just how much it would come to matter in his life.

Those three months had been something incredibly special and he had had the most fun he had ever had while staying with Phil.

“Of course, I know them,” Caroline said with a smile and slapped Dan’s shoulder slightly as the two of them sat down on his bed to chat.

“How?” Dan still asked with a frown.

“I’ve met Martyn at dressage competitions. We’ve gone up against each other a couple of times. He usually had his girlfriend and brother as grooms with him. I was so sadden to hear that he got injured earlier in the year and I haven’t seen him around much since then. But I did hear that Phil also stopped riding and that they were having trouble with their stallion.”

“Black Paladin,” Dan confirmed.

“He’s a gorgeous horse,” Caroline said. “Also, after I ended up staying with them for two weeks last summer to help out while Martyn and Cornelia was travelling. It was fun to help exercise the young horses.”

“You stayed in the flat above the stables?” Dan asked.

“Yeah,” Caroline said and smiled fondly at the memory. “It was nice. The sound and smell of horses so nearby. But I feel like you’re skirting around the question, Howell. How are they?”

“They’re good,” Dan replied and then took a long sip of his drink. He hoped that Caroline would start talking and just move on but she just watched him and patiently waited for him to speak.

“Dan,” she said in a knowing tone. “What is it? Did you not like them?”

“What? No! Of course not!” Dan said outraged.

“Okay, then why don’t you want to talk about them?”

Because it felt like a wound that had just started knitting itself together, even if just a little, and talking about it meant ripping it all up again.

It had only been a handful of days since he had last seen Phil in real life but it felt like it had been an eternity.

In comparison the three months they had spent together had felt like they had passed by in the blink of an eye.

“They’re all good. Martyn’s injury still isn’t completely better but he has been getting there over the summer,” Dan said. “Cornelia and her jumpers are extremely impressive. Phil is… Phil is great. He killed at the showcase with Paladin.”

“Hold up,” Caroline said. “The showcase for stallions? Was that this weekend? I wanted to check the results but I had forgotten the timing! Wait… Phil performed? Phil doesn’t do competitions. Last I spoke with him, he told me that it wasn’t really his thing.”

“It isn’t,” Dan confirmed. Phil still didn’t want to start competitions all the time, despite his huge success with Black Paladin. Dan admired that he stood firm in his opinions, even if he had showed how good he was. “Phil did it because Paladin didn’t allow a stranger to ride him. Phil hadn’t ridden in a couple of months when I arrived in the stables but he would always be hanging out by the stallion’s box stall. He started trying to teach me that horses weren’t so scary.”

“Yeah, I remember you thinking that,” Caroline said. “Did he change your mind?”

“Yes. I thought they were big and uncontrollable at first but Phil… the way he spoke about them, even with caution because he had seen just how bad it could get if you’re unlucky, there was just this sense of awe and calmness in his voice. He wanted to teach me to ride. I told him that if he got back in the saddle then I would try it. We started riding together gradually and he looked so good on horseback. So fucking happy. I’m so proud that he was able to get back to that, you know?”

“Hmm,” Caroline said to confirm she was still listening to Dan’s ramblings.

He should stop speaking. He was gushing about Phil too much but once the floodgates had opened he just couldn’t shut them. He hadn’t told anyone at university about Phil. He hadn’t told anyone in his life about Phil, not even his family. He wanted to talk to someone about him.

“Martyn wanted him to ride the showcase from the beginning but Phil didn’t want to do it. He really didn’t like competitions but then it was just so obvious that he loved riding and he loved Paladin too. I think they missed each other. They looked so incredible together. Phil taught me all the little things to watch out for to see if an equipage is harmonious and looking at them was like looking at magic. We started working on the freestyle programme together. I wrote the music for it on the family piano and we went over every little detail until it was perfect. It was so much fun. Not just that, all of it. Everyday was just horses and Phil and being outside and breathing deeply and I’ve…”

He let his voice trail off.

He had never been happier.

It was true. It hurt to know that those months of his life was truly behind him.

“Dan,” Caroline said carefully. “You sound like you’re in love.”

In love?

Not just having a crush.

Not just adoring Phil’s personality.

Not just craving Phil’s company.

Not just wanting to make Phil smile.

“Maybe I do,” Dan said in the tiniest voice. “But… it doesn’t matter because we’re friends. Caroline, I’ve never had a friend like him before. Over the summer, he’s become the best friend I’ve ever had. Truly. I… I can’t lose him. I can’t risk it if he doesn’t like me back.”

Dan felt a pain in his chest and he wasn’t sure if it was physical or emotional but it hurt and made him sharply draw in a breath. Caroline moved aside her cup and pulled Dan into a tight hug.

“He’s my best friend,” Dan said.

Platonic relationships were important too. They weren’t lesser than romantic relationships. They could be deep and meaningful and that was what Dan and Phil had together.

“You know, sometimes best friends do fall in love,” Caroline said and stroked a hand down Dan’s back in a soothing motion. “It’s the best kind of love, I think. Because you already know them so well and the friendship can remain.”

Dan heard himself sniffle.

Then his phone buzzed and he instantly reached over to grab it. It had become a habit really fast and he was constantly glued to his phone texting Phil. His phone had become a landline.

Caroline sat back and asked who it was.

“Phil,” Dan said and stared down at the screen as he read the text again.

Phil was done with the dressage video? Already? He must have been working on nothing but it since Dan left to have it ready so fast.

“He’s saying that the video of Black Paladin’s programme is finished.”

Caroline perked up instantly. “Oh, they filmed it this year? I didn’t know that. That’s so cool!”

“No,” Dan said and continued to clarify. “Martyn, Cornelia and myself filmed Phil and Paladin and then Phil wanted to edit it to show everyone the performance. I just didn’t know he would be finished this soon.”

“Can I see?” she asked excitedly and Dan nodded and pulled up his laptop and opened the link that Phil had sent him. It was a YouTube video.

But it was twice as long as Dan had expected. The freestyle programme was around five minutes, so why was the video just over ten minutes?

Caroline shuffled closer to look at the computer in Dan’s lap but he wasn’t even paying attention to her. He was watching the screen with every ounce of concentration.

It didn’t open to the wide shot of the dressage course as Phil had spoken about.

Instead, it was showing a clip of Phil and Paladin from the first time Dan had pulled out the camera to film them train. Just when they had started out and Phil had been brave enough to get back on the stallion.

It wasn’t the horse and rider that Dan had watched last Saturday ride that beautiful programme. These two were still uncoordinated and getting used to each other again.

Text flashed across the bottom of the screen.

 

We had one month to train Black Paladin to do showcase freestyle after he hadn’t carried a rider in six months and make the dressage programme from scratch and compose music.

 

Then the shot changed and it was now a montage.

A lot of footage from all the training clips Dan had filmed over the past month were smoothly edited together, just small snippets but you could also see the improvement so vividly.

Dan was more surprised that sometimes Phil had let Dan’s voice stay on this clips instead of muting him; words of affirmation, bad jokes and general banter.

But it wasn’t just the riding clips. There were also clips from up in the house by the piano as Dan played around with the notes and Phil filmed his fingers. You could hear them chatting in the background of those too; more stupid jokes and banter.

They both sounded and looked so fucking happy.

Dan didn’t even notice that five minutes had passed when they were suddenly ready for the showcase.

As expected, Phil had managed to make a beautiful edit of it. Phil and Paladin looked incredible. Dan really hoped that Phil had watched this and admired what they had done. It was a sight to behold.

Dan watched Phil and Paladin dance across the ground to the music he had made and he had never been prouder of a product he had made. No assignment could ever compare to this. He had worked his arse off on the music but it was so worth it to see Phil ride it.

Paladin in the video came to a halt and Phil broke into the biggest smile. He dropped the reins entirely and Dan had never seen him look so at ease on top of his horse. There was not a drop of tension left in him or fear. He was just happy of what he and his partner had managed to do.

Dan thought the video would end there but then a couple of seconds’ clip of Dan appeared on screen.

It took Dan a minute to place the footage. It was from their first forest ride. The picnic. Dan hadn’t known he had been filmed but he looked so at ease looking over the meadow, lost in thought with a little smile tugging at the edge of his lips.

 

Massive thank you to Daniel Howell for his beautiful music and for helping with the daily training. I wouldn’t have wanted to do it without you.

 

Then the screen finally faded to dark and Dan caught a glimpse of his tearstained face in the screen. He hadn’t even noticed that he had started crying but tears must had silently made their way from his eyes and down his cheeks.

It was so beautiful.

The montage told a story of how it had all come together with their cooperation and Phil had told it expertly. So many of their silly moments had made it into it and so many smiles, so much creativity, so much effort and so much laughter. Dan hadn’t even really noticed at first but now he recalled that soft piano playing over the montage had to be scrapped versions of piano pieces that hadn’t made it into the programme.

Dan felt compelled to press play again and just watch it all over. Phil was smiling so much in it and laughing and he sounded so happy and Dan’s heart ached. When Dan saw himself here, often caught through Phil’s eyes, he also looked so happy and carefree.

“Hey,” Caroline said softly and put a hand on Dan’s shoulder. He had almost forgotten that she was here.

He reached up to wipe his tears in embarrassment before he turned to face her. But when he looked at her, he could see that he wasn’t the only one who had shed a tear. Her make-up was smudged around her eyes.

“That was beautiful, Dan.”

“Yeah, Phil is-“

“And you’re a blind idiot.”

Dan hesitated and blinked at her but she just kept wearing that big smile. “What?”

“You said that you’re scared of losing him, of him not liking you back.”

“Yes?” Dan asked, still not following.

Caroline burst out laughing, fondly, and she reached forward to grab Dan’s face and turn his attention back to the screen. She played the video again and after the opening shot and the text, it showed Dan and Phil standing with Paladin. It was only a two second clip but she paused it.

“Look at that,” she said.

Dan and Phil were standing with Paladin between them. They were both smiling.

“I don’t-“

“Phil is looking past his horse. He’s looking straight at you, Dan, and you’re looking back. That way you look at each other… It’s the stuff you read about in romance novels, dude. And that’s just one example. The whole first half of this video is basically one big confession. Look at all the moments of you he has included, how he had made all your bright smiles be captured and how the two of you speak to each other.”

“We’re best friends,” Dan repeated but he could still feel hope building in his chest.

Could she be right? Could Phil like him romantically too?

“Again, you can be best friends and boyfriends. I don’t think you need to worry about Phil not liking you back. You have something special, Dan. Don’t let fear hold you back from telling him. Even if by some impossibility he doesn’t like you back, I doubt that it could ruin that,” Caroline said and pointed back at the screen.

Dan’s heart was pounding as he stared at the image and he remembered their time together.

All the almost moments.

Dan had always pulled back because he had been scared. He had been terrified of losing Phil.

But what if he was just letting fear letting him stop himself from speaking up?

Phil had been scared to ride, so he hadn’t done it despite how much he used to love it. He managed to move past his fear and get back into the saddle and it made him insanely happy.

Would Dan really allow fear to hold him back from potential happiness by being with Phil, as well as being best friends?

These past few days had been hell. Dan didn’t want to be here. Studying law had never been his passion. He had just picked it because it sounded respectable and he wanted to make his family proud. But he didn’t want to be a lawyer and sit in an office all day. It was becoming clearer from him by the minute.

He wanted to be with Phil. He wanted to be near horses as well. He wanted to many things and he was done letting fear stop him.

If Caroline was right and there was just a chance that Phil might like him back then he had to try.

“I have to go,” Dan whispered and then with a new determination he moved his laptop aside and started to pull on his shoes.

He wasn’t even thinking.

He needed to see Phil. He needed to hug him. He needed to feel like he could breathe again.

Caroline packed down Dan’s laptop and charger into his school bag and handed him it as he was on his way to running out of the door. She also pointed out that he would need his jacket. It didn’t take any hesitation before he grabbed the Lester jacket he had been gifted.

It was already fairly late in the afternoon and it would take Dan two hours to get to the Lester Stables but he didn’t care. He barely managed to say a word of thanks before he was running. He needed to catch the bus or would have to wait for half an hour for the next one and he did not want to waste more time.

He knew the bus schedule because he might have memorised it to prepare for visiting Phil.

The bus ride was agony. As was waiting for the connecting bus.

Dan didn’t know what to do with his hands. He didn’t know what to do when Phil sent him a follow up text asking if he had had time to see the video yet. Dan wanted to reply but he kept typing a response and then deleting it.

He couldn’t find the fucking words and he was going to be staring at Phil’s face in real life soon and he wasn’t ready.

He was scared.

He was still so scared but he refused to let fear keep him down.

Just like when he had been thrown from Hermes and he had been scared but gotten back in the saddle. He wasn’t letting doubt or fear hold him back.

He had hated himself for not confessing his feelings to Phil before they parted. He should have done it but he just had felt like he couldn’t. He had let fear hold him back.

Just like he had let fear keep him studying law, even if hated it.

He was fucking done with living his life according to fear.

The waiting time was agony and as Dan got off the bus stop near the stables, he just started running. His backpack jumped up and down as he was running down the gravel path towards the stables. It was just around the time when they would usually have finished up dinner.

After dinner, Dan and Phil had usually gone out to the horses to check on them and have a little time alone after chatting with Phil’s family. A little moment to re-establish their own little bubble, consisting just of the two of them.

Dan’s lungs burned as he ran and his legs ached and he had never thought he would voluntarily do exercise before he met Phil. Phil had changed a lot of things in his life after just three months.

It was ridiculous how much Phil had managed to change it and Dan wouldn’t have it any other way.

Dan finally slowed down to a walk as he entered the courtyard because you didn’t run around horses and that rule was already ingrained in him. He also tried to catch his breath so he didn’t sound like a dying whale. It wasn’t really working.

With his breathing slightly more under control, even if he was still panting a bit, he moved closer to the stables. Chrome was usually the only one in at this point, as his injury didn’t let him be out at all hours. They had expected to be able to start riding him at the end of the week, just gradually at first.

Dan walked into the stables and he heard a soft whinny before he saw anything.

“What is it, boy?” Phil asked from where he stood in front of Chrome and he moved around to look at where the horse’s gaze fell. “Dan?”

“Hi Phil,” Dan huffed out and he felt like everything snapped back into place.

Phil was moving forward, steps faster than they should be near horses and before Dan had a chance to react, he had an armful of Phil. He didn’t complain as he wrapped his arms tightly around Phil and breathed out.

He felt lighter all ready.

“Did… did you run here? Dan, what’s going on? Are you okay?” Phil asked worriedly and pulled back, though he kept his hands on Dan’s arms as his eyes scanned him.

Dan hadn’t been okay. He had been okay before Phil had come into his life and showed him that it was possible to have so much happiness instead of dreading his days. He hadn’t been okay back at university, studying a subject he had started to hate almost immediately.

But he was okay now, wrapped up in Phil’s arms.

“I’m okay,” Dan huffed out and hugged Phil a little tighter.

“I was worried when you didn’t reply,” Phil said and pulled his arms closer around Dan. “You always reply.”

“I know,” Dan said and he felt like laughing because he was just so damn happy.

They stayed in the hug for a couple of moments before they carefully pulled apart, even if they didn’t really step back. They had enough of distance and they weren’t going to make more of it themselves.

“I’m very happy to see you, Dan,” Phil said sincerely. “But you had me worried there. I thought I wouldn’t see you until Saturday.”

“I saw the video,” Dan said because his mind was spinning around him and he didn’t know how to do this and it was the first thing that popped into his head.

He had not expected Phil to look worried.

“Did you hate it? Do you want me to take-“

“No!” Dan rushed to say and reached forward to take hold of Phil’s hands. He had nice and warm hands and Dan could get used to holding them. “I loved it. It was beautiful, Phil. So fucking incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it. But it also made me realise that I’m an idiot.”

“You’re not,” Phil said with a serious glance that made Dan laugh because Phil was just so damn wonderful and he was so happy to have him as his best friend.

“You know I didn’t mean it like that,” Dan said. “I just… It’s… I’m…”

The words were failing him as he was staring into Phil’s concerned eyes. He couldn’t do this.

“I need to tell you something but I can’t do it if you look at me,” Dan said and pulled Phil into a hug. Phil’s arms immediately came up and wrapped around him again. Grounding and securing him.

“Dan, your heart is beating really fast,” Phil commented and rested one hand on Dan’s back and one between his shoulder blades.

Dan could Phil’s heart racing too from where their chests were pressed together.

“I’m dropping out,” Dan said, going with the easy one first.

Phil was quiet for a second but then he was hugging Dan closer. “I’m proud of you, Dan. I support your decision.”

It sounded like he knew about Dan’s internal struggle already. Dan wasn’t sure why it surprised him. He had never wanted to talk about university with Phil but he realised that Phil must have been picking up the gist of it anyway.

He had just barely scarped through the first year and he had been miserable until Phil had started giving him a reason to focus on something else.

“You knew I hated it, didn’t you?” Dan asked in a small voice.

They were still in an embrace and Dan was still building up the courage to say the most important thing.

Phil chuckled a little and Dan loved how he could feel the vibrations against his chest.

“Yeah. It was quite obvious after we got to know each other. Just like you noticed I still loved horses and riding, even if I had become a little scared of it.”

Dan took a deep breath. Phil had overcome his fear and so had Dan by finally making the decision to drop out of the education that was only making him miserable. But there was still one more thing to do.

A thing that still scared Dan but it didn’t seem as scary when he was in Phil’s embrace. He felt strong next to Phil and he had to believe in what they had built couldn’t be brought down by anything.

“I have something else to tell you too,” Dan said and he cleared his throat. “I should have told you before I left but I was just so scared that it would ruin something. But… I don’t think it will. I hope not. You’re so fucking important to me, Phil. You don’t even know. And I…. I…”

“Dan,” Phil said and pulled his face and upper body back far enough that he could look into Dan’s eyes while they still held onto each other.

“Yeah?” Dan said, both relieved and frustrated that he had been interrupted.

“I like you too,” Phil said with the biggest smile.

“How did you know I was going to say that?” Dan asked, baffled and Phil’s words weren’t even processing properly to him.

“Because you said exactly what I felt like when I let you drive off. And when I watched the video and all those clips of us together, it just looked…”

“Like we were in love?” Dan asked.

Phil had said like instead of love and maybe three months of friendship was a little early to confess it but Dan was done of living by everyone else’s expectations. They didn’t necessarily apply to him.

Phil blinked rapidly, four times and for a moment Dan wondered if he had put his foot in his mouth and ruined it but then Phil broke into a smile, which was even wider than when he finished the programme with Paladin.

“I can’t believe you feel the same,” Phil said, in a whisper, as if he was worried that something might shift if he spoke normally.

Dan’s nerves eased out at seeing Phil clearly being so fond and touched. He moved his hands to intertwine them with Phil’s.

“My friend Caroline said we’re blind idiots and I think she might have been right. I… I’ve liked you basically all summer,” Dan confessed.

“Me too. You were the one who drew me back out in the stables. I wanted to be around you all the time,” Phil confessed.

“We sound so fucking sappy.”

“But it’s a good kind of sappy,” Phil argued with a smirk and a raised eyebrow. “Speaking of being sappy…”

He was leaning in and coming closer and Dan’s eyes fluttered close automatically as he leaned in to help close the distance. The kiss was chaste but it still felt like it managed to dislodge something in Dan’s heart. He was kissing Phil.

He had been worried that Phil would reject him and that things would go terrible between them. And now it turned out that Phil had felt exactly the same. They were different in many ways but in some ways they were almost ridiculously similar.

The first kiss blossomed into a second after the two of them broke off only because they couldn’t help smiling. Both of their lips kept twitching upwards into smiles and Dan wouldn’t want it any other way. Their hands were still interlocked and they were squeezing each other.

When they finally drew back, they just looked into each other’s eyes and it wasn’t weird. It felt so right, like they were meant to be looking at each other for a very long time. Maybe even the rest of their lives.

Then Chrome let out a big snort and the two of them jumped as the gelding broke the tension. They both laughed at each other and the poor horse who felt like he was being ignored.

Dan went over to pet him, with one hand locked into Phil’s. He wasn’t planning on letting go anytime soon.

“You know, since you’re dropping out university, you’ll need a place to live,” Phil said and Dan could already see where he was going with this.

“Oh? Do you know of a place?”

“I might now a stable who wouldn’t mind lending you a flat as long as you help out with the horses and stuff.”

“Sounds reasonable,” Dan said and leaned in to peck Phil’s lips because that was a thing they could do now. How many times had Dan wanted to do that but never gone through with it?

“Oh!” Phil said suddenly. “I completely forgot to tell you. In the two hours the video had been up, it’s already gotten over ten thousands views! Dahlgren Riding Gear shared it on their site and socials, as did all of us from here and it was very well received. People loved it. I’ve actually already received a handful of emails from people wondering if it’s possible to hire us.”

“Hire us?” Dan asked as he kept running his fingers through Chrome’s mane. The horse looked pleased to see him.

“Not everyone feel comfortable making their own dressage programmes. Some like to hire people to make the programme and sometimes the music too. Apparently, people liked the way we worked with it, analysing the equipage’s movements and style and then working off that to make it the perfect fit. It probably won’t make a lot of money but it will give us some and then we might offer to film and edit the programme as well. A lot of people liked that.”

Dan pondered the idea. It was great thing but it still felt so surreal to him. “I could work with you, create music and film horses?”

“Essentially, if you’d like to do that until you figure out your next step,” Phil offered.

“Have you found out your next step yet?” Dan asked.

He knew that Phil had been stressing about finishing university and having to get a full time job. He had earned a bit doing freelance editing jobs but what he was proposing now wasn’t a steady income either.

Phil shrugged. “I just know how much I enjoyed working with you on this. And who knows where it might take us in the future?”

“So best friends, boyfriends and business partners?” Dan asked teasingly, which earned him a jab in the side, which just made him laugh.

“Maybe,” Phil then said sincerely. “I missed you a lot.”

“I missed you too,” Dan said and gave Phil’s hand a little squeeze.

It sounded risky to drop out of university, move in above the stable more permanently and then working on small dressage programmes. But it also sounded like a lot of fun and the idea of it made Dan feel giddy and excited.

“I like your smile,” Phil said and reached forward to touch Dan’s dimple. “And your dimples. I don’t think I’ve ever told you that before.”

Dan’s heart straight up melted at Phil’s shy admission. He wasn’t sure how he had managed to find Philip Lester or more so how such a wonderful man had managed to fall in love with him. But Dan didn’t want to question it. He felt his own love for Phil burning warmly in his chest.

“I like your freckles and the way your tongue pokes out of the side of your mouth when you really laugh,” Dan said and moved away from Chrome slightly to move his face close to Phil’s.

He didn’t close the last bit and kiss him again, even if he was tempted. He just looked at Phil and he let his words settle. It was an unsecure future compared to the path Dan had been heading down to a steady and well paying office job.

But that path would also have made him miserable in the long run, so was the comfort and stability really worth it?

You had to face your fears and do the things that scared you.

It didn’t stop being scary and other scarier things would probably come up in the future but with Phil’s hand still steady in his, Dan felt like the two of them could tackle everything together.

“I’d love to move back,” Dan said. “And work on dressage programmes with you. I don’t know much about what the future might hold but if… if we’re next to each other in life then I think it might be alright.”

“You’re a big nerd, do you know that?” Phil teased.

“I was aware, yes, and I’m fucking proud of it. Now kiss me again.”

Their lips met again and Dan felt like a weight was lifted off his shoulder. He could do this. He could face the things that scared him, with him from Phil, and he would be right beside Phil to help him face his fears as well.

The two of them made each other better. They pushed each other to face the scary and the unknown but they also taught each other that it was okay to let go of things that weren’t making you happy.

You were allowed to change your mind.

Still, the boys had a distinct feeling that they would not be changing their minds about each other. Ever.