Watching the ebb and flow of the waves and the spot on the horizon where the sun would reveal itself in mere minutes, Alec kept a gentle hold on the reins as he reached down to pat the Black’s neck. The early morning was chilly and quiet, a welcome break from the Floridian winter heat and the daily routine of the track at Hialeah Park. The Black was alert to all the sights and sounds around them, his ears flicking back to listen to Alec’s soft words in a language understood by them alone.
Alec guided the Black to start walking along the beach again, but let him have a little slack to the reins. Neither was in a hurry to be anywhere else. To their right, the ocean seemed to be set ablaze by the sunrise. As if on cue, a flock of gulls flew overhead, their silhouettes dark against the brightening sky.
The Black stopped to watch where the birds were going, and then after a few heartbeats he snorted softly in disinterest. Alec watched as well, his eyes following them north until they settled on a pier maybe two hundred yards ahead of them. Beyond that, he could see the outline of a small fishing boat making its way out to sea, but not that of any of the people aboard. Alec inhaled a lung-full of the crisp ocean air, and let the present disappear from view as the past momentarily resurfaced behind his eyelids, his hands unconsciously drifting to grip the base of the Black’s mane as well as the bridle’s reins.
When the breeze shifted, Alec felt the Black tense under him. His fingers let go of the dark horsehair as he returned to the current secluded beach. The stallion snorted again but with more force this time, as if trying to rid his nostrils of the new scent, and turned his wedge-shaped head to the side to look behind them.
Even from this distance and with his long mane drifting into his face, Alec could see that Flame’s gaze was as sharp as the short whistle he made with a little incline of his chin. It wasn’t the challenging cry or even the warning cry of a wild stallion, but Alec patted the Black’s shoulder and whispered calmingly into his ear all the same.
Alec directed the Black to turn around fully while the other horse approached. Flame’s red chestnut coat was glossy with a light layer of sweat that made it shine even brighter in the still rising sun. Judging by the relaxed posture and firm grip on the reins, his rider Steve was, like Alec, cautious for the sake of precaution. Whatever uncontainable fire was lit between the Black and Flame when they first met (as far as their riders knew) was now a more manageable steady burn of respectful rivalry.
Flame stopped about ten feet away from the Black. Neither stallion reacted to their close proximity, hostilely or otherwise; their breathing remained even and their eyes were attentive but untroubled. Face to face, each set of horse and rider looked like the opposite side of the same coin -- and yet, the usual inverse of red hair and black coat with black hair and red coat was nothing compared to the stark contrast of the beginnings of day on one side and the remnants of night on the other. Even the stance of the horses mirrored each other, to say nothing of their powerful builds and very essences being cut from the same cloth.
After a moment, Steve offered a wave. Alec nodded in greeting.
“Looks like we had the same idea,” Steve said, his tone light but also a little self-conscious.
“Yeah, it looks like,” Alec said, knowing exactly how he felt.
Comparisons and contrasts aside, there was something especially strange and somewhat uncomfortable about being witnessed during what you thought was a private moment and also, at the same time, catching someone else during his.
“Did you two go for a run? He looks fresh.”
“Just a short one, earlier.”
“Earlier? How long have you been out here?” Steve asked with a laugh.
Alec simply smiled and said, “We could go for another one now, though, if you’re up for it.”
Steve raised an eyebrow, his own smile gaining an edge of competitiveness to it. Flame seemed to pick up on his rider’s thoughts, lifting his proud head just a bit higher. The Black shook his head in response, his evenly trimmed mane waving in the wind, but his muscles quivered in anticipation. Alec smoothed the jet black locks down, his fingers loosely combing through his horse’s hair.
“But nothing extreme,” Alec warned. “We can’t let them go flat out again, or Henry will have both our heads.”
Steve deflated a little at that thought, but he nodded and held up his right hand with his palm facing outward.
“I promise to rein him in the second he tries anything.”
“I promise, too,” Alec said as he mimicked the gesture.
They didn’t voice it aloud, but they shared a look as they thought, Hopefully they’ll listen to us this time.
As they lined up their horses and worked out where to stop (neither called it a finish line), a few seagulls flew overhead again, but instead went southwardly like they knew to steer clear of what was about to happen. The awakening beach grew unnaturally quiet and expectant, even in the face of the full round disc of the sun and its warm light refracting off the ocean’s shifting surface.
At the signal from Alec and Steve, the Black and Flame took off at the same instant, flying so fast that they seemed not to touch the ground despite their hooves kicking up damp sand in their wake. The horses and their riders merged into two distinct blurs of motion, and in the morning light the world shrank down to twin rays of red and black flashing across the beach.