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Sport of Kings

Chapter Text

One

Considering that the fall at the fourth fence looked pretty unspectacular, the outcome was prodigious.

Orlando watched the third race of the day from Uttoxeter’s stands. Colin was on the chaser still bidding its time in fifth place and Orlando was here to show support for his best mate. In all honesty, Orlando really was just here because he couldn’t stay away. Every muscle in his body was tense, as if it was him on the chasers, flying towards the finishing line. He couldn’t wait till the season started properly.

Through his binoculars, his eyes followed not Colin but the unchallenged favourite in this two mile chase. Time Traveller and Craig Parker simply demanded attention. The big dark horse reached the fourth fence in third place, hot on the heels of an unremarkable bay. The pursued chaser jumped the fence only a fraction of a second before Time Traveller. Without preannouncement, the bay changed direction mid-jump and bumped against Time Traveller in the air. Landing, the bay went to its knees but its jockey managed to pull it back up. Time Traveller did a clean somersault and buried its jockey under its huge body.

Several punters next to Orlando groaned in disappointment over the favourite’s demise, betting tickets jittered to the ground. Orlando’s eyes searched and found Colin who steered his horse past the crash site with practiced ease. Colin immediately overtook the unremarkable bay, chased after the leading horses.

Time Traveller had gotten back up again as well and pursued the other horses with unbroken determination. He was riderless, his jockey still lay on the ground. Craig Parker was obviously alive and conscious. Orlando could tell because, equally obviously, Parker was in serious pain, clutching his oddly twisted leg. Even before the course medics reached him, Orlando would’ve bet next month’s winning bonuses that it was shattered.

He felt a pang of sympathy for Parker’s pain, but then returned his attention to the hot chase. Falls, even serious injuries were all par for the course. In the front, Colin went all out to beat his arch rival Billie Piper. He got over the finishing line a nose ahead of her, delivering a finish that pacified the crowd despite the fall of the favourite. Orlando felt the thrill of the win rushing through his veins, and all was right for that moment.

As Orlando left the grandstand to congratulate Colin, he caught a glimpse of Time Traveller’s trainer, irritably waiting for the ambulance to arrive with his jockey. In comparison to the look on Sean Bean’s face, the storm brewing over the racecourse was a mackerel sky.

According to Orlando’s Dad, there were just three types of trainers: the backstabbing boot-lickers, the loopy experimentalists and the tyrants. Orlando had heard the way people talked about Sean Bean on the track. Just recently Bean had fired two of his three stable jockeys, and rumour had it that it had just been out of a whim. Just because Bean had woken up that day with an even worse mood than he was usually in.

Orlando found that titbit of gossip pretty entertaining. But if he really gave a shit about what other people said, he’d still be stuck in his Dad’s bloodstock business. He’d still be thumbing through sales catalogues and form books instead of just trusting his gut and his stamina on horseback at 30 mph.

After the last race, Orlando tried his damnedest to drag Colin to the pub for some grub and beer. When in the car, Colin insisted that he had to be stone cold sober and in Newcastle the next day. Orlando called him a lightweight all the way back to their flat and complained that he was starving. While they were waiting at a stoplight, Colin punched him, but then let himself be talked into making dinner.

“You’ll make someone a very happy husband someday,” Orlando said as they entered the flat they shared. Colin looked like he wanted to sock him again. Orlando gave him a wide berth, flopping down on the couch in the middle of the room. “That spontaneous violence, we should work on that some more. I doubt there are many blokes who appreciate lack of restraint like that in his wife.”

Colin laughed.

“So, you’re being a pure cunt and I’m supposed to cook for you?”

Colin actually managed to sound affronted which Orlando considered quite the feat. Still, he merely shrugged and kicked off his boots.

“It’s your turn. I did yesterday –“

“What you did is grab a bunch of bananas at the petrol station. That doesn’t count as cooking.”

“It does if the alternative was eating the saltsticks buried in the couch,” Orlando said, following him into the kitchen. “And besides, I did it all week, and you never even said thank you. My feelings, mate.”

Colin’s reply was cut off by the sound of Orlando’s mobile. As he pulled it out of his jeans-pocket, Colin informed him from the kitchen that he’d spit in Orlando’s food. Laughingly, Orlando picked up.

“That’ll give it some flavour at least,” he shouted in Colin’s direction, then, quieter, answered the phone. “Hello?”

“Hello indeed,” an unfamiliar but undoubtedly mildly amused voice answered. “This is Dave Wenham.”

That came so unexpected that Orlando’s brain had serious trouble placing the caller. It took him three seconds to reply with even so much as his name.

“Orlando Bloom here,” he said then.

“So I gathered.”

Orlando shook off his confusion, found his manners (or what passed as such).

“What can I do for you?”

“I’m the assistant trainer at Greystone Stables,” Wenham said pleasantly. “I’m calling on behalf of Sean Bean. Well, Greystone’s, to be precise.” With that, Wenham paused for a moment even though Orlando was pretty sure that so far his information hadn’t been all that helpful. Wenham seemed to realise that as well and added, “Did you by any chance follow the meeting at Uttoxeter today?”

“I was there, actually,” Orlando said. “Bad luck, the fall of your horse in the fourth. I hope your jockey is alright.”

“Depends how you define alright. He broke his leg in, I think, four places.”

“Outch.”

“It’s the reason for my call, actually.”

Again, Wenham fell silent for a moment. Orlando would’ve been mildly annoyed with the rhetorical pauses, if he hadn’t been too busy battling down curiosity.

“Oh, really?” he responded, and repeated, “Well, what can I do for you?”

“You could come to Greystone first thing tomorrow morning. Say, around nine. We should’ve finished the first two lots by then and have some time at the home course.”

“Sorry?” Orlando said, intelligently. It was better than ‘what the fuck’ at least, if not by much.

Once again, he could hear the smile in Wenham’s voice as he spoke again.

“We’d like to see you ride. If you’re interested of course.”

“In a public demonstration of my skills on horseback?”

Wenham laughed.

“Well, yes, that, too. But it’s not just to take advantage of possible exhibitionistic tendencies, I assure you. As you might recall, since this afternoon, we’re one jockey short.”

Orlando blinked once, twice. Then he caught his bearing again.

“So, nine tomorrow, you said?”

When, not two minutes later, Orlando entered the kitchen, he was still staring at the phone in disbelief. Colin stood in front of the stove, the smell of grilled fish and lentils filled the air.

“I tell you something,” Colin said without turning around, picking up where they’d left of before the interruption. “I’d make an excellent house wife. I can cook and I’m extremely fit.”

As per usual, Colin looked as if he’d slept in the clothes he had been wearing for the stable all week already; his washed out jeans more grey than blue and his yellow t-shirt covered in spots of even more questionable origin than the strange goatee that had recently taken up residence on his face.

“Two things,” Orlando said. “Firstly, you’re a misogynistic twat. Secondly, you don’t know how to turn on a vac, and your cocksucking skills probably suck.”

Colin laughed at the combined force of Orlando’s pun and his applied feminism.

“Fuck off. I’m a catch, look around.”

Orlando snorted, eyes darting to the stack of filthy dishes in the tiny sink and the bare light bulb that was hanging from the ceiling, covered in a thin layer of dust. Right. Their flat clearly was destined to make it into ‘Homes and Gardens’ one day soon.

Orlando fished the least dirty of the plates out of the sink and pointed at Colin’s pan.

“Let’s have some of that. I gotta tell you something.”

Colin unsuccessfully looked around for a usable plate and put the pan down on Orlando’s side of the table.

“Don’t tell me you’re pregnant. Not again, OB.”

“First thing I do once I made champion jockey? I move out.”

“You’d never leave me. Being around me, you love it.”

Orlando got two Amstel Lights out of the fridge and put one in front of Colin before taking a deep drag from his.

“Man, I needed that after that phone call.”

Colin laughed and sat down opposite of Orlando.

“Subtle. You want to share something with the class?”

Orlando rolled his eyes at Colin’s tone of voice, but shook his head in disbelief once again.

“I got a job offer. Well, or something like a job interview, I guess.”

“As a house keeper? I can see the frilly apron working for you, if nothing else.”

For once Orlando ignored the jib.

“Bean’s assistant trainer Wenham called. You know, Bean from Greystone Stables? He’s the trainer of Time Traveller, the favourite in the fourth today.”

“I’m not senile, I know who he is. That horse really did a number on Craig.”

“He broke his leg in several places, according to Wenham,” Orlando confirmed. “Which, I guess, means they need a temporary replacement.”

“Well, I tell you one thing. I wouldn’t ride for Bean. Not if he’d train the Queen’s horses.”

Orlando piled about half of the pan’s contents onto his plate, then shoved it back to Colin.

“He does have some pretty good chasers.”

Colin made a dismissive gesture as he picked up the spatula.

“Who the fuck cares? That trainer is a prick, and for pricks I don’t ride.”

“You ride for Neeson.”

“Yeah, okay. He’s a prick too, but a different kind,” Colin shrugged, stuffing the spatula into his mouth. “Bean’s an Englishman.”

He said it with so much disgust in his voice that Orlando couldn’t help but laugh. Colin liked keeping things simple whether that concerned his riding style or how he liked to be seen, and being as Irish as a leprechaun was included.

“I’m pretty sure he’s from Yorkshire,” Orlando said mildly.

“Same thing.”

“You go ahead and tell him that. I’m sure he’ll hire you on the spot.”

“Effing vengeful Englishmen.”

“You are aware that I am one as well, aren’t you?” Orlando feigned a look of shock. “In fact, most of the people around here are. Because, gosh, we’re in ruddy England.”

Colin waved the spatula in Orlando’s face.

“Doesn’t mean I have to like it, does it.”

“Whatever. You also ride for Gleeson. And for Cox. Let’s face it. You’re pretty much a total whore and not just in that department.”

“What can I say? I am a man of many talents. Don’t be jealous.”

“Of your potential STDs? Right,” Orlando gave back, pointing at Colin with his fork. “And you know what? You’re the one being jealous. Because Bean called me and not you.”

Colin gazed at him with soulful eyes and seemed deeply wounded which was, Orlando reflected, about exactly the look that usually got him laid as fast as lightning. He just laughed at him and Colin slapped his fork aside with the spatula.

“Yeah, right, rub it in,” Colin complained, with a grin on his face. “I know you, you ambitious fucker. You’d murder to get on a good horse.” He shovelled another spatula full of lentils into his mouth. While chewing it noisily, he regarded Orlando with an expression that was far too wistful to match his lack of eating manners. “You know, I’ve no problem admitting that I am jealous of you. For a lot of things.”

“My riding skills and my huge dick?”

Colin burped at Orlando, open-mouthed and smelling of fish.

“You’re utterly delusional, for that, I’m a total sucker. But I’m not a bloody masochist, so working for Bean?” He shook his head. “Nah, thanks. I like my balls where they are. Don’t fancy being gelded by someone like him.”

“Way to make me feel psyched about this. Cheers, mate.”

“Like you need someone to feed your delusions. Please.” Colin made a dismissive gesture and then obviously considered the topic done with. “Tell me what you think of the fourth race. You think I left it too late?”

They spent the rest of dinner discussing races and (as the evening progressed) the numerous ways in which Colin hated Billie Piper and wanted to shag her at the same time. Despite the utter normalcy of an evening like that, Orlando still went to bed feeling as if he’d downed a litre of strong coffee.

In the morning, Orlando left the flat maybe a little too early. It was about the amount of nervous anticipation he allowed himself. Nervousness usually solely made an appearance just before the racing announcer called ‘and they’re off’. But seriously, who wouldn’t feel like that at the prospect of getting the chance to ride horses like Time Traveller?

The drive to Greystone Stables was a quick one. The roads were still fairly empty at this time of day. Orlando was pretty sure that almost every car he passed on his motorbike belonged to a racing person as well, given the early hours and all that. A thick layer of morning mist covered the fields and pastures, and it Orlando could only make out silhouettes of trees and horses sometimes.

Orlando pulled into the small road that led to Bean’s yard where the mist already begrudgingly dissipated. He parked in front of the old greystone house. Getting off his bike, he faced a large yard, framed by white stable buildings on three sides. Some of the stalls’ occupants looked over their dark green doors, chewing on hay. There was a general sense of early morning business about the place, even if Orlando couldn’t see anyone about.

That of course lasted only a few seconds. Then a large black horse appeared on a small path between two stable buildings. Its big frame hid whoever was leading it. But as soon as the horse stopped, Orlando could very well hear him.

"Get off, get off, dammit! Advocate, fucking hell, move!"

The horse looked threatening enough and started to shake his head as another litany of 'get off's followed. A wiry man stepped from its side in front of the horse, shoving its shoulder without much effect.

"You clumsy idiot! You, pay a bit more attention where you put your giant feet."

Advocate didn't look very apologetic. His answering snort sounded indignant more than anything else. But the lad seemed to be good-humoured about it. Stroking the large animal's nostrils with affection, he murmured, "You're a good boy, aren't you?" He turned around and finally saw Orlando standing not ten feet away.

"Oi!" he greeted and gave him a toothy smile. "You must be the new jockey, yeah? Bark's already waiting for you. He's in a bit of a mood today. Be warned."

Orlando stepped up and stroked the black gelding's broad neck.

"Bark?"

The lad’s head swirled around as if he feared someone was looking over his shoulder, then he looked at Orlando again.

"Oh, the Guv, I mean. We call him Bark because –." He stopped and gave Orlando another of those broad grins. "Well, you'll find out soon enough, I reckon. You’ll find him on the schooling ground, just round the corner. Good luck, mate. – C’mon now, Addi, time to tuck you in."

With that he led his horse off to one of the stalls, leaving Orlando to find the yard's owner on his own. That was done easily enough. Once Orlando had walked past the main stables, he not only saw another couple of buildings stretching behind them to one side, but the white railing that surrounded a schooling ground as well.

A lone figure leaned against the rail. He was dressed in a dark green Burberry coat and black cords, a flat cap shadowing his eyes. A large Rottweiler sat close by his side. A small string of horses passed Orlando in an easy canter. Their riders stood in the stirrups and chatted with each other. With his eyes fixed to the receding horses, Orlando stopped next to the trainer.

"Nice lot you got there. They all look fresh and eager."

Bean’s arms remained resting on the railing, and his posture didn’t change. He just turned his head a bit, looked at Orlando from under his worn cap. Orlando smiled and saw green eyes registering it. The trainer's expression didn't mirror Orlando’s nonverbal greeting. Instead, he held Orlando’s gaze for a moment, eyes narrowing to slits. Then he looked Orlando up and down and came to the obvious conclusion.

"Orlando Bloom."

“Nice to meet you,” Orlando said. With a bit of an effort, he bit back the 'I know' he had on his tongue. Instead, he held out his hand which the trainer shook firmly but shortly.

“Gotta wait till they finished warm up,” Bean said. “Then you can get up on Coconut Tree."

An instant mental image of tropical islands sprung to Orlando’s mind and brought a grin onto his lips. Once more, Bean obviously noted Orlando’s smile but again didn’t respond. He turned back to watching the four horses on the track.

Orlando expected some insights on the psyche of his future mount, but they didn’t come. Bean just continued staring intently at the now cantering animals as if Orlando wasn’t there. There was a bit of intentional rudeness Orlando could appreciate for its professional execution. It would have irritated him maybe just the slightest bit (you catch flies with honey, his mother loved to say), if it hadn’t been for the Rottweiler. After sparing Orlando merely a glace, a frown on its forehead, the dog licked its flews, then fixed its intent gaze on the working horses again. Bean licked his lips, eyes narrowing as the horses came closer. An exact mirror image, posture and all. Reining in his amusement once again, Orlando reminded himself why he was here and turned to look at the horses.

When the small lot reached their side of the fence again and slowed down, Orlando found out that Coconut Tree was a grey slender mare. She had slightly unsteady eyes that pranced around and looked warily at him when he stepped next to her. Her former rider, a young man with astonishingly big blue eyes, smiled down at him. As he dismounted, Orlando already stood next to the mare and the lad lightly touched his arm, recognition in his eyes as Orlando strapped on his helmet.

“Coco’s a nice girl,” the lad said quietly, his eyes automatically darting to Bean who was inspecting one of the other horse’s fetlocks. “You just need to help her. You know, with the first few fences. She’ll do the rest on her own.”

“Cheers,” Orlando thanked him, tightened the strap of his helmet and let himself be thrown onto the mare’s back while the other riders waited.

“Right,” Bean said, his deep voice not even raised. It wasn’t necessary because everyone – riders and horses alike – instantly paid attention. “Just a tidy round over the fences. No wild chases.”

Bean gave short individual instructions to the two riders closest to Orlando who merely nodded their understanding. Then his green eyes locked with Orlando’s.

"Give her an easy round with a bit of a finish. Stay close to Sandstorm."

Bean nodded at the light bay horse on the outer side of the rail. The horse looked as if it was about to fall asleep, not like a chaser ready for action. Orlando frowned a little but nodded at Bean and turned Coconut Tree around. The few yards it took for them to get in position were enough for him to get a feel for her.

And off they went.

Coconut Tree tried pulling out Orlando’s arms for the first half-furlong. But after he had reined her in, she seemed happy enough to let him take the responsibility for the journey.

Orlando led her closer to the inner fence. He wanted her to stay safely behind the chestnut in front of them while he got accustomed to her motions. Her eagerness to please made her fall in line obediently.

Her easy going attitude rubbed off on Orlando, made him feel like they were on a joyride on the downs. He remembered her stable lad's advice to help her with the first fence only in the last moment. Because of that, they took it without much elegance. Orlando’s dreaminess had cost them a length at least. Pressing his eyes shut for the fraction of a second, he concentrated for real now. He blended out everything irrelevant. All that was left were the course, the next fence and speed come to life under him.

Easy.

Coconut Tree instantly sensed the change of gears. Her strides gained in precision, felt more energetic. Orlando could hear her rhythmical and determined snorting over the sound of the wind, knew they would meet the second fence just right, met the second fence just right.

Easy, easy.

Everything was simple when Orlando raced. He didn't think of anything. Impressions crossed his mind fleetingly, just like the landscape beside the track that flew past. At the same time, everything was sharp, crystal clear, definite. He knew this horse. He knew he was good at this. He knew how to change the look in Bean’s green eyes from assessment to trust. Everything was simple when Orlando raced.

He paced his horse so that she ran nose to nose with the light bay. Sandstorm surprisingly picked up speed but Orlandos still managed to keep his horse next to him. Coconut Tree let herself be reined in easily, and she was happy enough to stop and turn back. As the horses walked towards Bean, Orlando recognised the new arrival now standing next to Bean as David Wenham.

Bean and Wenham looked alike in a way, same fair hair colour, same square jaw and prominent nose, same height and build. But in contrast to Bean’s obvious reserve, Wenham seemed to invite smiles and pats on his back. Orlando supposed Bean was maybe seven, eight years older which put Wenham somewhere in his late thirties. The difference in bearing between them, however, made Wenham seem like the much younger, more carefree brother.

They reached the two trainers and Wenham commented on the horses’ performances. His assessments were dead on but spoken in a friendly and amiable way. Bean had yet to say something. Wenham gave short instructions for what was to follow and the lads listened attentively and not as wide eyed as they looked at Bean.

Bean just watched Coconut Tree's twitching ears for a few moments before he looked up at Orlando. Orlando straightened his back a little, again causing his horse to pay closer attention to his rider and staying perfectly still.

"You'll do," Bean said and nodded once. Decision made.

Orlando took off his helmet and brushed through his messy curls.

"I know," he said before he could rein himself in. With a smile he added sincerely, “I’m glad for the opportunity.”

Dismounting and patting the mare’s neck one last time, Orlando handed her to her stable lad again. Then he turned to Bean’s assistant trainer, hand held out.

“Hello, I’m Orlando Bloom.”

“I know, we spoke yesterday,” Wenham replied, repeating Orlando’s earlier words, amusement twinkling in his eyes, as he shook the offered hand. “David Wenham. But Dave’s fine.”

As they started walking back to the stables, following the lads on their horses, and neither Bean nor Dave said anything. Orlando looked around again and nodded his approval.

“That’s a really nice exercise ground you got here.”

Bean nodded without looking at him as if he considered the statement of mere facts redundant instead of complimentary. But Dave replied readily,

“It is, the other one’s even nicer. Especially since we bought the new jumps. They make individual training so much easier.”

“Cost a fortune, too,” Bean grumbled.

Dave didn’t erase the smile from his face as he added, “Wait till you see the rest of the facilities, you’re in for a treat.”

Orlando chuckled.

“Confidence is what seals the deal?”

“Yeah, but you’re not an owner. I don’t need to sweeten anything for you. It’s the simple truth.”

“Well, then I can’t wait to see the gallops.”

Once again Bean either chose to ignore the implied compliment or didn’t even hear it. Bean’s mobile rang, and as he looked at the display, he pulled a face. Dave seemed to know that particular expression because without segue he responded.

“Remember, Lee is coming over for evening stables.”

It took Orlando a second to connect the dots and identify Lee as one of Bean’s owners, as the owner of Time Traveller in fact. Bean looked at Dave with obvious disgruntlement.

“Who invited him?”

“You did.”

“I certainly didn’t. I spoke to him yesterday evening.”

“Well, he called Miranda this morning and informed her that he was showing up in person. To check up on things, I suppose.”

“The whole thing wouldn’t have happened if he’d had agreed to gelding the horse when I told him to.”

“Maybe it’s best to not tell him that.”

Bean grumbled something unintelligible. With a glance at Orlando, he said, ““Get to saddling Baylor’s Boy. Third lot leaves in fifteen.”

With that, Bean finally picked up the phone. He greeted the call in a voice only slightly less irritated and walked away without another word, his dog trailing along.

Orlando opened his mouth to call after him that it might take him a bit to even locate the horse. But Dave lightly patted his arm. He was still completely relaxed, the exact opposite of Bean. He just pointed at a short man in front of one of the stables.

“The man with the blue scarf over there? Right in front of Baylor’s box? That’s our head lad. He’s our walking inventory – any question you got, from a horse’s favourite oats to its owner’s colours, Billy knows the answer.”

“Cheers,” said Orlando, his smile coming easily in the presence of the other man. “For now, directions to the tack room and maybe a leg up is enough.”

Dave laughed again and started to follow Bean who’d already almost reached the American barn, half-hidden behind the main stables.

“You’ll do just fine here,” Dave called over his shoulder, this time quoting Bean but making it sound like a true welcome.

The man with the blue scarf and shortly cropped strawberry blond hair looked up when Orlando stepped up to him. He was short and wiry, but still his posture bore similarities to Bean, making him seem taller than he actually was. Readily, he showed Orlando the horse and the tack room, and fifteen minutes later Orlando received a leg up onto Baylor’s Boy. And just as always, once his feet had found the stirrups and his hands picked up the reins, he instantly felt the connection to the horse.

From then on, his body automatically synched itself with the animal he rode. He didn’t need to think about it. He now could focus on learning about the idiosyncrasies of the other chasers as well as their riders – Kirstin, Martin and Brittany and a couple of others whose names he didn’t catch – and he could concentrate on memorising the way to the gallops. He found himself snickering at one of Martin’s dusty dry and still filthy jokes hard enough for Baylor’s Boy’s ears turned towards him inquisitively. All of the lads were chatting away and instantly and easily included him into their conversations.

Of course that changed once they’d reached the woodchip gallop – a broad, well-kept couple of furlongs that lead slightly uphill. The chattering died down almost instantly when they reached the starting point. Orlando’s eyes spotted a Land Rover close to the track. Bean leaned against it, once again the Rottweiler sitting by his side.

Bean wasn’t a particularly tall man, was about Orlando’s height (which was a bit on the tall side for a jump jockey, granted, but utterly run of the mill in any other setting). He’d have seemed completely average if it hadn’t been for his bearing. He seemed tense in a way as if he was always ready to pounce and drag a rider off the horse in an instant if he wasn’t following orders. Well, it didn’t take a genius to name the reason for the change in the lads’ behaviour.

Billy let his horse fall into a light canter. Since he hadn’t received any specific instructions, Orlando just let his horse follow suit and cantered up the broad stretch of the woodchip gallop, perfect for working horses all around the year. Baylor’s Boy was a nice fellow, well behaved to a degree that it was bordering boring. Not that Orlando fancied getting bucked off, but if given a choice, he preferred headstrong horses to the docile ones. He’d won his first race as an amateur on a chaser that had bolted the second the bell had sounded. Best race of his life, that one, top five at least.

Orlando urged Baylor’s Boy to go a little faster, and obediently, the horse lengthened his strides. Next to Orlando, Dom struggled a bit with his overly enthusiastic horse, but all the other chasers were well-behaved. The gallop went slightly uphill, the green of the downs left and right to it, and Orlando stayed with the field in a moderate pace which – if anyone had asked him – by no means warranted the almost reverential quietness of his fellow riders.

After they returned to Greystone, he put his horse away. He was still quietly talking to the animal when it got slightly darker in the stall. Turning around to enquire what was blocking the light, Orlando found Bean leaning against the lower half of the stall’s door.

“Till the season starts properly, you’ll be joining exercise each morning. So you’ll get a feel for the horses.”

“Sure,” Orlando agreed. Even if the abrupt order in Bean’s voice rubbed him the wrong way this was exactly what he’d have suggested as well. “You want me to do some schooling in the afternoons as well?”

Bean thought about that for a moment before he answered.

“If there’s need, yeah.”

“Fine by me.” Orlando patted Baylor’s Boy’s neck as the gelding stepped past him to get to the door. “When do you make plans for morning gallops? Who rides which horse and what you want them to do, I mean?”

“Why?”

Orlando managed to not roll his eyes at this utterly stupid question. Everyone knew that you could ride as well as Jonjo O’Neill, if you didn’t know your horse’s limits, odds were you’d still not be the first one over the finishing line. Still, Bean looked at him and apparently expected an answer anyway. Orlando smiled pleasantly.

“I like to read up on my rides, look at past performances and the like, keep up with the tracks. You know, the usual. I can do that afterwards, of course, or the evening before.”

Bean again thought about it for a moment, then he nodded.

“You can call Miranda, late afternoons. If you figure that’s necessary.”

Orlando heard both the offer and the slight condescension in Bean’s voice, once again noted the lack of explanation that should have come with the name.

“I’ll do that then.”

“Tomorrow morning, first lot.”

Bean stroked Baylor’s Boy’s jaw once before motioning to leave. He turned back though, like something unimportant he’d so far forgotten had just crossed his mind.

“Dom’ll show you the rest of the facilities.”

Orlando unbolted the stall’s door and was surprised to find Dom really standing right there.

“Have you been here the whole time?”

“Yeah, I was.” Dom’s nose was crooked, like he’d broken it in a fall or a brawl and just never got around to having it straightened again. “Don’t beat yourself up. About not seeing me, I mean. I’m a ninja like that.”

“Yeah, right, got you.”

“Ninja slash tour guide,” Dom specified as he started walking and Orlando followed him. ”You can call me Dom, though.”

Orlando laughed and then did a double take.

“Wait, you’re Dom Monaghan, aren’t you?" Dom gave him a surprised look and Orlando explained, "I saw you winning the Northumberland Plate last year. On Fiddler's Green."

Dom was clearly pleased to have been recognised.

“And I thought just my mum remembered that.”

“Nah, it was a pretty neat win, that one. Had me on my seat.”

Dom laughed, not really believing Orlando but taking the compliment as he would a free beer, without questions asked.

“Fiddler’s a great ride.”

“A good horse still needs a jockey to get it over the finishing line,” Orlando said with a shrug, quoting what he’d said on camera after the Welsh National. “Well, if the race is supposed to count, that is. And if you don’t fancy getting thrown in the mud which I try to avoid.”

“So, you’re like that off screen as well? It’s not just interviews?”

Orlando shrugged, not particularly sure what Dom was referring to with ‘like that’.

“If you work for what you got, you got every right to be proud of it, right?”

“You sound like Wenham, what with your fortune cookie wisdom.”

“My Mum, actually. Always such a momma’s boy, me.”

Dom regarded him for a moment, a smirk curling his lips.

“Won’t you and Bark get on like a house on fire.” Before Orlando could do more than arch an eyebrow in response, he changed topics again. “This here is the stable yard, by the way.”

“You don’t say. I’m really getting the best of the best here. You volunteered for this tour guide job?”

“Nah, got ‘appointed’,” Dom’s voice shifted to imitate Bean’s Sheffield accent, “Made an utter fool of meself during second lot.”

Orlando’s mind flashed back to the moment when Dom’s horse had lightly bumped into Baylor’s Boy just before the end of the furlong.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Bean saw that?”

“Bark sees everything, believe me,” Dom said with a grin and a shrug.

Apparently it wasn’t the first time he had gotten that kind of reprimand. And even though the harshness of Bean’s words was evident even in Dom’s imitation of his voice, Dom didn’t seem to particularly mind. He just took like a schoolboy would his weekly visit in the headmaster’s office. Water off a duck’s back, really. Orlando had his fair share of that kind of conversations himself.

Dom continued his tour by naming every horse they walked past (including nicknames and which lad looked after it) while they made their way through the yard. The main building formed a U around a generous piece of lawn and well-cared for flowerbeds. The stables presented a solid front except for a passage in the west wing that lay closest to the gallops. Dom led Orlando through that pathway, and Orlando spotted the schooling gallops again. Also, to his right side was a large barn and half behind that yet another building with stables. Orlando had been to quite a few racing yards in his time, but he had to admit that this was rather impressive.

While slowing down his steps, Dom pointed ahead of himself and explained,

“So that over there is the home gallop, you know that already. See the street right behind, over there by the oak trees? That leads to the second schooling ground. Where we do most of, well, the schooling.”

“Obviously.”

“Ah, shut up. It’s quiet and secluded, next to the woods. In the summer, it’s pretty neat for barbequing, too. Neat, as long as Bark doesn’t get wind of it.”

“Because he’s a vegetarian?”

Dom looked at Orlando with a frown. Orlando managed to keep a straight face for all of two seconds. In response to Orlando’s tell-tale smirk, Dom grinned broadly.

“Because he’d put one of us on the spit roast, mate.” Abruptly resuming his duties, Dom pointed to his right now. “That over there is the barn, obviously. We stable about a third of the horses we have there, eighty-nine total.”

Dutifully, Orlando’s gaze followed Dom’s finger pointing towards the barn and an adjoining building with yet more stables. The dark green wooden doors appeared to be freshly painted, even primer than the rest of the yard, and the whitewashed walls of the building itself looked scrubbed clean and brand new. Orlando figured, if he were a horse and had to choose accommodation, this was pretty much the equivalent to the Hilton.

“Those are the new stables,” Dom explained, seeing Orlando’s interest. “Behind that we got the indoor school and the solarium.”

“Eighty-nine horses you said?”

“We have space for more,” Dom said readily, the subliminal pride in his voice preventing him from sounding like a brochure. “One hundred and three, I think. You came up the road, right, so you’ve come past the last couple. We’ve still got a handful of the old stables behind the main house. Partly, I reckon so Miranda has something nice to look at.”

“Miranda?”

“Bark’s secretary.” Dom’s smile turned into something caught between a deliberate leer and a more natural softness, presumably telling Orlando all he needed to know about Miranda. The look was gone in a second, replaced again by Dom’s perpetual grin as he added, “Oh, and Bark lives there. In the house, not Miranda’s office, obviously.”

Dom walked on towards the barn. But even though he followed him, Orlando’s eyes automatically went back to the house in front of which he had parked his bike. It was surrounded by rose bushes and towered over the stables. Made of grey stone, it undoubtedly gave the yard its name, seemed imposing and uninviting. Orlando might have considered moving into the stables, if he ever had the misfortune of being turned into a horse. But he would prefer his own flat over this grey stone monstrosity any day. Hell, he’d prefer his parents’ house and that featured his mother and her obsessive compulsive cooking. Still, better than this. Greystone’s main building had the charms of a tomb and was obviously far too big for just a single person to live in.

“All short ways, around here,” Dom said conversationally as they obviously took another short cut. “Saves time. Mind, it’s not that Bark hasn’t already got the shortest way to work anyway.”

“I guess it’s handy at least, being always present,” Orlando said as they reached the barn. “So that’s why he knows everything that’s going on. Professional spying.”

Dom reacted nothing like Billy to Orlando’s less than favourable reference to Bean. He chortled, enjoying the idea, but then he shook his head.

“No, that’s not it. He can read minds. Trust me. Like, once we got drunk in the barn one night and we definitely got rid of all the evidence? But he still knew.”

Orlando looked at Dom with interest as Dom pushed the large door to the barn open.

“How do you figure?”

“He usually has this quiet grumbly voice, right?” Dom explained readily. “Sends shivers down your spine, yeah. But it’s not loud. Well, day after the booze up, guess who bellowed into my ear the entire morning? Gave me a right fucker of a headache.”

Orlando sniggered, slightly surprised.

“That’s quite funny, though.”

“Yeah, right,” Dom replied dryly but with good-humour.

They entered the barn which was inhabited by about thirty horses. Box stalls ran along both sides of the airy building and left a broad and impeccably tidy aisle in the middle. Instead of two part wooden doors these stalls only had a solid lower half leaving the horses free to put their heads over them. A couple of lads were busy mucking out.

Dom touched Orlando’s shoulder, the gesture a tangible indicator of a change of tone.

“Seriously now. This really is a top notch yard. Pay’s decent and we have the best horses. Bark hand-picks them. Hand-picks the owners, and he’s choosy in all regards.”

Before Orlando could reply, his stomach decided to rumble obscenely loud.

“Let me guess,” Dom mocked, “you could eat a horse?”

Orlando let out a heartfelt groan. As per usual, the mere suggestion of food turned the feeling of his ever present hunger into something resembling near starvation.

“Give me the choice between a shag and raiding a chippy without gaining weight? I swear my stomach would throttle my cock any day.”

Dom cackled with delight and slapped Orlando on the shoulder.

“Tell you what. Some of us live just round the corner. You help me finish here? I’ll invite you for grub. We got lunch break soon anyway.”

He held out a pitchfork in Orlando’s direction, broad grin on his face.

Orlando was perfectly aware that he was being conned into stable work. He also knew that this was less instant friendship and more Dom’s usual MO to lessen his own workload. Orlando had once gone an entire summer without having to muck out a single stable, just because the daughter of the riding school’s owner fancied him, and he knew it. Shovelling shit with someone might not be as pleasant as a summer full of snogs in the hay, but it was an opportunity for bonding.

So, Orlando found himself mucking out stalls on his first day at Greystone Stables. Five minutes later, an overly cuddly horse pushed Dom into the muck. Orlando had to lean on his fork for support because he was laughing so hard.

All in all, so far Greystone Stables wasn’t bad at all. The facilites were fantastic, the lads were amicable, and the assistant trainer obviously knew what he was doing. And there were the horses, of course, God, the horses.

As for Bean? Orlando would simply deal with him the same way he dealt with his ever present hunger. Ignore it and push past it.

Easy.

After all, there weren’t many things that he wouldn’t do or endure to get on a good horse. A taciturn tyrant with a bit of a mood wouldn’t even slow him down.

***

Two

It took Sean three days to get used to seeing Bloom on his horses. Whether he was riding in the schooling area or out on the gallops, Sean had his eyes on him.

Right from the start, Bloom seemed comfortable enough around all of Greystone’s animals, however. It was something that Sean liked far better than his instant and easy familiarity with the entire staff. The amount of exuberant gestures, broad grins and lightning fast talk, all of it gave Sean headaches.

On the third day, after the fourth lot of the day, Sean returned to the yard cold and hungry. As soon as Sean had opened the door, his dog pushed past him and jogged across the hall straight into the kitchen. Sean inhaled the fresh smell of coffee, shrugged off his coat as he followed. Even before he’d reached the kitchen, he could hear someone complaining.

“Tim, bad dog! Look at you, you’re filthy!”

Sean looked behind himself. He found two sets of muddy traces leading right up to where he was standing in the middle of the hallway. When he entered the kitchen, Miranda gave him her patented reproachful look.

"Now, there's no real surprise that Tim never remembers cleaning his paws at the door. You don't set a good example,"

Tim sat down, licked his flews and looked guilty. Sean really didn't see a point in getting cleaned up and presentable. All he wanted was a quick breakfast after morning exercise, before returning to the stables. It wasn't like he had invited owners.

"Is there coffee?" he asked.

"There's always coffee."

Miranda came over to fill his cup. Aside from plates and cutlery, half of the fridge's contents stood on the table already. Sean sipped from his coffee and put two slices of bread into the toaster. He felt Tim lying down under the table, using Sean’s left foot as a pillow. Miranda started to boil water for her tea and made herself some toast.

The reason for transfer on the standing order from Sean's bank account to Miranda's said 'secretary'. But in reality, Miranda looked after the invoices, the entries, the bank accounts. She also tried to make Sean feel guilty for wearing dirty clothes inside and looked that he ate regularly. Every other day, she bought fresh flowers she thought he didn’t notice. In fact, she looked after him and the house more than the house keeper who came in five days a week to clean up and cook. In Sean’s eyes, that was about as close to a wife as it could get without registry office.

Miranda didn’t stick around once he picked up his morning paper. Sean was on his second toast and coffee when the front door was opened and closed. Boots were scrubbed carelessly on the doormat. The door to the Miranda’s office was pulled open, voices could be heard right after. Sean didn’t understand any words but noted the amiable tone.

“I really love the lilacs,” Bloom said just when he pulled the door to the kitchen open. “You brought them?”

Miranda chuckled as she walked in in front of him.

“There is nothing like fresh flowers to brighten up a place, if you ask me.”

No one had asked her, as far as Sean was concerned. It was about the third time this week that Miranda and Bloom had had that particular conversation.

“Well, that and no dirty dishes in the sink,” Bloom said. “Or – come to think of it – dirty clothes lying around everywhere.”

“Oh, don’t tell me that’s the state your flat is in,” Miranda answered in a similar tone of voice as she poured him a cup of coffee. “You shouldn’t live like that.”

Sean swallowed his last mouthful of toast and picked up his cup. He took a sip while he looked at the two of them. He registered that Bloom’s boots were far muddier than Tim’s paws had ever been. Miranda either didn’t notice or didn’t mind.

It wasn’t the first time Sean had witnessed that reaction to Bloom. Sean thought the majority of racing reporters idiots most of the time anyway, but they practically started drooling as soon as Bloom was within grabbing distance. It regularly made Sean’s disdain reach a whole new level.

Miranda pushed a cup of coffee into Bloom’s hand.

“Let this soothe your troubles.”

Bloom laughed but raised his other hand to his chest dramatically.

“Oh, you wouldn’t believe the circumstances I have to suffer. Like, believe it or not, there is absolutely no food whatsoever in my flat either!”

Manipulation came to Bloom like breathing. He probably didn’t even notice he was doing it anymore, like a cribbing horse. Miranda smiled.

"Would you like something to eat?"

She didn’t even wait for an answer but turned to the fridge.

However, Bloom’s eyes met Sean’s over the rim of his cup, apparently waiting for something. It wasn’t like him, Bloom was about as straight forward as Dom and as nosey as Miranda. On the first morning when he’d come into the kitchen, he’d spent a good ten minutes standing in front of the various newspaper clippings that Miranda had had framed and hung up on the wall. His unabashed interest in them had made Sean think that he would also joyously read someone else’s diary without hesitation.

Still, here he was, and stared at Sean like it was Sean’s job to tell him whether he was hungry or not. Sean frowned slightly. He stretched out his right foot under the table and kicked the chair opposite back as an invitation to sit.

Only then Bloom said, "I wouldn’t say no to some eggs. Cheers, love.”

He slumped down on the offered chair, crossed his legs next to the table. They were too long for a jockey, even if he rode steeplechases. Just like his face was too evenly handsome and his smiles were too quick, too broad to be genuine.

Bloom glanced at Sean’s paper, then his attention returned to Miranda at the stove. He had his right hand raised to his mouth as he nibbled on the side of his index finger and watched her fry some eggs up. Miranda handed him a full plate not much later and left the kitchen again. Bloom quickly wiped his dirty hands on his dark brown breeches and then started shovelling eggs into his mouth like he was starving. No grace to that.

Sean leaned back in his chair and used the back of his hand as a napkin.

“Absolutely no food whatsoever?” he repeated Bloom’s earlier words.

Bloom’s lips curved into a small smile around the fork that was pushed between them.

“Seems like it. I feel like I’m starving most of the day.” He swallowed audibly around his mouthful of egg. “Sometimes I daydream about chickenwings.”

Sean looked at him critically, the slender waist and broad shoulders, long arms and legs. A pre-purchase exam. Bit late.

“You’re not –“ he started, stopped. Gestured at his throat.

Bloom stopped chewing to look at Sean with eyes that were almost comically wide.

“Am I bulimic? Are you seriously asking me this?”

Sean waited. Bloom carefully laid his fork down.

“No, I’m not. And before you ask, I don’t have any other form of eating disorder either. If you don’t count being hungry all the time that is. Which I don’t. It’s part of the trade.” He wiped his hand over his mouth, then folded his hands and leaned back. “You are a tad paranoid, aren’t you?”

Sean huffed, too surprised to be irritated by the open challenge in Bloom’s voice.

“Thorough,” he corrected.

“Right,” Bloom replied with obvious amusement. “Got any other intensely personal questions for me?”

The dare was as clear in his posture as it was in his tone of voice. For long seconds they just stared at each other.

“Depends,” Sean said.

A frown appeared on Bloom’s head, his gaze grew even more sceptical.

“On?”

For a fleeting second Sean had the impression that this was a kind of discussion Bloom didn’t have for the first time. Sean still didn’t break their eyelock, was for a moment too intrigued to turn his eyes away.

“On whether you plan on daydreaming about roast and lasagne while riding my horses.”

As quickly as it had appeared, Bloom’s face lost its defiant expression. The tightness of his jaw relaxed as his lips formed his usual grin.

“I think of riding when I ride, always.”

Sean grunted and took another toast. He wasn’t a fan of absolute statements and grand promises. A chaser could look as capable as it wanted in the parade ring. What counted was how it performed in the race.

“Speaking of riding,” Bloom interrupted the silence. “I talked to Dave earlier and he said you’d already decided on your entries for the first meetings?”

“A couple. Some courses already closed their entry lists for the season openers.”

Bloom nodded. His eyes were glued to the basket of fruit standing on the table. He obviously calculated in his mind whether he could afford eating one of the temptingly red apples.

“Do you want to know which horses?” Sean asked after a moment.

Bloom was still staring at the apple. Like he had taken up flirting with food now.

“I’ll ride whoever you tell me to. That’s the deal, right?”

“Yes,” Sean said slowly. The evasive hesitance seemed out of place for Bloom. “But –“

“But?”

Bloom looked up, suddenly genuinely interested, as if Sean’s next words were of importance.

“You’re the one riding them,” Sean said.

“And hence I’ve an opinion?” Bloom translated, still with that curious soul-searching expression on his face.

Sean was beginning to be a bit irritated by this game he hadn’t been told the rules of.

“Well, haven’t you?”

“Oh, I got tons,” Bloom smiled broadly. “You want to hear them?”

The more frequently someone smiled, the less genuine it usually was. Sean didn’t need some golden boy of self-marketing disrupting his yard. Bloom still looked at him, still smiling, waiting for an answer to his questions.

“Opinions related to my horses, yes,” Sean said. “I want to hear those.”

Bloom snatched an apple from the basket, treating himself after a well-told joke.

“Interesting distinction.”

Sean rolled his eyes but prompted, “What did you think of Red Sun Rising then?”

Instantly Bloom’s smile broadened further. It crinkled the corners of his eyes.

“She’s golden. Bright as sunlight. She’ll read your mind and do what you want her to even before you know it! And man, she’s fast! Did you see how she tackled that last furlong?”

“She was eager,” Sean agreed, remembering his heart quickening at the sight of his mare flying up the hill.

“Eager doesn’t even start to describe it,” Bloom continued, his entire body thrummed with energy at the memory. “It was like she didn’t even try and still closed the distance on Dark Dancer like it was nothing. I nearly pissed myself with happiness.”

“I trust that you didn’t.”

Bloom chuckled but then continued with his praise.

“She’s fast as lightning, has heart and jumps like she was born to do it. I can’t wait to ride her in a race. She kind of reminds me of Traveller, you know. Only without the testosterone insanity.”

Sean snorted and Bloom took another huge bite of his apple. Around it he asked,

“Anyone ever thought about cutting him? Might do his brain some good.”

“Sir Christopher doesn’t want it,” Sean replied.

“But Morse Code belongs to him as well, doesn’t he? And he’s a gelding.”

“Different when he buys them already gelded.

“That way he’s not responsible for it?”

Bloom burst out laughing and nearly spit apple bits all over the table. His hand in front of his mouth to prevent that, he continued snickering and coughing for a moment before he was fit to reply. Sean didn’t like it – it didn’t matter that he’d argued the point with Christopher Lee repeatedly and that Sean thought the man was a stupid fool as well.

“A bit bonkers,” Orlando said with good-humour.

“Not your job to question owners.”

“Of course it isn’t, I’m sorry,” Bloom replied pleasantly. Sean knew when he was being humoured. “Besides, I wouldn’t have anyone cut off my balls either. Another bit of info for your personal file of me, that.”

“I’d rather know what you made of Darlington this morning.”

“He’s a god awful jumper, the stupid bugger.” After that spontaneous assessment he weighed his head from side to side, then added, “You have to give it to him, he is eager at least. Likes to run. And he’s quite sweet and fast.”

“He’s not the sharpest,” Sean agreed. “I was against buying him.”

“Then why did the owner?”

Sean shrugged.

“He looks fit and wasn’t too expensive.”

Bloom snorted, again intensely condescending which came almost as easy to him as philandering. Only that it now was in regards to the foolishness of owners.

“Is that it?” Sean asked. He had been interested in Bloom’s first assessment of the horse – as well as the others. But there was a difference between noticing a chaser’s weak and strong points and dealing with them sensibly.

Bloom thought about it for a moment, forehead crinkling slightly in concentration.

“I could start fresh with him. I could teach him to jump from scratch, on the schooling ground,” he then offered. “Maybe he’ll get better at measuring distances and judging his own abilities. I rode a chaser once, one that came from the flat and hadn’t seen jump in his life before. It was like he needed all of his brain to suss out the jump, like, when there was so much as a cloud in the sky or a bird chirping, he messed up, couldn’t concentrate on more than one thing. Darlington strikes me as similar. I’ll try to give him more confidence in his ability to jump. Maybe we can go from there.”

Sean nodded slowly, satisfied for now. Didn’t do much good to have a jockey who could just tell you why he lost a race. He needed to know how to win the next one.

“Alright,” he said with a nod, moving on. “What’s your opinion of Sandstorm?"

Bloom took a bite from his apple, chewed it slowly, thinking, buying time. Then he only shrugged, didn't reply but only tilted his head contemplatively.

"He seemed alright on the gallops," Sean prompted.

“He didn’t put much effort into it,” Bloom said with a dismissive shrug. “It felt like he’s not yet back from summer vacation, you know.”

"Sir Ian wants him to run in the Greatwood Handicap in Cheltenham."

Bloom pulled a face, obviously before he could help himself. He hurried to even his features again.

“Well, it’s a great meeting,” he said vaguely.

Sean agreed. It was that and the publicity Cheltenham’s opening day always inevitably gathered that had made Sir Ian McKellen choose that race, he was sure. Sean waited for a moment. Bloom didn’t add anything.

“That’s what you call an opinion?”

Bloom shrugged.

It was obvious that he wasn’t satisfied at all with the horse. Sandstorm had seemed half asleep for the better part of the gallop, just going through the motions and not the least bit interested in what was going on. His evident boredom had been a stark contrast to Bloom’s frustration that had radiated from him when he’d returned to the yard.

"Sandstorm's like a little kid, bit like the schoolyard bully, maybe," Bloom eventually said, picking his words carefully while he looked down at the apple in his hand. "He loses interest all too quickly if he isn't given sweets right the next instant.”

Sean smiled at the irony of that statement. It came from the man who currently showed more interest in fruit than the next month's races. The words ‘pot’ and ‘kettle’ came to mind.

“He’s a good horse,” he insisted.

Bloom took another bite from the apple and looked at Sean with calculation, as if for a moment contemplating whether to suck up or to disagree. Sean wasn’t surprised at the outcome.

“Self-involved is what he is," he said with conviction and now finally sounded genuine. “He thinks he owns the trophy already one moment, doesn’t even care for it the next. I can constantly feel that shifting back and forth in his head. I feel it in the way his pacing changes. No smoothness in his motions at all.”

“That doesn’t make him a bad chaser.”

Bloom regarded him for a moment and it was absolutely apparent that he disagreed.

“If you say so.”

He mulled it over for merely another second. Then he started asking all kinds of questions about the horses’ form to at least half of which he obviously already knew the answer. For a brief instant Sean felt like the one being tested here; something he didn’t fancy one bit.

Pushing that feeling aside, he returned to the training discussion. And sure enough, Bloom continued to have passionate opinions about horses he’d only known a couple of days. With the exception of Sandstorm, they almost always fitted Sean’s own estimation. What surprised Sean even more was that Bloom never interrupted him. Sean laid out his plans for the next weeks and his assessment of the horses’ stamina and strengths and weaknesses. Bloom listened attentively, mind completely focussed on the races ahead, no nonsense.

Maybe that was something, at least.

***

As it did in any yard, business in Greystone Stables followed a strict timeline and routine. It meant fixed times for feeding, exercising, mucking out and turn-out or the additional regular appointments spread over the week like the visits of owners or the farrier or the vet.

On Thursday morning, when he returned from watching the first lot, Sean saw Viggo’s old Mercedes already standing in front of the house. He parked his Land Rover next to the vet’s car and knocked onto its roof as he walked past.

Looking up from the prescription he was reading, Viggo responded with a toothy grin. He was as per usual dressed in jeans and a thick woollen pullover (this time a dark green one with tiny black elks on it), and his hair was too long again. Sean knew that within the next two weeks or so, Viggo would shave it off radically. It would leave him nearly bald, just so he wouldn’t have to bother with the hairdresser for another year. It was the same with his scruffy beard that at the moment was obscuring most of his face. It made him look more like a homeless tramp who lived in his car than one of the best veterinarians in England.

As Viggo pushed his car door open, a dirty white Terrier and a small dachshund slipped out. They skipped around Tim in a circle while their master climbed out of his old car. Tim was slightly taken aback by the smaller dogs’ early morning energy and sought shelter with Sean and Viggo. He wasn’t usually fond of people touching him, something that Sean thought fitting for a yard dog. But from Viggo, Tim enjoyed the attention and sniffed him with even more than usual interest.

“Good morning to the both of you,” Viggo said while scratching Tim’s ears. “Good to see you.”

“Leave it, Tim,” Sean ordered, and to Viggo he said, “You carrying raw meat in your pockets?”

“I reckon your boy smells the new bitch I adopted.”

Sean rolled his eyes as he watched how Viggo crouched down, fondled Tim’s large head and ignored his own two dogs. They were already bouncing across the yard and on their way to pester the staff, no doubt.

“How many dogs do you have now? Five? Six?”

“Seven,” Viggo replied, straightening again. “All of them happy in their home at Casa Mortensen. And before you say anything else, I won’t be criticised by a man who keeps, what, 80 horses?”

“Eighty-eight. And I train them. For a living.”

“Yes, whereas I adopt my dogs out of the sheer goodness of my heart. Who is on the moral high ground here?”

“You’re scared of the woman from the animal shelter and you can’t say no.”

“That is true as well, I give you that.” Viggo’s grin as always made the admittance of defeat seem like a win.

“You are a hopeless case.”

“The way I see it, I am more like that actress, the one that keeps adopting children from all over the world.”

As they started walking towards the stables, Viggo looked at Sean as if Sean was supposed to pitch in with a name any time now. When Sean just shrugged and shook his head, Viggo didn’t seem too perturbed though. Neither by Sean’s lack of knowledge nor by the fact that one of his mutts, the white one, tried humping his leg while they walked.

“You’re encouraging this?” Sean asked, not really surprised.

“Benny’s from Spain.” Viggo nearly stumbled over the enthusiastic dog. “That’s a perfectly acceptable greeting over there.”

“When you’re born in a dustbin, maybe.”

“You, my friend, are a high-handed elitist. That sort of behaviour won’t be tolerated on my hacienda.”

“Oh, Spain it is at the moment? Your imaginary emigration destination?” Sean asked, a smile tugging at his lips. “I guess that beats Finland at least.”

“Sweden. I considered going to Sweden. Still do, actually.”

“You are mad.”

Viggo rolled his eyes, suggesting that it was a miracle that Sean even set a foot out of Yorkshire.

“As utopian settings go, some of us prefer exotic excitement and a string of pole-dancers from Rio over a picket fence and a golden wedding. It’s called having a sense of adventure, not madness.”

“No, I’m pretty sure, with you it’s madness.”

Viggo cackled and let it go.

“So, todo está bien en tu casa?”

Sean was prohibited from answering by the unmistakable sound of a large car approaching. They’d just reached the first box in the row when the new arrival drove into view, a silver Bentley that drove onto the yard with too much speed. Behind the wheel of the car (brand new and imposing, just like the man behind the wheel) sat Sir Christopher Lee. Sean watched him park.

“Nothing wrong with the horses. Got a bit of a recurring disease, though.”

“Now, Sean, it’s bad form to badmouth your owners,” Viggo chided quietly, his broad grin still in place. “Why do you invite him in the first place?”

“He invites himself,” Sean muttered through gritted teeth.

They watched Lee get out of his expensive car and walk towards them with purposeful strides. He was a man in his seventies, still tall and lean. His pointed nose as well as his piercing eyes and his long fingered hands reminded Sean of an agitated bird of prey.

“Well, you could just send him away again,” Viggo suggested.

“Could just punch you.”

“Hey, why do I get punched when it’s he who annoys you?” Viggo arched his brows and raised his hands in a mockingly pacifying gesture.

“You don’t have twenty-nine horses in my yard.”

Viggo gripped his chest in feigned heartache.

“Being your oldest friend counts less than twenty-nine horses?”

“Being you counts less than one hack,” Sean replied but couldn’t help but grin for a moment.

Their conversation was ended by Lee’s arrival. They exchanged greetings but Lee seemed as on the edge as usual. He had barely stopped in front of them when he already asked impatiently,

“When are we leaving for the gallops? I have an important lunch meeting which I can’t miss.”

Sean thought he shouldn’t have come then. He preferred doing his training without having the owner looking over his shoulder all the time. But as Miranda had reminded him yet again that morning, Lee was paying his bills on time.

“Second lot is leaving in five minutes,” Sean replied.

“Which of my horses are in it? You have the best of your riders on them, I assume?”

“Pirate King, Sure Bet and Shy Harbour.”

“Not Time Traveller? I want to make sure he’s fit for the start of the season.”

Sean felt Viggo next to him fighting to keep his amusement inside. Sean wasn’t in a laughing mood.

“Traveller was in the first lot,” he said and turned towards the stables. “I told you on the phone.”

“Well, you should’ve changed that,” Lee said with irritation, a sharp frown creasing his forehead. “I wanted to see him perform, make sure he is fit.”

“He is fit.”

Lee shook his head and still looked as if he had drunk sour wine and desperately wanted to complain to the waiter about it.

“Still, you should have waited and put him into this lot.”

“No one in their right mind puts a stallion in the middle of a string of fillies.”

“Now, listen –“ Lee started testily, but Viggo interrupted him.

“Seems like the horses are good to go!”

He pointed at Billy who was just leading his ride into the yard, followed by the others.

“We’re taking my Land Rover up to the woodchip,” Sean said and for Lee he added, “You’ll want to put boots on. Ground’s muddy.”

Lee frowned at him as if it was Sean’s obligation to hand-dry the downs when he was coming for a visit. Then, abruptly, he turned back to his car.

“You want to come?” Sean asked Viggo as they followed more slowly. “I’d like your opinion on one or two of the fillies.”

Viggo snorted good-naturedly.

“You’re a horrible liar. You just don’t want to be alone with him.”

“Do you want to come or not?”

“Sure I do. If you’re paying for my beer tonight.”

“Extortionist,” Sean grunted. But as Lee, binoculars in hand and his usual displeased expression firmly fixed on his face, turned back to them, he added, “Leave your mutts in your car.”

On the way back to the woodchip gallops Viggo’s presence already paid off. He was a vehement supporter of animal rights and talked about the latest doping cases that had hit the papers a couple of days back. Sean only listened with half an ear to Viggo’s emphatic litany but apparently Lee was captivated, even if it was just because he waited for an opening to disagree. Viggo, being Viggo, didn’t give him one. But as agitated he had been only seconds before he smiled nonetheless when Sean handed him his spare pair of binoculars as they got out of the car.

“Ah, first hand entertainment. Almost better than on the track.”

“Surely there is nothing like seeing one’s horse win,” Lee disagreed, unfolding his legs as he climbed out of the passenger seat. He looked around, frowning when he realised that the horses hadn’t arrived yet. “After all, none of this here matters if the horse doesn’t perform as it’s supposed to.”

“I firmly agree with you,” Viggo said earnestly even though Sean knew that he didn’t. “Especially when I happen to have money on it.”

Lee frowned at him for a moment then he turned back to address Sean.

“I want to run Shy Harbour in Lingham.”

Sean could barely keep himself from growling. Every single one of his owners accepted that it was him who picked the races because he was the one who actually knew whether they were fit to run. Every owner except for Lee, and Sean had lost count of the times he’d tried to get him to understand.

“If she’s ready,” he answered noncommittally.

“Well, it’s your job to get her ready in time.”

“Here they come.” Sean nodded towards the beginning of the track where the first horses had just appeared around the corner, glad for the interruption.

Lee instantly raised his own binoculars. “Where are mine?”

Sean didn’t even need to look through his binos to answer him; he might not own them but he knew all horses in his yard, could tell them apart even when they were just tiny dots on the horizon.

“Pirate King is the darkest of them.” He waited for Lee’s grunt of recognition as he found her before he continued, “Sure Bet is the one with the white head, in second place right now. Shy has the rider in the red jacket on top.”

Viggo asked, “Is that the new jockey you got yourself riding her?”

“Bloom,” Sean confirmed.

Bloom half turned on the Shy Harbour’s back to shout something to one of the lads following behind him. A grin was on his face when he settled back into the saddle a moment later. The horses were still close together, due to the lads’ desire to hear whatever Bloom was saying. There were no exuberant gestures that usually accompanied his tales, but it was still obvious that Bloom was right in the middle of one of his tall tales. Sean’s frown deepened and he huffed quietly.

“He doesn’t have his mind on the job,” Lee said disapprovingly as if he was reading Sean’s mind.

“Well, he sure seems like a sociable fellow,” Viggo commented as Bloom grinned broadly, pleased with himself, as if to agree.

“Your eyes are supposed to be on the horses,” Sean muttered quietly, not bothering to look at him.

“Yeah, as are yours,” Viggo whispered back.

“If he doesn’t concentrate, I don’t want him on my horses,” Lee decided, his expensive binoculars still firmly in place.

Shy Harbour was as docile as a lamb under Bloom who still hadn’t stopped talking to the lad riding closest to him. Calcium Connelly was so busy struggling against the reins that the grey gelding was hardly able to put one foot in front of the other. Teaching that horse how to race was once again proving to be a nightmare. Sean knew that even as the horses just cantered lightly to warm up right now.

“Why isn’t he wearing a green jacket like the rest of the riders?” Lee asked out of the blue.

“I don’t think one can judge a rider’s ability by the colour of his jacket,” Viggo said again with much more seriousness than Sean knew he felt. Before Lee could answer, he added brightly, without segue, “I’m really looking forward to opening day.”

“It’s about time,” Lee agreed grudgingly. “It’s highly annoying that I can’t see my horses run races and still have to pay for them.”

“I already fiercely miss my bookie,” Viggo said merrily.

Sean felt a smile curling his lips but he didn’t reply. With that he focused his attention on the working horses again. They had just reached the long uphill stretch. They stayed close together, riders hunched low over their necks, none of them showing signs of tiring despite the uphill direction.

“What a marvellous view.”

The almost breathless awe in Viggo’s voice was something that resonated deeply inside of Sean. It always had, ever since he’d first met him. To Viggo, it didn’t matter that this was just morning gallops, not a proper race. His adoration for these animals and their power was constant and steady. It was something that he and Sean had always shared.

“Bit hard finding that in Spain, mate,” Sean remarked quietly.

Viggo’s toothy smile made a reappearance.

“Hipódromo de la Zarzuala, my friend.”

Sean bit back a smile. Lee lowered his binos, frowned as he sceptically looked back and forth between Viggo and Sean, then decided he didn’t care.

“Shy Harbour is definitely fit for Lingham,” he announced.

Bloom was leading on Shy now. Usually she hated being out after a night of heavy rainfall. Right now, her motions were fluid and self-assured. Just as the mare reached the top of the hill a couple of lengths ahead of the others, Sean thought with bemusement that she looked downright happy. Bloom straightened a little in her saddle to look behind himself. He waved at the others, mockingly invited them to catch up.

“What is he doing?” Lee asked without lowering his binoculars. “You employed yourself a clown rather than a jockey.”

The horses had passed the furlong marker and slowed down, done with their work for today. Sean turned back to look at Viggo who grinned with amusement.

“Shut up,” Sean murmured.

“He might be a bit unconventional,” Viggo replied quietly. “But after a ride like this? I don’t see you not entering her in Lingham.”

Apparently Lee had heard at least part of it because he now turned to Sean again.

“Clearly the mare is fit enough to run, just like I said. You just have to make sure that your new,” he gestured in the air for a right word, then, with dismay, settled on, “jockey doesn’t shorten her chances of winning that race.”

Sean turned to look at the string of horses coming their way. Bloom raised his arm and waved in their direction. Viggo waved back. Sean turned to his Land Rover instead of replying.

Thankfully Lee quickly left again after they’d returned to the yard, off for his ‘important lunch meeting’. Sean had no doubt Lee would easily find other people to voice his opinion to and boss around there.

Viggo stayed and looked at a handful of horses together with Sean while Dave went out with the last lots for the day.

“That owner of yours is a bit of a handful,” Viggo commented while crouched next to Essex Escape.

“He hates the new jockey. Almost reason enough to keep Bloom.”

Viggo stroked down the gelding’s slender leg, carefully checking for heat.

“Is that the only reason why you keep him? Or is it the lack of alternatives?”

“Didn’t say that.”

“Oh, you’re not waiting for him to fuck up then?”

“I’m not waiting for anything,” Sean said with slight irritation. “Why would I?”

Without even bothering to look up from his task, Viggo had an answer ready immediately.

“Because you always are. You’re always almost relieved when someone fucks up. It justifies your general misanthropy.”

“And you are a rootless tree-hugger with a God-complex,” Sean gave back in the same tone of voice. “What is this? State-the-obvious Thursday?”

Viggo barked out a laugh, loud enough for Essex Escape to prick his ears in mild alarm. It was his standard reaction to Sean’s insults; laughing was his standard reaction to pretty much everything that should annoy him. He could be serious – hell, when it came to Animal Aid no one would dare to piss him off – and it was one of the reasons why Sean liked him, took him serious in return.

Sean patted the horse’s neck calmingly, tightened his hold on the halter.

“It’s a bother to break in a new jockey. I could’ve done without the hassle.”

Viggo got up and stepped back with his eyes still on the horse’s legs, after a moment he nodded to himself.

“Still, it’s interesting how you’re more annoyed with Bloom’s antics than with Lee’s blatant obnoxiousness.”

“You’ve seen him.”

“Yes, I did. He’s a marvellous rider.”

“He’s a show off, a clown and annoying as fuck.”

“I don’t think you being vexed is a sufficient reason to sack someone. After all, then you’d be the only one left in Greystone.”

“I pay you for being a smartarse?”

“Actually you do,” Viggo responded with a grin. “Miranda employed me to make sure you don’t irritate too many owners a day.”

“Paying well?”

“You don’t want to know.”

Viggo patted his shoulder before he refocused on the horse.

He finished his examinations and was satisfied with all chasers in training. Sean and Dave had long picked the first races to be run. The season could start.

The last weeks before opening day usually were thick with anticipation as well as worry like no other time in the year. Different from the end of the season and its big races, everyone had too much time to think on their hands. Sean knew better than to tell his staff to curb their enthusiasm. But over the last years he’d always had to put his foot down at one point or other, whenever the general nervousness annoyed him too much or, even worse, when it started to affect the sensitive animals.

This year the biggest hassle was the rainy weather. Still the lads joked about when they returned from exercise, completely soaked, but still relaxed and snickering at Bloom’s jokes. The owners who came to visit picked up on it, too – some, like Lee, with grudging impatience and others, like McKellen, with jittery excitement. Sean didn’t even intervene when Bloom talked to them with the same unnervingly exuberant enthusiasm that he was known for. It left Sean with only the frost and the state of his exercising grounds to worry about.

It was freezing out on the downs in the mornings.

With a growl, Sean shoved his hands deeper into the pockets of his padded coat. Dave agreed with an absentminded hum. Tim looked up at Sean with huge black eyes. The constant frown on his forehead deepened as if he contemplated Sean's growl. After a second, he scratched his ear with his hind leg and sat down next to him. The mist still lingered on the ground even though it was already mid-morning. The first few shy beams of sunlight just seemed to emphasise how clear and harsh the air was and would be for the rest of the day.

Risking frost bites by taking one hand out of his coat to pat Tim’s head, Sean squinted to see whether his string of horses had arrived. Both he and Dave raised their binoculars, scanned the open range for any sign of life. Sean felt more than saw his Rottweiler straightening next to his leg and knew the horses were here.

"There they go," Dave murmured in quiet anticipation and Tim yipped knowingly. Sean felt the thunder of many hooves rolling through the ground even before he heard it resounding from the all-weather track.

Time Traveller led the string with his rider glued to his back, a tiny green spot highlighting the darkness of the stallion. Traveller fought against the reins, every stride a forceful protest against being held back, but Sean had decided on a controlled canter and that was what Dom gave him.

One or two lengths behind followed the rest of this morning's third lot, too close together for them to get a proper view. Dave clucked his tongue and Sean scowled in annoyance. Even though he was too far away and the binoculars hid most of his face, it was like his displeasure was transmitted to the gallops. The field stretched when it came into closer view.

Seduction in the Street, Catch Fire and Darlington reached the first fence one after the other, the last of the three not meeting it perfectly and falling behind after landing. That horse was too dense to get over a fence properly even if his rider picked him up and carried him over the thing, really.

Calcium Connelly had been following close behind, grey against the muddy green and the red jacket clearly visible on his back. Bloom only avoided colliding with Darlington's too slow backside by changing directions while still in the air. Sean saw Calcium shift effortlessly, reacting to whatever invisible signal Bloom had given him. They landed smoothly and Bloom only so much as teased his mount with the whip to get it to speed up. With them momentarily vanishing behind Darlington and Catch Fire, Sean shortly glanced over to the rest of the string. But though the horses gave their best to realise the instructions Sean's attention was drawn to Bloom like a moth to the light.

Calcium Connelly reappeared in front of Seduction, aiming for the lead now. Sean had instructed Bloom to give Dom on Traveller a run for his money. What he hadn't told him was to make it look like the easiest thing in the world. Bloom redirected Calcium’s rampant energy into pure joy of being allowed to run and run and run. Sean hadn’t needed to say a thing. Putting Bloom on any horse recurrently had the same effect on the animals.

Sean might think Bloom taxing and unsettling in his self-confident cheeriness. To Sean, it still felt like a smokescreen for self-centred narcissism.

But the horses? They found religion and Bloom was their God.

***

Chapter Text

Three

As one of the first races of the season, Orlando won the three thirty in Huntington on Sharpest Soldier. It was such an easy win that he didn’t even think much about it, nor did Bean say anything – just a nod to him, and then the changing of silks and horses was next.

However, when Orlando returned to Greystone in the middle of evening stables, Dom greeted him with that broad crooked grin of his, slapped him on the back and hastily invited Orlando to join them for beer celebration later before he rushed off to finish his chores.

After Orlando’s first day at Greystone, he and Dom had spent a few lunch breaks in the old boarding house. Orlando still hadn’t sussed out whether he knew who exactly was living there. Of Dom and Billy and Martin, he was sure, but big-eyed Elijah was always lingering on the periphery as well. So did the pixyish Kirsten and Britt who was as pretty as she was foul-mouthed.

The night of the Huntington triple, they met up in the pub. The first time Orlando had been there, the lads had warned him in unison to not eat anything off the menu and just stick to the beer. Other than that, the place was fine, even if a bit clichéd, what with the all-wood decor and the ancient photos and dusty bridles on the walls.

It was all a bit cramped though. Or maybe that was just because Dom always seemed to be the one to pick a table. He couldn’t count to seven or something, and they had to sit almost on top of each other every other time.

“Here’s to Orlando,” Dom said loudly and raised his glass. “Patron Saint of my bank account!”

“You got a bank account?” Martin asked, composed and dry humoured as ever. “I thought you blew all your money on booze and hookers.”

“And carrots,” Kirsten piped in. “To bribe Sandy.”

“Good to have you riding for us, mate. May many more prosperous wins follow.”

The rest of the lads raised their glasses and Orlando smiled but shook his head.

“I’ll give my best. But you know what they say about racing, guys.”

“That the angry mob lynches the losers they were so unlucky to bet on?” Martin suggested.

“We’ll only ever lynch you a little bit,” Britt promised next to Kirsten in the booth, not all that convincingly. Maybe she wouldn’t necessarily be part of a lynch mob but Britt, too – just like Kirsten – was definitely the kind to urge people on until they were raging like lunatics and then sit back and enjoy the chaos. The smirk she directed at Orlando now was as pretty as it was calculating. “Maybe tar and feather you a bit, but nothing too serious.”

“Thanks ever so,” Orlando laughed. “How much money did you all have on Sharpey this afternoon?”

“You really don’t wanna know,” Billy said, shaking his head. “My Da always used to say that it’s bad luck to talk about past wins.”

“That’s complete bollocks, Bills,” Dom contradicted him. Orlando wasn’t surprised, it seemed to him that all Dom did the entire day was opposing Billy.

“Speaking of fathers,” Britt said and leaned her elbows on the table, propping her chin up in her palm as she looked at Orlando with blue eyes that seemed even bigger than usual. “Is it true that your dad is that bloodstock agent?”

“Yeah, he is.”

“Is it true that he bought two hundred horses for one sheik last year?” Elijah asked with so much earnest awe in his voice that it drew a few chuckles and made him frown slightly at the others. “What? I read that somewhere.”

“I don’t know about two hundred,” Orlando said quickly before Dom could mock Elijah for it. “But he has some stupidly loaded buyers, yes.”

“Stupidly loaded is at least better than just stupid,” Britt said. “With some of them, I swear I won’t ever understand how they came to that much money – some of them are too dense to count.”

“Maybe they’re as pretty as you are and just married rich,” Dom said thoughtfully and yelped when Britt kicked him under the table.

“Does that mean,” Kirsten pondered, “that Wenham’s wife wasted her one chance at richness?”

“Wenham’s married?” Orlando asked.

“Since last year. They’re building a house and planning on having a stable full of big-nosed, ginger-haired brats.”

“So she’s not much of a looker? His wife?”

“Nah, she totally is,” Dom said with a grin. “It’s just Wenham messing up the gene pool.”

“But he really, really adores her I reckon,” Elijah said which had the others chuckle in amiable cynicism.

“Speaking of delusional,” Martin said while Kirsten, half on his lap, was once again reaching for his glass instead of her own, “I groomed horses for someone who seriously told his trainer that he’d like to breed from his horses.”

“So?” Kirsten asked. “What’s so stupid about that?”

“He only had geldings.”

The table erupted into laughter and of course now everyone had their story of racing hilarities and peculiarities to share. Just when Kirsten was in the middle of her tale about the Irish farmer who used to get into fistfights with his Scottish trainer right next to the parade ring, the door of the pub opened once again and the motion caught Orlando’s eye.

On and off he’d watched people come in and leave – mostly come in, as the small pub was by now well filled with patrons – but this was the first time he recognized the newcomers, at least one of them.

“Isn’t that Bean?” he asked, interrupting Kirsten’s story with a nod towards the door.

A few of the others looked up, none of them alarmed or even surprised though, and Billy said, without turning around, “Probably. He comes here sometimes.”

“Who’s he with?” Orlando asked, craning his neck a little to still be able to see Bean and his friend at the bar. Both men had sat down and while Bean gestured for two pints, his companion – a blond man, about Bean’s age and height but so different in bearing and obnoxiously dressed – continued talking to him, waving his arms about in expressive gestures. “Is that Doc Mortensen?”

“Yeah, he is,” Dom said after a quick glance. “Part of his conditions of probation to take Bark out once a week.”

While the others snickered, Orlando caught Billy rolling his eyes. For all their back and forth bickering that he had witnessed so far – and there was quite a lot of it, random banter being their way of connecting and amusing themselves – Billy only ever seriously seemed to disagree with Dom when it came to the Guv. Dom spoke about him using the same casual insults which he used for everyone (and Orlando never knew how much of that was just meaningless fun and how much it really reflected Dom’s thoughts). Billy never joined in when it concerned Bean. If anything, his reactions were quietly disapproving. That unspoken but clearly evident loyalty intrigued Orlando far more than he liked to admit.

“Anyway,” Kirsten said, decisively putting her glass down onto the table and bringing Orlando back into the moment. “Anyone want to hear the end of my story?”

“The Irish farmer knocked the trainer out cold on the day his horse won the Grand National,” Britt finished for her.

“Bollocks,” Dom laughed.

Before Kirsten could protest Billy asked, “Which horse was that supposed to be again?”

“You told us this story before, Kirs,” Martin joined in again and patted her thigh that was still slung over his own as far as Orlando could tell.

Kirsten ignored Dom and Billy and gaped at Martin, feigning serious insult.

“You of all people? And this from a guy who continuously falls asleep whenever I am talking to him.”

Martin shook his head. “When have I ever –?”

“Yesterday!”

“Oh, right, forgot about that one.”

“Interesting,” Dom said in a tone of voice that reminded Orlando of a gutter press reporter having smelled blood. “I’ll drop the ludicrous Grand National thing. If you tell us more about Martin’s sleeping habits – is it because you wore him out before?”

Orlando was pretty certain to see a tell-tale blush creep onto Martin’s cheeks but Kirsten didn’t even hesitate for one second before she threw her coaster at Dom.

“I am telling you, the story is not ludicrous!”

Before anyone could stop her she elaborated and while she told the – indeed completely ridiculous – tale of that Irish Grand National winner no one had ever heard about, Orlando’s gaze drifted back to the bar.

Bean was listening intently to whatever Doc Mortensen was telling him, but when the other man finished his story and laughed loudly at his own joke, Bean didn’t join into the amused cackling. Orlando was pretty sure that not even the corners of his mouth had quirked up – seriously, was that man even human? By now he was honestly ready to believe that Bean was a Terminator sent from the future or something like that.

Orlando was about to avert his gaze to return to the lads’ conversation when Bean said something in response to Doc Mortensen’s words. Orlando couldn’t hear him over the noises of the pub, just saw his neutral as ever face and registered the shortness of the response. Mortensen, however, cracked up again, cackling even louder than before, and patted Bean’s shoulder at the same time in clearly heartfelt approval.

How could anything coming out of Bean’s mouth make anyone laugh?

Slightly baffled, Orlando returned to the conversation happening at his own table just when Dom asked into the round,

“You remember that time with Postlethwaight?”

All of the lads instantly nodded and Martin said with feeling, “Man, yes, that was pretty epic.”

Orlando frowned and looked at Elijah who just shrugged and Orlando figured that it probably had been before his time as well. As far as he’d gathered, Elijah was the newest addition to the staff. He turned to Billy instead.

“Who?”

“Peter Postlethwaight. He was something in the military, I reckon, and he had five horses with the Guv, none of them stars.”

“Yeah,” Britt nodded, “that kinda owner who’d rather have five average horses that one good one.”

In Billy’s place, Dom continued, “But somehow no one had told the poor fellow that for five horses he’d have to pay five times training fees apparently.”

Orlando snorted. “No shit.”

“And so he just sorta stopped paying his bills,” Martin took over. “Miranda nearly went mental every month and you should’ve heard Wenham ranting about it.”

“Dave?” Now Orlando was honestly surprised. Bean, yeah, no problem, he’d instantly believe him blowing a fuse or two each day. But Dave? “I thought nothing could ever faze him.”

“Well, Mr. P did, that’s for sure,” Kirsten said with a nod.

“And the Guv?”

Billy shrugged.

“Didn’t say a thing.”

Orlando again shook his head disbelievingly and found Dom grinning and Martin smirking at him. When he raised his brows questioningly, Dom gave in.

“Yeah. Well, until Mr. P showed up in the yard one morning with a fucking transporter!”

“Saying that he’d come to get his chasers,“ Billy added.

“Because they weren’t getting proper training in Greystone,” Dom finished.

Orlando scoffed.

“Now, that’s classy.”

“But of course, no trainer lets horses of owners go who have outstanding bills,” Britt said.

“Yeah, I know. No way you’d get your money if you let ‘em go. And if push comes to shove you can sell them and get your money like that.”

“Right,” Britt agreed before she got up to get another round of beer, obviously knowing this story in and out already. Orlando however, was intrigued now.

“So, what did Bean say? Surely, he didn’t just let him leave with the horses. He must’ve said something then.”

“Nope, not a word,” Billy repeated. “Wenham had a shouting match with Postlethwaight right in the middle of the yard.”

“Yeah,” Dom agreed, “but guess what Bark did?”

Before Orlando could take a guess, Kirsten chimed in, “He just got into his car, all calm like, and he parked his Rover right behind the horsebox in the driveway. Totally blocked its way out!”

“Seriously?” Orlando asked, laughed disbelievingly and shook his head and searching the others’ faces for confirmation that this was just a tall tale. They all nodded, though, and Kirsten voiced what Orlando was feeling.

“Yeah, we were all totally dumbstruck, too, standing aside so we wouldn’t get caught in the crossfire.”

“And Mr. P went absolutely mental,” Dom continued. “Wenham even forgot to be pissed off. He started laughing outright when Bark got out of the car.”

Martin smiled at the memory.

“Mr. P was blowing a fuse, yelling, ‘get that car out of the way or I’ll drive over it’. He said if he didn’t get the horses right then, he’d come back at night and take them. Rather than letting the Guv have them, he’d shoot his horses in their stalls.”

“And Bean? What’d he do? Please tell me he took a swing.”

“Nah, not the Guv,” Billy said. “He didn’t even raise his voice. He just stood there all calm and composed, hands in the pockets of his coat,” Billy’s voice dropped and his accent was more Bean’s Sheffield growl than his own Glasgow lilt when he continued, “‘If you set foot into my yard again –‘”

“’I’ll shoot you–’,” Dom cut in.

“’And now shoo!’” Martin and Kirsten finished loudly and in unison.

They all broke out in collective laughter, this obviously a story they told on a regular basis.

Orlando grinned and automatically his eyes searched Bean at the bar again. Martin’s and Kirsten’s finish had been loud enough to turn a few heads – Mortensen and Bean both were looking in their direction as well, and for a moment Orlando felt like he was caught red-handed, almost felt sorry that they were talking about the other man behind his back.

Then however, Bean just rolled his eyes and returned his attention to his own conversation, neither showing anger nor amusement over this obvious re-enactments.

Orlando shook his head disbelievingly.

“And that was all? The owner didn’t protest?”

“Well, the Guv turned around and simply walked away,” Martin answered. “He didn’t even wait for Mr. P’s reaction.”

“Didn’t have to, did he?” Dom said. “I mean seriously, you think Bark’s scary when he bellows at you? You haven’t seen him become all quiet and calm, like. I nearly shit my pants, and I was just a bystander.”

All of the others nodded in agreement and, oddly enough, with something else – whether that was because they’d been there and survived it, like soldiers remembering battle, Orlando wasn’t sure. The way they were all grinning felt almost like pride to him, a powerful adhesive that made them stick together as well as with Bean.

“So he went without his horses?” Elijah asked after a moment, and Orlando remembered that he wasn’t the only one who heard the story for the first time.

“Yeah, he did,” Kirsten nodded. “After Wenham had removed Bark’s car, that is. Two days later Miranda had the cheque for the money in the mail and got a call from a bloodstock agent. Suddenly, Mr. P had decided to sell his horses.”

“Sharpest Soldier was one of them,” Britt said to Orlando, putting another beer down in front of him. “Bark bought him himself.”

Orlando was momentarily dumbstruck, but despite his win on the gelding earlier that day, he still scowled in dissatisfaction.

“He bought a horse from that dick? Fuck, I’d rather have hung myself than give money to an arse like that.”

“My words exactly,” Dom agreed which didn’t surprise Orlando all that much.

“Sharpey’s a nice fellow though,” Elijah said carefully.

“Still,” Orlando insisted. “No way.”

“Not the horse’s fault who owned him, is it?” Billy argued calmly.

Orlando took a swig from the fresh pint that Britt had put in front of him. He easily recalled the thrilling rush of adrenalin the gelding had given him when he’d raced past the finishing line only a few hours previous.

Orlando’s eyes returned to the man at the bar who still seemed completely impassive and without any feeling at all. But he had apparently been able to ignore who the previous owner had been, or simply didn’t have as much of a temper as Orlando himself had, had just seen the horse and what it was capable of.

“No, I guess you’re right,” he said after a moment.

Most of the others had already continued with their conversation.

Billy, however, looked back at him, the smile on his face less impish and gentler than usual and he nodded and rose his glass in another silent toast to that.

***

According to Bean, the jumping season didn’t start till Cheltenham’s opening day. No matter how many races Orlando had already ridden before then. At least, Orlando assumed as much because it wasn’t like Bean really said anything. Talking to him was about as straining as getting a novice over jumps unharmed. But the days previous to the famous Cheltenham meeting, Orlando could feel the crackle in the air in Greystone. It showed in every glinting pair of horse eyes and in the nervous eagerness of the lads. There was just one thing that could affect the horses’ and the lads’ moods so without exception. Orlando knew that. It was Bean himself.

And Orlando got it. It was Cheltenham for fuck’s sake. Who didn’t get that?

When he jumped out of Bean’s car on Cheltenham’s parking lot, he felt a grin split his face. Bean shot him a sceptical glance, probably about to ask Orlando whether he’d taken drugs or something. But Orlando couldn’t help it, kept the grin on his face even as he walked into the stables where Greystone’s three runners for the day had already been put up.

None of this should be a big deal at all. It was not like this was his first race. He'd ridden races ever since he was old enough to get a licence. He’d learned to ride even before he’d learned to speak in full sentences. And horse was a horse, a race was a race, right?

As for Cheltenham? He'd practically grown up here and on the other big name places all over the country, always following his Dad. One of his first childhood memories was from Cheltenham, or at least so he guessed. He'd been allowed to sit on a real racehorse, led by a trainer who was a friend of his father. Orlando couldn't remember the horse's name, just the feeling of the smooth saddle leather against his naked lower legs and the wiry black mane he'd buried his hands in. It had taken his Dad almost physical force to get him away from the horse again afterwards. Ever since then Orlando had known he was going to be a jockey.

That story was true enough (and the perfect answer for interviews), even if it was incomplete. For one, it left out the part where his mother had all but cried when, at the age of ten, he’d told her that he’d rather try out for an apprenticeship in one of Epsom’s many yards than go on holiday with his parents. ‘So, I’m losing you to the horses as well?’ she’d said and it had taken Orlando almost a decade to get what she meant by that. His version about the Cheltenham horse and his laughing father left out how his Dad had pushed him so hard to follow in his footsteps as a bloodstock agent. For a while, Orlando almost forgot that it wasn’t what he wanted to do with his life.

Horses were an addiction. Orlando considered himself very lucky indeed that the only side effects of them were a couple of bruises every now and then and that constant hunger. Because no matter what, he wouldn’t ever be able to quit them; one whiff of racecourse air was always enough to remind him.

"Earth to Bloom, Earth to Bloom. Hello, anyone in there?"

Elijah snapped his fingers in front of Orlando's face, grinning when Orlando blinked in confusion. He found himself in Cheltenham’s stable, leaning against Pirate King’s door. Elijah was still grinning, way giddier than Orlando had ever seen him before. Putting that down as a reaction to Cheltenham’s magic, Orlando couldn’t help but approve.

"Sure I am,” he said merrily. “I just zoned out for a minute."

"You don't say," Dom mocked from the next stall. “I thought you’d fallen into some sort of coma.”

“You mean like Sandstorm?”

Dom’s eyes followed Orlando’s to the dozing stallion.

“Don’t mock the power of Sand, or he’ll come after you with a vengeance.”

Now it was Orlando’s turn to laugh.

“Yeah, right.”

“It must be kinda scary, a big day like this one.” Elijah looked at Orlando contemplatively. “I get all jittery and I’m not riding the horse, am I?”

“But you could, in general, couldn’t you? I mean, not this one, but most of the lads have an amateur’s licence, right?”

Elijah shook his head.

“Not yet. But the Guv just applied for it. I can’t wait.”

“Lij is planning on running you out of business by the end of the year,” Dom said with a grin and an amiable nudge against Elijah’s side. “Isn’t that right?”

Elijah was about to protest, but Orlando was quicker.

“I suppose I deserve it if I keep daydreaming.”

Dom cackled in response.

"Just don't let Bark see it or he'll chop your head off. He’ll ride old Sandy himself."

"Apart from the me-losing-my-head part, I like the sound of that," Orlando mumbled more to himself and again looked at the light bay horse.

Sandstorm twisted his left ear in his direction. But other than that, he seemed completely uninterested in his surroundings, just like he had been during every exercise Orlando had seen him in. He looked bored and completely out of place in the stables of one of the greatest racecourses on the planet.

Being his groom, Dom was either more used to the comatose behaviour of his charge, or (and Orlando’s money was on the latter) he didn’t even care. Dom straightened the powder blue rug and ruffled the stallion's mane affectionately, even though the animal never stopped chewing its hay and continued to daydream.

“Did you feed him tranquilisers?” Orlando heard himself asking with displeased mockery.

Dom amiably slapped the stallion’s round behind before leaving his stall.

“Nah. He’s just saving all his energy for his big ten minutes.”

“His big ten minutes of napping at the starting line?”

Dom laughed, brushing stray hay from his green jacket.

“Sandy’s most definitely not gonna be napping, mate. I bet my Grandma’s knickers on it.”

“Who would want your Granny’s underwear?” Elijah asked with that wondrous tone that always made Orlando uncertain whether he was being serious or taking the piss.

“Well, I certainly don’t,” he cut in before Dom could reply. He didn’t really want to talk about Sandstorm any longer because the stupid bore was threatening to ruin his Cheltenham buzz. "Speaking of underwear, I'll better go and get changed."

He turned towards Coconut Tree, smiling when he saw her stealing Elijah's lunch from the pocket of his jacket, dangling from the stall's door.

"You do that, mate," Dom called after him. "And relay to Sir Ian from Sandy that he'd like another of those baskets of apples."

"What will Sir Ian say if he learns that you ate half of them yourself?" Orlando shot back with a grin and walked away from the stables before he could hear Dom's answer.

He zipped his padded jacket closed since it was cold outside, much colder than in the stables because of the icy wind whistling around every corner without mercy. But the sky was blue, the grass was green, the railings shining in freshly painted white and all was jolly good.

Orlando was rubbing his hands against each other as he reached the jockeys’ changing room. He was grateful when a wave of warm air welcomed him. It smelled of mud and horse, the sharp odour of muscle relaxing gels was mingled with the equally stinging smell of human sweat. The familiar unique smell surrounded him as he changed into Sir Ian’s colours, powder blue and red.

While the changing room was all business and bustle as always, for once Orlando enjoyed the lack of the usual haste between rides and spent some time chitchatting with some of the other jockeys as they put their silks on. Two asked how good a boss Bean was, and Orlando barked in response which made them chuckle.

He cursed quietly to himself when a glance at the clock on the wall reminded him that he was threatening to be late. He hurried out of the changing room towards the weighing room and the parade ring.

Sir Ian McKellen already stood at the side of it, flanked by Bean. In complete contrast to the ever grumpy trainer, the white haired man smiled brilliantly – he always seemed to be in a jolly good mood when his horse was favourite. It meant for him to be in the centre of attention. Like most owners in Orlando’s estimation, he was continuously looking for praise of his possession, as if the animal’s potential success somehow directly reflected its owner’s qualities.

"Now, my dear boy, don't you look dashing?" Sir Ian greeted him. For a moment Orlando was confused at this odd statement. Then he realised that Sir Ian was patting Sandstorm's neck and talking to his horse, merely looking for affirmation from him.

"Oh, yes," Orlando therefore agreed dutifully, "he's a handsome fellow."

'And a thick headed, snot nosed case of ADD' he added in his mind as he looked into the horse’s black eyes. They were blank of any emotion, like he couldn’t care less about any of this.

However, glancing at Bean again, Orlando had the feeling that he had heard that thought loud and clear as if he was some kind of mind reader, just like Dom had said on his first day. The thin smile that had still somewhat lingered on Bean's face vanished. Green eyes glowered at Orlando with calculating coldness. While Sir Ian was still focussed on bathing in his horse’s future triumph, Orlando was waved closer with a brisk gesture that allowed no disobedience.

"Listen," Bean said intently. “You’re running that race to win.”

“I know,” Orlando said with irritation. He did, no matter how unsuitable the horse obviously was for this kind of race.

Bean narrowed his eyes.

“You’re not hearing me. Sandstorm can be a fierce –“

Orlando scoffed and the noise cut Bean off in whatever he was about to say. He gripped Orlando’s elbow, looked for a moment like he in all seriousness wanted to shake him.

“There’s more to this horse than he lets on. And pull yourself together, for Christ’s sake. No more of those looks. No more of those thoughts."

Orlando glared at him with defiant fierceness.

"What thoughts?"

How could Bean even imply that he wasn’t totally thrilled to be in Cheltenham? He had nothing but fucking positive thoughts! If anyone needed Bean’s idea of motivational speech, then it was stupid Sandstorm, not him!

Just that moment, Sir Ian seemed to have looked his fill and turned back to them. Bean turned his tight grip into a seemingly encouraging pat on the shoulder nodded at the owner. Still, quietly he growled at Orlando,

"Don't fuck with me. Just do your job and win that race."

"Aye, Guv," Orlando replied with a huff but didn't meet Bean's eyes.

Even if displeasure was radiating from Bean’s body, Orlando couldn’t care less. So what if he was being openly sarcastic and disrespectful? Who did Bean think he was talking to? Some first grade school kid? Fucking hell, Sandstorm was a lazy bum. Orlando had ridden him often enough the last weeks to know that.

Jockeys were called to mount, and, trying to not let his anger show again, Orlando got onto Sandstorm. He even managed to say 'thanks' when Sir Ian patted his riding boot and wished him good luck. He didn't look in Bean's direction when he rode out onto the track. Jake Gyllenhaal stopped his brown chaser next to Sandstorm and grinned at him. But Orlando really wasn’t in the mood for any pre-race trash talk.

Adjusting his goggles for one last time, he glared down at his horse's ears. They were lazily twisting from side to side and the only sign Sandstorm was awake. Bloody hell. The other horses stomped on the ground, shaking their heads as if they were bathing in adrenaline already. The sunlight caused their coats and their owners' colours to shine brightly as a tribute to the great race to come.

The Greatwood Handicap started, off they went in a flash. A tight field of muscles and snorts, jockey's shouting and whips lashing, colours mashing into a great rainbow.

The power exploding under Orlando hit him completely unexpected. Sandstorm's chaotic bits of angry thoughts hit him like shell splinters. Cursing under his breath, Orlando leaned over Sandstorm’s neck and had to fight with him for the reins for the first time ever. With the sound of the bell, Sandstorm was suddenly vicious and mean, had transformed into someone, something else entirely. Orlando gritted his teeth and felt his muscles aching already because the stallion clashed his teeth down onto the bit, determined to get his will and with that Orlando’s arms out of their sockets.

They reached the first fence, the field still close together. Sandstorm did react to Orlando's aids and took half of the fence with him as he jumped it. He stumbled slightly when landing, again almost pulled the reins out of Orlando's hands entirely, but regained his balance instantly and raced on.

Instinctively, the stallion went for the inner rails, roughly bumping into another horse whose jockey cursed violently. Orlando gritted his teeth, no time for apologies. The field stretched when they reached the first curve, and there were only two other horses in front of them. They were definitely going too fast. Still, Sandstorm was determined to reach those two that had run away from him, and he wanted this nownownow.

"Goddammit, you stupid son of a bitch!"

Orlando pulled at the reins hard to finally get the lunatic horse's attention. They got over the second, third and fourth fence, each time a last-second decision between actually jumping it or ramming through it in the mindless quest to take the lead. Then finally, finally Orlando regained some sort of control over his mount. He could hear Sandstorm grunting in frustration but managed to keep him in check round the second bend.

Jake’s brown chaser gradually pushed next to them, gaining on them even though Sandstorm was closest to the rail. Orlando could hear the other horse's rhythmical snorts and Jake’s encouraging words. Out of the blue, Sandstorm made an attempt to turn his head to bite. Orlando used his whip and got him in check again, but it cost them precious lengths. They were overtaken by three horses which left them in sixth place.

Orlando cursed angrily and looked behind himself. The field had stretched even further. There was no one on their heels that could lead to Sandstorm losing his head again so soon. They took the next fences with relative ease, and then suddenly Orlando felt something inside his mount switch. The stallion actually started to listen to Orlando's aids. They met the next fence perfectly and passed a grey and a bay that had refused. Orlando encouraged Sandstorm to go on, go on, just like that.

When they reached the last bend, the distance between the horses ahead of them was still the same. It seemed to be growing if anything, and Sandstorm was starting to show first signs of tiring. The wind brought the crowd's cheers to Orlando's ears as they reached the home stretch. They should've made up for the difficulty of the track going slightly uphill. Only they didn't.

Instead of concentrating on the last jump and using the crowd's encouragement as an additional push up the hill, Sandstorm seemed to lose interest entirely. Orlando lost precious seconds being gobsmacked thanks to the unsteadiness of his mount. Distracted by the noise and the stream of colours rushing towards him, the stallion lost his rhythm, lost nearly two lengths through the badly executed jump alone.

"Come on, you bugger, come on!"

Orlando’s whip came down repeatedly on the horse's sweaty shoulder. Like light flickering back on after a short interruption in the power circuit, Sandstorm's attention returned. Realising that miraculously there were horses ahead of him, Sandstorm’s strides grew longer again, finally with the needed determination.

But the winning post was too near. The chasers that had passed them at the last fence were running in an impossible distance, led by Jake. Orlando could hear another horse closing in on them. Sandstorm sensed that, too, and angrily fought his way up the hill and against the rival and didn't let him overtake.

But the race was lost.

Anger was still thrumming through Orlando’s body when he managed to rein Sandstorm in. It made his hands shake. He dismounted, left the heavily sweating horse in Dom’s hands and weighed in, wishing for something or someone he could punch.

He ran into Sir Ian and Bean right afterwards. Sir Ian looked unhappy, Bean thunderous.

“Now, that didn’t work out as I hoped,” Sir Ian said with a sigh. “Too bad, really.”

“Well.” Orlando shrugged. “Can’t win them all. Still, I’m sorry.”

Bean glared at him.

Sir Ian still looked honestly disappointed but just nodded and said, “Well, bad luck, bad luck.”

Orlando felt a pang of regret for the older man despite his still simmering anger.

“But Sandstorm’s a fine horse, no doubt,” he said.

Sir Ian looked consoled by the compliment, no matter how much of a lie it was.

Bean stood behind him, and Orlando had no doubts that he could see right past his blatant lie. Bean had his hands buried in the pockets of his coat, his cap shadowed his eyes. Orlando expected him to say something, had a sharp response ready, but Bean didn’t say a thing.

“And the season just started,” Sir Ian interrupted their staring match, voice already hopeful again. “There will be plenty of opportunities for him to shine.”

“Yeah,” was all Bean replied. Then he ushered him off with one last glare in Orlando’s direction.

Orlando rode the two other races for Greystone, even won the one on Pirate King. But that didn’t do anything to pacify the silent thunderstorm behind Bean’s eyes. Orlando’s own anger was slowly corroded as the afternoon wore on.

Bloody fucking Sandstorm.

Bean didn’t address the lost race again while they were still on the track – not a single word in the ring or later in Cheltenham stables, not in the car park. Back at Greystone, he beckoned Orlando to follow him inside with a short wave of his hand, turned without waiting for a reaction. Orlando felt an irritated frown creeping onto his forehead but he still followed the wordless order.

Bean led the way to the living room of his house, unknown territory so far for Orlando. There he left Orlando, went to feed his dog, most likely, left Orlando there, all dressed up and nowhere to go.

Orlando was stunned by the stark contrast to the cosy and pragmatic kitchen. Antique mahogany furniture was combined with state-of-the-art cabinets of white wood. The walls were decorated with black and white racing photos and the odd oil painting, and a large fireplace was built on one side, racing trophies on the mantelpiece. Heavy dark green curtains framed huge windows to the backyard. Orlando wasn’t stupid. He knew the setting was supposed to impress, even intimidate him. It made him want to slice Bean’s leather armchairs with his pocket knife.

The room’s atmosphere was nothing against the look on Bean’s face when he returned.

"What was that?" Bean asked without preamble. "He ran away with you and crashed through the fences like a battering ram. He attacked another horse!” Orlando gritted his teeth and didn't reply. But Bean was far from done. He yanked off his cap and ran his hands through his short blond hair. "The whole thing is humiliating!"

"Hey, it wasn't my bloody fault!”

“Wasn’t your fault? A crippled blind monkey could've ridden better than you today!"

Furiously Orlando stepped closer to Bean.

“You said yourself that Sandstorm behaved like a tuned up tank on the track! And that’s putting it nicely. That frigging horse is -"

"Don't you dare blaming the horse!"

They stood face to face. And goddamn, if Orlando didn’t feel like throwing a punch now. He clenched his jaw tightly and met Bean’s hard eyes furiously. He didn’t even trust himself to speak anymore. He hadn’t lost the fucking race on purpose, hell, wasn’t even like he hadn’t told Bean what a godawful prick Sandstorm was! And now he was supposed to take the blame for that loss? For something that frustrated him enough all on its own, made him mad enough to want to scream? Not bloody fucking likely.

Bean’s nostrils flared as after a long second, he inhaled deeply and took a step back. He crossed his arms in front of his chest.

"It was you who lost that race. You, not the horse." His voice was so quiet and calm, so cold, that Orlando felt completely thrown off track by it. “I told you that you needed to be prepared. But you just didn't listen. That's why you were surprised by him thrice in that race. That's why you lost it.

Orlando wanted to argue because it wasn’t true, it wasn’t. But all he seemed to be able to do was stand there, lips parted in protest but nothing coming out.

"I know you're accustomed to everyone worshipping you,” Bean said, his shoulder muscles still hard and tense. “So what, if you’re talented? Bunch of people are. Get over yourself.”

Bean turned his back to Orlando, ending the conversation.

Orlando opened his mouth to speak but ended up just staring at Bean’s back, still didn’t know what to say. To shout, yes, to scream from the top of his lungs, of course. But what to say against a judgment so definitive? He felt like a bony two-year-old in the auction ring, all eyes on him, all eyes finding him, inevitably, wanting. He wanted to defend himself, to tell Bean to go and fuck himself. He didn't find a single word to say.

Bean stared at the fireplace with his back still to him until Orlando couldn't bear the heavy silence any longer. He left and drove home.

When he entered the flat, Colin yelled a welcome from the living room. But Orlando headed straight for the bathroom. He stood under the shower for longer than it took to wash of sweat, grime, and dust, but he didn’t feel much better when he finally turned the water off. His body felt tired, muscles quietly protesting with each motion and promising to be sore in the morning. And at the same time, his skin itched as if he hadn’t showered at all.

Bloody fucking hell.

He told himself to snap the fuck out of it, left the bathroom again in sweatpants. His wet feet left footprints on the living room’s carpet as he crossed it, and in the kitchen he stood in front of the open fridge far longer than it took to grab a bottle of beer. The sounds from the telly in the living room drifted into the room. The fridge faintly smelled of milk on the edge of going bad. Still, all Orlando really could smell were horse sweat and the burned wood of Bean’s fireplace, all he could hear were Sandstorm’s angry snorts and the disgust in Bean’s voice.

“There’s football on later,” Colin called. “Drag your sorry arse over here. You can do the dishes later, sweetheart.”

“Don’t call me that, you twat,” Orlando grunted automatically.

He followed Colin’s invitation anyway, even if just so he could slap the back of Colin’s head. He slumped down on the brown cord couch in the middle of the big central space of their flat that they’d turned into the sitting room. He kicked racing papers and a couple of worn paperbacks off the low coffee table onto the light brown carpet with maybe a bit too much force. He put his feet up. He took a long drag from his bottle and fixed his eyes on the telly where for some reason a stupid game show was on.

Colin guessed along with the candidates and was unsurprisingly horrible at it. When Orlando was half-way done with his beer, Colin said conversationally,

“I took a dive from my ride in the third today. Horse can’t get a single jump right but he is damn good at hitting me with all four hooves.” He pulled his sweater up to reveal a bruise on his left side. Orlando hummed his commiseration. “Ah well. My own fault for taking one of Gleeson’s rides, that was, and in Cattrick of all places. I don’t know what he teaches his horses, but jumping it isn’t.”

“Maybe they’re good in the sack,” Orlando suggested, a smile slipping on his lips.

Colin laughed and switched channels.

The joke was as old as their friendship. They’d met at an auction years back when Orlando was still interning in his father’s bloodstock agency. By chance, they had been sitting next to each other. When a particularly jumpy mare had been presented (not much on the paper and even less in flesh), Orlando had asked, ‘Why do they even bother? Even a blind man can see that she’s no good at anything.’ Colin had answered, ‘Maybe she’s good in the sack.’ Orlando had snorted into his coffee and they’d been mates ever since.

“You want to know the worst thing?” Colin asked abruptly, scratching himself as if he had fleas.

“Hit me.”

“That Piper woman was the one winning that race.”

“Whyever would that make a difference?” Orlando asked even though he knew very well what the answer was going to be.

“No girl jockey is supposed to race that well. It’s uncanny.”

“What was it this time? Her lovely blond hair distracting you? The sight of her bum right in front of you in those oh-so-tight breeches?”

“No one is supposed to beat me, that’s my point, Romeo,” Colin said but with a crooked smile. “Know what really pisses me off? It isn’t even her winning. But she never offers me a consolation shag.”

“That does sound more like you.” Orlando laughed then patted Colin’s shoulder. “I feel for you. I’m pretty sure she has her eyes on that uptight Sandown steward, though. You know the blond one with the long face?”

“See, that’s your problem, too bloody pessimistic. I will get a shag out of her one day.”

“Even if it’s just out of pity?”

“A shag is a shag. You will learn that someday, young Jedi,” Colin said with a shrug. Then he abruptly changed topics. “Hey, on the way back from the track, I listened to the Cheltenham results. Bad luck in the Greatwood Handicap, eh? You owe me a fiver. I had money on you.”

“It’s not my fucking fault you placed a bet on that train wreck of a horse,” Orlando replied forcefully.

Colin raised his hands defensively.

“Whoa, easy. It’s just an effing race. You’re acting as if you’ve never lost a single one before.”

“It’s not the stupid fucking loss,” Orlando grunted and it was like suddenly Colin’s fleas had jumped over to him. “It’s being blamed for it.”

Anger flared inside of him all anew and he turned towards his friend, expecting him to agree. Colin closed his hand over his chest in a gesture of mock pain.

“Aw, princess. Don’t you know, everybody blames the pilot. ‘Course owners don’t wanna believe that their horse is just too slow or too dense. And the trainers need a scapegoat.” He raised the clicker again to continue changing channels. “I can’t believe that it even surprises you that Bean ticks like that.”

“He doesn’t -!” Orlando snapped his mouth shut. Colin looked at him with one arched eyebrow, muting the telly. Orlando leaned his head back against the cushions. “He didn’t say a thing to the owner. Waited until we were alone. I was pissed off enough already with what happened, you know? And then he comes along and basically tells me I’m an arrogant self-involved child.”

“Well, let’s be honest, you are an arrogant, self-involved –“

“Fuck you, you –” Orlando cut him off, anger not even strong enough to make it to the end of the insult.

Colin gave him that fucking knowing look of his. Like he was in on some joke and Orlando wasn’t. Then he turned back to the telly.

“If it bugs you that much, you can quit.”

Orlando sighed and looked at the ceiling, cobwebs clinging to the corners.

“Yeah, I could,” he agreed but even said like that the words sounded all wrong, like they weren’t really an option.

“Ah, but you won’t,” Colin replied.

“Shut up.”

Bean could have ripped Orlando a new one right there on the track. They both knew that his horses were good enough for him to find another jockey within the hour. It wouldn’t even have taken him till the end of the day. So why wait? Why tell Orlando off in the privacy of his living-room? And why hadn’t Orlando expected anything else from him?

Why was all of this bugging him so bloody much?

***

 

Four

After that cock-up in Cheltenham, Bloom was all smiles and jokes with the lads, just like he'd been before. Out on the gallops, though? While the results weren't exactly disappointing, they didn't overjoy Sean in comparison to the last weeks of training. Something was off.

As before, Bloom came in every morning when he’d participated in morning gallops, and he patiently waited for Sean to lay out the training schedule for the next days and inform him about the race meetings ahead of them. But right after Sean had finished, Bloom excused himself and was gone again. Breakfast had been the first breathing space of the day, time to talk horses and inevitably drift off to past races and future plans, time to comment ironically on the headlines in the yellow press of racing and have a shared laugh about it. Breakfast suddenly was a matter of necessity again.

Sean had a few entries in smaller race meetings the following fortnight. Bloom rode a few winners in Hexham, Hereford and Lingfield. At least for now, his performance continued to satisfy the horses' owners, like Sir Ian McKellen.

Sir Ian stepped up to the successful Essex Escape in Lingfield’s parade ring.

“Splendid job, splendid job!” he praised for what felt like the tenth time. He had clearly forgiven the Greatwood disaster, his mind already basking in the rounds of congratulations that followed this win. Smiling brightly at Bloom, he added cheerfully, “Wasn’t it just the most exhilarating finish?”

“I’m happy you’re happy,” Sean said.

Bloom was polite. But his words still sounded ironical and bitter in Sean's ears. They both knew that there was nothing special at all about this race and win. Average output, nothing more. Bloom glanced over at Sean, then he turned towards Sir Ian again, his smile still firmly in place.

“A truly marvellous race you rode there,” Sir Ian complimented him.

“Thank you. But it’s the trainer who picks the races and the way they’re run.”

Sean glared at Orlando, but Sir Ian was amused. He made a point of thanking Sean profoundly as well. He was always generous with sharing his pride and happiness over a win. It meant prolonging it. When Sean turned towards Bloom again, the other man’s attention was already occupied with something else entirely, not caring one way or the other.

It was similar in Southwell and Bangor. Bloom rode like the professional he was, he was polite to the owners, was civil to Sean. Sean was glad to let Dave leave with the runners to Uttoxeter and Fakenham.

On the day of the Fakenham meeting, Dave came back with a frown on his face. In Sean’s office, he didn’t immediately sum up the day for them to discuss. Instead, he stood next to the large window of the office that faced the yard. He stared out long enough for Sean to grow tired of waiting. He start filling out entry forms.

"Maybe we should call the vet," Dave finally said.

Sean automatically glanced up from his forms to the window to see whether there was anything amiss.

"Viggo? Why?"

Dave didn’t reply right away. Only after a long minute and prompted by Sean’s impatient tapping of fingers on his desk, he turned back to face Sean.

"Well, you've seen the same training as I have this week. Something's off with the horses.”

“Won their fair share of races so far. You came back with a winner today.”

“That doesn’t mean they’re not off. Usually I’m the one who picks up on that last... I don’t know, the horses seem to be... less.”

“Less what?”

“They are less of what they normally are, I mean. Like when you washed a jumper too often and the colour has faded.”

“Jumpers in the wash? You>/i> worry me.”

“Oh, be serious for a minute,” Dave snapped and seemed as surprised by his own irritation as Sean. Calmer again, he repeated, “They seem subdued, that’s what I meant.”

Sean rubbed his right hand over his face. Dave's impression was correct, something was off with the horses. And Sean also knew what. The animals weren't exactly unconcentrated or clumsy, they behaved well enough, won when you could expect them to. Still there was something like slight uneasiness and confusion creeping up their long legs.

“Maybe it's a virus?” Dave suggested. “Gleeson's got a few cases of pneumonia in his yard."

“It’s not that.”

Dave raised his hand in defeat and sighed in frustration.

“You think we overtrained them? I don’t think so, but maybe the going was heavier than we thought and they’re sore?”

“It’s not the gallops.”

“Well, it must be something. And what use is it to plan the next weeks if we don’t figure out what’s wrong? I don’t think ‘wait and see’ is the best way to go here. At least I don’t fancy telling Sir Christopher ‘sorry mate, you might pay us for minding your horses, but we just couldn’t be bothered this month’.”

Sean hummed noncommittally, then returned his attention to the papers on his desk. From the corners of his eyes, he saw Dave watching him first with bemusement, then with dawning realisation. He gave Sean the same look with which he measured a horse in the auction ring.

“You already know what’s going on and you’re not telling me!”

“Let’s get back to these entry forms.”

Dave crossed his arms in front of his chest.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Sean huffed. “What do you want from me?”

“How about you share your theory with me?”

It was Bloom’s spirit that was missing. All the small things Sean only realised Bloom had been doing once they were gone. The small pats on the horse's neck before the race, the quietly spoken words of encouragement during and the even more subtle things, invisible to the eye but recognisable in the horse's reaction to them.

Sean put his pen down.

“Fine. The horses are moping because I told Bloom off the other day, and he’s sulking.”

Dave just raised an eyebrow.

“I’d prefer some of my own suggestions.”

“You want my gallops ruined and my horses sick?”

“We could have the track re-done or, like I suggested, call Viggo for them. All much easier to solve than the hurt pride of a jockey. If it requires you to say that you’re sorry.”

“There is nothing to be sorry for.”

“My point exactly.”

Sean leaned back in his chair and pursed his lips.

“He rode like an idiot, I told him that he rode like an idiot. End of story.”

“Only that it’s apparently not.” Dave finally sat down on the comfy chair opposite of Sean’s desk. “It’s not like Sandstorm is an easy horse to ride. And even if he was and Orlando’s irritation was completely unwarranted –”

“Is completely unwarranted.”

“Alright, even though Orlando’s irritation is unjustified, this is still messing with the horses’ heads. How long till it effects the racing results? What is, I repeat, Sir Christopher gonna think of it once he picks up on it?”

“What do I care what he thinks?” Sean said with irritation but cut Dave’s reply short with an impatient gesture. “You’re right, you’re right. He would be even more annoying than he is already. Nobody wants that.”

Dave chuckled and nodded his agreement.

“So, now what? Do you want to fire Orlando?”

“No,” Sean said instantly. “Of course I don’t.”

Dave looked surprised for a second. He crossed his legs and folded his hands in his lap.

“Then what are you gonna do about it?”

Sean didn’t reply.

***

It was the end of November, winter had come and decided to stay. Always Blessed, the grey mare Sean had entered in the main event of the Hennessey Cognac Gold Cup, took the rain with grace. Her eyes shone in friendly excitement, even though it was still pouring when she made her rounds in the parade ring. Sean had left her owners inside. The ultra-rich Australians, both in their mid-thirties, were enthusiastic about British racing even if they currently only owned two horses. But the Banas still hadn't gotten used to the constant drizzle and the mud.

As Sean walked towards the parade ring, his black umbrella firmly grasped in his fist, Sean sceptically inspected the ground. It squelched with each move he made.

He spotted Bloom a couple of metres away, already wearing Bana’s silks, royal blue with golden specks, and leaning against the fence that separated the onlookers from the parade ring. A look of deep concentration was on his features, mud had splattered onto his boots. But he seemed as unaware of that as he was of the rain. He had his eyes on the horses, and only by chance, he looked in Sean’s direction.

When Sean gestured him to join him under his umbrella, Bloom seemed to tense for a second and hesitated, but then he obeyed. He had to blink repeatedly once he'd reached his destination, squinting away large raindrops hanging from his long eyelashes.

"Godawful weather," Sean said.

Bloom just nodded silently in return.

"How am I to ride her?" he asked after they'd observed the mare's round through the parade ring.

"What do you think?"

Bloom frowned for a moment before Sean could see him contemplating the question.

"Get to the front as quickly as possible," he finally answered.

“Why?”

Bloom gave him another of these calculating looks.

"I reckon she's in good enough shape to run in second or third place for two and a half miles and still have something left for the finish. Besides, Blessed hates mud thrown at her. It might get irritated in the back of the field." His dark eyes flickered challengingly. "I'd let her take the lead."

Sean saw the spark that used to set his horses on fire, even if it seemed hotter and more dangerous now, easier to burn.

"You do that then."

Bloom arched an eyebrow.

"You sure?"

"Aye. Your call. Stop sulking and acting against your instincts.” Bloom snorted. Sean pursed his lips. “You don’t fancy getting barked at? Get over it.”

“Alternately,” Orlando said, mimicking Sean’s tranquillity. “Alternately I could punch you in the mouth next time.”

Sean bit back a chuckle. That response was more honest than anything Bloom had said to him since Cheltenham.

“You plan to sulk for the rest of the season?” he asked nevertheless.

Bloom buried his hands deeper in the pockets of his green anorak.

“You’re gonna be pissed off about a lost race for that long?”

Sean once again felt almost caught by surprise when Bloom’s gaze didn’t budge as he glared at him. When all he did was stare back.

“It was never about the loss,” Sean said after a moment, and he meant it.

“So, it was just for the ‘I told you so’?” Something subtler than annoyance darkened Bloom’s features for a moment. Then he sighed and added without heat, “I’m a good rider, you know.”

“You’re a brilliant jockey.”

Bloom looked up from the muddy ground to look at him, the surprise written all over his face. Sean confirmed it with a nod.

“That’s who I want back.”

Before Bloom could say reply, the loud voice coming through the speaker interrupted them and told the jockeys to mount. Bloom instantly straightened and strapped on his helmet as he slipped into the parade ring and towards Always Blessed. Once he was on her back and the lad lead her past Sean, Bloom looked down at him again, drops of rain already running down his goggles.

"Sandstorm did surprise me thrice. Blessed won't.”

Sean merely nodded and patted the mare's wet neck.

"Pay attention to Wonder Band and Tiger's Stripes. Ignore Fancy Boy. He can never stay the pace he starts off with.” He looked up into Bloom’s eyes. "Good luck."

"Cheers, Sean," Bloom gave back right before his horse was lead off, his eyebrows hopping up at the deliberate use of Sean’s name.

An admission of onetime negligence bartered for permanent informality. Sean couldn’t help but chuckle as he walked away.

Like every other racecourse, Newbury had a couple of owner’s boxes with a perfect view over the racecourse. Sean had been invited to watch the Hennessey with Always Blessed's owners and some of their friends. Normally he would go through hell and back to avoid having to show up to an owner’s party. Watching a race with champagne in your hand and expensive perfume in your nose was about as unfitting as going to a football match in your Sunday’s best.

However, with the Banas, Sean didn’t mind it that much. When last year their gelding Read’s Runner had broken his leg in a bad fall, they had stayed with him until the vet had come to put him down. Sean had seen real grief in their faces, not just self-pity over the financial loss. Aside from Always Blessed they owned just a half way promising gelding named Fiddling Nero. But when they called or invited him, Sean didn’t turned them down.

Rebecca greeted him as soon as he’d walked through the door.

“It’s so good of you to join us!”

Just like her husband she was in a perpetually good mood. She wore a blue dress and just enough gold jewellery to make Sean spot the connection to the colour of the silks Bloom wore for the Banas. She shook his hand and smiled broadly at him.

“Eric was sure you’d make it. But I thought there’s an awful heaps of things to do for you beforehand, isn’t there?”

“Like giving a pep talk to our wunderkind jockey, no doubt,” Eric said, joining them.

Eric Bana was a couple of inches taller than Sean, and Sean had no doubt he could be intimidating as hell if he put his mind to it. But his handshake was firm and welcoming, and as per usual he wore this broad carefree grin with the same ease as his tailor-made clothes.

“Judging from what I’ve heard so far,” Rebecca said with the counter piece to that smile, “our jockey doesn’t need any kind of encouragement.”

Eric laughed and kissed her hair.

“No, he seems to prefer doing the talking himself. A bit up himself, your jockey. Quite the charmer.”

Sean frowned, but Rebecca laughed and lightly hit Eric’s arm in reprimand.

“I just said he was enthusiastic.” For Sean’s benefit she explained, “We saw an interview on the telly with him last week –“

“And ever since then my wife hasn’t been the same.”

“Shush. If he wins the Hennessey for us today, I am perfectly fine with him giving all the interviews he wants. You really are the biggest cynic, Eric.”

Calling Eric Bana cynical was about as far-fetched as calling Arkle slow. Sean kept his mouth shut and just nodded noncommittally.

“So what are our girl’s chances?” Eric asked, easily changing the topic.

Sean gave him a careful estimation.

He had barely finished when some of the other people the Banas had invited stepped closer. They started discussing Sean’s assessment of the Blessed’s fitness as well as everything else that they’d read about the other runners.

When the horses finally set off, Sean stood in between the Banas and their guests at the large window. He had his binoculars raised and followed the field’s progression towards the first jump in silence.

Orlando avoided bumping into a bunch of extremely tentative and hence slowing jumpers. He smoothly brought the mare over the first fence. She landed perfectly, despite the soft going, and gathered speed almost instantly. Orlando encouraged her until she reached second place, then he let her settle there.

The race was messy, and the going looked like a well ploughed field after the first circuit was finished. But Orlando rode as smooth as silk. He kept Blessed in second place, still leaving a comfortable distance between them and Fancy Boy in the lead. Even up in the box and in midst the loudness of the cheers, Sean could feel the mare's intent will to win, whispered to her by Orlando.

Wonder Band caught up with them when they were closing in on the final furlong. Orlando looked over his shoulder, then with one fluid motion turned back, bending down over her neck even further, becoming one with the horse. Wonder Band and Blessed galloped nose to nose and easily made ground on a slowing Tiger’s Stripes. The rest of the field was still far behind, and Blessed didn’t seem tired at all, happy and eager to run for Orlando.

"Don't let 'em get you, girl! Come on, come on!” Rebecca cried out.

Eric chuckled right next to her, obviously shared her excitement but didn’t take it - or anything else probably - too seriously.

“Easy, easy, Becca.”

She ignored him completely, her knuckles white from how tightly she held her binoculars.

"Don't leave it too late!"

The party guests’ cries of encouragement and their curses grew louder yet when the horses came round the bend for the last time. They thundered towards the last fence, Wonder Band and Always Blessed still neck to neck, Tiger's Stripes now a length behind.

Bana’s little daughter pressed her face against the glass window.

“Who’s winning? Are we winning? Are we? Are we?”

“Your Mommy’s gonna barrack the horse over the finishing line,” Eric told his daughter with another chuckle and picked her up easily.

It sure looked like it. An odd calmness settled inside of Sean. He had to take one look at horse and jockey to know their thoughts were completely synched, their will to win loud and reassuring in Sean’s own head.

Again, Rebecca didn’t even react to her husband’s teasing. She gripped Sean’s arm with fierce anxiety.

"Dammit, Bloom, don't leave it too late! He’s gonna leave it too late!”

"He won't," Sean murmured, right before Orlando made his move.

Even from this distance, Sean could feel Orlando’s bearing changing. There was no visible change to the way he rode, but it was like a switch was flipped within Blessed. Holding her back for another blink of an eye, Orlando gave her the reins, releasing her energy in exactly the right moment.

The mare had been galloping with earnest dedication before. But now she gained speed like it was nothing, got so impossibly fast that in comparison it looked as if Wonder Band next to her had just stopped entirely. She had been waiting for Orlando to just give the signal, if Orlando told her that her she could fly, she would have grown wings. Blessed and Orlando reached the winning post three lengths ahead of Wonder Band. Orlando passed it with his fist raised in the air, all of his usual easy arrogance in that little gesture.

“We won, we won, we won,” Bana’s little girl cried out excitedly and slung her arms around her father’s neck.

Endless stunned seconds later, Sean nearly lost his balance when Rebecca hugged him fiercely and laughed delightedly. Eric kissed his daughter soundly on the cheek.

“My wonderful, wonderful mare,” Rebecca exclaimed. “What a fighter she is!”

“She’s a good horse,” Sean agreed.

He managed to disentangle himself from Rebecca’s arms. It wasn’t Blessed who had won that race. Sean felt Eric’s big hand on his shoulder in an amiable pat.

“That jockey of yours is something – ,”

“Yes,” Sean confirmed. Because Blessed was a good horse, but it had been Bloom who’d truly won that race.

“Seeing riding like that makes me want to –,“ Eric said and regarded him thoughtfully for a moment.

“Yeah,” Sean said again, even if he wasn’t sure what kind of ideas exactly Bloom’s riding had sparked in Eric’s head. But he felt the thrum of energy himself, that pride, that joy to be part of something so uncomplicatedly perfect.

“We have to invite him up here,” Rebecca insisted and wove her arm through Eric’s. “I think I’ll need to kiss him for this race.”

“Urgh, gross,” commented her young son from out of nowhere. He made a retching noise when, laughingly, Eric instantly pulled Rebecca closer to kiss her himself.

“You’re an impossible tease. Anyone ever tell you that?” he asked.

“I think you did, in our wedding vows?”

“Proves how smart I am.”

“Of course it does, Eric.”

She laughed again and tilted her head up to lightly kiss his mouth.

They were surrounded by a room full of guests and yet for this moment in a world of their own. For a second it resonated with something inside of Sean, an echo of a forgotten memory.

He used the chance to get out of the owners’ and trainers’ a moment before the owners themselves and went directly to the unsaddling enclosure. The noise and the smell and the rain were real enough to anchor him before he welcomed his horse and his jockey back. Bloom was smiling down at him so broadly that Sean would have suspected him to be high on something if he didn’t know better. To Bana’s invitation he just nodded, no signs of tiredness or weariness at all.

Not much later, Bloom stepped up to the table Sean was leaning against. He was still in his silks and gestured with his glass of fizz at Sean’s.

“That looks out of place in your hand.”

“I don’t deserve a victory drink?”

Bloom ran his hands through his curls.

“I just meant you look more the pint kind of bloke.”

Sean took a sip of the champagne.

“I am.”

“Yeah, I know. I’m brilliant at reading people.”

“You’re not bad at reading horses, I give you that much.”

Bloom still smiled broadly at him and raised his glass in a silent toast. They stood next to one another for a moment, observed the busy party going on around them and finished their drinks. Bloom caught the eye of a waiter, pointed at another guest’s pint glass, grinned and raised two fingers. Trust him to make a production even out of ordering beer.

Only when the waiter had brought them their drinks, Bloom said,

“You know, I love riding Blessed. Any horse really, you know, but she’s such a doll. She gives you her everything, and all I want to do is pay her back in kind, you know. Pure and utter joy.”

It was something that Sean never would have said, never would have found necessary to spell out. It was so plain to see anyway. But Orlando’s voice held so much uncontrollable enthusiasm, like he’d burst if he had to keep it inside, if he couldn’t share this joy over being one with his horse with someone. And he watched Sean, his short cropped hair completely tousled and a few small specks of mud still on his cheeks and his silks.

Sean said, “It was a good race, Orlando.”

“Yeah, I know, I –“ Orlando started in his usual flippant tone but stopped mid-sentence. “Cheers. I appreciate it.”

Sean nodded silently. He took another drag from his beer and turned his eyes back to watching the crowd. The two Bana kids chased each other and alternately hid behind their father’s legs, and Rebecca was animatedly rehashing the finish with another guest. And still, the steady feeling of contentment that now settled in Sean’s stomach wasn’t just due to a job well done, a race won, owners satisfied.

“So, first lot tomorrow morning?” Orlando asked.

“Traveller, if you’re up for it.”

“When is there ever a time I’m not? As if I’d ever not want to ride Trav, seriously.”

“If he leaves you in one piece, then it’s Shy, Baylor and Wim following.”

“War council in your kitchen after?”

Sean smiled in response and just nodded.

Orlando looked at him inquisitively. Only after a couple of seconds his lips quirked up.

“You reckon I can convince Miranda to make me pancakes?”

“She’s my secretary.”

“She still promised me pancakes last week. Just saying.”

“You want pancakes? Make them yourself.”

Orlando just laughed, then went to make nice with the owners. Sean’s eyes followed him as he stepped up next to Eric. When the taller man squeezed his shoulder, Orlando smiled broadly and readily excepted another glass of champagne from Rebecca.

Sean had hard-working staff, mostly peaceable owners, magnificent horses.

That should have been all a horseman could ever want.

***

They were blessed with good weather throughout November, and at the end of the month, the temperatures were still mild, but the days seemed to be getting shorter yet. It was normal that dusk started settling during evening stables. Different from spring and summer nights, the yard didn’t hold much attraction to the lads outside of their working hours. So, after the horses had been fed, Sean usually found himself alone in his yard come late afternoon. Which was fine by him.

Sean checked in on some of the horses that had seemed slightly off right before feeding but found them all good and well. He left the new stables with their adjoining turn-out paddocks for last. As he leaned against the wooden fence, Tim settled next to him. Two horses chewed on the fresh hay they had just received, pleased huffs reached Sean’s ears every once in a while. Ponticello was still outside searching for fresh grass though.

"He’s an optimist, isn’t he?”

Orlando stepped up beside him and his dark curls seemed to enjoy the freedom after being trapped under a helmet for the better part of the day, they looked even wilder than usual. He was still wearing his usual dark brown cord breeches and the same well-worn boots he probably even slept in. The dark green staff jacket was obviously the only thing less than ten years old.

Sean tipped the visor of his cap up a fraction, one eyebrow raised questioningly.

“You still here then.”

“Obviously.” Orlando leaned against the fence, mimicking Sean’s stance and regarded him. “You know, for someone who doesn’t like to talk, you state pretty redundant things sometimes.”

“You talk a lot of bollocks most of the time.”

Orlando chuckled again and his elbow nudged Sean’s, the touch so light that Sean didn’t even know whether it was intentional.

“Well, duh.”

“What are you still doing here?”

Orlando shrugged, and again Sean could feel it.

“You know how it is when you come in dirty and stinking from the stables, and yet you don’t manage to drag yourself under the shower for hours?”

“Tells me that you’re something of a lazy pig, is all.”

Orlando’s cackle was a bit too loud for the silence of the yard. Sean could see Ponticello raising his head inquisitively.

“You know, I figured you out," Orlando said matter of factly.

Sean looked over to him but Orlando didn’t return his gaze. Instead he stared out into the twilight, sharp profile against the darkening sky. His eyes were firmly fixed on the horses’ shadowy motions in the near darkness.

“I didn’t even know that Ponti and Dancer were such good mates,” he said with fondness in his voice, frowning as if this was something he should have been aware of.

“Ponti’s the only one Dancer shares his hay with,” Sean said. “He kicks some of it over to him even.”

“That’s love if I’ve ever seen it,” Orlando said. “I sure as hell wouldn’t share my food with anyone.”

“Redundant,” Sean commented, using Orlando’s own mock criticism against him now. “Already knew you were a glutton.”

Orlando didn’t reply in kind, in fact he didn’t say anything. When Sean looked at him to enquire, Orlando just met his gaze. His entire posture was relaxed, just like when in a race he already knew he’d win.

“What did you mean?” Sean asked. “What have you figured out?”

"I’ve figured out that you're Dusty Breeze,” Orlando explained readily, only that it didn’t explain anything at all.

“Right.”

“When I was a kid, I saw this documentary about him on the telly. I remember the voice-over sounding all teary eyed over his death. I couldn't believe how one could get that emotional. I mean, the horse was fucking ugly. He had ears the size of a pizza, no matter that he’d won the Grand National.” Orlando chuckled over something that had just popped into his head and his dark eyes glinted with humour. “I reckon, Dusty Breeze was even uglier than Norton’s Coin. Think about that for a moment!"

"You’re saying I am the reincarnation of a deceased ugly racehorse?" Sean asked.

"Yes, I mean, no."

Darlington ambled over to them to enquire what they were doing here and whether they maybe had treads. Orlando reached out to scratch the gelding’s chin. Darlington enjoyed the attention for a moment, then nudged Orlando’s chest before he strolled off again. Only when the horse had disappeared into the dusk again, Orlando turned his head towards Sean.

"Dusty Breeze was a dick, and he bit everyone that came within reaching distance when he hadn't had his morning's carrots.” Orlando’s amusement was evident in his voice, then it changed into something deeper more heartfelt. “But he loved to race. He was born to run and run and run, and he knew it. It didn't matter to him where and how. Whether it was in bright sunlight in the Grand National or on the downs in pissing rain. He didn't do it for the cheers of the crowd or the extra ration of oats. He didn't do it for any other reason than that this was who he was.”

Orlando looked at Sean as if he was waiting for a confirmation. Like that was something vital, something even more important than their shared fascination with horses itself.

“My Dad had a runner in the King George Dusty Breeze won a year later,” Sean said. “Steel Welder, good horse, solid bet. Wasn’t the one I was cheering for.”

Orlando smiled at him, a grin so broad that Sean couldn’t help but return it.

“Man, I so envy you that,” Orlando said with feeling. “I mean, I only ever learned about that horse when he was dead already. But even only watching him on tape, it makes my heart skip a beat, I swear. Like, I dunno, it’s like when you watch someone you fancy walk towards you wearing a smile, you know? Better even. Man, that horse could run.”

Sean got that. That kind of easy love and affection he figured only horses could ever awaken in you. Even if right now it was Orlando’s enthusiasm that filled him with a kind of warmth far more lasting than the creeping cold of dusk.

“But even so, he still was a biter and a kicker as well, and once the stupid bastard tried to eat the Queen's hat.” Orlando chuckled and looked at Sean again. “I watched you earn your nickname anew every day. You act like you don't care that the lads fear you. And every other day you treat me like you haven't gotten your morning's carrots."

Sean felt the right corner of his mouth curving upwards despite the truth behind Orlando's uncouth wording but kept silent. So Orlando continued.

"But thing is, the way you look at the horses? Like all you need to consider yourself lucky is your string of chasers and your dog by your side. They're true in their love, simple in their joy and they don't question you.” Easily he shrugged and turned back to watching the horses. “I guess I get that, you know."

For a while, they just stood in silence. Orlando absentmindedly picked at the fence's chipped paint but kept his eyes on the paddock. Dark Dancer let his big head hang low, his entire posture utterly relaxed, and Ponticello watched over his dozing friend, his ears flicking towards the rustling of the night every once in a while.

"Dusty Breeze, huh?" Sean finally asked back.

"Yeah", Orlando confirmed simply, smoothed the roughened up wood by stroking his hand over it repeatedly apparently without even registering it.

"What about the bit about the Queen?”

Orlando looked up from his idle work and furrowed his brows a little, not understanding what Sean was referring to.

"You said that Dusty Breeze tried to eat the Queen’s hat," Sean repeated. "What's that supposed to mean?"

The frown vanished from Orlando's features and he smiled a little crookedly as he shifted a little so he was facing Sean now.

"Well, I dunno. Nothing I guess, I just liked that little detail and remembered it."

After a while, Sean asked, "Did you know that, aside from Dusty Breeze, only two other horses made it to the finishing line in that Grand National?”

“What a giant cock-up.”

“Both of them complete outsiders. And the ones the hot money was on, they all fell at the first and second fence, even before Beecher’s Brook."

"Really? I don’t think I knew the bit about the favourites. I just have those pictures from the pile-up engraved into my head.”

“Only two Nationals worse than that.”

“Foinavon’s and Tipperary Tim’s, yeah. Only two horses to cross the finishing line, imagine that.”

“I’d rather have my horses win with a good finish.”

“1973 was way more spectacular, I give you that,” Orlando said, and then quoted Peter O’Sullevan’s commentary from memory. “’Crisp is getting very tired, and Red Rum is pounding after him –’”

“’Red Rum has just snatched it from Crisp,’” Sean finished.

Orlando beamed, and Sean felt like he might be blinded by the light. He looked away, Orlando’s elbow bumped against his own. Disbelief was still colouring Orlando’s voice.

“A lead of fifteen lengths at the final fence, and Red Rum still caught him. Did you see that one live, too? If you say yes, I might kill you out of jealousy, just so you know.”

“I was sick in bed, had the flu.”

“Aw, well. I like Dusty Breeze better than Rummy anyway, I guess. I mean, he won the Gold Cup twice after that.”

“Now that is something.”

“You prefer the Cup over the National?” Orlando weighed his head from side to side, pursing his mouth. “Come on.”

“Figures you don’t. It’s not as flashy.”

Orlando laughed easily. He turned around and rested his elbows on the wooden fence.

“I suppose, I deserved that. You know, when I was a kid, I seriously thought all the other horses had chickened out ‘cause Dusty Breeze had threatened to kick'em."

"Probably true."

“Right? I kept telling my Dad that he had no idea. He sure as hell didn’t ask the other runners in person.”

“Did he explain to you how horses generally can’t speak?”

“Of course they can. You just gotta listen,” Orlando replied with absolute confidence and a dismissive gesture. And after a moment he added, “As if you of all people didn’t know that. Please.”

Sean knew. Of course he did, had always known. Orlando took it for granted. Instead, he returned to Dusty Breeze’s National.

"Still, only three finishers. Think about what were the odds for that to happen! You could probably have won a fortune if you had a triple in that race. Even only two out of those three with the bookies. Racing, man. Nothing is as simple and true as that.

"Those are things to treasure," Sean said. “Truth and simplicity.”

Orlando looked at Sean, his head tilted slightly.

“No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle. Or so someone said.”

“Your dad?”

“Churchill, I think.”

“Show-off.”

Orlando just shrugged off the minor insult, blew into his hands for warmth. Bravo Zero whinnied quietly, and answered in kind Traveller. Next to Sean, Tim silently shifted, resting the weight of his solid body a little more against his right leg. Sean pushed himself away from the fence.

“I’ll drive up to Doncaster for the horses-in-training sales.”

Orlando hummed and regarded him with mild curiosity.

“Yeah, you mentioned, at breakfast. Are you stocking up for Lee?”

“Just looking for myself. You could –”

Sean hesitated for a moment. Spur of the moment normally wasn’t his thing at all. And yet –. For once, Orlando didn’t finish Sean’s sentence for him. It was mildly annoying, usually, Orlando’s habit to interrupt and run with Sean’s words like an overly eager, barely broken-in colt. Orlando was still leaning against the fence, one foot propped against it, squinted a little to better see in the dusk. For once, he just waited. Sean scratched his brow.

“We got no runners that day. You wanna come along?”

Orlando smiled at him, not his usual grin but something softer.

“Sure. I’m game, definitely.”

Sean nodded. The last light was gone, night had arrived. He pushed himself away from the fence and half turned to walk towards the house. Tim instantly jogged ahead.

"Sean?" Orlando called after him.

Sean looked over his shoulder. Orlando’s black silhouette was outlined against the dark blue sky.

"Two outa three ain't bad, don't you think?" Orlando asked, voice for once bare its usual flippancy.

"No,” Sean agreed. “Not bad at all."

***

Chapter Text

Five

The DBS Horses-in-Training December Sales was one of the last big National Hunt auctions of the year. They took Sean’s Land Rover, and Sean even had Greystone’s small horse box attached to it. It prompted Orlando to singsong ‘I’m getting a pony, I’m getting a pony’ after he’d gotten over the initial surprise. The look Sean gave him in response was once again that strange mixture of mild disapproval and his own version of quiet enthusiasm.

They reached Doncaster without any difficulties and even managed to find a parking space right in front of the modern auction house. It was freakishly cold once they got out, and Orlando pulled his scarf tighter around his neck. He shivered as he waited for Sean to fetch his catalogue and lock up the Land Rover. After they had consulted the notice board in front of the auctioneer’s office for scratched horses, they went directly to the stables.

The steeplechasers for sale patiently waited for their potential buyers to look at their legs and their general appearance. All Orlando and Sean had to do was step up to a stable with an interesting horse and request a closer look.

With a couple of these horses, Sean’s inspection ended after merely a glance. Sean just thanked the seller before walking on. Orlando knew Sean was scratching the animal from the short list in his mind. In some of the horses, he took more interest, crouched down to inspect their legs or ask a question about their preferred distances or their shooing. In some of the cases, it was only then that Orlando noticed something slightly off about the animal.

They’d looked at seven horses like that. Orlando had buried his hands deep in the pocket of his jacket (they were still threatening to freeze off), when they made it to Lot 45, a light bay four year old gelding. As the horse looked at them from over its stall’s door, for a fleeting moment Orlando had the impression that Sandstorm was looking back at him. Some of his feelings for the stallion had to have shown on his face.

“His sire is Sandcastle,” Sean said without Orlando having to ask. “Same sire as Sandstorm.”

“What’s this one called then, Sandbox? Sandflea? No, wait I got it. Sandpuppy.”

Sean smirked, then caught the eye of the responsible groom who leant against the stable wall with his hands tucked under his armpits. While the groom fetched the horse, Sean threw Orlando a glance that clearly meant ‘just keep your mouth shut for once, you silly arse’.

Orlando thought that he wasn’t the one needing to be told to be impartial, he obviously wasn’t the one hopelessly in love with a moody cannonball but saw Sandstorm for what he was. But he had to admit, once Lot 45 was out of his stable and walking alongside his groom, he did look nice. Nicer than any of the horses they had looked at so far.

There were no horses circled in Sean’s catalogue until lunch time, and Orlando’s stomach started growling rather distractingly. On their way to the auction house’s restaurant, Sean hung back to take a call. When he caught up with Orlando again, he looked considerably sourer.

“Wow, where’s the love?” Orlando asked mildly.

“Lee,” Sean answered with a sigh, rubbed his hand over his face and restored his neutral expression. “I keep telling him to phone Miranda, not me. You know how it is.”

“I don’t think I really do. I just have to make nice with him before and after the races, and I don’t seem to be very good at that either. I’m just crap at schmoozing, I guess. Man, the amount of shit I accidentally talk myself into sometimes? As high as your muck-heap.”

“Don’t do that.”

“What?”

“Self-deprecation. It doesn’t suit you.”

“Decision about my self-esteem pending, Sir Christopher still seems to think that I am to be belittled on every occasion.”

Sean shook his head.

“That’s not about you. Never seen him act any different.”

“Which is either good for me, or it just means that you’re in the shit with me.”

“The latter, I suppose,” Sean said with sombre seriousness that again surprised Orlando. “You know about the Grand National last year?”

“I know it took place, yes.”

Sean shot him an amused glance and elaborated.

“He wanted to run Shy Harbour in it –“

“Wait, I remember that, I think. Didn’t she fall? At the Foinavon?”

“Just like I’d told him she would. Stupid idea to even enter her.”

“Let me guess, what he said was ‘Why don’t we take the world’s most skittish mare and put it in the year’s most merciless race? That should be fun.’”

“It’s the event of the year. Course he wanted one of his horses in it.”

Orlando’s frown deepened.

“Why didn’t he choose Trav then?”

“He is much too expensive for the Grand National.”

“That actually makes sense, what with all the bloody dangerous falls.”

“He knows more about racing than most of my owners. Mind, doesn’t make things easier.”

“Because of his randomly insane whims or because he insists on knowing more about horses than you do?”

Sean laughed out loud at that, the amusement crinkling his eyes.

“You’re far too sharp-tongued for your own good sometimes.”

“See, and that’s why I could never be a trainer. I mean, you already got the reputation of being a mad bulldog –“

“Thanks ever so.”

“You’re welcome – and yet you never punch your owners in the face. I don’t think I could really guarantee that.”

“Punching people in the face, that gets you sued,” Sean pointed out and for a second Orlando got the fleeting impression that he knew what he was talking about from first-hand experience. Then Sean shrugged lightly. “I told Lee Craig wouldn’t be able to ride for him. He’d already be on Red Sun.”

“Lucky for him you’d entered her.”

“I hadn’t, at that point,” Sean said, his grin growing just that little bit. “Did so right the next morning.”

They shared a smile, and Orlando asked, “Where did she come in in the end?”

“Seventh. But she’s as much of a life-insurance you can get. Sir Christopher could own forty horses in my yard. It still wouldn’t have been worth having Craig crack his skull open because of Shy.”

Orlando heard the underlying anger and Sean’s concern about Craig Parker’s wellbeing in his voice, even almost eight months after that Grand National. It made his skin itch for some reason. He was glad that they had reached the restaurant.

“Man, I’m gonna die if I don’t get some grub right now,” he said with feeling.

“Good thing the Sandcastle son isn’t up now.”

Orlando shrugged as they got in line for the buffet..

“I’d have brought a burger and eaten it there. Or at least popcorn. There should be popcorn anyway, like at the movies.”

“This is not just a show put up for your entertainment.”

“Whatever. If you gotta do it anyway, why not make the best of it and enjoy it?”

Sean thought about that for a moment, looking down at the tray in his hands.

“Maybe so. Still, popcorn?”

“I’d defend myself, but I’m too bloody hungry to think straight.”

“You always say that.”

“I’m always hungry.”

“So, you’re never responsible for your actions?”

Orlando grinned broadly and nodded vehemently, then sighed longingly at the display of food in front of him.

“Go on,” Sean murmured next to him, like they were sharing a secret. “I’m not gonna stop you.”

“You’re sort of my hero.”

“You’re sort of pathetic.”

“You obviously never had to count calories or you wouldn’t say such heartless hurtful things.”

“Well, that’s true I reckon,” Sean agreed when it was his turn to order. “Never had to.”

Orlando had enough self-control to not order the giant burger, or any of the other really sinful stuff, but stuck to a salad with chicken. After they’d found themselves a table near the window side of the restaurant, Orlando resumed their conversation.

“You never wanted to be a jockey? I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I mean it. I know it must sound dense for, like, outsiders, people who don’t know horses, you know? And you really never – ?”

Sean simply shook his head.

“My father though. If he could, he’d have ridden all his horses himself. Even into his sixties. Frequently said so, too.”

“Usually when his jockey had fucked up, I suppose? That’s what made it sour grapes for you?”

“Nah. Just, breeding and training, those always interested me more. When I was four, my Dad bought a mare that was with foal. Was the first one I can remember being born, the first one I was put in charge of. That was that.”

It was so very easy to picture Sean deep in the night with one of his mares. He would help her foal onto its all fours for the first time, his hands steady on the still damp coat, and he’d welcome it to the world with words spoken in a low voice. Still, Orlando frowned a little.

“Wait a moment. Your Dad put you in charge of that foal? You said you were four years old!”

A smile played around Sean’s lips.

“I was. But then, Copenhagen was a Shetland pony.”

He held out his hand, indicated the height of their table approximately. Orlando chuckled. The idea of Sean as a small boy, proudly tending to his miniature horse, was adorable. Sean narrowed his eyes in response to Orlando’s quiet laughter.

“You were lucky,” Orlando said honestly. “When I was that age, I was chewing my parents’ ears of because I wanted a pony so bad. Took me till I was ten.”

“Growing up in a racing yard had some perks, I suppose.”

“You worked for your father, too, didn’t you? When you were older?”

Sean nodded.

“Doncaster was our home track. Good going most of the year, even then, before the all weathers.”

“I still prefer Cheltenham or Sandown Park. Even Kempton and Newbury.”

“It’s because you’re a Southern softie,” Sean pointed out without even looking up from his food.

“Born and bred. It’s in my blood. What’s your excuse?”

“For what?”

“For moving South. I mean, I know it’s way better there than in the North, obviously, and it’s good for you to have realised that and all.”

“I’m so very relieved to have your approval.”

“I know. But it would have made sense if you’d taken over your Dad’s yard, wouldn’t it? After he’d retired?”

“You do know that he’s still training, don’t you?”

“Yeah, sure, but if you’d’ve –“

“Trust me,” Sean interrupted, a definite tone to his voice that made further discussion obsolete. “No. He’ll never retire. He’ll die someday. But he’ll never retire.”

For a moment, Orlando wasn’t sure whether he’d heard resentment in Sean’s voice. And really, it wasn’t like he couldn’t relate. But Sean showed way more interest in the sandwiches in front of him than in his possibly troubled young adulthood.

“So, you moved South,” Orlando prompted. “Worked as an assistant trainer for someone else before finding Greystone?”

Sean chuckled and turned his head away from him, as if that quiet laughter wasn’t directed at him. Still, he seemed entertained enough when he looked up again.

“You’re planning on writing my biography? Don’t you know the answers to all those questions already anyway?”

Orlando did, but he wanted to hear more than your average trainer’s portrait in the ‘Racing Post’ would contain. For some reason, it felt like every answer that Sean gave willingly just made another five questions sprout in Orlando’s mind. Orlando smiled disarmingly around another forkful of salad.

“Yeah, I do. Took you longer to tell me off for being nosy than I reckoned, though. I get it. And training and especially breeding, it’s lovely even if it lacks the thrill.”

“Also lacks the risk of cracking your skull open.”

“I’m hard-boned.”

“Thick-headed is the proper term for what you are.”

“Is that your assessment of die-hard jockeys in general or me personally?”

“What do you think?”

“I think you’re a bit of a bastard,” Orlando said laughingly. “Has anyone ever told you that?”

“Couple of times.”

“Well, people tell me that I’m a prick pretty much all the time, and I don’t run around insinuating people have brain damage.”

“People call you a prick?” Sean asked with something like more serious interest. “Do they, now?”

They really didn’t, normally. But Orlando agreed with a dismissive wave of his hand anyway.

“Yeah, I don’t understand it either. It’s not like I steal their rides or their dates, do I?”

Sean leaned back in his seat, and he took his time to look at Orlando. It was like how he looked at a horse in the auction ring, when he was still debating with himself whether to buy it or not.

“Well, I don’t,” Orlando clarified when Sean didn’t say anything. “What kind of person would do that anyway, I ask you?”

“Steal a horse or steal a date?”

“Horse, of course. I mean, someone decides that I’m the better catch than their date? That’s hardly my fault. Whatever.”

“It’s one thing to fall for someone you shouldn’t,” Sean said. “Quite another to act out of boredom. Or even just ‘cause you can.”

Sean had these moments where he could be incredibly funny out of nowhere, and Orlando felt like a nitwit when it took him ages to get a joke. Sean also changed from mucking about to completely serious within a heartbeat.

Orlando leaned forward and pointed at Sean with his fork, grinning.

“Yeah, see, I wasn’t talking about that, was I? Dating etiquette or whatever, who cares? But I tell you what, poaching someone else’s rides? Even just going round and handing out your calling card? That’s just bad form. If you’re that desperate, then you’ve probably not been all that good in the first place.”

“So, the horses are safe?” Sean said, his tone lighter again. “From your thieving hands?”

“Well, unless I’m seriously shitfaced, and my best mate makes me, and I definitely intent to give the horse back. That doesn’t count I guess.”

“Was that a confession?”

“Nope definitely not. Just hypothetically speaking of course.”

“Of course.”

They finished their lunch, and Orlando rubbed his belly and smacked his lips and made Sean laugh. When they got to the auction ring, they still managed to get good seats next to the entrance through which the horses came in.

The part of the building, where the actual sales were held, was built like an amphitheatre. It had recently been refurnished, the sloping banks of seats rising all around the ring still looked shiny and new in their red leather. The auction ring itself was on ground-level and paved with matching red brick. The horses’ hooves sounded loudly as they were led round while the auctioneer (even-faced and somewhat flat toned) announced the horses and repeated the bids placed to the general audience.

When Sean and Orlando slipped in, an auction was in progress and hushed conversations and the rustling of clothes were the background noise to the auctioneer’s monologue. Orlando sat down next to Sean, and when Sean smiled at him, mouthed ‘Time to whip out the popcorn’, he had to laugh. It was loud enough to turn a few heads. He clapped his hand over his mouth, and Sean’s eyes crinkled with silent laughter before he turned his attention to the ring.

Orlando was looking forward to the sales as well. Way more than he used to. While he had been working for his Dad, he’d always loathed this. There was nothing more boring than auctions – bloody ages spent sitting in the ranks in silence while mediocre horse after mediocre horse was led by. According to his dad, he had the attention span of a butterfly and the cool reasoning of an agitated hornet. Real charmer, his dad was.

Orlando nudged Sean’s side and borrowed his catalogue. Sean was still following the horses’ rounds in the ring as well as the action on the ranks. After a while, Orlando quietly pointed out a couple of horses that seemed worth bidding on. Sean listened, thought about it, bought one of them for a moderate sum.

That was the thing about Sean. He, too, was often painfully impatient, but he was self-assured enough to listen to criticism if someone had enough courage to voice it to him. He listened to Orlando’s opinions about the upcoming races over breakfast, just like he listened to Orlando’s impromptu litanies on the price of petrol, or his taxes, or the stupidity of the BBC when, by chance, they met in the pub.

Sean pulled the catalogue from Orlando’s hands. A glance at the large clock over the heads of the auctioneers told Orlando that it was way past noon already – way to go, zoning out for half an eternity. But he’d really just have to look at Sean (at the most subtle hints of nervous anticipation that made him roll the catalogue in his hand and shift in his seat) to know what time it was exactly.

The auctioneer announced, “Lot 45, Sandsailor, a bay gelding by Sandcastle.”

There was no tension in the air, no whispered words of awe or anything out of the ordinary when the horse was led in. The gelding’s form hadn’t suggested anything like it either. And yet, Orlando didn’t even have to look at Sean to know what he was thinking as Sandsailor was led past them. Most of the horses reacted to the unfamiliar surroundings and the amount of people around them with varying degrees of nervousness. Sandsailor, however, held his head high, had his ears pricked and looked into the audience as if to say, ‘If anyone thinks he can take it up with me, I’m right here, waiting’. His eyes were big and clear, and to Orlando it felt like they were instantly drawn to Sean just like Sean couldn’t look away.

When the auctioneer asked for the opening bid, Sean didn’t raise his catalogue right from the start. But he clasped the rolled up paper tighter, his eyes still on the self-assured gelding a few feet below them. Bidding slowed down at just about the amount Orlando had expected it to, and it was then that Sean joined in. A few heads were stuck together in reaction to that, but aside from a few more half-hearted bids from various corners of the amphitheatre, there was no real challenge put up. As if everyone knew already that it would’ve been pointless, that this horse was supposed to be Sean’s and that was that.

“All done?” the auctioneer asked and looked around the amphitheatre for one last time. “Done then. Sold to Mr Bean for nineteen thousand six hundred pounds.”

The price was on the high side, Orlando knew it, and Sean certainly knew it, too. But when Sean leaned back in his seat, he still seemed immensely pleased with himself, hiding his smile behind his hand.

“So that’s why we have the horse box with us,” Orlando said quietly.

Sean looked at him questioningly.

“Obvious, isn’t it?” Orlando said, still whispering and leaning close enough to Sean for him to hear. “Knew you’d buy that one from the get go; no matter the price, really.”

Sean still seemed nonplussed.

“I didn’t say a thing.”

“Didn’t have to.” Orlando looked at Sean. “I’m not blind.”

“Well, the breeding’s impeccable,” Sean muttered and fiddled with the catalogue as if suddenly embarrassed to have fallen in love at first sight.

“I wish I could do that,” Orlando said. “Be sure about a horse just like that. I gotta be able to ride it, you know? Just from form books and looks? I have no idea.”

“If anyone could do it, then everyone would.“

“You’re gonna give me some wisdom about counting my blessings next?” Orlando laughed. “Easy for you to say.”

Sean smiled a little and thumbed through the auction catalogue. Orlando recognized mild embarrassment and he shuffled a little closer and nudge Sean’s shoulder with his own.

“I think,” he whispered, “that you just wanted to buy that Sandstorm carbon copy. Just to drive me into an early grave.”

A grin spread over Sean’s face instantly.

“Naturally. It’s all about you, isn’t it?”

For all his joking around, Orlando got what Sean had seen in the gelding. But it didn’t even matter right now, not as much as the pleased look on Sean’s face as he waited for Orlando to agree with him. As if that mattered as much as the purchase itself.

What else was there for Orlando to do but smile back and nod? Even if he wasn’t really sure what he was agreeing to.

Since Sean was known to the auctioneers, he didn’t need to leave for their office immediately to fill out the paperwork. Instead, they sat through a few rather uninteresting lots, and the ones still circled in Sean’s catalogue reached prices that Sean thought too high. And sure enough, Orlando felt himself grow bored eventually.

“I’m thirsty,” he said. “I’m gonna pop out for a drink, yeah?”

Sean just nodded, not taking the eyes of the current lot. So Orlando squeezed past him and the rest of the people that were sitting in their row.

The bar, yet another spacious room with huge window fronts, was fairly busy since some of the day’s best horses were yet to come. Orlando even had to wait a bit before the over-worked bar tender took his order for an orange juice. Sipping from that, he glanced around but saw no familiar faces until a booming voice heralded a trained he had ridden for repeatedly.

Bernard Hill pushed through the small crowd of people and practically elbowed his way towards the bar. In his wake followed two people who Orlando supposed were potential owners, probably in search for a life-insurance / Grand National favourite. Both in their fifties, the woman’s blond hair was artistically fixed on top of her head, which in addition to her thin long body made her look like a walking broom. Her stocky husband wore disgruntlement with the same matter-of-factness as his expensive clothes.

They were in the middle of a conversation when they’d reached the bar. They came to stand not far away from Orlando, and it was Hill’s words that, in his loud voice, first reached Orlando’s ears.

“I talked to Sean Bean, its old trainer, yesterday. He agreed, Indian Tiger is a solid horse.”

The stocky husband obviously wasn’t convinced yet.

“Why was he sold then?” he asked suspiciously.

Before Hill could answer, his wife cut in.

“Thomas Silverman told me that Bean is absolutely horrid to his owners, and some just won’t put up with it.”

Orlando rolled his eyes. Sean’s horses showed a devotion to him that came from love and respect, not from fear. How one couldn’t see that, couldn’t see what that said about Sean?

Hill didn’t even react to the implication. Without any change to his voice he said vaguely,

“The owner was at a, let’s say, financial impasse.”

The husband instantly looked more interested.

“So that should mean we can get him cheap?”

Hill raised his hands in a placating gesture.

“That was years ago, different seller, different circumstances. Though, the horse has a bit of a reputation to be a tad difficult. You might get lucky.”

“What do you mean, he was ‘a tad difficult’?” the wife instantly interrupted, her voice sharply sceptical. “We certainly won’t give a horse to our Michelle that is not absolutely safe, will we?”

Her husband thought about that for a second. Orlando had to bite back a grin.

“Will that have a great impact on the price?”

“Perkin!”

“I didn’t mean the horse is dangerous,” Hill said soothingly, as if he was speaking to a spooked and slightly dense horse.

“Who was riding it?” the wife asked, ignoring Hill’s reassurance as she turned towards her husband now. “He should be able to tell us whether the horse was safe, shouldn’t he?”

“Wasn’t that this fellow from Australia; Parker?” the husband said.

“I think he is from New Zealand,” Hill corrected.

“Either way,” the husband said impatiently to his wife. “Steward Higgins, Portia’s brother in law, was speaking highly of him the other day. We should get a hold of him, make absolutely sure.”

“Now, that might be a bit tough,” Hill cut in. “He hasn’t been riding this season. He broke his leg in September.”

The husband’s grumpiness returned with a vengeance, and he looked at Hill like you would at a used-car dealer who’d sold you a lemon.

“Not of, what’s it called, Indian Tiger?!”

“No, of course –,” Hill tried to reassure once again and once again was interrupted by the wife.

“Oh, that’s the fellow?” she said, yellow press fascination with drama in her voice. “Portia told me all about him. Had his leg broken in six places, six, can you imagine?” She shook her head, clearly delighted by the drama. “They thought he would never walk again! But speak of the wonders of modern medicine, Patricia told me he just got his cast off and is as good as new! Fit as a fiddle she said and bursting to get back on the horse.”

“Can he do that?” asked the husband sceptically. “Surely his muscles must be terribly weak by now.”

“That’s what they have physical therapy for, don’t they? Maria told me that some of the trainers pay a fortune for their jockeys for that, just so they can get them back on the horse as quickly as possible.”

“Probably make the owners pay for it in the end anyway.”

Hill cleared his throat after downing his drink and patted the wooden bar with a flat hand, indicating his intention to leave.

“Let’s take a look at the horse before anything else, eh? Come now.”

He ushered his two potential owners away with practised ease.

Left sitting at the bar, Orlando felt like he’d just gotten socked by a bad dream. Or woken up abruptly from a good one with a bucket full of icy cold water. Craig Parker was well again and, what had the woman said? Bursting to get back on his horses.

Orlando had always known that this would happen eventually. Broken bones were a nuisance and hurt like a bitch, but unless you really got your body shattered beyond repair, bones mended, muscles could be trained again. And of course Craig would come back and reclaim his horses. And shove Orlando off his saddle.

Over the last months Orlando had ridden more horses and stayed longer at Greystone than he’d probably needed to. And he’d generally followed Sean around like he was Tim's twin. He’d kept him company when the vet came for routine check-ups, spent long hours hunched over form books with him, watched races on the telly on the rare occasions Greystone didn’t have any runners anywhere. And Sean had invited him to come today, hadn’t he?

Surely that meant – something.

Someone bumped into Orlando when reaching for his drink, and that shook him out of his contemplations. He returned to the sales ring, sat next to Sean again, who welcomed him back with a distracted half smile. Still, for the rest of the day, Orlando couldn’t help but look at him differently, like if he only looked close enough, hard enough, he’d feel like before the conversation he overheard, when it had still felt like he could read Sean’s mind sometimes. But all he saw when he looked at Sean was that big question – ‘Why didn’t you tell me that Craig’s coming back?’ – and Sean’s face suddenly was unreadable, like Orlando had never really been able to decipher his looks.

A couple of intensely busy days followed, taking no one by surprise because it was right before Christmas after all. Orlando rode his races with the same win/lose quota as before. It kind of surprised him since he knew he wasn’t in with his whole heart any longer. Time had a funny way of passing – when he sat in the saddle, it now had the habit of running away from him. This might actually be the last times for him to sit on this particular horse, to ride in this particular race for Greystone. It made time slide into fast forward. On the other hand, the time he spent with Sean – who still hadn’t said anything, still acted like Orlando didn’t know what was going on – it seemed like awkwardness and frustration stretched time like chewing gum, leaving him sticky and sort of disgusted with it all.

It was the day before Christmas Eve, and just thinking about having to be in a jolly good mood for the next days, made Orlando want to vomit. He spent about half an hour slouching on the couch in his living room, brooding, staring at the ceiling and listening to the noise coming from Colin’s room. There was a spider web in one of the corners, Colin couldn’t even pack his backpack without cussing like a sailor and Orlando sighed ostentatiously when the door to Colin’s room opened.

“I really don’t get what you’re so pissy about,” Colin said without preamble. He had his backpack already shouldered, his plane ticket to Dublin in his hand. “Stop moping already, OB.”

“I’m not moping, you’re a moron,” Orlando gave back in a tone of voice that belied his words.

“Yeah, very convincing.”

Colin shook his head while he tried wrapping his scarf around his neck and got it entangled with his backpack.

“You need to get over that Craig business. It’s been what? A week? And you’re still sitting here, waiting for Bean to say something about it.”

Orlando brushed crumbs from the sofa cushions.

“I’m –“

“You’re like a fucking girl. Sitting by the phone and waiting for your crush to ring you up.”

“That’s really rich coming from the man who made me read his poetry on Billie Piper’s beauty in the pub just yesterday.”

“It is a fricking limerick and it is about her tits, you twat, and you help with the rhymes. And stop bringing her up as a diversion tactic.”

The indignation in Colin’s voice made Orlando smile and sit up to look at his friend.

“Whatever, I’m so proud of your totally healthy fixation on Billie’s tits. It totally proves that you’re way less pathetic than I am. Congrats. Have you ever even talked to her?”

“Unlike you, I’m not fraternising with the enemy,” Colin remarked and picked up his keys from his nail on the wall next to the door.

“She is actually quite cool, you know. You should –“

“Talk to her? Now there’s an idea. A smart one, you are.”

“Fine, be like that. If you die alone, don’t come complaining to me.” Orlando turned on the sofa, so he could point at Colin. “She’d go out with you, I know that. She’s rude, incredibly nosy and she has fucking horrible taste in men. Which, last time I checked, is exactly your type. Now piss off and let me be miserable on my own.”

Orlando fell back on the sofa, and Colin laughed at him.

“Because you got so much reason to pity yourself. What’s gonna happen, eh?”

“I lose my job? I like this job, dammit.”

“Bullshit. Worst case scenario? Parker comes back, and you are the second stable jockey. For one of the most successful trainers in the UK. Bo-ho.”

Colin leaned over and ruffled Orlando’s hair. He laughed when Orlando swatted at him as he was making his way to the door. Orlando stayed on the couch after the door had closed behind him, thinking about what Colin had said. Colin was right, he should consider himself lucky, even as the second stable jockey.

Whyever didn’t that seem to mean anything though?

***

He saw Craig Parker (for the first time in God knows when) in the crowd at the Christmas meeting in Kempton, just when his race was about to start.

The entire day already had been fucked up enough up to that point – it was bloody cold and constantly drizzling, and Watchmaker had twisted his leg while being led down the ramp of the transporter. He had to be scratched from his race. Orlando really didn’t need any more crap on his plate, and yet there was Craig Parker. Like the stupid fucking universe was spitting in Orlando’s face and mocking him.

Orlando just caught a quick glance of him while Traveller was led onto the track by Dom. Craig stood close to the railing with a walking stick and his arm around a woman, smiling broadly at her and looking well and healthy. Orlando had barely exchanged a handful of words with him ever, and yet he hated him fiercely for simply existing.

Something spooked Traveller, he jumped sideways abruptly, and Orlando had to grip his mane to keep himself from falling off when the large horse rose and swung around. He cussed under his breath, and his eyes automatically searched the crowd once more. Craig Parker was still there, his head turned away though while he was laughing open mouthed – no doubt at Traveller’s antics and at Orlando’s expense. The flash of anger rising inside of him was cut short by something else. Orlando saw who Craig was facing, who was smiling not as widely but still genuinely.

Sean.

And the bell sounded.

Traveller bolted, conditioned to snap like a rubber band at the sound of the bell. He almost threw Orlando off.

Damn that bloody Parker. Damn him and damn Sean right along with him.

Traveller instantly picked up the vibes his rider sent out, and he reacted accordingly. Orlando was met with such uncontrolled viciousness now that he was almost shocked enough to snap out of his haze. Almost. But then he thought about Sean watching him now while he and Craig were already planning their future together, and he felt another wave of anger rolling through him and the horse like thunder. Instead of grounding Traveller, calming him down again, all Orlando did was spur on the big powerful engine under him. Fuck possible consequences, this was a race and it was about speed and the will to win - or run away as quickly as possible, depended on how you looked at it.

"Go on then, you cranky fucker," Orlando bellowed against the sharp wind, and Traveller tensed under him and all but bolted, his angry grunts forming a staccato rhythm exactly matching the pulse in Orlando's veins. “Go on now, show me what you got!”

They breached the field without elegance but effectively, and with sick satisfaction Orlando heard Billie Piper cursing him as he pushed past her. The biting winter wind in his face brought him back to his senses - enough to give his mad horse firm enough instructions to get over the fences, but still they almost fell at the open ditch. Traveller didn't like it at all that a few other horses passed them then, and the fury Orlando could feel boiling in his mount caused Traveller problems at the jumps repeatedly. Orlando didn’t care, the horse’s uncontrolled fury just added to his own rage, soaking it up and intensifying it at the same time.

This was all that mattered, he told himself as he ducked low on Traveller’s neck. This feeling of raw and untamed power and force. This, and not anything else. Forget everything else. Forget the contentedness on Sean’s face when he talked to Parker. Forget that damn bloody smile of his.

Why didn't he think of fences and champion horses but of Sean's quietly spoken few words of approval when a difficult ride had gone well? Why didn't he think of brilliant tactics for the finish but of Sean cracking up over some stupidity he read in the papers? Why didn't he think of systematic training leading to success but of Sean stroking over one of his horses' necks, relaxing them with one gentle touch?

Traveller was snorting like a freight train. They thundered past the finishing line ten lengths ahead of the field. Traveller’s tense muscles threatened to snap. Both of them were shivering with adrenaline and effort when Orlando managed to rein him in. All Orlando really wanted to do was race on and on and on until the only thing left was that deep ache of exertion. He didn't feel any joy about the win. He wouldn't have been happy even if he had won the Grand National. All he felt was the thud thud of his heartbeat. It echoed dully inside of him, emphasised emptiness.

Mechanically, he weighed in. He talked to Christopher Lee, tried to ignore the glances he received from Sean standing next to the owner. He barely managed to be civil and stand still while Lee told him what he should have done differently. Orlando could take the criticism, hell, he knew he deserved it for overexerting the horse like this. But he still just wanted to get away. Sean was still looking at him. As if he was trying to see right into his head. As if he was already contemplating how to tell him that his services were no longer needed. As if Orlando could just disappear from Sean’s life again.

Orlando made an effort to shake off the cold of the winter. He changed silks and raced again. He came in second on Gamekeeper, beaten by Jake on the infamous Harvester by only a length. He didn’t even care enough to joke around with Jake afterwards. He brought Wimbledon over the finishing line safe and sound but not in the money.

When Orlando returned from the weighing room, Sean was talking to Parker again. Before either of them could see him, Orlando turned on his heels He accepted an extra ride in the last race of the day for Bernard Hill whose jockey had broken his collar bone in the second. He always profited from other people's pain. It was only logical that this pain eventually came back to him like a boomerang.

The last minute race was a convenient excuse to not drive back with Sean or in the transporter. However, Orlando cursed under his breath when he left the track and only then remembered how he’d gotten to the track this morning. Not on his motorbike. It was still parked at Greystone. He’d followed Sean into his Land Rover without even thinking about it. Like a stupid obedient puppy following its master. In the end, he managed to hitch a ride with one of the other jockeys.

It was dark already when Orlando walked down the small road that connected Greystone Stables with the rest of the world. Some of the lights in the main house were still on and were guidance enough for him. All he wanted was get his bike and be gone. The floodlights, triggered by the motion sensor, switched on when he’d almost reached his bike. Orlando squeezed his eyes shut in automatic response to the sudden brightness. He felt like a fucking intruder, caught red-handed.

Tim started barking inside the house. Orlando cursed under his breath; of course Sean came out to investigate. Tim squeezed past Sean when the door opened and charged straight towards Orlando. Reaching him, he recognised Orlando and the tension instantly drained from his huge body and transformed into easy-going friendliness.

Sean followed, walking towards Orlando when he saw him. Orlando clutched his keys tightly in his fist. Part of him wanted to make a dash for his bike just so this couldn’t be the night in which Sean decided to tell him. Part of him wanted to confront Sean and demand to know. But most of him just wanted things to be back to how they’d been. He wanted Sean back.

"Hey," Sean greeted. "Didn't think you were coming here again tonight."

"You caught me," Orlando replied, proud of the lightness of his voice. "I’ve been secretly sleeping in one of the stables for the last weeks. Saves me the rent for a flat."

Sean’s lips curved up and that erased the usual hardness from his features, made him appear almost gentle. He slid his hands into the pockets of his open coat, at ease and relaxed.

"If you'd only asked. You could've slept with Tim in the hall. Much warmer there."

"Thank you so much. Now I know why everyone here calls you St. Sean."

"Now, that's a reputation to live up to."

"Patron saint of all people seeking warmth in their body and coolness in their mind."

Sean hummed noncommittally and that was the only comment Orlando knew he was gonna get. Sean indicated with a tilt of his head towards the barn ‘walk with me’.

The light was still on in the barn, Sean had clearly planned on checking in on one or two of the horses again but didn’t elaborate. Odd how Sean still seemed to think that words were a rare thing that shouldn’t be wasted, and yet Orlando always got what he was aiming at. They walked past the yard’s main stables in silence.

"Cool thinking wasn't your thing today," Sean said when they reached the barn. It wasn’t a question, merely a statement, and one without judgement, too. And still, Orlando felt the antsiness of that afternoon’s ride crawling up inside of him again.

"Not really."

"Some race you gave Traveller.”

“Yeah, sorry ‘bout that. I guess it was a bit over the top, five lengths would’ve been enough. I just –“ Orlando cut himself off, shrugged, stroked Coconut Tree’s nostrils. “Sometimes it just happens. I lose my cool, you know.”

“Why today?”

Orlando looked away from the mare and to Sean. Green eyes gazed back. However cantankerous and closed off Sean might appear, however tense his body language and dark his facial expression were, his eyes always gave him away. They saw through every pretence and didn't hide anything if you knew where to look, how long to look. Orlando could look for days and days. Still, every other second he'd see something new, something that had always been there and he just hadn't seen it.

"I saw you," Orlando said and it was like that was a distant memory, unreal almost. "With Craig Parker today. Got me thinking. About things, you know.”

Sean frowned, looked confused.

“For heaven’s sake,” Orlando said. “I know, y’know.”

Sean shook his head again, and for a moment Orlando was afraid he was going to deny it or try to distract him with a joke. Sean gently pushed Coco’s investigative nose away so he could fully concentrate on Orlando.

“You know what?”

“When were you gonna say something? I mean, I get it, obviously. They are his rides after all, I’m just – I know that. And of course he gets them back. I mean, as soon as he’s finished with physical therapy and has his strength back and everything. I’m not stupid.”

Sean still looked utterly puzzled, even more so even. Like his brain was only half way through the maze of Orlando’s sentence.

“You saw me talking to Craig. You saw that he has his cast off. And you concluded what? I’d pull you off my horses?”

“I figured you might want to keep me anyway,” Orlando replied quietly, a question lingering in his words. “As second stable jockey maybe?”

“And that’s not enough for you?”

“No, no, that’d be great.”

Sean rubbed his eyebrow, shook his head again.

“Then what -? You lost me.”

“It’s not about the rides,” Orlando said, and it felt as unbelievable as it must have sounded to Sean. Sean looked curiously at him, and Orlando hurried to repeat, “It’s really not. I don’t care. I mean I do, but not as much as – It’s just that it’d have been nice if you’d said something to me, you know? I thought we were –“ He looked down at the cobble stone floor of the barn. “Whatever.”

Orlando didn’t look up again but heard Sean shifting from one foot to the other, uneasy. And yeah, Orlando could relate to that. Fuck, this was awkward, and he was an idiot for not being able to keep his stupid mouth shut.

“There is nothing to say,” Sean finally said, and Orlando could hear the discomfiture.

Orlando felt his own shoulders sag. He couldn’t bring himself to look up. So that was why. What did it matter – first or second stable jockey, the title didn’t matter when it came to scheduling races. So why should he be told? Nothing to be said.

“I see. Alright.”

His own fault that he’d thought that work wasn’t all that connected them. His own fault that –

“Craig’s not coming back.”

Like a horse refusing a jump at the very last second, Orlando’s mind ground to an instant halt. He glanced up at Sean, found him leaning against the stable door. Orlando shook his head.

“What?”

Sean still seemed relaxed, just as at ease as he had been the last few weeks when he’d spent time with Orlando. Orlando wanted to touch him to see whether some of that completely un-self-conscious calm couldn’t be transferred through skin contact. He just wanted to touch him, period.

“I said, Craig’s not coming back.” Sean sounded a little baffled, like he’d expected Orlando to have known all this all along. “He’s going back to New Zealand.”

“What?”

“Maybe he’ll try his luck there as a trainer, I dunno. His bones broke often enough now, he says.”

Craig wasn’t returning. Orlando could stay. He could continue riding Sean’s horses. That was important. That should be the most important thing about this, being allowed to ride some of the best horses in the UK. It should matter to him most –

 

“What?” Orlando repeated for a third time, before he could stop himself.

“There was nothing to say.” The smile that curved Sean’s lips now was one Orlando hadn’t seen before, and that just wasn’t fair. “And anyway. It wouldn’t have mattered if Craig hadn’t retired.”

Sean was so close now that Orlando could feel his warm breath becoming shallow. He could feel Sean struggle, grasp for something, control maybe, or something else.

All fell into place then.

Orlando's heart was racing. It raced with more vigour than any of the horses he'd ever ridden. All the confusion he had felt, all the worries that had been gnawing on him, they all vanished just like that. Everything was crystal clear right that moment.

Orlando didn't doubt. He just knew.

He pushed himself away from the wall, so he was right in front of Sean, chest to chest almost. His right hand shook little when he brought it up, he tentatively reached out. Carefully, he wiped non-existent dust from the sleeve of Sean's coat. He couldn’t not touch him. He watched his own fingers on the dark cloth, how they trembled ever so lightly. He looked up into Sean's eyes again. When their gazes met, Sean's hand, skin worn from work, closed over his.

Sean’s left hand squeezed Orlando’s a little harder, sealing a deal, making a promise. Orlando felt the last restraints crumbling.

He kissed Sean.

What else could he have done?

***

 

Six

"...and a sparkling post-Christmas morning to you all. Still no snow in sight but the temperature still fits the season. You're listening to BBC radio. Best music and -"

With a groan Sean hit his clock radio, accidentally shoved it off the nightstand which turned off the annoying cheerfulness of the morning programme.

Usually he was a morning person himself – well, he was grumpy but then, he wasn't exactly skipping down the aisle the rest of the day either - and he didn't mind getting up with the birds.

But when he woke this morning he wanted to go back to sleep instantly. He had been dreaming of Orlando. A slow smile crept up his face when he remembered Orlando’s need, so intense that he had been able to feel it in addition to his own, like it was some kind of omniscient narrator’s dream. Such a vivid dream that for a moment he kept his eyes closed and hoped to return to this fantasy where Orlando had been his.

The routine that his body was used to cut it short however. Once he heard the horses whinnying in the yard he automatically sat up and got out of bed. The floor was cold under his naked feet and that pulled him out of his almost sleepwalking routine.

Just like that he was fully awake. All at once the memory of last night was back. Returned with such force that he grasped the bedpost for support, it felt like a kick in the gut.

The right side of his bed, the one he never used, was clearly slept in but Orlando wasn’t there. He felt the slight strain in his muscles from what they’d done last night but Orlando wasn’t there. He remembered what he’d thought, what he’d felt during, and he couldn’t even trust his own senses anymore.

Because Orlando wasn’t there.

For a moment he held his breath. Disbelievingly, hopefully he listened whether he could hear him somewhere in the house. Maybe he had just woken up early, was in the kitchen putting the kettle on. Maybe he’d just needed to go to the loo.

For a moment he was sure he would hear something any second now. But the house was quiet, not even the old wood creaked out of pity. After that moment of hope he’d allowed himself, it felt to him as if the silence was mocking him for it.

He sat down on his bed again, on that side where Orlando had fallen asleep right next to him, sated, exhausted, in the darkness of the night. But in Orlando’s place there were only the questions left that now crowded in on him.

Whyever would –, where had he –, was there anything that – how could –

He couldn’t even finish a single one of them.

He didn’t know how long he’d sat there like this, unable to even ask, when he heard Tim climbing up the stairs. His claws clicked on the wooden floor as he ambled over and sat down next to the bed. He looked at Sean with dark eyes, calm and quiet like he only ever was when there was no one in the house but the two of them. If Sean’d still had any hope, it would have been gone now.

Orlando was gone.

He’d left without waking him, must’ve taken extra care not to. Orlando had woken up and no matter what Sean had felt, had thought last night, no matter how much –

He stopped himself. It hadn’t mattered these few hours ago to Orlando. It hadn’t mattered enough for him to stay. It could not matter to Sean now.

Because Orlando was gone.

Sean got dressed, fed the dog, left the house, supervised first lot, second lot, third lot. He had breakfast, had lunch. He watched the horses in their turn out paddock, did evening stables. He turned the telly on, turned the telly off. He went upstairs, didn’t switch on the light as he lay down.

No word from Orlando all day.

Sean lay for a long time trying to think, trying not to think.

They’d fucked, Orlando had left. There was nothing to think about. It was simple.

Sean refused to feel anything about it. It was so clear that there was nothing to have feelings about. That was it.

The next morning, Sean sent Dave out with the horses. He still sat in the kitchen when Miranda arrived. Instead of just putting the kettle on and starting to work, she bustled about as if she could make his foul mood disappear like some perfect housewife in a feather duster commercial. It might've annoyed the shit out of him on any other day. Today her noisiness managed to drown out the broken record in Sean’s mind.

Sean sipped from his mug and watched her fussing about in his cupboards in search for some 'really delicious jam' she knew had to be there because she bought it. He barely managed to stop her from buttering his toast and feeding it to him.

The front door opened and closed. The smile on Sean’s face froze.

Miranda, the jam in question finally found and in her hand, looked out through the kitchen door.

"Good morning, Orlando! How was your Christmas?"

How indeed.

Sweating, whimpering, moaning. Dark, sweet, frantic. Not enough. Skin touching. Muscles flexing. Not enough.

Orlando hisses when Sean grips his hips tightly, stops him from fucking himself on Sean’s cock. He turns his head enough to kiss Sean again, moans against his lips, responds wordlessly to Sean’s growl, the urgency in his silent request merely a fleeting impression in the darkness of the tack room. Sean doesn’t need anything more. Orlando’s heartbeat is thundering with frantic steadiness, his breathing is ragged and Sean feels it, listens to him as if mankind's most ancient secrets are whispered to him with every of Orlando’s exhales, with every of Sean’s thrusts into him.

Not enough. Not enough.

Orlando breaks the kiss and jerks in Sean’s arms. Slender fingers grasp his left hand in a vice like grip; Orlando comes all over it and the panelled wall he is pressed against.

Orlando leaves him no choice but to follow him, to tumble over the edge together with him while feeling him still shuddering violently. With one last thrust Sean comes. It is like falling off a chaser at full speed.

Sean’s life passes in front of his eyes within a nanosecond, all he sees is Orlando, all those snapshots his subconscious has taken, like in a photo finish - Orlando smiling, concentrating, snickering, focusing with determination, Orlando chewing on his bottom lip, grinning down at him from his mount, Orlando eating his damn morning eggs, smiling, smiling, smiling and staring at Sean when he thought Sean didn't notice.

He comes buried deep inside of Orlando, and he has his eyes squeezed shut tightly. He sees all he needs to see and doesn’t know how to ask for.

Oh aye.

Sean remembered Christmas.

Orlando appeared in the doorway to the kitchen. His boots were dirty, his breeches and a dark green staff anorak dusty, his orange scarf wound tightly around his neck. He lingered in the doorframe. He bit his lower lip before his face fully slid into a guarded expression. Sean hadn’t expected it, had dreaded it.

Sean wanted to hit him. The urge to break his jaw was almost impossible to fight down now. He wanted to bury his face in the curve of his neck, smelling of horse sweat and their sweat.

Miranda cheerfully pushed Orlando into his usual chair opposite of Sean.

“You’re in my way. – So, how was your Christmas, Orlando?”

Orlando didn’t look at Sean.

"Two in the money at the Christmas meeting in Kempton,” he answered dutifully, his voice bare its usual exuberance. “Suppose that's something."

“Oh, every ride you stay on full time is ‘something’,” Miranda joked from the sink. “In fact, sometimes you don’t even have to do that – just think of Red Marauder’s Grand National!”

Orlando’s face looked too familiar, and the look he gave Sean was completely alien. Even if Sean had known which question to ask, if his mind hadn’t been so swamped with hate and want and disgust, he wouldn’t have asked it this total stranger sitting opposite of him now.

Sean forced his gaze to return on the ‘Racing Post’ on the table. The results from the last meetings were blurry in front of his eyes.

Into the silence, Orlando said, “Dave said Fool’s Gold might be lame.”

“Some days it’s really all one does, isn’t it,” Miranda mused. “Worry about the horses while there’s really nothing wrong with them.”

Orlando turned his head towards her. The December sun made the lines of his profile appear like they were cut out of ice.

“You don’t really have a choice, you just do.”

Miranda laughed and shook her head at this answer.

"Ever the racing person, aren't you? Just like Sean."

Sean scoffed. He couldn’t help it.

Sean thought he saw tension in Orlando’s shoulders and his jawline, didn’t know what to make of it. But he didn’t want to care.

"Racing is the life," Orlando said, as if it was a question or the answer to all questions.

The ringing of the telephone was to be heard from the office, and Miranda picked up her cup and hurriedly left the kitchen.

Orlando looked after her for a moment, like he wanted to follow her. Then he turned back to Sean.

“Look, I –“

Orlando turned mute. Whatever he saw on Sean’s face let him choke on his words. Instead he hurried back to hide behind Miranda’s prompt.

"Even if you not always come in first. Even if you fuck up and break something. Racing's the life. Isn't that so?”

Powerful horses with trusting eyes, morning mist on the gallops, drunken glory of big victories, watching motion, feeling it as if it was a current running through your own body. Of course racing was life. Training horses to succeed was more fulfilling than any other form of art humans were capable of.

At least of that Sean was sure.

There was something in Orlando’s voice, in Orlando’s eyes as he looked at Sean now, something that Sean didn’t have words for. For a split second Sean wanted to comfort him, the next moment he felt sick from the pity he thought he saw there.

So Sean did nothing, didn’t reach out, didn’t ask. He didn’t fall for it for a second time. Orlando had made it clear enough. He’d made it clear by leaving before dawn, he made it clear this morning by showing up now like any other day. Sean didn’t want an explanation, not anymore. And he didn’t want to look at Orlando anymore and find regret or embarrassment or nothing at all in his eyes.

Sean put down the knife he’d been holding and flexed his fingers. He still held Orlando’s gaze, refused to be the first to look away, to lose again. After a long second, Orlando’s eyes darted towards the door again. Sean picked up his newspaper again, eyes searching for the last lines he had been skimming but not finding them.

Orlando shifted in his seat, Sean could hear him swallow even though he hadn’t picked up his coffee. Before he could say anything else Miranda called from across the hall.

“Sean, it’s Eric Bana on the office phone!”

Sean’s chair scraped noisily over the kitchen floor’s tiles when he got up. When he looked down at Orlando, Orlando averted his eyes, stared down at the table.

There was nothing more to say.

Sean turned away, already dreading the perpetual happy cheerfulness that awaited him on the phone. He spoke to Eric about his horses and about the next meeting the entire Bana clan was really excited about.

When he hung up again, he abruptly cut of the constant background noise of a full house bustling with life. He knew he should be grateful to at least have a couple of owners as decent as the Banas. He knew that Orlando was the best jockey for his horses, knew that he understood and cared for the animals now just like he had yesterday and would tomorrow and that it didn’t matter what Sean felt and didn’t want to feel.

For a minute he listened to the silence in his office without moving, then he sat down at his desk and forced himself to concentrate on the myriad of entry forms that waited there.

***

Back at the beginning of the season he had agreed on some of the lads taking a few free days off between Christmas and New Year. It meant that the rest of the staff had to take care of the extra horses and Sean saw the disgruntled faces when his training schedules didn’t reflect the reduced number of hands. But horses needed to be in constant training and with the weather cold but dry the gallops were in good condition; Viggo had found nothing wrong with any of the usual suspects on his weekly check-up either. That was that.

It meant longer days for Sean himself as well. He cancelled strategy sessions with Dave that didn’t concern the immediate future and turned Viggo down twice when he asked him out for a pint whilst flirting shamelessly with Miranda at the same time. Instead he concentrated on working so hard that all he could do at the end of the day was go to bed and instantly fall into a dreamless sleep.

Anything, so he didn’t have to think.

On New Year’s Eve, the morning was particularly cold and even the all-weather gallop seemed frozen so that training wouldn’t have made much sense anyway. The horses got turned out or put into the walker and the lads took the rest out for a hack; as a group of them rode off the yard Dom and Martin took up the task of entertaining the lot with Orlando unusually quiet between them.

Sean didn’t leave with them but returned to the house. Miranda smiled automatically when he entered her office but didn’t look up from her computer screen.

“I’m as good as done,” she said. “I finally reached the hauler people and they promised to deliver hay on the third.”

“Guaranteed?”

“They swore on the life of their firstborns. I said you’d personally come to collect if they didn’t make good on their promise. Also, Rebecca Bana called and wanted to wish you a good start into the New Year. There was singing in the background, if I’m not mistaken.” He rolled his eyes and was about to leave for his own office when she called after him, “Oh, and Sir Christopher wants you to call him back.”

“When does he not?” He pushed the door to his office open without looking back at her. “Go on and connect me.”

Miranda waited until he’d sat down behind his desk and predictably Sir Christopher picked up after the first ring.

“Yes?”

“It’s Sean Bean. You called?”

“Oh yes,” Lee paused for a moment, as if he was too busy to be expected to remember what he wanted from every person employed for him at a moment’s notice. He recalled it though and sounded as displeased as usual when he told Sean. “Your secretary faxed me the entries you made for January and February. You forgot to enter one of my horses for one of the races in Fakenham on the 16th. I told you I would be at that meeting. No use to be there if there’s no prospect of a winner, is there?”

Sean could name about a thousand reasons for being at the races aside from that but he kept them to himself.

Instead he said, “The Fakenham meeting is only two days after the one in Lingfield.”

“Yes, I know that. I can read a racing calendar.”

“Yes, but you specifically told me you wanted to race Morse Code, Archangel and one of your mares in Lingham. That leaves no horses suitable for any of the Fakenham races.”

“What about Time Traveller?”

“He’s due to run in Huntington the week after. Surely it says that on your fax. Besides, he hates the track in Fakenham. No use running him there anyway.”

Lee just scoffed in response.

With rising impatience Sean asked, “You want me to enter him in Fakenham instead of Huntington then? I highly advise against it.”

“There’s another thing,” Lee said instead of answering. “I saw that you entered Shy Harbour in the amateur hurdle in Towcester. The amateur hurdle, I ask you!”

“She’s still insecure about the jumps. The hurdles give her confidence. Besides, her lad handles her well, he’ll do a good job with her.”

“I don’t pay a fortune to train horses to have them ridden by some blasted amateur! It’s bad enough that I have to put up with that Bloom and his insolence.”

“His win quota is well above average,” Sean replied, unable to keep the irritation out of his voice. “Do yourself a favour, just ignored everything else.”

“I ask you – ” Lee protested but Sean interrupted him.

“Sir Christopher, if that’s all? I have to go back to the horses you pay me a fortune to train.”

Lee didn’t explode, Sean hadn’t expected him to. As hot-headed as the older man appeared most of the time, his actions were hardly ever irrational, he knew very well what he was doing. So, it didn’t surprise Sean when instead of a heated protest, Lee replied levelly, even if with coldness to his voice.

“I really don’t see how your attempt at sarcasm would be constructive.”

“Then why don’t you let me do what I’ve been doing all my life?”

“I really don’t like your tone. But as it happens, I have more important things to worry about. Just see whether you can’t still find a horse for Fakenham. There are enough in your yard after all.”

He hung up and Sean had just put the phone down when Miranda entered his office with a cup of tea for him.

“That big fortune Sir Christopher is paying you, is that showing in our official books?”

“Stop eavesdropping.”

She raised a brow at his clipped tone of voice, pointed at the door and shook her head.

“I didn’t. You left your door open and your voice carries.” Miranda started rearranging papers on his desk, and seemingly off-handedly she added, “He is paying for one third of our horses.”

Sean glared at her until she started laying out papers for him to look through and sign. The phone rang in her office, and she hurried out to get it, leaving left the door ajar. She picked up and Sean heard her laugh quietly when the caller answered her greeting.

“Oh, hello, ‘this is Viggo Mortensen’, how are you?” laughed quietly at whatever Viggo on the other end responded. “Oh, stop it, you incorrigible flirt.”

Sean pinched the bridge of his nose when Miranda laughed again. He got up and stepped into her office. Miranda was leaning against her desk, still smiling when she automatically glanced up at him.

“You better be careful, or I’ll take you up on that offer, Viggo. The Toscana must be absolutely lovely,” she said, but then added, “Is that why you’re calling or did you want to speak to Sean?”

She looked at Sean questioningly. Sean pointed towards the front door as she listened to Viggo’s reply.

“I’m sorry, in that case. Sean’s out in the yard,” she lied, slight disapproval on her face. However, her voice easily returned to flirtatiousness when she sat down behind her desk again, as if planning for this to take a while. “Can I take a message?”

Sean didn’t wait for it, but he didn’t leave for the yard either. Instead he disappeared into the living room.

He was just so tired of it all. Miranda’s quietly judgemental cheerfulness. Sir Christopher and his perpetual annoying demands. The Banas and their polaroid picture matrimonial bliss. Viggo and his psychic feel for when Sean really didn’t want to talk.

Sean didn’t want to be part of any of it. He shut the sitting room door behind himself, sat down in the armchair opposite the fireplace. He just wanted to be left alone.

Hours later, when he went outside again, Sean left Tim behind next to the fireplace. There still was no cloud in the sky, and the sun shone brightly but without any heat into the deserted yard.

The square patch of lawn, framed by the main stables, was covered in a layer of snow. Sean stopped dead in his tracks when he saw two unattended horses right in the middle of it. Sandsailor and Sure Bet searched for anything to eat underneath the snowy blanket. Both of the doors of their adjoining stalls stood open, and Sailor’s dark green rug askew and partly covered in snow from when he’d obviously rolled in it.

Alarm, sharp as a harpoon, shot through Sean at the sight – there was nothing to stop the horses from taking off, from running straight onto the road. It was only a fraction of a second later that he spotted Orlando’s red jacket, his back to Sean.

Sean cursed before he could stop himself, and the horses as well as Orlando noticed him.

Their reactions were characteristic for them – Sailor just raised his head and pricked one ear in Sean’s direction, looking at him questioningly but with his ever apparent self-esteem and curiosity. Sure Bet however obviously had been completely submerged in the task of finding grass under the snow. Now she stood rigidly still with her head raised high and her nostrils blown wide in fear.

Orlando didn’t move, remained in that purposely relaxed stance, even as his eyes fixed on Sean. Sean exhaled to let all the tension out of his body, everything that might unsettle the spooked horse even further.

“Found them like this two minutes ago,” Orlando said, his voice low and even. “Sure Bet’s hellishly skittish.”

Sean didn’t know whether to believe him, didn’t care at this moment, fury and worry were both emotions of no use right now.

Sailor decided that Sean posed no threat and lowered his head again, but Sure Bet’s eyes were still showing the white around the edges. Sean felt for some left over horse cubes in the pockets of his coat. He looked around for something to catch the horses with and, interpreting his look correctly, Orlando slowly raised his hand, a halter in it.

Sean took the halter from Orlando and then stretched out his left hand, holding out a couple of horse cubes for both of the loose horses to see.

He went for Sailor first as the gelding was still calm enough and needn’t be infected by Sure Bet’s obviously still rising unease. The bay gelding raised his head again as Sean approached him, mild interest showing in his big eyes.

“Come on now, lad,” Sean said, letting his voice drop to a comforting rumble as he slowly walked towards the horse. “Playtime’s over. Won’t find any proper grass here, better come and take something nice from me.”

Sandsailor’s ears flicked back and forth as if he was thinking about the proposition and Sean halted a foot away from him, his hand still outstretched. Sailor’s soft muzzle found the treats on it almost instantly and the gelding didn’t object when Sean stepped up to him, even nudged his arm lightly to get some more and let Sean slip the halter over his head.

“There’s a good boy. Always knew you were smart. Runs in the blood, hm?”

Sean ruffled the horse’s forelock and without making a sound Orlando was at his side, taking over the horse. He lightly tugged at the halter, Sailor followed him peacefully into his stable. Sean didn’t take his eyes from Sure Bet and stood where he was, his gaze locked with the horses, until Orlando pressed another halter into his hand.

Sure Bet wasn’t the most intelligent mare in the yard, not by far, and dumbness and fear were a dangerous combination. Any smart horse would’ve settled quickly after realising there was no threat. Sure Bet did no such thing, she was still watching his every move with alarm filled eyes. She didn’t move, however, when Sean started walking towards her, too, in the same manner in which he’d approached Sandsailor.

Like that, he had almost reached her when a loud bang echoed in the otherwise silent yard. It was just Buckingham Brat kicking against his door, eager to join the game but Sure Bet instantly shied away from Sean, taking two, three steps backwards in rapid succession before swinging around and storming off, away from the noise.

“Shit,” Sean hissed again.

“What now?” Orlando asked.

“Walk around,” Sean said, just loud enough for Orlando to hear. “Cut off the way to the road.”

Orlando nodded, and for once without arguing, he did as Sean had instructed. He walked towards the gap between the fences that surrounded the turn outs. Sure Bet eyed him with suspicion but didn’t move, wouldn’t try to get past him as long as there were more promising escape routes. Sean started moving towards her again, but this time not in a straight line. Instead, he walked around her first, closing in on her from the side of the turn-out paddocks, and from the corner of his eyes saw Orlando mirroring his motion on the other side.

The mare was out of trust though, maybe connected Sean’s closeness with the fright she’d gotten earlier. Sean kept talking to her though, slowly stepped closer, didn’t let her see his frustration when she kept backing away, backwards towards Orlando. It seemed like a century they spent like this – Sean talking and moving closer, Sure Bet shying away, back into the U of the stable yard.

Her continued backwards motion had brought her close to Orlando. For a moment Sean feared that she would spook again when she noticed him. He didn’t hear Orlando starting to talk, his voice was that low, but he could tell from Sure Bet’s pricked ears when he did so. Sean stopped walking and watched as Orlando slowly made a half circle around the skittish mare in order to approach her from the front. With treacly self-assurance, Orlando slowed down when he was close to her. His encouraging murmurs reached Sean’s ears now just as Sure Bet tentatively stretched her neck in order to sniff his hand. The smell reassured her; she allowed Orlando to step up to her and slide the halter.

Sean waited until Orlando had shut the stable door after Sure Bet.

“What the hell was going on here?” he then demanded, his fury sudden and back with full force. “What the fuck did you think you were doing?”

Orlando’s head snapped around.

“What I was -? I didn’t let them out! They were out when I arrived.”

“Oh yeah?” Sean growled. “What were you doing here?”

“I was at Dom’s and came round to fetch my bike.”

“And you didn’t think of letting me know about the loose horses?”

Levelly, Orlando looked at him. That stranger’s face again. Sean had no idea what he was thinking.

“I didn’t want to risk either of them running onto the street,” Orlando said reasonably. “Besides, you always do rounds at exactly this time.”

Sean huffed, still dissatisfied.

“I’d have rung if you hadn’t,” Orlando added, no challenge whatsoever in his voice, no matter how closely Sean listened.

Of course Orlando hadn’t let the horses out. It was ridiculous.

Sean leaned against Pirate King’s door and briefly closed his eyes. He listened to his horses pushing their hay around, to the slightly different kind of rustle that straw made whenever they moved in it. He listened to one of the horses closer to him, Essex probably, return to his feeding bucket, listened to the sound of his grinding teeth when he took another mouthful of oats and smiled at the quiet rumbling coming from his neighbour when it reacted to the noise, hoping for a refill of its own bucket.

“Sure Bet seems to get more skittish each day,” Orlando said into the silence.

Sean merely grunted noncommittally. Orlando stuffed his hands into the pockets of his coat.

“I try to give her confidence, but she’s not very smart. I think she forgets quicker than she learns.”

Sean huffed in response.

An angry snort and a loud bang that came from the other end of the yard. Both Sean and Orlando automatically turned their heads. Ponticello looked back at them, one ear pricked and blinking lazily at him, before he returned his attention to the box next to him. Dark Dancer repeated the snorting sound and again kicked against the wall separating the two of them.

“He doesn’t like an audience when he’s having dinner, does he? Not even Ponti now,” Orlando said, a small smile on his lips. Orlando didn’t look at him, but when Sean didn’t reply, the smile vanished from his lips again. For another moment his eyes rested on the horse, the line of his jaw tightened.

“I’m off then,” Orlando said carefully. “I hope the fireworks don’t spook the horses too bad tonight.”

Sean nodded.

Orlando waited for another oddly long moment, then he walked away.

Dark Dancer kicked against the wall once more, and Ponticello pulled his head back an inch, not more.

Sean hummed low in his throat, and Ponticello pricked an ear in his direction. Ponti stood still for another moment. With the same calm slowness that had always characterised every of his motions when he wasn’t on the racing track, he closed the small distance between them. He lightly nudged Sean’s chest with his muzzle before pressing his broad forehead against it. He did so with a careful gentleness that kept surprising people but was the most expected thing to Sean.

Sean heard the motor of Orlando’s bike rev up, heard the crunch of gravel as Orlando turned and drove off. Sean cradled the gelding’s heavy head, felt his thick and smooth coat under his flat palm. Ponticello pushed a little closer yet, encouraging Sean to move his fingers already. Sean reached for one of his ears and massaged it lightly. Ponti sighed in contented encouragement and relaxed under the gentle touch. Sean cradled the big head against his chest.

“Doesn’t take much with you, hm? Simple joys and you’re true in your love.”

They were Orlando’s words, and Sean could hear them right now, the warm and confiding tone of his voice. He tensed in response to the vivid memory. He couldn’t help it, had to turn around to look whether Orlando was standing right there. No one was there. All his eyes saw were the rows of box stalls and the glimpse of the small windows of the barn’s tack room behind them.

Sean hisses when Orlando pulls down his jacket, the coldness of the night instantly creeping though the fabric of his shirt. He feels Orlando’s lips against his as he does so, feels Orlando’s responding grin, too. Orlando presses closer against Sean while they kiss, like this is enough, like they don’t need any other warmth but the heat the two of them generate between them. But Sean still feels the cold creep up on him, and Orlando’s teeth are all but chattering when he breaks the kiss again.

Orlando grips Sean’s wrist and pulls him along. Sean follows without thinking. He hits the light switch of the main stable aisle on auto pilot wonders where – he inhales in sharp surprise when he is pushed backwards. Orlando takes his grunt as the question it is and answers it wordlessly. He shoves Sean against the tack room door, opening it like that, and shoves them both inside, his mouth once again on Sean’s.

Someone tugged at the sleeve of Sean’s coat. It pulled Sean back into his deserted yard. No one there aside from him. Ponticello instantly let go of his coat as soon as he turned around, knowing perfectly well that he wasn’t allowed to chew on things. He looked at Sean with his big black eyes. They searched for a reason for what his senses had picked up on and he didn’t understand. Sean shook his head; it wasn’t like he understood it either.

Dancer’s head appeared over his door, inquisitive. But when he saw that Sean had no treats for him left he just pushed his shoulder roughly before retreating again. Ponticello carefully nudged Sean’s hand again, a stark contrast to his neighbour. Sean ruffled his forelock affectionately before cupping his ear in his hand again.

They stood like this for a while, until the sound of shooed hooves on cobble stone pulled Sean out of the quiet moment. Narrowing his eyes, he turned around, mouth already opened to question the person daring to lead out one of his charges after hours. He didn’t say a word though, when he saw who was out there.

Sandsailor had stepped out of his box, pushing the door further open with his shoulder. With sure steps he walked down the path in front of the stalls until he’d reached Sure Bet’s. There he halted and under Sean’s disbelieving gaze he lowered his head enough to reach the door’s iron bolt and started playing with it with his lips. Like an expert picklock he nuzzled at the bolt until his nimble lips had found the small security pin that held the iron bar in place. He closed his lips over it and twisted his head and just like that the bolt slid back easily, leaving the door unlocked. Job done, Sandsailor raised his head again and whickered at Sure Bet, the noise soft and hushed like the cajoling of a secret lover.

Sean couldn’t help but laugh. Before Sure Bet could follow Sailor’s invitation, though, he walked over to the mare’s box and caught the halter that the gelding still wore.

“Now, aren’t you a sneaky fellow? Smart, I give you that,” he said, the smile still thickening his voice, as he led the horse back into its stall. He slapped his round flank and bolted the door again, closing the upper half right after, so at least for tonight Sailor wouldn’t be able to attempt another outbreak.

Still smiling to himself, he closed the other upper doors as well before retiring to the house.

It was around seven when the doorbell rang. Tim just raised his head from where he had settled next to the couch and Sean didn’t want to answer either. For a moment he hoped that whoever was on his doorstep would just go away if he didn’t react but then the ringing started once more and didn’t stop again.

With a sigh Sean turned the telly to mute and got up. When he opened the door he found Viggo standing there with his thumb still on the doorbell. His hair was freshly cropped short, and he was clean shaven and dressed in an uncharacteristically fancy grey suit plus bright blue mittens, a scarf and a woollen hat of the same colour.

“Will you stop that already?” Sean grunted with an impatient glance at Viggo’s hand that was still pushing the doorbell.

“What? Oh right!” The other man grinned and the annoying ringing stopped when he pulled his hand back. “Good evening, Sean.”

“It’s evening,” Sean agreed. “But I don’t know about good. It was better five minutes ago.”

Ignoring the implication Viggo let himself in and rubbed his gloved hands together.

“It will be even better in five minutes,” he promised.

“That so? You’re gonna be gone then?”

“Nope.“ Viggo looked Sean up at down long enough for Sean to glance down at himself, checking whether he had dirt on his grey jumper. Viggo weighed his head from side to side. “Make that ten minutes. You’ll need to get changed.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Yes, you do.” Viggo put a hand on Sean’s shoulder to guide him to the staircase. “I’m not taking you with me wearing that thing. And people say that I’m a hippie.”

“You wear mismatching shoes,” Sean pointed out and only mildly resisted Viggo’s pushing.

“That was only once,” Viggo protested. “I told you, one of my dogs hid the other one and I got an emergency call.”

“My jumper is perfectly alright,” Sean returned to the original topic and shrugged Viggo’s hand off.

“How long do you have it? Twenty, twenty-five years?”

“So?”

“So, it shows. I’m not taking you with me looking like that.”

Sean stopped and turned right in front of the staircase.

“Taking me where?”

Viggo smiled his best smile at him and Sean was certain he had told him more than once that it made him look like a psychopath.

“To the New Year’s party I’m invited to. I was gonna tell you about it this morning and maybe if you’d have thought of something quick, I’d even have let you off with some flimsy excuse. But seeing that you apparently were nowhere to be found when I called I decided that you would have to come with me. But I’m not taking you looking like that.”

“Oh, that’s good. Because I’m not going.”

Instead of replying instantly, Viggo just looked at Sean for a long moment, his light blue eyes like steel daggers. Then he said calmly, “Sean, how long do we know each other now?”

“About as long as I have this jumper?” Sean replied, slightly confused.

“And how often did I take no for an answer?”

“Listen, Viggo –“

“No, my friend,” Viggo interrupted, another pat on Sean’s shoulder stressed his point. “We’re going out tonight and this is not open for discussion.”

Sean clenched his jaw. “I’m not in the mood. I mean it.”

Viggo’s gaze lost some of its almost comical fierceness and grew softer as he regarded Sean for a long moment.

“Yeah, I see that. And I could just take no for an answer because you really mean it. And then what? You kick me out and sit in front of the telly, cuddle your dog, and get pissed on your own?”

Sean broke their eyelock and glanced back into his living room where exactly that awaited him.

“Sod off.”

Viggo just snorted.

“Happy New Year.”

“Something like it.”

“Yeah, problem is that you’re not commemorating the arrival of a New Year but celebrating getting rid of the old one.”

Sean kept silent and crossed his arms in front of his chest. Viggo’s hand slid from his shoulder to his elbow.

“Look, I know you think you’re subtle and all that, but these last couple of days? That is not just you being your usual mute and communicationally crippled self. So either we’re gonna sit down in your living room and have a heart-to-heart about the reason for that or you’re getting changed and we get plastered at that Animal Aid clinic party. What is it going to be?”

The gentle determination in Viggo’s inflection seemed to make it easy. Both offers sounded reasonable and alright. Until Sean remembered where he knew that voice from.

“You’re using the voice on me,” he said with mild indignation. “The one you use on horses you’re about to put down!”

Viggo’s crooked grin was confirmation that it had been intentional and that he found Sean’s irritation amusing, too.

“Well, if the shoe fits.”

“And what crap was that about talking about my ruddy feelings?”

“Yeah, I admit that was a bit of a longshot.”

“There’s no way I –.” He uncrossed his arms and poked Viggo in the chest provokingly. “I’ll drink you under the table.”

With that he turned around and climbed the stairs. He was already half way up when he froze and turned around. Viggo was looking up at him with a broad grin on his face.

With a scowl Sean said, “I know what you did there.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m a manipulative douche, and you’re unfortunate to be associated with me. Now, get changed, we have booze to drink.”

They took Viggo’s Mercedes. Despite his friend’s earlier words, Sean was still a bit surprised when they parked right in front of the animal clinic Sean sent all his seriously sick horses to.

It turned out that the vet clinic party was actually held at the clinic, the big operating theatre acted as a ballroom. While Viggo was extremely entertained by that – and of course voiced that opinion to everyone they ran into – Sean found it a little disconcerting at the beginning. Even though the place was heavily decorated and all the expensive instruments of course had been locked away safely.

But even if he hated to admit it, it was good to be out of the house though, away from Greystone, especially if it meant being around strangers. Not that this lasted very long. Not only did Viggo appear to know every single person at the party, Sean spotted more and more of the usual racing crowd as the evening progressed.

The beer was decent and the music, albeit rather disgusting, was loud enough that talking didn’t seem mandatory, something else that he certainly didn’t mind. Still, when he found himself chatting with one of the vets that had operated on Fiddler’s Green a few years back he didn’t even notice when Viggo disappeared from his side.

He found him again a while later, nodding emphatically in response to what the man standing opposite of him was saying. It didn’t surprise Sean that it was Bernard Hill who’d captivated his friend’s attention. Bernard was known to be the life of the party every time he showed up on the racecourse. Sean liked him well enough, their rivalry was amiable and the other man’s liking for telling jokes and holding speeches meant that Sean himself didn’t have to do the entertaining.

Fittingly, Bernard welcomed him by slapping him on the back with jovial intensity.

“Ah, my arch enemy! Sean, I was just telling Viggo here that one of my New Year resolutions is to beat you in the Gold Cup!”

“Like you did in the King George last year?”

Theatrically Bernard clutched his chest as if deeply hurt.

“Besides,” Viggo joined in, “Bernard just got some nice new horses.”

Sean looked at the other trainer with interest. “So you were successful in Doncaster then?”

“Eh? No, no, I just bought that gelding I asked you about, as soon as I stopped the cabbage owners from mithering. You?”

“Gelding, Sandcastle son.”

“Like that stallion of yours? How’s he doing?”

“Well enough.”

“Will you run him in the National this year? The gelding at least? Been, what, a decade since a horse of yours finished before one of ours.”

“I save the real good ones for the Gold Cup.”

“Is that right? I was wondering how I was so lucky.” Bernard laughed heartily. With a mockingly accusatory nod towards Sean he added for Viggo’s benefit, “Sean’ll tell you he doesn’t fancy Aintree.”

Viggo made a tutting sound of reprimand.

“There’s yet a trainer to be born who doesn’t have wet dreams of the National.”

Bernard laughed again, obviously liking the way Viggo phrased that.

“Better than winning a million pounds in the lottery, winning in that race.”

“Now, I wouldn’t go that far.”

Bernard arched a brow.

“What kind of racing man are you? Valuing money over immortality, or what?”

“I’d have use for a million quid. I could emigrate to Argentina.”

“Argentina?” Sean repeated in mild surprise.

Viggo shrugged and smiled lopsidedly.

“It’s beautiful there, peaceful. You should go some time. You’d like it.”

“Ah, what do I care about money,” Bernard waved it aside, returning to the original subject. Turning towards Sean again, he added, “I might have something against you in the Gold Cup this year. One of my owners sent us five mint new horses just before Christmas.”

“You plan on entering all of them to stand a chance?” Sean asked back.

Bernard just laughed and toasted him.

“What is it with Christmas and buying horses?” Viggo asked with an ostentatious sigh. “The amount of pre-purchase exams I had to do the last fortnight is about as high as my yearly total.”

“Every thirteen year old girl with her three legged pony come to good Uncle Viggo?” Bernard mocked him in good humour.

“Like the three legged ponies in your yard you mean? No really. Aside from your horses, I had to do a whole string of ultra-urgent pre-purchases for Bloom.”

Sean looked at Viggo, eyes narrowing.

“Bloom senior,” Viggo clarified, tilting his head a little as he regarded Sean. “The bloodstock agent. You know him, you buy hoses from him.”

Sean wasn’t interested in hearing more, in hearing anything that would remind him of Orlando. He took another sip from his beer, letting its heavy taste and the loud party around them ground him to the here and now, willing himself to not think about this.

Bernard, however, quirked up with curiosity.

“Haven’t seen him around for a while. Is he still as –“ He waved his hands in an imitation of exuberant gesturing. “And talking a mile a minute even when he doesn’t want to sell you a horse?”

Orlando waving at him when he returns from morning gallops, laughing when Sean scowls at him. Orlando nearly hitting himself in the face when he describes how riding Traveller is like a religious experience, can’t stop gushing about how racing Red Sun Rising is better than anything, better than sex even.

Christ.

Sean willed away these snapshots that Bernard’s words had conjured up, still felt dazed by their force.

Viggo, however, just nodded.

“Last time I’ve seen him. But you got to give it to Bloom, he has an eye for who might be the next Red Rum.”

“Undoubtedly. He got us the filly I ran in the King George last year.”

“The grey one?”

“That’s her. Got her pretty cheap for me as well. He’d told me about her a couple of weeks before the sale, asked whether I was interested.” Bernard’s voice changed from his own Mancunian accent to something softer, Southern, as he quoted. “’I’ve got a diamond in the rough for you, Bernard, and what a beauty she is.’” He laughed boomingly. “Truth be told, she hadn’t been on my radar and I wouldn’t have spotted her at the sales.”

“And she won you quite a few races since then, isn’t that right?” Viggo asked.

“Worth her weight in gold. I haven’t a clue know how Bloom does it; must have a ton of spies all over the country. Or just a better gut than I do.”

“Gut feeling runs in the family, though, doesn’t it?”

Viggo looked at Sean, and Bernard, too, turned towards him.

“Ah, yes, the infamous hot-headed junior. He’s still riding for you?”

Sean grunted an affirmation. Bernard wasn’t gonna let it go that easily, though.

“He was with you at the HIT sales, I remember. He’s planning to follow in his father’s footsteps so soon? You ruined him for the sport already?”

Viggo and Bernard laughed. Sean didn’t.

“I doubt he has the patience for that,” Viggo said. “I’ve seen him on the downs. Isn’t that right, Sean?”

“He’s a dead good jockey,” Bernard agreed before Sean had to. “I guess that’s good enough for now. If you don’t monitor him closely, I’ll steal him from you. Right off the horse – with a black van, so it’s a proper kidnapping, too. Hah.”

Bernard laughed at his own joke. Sean, however, didn’t know what to say to that. He still had to remind himself regularly that he wanted Orlando in his yard, that he was good for the horses, good for business and that was what was important. More important than other things.

Viggo looked at Sean for a moment before he replied in his place.

“I don’t think that particular enterprise would be crowned with success. Sean’s horses have a tendency to kick. And I have it on good authority that his staff bites if need be.”

Bernard seemed greatly amused.

“Ah, so there is something to that rumour, you and that bang on secretary of Sean’s?”

“I don’t kiss and tell,” Viggo said lightly. “By which I don’t mean to imply that I kissed.”

“Sure, sure,” Bernard nodded and winked. “In any case, if there is biting, I’d better get my rabies shots. Speaking of hanging diseases, Doc, you have any insights on what’s going down in Lambourn?”

Sean had read about the virus infection that had afflicted several yards in Lambourn. He shared a worried glance with Bernard before they both looked at Viggo. The vet shrugged but still told them what he’d heard and they talked at length about the dangers of the virus spreading and the possibilities of preventing that. Sean was worried about the well-being of his horses but also he couldn’t deny that this was a topic he felt far more comfortable with than chitchat about people they all knew, especially if happened to be Orlando.

There was more booze, more horse-talk and at one point Sean turned around only to find Viggo on a make-shift stage, doing karaoke with a huge male nurse and laughing until he cried. The entire party took a hike into the nearby downs right before midnight so they wouldn’t disturb the horses in the hospital’s yard with their firework. No one complained about wet and dirty feet as they marched field inwards which said something about the state of general inebriation. Even women that wore inconvenient high heels cheered when the first fireworks exploded in the night sky.

Sean listened to the countdown and the collectively shouted ‘Happy New Year!’, tilted his head back to watch the firework, traded a few well wishes. Then he walked back to the clinic through the darkness. After a while Viggo came to lean against the wall outside the theatre next to Sean.

“You know what they say about people that sit alone in the dark and drink on their own?” His voice sounded a little rough from all the singing and shouting.

“They got friends who know when to leave them alone?”

Viggo reached for the bottle of malt that Sean had managed to obtain and Sean gave it up without protest. After taking a swig Viggo handed it back and cleared his throat experimentally. Sean felt his eyes on him as if the other man was searching for something, even if he didn’t know what it was.

“I’m pretty sure the virus thing in Lambourn is mostly hysteria,” Viggo said after a moment.

“Yeah prolly.”

“And your yard is clean, your horses are monitored closely,” Viggo went on, as if not convinced. Sean felt his hand on his shoulder, meant to comfort. “You really don’t need to worry.”

Sean frowned and half wanted to shrug the hand off but in the end didn’t. He turned his head and looked back at the other man though.

“I don’t.”

Viggo’s blue eyes were slightly watery from the alcohol but still fixing firmly on him. And Sean thought that with all his prodding and investigating, he had maybe grown the ability to read minds, too.

“Well, maybe not about that. Is it Lee again? What did he do this time?”

“Got nothing to do with that.”

Viggo’s eyes narrowed and he still looked at Sean as if he could see right through him, could see things that even Sean himself couldn’t or at least that he didn’t want to see.

“I know you don’t want to hear it, but –“

“Leave it.”

“It’s been years, Sean. Ever since it ended between you and –“

Viggo cut himself off mid-sentence and didn’t say the name. Last time he’d said it out loud, Sean had punched him. Even now, after all these years and even if Sean hadn’t wasted a single conscious thought on that person for a long time, he glared at Viggo warningly. Viggo rubbed a hand over his face.

“I’m just saying there’s a difference between privacy and isolation.”

Sean narrowed his eyes. He didn’t want advice, and even less he wanted Viggo’s pity. The insisting gentleness in his voice was making him sick to the stomach. Viggo didn’t react to Sean’s warning glare, just kept looking at him like that, until Sean couldn’t bear it anymore.

“You remember when you and Exene split up?” he asked acidly. “The state you were in?”

It was obvious from the look on Viggo’s face that he did. Still, he shook his head.

“What you’re doing isn’t a solution to anything.”

The smile on Sean’s lips didn’t reach his eyes.

“Would be so convenient, huh? Me, in dire need to pour my heart out.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“And you’re here to make it all better. There, there.”

“Come on, Sean –”

“Just ‘cause you needed a shoulder to cry on, doesn’t mean I owe you a soul-bearing. Leave it the fuck alone.”

Viggo sighed in resignation, like he’d done more times than Sean could remember. But he still spoke his piece, as if some obstinate and deaf part of him still firmly believed it could make a difference.

“So, you’ll just continue trying to live in that self-proclaimed exile. That’s healthy.”

Sean scoffed bitterly before he could rein himself in. If he had just done that. If he’d just remembered that lesson he’d learned years ago, had paid for years ago already. But burnt once hadn’t been enough, not for him. Stupid. So stupid.

Viggo smiled at him, sadness there but not pity, and it made his retreat acceptable.

“Yeah, so I owe you. After all, you had to drag me out of the swamp of self-pity. But I’m thinking of it as cathartic nowadays. It helped getting it out of my system.”

Sean believed it was true, too. True for Viggo. As much as he trusted his best friend in most areas, this wasn’t one of them. Viggo took the bottle from him again.

“And I’ll say it again. I don’t care that it makes you want to punch me. I’m listening if you want to talk. And perhaps you should. For once.”

Sean looked back defiantly but felt the urge to explain himself grow ever more forceful. He needed to get Viggo to understand that there was no need for any of this. It would have been easier if he’d believed it himself. If his mind hadn’t been circling around Orlando with the restless unease of a horse with colic. If thinking about Orlando didn’t hurt, if not thinking about him was impossible. If talking about it at all wouldn’t have meant that all of this was real and not just a bad dream.

He didn’t say anything and turned his eyes away from Viggo’s to cut off that pathetic need to talk.

For once Viggo didn’t prod, didn’t push. He just stayed there with him and in silence they’d shared most of the bottle between them before Viggo began to talk again, told the anecdote of the skittish filly that had fainted during her first vet examination, a story Sean had heard at least a dozen times already.

Sean loved him for it. But it didn’t change anything.

***

The New Year brought more snow.

All the gallops were covered in perfect white every morning and the horses snorted when their hooves dispersed the powdery ground. The lads quietly cursed their misfortune for they had to keep the yard remotely free of snow and ice so the horses wouldn't slip. The daily routine was more or less undisturbed aside from that, but it was quieter for there were no races in the nearest future.

Some of those early darkening afternoons Sean used the spare time to go hacking. He always came back with Ponti walking contently and still sweating from the last canter. His muscles were strained and his lungs burned from the cold air but it felt good. The ache for once had a different origin than Orlando.

He planned the rest of the season together with Dave and managed to get some order into his papers. Some owners came by for a visit and Orlando charmed them all, presenting their horses in the best way possible. Sean watched him smile and joke with the men, flirt with the women. Every time it was like some more of the snow surrounding them had found a way into his heart.

After that morning in his kitchen Orlando and he hadn't talked. Sure, they'd discussed the horses' condition before and after racing, Orlando told Sean about the littlest changes in his rides’ psyche as soon as he picked up on them and Sean listened, found Orlando an attentive audience when he laid out his plans for the forthcoming races. So yeah, they spoke, probably not even that much less than before Christmas, no one but them would know the difference. They talked, but they hadn't talked about what had happened.

It maybe would've made it easier if Sean didn’t have to go to sleep every evening and dream of Orlando every night.

Orlando kisses him. His hand holds on to Sean’s collar and he holds on so tightly as if he is trying to make sure Sean doesn’t run away. Sean wouldn’t, couldn’t even if he wanted to. Completely astounded, he lets Orlando kiss him, lets him in when Orlando’s grip tightens, he tilts his head and his tongue pushes against Sean’s lips. Utterly stunned. For another long moment his brain is unable to process, is swamped by the sensation's intensity and all he can do is moan quietly. A shiver runs through Orlando's body in response, he can feel it as Orlando presses against him, thinks he can hear Orlando's heart racing too when he finally responds.

Orlando is trembling and it just won't stop and it can’t be from the cold because Sean feels like he’s burning up. He brings his hand up to cup the back of Orlando’s head with it and holds him close. Orlando sighs, takes the last small step closer to him, settling a little as his tongue wraps around Sean's in return. As if the touch allows him to blend out everything outside their embrace, allows him to focus solely on the kiss.

The world comes back slowly and Sean can hear the horses rustling in their straw, can feel the cold night air, smells the horses and the hay while he’s being kissed. Can remember his own name and who he is, all those unimportant little details he temporarily forgot once he felt Orlando. Orlando who is still pressing him against the wall with his lithe, hard body, Orlando whose hands drift up, their fingers lightly closing around Sean's neck to touch his skin, Orlando who is still kissing him like he is born to do just that.

And Sean kisses back.

***

Chapter Text

Seven

He wakes because he realises he is drooling onto his pillow. Why is that how he always wakes up? Lying on his belly with his mouth open, however he went to sleep the evening before? Experimentally he opens first one eye and then the other and can see the stars still blinking outside the window. The dark grey surrounding them instead of complete black hints that it will be dawn in a bit, even if the light by far is not enough yet to illuminate the room properly. He doesn't need light to know where he is in any case. He just needs to inhale - different fabric softener.

And Sean.

Good Lord.

Suddenly more than awake, it sinks in, his slight soreness as well as the feeling of Sean's naked leg lightly touching his. Sean lies on his back next to him, fast asleep. His face is turned towards Orlando and it’s softened by sleep, the curve of his jaw not as hard. Even the laugh lines around his closed eyes are smoothened out. Orlando wants to comb his fingertips through his hair, wants to kiss his cheekbone and his jawline, his slightly parted lips.

He pushes himself up to his elbows, careful to not make any noise, and the covers slide down over his back, exposing Sean's chest as well. The starlight illuminates his pale skin and makes it look cold but Orlando knows better. He remembers how hot Sean's skin felt against his own last night, so smooth and warm and slickened by their mingled sweat. He stares at him unmovingly, fearing that his thundering heartbeat may wake him from his sleep. But Sean continues breathing steadily, softly snoring and undisturbed. He reaches out to lay his flat hand onto Sean's peacefully rising and falling chest. But then he hesitates with his hand in mid-air, watches it shaking a little and doesn't touch Sean.

Orlando jerked awake with a sharp inhale and his eyes wide open. His heart thundered in his chest as he tried to calm down.

It had just been a dream, just a dream.

He stared at the ceiling and didn’t dare to move, still caught between the vividness of that memory and the bleak darkness of wakefulness. Eventually he shifted to his side to look at his alarm clock, pulled a face when his cheek was met by the dampness on his pillow. Stupid drooling. Why was it that he always did this in his sleep, how -?

Before his mind could spiral down once again, before he was back in that morning he switched on his bedside lamp. The clock told him the date and he was relieved when he realised that he’d have to spend the day on the racing track. The meeting schedule would keep him intensely busy and that was good.

And like that he spent the first days of the New Year in Ayr, Leicester, Southwell and Huntington. Sometimes he dozed next to Billy in Greystone’s huge transporter on the way to the track or back from it. He slipped into silks, out of silks, weighed in, weighed out. He was perfectly prepared for each race because he didn’t only know his own ride in and out but had studied the other runners’ forms sometimes until well into the night. He had two falls – was only surprised that it wasn’t the mean bastard Sandstorm who unseated him –, saw his name on the board announcing him winner or at least placed far more often.

In Huntington he even managed to win three of his four races – on Bravo Zero, Wimbledon and Kissing Advocate. He returned from the track late in the afternoon on his bike (as per usual; since Christmas). When he checked his messages it was Dave, not Sean, who was asking him to come over the following afternoon for some extra jumping training.

It was only a ten minute ride from Greystone’s main yard to the stretch of land, moulded against a small forest and hence hidden from curious eyes. They spent fifteen minutes circling the horses around the jumps to warm them up until Orlando caught Dave gesturing at them to pull Sandstorm up near the railing.

“Well done on Bravo Zero yesterday,” Dave said once Orlando had reached them. “I wasn’t sure he’d stand the distance.”

“He was tiring towards the end,” Orlando admitted. “It was just that the others tired first or faster.”

“Still, given that he’s only been out a handful of times, he performed well.”

“Won’t be a horse for longer distances though,” Sean said neutrally and with so much finality as if he had the ability to predict the future. Orlando wasn’t about to argue with him.

“What am I doing today?” he asked instead.

“Fool’s Gold, aside from Sandstorm,” Dave said.

Orlando nodded.

“Fool’s Gold can do with the exercise. Last time I rode him, he nearly fainted when he got over the first fence.”

“And wouldn’t that be a sight for the track,” Dave chuckled and imitated a race commentator’s voice. “And here comes Fool’s Gold, heading for the first jump ahead of the field – oh, no Fool’s Gold has fainted! Fool’s Gold is out – anyone got smelling salts?”

Orlando smiled tentatively but Sean’s face didn’t show any amusement, didn’t show anything at all really when he looked back at Orlando. His eyes were shadowed by the cap he always wore outside the house and every line around his mouth, clearly visible in the bright afternoon sunlight, seemed deeply engraved into his clean shaved face – unmovable, unrelenting, unamused.

“We still gotta see whether that’s just from inexperience,” he said.

“You don’t think so?” asked Dave.

“Some horses just don’t have the heart.”

Dave just nodded without much concern either way. But the clear distinction, made as if there was nothing else between those two options, made Orlando feel uncomfortable.

“And Sandstorm?” he asked just to change the topic, as he already pulled the stallion back.

“Routine,” Dave answered. “Brushing up what he already knows.”

“Little as that may be,” Orlando muttered to himself, careful to not say it loud enough that Sean could hear him.

However, Sandstorm had one of his good days. His mind was still a brick wall and Orlando had to tell him everything thrice before he bothered to listen to the instructions. But Orlando couldn’t deny that the horse was an excellent jumper nevertheless and he could even sympathise with him; Sandstorm had to be bored by the exercise because it held no challenge for him whatsoever.

He and Britt changed horses after he’d finished. In comparison to Sandstorm’s height and his massive set of shoulders, the young gelding felt too lean under Orlando, like he wasn’t done growing yet. Orlando adjusted his weight in the saddle, placed on hand on bony withers.

Dave stepped closer to the fence.

“Britt, keep Sandstorm out of the way and keep him warm. Elijah, that single fence over there – take it in a moderate canter, so Fool’s Gold can follow.”

They all waited for another moment. Orlando wasn’t the only one expecting specific instructions for Fool’s Gold to follow. Sean just leaned back against his Land Rover and crossed his arms over his chest. Orlando felt himself heat up despite the bitingly cold wind.

“Right,” he said shortly and turned his ride around, so he wouldn’t have to face Sean any longer.

Fool’s Gold started prancing nervously as if sensing that what was to come. Orlando waited for Elijah to catch up and let him trot next to the ever calm Gamekeeper for another round until the little gelding had calmed down again. He pricked his ears when Elijah kicked Gamekeeper into a light canter and headed for the lone fence. Orlando did likewise, kept silent when Fool’s heart rate increased again but steadied him through the connection of the reins between them, willed him to concentrate.

Gamekeeper shortened his strides immediately before the jump and was about half a length ahead of Fool’s Gold as he took the fence with routine ease. Fool’s Gold saw the other horse jump and wanted to barge after him; Orlando struggled to keep him in a moderate pace and to meet the fence correctly. The result was far from perfect. Fool’s Gold set off too early even if his hooves didn’t touch a single branch of the fence as he flew over it. But as soon as he landed he seemed to crumble in on himself and the only reason why Orlando could keep in control was that the gelding couldn’t seem to decide whether to stop dead or to bolt.

Elijah looked back at him and easily pulled Gamekeeper to a halt next to the railing so Fool’s Gold could just follow suit. Without difficulty Orlando stopped his horse next to him, right in front of Dave and Sean.

“Well, he won’t win any show jumping prices. At least not for style,” Dave commented, his usual soft smile on his lips.

Orlando was about to say that he didn’t need to anyhow. Sean beat him to it.

“He’s not here to look pretty. Losing ground is a problem.”

“What do you think?” Dave asked Orlando.

“He’s not trying to be difficult. He’s not just mulish or stupid either, that’s not it.”

“What then?”

Again, before Orlando could reply, Sean spoke.

“He loses his confidence mid-air. Comes down on the other side, afraid of his own courage.”

“Yeah, that’s exactly it,” Orlando agreed.

Once again, Sean had put into words exactly what the horse had silently transmitted. Sean got it, there wasn’t anything to explain. It made Orlando feel glad and relieved both. He smiled at Sean – this understanding was something that couldn’t be measured in gold, nothing could ever be as important as this.

But Sean didn’t return the smile. He quietly scoffed instead and looked away. Orlando’s smile instantly fell, none of the rush of relieved happiness left.

Dave now had a small frown on his forehead, but his voice was as light as ever.

“How about we don’t give him time to worry about it? He can jump after all, so we don’t need to teach him that. Let’s see if he fares better with a couple of hurdles right behind each other. Let’s get him out of the shock and into some kind of rhythm.”

Sean looked at Fool’s Gold with his head tilted contemplatively. The gelding seemed to shrink under that gaze, felt even smaller and more insecure beneath Orlando – ’Some horses just don’t have the heart.’. Orlando felt the timidity threatening to seep right into him but clenched his jaw defiantly, settled back in the saddle and put a calming hand onto the little gelding’s bony withers.

“He can do it,” he said firmly. “He is a nice lad, he wants to please. He can do it.”

Sean just glared at him.

Dave cleared his throat.

“We’ll try that then. Right, Sean?”

When Sean finally agreed, something was oddly sharpening his voice.

“Can’t hurt.”

Orlando let Elijah take the lead again and they tried Dave’s suggestion. The outcome was still far from flawless – Fool’s Gold still freaked out after each jump and see-sawed between threatening to hyperventilate and finding his step – but there was a little progress in Orlando’s opinion.

The young gelding’s mind was still occupied with his great conquer of the first hurdle when the second and third were right in front of him. Orlando steered him over them, firm grip on the reins and thoughts calm and steadying. After two more rounds, Fool’s Gold seemed less wavery, steadier in his steps and the stuttering unease of bared nerves lessened. After the third round, Orlando glanced over to the Land Rover, ignoring Sean on purpose this time. The small smile on Dave’s face was all the reassurance he needed, could immediately transmit to his horse as well. Damn Sean.

After finishing their last round, Orlando still debated with himself whether to ask Sean if he wanted to discuss the horse any further back at the house. But when he turned in his saddle, Sean was deep in conversation with Dave and had already turned back to the car.

Britt, on a very bored looking Sandstorm, pulled up next to him and Elijah. Even though she was rubbing her gloved hands together her eyes were fixed on the Land Rover.

“Sweet fucking Jesus, it’s bloody chilly. And Bark’s super pissed today.”

“Seemed normal to me,” Orlando said with a shrug and nothing had ever felt like more of a lie.

“Are you kidding me?” Britt asked and blew into her hands to warm them as she looked at Orlando with huge and sceptical eyes. “Even I picked up on that, and I’m the least sensitive person in the Kingdom, aren’t I.”

“Who says that?” Elijah asked.

“Martin did. When I walked in on him and Kirsten when I was looking for my purse.”

“What?!” asked both Orlando and Elijah.

Dave interrupted them with instructions to return to Greystone now. They all nodded and left the schooling ground. Only when they were on the way back, Orlando cleared his throat, and Elijah looked expectantly at Britt.

“So, you walked in on them?” Elijah prompted.

“I was looking for my purse,” Britt repeated in a slightly louder voice. “You know, the small red one I bought myself as a Christmas present? It’s so fucking small that it’s getting lost all the time.”

Elijah and Orlando exchanged looks over the neck of Britt’s horse.

“You really think that bit was gathering that much of a reaction from us?” Orlando asked. “Martin and Kirsty? When did that happen?”

“Man, even I know that much,” Elijah said. “Week before Christmas, I reckon. But walking in on them? Ouch.”

“And you know that how?”

“Martin had this huge hickey on his neck. I asked him about it and he blushed like a pro. And Kirsten had this shit-eating grin on her face.”

Orlando shook his head in disbelief, and Britt turned her own broad grin towards him.

“Yeah, and there also was all the sex noise coming from Martin’s room.”

“Sex noise?!” Elijah changed looks from smug to scandalised immediately.

Britt laughed. “Are you deaf?”

Elijah blushed and for a moment looked like he wouldn’t reply at all. Then though he said sweetly, “It wasn’t me who walked in on them though, was it?”

“I needed my purse, didn’t I. They could hold off for a second, right?”

Orlando chuckled at her matter of fact tone of voice. “I’m beginning to understand where the insensitive-label is coming from. You told them as much, too, didn’t you?”

“Course I did. Martin was cussing at me like nobody’s business. I wasn’t asking him to pull out and help me look for it, was I? Kirs nearly fell off him because she was laughing so hard.”

“Holy fuck,” Elijah breathed and stroked Gamekeeper’s broad neck, for once to calm himself and not the horse with the gesture. “I don’t believe it.”

“You and Dom play video games all night,” Britt told him. “Or whatever it is you do. Your own fault you’re probably still a virgin. No way you can keep up with who’s shagging who.”

She grinned knowingly at Orlando and for a second his heartbeat increased and he inhaled sharply before he realized that she was only referring to Martin and Kirsten again.

“No, I didn’t mean that,” Elijah said with a deep frown. “I just thought – really, Martin’s not completely off when he calls you insensitive, is he?”

“Oh, lighten up, Lijah,” Britt chided lightly and her horse was walking close enough to Elijah’s for her to be able to lean over and cuff him. “It’s just sex. No big deal. Second best sport, right after riding. And it burns of a shitload of calories, too. Right, Orlando?”

“Totally.”

Because it was no big deal, sex was just sex and it was supposed to be fun for everyone involved, not something you got the cold shoulder for afterwards, especially if it had been great. And it certainly didn’t concern anyone with whom you did it. Nobody’s business but yours.

Britt was still looking at him, as if she didn’t fully buy what he had said, no matter than he’d agreed with her.

So he nodded again, said, “Absolutely 100% true.”

She tilted her head and had this calculating look on her face now. Elijah looked at him with his big blue eyes, his own blush forgotten.

“If you think so,” Elijah said doubtfully after a moment.

“You and your sweet idea of romance.” Britt grinned at Elijah, her attention deflected from whatever she’d thought she’d heard in Orlando’s voice. “I, like, want to grab you and shag it right out of you. Or maybe you’d infect me. Maybe it’s something like an STD.”

Elijah looked torn between being appalled and vaguely pleased for a moment. “Can’t they get fired for that? Isn’t that, I dunno, against some kind of workplace rule or something?”

“Bark wouldn’t be thrilled about it. That much is sure, innit. Hey, maybe that’s the reason for his pissy mood; Martin and Kirs? You should go ahead and ask him about it later, Orlando.”

Orlando picked up his reins, the familiar feeling of worn leather between his fingers comforting, something solid to grip. “So that he can bite my head off? No thank you, I’ll pass.”

“Pfft, as if,” Elijah snorted.

Britt agreed, “You’re totally safe. Everyone knows he loves you, doesn’t he.”

A sudden pain stabbed Orlando’s heart in response to that. He flinched and instinctively reached up to rub his chest. Britt didn’t notice, was already back on the topic of Martin and Kirsten. Elijah however, gave him an inquisitive look that he couldn’t decipher. Then he shook his head, as if vaguely disappointed almost, before he responded to Britt’s mockery of Martin’s pathological need for privacy. Leaving Orlando confused and more than slightly frustrated as they turned into the road that led directly to the yard.

***

The following week was packed with meetings, still no time for anything but racing, eating, sleeping. On a particularly cold Friday Orlando had four rides in Kempton and it was a testimony to how little time he’d spend in the flat that he and Colin only realised they were headed for the same track when they were on the same train together. They laughed about it and since it was Friday decided that – especially since Kempton Park racecourse was conveniently close to London – a night out right after the races was long overdue.

However, in the evening Colin was unusually quiet, though tired from the day’s races Orlando only picked up on it when they had already had had a few. They were in a club they’d been to a couple of times already with good beer, good music and what Colin had called ‘plenty of women who’re dying to fight over visitation rights to my crotch’. When Colin had blown off two definitely interested girls without even really looking at them and returned from his trip to the bathroom in the same pissy mood he’d left in, Orlando had enough.

“What’s it with you tonight?” he asked, pushing the beer glass he’d been holding for Colin back into his hand. “Last time I’ve seen you this arsed off? That weirdo chick was stalking you. Suzy, Lucy?”

“Tracy, arsehole. Like you forgot.”

“Whatever. Didn’t you have two wins today, and a second?”

“I fucking hate this fucking job.”

“You’re not seriously pissed I beat you in the three thirty?”

“What if I am?”

It was spoken with enough vigour for Orlando to raise his eyebrows.

“How old are you? Five?”

Colin glared at him but stayed silent long enough for Orlando to roll his eyes. He turned his attention back to the growing crowd on the dance floor. Colin wasn’t one to brood by himself though, so Orlando wasn’t surprised when he spoke again.

“My ride in that race, right? I take it last minute, and I am quite thrilled about it, too, because it’s a good horse, you know? So, guess what effing happens?” He paused for effect. “Owner comes up to me, tells me not to win.”

“Wasn’t the horse up for the distance?”

Colin snorted.

“You’re such a gowl, I want to lamp you.”

“Yeah, yeah, Mick.”

“He took me aside for to tell me to throw the race. You want me to explain to you why?”

“Good to know your condescension has made it past the winning post at least.”

“Guess it’s not even a fault of yours, you working for that Saint Bean.”

Merely hearing Sean’s name caused something to snap inside of Orlando. He glared at Colin, but Colin was still too busy with his own anger to see the change in his eyes.

When Orlando didn’t reply, Colin added,

“Fairy tale wonderland still hiring, Cinderella?”

Orlando hit Colin’s shoulder hard enough for Colin to stumble back a half-step and bump against the guy behind him. Colin automatically apologised to the man without even turning toward him. A ‘what’s it with you’ was clearly written all over his face. Orlando choose to ignore the silent question.

Instead he repeated Colin’s earlier words.

“So, the owner told you to throw the race?”

Colin still looked at him for another moment, then he shrugged.

“Well, intensely suggested, if you’re being picky.”

“Still illegal.”

“Jeez, he prolly just didn’t know, poor innocent soul.”

“So, he had money on the horse losing or what?”

“Doesn’t take an effing genius to figure that out, OB.”

“He should get fucking banned. To put you on the spot like that? Fucking arsehole.”

Colin didn’t reply, just looked at him kind of strangely, like somehow he hadn’t expected Orlando being furious on his behalf. Orlando turned his attention to the bar and was lucky enough to instantly catch the attention of the bar tender, wordlessly ordering two more beers.

“So, what did you do?” he asked. “Can’t punch an owner in the parade ring, I guess. But did you tell the jockey club? Or the trainer at least?”

“What good does that do? My word against his.” Colin shrugged resignedly. “And besides, I’m pretty sure the trainer is in on it.”

“Seriously?”

“I ask the owner is he having me on. Then I tell him to go and fuck himself, basically. He is so effing pissed, tells me I’ll never ride for him again.”

“Good riddance, I’d say.”

Colin nodded but rubbed a hand over his face, took another drag from his beer.

“Yeah, but then I don’t even win the effing race now! Just’ cause your stupid horse has to push its nose over the line first. By a short head. Mother of Christ, you always have to be so lucky?”

Orlando glared at him. His voice was sharper, didn’t fit the TGIF location anymore somehow.

“It’s not just bloody luck all the time, okay?”

“Come off it. I never meant it like that.”

“Yeah, you did.”

“No, no, I’m sure it’s not just luck. Your fairy godmother has something to do with it as well.”

“You know what? I’m so fucking tired of this. Do you know how much crap I have to take from Lee alone? Today, because I only came in third. Third! That was nearly a miracle, considering how stinkingly slow that horse of his is. I swear one day I’ll strangle that supercilious son of a bitch.”

Colin just shrugged.

“So, we’re doing your psych eval now?”

“I forgot, it’s fine when you whine my ear off, but when I say just one –“

“Oh, come off it. You’re still racing some of the best horses in the country.”

“Yeah, like that’s everything.”

“Effing Englishman or not, at least Bean won’t ever tell you to throw a race.”

Orlando knew that Colin was right, that this wasn’t just Colin’s personal pity-party or him being jealous, no matter how pissy his voice still was. Didn’t make him feel better though. He sipped from his beer and let his eyes drift back to the dance floor.

“He’s not telling me to throw races. He’s not telling me anything at all anymore.”

“Since when?” Colin asked instantly. “You are practically camping in his yard. Like he is the Tom Dreaper to your Arkle.”

“Don’t know what’s more insulting, you comparing me to a horse or him to an Irishman.”

“Both of you should feel honoured.”

Orlando smiled but for once, Colin’s blatant Irishness didn’t make him feel more at ease. He shook his head, said, quieter,

“Kinda hard, feeling honoured or, considering, lucky if you’re being totally ignored all the time.”

“I don’t get it. What changed?”

Colin looked uncomprehending for a moment. Then a thought suddenly occurred to him then, brought a smirk on his lips.

“Wait, you didn’t fuck his wife now, did you? I thought he isn’t married.”

“He’s not. And I didn’t.”

Colin was still grinning, continued fishing.

“His mistress then?”

“Sod off.”

“His sister? Is she blond as well? Nice.”

“Leave it alone, Colin.”

But of course Colin didn’t. Of course he’d find this amusing, no matter what had been bugging him only a minute before. He rubbed his chin, feigning to think hard.

“Come on. You’re doing his daughter? That’s filthy, even for you, OB. And that’s saying something ‘cause –“

“Him. I did him, Col.”

Colin laughed on for another moment. Then, in the middle of the loud and busy club, he went absolutely silent. He stared at Orlando with eyes wide with astonishment.

“What?”

Orlando was shocked himself, shocked he’d said it out loud. It wasn’t like he’d never before – but it wasn’t something he talked about. No need to, he’d told himself, but as his best mate looked at him now, like he couldn’t believe what he was hearing, he knew that this hadn’t been the real reason for his silence.

For a moment Orlando wished he could take it back, wished that Colin hadn’t heard him over the noise of the club – even though the expression on Colin’s face left no doubt that he had. What was it with fucking noise and people all around him that made him feel careless enough to just blurt out something like this? Fuck.

Colin stared at him with utter disbelief. It made Orlando’s stomach drop.

“Aye right,” Colin said slowly, incredulity still hardening his voice. “First, you hit your head and lose all common sense. And then you stick it to Sean Bean. That about it?”

Orlando averted his gaze, didn’t reply. He had said too much already. He couldn’t take that back, and he didn’t know what else to do, so he did nothing. The dance floor was getting more crowded and the song playing now was faster, a rhythm he really longed to lose himself in.

Colin tried laughing again. It came out as an uncomfortable scoff.

“Are you taking the piss? Because kudos –“

“I’m not fucking with you.”

It should have been something, should’ve made Orlando feel at least a little less like a fucking coward now.

It took a moment to really sink in, but then Colin rubbed the back of his neck in agitation. Believed him.

“Mother of Christ. Of all the fucking stupid shit you’ve done, this really takes the – are you fucking mental?”

“It was just – “

Colin’s glare cut him off.

“Don’t come along with ‘it was just’ now! You shagged your Guv! Fuck, Orlando! What is wrong with you?”

And that was just it, wasn’t it?

It was the question Orlando had been terrified to hear out of Sean’s mouth, the thing he was still terrified to address even in his own head. And to hear it from Colin, Colin, with whom he’d been on the prowl more times than he could remember, and not always just for girls.

To have Colin staring at him wide-eyed and downright shocked over his revelation?

“Stop looking at me like that!” Orlando snapped. “Have I grown a second head?”

“Lost the one you had, you did. With what little brains it contained.”

“Fuck you! Whatever the fuck happened to ‘Shagworthiness knows no boundaries’, huh?”

Colin arched his brows in what had to be mocking pity.

“I never said –“

“You fucking well knew that I sometimes –“

“Are you kidding me?” Colin interrupted him now, his face darkening. “I don’t believe this.”

Orlando stepped closer to Colin, growled.

“You are a fucking hypocrite!”

Honest surprise and something else flashed in Colin’s eyes. But just for the fraction of a second, then it transformed into fury.

“Fuck this, I don’t have to listen to this shit. Not from you. You’re a fucking retard.” He put his empty glass down. “I’m going for a piss.”

“You just did!”

Colin’s dark glare focussed intently on him and he took a step closer to Orlando.

“It’s either that, or I’ll punch the stupid out of you, you fucking cunt. Your choice.”

“Oh, fuck you.”

“I leave that to Bean. Solid job he did already, didn’t he.”

Colin shoved Orlando to get him to move out of the way.

Orlando would have punched him. No matter that Colin was as hard-boned as a price fighter, regularly got into scuffles and always came out standing tall. Orlando still would have hit him. If he hadn’t been too stunned by his last words to move or even think.

When he finally snapped out of it, Colin was already walking away from him, pushing his way through the crowd with angry determination.

“Fuck.”

Orlando ran his hand through his hair, wanted to go after Colin, wanted to punch someone else.

What was happening to him, for heaven’s sake? Why was everything spinning out of control? What was wrong with him?

Well, fuck it. All of it.

He put his pint down, ordered two shots. He felt them burning in the back of his throat and couldn’t wait for them to show some effect.

The dance floor was crowded when he found himself on it and the rhythm of the music did a good job to overshadow his thumping headache. The song playing was some rock-punk hybrid, he didn’t know it, was glad for the hard and fast rhythm his body automatically responded to. He danced. Didn’t think, didn’t worry, didn’t doubt. Just danced. Fuck it all, nothing mattered, he was fine like this. Some guys around him started jumping and shoving each other, more aggressively now and he was glad for it, felt bodies stumbling against his own, pushed back, fought for balance. Wanted to drown in the music, just go under and be tossed around by the current like this.

He was breathing hard when the music slowed down a little later, sweating from every pore, felt the alcohol in his system, in his mind. Out of the ever changing crowd a girl appeared in front of him, her red hair flowing in rivulets over her naked shoulders and her round breasts. When he wiped his damp forehead with the hem of his t-shirt she laughed at him, a broad, carefree, slightly out of it laugh. She started dancing with him rather than next to him, her breasts soft against his chest, her small hands in the small of his back, in the back pocket of his jeans.

Arousal was a knee-jerk reaction, but God, it wasn’t even half as strong as the relief that flooded through him because of it.

This. Just like this.

Easy. Meaningless. Normal.

Normal.

‘What’s wrong with you?’ – Nothing.

She pressed tighter against him as she ground to the music, and he moved with her. His fingers ran over too bony shoulders, his hands gripped her arms and didn’t find strong muscles flexing under them. He looked down at her and her smile was too broad, her lips too full, her face too open. Her hands squeezed his butt but they were not the right size, her body pressing against his was not big enough, not hard enough, her motions lacked that powerful tension. He closed his eyes and she wound her arms around his neck. He buried his face in her hair and so desperately wanted to want her. But she smelled of perfume and smoke and hairspray instead of horse and curd soap and Sean.

He pulled back abruptly. He evened out the slight confusion in her wrongly coloured eyes with a smile so fake and broad that it hurt his face. He gestured wordlessly towards the loos and she let him go easily, expecting him to be back within a minute. He wouldn’t be. He fled. Which seemed to be the only thing he ever did.

He left the club and drank enough on the way to the station so he could just make it home. Didn’t even switch the lights on in the empty flat, threw up in the dark bathroom twice, fell face down onto his mattress. His last conscious thought was hope that his mind would be wiped blank the following morning. Or that he’d at least have a blissfully distracting hangover.

He fell asleep.

The moment pitch black embraces him so does Sean. Orlando presses closer, into Sean’s touch and his heart thunders at the feeling of Sean’s strong body pressing back. Sean chuckles, gives in as he is roughly pushed backwards, further into the tack room, gentle amusement warm in his voice. But it is him who pushes Orlando next, and Orlando’s back connects with the door, a hard impact, throwing it open. The smell of leather and saddle soap lingers in the air, but Orlando can’t focus on anything but Sean’s smell, Sean’s taste as he kisses him again, his evening stubble burning on Orlando’s lips, the feeling of Sean against him, of Sean’s long-fingered and calloused hands on his skin after they slide under his hoodie.

The demand in Sean’s touches is infective and after a short moment or two Orlando roughly pushes him back against the panelled wall. Once again Sean reacts with the no-nonsense swiftness of an attacking predator, switching their positions. He catches Orlando’s hands and holds them captive above his head, his grip definite, even more so when Orlando struggles to get free again right before Sean’s mouth descends on his again. Orlando is shaking with want, twists his hands again, just so he can feel Sean tightening his grip even further.

Their groans meet on their wet lips when their chests finally touch and damn, even through layers of clothing Orlando can feel Sean’s heartbeat underneath his hard muscles. Sean lets go of Orlando's hands and curses into his mouth when Orlando slides them under his shirt, instantly scratches down his back, wanting to mark, already addicted to the sound of Sean’s hiss when his nails dig into the skin as if trying to get to the strength underneath.

Breaking the kiss to gasp for air and Orlando’s lips burn from the sandpaper effect of Sean’s evening stubble. Sean buries his face in Orlando's neck and mutters more curses and encouragement, pushes his right knee roughly between Orlando’s thighs and creates desperately needed contact for them. Orlando clings to him, his grip tighter than ever, not because he fears Sean might slip away but because he feels Sean’s responding arousal to the firmness of his grasp.

Sean has to use force to pull back enough to slide his hand between their bodies, Orlando's cock is hard and he isn’t above begging right before Sean presses his palm against it. He whimpers pitifully, without any shame, and rubs himself against Sean’s hand, wordlessly begs for more as the want thundering through him makes it difficult to even stay upright. Sean grunts, not satisfied, rips the button fly of Orlando’s jeans open, slides his hand into his boxers and without hesitation closes his long fingers around his cock. He growls with pleasure and Orlando moans with relief even though he still craves more, wants Sean, digs his fingers deeper into his shoulders, Sean’s shirt taunt over his hand. He pushes him back enough to be able to look at him.

Despite the darkness his eyes find Sean’s, glinting cat-like and seeing only him. He reaches up to cup his face and Sean turns into the touch before Orlando leans in to find his lips again. Sean’s kiss. Hard and gentle, demanding and yielding, addictive and liberating; commanding all of Orlando’s attention despite the tight fist stroking his cock. Sean kisses him in the darkness and Orlando falls apart, cannot think of ever wanting anything else.

Fuck.

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

The next day he walked around like a zombie. Nothing that happened, not the races, not the business of the track, not the interaction with others, could ever feel as real as this memory. His mind snapped in and out of focus throughout the day, leaving him utterly confused and not always knowing where he was or what he was supposed to be doing.

Lack of concentration wasn’t something a jockey could afford for very long. Orlando remembered that during the three o’clock in Lingfield on Sunday. A little too late.

Pirate King was running in second place when they reached the fourth fence way too fast. Half a second before the jump Orlando snapped back into the race but it was too late to slow his horse down. Pirate King crashed against the railing just before she lifted off, didn’t manage to meet the fence right. For the fraction of a second all Orlando could see was the fast approaching ground before he was catapulted out of the saddle and landed right in front of her hooves. All he could do was curl up tightly and protect his head. Pirate King didn’t land on him but he heard her heavy body crashing down right next to him, felt the impact in the ground and with that conscious thought came back for a flash – a field of fourteen was following close behind, fifty-six chances to get hit in the head by a hoof.

He curled up even tighter, there was no way he could make it out of harm’s way before – the first horses jumped the fence, barely missed him, another and another and he felt a hard bang against his leg, lost count of how many horses had already passed.

Panic, full on sheer panic gripped him and even if there now had been time for him to get up and duck away he couldn’t even have moved a finger. The only thing that kept him from going absolutely and utterly insane, keeping him from just mindlessly spiralling downwards into that black pit of terror was that he knew he’d just have to endure a few more seconds of this. Eleven at most, it came faintly from a corner of his mind where the panic hadn’t reached yet. Eleven, ten –

It was then that he realised when he’d last felt exactly like this. The morning he’d woken up in Sean’s bedroom, in Sean’s bed.

Eight, seven – another hit against his leg and he was kicked a foot or so aside from its force.

Like an ice cold downpour it flooded over him, the memory of how he’d felt – paralysed with panic and with his mind racing as all his body wanted to do was bolt. What was he doing here? What had he done? What would Sean say when he woke, how would he look at him?

Five, four – another hoof graced his shoulder, coming down just inches from it and Orlando grunted and tightened his protective embrace of his head.

The longer he’d lain there awake, the longer Sean hadn’t woken up and looked so peaceful and lovely and like a complete stranger – why wouldn’t he just wake up? Please, God, he couldn’t wake up, Orlando couldn’t bear losing –

Two, one, zero –

Nothing. All horses had passed him, it was over.

He’d fled. He had gotten dressed as quietly as possible, had snuck out of the room and tiptoed down the stairs, out of the house. And he’d felt so filled up with mindless panic that he hadn’t been able to think straight, that he thought he couldn’t feel any worse.

Boy, had he been wrong.

“Hey, lad, are you okay?”

A strong hand shook his shoulder with surprising gentleness and Orlando opened his eyes. One of the officials was looking down at him, his face mostly obscured by a huge beard but still looking worried.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m okay.” Orlando sat up. One of the other officials was holding Pirate King by her reins and the horse looked alright, thank God.

“Can you get up?”

“What? Oh, right sure.”

He got to his feet, grunted when the places that the horses had hit ached slightly.

“Are sure you’re okay, lad?” asked the beard again, gripping his elbow steadyingly. “You look a bit shaken, didn’t get up.”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Orlando repeated. “Just knocked my head, I guess. I’ll see the doctor right after I got the horse back to its groom.”

He took the reins from the other official – a stocky little woman who told him reassuringly that “it wasn’t your horse’s fault at all, poor girl just was unlucky”. He met Pirate King’s wide eyed and almost amused look with a glare before she followed him, obviously completely unharmed and docile as a kitten.

Unsurprisingly, Lee was standing next to the track with Dave and didn’t even wait till Orlando had passed Pirate King on to Dom before Lee started laying into him. Every one of his sentences about Orlando’s riding skills, about his character, about his right to exist was as well aimed and forceful as a blow and Orlando already was bruised all over. Still, he just took it, waited for Lee to finish and while Dave did his best to calm him down Orlando couldn’t even bring himself to care. However disgusted Lee was with him – and he said so, repeatedly – it couldn’t compare to how sickened he was with himself already.

Half an hour and a quick visit to the doc, he was back in line in the weighing room for his last race of the day. There was a hold up at the scales and with tired annoyance Orlando sighed and gingerly massaged his hurting shoulder. Billie came up behind him and made a consoling sound.

“Bad fall, huh?” she said and Orlando turned to find her smiling softly.

“Hm. Just my fucking, fucking luck today.”

She regarded him sceptically for a moment, then took a step closer and said conspiratorially,

“You should talk to her. That usually helps.”

Orlando stared at her in confusion.

“What?”

“Or him,” Billie shrugged and readjusted her ponytail. “Pissy owner or angry girlfriend, same rules apply.”

“How do you -?”

Billie arched her brows.

“Your face? That frown and that pained, constipated look? I’d recognise that anywhere.”

Orlando rolled his shoulders, feeling uncomfortable in his own body, and flinched when a sharp stabbing pain reminded him of his bruises.

“It’s not that simple.”

“’Course not, it never is. It’s not like I know what I’m talking about or anything.”

Orlando snorted, even though he had to smile.

“You’re an expert on feelings because of what? You got cleavage?”

Billie laughed and punched Orlando in the arm. Orlando grunted, and apologetically she rubbed the sore spot that she hit.

“No, mate. I’m an expert ‘cause half the guys come to cry on my shoulder, like I’m their effing mother. If I would take money for that, I’d probably make more than I do riding races, as marriage councillor. I could open up a booth in the changing room, do you all in between races.”

Orlando couldn’t help but laugh.

“Surprise me then. What am I supposed to do? I’m assuming there’s a difference between angry owners and, you know.”

Billie shrugged easily and fiddled with the collar of her silks as they shuffled forward, a little closer to the scales.

“Not really. Assuming that ‘you know’ refers to girl-friends, wives, the like. In all cases, try this one:” She looked him straight in the eyes, like she was trying to hypnotize him, and said, “Apologise for whatever you fucked up.”

“Who says I was the one who fucked up?”

“I’ve met you before, you know.” She gave him a sceptical look. “You didn’t hit her, did you?”

“What?” Orlando was truly stunned. “Of course I didn’t!”

She shrugged, taking his obvious horror as proof enough.

“Hey, don’t look at me like that. I don’t know what you do behind closed doors. But I do know a look of guilt when I see it.”

“I’m not guilty of any- In any case, I’d never hit a woman.”

“Yeah, okay.”

Orlando shook his head and rubbed a hand through his hair. This was ridiculous, which was a fraction better than miserable. Not much, though.

“Didn’t you say you were good at this?”

Billie tightened her ponytail and nodded.

“I am. Some flowers don’t hurt. When you apologize. Don’t overdo it with the roses, though. No chocolate, that’s just cheesy.”

Orlando scoffed. She raised her hands in appeasement, taking no offence.

“Okay, no flowers either, then. Didn’t know you were that cheap. But at least, you know, sound like you mean it. That usually does the trick.”

“What if –,” Orlando started and he just had to ask, even if he swallowed the correct pronoun. God, this was fucking hard. “– she won’t hear any of it?”

Now it was her turn to scoff.

“I’ve seen you ride, mate. Like you’d let anything go.”

Before Orlando could reply, there was some bustle near the entrance that interrupted them. Orlando turned around and immediately spotted Colin. Colin raised his hands in an overdone show of disappointment when he saw Orlando.

“Ah, fuck it, OB. You just won’t die, will you?”

Orlando rolled his eyes at the mock disapproval in Colin’s voice as Colin got in line behind them. Colin gave him a quick once-over.

“Why aren’t you in hospital with some broken bones at least?”

“Low, even for you,” Billie said.

Colin shrugged.

“What? I could do with a win.”

“Sorry to disappoint,” Orlando said.

Colin pulled a face but critically looked him up and down once again. His gaze was piercing when it reached Orlando’s eyes.

“You alright, then?”

Orlando took the question for what it was, not primarily an inquiry about his physical health. He wanted to explain, even if he still wasn’t sure how or what, wanted to apologise at least. But the level look Colin gave him told him that there was no need.

He swallowed a sudden surge of self-disgust and shrugged.

“Just bruised and, you know, feeling like a complete cock.”

Colin raised his brow and pursed his lips as if to agree with him, but there was a smile softening his expression.

“No different from usual now.”

Colin was a lot of things and more than a few of them not very flattering. But he wasn’t judgmental. Orlando laughed, endlessly relieved.

“God, you’re a cunt.”

Colin slung his arm over his shoulder, grinning when Orlando winced.

“Yeah, I love you, too, retarded queer.”

“Well, isn’t this adorable?” Billie said, laughter in her eyes.

Colin kept his arm over Orlando’s shoulder, even if his attention immediately shifted to Billie again.

“Ah, you want me. Stop denying it,” he said, smirking at her. “And what are we gonna do about that?”

And wasn’t that just the question, Orlando reflected, as they took one step closer to the scales.

Eight

The doorbell rang, and rang again, insistent. It had been a too long day, and Sean wanted nothing more than some peace and quiet. The doorbell rang for a third time, impatient. Tim whined quietly but didn’t get up from his spot in front of the fireplace

“Yeah, I don’t particularly want to, either,” Sean muttered as he put his paper down.

The bell rang for a fourth time, longer now.

Frowning, Sean got up and felt unease rise in the pit of his stomach as he went to answer. His frown deepened instantly when he saw who it was, leaning on his doorbell.

“You have any idea what time it is?”

Orlando – wearing the same leatherjacket, grey hoodie and loose jeans he had worn in the morning, creases of worry on his forehead, nervous eyes – didn’t even glance at his watch.

“I think Sandstorm has a colic,” Orlando said without preamble. As Sean’s eyes narrowed on their own accord, Orlando hurried to explain. “When I drove onto the yard, I heard something coming from the barn. So I checked.”

“Why are you even here?”

“Can we make sure the fucking bastard horse doesn’t die, first?”

Sean clenched his jaw and bit back a growl, but he fetched his jacket and followed Orlando across the yard. A feeling of restlessness seemed to be in the air and he heard an unsettled low whinny coming from the barn. He widened his strides.

In the barn, the horses were fidgety, some of them just listening intently with ears pricked all in one direction, others walking around in circles and whickering quietly. Their attention was focussed on one of the stalls on the right side and in the middle and it was indeed Sandstorm who kept stomping the ground and kicking the wooden wall of its stall. Sean’s throat constricted, for a horribly long second breathing was unbearably painful. Orlando brushed past him to switch on the main light, and the small nudge pushed Sean into motion once again.

He could see that the stallion was dark with sweat and clearly intensely agitated. He walked in circles, completely ignored their arrival and repeatedly kicked his own belly with his hind leg, desperately trying to get rid of the pain in his stomach. He circled in his box and was just about to lie down.

"No, you don't!"

Sean’s harsh order let the stallion freeze mid-movement. Pulling the door to the stall open, Sean slapped Sandstorm’s rump hard with his flat hand. Surprised, the horse grunted and pulled himself up again, turning around to face Sean with a friction of that usual arrogance back in his eyes. Sean placed his hand soothingly over his nostrils, willing it to stop shaking, and Sandstorm pulled away, pawing with his front hooves in agitation.

“It’s just tummy aches, boy," Orlando said, next to the horse, his voice deeper than usual.

"Call Billy and tell him to come down here right now.” Sean turned to Orlando and tossed him his mobile phone. “Call Viggo – Doc Mortensen, too.”

Orlando did as he was told while Sean unbuckled Sandstorm’s sweat-drenched rug. Viggo answered straight away, but apparently broke into one of his instant babbles because Orlando cut him off impatiently after a few seconds.

“This isn’t Sean. It’s Orlando Bloom. We got a horse with a colic here and –“

He was interrupted by Viggo and looked back at the shivering horse.

“Sandstorm. It looks pretty bad. He’s sweating like mad and constantly tries to roll. We just discovered him.”

“Tell him to get a move on,” Sean cut in, his voice low, so to not agitate the horse any further. “And get me a fresh rug.”

Orlando pulled Calcium’s turnout rug from its hook and handed it to Sean.

“He’s in Epsom,” he relayed after a moment. “It’ll take him at least half an hour minutes.”

“Epsom? The hell –“

“He says we have to call the clinic directly, if we need someone quicker.”

“Just tell him to hurry.”

Orlando listened for another few seconds, nodded and grunted affirmatively, then he hung up.

“He’s on his way. He told me to tell you – calm down.”

Sean glared at him over the neck of his shivering horse. After a second of staring back defiantly, Orlando turned his gaze down, busying himself with the buckles of the blanket.

As Orlando called Billy, Sean led Sandstorm down the aisle and out into the yard. The floodlights instantly switched on again, and engulfed in light, they reached the roofed school that lay right behind the barn. Sandstorm was dawdling, head hung, but Sean forced him to quicken his steps. He started walking him around, the sound of their steps quietened by the woodchip ground.

As brilliant as horses could be, they weren’t when it came to stomach aches. And their digestive tract was fucking misconstrued. Sandstorm kept looking around at his belly with confusion in his eyes, as if he didn’t understand how some monster could gnaw at his belly, and he couldn’t see it. Repeatedly, he tried to stop to kick his belly, reacted with cranky impatience when Sean urged him to continue walking. Horses weren’t able to vomit, so whatever he’d eaten could only ever come out one way. Movement encouraged the digestive tract. Sean knew all that. He’d witnessed several dozen of colics, many much worse than this one. He repeated that in his head, again and again with each round they walked. It didn’t do any good.

After his initial bad temper, Sandstorm now followed Sean obediently, and that alone made Sean’s stomach twist with worry. Sandstorm’s head was hanging low, his eyes were half shut, clearly indicating that he was feeling just as bad if not worse. It just didn’t do any good.

When Billy arrived, he took over from Sean, gripping the rope with steady hands. Billy started humming a melody as he started walking, and Sandstorm’s left ear pricked forward as he followed him around. Sean rubbed his hand over his face, wished that all it took was a wordless song, feared it wouldn’t be. He stepped out of the woodchip ring. Orlando was still waiting there. His eyes still followed Sandstorm’s progress. Panic started broiling in the pit of his stomach. He hated himself for it.

Suddenly he felt someone’s – Orlando’s – hand on his shoulder. For a split second, he closed his eyes, wanted nothing more than for this to be his wordless melody, wanted to give in. He caught himself. He shrugged Orlando’s hand off. He turned his heads to glare at Orlando. Orlando pulled his hand away as if it got burned.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you. I just thought..."

"Yeah, yeah. I know what you thought."

Orlando didn’t reply, but a small pained sound accompanied his exhale. It made Sean absolutely furious.

“Actually, you know what? No. I don't know what you think. You never chose to tell me, do you?”

"I thought -"

"Don't start now. I don't want to hear it." He turned around abruptly and called to Billy, “Don’t let him bloody slow down. He’ll try to lie down, for Christ’s sake.”

He hurried back into the school to grab the rope from Billy. He was perversely grateful it gave him the opportunity to avoid further conversation. But the pain over seeing his beloved horse like this, the feeling of helplessness seemed to paralyze him.

Orlando stepped into the school.

“Doc Mortensen’s still at least thirty minutes away,” he said neutrally.

“I bloody well know that,” Sean snapped.

Orlando pushed his hands into the pockets of his jacket and the muscles in his jaw clenched.

“He said you’d know what to do. This doesn’t look like it.”

Sean turned around. Fury replaced anxiety. Orlando saw it, his mouth set to a stubborn line, and refused to back down. Sean wanted to punch him, to hurt him.

“Get Sand back into the barn,” he ordered Billy while his eyes still bore into Orlando. “Fetch a bucket of water, some of the long sleeved vet gloves and –“

“There’s oil in the feed room,” Orlando finished for him. “It’ll ease the way. I’ll fetch it.”

As Billy led Sandstorm away, Orlando turned around and hurried out of the school. For a moment Sean stared after him. Then he followed his sick horse and set to work.

When the sound of Viggo’s ancient Mercedes finally could be heard in the barn, Billy was still holding Sandstorm’s right front leg up. Like this, he kept the horse from moving, and Orlando tightly clutched Sandstorm’s halter. Sean was elbow-deep inside the horse for the third time. When Sean had first started cleaning him out, Sandstorm had just stood there completely apathetic, too pained to even find the intrusion objectionable. At the time Viggo walked in though, Sandstorm was increasingly pissed off.

Sean let Viggo take over and cleaned up while Viggo injected Sandstorm with a relaxant. As they waited for it to take effect, Viggo glanced at the bone-dry muck on the ground that they’d so far extracted from the horse. His diagnosis was simple, and obvious to everyone present. Sandstorm had eaten a lot of the fine straw chipping in his box and hence suffered from plain, even if severe, constipation. Viggo was unworried, stated twice that they had discovered it in time; good luck, considering. When it was clear that Sandstorm would be alright again, Viggo clapped Sean’s shoulder comfortingly and then excused himself, promising to drop by the next day to check on the patient.

Sandstorm looked a lot better by then even if seriously tired. Sean allowed himself to relax a little. He still told Billy to fetch the camp bed and sleeping bag and stay with the horse in the barn for the night.

When Billy disappeared into the tack room, the silence was like a third person between Sean and Orlando.

“What did you think I’d do?” Sean asked abruptly. “Beat you up and fire you?”

Orlando looked at him in horror.

“No, fuck, Sean. I didn’t think that, I –”

Sean scoffed. Orlando’s voice died. Sean couldn’t bear it. Not the flimsy excuses, not the stinking desperation, the stammering, the silence. None of this. He turned his back to Orlando.

“You’re a decent rider. Greystone needs a jockey. Let’s leave it at that.”

He walked out the barn without looking back, back to his house.

His sitting room was heated, much warmer than the stables. But the temperature was impotent against the chill he felt. He sat down on the sofa. But he didn’t want to listen for the sound of Orlando’s bike leaving. He switched the telly on, zapped through the channels without watching, until he was sure all he would hear outside was silence.

Tim came up to him. He sat down in front of him, but he didn’t rest his chin on Sean’s knee like he usually did. Instead, he tilted his head and whined, shifted in his spot.

Sean patted his knee encouragingly. When the weight of his dog’s head replaced his palm, he closed his eyes. He rested his hand on top of it, bent over. The smell of dog was in his nose as he cradled Tim’s head. Tim repeated his quiet whine. Sean moved his fingers slightly. Tim shifted towards him, like he was trying to crawl onto Sean’s lap.

Yet another too long day. It numbed his mind, so every thought tied itself into knots. All that was left was that dull ache. He could put that down to the lack of sleep, a purely physical symptom. Tiredness was a blessing.

There was a knock on the door.

It made Sean jerk out of the dozing state he’d fallen into. He opened his eye,s but his mind only worked very sluggishly. For a moment, he stared into the fireplace. He didn’t know how long. Maybe he had just imagined the knock.

But Tim looked intently towards the living room door. Sean’s neck creaked when he twisted it, his body protested quietly when he got up. He should’ve gone to bed straight away.

He rubbed his eyes as he made his way to the door. It felt like scraping them with sandpaper. He opened the door. He froze.

Orlando.

Orlando stood in exactly the same spot as he had a couple of hours before. Sean stared at him.

Orlando didn’t say anything, maybe for the first time in the time Sean had known him. He didn’t fidget, didn’t wave or gesture either. He just stood there on Sean’s doorstep, waiting, like he didn’t know whether Sean would slam the door in his face. Like he didn’t know whether he should be here.

“What do you want now?” Sean’s own voice sounded tired, flat and hoarse and strange to himself.

Orlando met Sean’s gaze, deliberately and for longer than those fleeting ashamed glances of the last weeks. Then he took a deep breath and asked back,

“What do you want, Sean?”

“What is this? Some stupid game?“

“No.” Orlando shook his head. “I mean it. What do you want? Because I don’t get it.”

A rush of cold wind swept around the corner of the house. It visibly went directly through Orlando’s jacket and made him shudder. Sean should’ve slammed the door in his face. Finally distance himself from this utter mess.

He turned around and walked back into the house. The door remained open. Sean heard it click shut, he heard Orlando shrug off his jacket, heard his boots making the wooden floor creak. Tim got up from his spot next to the sofa, but Sean pointed at the floor.

“Blanket,” he ordered, harsher than necessary, and Tim obeyed.

Orlando stopped in the doorway to the sitting room.

“How’s Sand, you think? I know how much you love that horse.”

“Hasn’t got anything to do with that,” Sean said, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice. “He’s in pain, I fix it. Simple as that.”

“Yeah, like most things.” Orlando said softly. The quietness made Sean so much angrier. “That why you let me in?”

Sean turned around. His temper ate like acid on the edges of his already frayed composure.

“What do you want from me?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe something other than you telling me how much of an irresponsible dick I –?” Orlando cut himself off. He drew an unsteady breath, ran a hand through his hair. “I suppose if that’s what you want? Fine. I’ll take it. Better than this fucking silence.”

Sean stared at him. Don’t expect anything from anyone. Don’t expect, don’t hope. Don’t put your trust in anyone but yourself. Especially not when they had silky brown hair, knowing brown eyes and the sweetest of smiles and invaded Sean’s thoughts the fucking second he let his guard down. Sean knew all this. He wasn’t falling for it again. He wasn’t. Not even when Orlando looked at him like this, like he was haunted and looking at Sean for salvation.

Sean wasn’t falling for it.

Orlando rubbed a hand over his face.

“Say something. Please.”

Sean shook his head.

“Don’t know what you want to hear.”

“Anything.”

“There’s nothing to say.”

Orlando clenched his jaw. Sean could see his shoulders tightening from across the room. He took a step closer, into the room.

“Don’t,” Sean said. Don’t prepare for a fight. Don’t start. Don’t apologise. Don’t come closer. Don’t leave. “Just don’t.”

Orlando swallowed hard, stopped, nodded. Waited for a moment, then – when Sean didn’t say anything else – he nodded again. He looked at the black-and-white racecourse prints on the wall and chuckled humourlessly.

“I blew it, I know that. It’s like. God. Give me bolting horses, man high jumps and a melee of falls behind the next fence. Those are nothing. Having the right instincts, that’s all you need in a race. Only bad luck can come between you and the finishing line then.”

Sean felt so very, very tired.

Orlando took a deep breath as if deliberately pulling himself together.

“But outside of the track? I fuck things up. And I’m sorry, I really am.”

It didn’t matter. Nothing seemed to matter since that night, in comparison to that night. No apology, no tentative effort to mend whatever was left. Sorry. What was left?

“I shouldn’t have –,” Orlando started again quietly but didn’t finish his sentence. “And thinking that I could just act like nothing – ?” He halted, looked like he was choking on his words. “It’s making me sick.”

Sean knew the feeling, Christ, he did. And it was Orlando’s doing. Orlando who ‘shouldn’t have’, Orlando who’d made it perfectly clear that he regretted what had happened, Orlando who left, Orlando –

Sean scoffed.

“Yeah, well.”

Orlando glared at him, instant anger a knee-jerk reaction and effectively replacing the self-loathing.

“Fuck, Sean,” he snapped. “You could’ve said something, too.”

Tim started growling and sat up in his spot near the fireplace, eyes firmly fixed on Orlando. Orlando instantly reacted, willing the tension from his posture. He merely glanced at the dog, however, kept his eyes on Sean.

“You haven’t said a single thing to me,” he said, more controlled. “What was I supposed to think?”

Sean’s fingers clenched into fists.

“We fucked.” Two words, clipped as punches. Orlando didn’t flinch. Sean’s jaw hurt from gritting his teeth. “You left. No room for misunderstanding.”

Orlando’s upper lip curled into a sneer. His eyes flashed with his brand of sudden flaring irritation and hurt.

“Yeah, sounds bloody easy. And it doesn’t count that I regret that I left, does it?”

Sean lost it.

“That you regret that you left?” he snapped harshly.

Tim jumped up, started barking.

“Tim! Leave it,” Sean bellowed. He jerked his hand up and pointed at the living room door. “Out into the hall! Now!”

Tim shut up, lowered his head. For a second he looked up at Sean, whining, then padded towards the door. Sean’s ears hurting from the sharpness of his voice. He turned back to Orlando.

“What do you want from me?”

Orlando’s eyebrows were raised a fraction as his eyes followed Tim’s departure. He licked his lips, looked at Sean.

“I’m trying to apologise,” he replied coolly. “You don’t want that? At least have the guts to throw me out as well. Tell me to go.”

“Oh, you do that just fine without me telling you,” Sean said before he could stop himself.

“Yeah.” Orlando’s voice was bitter. “I know. I left. I can’t change that. I’m a control freak, and I’m a coward. That it?”

“Is that what?”

Orlando rolled his eyes ostentatiously. Slowly, pronouncing every word, he clarified,

“Is that what you want to hear?”

“Yeah. You flagellating yourself. That’s just what I wished for.”

The shy composure vanished entirely from Orlando’s posture. His shoulders tensed.

“Do you think I enjoy this? I fucking don’t! But what else is there left for me to do, huh?”

“You could just forget –“

Orlando laughed, his eyes venomous.

“Oh, fuck you! Like you did, right? Give me a fucking break.”

“I thought it’d be just what you wanted, considering.”

“Considering what? How well you’re faring with that?”

Sean’s fingernails dug sharply into the flesh of his palms. Everything hurt.

“You don’t know anything about what I think.”

Orlando scoffed.

“And that has nothing to do with you refusing to talk to me.” Orlando shook his head. “I don’t get it. I honest to God don’t, Sean. Why don’t you just fucking tell me?”

“You want to know how I feel?” Sean snarled. “Every time I see your motorbike in front of my house? Looking at you makes me sick.”

He snapped his mouth shut. He fiercely wanted to close his eyes to shut everything up, out, to stop all of this. He clung to that small pain in his palms as everything seemed to crumble down around him, leaving him utterly alone and shivering with the coldness of it.

Orlando stared at him with his lips already slightly parted. As if his automatic reply had just died on them. He inhaled, exhaled twice. Then his face hardened, and he looked Sean in the eyes once more.

“Liar.”

Sean glared at him. But Orlando didn’t take it back. Instead he came towards Sean, like he owned the room.

“Do you think I’m blind? I see the way you look at me. Sick? Like it’s that fucking simple.”

His words were as sharp as broken glass. He stopped not five feet away from Sean, caught Sean’s glare and held it captive.

Sean wanted to look away. He couldn’t.

“You make me – ” he choked on the last word. He felt shaken to the core just from being so close to Orlando, trapped, caught, exposed.

Orlando just shrugged.

“Yeah, maybe I do. Maybe I even deserve it. But you know what? The reason why you can’t accept my apology? It’s not because you hate me.”

“Shut up.”

“I made a mistake that morning. I know that.” Orlando took another step forward, pointed at Sean. “But you?”

“Shut your mouth!”

Orlando’s hand pushed against Sean’s chest, driving the point home.

“You think you made a mistake that night.”

Disgust, anger, pain, the all broke out of Sean at the same second. Freed by Orlando’s accusation. He shoved Orlando back with both hands, like he should have done long ago. Away from him. Orlando stumbled half a step backwards with a grunt of surprise, but regained his balance. Sean shoved him again, harder, put enough force behind it for Orlando crash against the nearest wall.

Orlando slammed against it, his hand immediately reaching for his shoulder that had connected with the wall. Before he could do anything else, Sean closed the distance between them. He pressed his arm against Orlando’s chest, used the full force of his body behind this move to trap him there. He growled at Orlando.

“You think you can tell me how I feel? You have no goddamn idea.“

And finally, like this, he willed down the tangible memory of that night – heat and lust and want and longing and so much anger. His hand trembled, fisted Orlando’s hoodie.

Orlando knocked his hand away. His face was mere inches away from Sean’s. His eyes darkened in cold fury.

“Cut the crap. I’m not your fucking dog. I’m not afraid of you.”

Orlando had nowhere to go, his back against the wall, and Sean was blocking his path. But it was rage that stormed in his eyes, not terror, a passion so uncontrolled, untamed, the complete opposite of fear. Sean was so jealous of that, so desperately sick of being scared, of Orlando knowing it.

He smashed his fist against the wall right next to Orlando’s head. Orlando didn’t even blink. Anger gripped Sean and shook him, and Orlando was the reason for it, the reason for everything. Orlando just glared at him. His eyes were hard, and his lips formed a thin line, determination and defiance hardened his otherwise almost too even features. Sean could feel him breathing, heaving chest against his arm. All Sean could do was to keep himself from quivering.

Orlando took it for the weakness it was. He narrowed his eyes. Sean felt the balance of power shift dangerously.

Orlando leaned forward. His breath was hot on Sean’s skin. Everything about him challenged Sean.

“Now what? You know, if you weren’t such a fucking, fucking coward, you –“

The little bit of control that Sean had still clung to – shattered.

He shut Orlando up. He slammed their lips together. There was no other option. Orlando’s mouth was still open, and Sean sealed it with his own. Their teeth clashed together, Orlando grunted in protest. Sean just gripped his hair to keep him from flinching away and urged his tongue against Orlando’s lips. He pushed it into Orlando’s mouth without asking or waiting for consent.

The taste of Orlando and cigarettes was harsh and real. Then Orlando’s hand was against the back of his skull, gripping his hair, and Orlando tilted his head, opened his mouth further and Sean could conquer. Sean tightened his grip on his hair. It had to hurt, but Orlando still pushed against him, his chest hard against Sean’s own.

Sean slammed Orlando back against the wall, biting more than kissing. Orlando pulled Sean with him, his hand fisted in Sean’s pullover. His mouth was soft and pliant, he let Sean bite him, manhandle him. Until Sean tried to ease off, and Orlando wouldn’t have it. He growled, and now his hand gripped Sean’s hair punishingly hard. This had been the first time in weeks that Sean had had control. He wouldn’t give that up without a fight. Sean raised his arm, pressing it against Orlando’s collar bone now, just below his throat. He thrust his tongue deep into Orlando’s mouth, denied him air, confined him between the wall and himself.

Orlando loosened his grip, his next exhale more a moan than a growl. Sean leaned even harder against him. His teeth cut into Orlando’s lower lip, his tongue fought Orlando’s, the kiss dirty, and ugly, and raw. He swallowed Orlando’s gasps until his own mouth was numb. The dark thundercloud of frustration and lust uncurled around him.

He broke the kiss abruptly, the second he could hold on to his last bit of sanity for long enough.

Orlando’s mouth looked bruised. He was panting heavily. It was Sean’s doing. Sean flinched back in response. But Orlando still had his hand against Sean’s neck and wouldn’t let him go.

“Jesus.” Orlando’s eyes regained focus. “Sean.”

Sean didn’t pull back; he didn’t reply. He stared at Orlando, stared at his mouth and stared at his dark eyes. He couldn’t remember why he shouldn’t just give in.

“I’m not doing this again,“ he whispered.

“You just did.”

Sean couldn’t look away, couldn’t pull away, couldn’t take his hands off Orlando. Like it wasn’t really Orlando who had made him feel that way. Like it wasn’t Orlando’s steady assessing gaze, his smile and his laughter and his curses, his gentleness with the shyest of horses. Like none of that had broken Sean’s heart every single day since that night. He swallowed hard, wilfully loosened his grip.

“I’m not going to –“

Orlando shook his head.

“Don’t regret this, Sean. Don’t. I don’t.”

Releasing Orlando, Sean stumbled back. As if this little bit of physical distance could help him to focus. Who was he kidding? It didn’t help. Instead, with his hands no longer touching Orlando, he blindly reached for the back of the sofa to steady himself.

Orlando didn’t follow. But he looked at Sean with something else than anger, than fury, something far more dangerous.

Sean gripped the back of the sofa harder.

“Tell me, explain to me – Why did you leave that morning?”

Sean half expected him to have no explanation at all. But then Orlando pushed himself away from the wall and crossed the distance between them. He leaned against the back of the sofa next to Sean.

“I’m not sure how to explain it.”

“Try.”

Orlando looked down his hands.

“Right. So – I was – when I woke up next to you, I felt so –, man, not even the endorphin rush after winning the National could compare to it. But then? I don’t even remember getting dressed and leaving.”

Sean did though. Orlando had left without waking him, he must’ve taken extra care not to. Sean looked down at the carpet, blinked repeatedly as he tried to focus. He took a deep breath, straightened and rubbed his hand over his face. He shook his head. Something lit up in Orlando’s eyes, briefly like a spark in complete darkness.

“What was I supposed to do? You tell me. Shake you awake and ask you, hey how about we put all our money on one horse?” Orlando shook his head. “I can read form books. What were the odds?”

Sean didn’t reply. Orlando’s voice was quieter again, when he continued.

“I mean, it’s like this. We’ve got this thing, right? Way beyond just the horses, and I –. You know, I get paid to take break-my-bones risks every day. But risking that?”

Orlando swallowed hard, tried to keep something down. But then he exhaled in a quiet sigh, eyes fixing a spot on Sean’s chest.

“You want to know what happened that morning? Here’s what. I had to stop my bike not a mile from here. I stood at the side of the road, and it wasn’t even dawn yet. And I threw up.”

Orlando’s face distorted momentarily, the taste of it still on his tongue.

“I had to clutch my bike like I was – I couldn’t even stand upright on my own, Sean, that’s what happened. I felt so sick, I retched my fucking guts out. And just because, just ‘cause I thought I’d fucked this all up, beyond recognition. And still all I wanted to do was turn around and –“

He shook his head, words failing him again.

“Fucking dreadful feeling. I never felt so helpless in my life.”

Words formed on Sean’s tongue. He couldn’t say them. He just stared at Orlando. Orlando rubbed the back of his neck, then squared his shoulders and looked Sean in the eyes again.

“Yeah, so. That’s what happened that morning.”

There was no flickering in his eyes anymore, no restlessness.

Sean wanted to reach out, he wanted to feel the smooth resolve under his fingertips, so he could believe it.

Only when Orlando’s gaze flickered down to it, Sean noticed that he had raised his hand. Despite the earlier violence, Orlando didn’t shy away. Of course he didn’t. If there was anything that could frighten Orlando, Sean didn’t know the name of it. It made it hard to believe Orlando’s words. Orlando didn’t get scared.

Sean’s hand stopped mid-air. Paralyzed once again.

Orlando looked so damn tired, just too tired to run anymore. Sean wanted to make the lines of resignation disappear under his fingertips.

He didn’t.

He couldn’t.

But he raised his hand nevertheless.

When Sean touched his shoulder, Orlando tensed, and Sean knew it wasn’t with fear or apprehension. Like when Orlando concentrated on a race, all other thoughts ceased to exist, and he knew what he was capable of.

Sean stared at his hand that touched Orlando’s sweater. It didn’t tremble. He would’ve been proud of that if it wasn’t so pathetic. One hundred per cent –

Sean tightened his grip. Orlando’s breath shuddered the littlest bit. And with the hand still gripping Orlando’s hoodie, Sean pulled Orlando against him. He let go of the fabric, slid his arm around Orlando’s back, hugged him.

For a second, Orlando’s whole body tensed up against him, he inhaled sharply, and maybe that was fear, maybe that was what doubt felt like. But Sean didn’t care, at least for one moment he was sure enough of this that he didn’t have to care.

And then Orlando’s lean hard body yielded against him, and Orlando wrapped his arms around him in return. Orlando exhaled harshly, as if he’d been holding his breath for a very long time, then he turned his embrace into a bone crushing hug. Instantly, it obliterated the dull ache Sean had felt like physical pain in his whole body. He fisted Orlando’s jacket at his shoulder, and in the small of his back, pressed his cheek against the soft leather. Didn’t dare to breathe, just held on as tightly as he could.

‘Helpless’ Orlando had called it. Sean had thought he’d felt like that before, but now, it was much, much more terrifying. He turned his head to feel the skin of Orlando’s neck against his face, smelt horse and sweat and him. Orlando’s breathing hitched a little in response and he clutched Sean even tighter, holding on to him, refusing to let go but falling with him. He buried his face in the crook of Sean’s neck, Sean could feel him breathe, and he clung to Sean with a desperate fierceness that it hurt, the grip on the back of his neck hurt, the arm nearly crushing his back. And was just what Sean needed.

It seemed like a long time until Orlando dared to loosen his grip a little. He still leaned against Sean, chest pressed against Sean’s, thighs against Sean’s. But he stroked over Sean’s shoulder with a little more calm tenderness than frantic need.

Sean mustered up enough self-control to pull back at least a little again. He still felt like throwing up.

“Dreadful feeling,” he muttered.

Orlando raised his head and tilted it minimally, recognising his own words.

“Some common ground, eh?”

“That’s comforting,” Sean said dryly.

“Has a tendency to sneak up on you, yeah.” Orlando shifted, his thigh rubbing lightly against Sean’s. “Y’know, like that gelding of Lee’s? The one that always won out of nowhere? I think he won the King George last year? Buttugly animal.”

“Mansaru?“

“I think so. Looked a bit like Lee himself?” Orlando pulled a face, put on a heavy frown and bared his teeth. It made Sean grin. “A big grey one with this incredibly long face, looking perpetually disgruntled?”

“That’s him alright.“

“Did Lee sell him because he was too ugly? I never know with that man.”

“Another thing we got in common.”

With a hand that wasn’t clutching Sean’s own, Orlando reached up to cup Sean’s cheek. There was so much openly uncomplicated affection in that little touch, something that Sean had always found so intensely difficult to feel for another person.

Orlando tilted his head and the look in his eyes, Sean had never seen them that gentle. He leaned forward and kissed Sean with a lightness that was the exact opposite of Sean’s previous onslaught. His lips barely touched Sean’s and yet Sean was completely defenceless against it. And for the first time he didn’t even mind. He answered in kind, his lips barely moving as his hand found Orlando’s shoulder and stroked it lightly. Orlando’s lips were soft against Sean’s mouth and his hand caressed Sean’s cheek.

Sean closed his eyes and just revelled in the feeling of Orlando so close, of being allowed to soak all of it in. The tender kisses, the light touches of Orlando’s calloused hands, Orlando’s whispered repetitions of how much he’d missed Sean, of how he wasn’t going to leave again, hell, how he wasn’t ever going to stop kissing Sean again. Sean had to smile against Orlando’s lips. Orlando being unable to shut up was familiar and comforting. And his words, however often repeated, made his kisses in between taste all the more real.

Orlando was a little breathless when he broke the kiss and leaned his forehead against Sean’s. Sean’s lips felt slightly swollen, tender to the touch when he licked them.

“You could do with a shave,” he said quietly and again, Orlando’s responding laughter was just that familiar bit too loud.

“Likewise.”

Orlando pulled back a little, hand still on Sean’s hip, and was apparently about to say something else when a yawn took hold of him and unhinged his jaw. Sean raised his eyebrows mockingly but had to suppress his own answering yawn. Orlando didn’t bother covering his mouth with his hand as he tried to get it under control again, but he shrugged apologetically.

“Fuck, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to –“ A follow up yawn interrupted him and this time Sean couldn’t help but yawn along. Orlando laughed. “Sorry, sorry. It’s been a bloody long day.”

“I’ve been up since five,” Sean said mildly.

Instant competitiveness sharpened Orlando’s focus again.

“I fell off a horse,” he countered.

“And who explained that to Sir Christopher?”

“I let a dozen chasers trample over me.”

“My arm inside a horse. Three hours ago.”

Orlando laughed out loud.

“More useful, I give you that. Before that, I was really starting to get worried.”

Sean hummed in agreement, even if at this moment, he couldn’t even remember feeling anxious. Not with Orlando’s casual, purposefully lingering touches, not with Orlando close like this. Orlando was still loosely gripping Sean’s side and Sean could feel his fingers toying with the fabric of his shirt.

“With every other horse,” Orlando added, mind still in the stables, “I’d say it was just too dense to tell the difference between bedding and food. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sandstorm just did it out of spite.”

“I doubt he risked dying just to annoy you.”

Orlando pulled a face, mock self-deprecation suddenly coming easily to him.

“Yeah, okay, maybe not. Don’t hold me accountable for late night conspiracy theories. Did I mention I was in a stampede today? I probably got kicked in the head.”

Sean regarded Orlando with a little more sobriety again. He couldn’t help but feel just the littlest bit unsettled, despite the casualness of Orlando’s remark.

“You take some Paracodol?” he asked.

Orlando yawned once more and rolled a kink out of his shoulders.

“Nah, I hate it, it fucks with my head. I’m just drained, which is no wonder considering the hour. I should get some shuteye.”

Sean watched his hand smoothing over the soft cotton of Orlando’s hoodie.

“There’s a bed upstairs,” he said.

Orlando stopped flexing his muscles, and shut his mouth again, not adding another yawn to the collection. He didn’t pull back, but Sean could feel more than see the slightest of changes in his posture. The relaxed looseness and the casual, simple closeness faded away. His hands were still resting against Sean’s hips, but they grew heavier, like Orlando now kept them there, kept them still and calm on purpose. Like you did it when handling a raw colt.

“I know that,” Orlando finally said. He made it sound like a question.

Sean knew what he’d said, what he’d offered. Meant it.

“I meant you can stay here. If you want.”

Orlando looked intently at Sean, his eyes narrowed just that littlest bit as he focussed all attention on him.

“I can drive home. No problem. If you want to, I don’t know. I wasn’t trying to box you in.”

Sean nodded, waited. Orlando slid his hand to the small of Sean’s back, curled his fingers just above the waistband of Sean’s trousers.

“Alright then.”

Taking a step back, Orlando arched his brows expectantly. Sean responded with a yawn, and it made Orlando laugh as he stepped into the hallway. He stroked over Tim’s head, chuckling when Tim took the patting with long suffering patience before sidling past him, back into the living room. Orlando waited while Sean turned out the lights, then followed Sean upstairs. His boots were loud on the staircase and it was comforting, Orlando’s complete inability to do anything, even walking, quietly.

In the bedroom the window’s curtains were drawn and the moon shone palely through it, illuminating the room only just. Just like always, just like that morning and Sean wasn’t sure whether Orlando would notice, whether it would make a difference. But when he turned around Orlando stood in the doorway and his eyes were on him and him alone. Sean tilted his head, inviting him in, and Orlando didn’t hesitate for a second.

Sean felt like a stranger in his own bedroom for a moment, aware of his surroundings for the first time in he couldn‘t remember. Usually he just came in, went to sleep, woke up the next morning and left. One could‘ve removed all the furniture except his bed and he wouldn’t even have noticed. It couldn’t have been more different now. He was aware of the window that was slightly ajar and let in the cold night air, he was aware of the worn wood beneath his now naked feet and of the smell of fresh linen.

For the first time in years he undressed and was aware of doing so. And even though he always slept like this, in a t-shirt and his boxers, he suddenly felt naked as he stood next to the bed. The bruises from Orlando’s fall today was evident on his upper arm, they disappeared under the sleeve of his grey tee and reappeared from under the too loose worn collar. He wanted to reach out and touch it, wanted to touch. Orlando would let him, just like Orlando could take anything that he dished out, would take anything that he was willing to give.

But he found that he couldn’t. Despite the bruising kisses from before and even though he’d pinned down Orlando easily and knew how good his body felt against his own, even though he yearned to feel it again, he couldn‘t. Suddenly it was too intimate, having Orlando up here again where he didn‘t think, where he was defenceless. Something inside of him still shifted uncomfortably, cringed at the prospect of possible disappointment.

But he was tired, his body was aching for sleep as much as it was for Orlando, and he was so very, very tired of the broken record in his head, too.

Orlando just waited, more patient – braver – than anyone ever gave him credit for. Sean knew his feet had to be getting cold just like his own were and he had to long for sleep like Sean was for silence in his head.

And still, Orlando didn’t fidget, didn’t push. He simply waited until Sean took a step closer to him and close enough to the bed to throw back the covering, lie down and shuffle over so there was room. A moment later, Orlando slumped down next to him with all the lack of grace that usually announced his presence when he wasn’t on horseback. He uttered a somewhat obscene and overdone sigh of relief when his head hit the pillow. It crawled into Sean’s stomach and unknotted the remaining entangled unease.

Orlando turned his face towards him and just looked at him. But it didn’t take long until his blinks became more sluggish. Still there was that amused gleam in his eyes that preceded his cold foot pressing against Sean’s calf. He snickered when Sean twitched automatically and rolled his eyes. But really it was that goofy tactile way of Orlando’s that drew Sean to him. It suddenly made it the easiest thing in the world to shuffle a little closer to him and raise his arm in invitation.

Orlando kept his cold feet to himself, something that was rather sweet and somewhat unlike him. But it seemed like the rest of his body had just been waiting for its turn. He rolled onto his side, into Sean’s one-armed embrace. His thigh immediately found the perfect angle to slide between Sean’s, and his skin was warm against Sean’s.

Orlando’s hand stroked over Sean’s chest and stopped on his stomach. Sean hummed quietly, and it made Orlando turn his face against Sean‘s neck. Sean covered Orlando’s hand with his own, thought he had never been warmer, turned his head so his jaw rested against Orlando’s forehead, had never been more comfortable.

He didn’t mean to close his eyes, but when they shut out of their own volition, he couldn’t seem to open them again. Orlando’s touch was solid and reassuring and once he had relaxed under it, sleep settled inside of him like lead. He felt himself drift off, distantly thought it a strange thing to be aware of.

His mind and his body repeatedly reassured themselves that Orlando was still close to him, he could hear him breathe steadily, he could feel Orlando’s hands on his body. Finally, he gave in to the tiredness and fell asleep.

Scattered pictures of Sandstorm, slightly out of focus, flooded his mind in random order, came with waves of worry and pride and relief. Snapshots of Orlando mingled with them and he did his best to hold onto the image of Orlando’s smile, could feel Orlando’s touch on his skin as if it had never been any other way.

He slowly woke to a light touch against his cheek. Fingertips caressed his temple, carded through his hair, then ran down his neck, stroked over his upper arm just below the rim of his sleeve. Each touch was so gentle as if careful to let him sleep, so tender as if Orlando just couldn’t help himself, just had to touch him.

Even in this state of almost sleep, Sean’s inner clock told him that it was not yet time to get up. Still, he didn’t drift off again but exhaled with a quiet hum in response to the light contact. Orlando’s fingers stilled but he didn’t pull away, and after a moment he resumed the caress.

Sean lay still on his side for another moment until the fog left in his brain had dissipated before he opened his eyes. Orlando was looking at him. His head propped on his left hand, he lay close enough that Sean could see his eyes glint in the almost darkness.

“Time is it?”

Sean licked his lips slowly and blinked away the last haziness.

“Fourish,” Orlando whispered with a voice still gravelly from sleep. A small smile curved his lips and he stroked down Sean’s arm, curled his fingers around his elbow. “Good morning.”

“You’re still here,” Sean stated without meaning to. He heard the sleepiness in his own voice, hoped that it had masked the relief that had settled in his heart the moment he’d opened his eyes.

But Orlando stared down at him as if frozen in place, as if for one second this was the only reason he hadn’t left. Suddenly so unlike him, so unlike his self-assured, cocky self, so unlike the man who knew what he wanted because he understood how everyone else ticked. Tentative. Unsure. Instinctively Sean shook his head in response. He reached out and gripped Orlando’s lower arm, warm under the thick blanket they shared.

“I – look, I’m happy you’re still here,” he said, louder than necessary maybe. “I want you here.”

Orlando stilled and exhaled, like he’d been holding his breath for this entire time. Then he moved so quickly that Sean couldn’t do more but huff in surprise. Dry lips pressed against his own, a bit of that desperation still in the fierceness of the kiss. But back was the poise in the way Orlando leaned over him, his chest solid against Sean’s, thigh sliding between Sean’s. Orlando pressed against him, wove his fingers through Sean’s hair to hold him close as Sean kissed back. Back was that ‘I take what I want’ confidence in the tilt of his head and the parting of lips. It let him win races as well as Sean’s heart.

***

Chapter Text

Nine

Sean had entered horses in two different meetings on three days in a row. For Orlando this meant one adrenaline high had barely worn of when he was in the saddle again, races only separated by a few winks caught during a hastened drive in between race courses. There was no use in washing the mud of his face if the next dirty chase was straight ahead. Even if he had been inclined to spend his evenings soulfully staring into Sean’s eyes (which he wasn’t, not particularly), Sean would have had to take his head out of the form books or at least put the phone down. As it was, after riding four races on two different tracks, Orlando was more than glad to call a rain check on any romantic notions whatsoever, possibly till the off-season.

When he returned with the second lot on Sunday morning, three big horse boxes were parked in the yard. ‘Brad Dourif – Racing Stables’ was printed onto them, Lee’s Bentley parked in front of them.

Billy’s expression changed to a businesslike coolness, not letting anything on and reminding Orlando of Sean’s poker face. They all had an inkling what the arrival of the horseboxes meant. Dom looked at Orlando from Darlington’s back and it was the first time he didn’t react with a dismissive joke.

“He’s come to take his horses.”

Kirsten shook her head incredulously.

“He’s been saying for years, one day he was gonna leave. But man, he’s been saying that for years.”

“Like clockwork,” Britt agreed disbelievingly. “Maybe that’s just taking it one step further?”

“He’s taking Trav,” Dom said very quietly.

“Bastard,” muttered Elijah uncharacteristically harshly next to him.

They stopped their horses just short of the stalls’ doors, and Orlando stood up in his saddle, his eyes searching the yard. Neither Sean nor Dave were to be seen anywhere and the drivers of the transporters just sat in their cabins, looking bored.

“Right,” Billy decided after a moment. He slid off Gamekeeper and pulled the horse towards the stables. “Let’s get the horses back inside. The Guv’ll sort it out.”

Britt and Kirsten exchanged glances and Dom looked downright murderous, but all of them followed Billy’s order as if on autopilot. Orlando followed suit. But as the lads turned their attention to the next horses on their list, he just quickly brought his saddle back into the tack room before making a bee line for the main house.

Miranda looked up from her computer when Orlando came into the room. Before he could even open his mouth, she put a finger to hers, then she pointed at the door to Sean’s office.

“Sir Christopher is in there,” she whispered. “He got here just after second lot left. I instantly called Sean. They’ve been in his office ever since.”

“There are horseboxes in the yard,” Orlando said, redundantly because the view from Miranda’s office window showed them clearly.

Her voice was even quieter when she spoke again, leaning over so Orlando could hear her.

“Dave’s in with them and I’m so glad he was here when Sir Christopher came. I really hope that this’ll blow over, that Dave’ll manage to smoothen it all out.”

Somehow, Orlando doubted that Sean even wanted to smoothen any feathers anymore. They both turned their heads towards the heavy wooden door, separating Miranda’s space from Sean’s office. It was closed but still they now could hear Lee’s raised voice loud and clear.

“I have to say, this is all very unpleasant. I am not happy to have to leave. But I won’t have it that I –“

“Let’s get to it then,” Sean interrupted him, tone clipped.

“Look here,” Lee protested, “I won’t have it. I am paying you a fortune every month and the least I will demand for it is some respect in regards to my input.”

“No one questioned that it’s ultimately your decision where and when your horses run,“ Dave said, his voice calm and coaxing.

“So why was I told that Crusader’s Cross wouldn’t be entered in the Queen Mother’s Champion Chase in March? ‘Only over my dead body’ that’s what you said!”

“Well, the race isn’t all that suited for him,” Dave said diplomatically. “He doesn’t run well in Cheltenham and the Queen Mother’s Chase –“

“’Only over my dead body’”, Lee interrupted again bitterly. “I ask you! I say, there is no excuse for speaking to me like that!”

“I tell you what excuse I got,” Sean growled. “The horse would lose. There’s no chance he’d even finish without grossly exhausting himself. And for what? That race would ruin the horse. You’d be the laughing stock of the course! And you’d blame me.”

Miranda sat up in her chair, face pale and eyes huge, while she waited for another attempt of Dave’s to calm the waters. Only that it didn’t come. Orlando started gnawing on the side of his index finger. Silence stretched for a long few seconds instead.

“That was not an apology,” Lee then stated icily.

“No, it wasn’t,” Sean gave back in much the same tone.

“Look, Sir Christopher –“ Dave started, but he didn’t finish his sentence.

“Twenty-nine of the horses in this yard belong to me,” Lee said, not a statement of facts but a threat. “Twenty-nine.”

Someone was moving, and it had to be Sean because his voice was quiet, as if he was now standing directly in front of Lee when he spoke again.

“I won you the King George last year. The Gold Cup the year before.”

“Do you think I am bluffing?”

“No,” Sean replied.

“Fine,” Lee spat out.

“Fine,” Sean spat back.

Holy shit.

Dave sighed audibly. Miranda groaned. Orlando stood in the middle of the room with his hand over his mouth, felt like someone had hit the pause-button.

Sean finally broke the silence.

“My lads will have the youngsters ready in a quarter of an hour.”

There now was no emotion whatsoever in his voice, making it sound as cold and biting as a winter morning on the frozen and deserted downs. Even if the utter lack of feeling wasn’t directed at him Orlando could still feel it like a chill running down his spine.

“The drivers will come back for the rest afterwards,” Lee said with equal coldness. “I’ll stay in Dourif’s yard where we will be checking that all of them are well and healthy.”

“You do that.”

As the three men started moving towards the door, Miranda abruptly got up and rushed toward the kitchen as if she hadn’t spent the last minutes eaves-dropping. She was just out of the room when the door to the office was pushed open by Lee. Without even sparing Orlando a glance, he strode past him and straight out, slamming the front door shut behind him. Dave rolled his eyes ostentatiously but followed on his heels. Sean didn’t come out.

He stood in front of the large window that faced the yard, turned around at the sound of Orlando’s tentative knocking.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” Orlando replied and came to stand next to him. In the yard Lee just strode purposefully towards one of the transporters, no doubt ordering the drivers around. “So, this is really happening.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, fuck.”

“I have to get out there. Lee can’t put the young ones in the big transporters.”

Orlando knew that tone of voice, it was Bark’s, was the trainers. Still, he couldn’t help but repeat,

“Fuck.”

Sean looked at him for a long moment, and there was agreement in his gaze, open and simple and definite. Then he nodded once. He grabbed his coat and pulled it on while he was already heading for the door.

“Anything I can do?” Orlando asked.

“No. You got the rest of the day off.”

They had had scheduled a training session for Shy Harbour and Sure Bet for the late morning. Both were Lee’s horses.

“I wasn’t really talking about that,” Orlando said.

“Yeah.” Sean sighed and headed towards the door. When his hand already rested on the doorframe, he turned around again.

“We still on for tonight?” Orlando asked.

Sean nodded without hesitating. An instant smile formed on Orlando’s lips, he couldn’t help it. A small mirror image of it ghosted over Sean’s face in response, just for a second, then he glanced out the window. With a muttered curse, he left his office.

Orlando turned to the window to the yard again where Lee was issuing out orders. His gestures grew sharper with frustration before he turned away abruptly when Sean stopped in front of him. As the lads appeared with the first hand full of horses, wrapped in thick transportation gear, all of them took their cues from Sean, always keeping their eyes on him or at least watching him from the corners of them. Sean didn’t move, didn’t even say much except for the odd instruction and his face was utterly impassive. But still his staff was efficient and cool in his presence, not even Dom broke ranks, not even when the last transporter left the yard.

For now.

For dinner, Sean’s housekeeper had put him some fish stew in the oven. Orlando joked about her mother hen tendencies before he started stuffing his face. Sean ate with a little more decorum but still one-handed with his left resting on Tim’s head on his knee. They went through the upcoming meetings, both of them not mentioning the races that now had to be scratched with even a word.

When they had finished eating, Sean wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He leaned back in his chair and asked, “So, you staying?”

Orlando knew the tone of voice from the racecourse, it held the same self-evident familiarity as every announcer’s ‘And they’re off’. Like a colt in the starting gate, it took him the fraction of a second to react properly. A slight frown appeared on Sean’s face, just the most minimal of narrowing of his eyes. It was sheer bloody impatience, the same thing that made him regularly bark at him across the training grounds.

Orlando shoved more food into his mouth and replied with a grin, “Watch me.”

Too fucking bad not everything in the world was that bloody simple.

Seeing Traveller being led into Wolverhampton’s parade ring by Brad Dourif and not Sean, witnessing Dourif giving his own stable jockey a leg up and not Orlando? Hurt like a bitch. That moment it didn’t matter that some of the remaining horses at Greystone were just as good, that he’d never really liked some of them like Sure Bet for example in the first place. Still felt like a kick in the gut.

Orlando was dressed in the Banas’ colours of blue and gold and was already sitting on Fiddling Nero, a seven year old brown gelding, good jumper even if not the fastest horse on the planet. As he was led around in the parade ring he spotted Sean with the Australian couple next to the railing.

As per usual Eric and Rebecca Bana looked like photo models out of a travelling brochure for exclusive trips to Australia. Even in Wolverhampton’s January drizzle the dark haired couple looked tanned, well rested and cheerful. Like this was just the most entertaining thing to do on the perpetual dream holiday that was their life. But while Mr and Mrs Bana and their two kids were talking to each other – Mr Bana obviously was just collecting pennies from his children, acting as their bookie – Sean clearly wasn’t listening. He’d drawn his cap down low but Orlando didn’t need to see his eyes to know what he was looking at.

Traveller was making a big show of his round in the parade ring, leading his groom rather than being led by him, and looking as beautifully powerful as ever. Sean’s gaze followed him and when the stallion was led past Fiddling Nero, Orlando caught a glimpse of his eyes. It was just for a fleeting moment but he saw it in Sean’s eyes, the loss, the regret, the anger, the resignation. The look was gone in a flash and Sean finally turned towards the Banas, reacting to something Mrs Bana had said. But Orlando didn’t need anything more.

“I want to give the horse a good luck kiss,” announced the little girl when Fiddling Nero stopped close to them, just as Orlando joined them.

Her brother looked intensely sceptical, but Bana smiled broadly.

“We don’t kiss horses, Soph’, they don’t particularly like it.”

“Like when Mommy kisses Klaus?” she asked back and smiled broadly, the miniature version of her father’s grin, when a thought struck her. “But he likes it, secretly.”

Her brother Klaus now looked scandalised and vehemently shook his head in denial.

Mr Bana explained, “Still, Nero doesn’t like it. And you wouldn’t want it to confuse your nose with a carrot and nibble at it, would you?”

“Your nose totally looks like a carrot,” supplied Klaus, as any gallant brother would, and craned his neck to look up at Orlando.

“Will you win this race?”

“I’ll give my best.”

“Of course you will,” Mrs Bana said with a brilliant smile.

But her husband still asked, “Do you think that’ll put you anywhere in the money?”

Orlando hesitated for a moment, despite the completely friendly tone of voice in which Bana had asked. He felt the constantly shifting thrum of nervous energy that every pore of Nero’s body seemed intent on telling him about and he knew the gelding wanted to please him about anything else. It made him feel serene in a way only horses ever could, lucky and blessed. But nevertheless, making promises never was a good idea on a race track, not if someone might waste a fortune on your words at the betting stalls. And especially not when you were up against Time Traveller.

Mrs Bana obviously picked up on his reticence and lightly patted her husband’s arm.

“Don’t put him on the spot like that, Eric.”

“I wasn’t. I just wanted to know whether I can spend a fiver on a betting ticket or whether that money is better invested in ice-cream and fairy floss.”

“Fairy floss,” Sophia decided instantly.

But her brother explained to her, “If Dad wins he has way more money for it.”

Bana turned to his wife and said with a straight face, “You see why it is imperial for me to know our horse’s chances?”

Orlando smiled now but still looked back to Sean automatically, who hadn’t said anything so far but didn’t look as impatient with these owners as he usually did. Sean shrugged.

“The going’s good, the two mile distance shouldn’t be too much for him. What are the bookies offering?”

“Three to one for him in the money.”

“Sounds reasonable.”

Despite the carefulness in Sean’s voice and his glance towards Time Traveller Bana’s broad grin was back and despite his height and build it made him seem like a little boy.

“Ace. Who wants to come to the betting stands with me?”

Predictably, Klaus’ eyes brightened and he dutifully handed his sister’s hand over to his mother before running off to follow his father. The announcement for the jockeys to mount came when the two of them had just disappeared in the crowd and Britt led Fiddling Nero up to where they were standing so Orlando could get a leg up from Sean.

“Good luck,” Mrs Bana said when he was in the saddle. “But don’t break your neck. We can afford losing the five pounds. No worries.”

Orlando slid his feet into the stirrups.

“Still, I’ll give my best. Always.”

Mrs Bana smiled at him as Sean led the horse away.

“We know. Which is why it’s always a joy to watch our two horses run, no matter whether they place.”

Depending on how one looked at it, the race was either a success or seriously frustrating. Orlando voted for the latter. He managed to get his gelding over the finishing line in second place which was a good result for the horse who’d struggled with the first few fences as per usual. Orlando was proud of him and felt that the horse was pleased with its own performance.

But it was Time Traveller who came in first, Time Traveller who made it look as easy as pie when he thundered past the winning post a good five length ahead of the field. Time Traveller who wasn’t ridden by Orlando, who didn’t run for Sean’s yard anymore.

Sean greeted him back in the unsaddling enclosure, wordlessly patting Fiddling Nero’s sweating neck.

“He did his best,” Orlando replied, unable to keep the frustration out of his voice.

“Couldn’t expect more of him, realistically,” Sean said with a shrug and when Orlando looked at him, the carefully neutral expression was firmly in place. He ignored the words, ignored the look on Sean’s face and briefly placed a hand on the other man’s arm.

“I’m really sorry I didn’t win this one. Especially this one.”

Sean stopped what he was doing, unfastening the girth of Nero’s saddle, and looked back at him. He patted the gelding’s sweaty neck and let his hand rest on the horse’s bony shoulder.

“I know,” he said quietly.

“Well, yeah. The Banas would’ve bought me ice-cream after all,” Orlando joked. “You reckon their kids have posters of me in their bedrooms?”

“No one but you has posters of you in their bedroom.”

Orlando laughed out loud which turned some heads and made the default noncommittal expression reappear on Sean’s face. Then he had to hurry to weigh in and to get changed to be ready on time for his next race. He managed to win that one as well as the last one of the day, Always Blessed running with the same effortless success that felt so fitting for the Banas.

His two wins might be considered a well enough outcome, but Orlando didn’t have many illusions about this lifting the spirits at Greystone.

No one had been let go so far even though everyone knew it was just a matter of time; no one speculated about the reasons for that delay – after all it was simple math that with the number of horses reduced by one third, the same had to happen to the staff – but it meant that the tension was building with each day of insecurity.

It was Britt (of course it was her) who broke the silence roughly a week after Lee’s departure.

“My Gran’s funeral was more fun than working here,” she stated matter-of-factly without even looking up from her task.

“Probably because you shagged the priest,” replied Kirsten. She picked up another bridle to clean and hopped back onto one of the medium height shelves where she sat down next to Britt.

“I fucking didn’t,” Britt protested. “And it was still more fun.”

Orlando looked up from the bridle he was putting back together after Billy had handed it to him – “if you hang out, you can help out, mate”, he’d said and Orlando gladly did especially since Billy never hesitated to do the same. The door to the tack room was pushed open and Elijah appeared in the frame, accompanied by a cold rush of air.

“I betting this week’s wages that I’m your favourite person in the yard in five seconds.”

“Hand over your pay check,” Billy said promptly.

“I’m with Bill,” Martin instantly agreed. “Nothing against you, mate, but I suppose I’d even name the Guv as my favourite person ever. If you paid me enough.”

“Yeah, and hell’s frozen over,” Dom muttered. He didn’t even try to smile at Martin’s joke. The quick silence that followed was uncomfortable and Orlando tried to lighten the mood again.

“I’d say let’s hear Elijah out,” he said, aiming for the same false cheerfulness that Elijah had come in with. “But then I’m not all that into betting as you guys are.”

“It’s because you’re probably shopping for new trousers each week since the wads of money won’t fit into your old ones anymore,” Kirsten said dryly but turned an angelic smile towards Orlando when the tack room broke into collective laughter.

“Oh, piss off,” Orlando laughed with them, glad for the conversation even if Kirsten was making fun of him. “As if. – Besides, who’s the one paying for your pints regularly because,” he imitated Kirsten’s high voice and batted his eyelashes, “oops, I forgot my purse at home! Be a doll and lend me five quid, will ya?”

“You make it sound like that was all the time!”

“It is all the time. If Orlando were buying shares of you by paying for your beer, at least your arms and arse already belonged to him.”

“Oh, thanks for making me sound like a horse. And one that isn’t worth its money either. Can’t we just go back to why we love Elijah?”

She pointedly looked at Elijah who was still standing in the doorframe as if patiently waiting for his cue. It wasn’t that much of an unusual occurrence for him, Orlando thought, rather often he seemed like he was sort of on standby or daydreaming.

“What? Oh, right,” Elijah said when everyone looked at him expectantly now. He brought his hand that held a linen bag. “Tea time! I brought the kettle!”

“I sort of love you,” Martin said with heartfelt intensity.

The prospect of a hot cup of tea seemed to warm up the room by a couple of degrees in an instant and Elijah grinned broadly as if the bag he was holding contained the Gold Cup trophy. Orlando got up from where he’d slouched on a broad rack next to the window and put his bridle down for the moment.

“Here, let me do it,” he offered because he was the only one without a huge stack of tack to clean.

“You think anyone ever got killed over a mug of tea?” Britt asked as Orlando plugged the electric kettle in. She didn’t look up from the strap she was scrubbing with fierce determination but added wistfully, “I can totally see it right now.”

“I’m one hundred and twenty per cent sure there has been tea related murder,” Kirsten agreed cheerfully.

“Like the Boston Tea Party?” Elijah provided, but Kirsten just shook her head.

“I’m thinking more of some posh Lord stabbing his mistress’s eyes out because she dared to sip from his Earl Grey.”

“So, what do you reckon are the stupidest reasons for offing someone?” asked Martin.

Before anyone could answer, Elijah said completely straight faced, “Love.”

“Naw, Lijah,” Kirsten cooed. “That’s only like the most popular motive for murder ever.”

“Aside from greed,” Billy said.

“And the desperate need for a nice cuppa tea,” Martin added, pointedly looking at Orlando.

“Oh, shut it, you all,” Britt said without heat before looking at Elijah. “Why would love be a stupid reason?”

“I dunno. I was just thinking – if I was in love, I think I’d have other things on my mind. Other than slaughtering people, I mean.”

It wasn’t so much the words but his seriously contemplative tone of voice that brought up the following thoughtful silence in the room. It was Dom who spoke next, surprising the rest of them because he’d been silently working on his bridle for all this time.

“People murder because they feel their love is threatened, idiot,” he said sharply. “Makes sense, too, doesn’t it? That you wanna protect what’s yours with all means available. Against anyone wanting to take it from you.”

Surprised by that Orlando glanced to the other lads who looked equally bewildered.

Kirsten tried a laugh.

“Who are you and what did you do with Dom?”

Dom just looked at her darkly.

“I mean it.”

“What exactly do you mean?” Martin asked.

Dom didn’t answer, instead it was Britt, as subtle as the average bulldozer, who translated.

“Dom’s pissed about his horses, and he’d like some alone time with Sir Christopher or preferably Bark and a pitchfork.”

Orlando stared disbelievingly at Dom who didn’t deny it.

“Seriously?”

“Course,” Dom replied, jumping on it. “Do you know how long I had Crusader and Trav? Two years, mate. And every day I groomed them, mucked out their stalls, rode them, tucked them in at night and stayed with them when they had only so much as a hiccup.”

“I never said you didn’t,” Orlando said and defensively raised his hands.

Dom wasn’t finished however, seemed almost eager, glad that he’d finally found someone to direct his frustration at.

“No, but you’re saying I don’t have a right to be pissed off that they’ve just been taken away from me. What would you know about that, huh?”

“Dom, come on,” Billy said soothingly. “It’s not Orlando’s fault.”

“It’s his loss as well,” Elijah added quietly.

“Is that right? What does he know about losing them? He rides them once a week at most, plus a handful of races every now and then. What does he know about them except for what he can read about them in the form books, huh?” Dom turned his furious gaze to Orlando. “Did you know that Trav hates carrots? Doesn’t eat them, just licks them clean from the oats and leaves them in his bucket for me to take them away again, right spoiled brat that he is. Did you know that?” Orlando mutely shook his head and Dom nodded grimly. “Then don’t pretend to know what it feels like, do me a favour.”

Orlando swallowed hard, chose his words carefully.

“I didn’t. You’re right, I don’t know as much about them as you do and I didn’t spend each day tending to them. Doesn’t mean I don’t care though.”

Dom scoffed bitterly.

“Yeah, I get what you care about. Trav’s one of the best prospects for the National and who’d have ridden him? Don’t fucking tell me that for you it’s about anything else but being jocked off, Orlando.”

It was dead silent in the tack room now. Orlando stared at Dom who glared back challengingly. Taken aback, Orlando glanced from Dom’s angry face to Billy who was the only one not apparently deeply invested in scrubbing leather but had his eyes on Dom as well. And aside from surprise over words as harsh coming from someone usually so jokey, Orlando found compassion there, sympathy for his friend’s hurt. It made him bite back his anger on his own behalf, his hurt, and he tried to keep his voice even when he answered.

“I get it, it sucks more for you and of course you’re pissed off. And I’m sorry about that, I really am. You can think of my reasons what you want but it’s still not Sea – the Guv’s fault that you’re upset.”

“Whose fault is it then that Crusader and Trav and all the others aren’t here, huh?”

“It was Sir Christopher’s decision, not Sean’s!”

“Yeah, and Sir bleeding Christopher is a rich bastard who pays a fortune to have people suck his dick. Whose job is it to go down on his knees and effing blow him so he keeps his horses here?”

“That’s enough, Dom,” Billy cut in.

Dom glared at him, then at Orlando again.

Quietly Kirsten said, “Dom’s got a point. It’s crap, not knowing what’s what, innit. Who’s gonna get the sack, who stays. Why don’t we get told already?”

“Don’t complain as long as you still get paid,” Elijah murmured and effortlessly, Dom switched his anger at him.

“Oh, is that right? Just shut up and take everything that’s dished out? Just look at Bark! He doesn’t give a rat’s arse about us or the horses and –“

“Oh, give it a rest already!” Orlando finally snapped. “Spare me your endless whinging! That chip on your shoulder is having a field day. It’s fucking pathetic.”

“I can show you exactly how pathetic –”

“You know what? Fuck you, Dom. You have no idea how to run a yard, so don’t pretend you do.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, you idiots! Get a fucking grip!”

With a loud thump Martin threw the tack he’d been cleaning down. Both Dom and Orlando turned towards him. Martin just rolled his eyes before he picked up his sponge again.

Britt nodded in agreement.

“I can’t believe I’m actually saying that, but Martin’s right. Dom, if it sucks so much here, then don’t wait to get sacked but fucking quit already! Otherwise, shut your trap.” She turned her gaze towards Orlando. “We know that for some reason you worship the ground the Guv walks on. But newsflash, babe, drones always blame the queen bee if something goes wrong. It’s a law of nature or something. So both of you, stop with the drama already, it’s giving me a fucking headache.”

For a moment it was again dead silent in the tack room. Orlando, for one, was too stunned to protest. Dom gaping like a fish as well, all angry tension at least momentarily gone from his posture.

Something between a snort and a giggle ended the silence. Kirsten held her hand in front of her mouth as she unsuccessfully tried to suppress her laughter.

“Did you just call Bark the queen bee?” she asked, her amusement clear as a bell in her voice. “Like, for real?”

“Bzzz fucking bzzz,” Britt answered with a nod before she, too, grinned broadly. “He is, isn’t he? Queen bee.”

Martin inspected the sponge in his hand.

“Well, queen Bean, really,” he corrected.

All Kirsten could answer was more giggles, something that as per usual proved to be infective as Elijah and even Billy immediately had to join in and were smiling now. With their laughter the thickest of the tension seemed to dissolve and everyone returned to their task of cleaning tack once again, the occasional buzzing sound renewing the amusement a couple of times.

Orlando returned his attention to the electric kettle and finally made tea for them all. Dom took the mug Orlando offered to him without a word.

Dom clearly couldn’t see past his own anger. But honestly? Orlando knew that Sean hadn’t even tried to make things right with Sir Christopher. He had to have his reasons, but Orlando didn’t get it. Was Sean too proud to apologise? Or was it all a tactical move, like a risky strategy for a difficult course, and was he waiting for Sir Christopher to buckle first?

He had no idea.

He woke up abruptly in the middle of the following night. For a blurry second he was disoriented but relaxed just as quickly, realising it was Sean’s bed he was sleeping in. His eyes automatically searched for Sean and for the briefest of seconds unease pinched his heart when they didn’t find him at once. Sean wasn’t sleeping and he wasn’t lying next to Orlando.

But he wasn’t gone. He sat on the edge of the bed as if some inner restlessness had driven him up but he couldn’t bring himself to leave. In the semi-darkness of the moonlit night, the lines on his face looked like they were engraved there, deep and hard furrows around his mouth, and his jaw was set, his naked shoulders were hunched as he rested his lower arms on his bare thighs. Sean turned his head a little when Orlando shifted, but he didn’t move away or explain, just sat there quiet and sleepless with his back bowed and thoughts on his mind that he wouldn’t even voice in the darkness of the night.

He didn’t pull away when Orlando kissed his shoulder, pliant lips against soft skin, closing over the small football tattoo there, and Orlando shifted a little more to come to sit behind him. Sean would stay silent until he’d found enough words to explain. Then maybe. But there was just something to his unmoving quietness that made Orlando’s heart clench, made his entire body ache with the desire to make it better. He wrapped his arms around Sean’s waist, kissed up his shoulder, the curve of his neck and leaned against him as if he could shield him from everything else like that, as if nothing but them right here that mattered.

Sean sighed quietly, and Orlando tightened his embrace. He raised his chin from Sean’s shoulder when Sean turned to face him, kissed Sean. Sean stayed silent.

Still, Orlando swore he could taste the frustration in his first kisses, could feel the desperation in the rough way Sean pushed him back onto the bed and covered his body with his own. Despite that knowledge, Orlando’s arousal was instantaneous. He wrapped his legs tightly around Sean’s waist, dug his fingers into the meat of Sean’s shoulders to pull him closer yet. It was Orlando who had control over their kiss when Sean impatiently pulled both their boxer shorts down without breaking their liplock. It was Orlando who urged Sean on wordlessly to go faster, harder, not much later.

Afterwards, Orlando lay on his back, panting heavily at first. Sean lay next to him on his side, and Orlando knew Sean was listening to him breathe, felt Orlando’s chest rise and fall under his hand. Orlando stayed awake, body growing heavier but mind still sharp, until Sean’s even breathing slipped into quiet snores.

The next afternoon, he spent a frustrating hour working with Sandstorm again. If that stupid horse had bucked him off and started trying to eat his brain like a bloody zombie, it wouldn’t have surprised him the littlest bit. He meant to give Sean a progress report despite that. But the moment he entered the hallway, raised voices – Sean’s and Dave’s – coming from the office made him stop dead in his tracks. He instantly turned on his heels and all but tiptoed back down the hall, out the door.

When hours later, he returned to Greystone Stables, the small car park in front of the main house was completely empty. Everyone else was gone. He was just about to ring the bell when the door was opened. Sean, wearing his thick coat, nearly ran into Orlando and only stopped right in front of him.

“Oh hey,” Sean said. “I was just about to go for a last round.”

Orlando arched his brows. “Now? It’s seven already. Almost pitch dark.”

Sean automatically glanced at the sky. The frown stayed on his forehead and he hummed in slight surprise, scratching his right eyebrow as if he wasn’t really sure how he’d gotten delayed for that long. He looked tired.

“Do you want me out of your hair?” Orlando asked. “I can come back later, or y’know tomorrow. If you’re busy.”

“No, no,” Sean scratched his brow and pulled the door shut after Tim had slipped out. He put on his flat cap. “It’s not like the figures change if I just look at them long enough.”

“Suppose they don’t. I was never good at math.”

He didn’t elaborate but waited for Orlando to come along to join him on his round. So Orlando zipped up his jacket again and followed.

Tim ran ahead of them as they crossed the yard, in pursuit of imaginary intruders. The main stables lay quiet and peaceful ahead of them, even if their owner clearly wasn’t. Sean’s words still echoed in the silence, and Orlando was sure that Sean’s mind still was with the books and invoices, even if he routinely checked each door’s latch and made sure everything was in order.

Eventually, Sean said, more to himself than to Orlando, “Don’t have to be a genius to know that minus twenty-nine horses, the figures look different-”

“You and Dave were fighting about that? I kinda overheard, this afternoon.”

Sean started walking again, past the main stables and towards the new building. Again, Orlando followed.

“I reckon the entire yard did,” Sean said.

“Nah, they don’t come anywhere near the main house. They’re all too afraid of you.”

Sean’s lips quirked in an automatic response to Orlando’s attempt at lightness but his voice was still completely serious when he said, “Still, they all got a point, don’t they?”

“Regarding what?”

“Don’t play dumb, you know what.”

“Piss off,” Orlando replied calmly. “If you don’t want me to poke, either just say so or stop saying cryptic things. They have no other purpose than to make me ask.”

Despite himself Sean laughed.

“Some way to offer comfort.”

“Yeah, well. I’m not very good at that. It’s too close for comfort, as it were, to pity. You might punch me in the face for the effort.”

“Maybe.”

Orlando regarded him closely. He hated the new lines around Sean’s eyes.

“Lee is a dickhead, if Dave doesn’t concur, he’s an idiot.”

Mild astonishment widened Sean’s eyes at this complete lack of segue.

“Don’t remember asking you for your opinion.”

“No. But when have I ever cared?”

Sean looked at him for another long moment without replying. Then he sighed, cast his eyes down and walked on.

“I shouldn’t have pissed him off.”

“Who, Dave? I didn’t even think that was possible.”

Surprisingly, Sean chuckled in response.

“Dave bellows at me like that at least twice a week. I give him the sack as often. I wasn’t talking about him.”

“I’m sorry, but you can’t possibly mean Lee. Have you met him?” Orlando scoffed. “It’s impossible to not offend that guy. He’s a moody bastard.”

“Well, so am I,” Sean replied simply. “Only that he can afford it.”

“So, that’s the only thing everyone’s fretting over? Yourself included?”

Sean didn’t answer as they reached the new block of stables. It, too, lay in quiet darkness but the upper halves of most of the doors were slightly ajar here, to let fresh air in and allow the empty stables to breathe out. Hardly any buckets stood in front of the whitewashed walls, just a few halters hung from the doors. Instead of the rustling of straw and the occasional contented snort there was just almost absolute silence.

Orlando didn’t like the look of the empty stables by day. Now, they seemed almost ghostly. It felt like the coldness of the night had chosen just that moment to creep up on them. Orlando took a step closer to Sean, so their arms brushed together. The light touch seemed to bring Sean out of his quiet contemplations. Sean indicated the row of stables ahead of them with a nod.

“I built this last year. For the horses Lee bought just then.” Judging from the sound of his voice, right now that decision seemed even more idiotic to him than usual. “Solid investment. If I had horses.”

Orlando couldn’t stop himself from asking.

“You’re considering getting him back?”

Sean turned to look at him.

“Sir Christopher?”

“No, Humpty Dumpty. – Of course Sir Christopher.”

“He believes he owns people just like he owns horses.”

“Yeah, I get that. He’s an utterly up-himself narcissist. Manipulating him should be easy enough.”

Sean shook his head.

“He knows as much about people as he knows about horses. He likes winning. In every field and by all means necessary.”

“So, he’s a dick. We already established that.”

“Could you stop talking in tabloid headlines?”

Orlando leaned a little closer yet, his shoulder still against Sean’s. His anger threatened to dissipate like the first attack of pain after a fall. It would make way for a dull, continuous ache. He rubbed a hand over his face.

“No, I get it. He’s drawn a better starting position. Bad enough, but he also uses every chance to deliberately bump into you mid-jump just to fuck up your race. There’s nothing worse than a mean spirited jock with the upper hand.”

“Which is why I prefer chasers over jockeys, horses over people, hm?” Sean turned his head to Orlando, his smile caught somewhere between irony and self-deprecation. “Simple in their joy and they don’t question me?”

Orlando blew hot air into his cold hands.

“You know I didn’t mean it like that.”

Sean stared at the empty stalls in front of them. In one of the few occupied boxes straw rustled quietly, and Red Sun Rising’s head appeared over the door. She turned her head towards Sean, like she wasn’t even surprised to find him there. He stepped closer to her, and she pushed her muzzle lightly against his jacket. She inhaled his scent enquiringly and then rubbed her nose gently against his shoulder.

Sean’s hum was as sweet as honey, the greeting of a lover almost. He raised his hand, the ever slow and steady motion of a horseman, and cupped her chin with it, fingers curling and moving the littlest bit. She leaned into the small touch and exhaled happily. It made Sean’s lips curl ever so slightly in return. All of this spoke of such familiarity. The carefulness of the mare’s motions was absolutely matched by Sean’s unashamed tenderness towards her.

“There’s one thing I don’t get,” Orlando said abruptly. “What changed?”

Sean glanced up, eyebrows slightly raised in enquiry.

“What?”

“Lee’s always been this megalomaniac grouch, right?” Orlando instinctively pulled a face. “I’d have murdered him with a pitchfork long ago. But apparently, you didn’t loathe him as much as I do. Or at least you were better at keeping a lid on it. Who’d have thought?”

“Your point?”

“I don’t have one, just a question. You’ve been training for him for years. What’s changed that you won’t any longer?”

Instead of replying, Sean turned back to patting Red Sun. Orlando couldn’t help it. His heart started beating harder in his chest for that little gesture alone. How could anyone feel so happy, so heartbroken, so protective and so helpless at the same time? How did you deal with that? Orlando couldn’t very well spent his days wanting to drag Sean into the nearest empty box and touch him and will away all his worries just like that. Even if this was all he could think about. Could he? If you felt this way about someone, how were you supposed to ever get anything else done?

Orlando had no freaking idea.

So, he didn’t do anything. He just stood there and felt the coolness of the ground creeping up his legs. Sean’s body was solid and warm next to him, not moving away when Orlando leaned against him just the slightest bit, searching for warmth and offering comfort in return.

When Red Sun pulled her head back to return to her hay, Sean looked at Orlando again. He looked calmer again, like the living proof of the wondrous power of horses.

“Over the years,” he said slowly, “I reckon I’ve grown accustomed to so much –“

“Crap? Bullshit? Idiocy?” Orlando provided readily.

Sean pushed his hands into the pockets of his coat again, nodded.

“I just deal with it. It’s not that bad, not one thing on its own. So, I deal. Until one morning, I wake up, and the muck heap has reached the window of my bedroom.”

“Disconcerting, I get that.” Orlando tilted his head. “Bet there’s a rooster sitting on top of it, spying on you while you’re having a morning toss.”

Sean smiled, something that made Orlando grin in response. It was just that little bit of subtle self-assurance, maybe even arrogance. It confirmed that Sean knew his own worth alright, despite everything.

“That analogy ran away with you, didn’t it?”

“Like a bolting Sandstorm, yes.”

“Still no love lost there, I take it?”

“That horse has a bet going with Dancer. Who can kill me first, you know.”

Sean rolled his eyes, with friendly exasperation this time.

“Their brains are the size of apples. And they’re plotting your downfall?”

“Didn’t say they’d succeed.”

“Photo finish, probably.”

“Ta, Guv.”

They walked on to check on the horses further down the row. When they had come almost full circle, just a handful of stables left, Sean stopped in front of Buckingham Brat’s door. Sean rubbed his hand over his mouth in frustration. He sighed, a quiet little sound. Orlando gripped Sean’s shoulder, leaned in and kissed him, hard and close-mouthed, on the lips. Sean responded without hesitation, and his kiss felt just that bit desperate. A good desperation, one that Orlando knew how to respond to, at least for this very moment.

Sean’s hand cupped the back of Orlando’s head as he returned the kiss, parted his lips enough to suck at Orlando’s lower lip. There was that self-evident straightforwardness that never failed to instantly turn Orlando on. Orlando leaned against him, slid his tongue between Sean’s lips, deepened the kiss, felt something settle inside of himself.

Only after they’d pulled apart again, Sean looked at him with slight perplexity.

“Okay,” he said slowly, and it sounded like a question.

“I’m not gonna explain this,” Orlando said. “Just deal with it.”

“I didn’t complain.”

“No, you didn’t. But then, you had, like, my tongue down your throat just now, so how could you?”

They shared a smile, Sean squeezed his hand, then Orlando pulled back.

“So what are you gonna do? About the numbers. About Lee. Will you try to get him back?”

“What do you think?”

Orlando checked the latch on Buckingham’s door that of course was neatly shut.

“I suppose I can behave myself better when he is around. I have a bit of a temper, I know, but I can control it, honestly. Well, I can certainly try, even though he is a dickhead and –“

“No, I didn’t mean that,” Sean interrupted. “What would you do?”

“I’d say fuck him.”

“Just like that?”

“You worry about the lads and the money, that is noble and logical and everything –”

Sean huffed a little, an odd mix of being pleased, amused and frustrated. Orlando cut him off with a dismissive wave of his hand.

“It’s noble, but it’s also stupid. The lads will get new jobs. This is, like, horse sodding capitol. Of course they will. And you’ll get new horses. This is the best yard I’ve ever been in. And it’s not because of the new stables, or the gallops, not even because of Miranda, or Dave’s zen mentality. It’s the best because you don’t give a damn about what people think.”

Pride was battling with tiredness and resignation in Sean’s eyes. Orlando thought of the empty stables, thought of the look of perpetual displeasure on Lee’s face, of Dom’s deep disappointment, of Billy’s sudden uncharacteristic tentativeness.

Orlando got what Dom had said about devotion and the most uncomplicated form of love, he really did. It was Buckingham nuzzling Sean’s shoulder right now, it was the instinctive tenderness of Sean’s touch as he stroked over the horse’s nostrils. The entity of Orlando’s wins on Trav couldn’t match this smallest of caresses.

“No one could ever care as much about this yard and every horse and person in it as you do.”

Sean’s lips parted the littlest bit, like he was about to say something. But once again, he didn’t. Orlando’s lips curled in a small smile in response.

Sean still looked at him with a kind of thoughtful intensity. Orlando felt his heart ache at this sudden force of ‘too much’ and ‘too soon’ and at the same time ‘just right’.

“Cheers,” Sean said in a low voice.

“Oh, shut the fuck up,” Orlando replied equally quietly.

 

***

Ten

 

Sean’s decision to let Sandstorm join morning gallops again coincided with Viggo’s weekly visit. Once again Viggo had gladly taken Sean up on the offer to watch morning gallops with him and Dave. With two of his bigger dogs, still only half the size of Tim, at his side he leaned next to Dave against the Range Rover. The sky was clear but it was particularly cold and Sean was nothing short of envious of the thermo mug Viggo cradled in his mittened hands.

Viggo’s dogs grew a little restless, announcing the arrival of the string of horses. Dom rode Calcium Connelly, a promising but ordinary looking gelding. Martin was on Seduction in the Street, a horse that was clearly set apart from the others by its four high stockings. Both riders cantered in exactly the speed Sean had instructed them to, a good length behind Orlando on Sandstorm.

Viggo hummed appreciatively against the rim of his tin mug.

“They are looking good. I like the one with the original footwear.“

Dave chuckled.

“Seduction in the Streets. The lads calls him Prossy.“

“Figures you’d pick out the freak,“ Sean muttered under his breath.

“It makes distinguishing them on the racecourse much easier.“

“That‘s what silks and numbers are for.“

“I’m talking about bold fashion choices as a sign of character here.“

“Is there whisky in your coffee by any chance?” Dave asked with a chuckle.

“Nope, sadly not. Still, do you want some?”

Viggo held out his mug, but both Sean and Dave shook their heads before they turned their attention back to the horses.

Connelly proved a little headstrong, visibly annoyed by his rider’s insistence to hold him back. But Dom did a good job with him, slowed him a little even when Orlando and Sandstorm had one of their usual brief disagreements a few lengths away from the first fence. Dom, never as level headed as when he was on horseback, gave them a slightly wider berth, and Connelly took the fence without difficulties.

“He’s a neat jumper,” Dave remarked.

“He’s doing alright,” Sean agreed.

“Better than we first thought.”

“You were right about his problem with hurdles.”

Sandstorm’s strides grew tense and defiant from one second to the other. Sean could practically hear the grinding of Orlando’s teeth as he fought to remain in control. It was just for the shortest of moments but it still slowed them down a fraction.

“I see our colic patient is feeling better again,” Viggo commented with good humour.

Dave nodded.

“Once again his obnoxious self.”

“He’s not obnoxious,” Sean corrected, though without any heat. “Just a bit headstrong.”

Sandstorm took the fence like it was just a handful of loose branches. Once back on the ground, he bucked violently under Orlando, making him lose a length in the process.

“Surely reminds me of someone,” Viggo remarked laughingly. But there was real awe in his voice when Sandstorm still met the next fence perfectly, closely followed by Seduction. “Now, that’s a sight for sore eyes for sure.”

“We’ve got some talent there,” Dave agreed and smiled when Sean hummed.

“You’ve always known how to pick them,” Viggo said. “Lucky stars on your horizon.”

Sean lowered his binos to look at him sceptically. A bit early in the morning for sentimentality. Viggo shrugged easily, not taking it back.

“I hear Dourif has already grown new strands of grey hair over the last month.”

“You’re writing the gossip column for the Post now?” Dave asked.

“I’m a vet. As far as getting around and hearing things goes? It’s right there on the list with hairdressers. If there’s gossip, I’m the first to know about it.”

“How very comforting to know,” Sean said dryly. “I’ll let you know if I want anything spread.”

“Speaking of, did you hear that Lee insisted on entering Pirate King in the Gold Cup?”

Dave sighed ostentatiously.

“Yeah, we did. It’s inconvenient, but not surprising.”

Sean silently gazed through his binos for a moment – all his horses neatly lined up on the horizon like a string of pearls – then he just shrugged.

“Ah well. It is how it is.”

Dave chuckled quietly.

“That’s true.”

“You’re suspiciously peaceful these days,” Viggo said to Sean. “I’d go out on a limb and say you’re in a previously unheard of good mood.”

Dave glanced at Sean with amusement, waiting for an answer. Sean vowed to never take Viggo out to the gallops again.

“Aren’t you a close observer,” he said.

“Did they teach you that in vet school as well?” Dave asked, laughter in his voice.

“Nurse night school, more like.”

Viggo waggled his brows. He looked at Sean with open curiosity, but Sean didn’t elaborate, so he glanced at Dave.

“Don’t ask me,” Dave said with a shrug. “I just work here.”

Viggo’s grin grew wider when he looked back at Sean.

“Well, you bottle up your sad stories. I don’t even know why it still surprises me that you’re tight-fisted with everything else as well.”

Sean shrugged but felt the corners of his mouth twitch. Viggo laughed and fondled the head of one of his dogs.

“Are we still on for that beer tonight?” Viggo asked.

“Count me out,” Dave replied with a shake of his head. “I have a date with my wife.”

“I can see how that beats a night at the pub.”

“Half past seven, earliest,” Sean said.

“Fine by me.”

That settled, they talked about the slightly heated tendon in Sure Bet’s right fetlock, and how well Connelly and Seduction did, and that was that.

In the evening over that beer, they talked about football and the Gold Cup. They talked about the latest addition to Viggo’s ever growing pack of rescued dogs, and his completely outlandish plans to open a holiday resort for animals in Venezuela. With the usual seriousness he reserved for his most ludicrous moments, Viggo elaborated on his ideas for canine comfort housing and entertainment venues. Sean asked for employment as a janitor. Viggo didn’t ask about Sean’s good mood again, and Sean didn’t elaborate.

At some point, some of Greystone’s lads as well as Orlando stumbled into the pub, bringing cold air and laughter with them. Sean raised his glass in Orlando’s direction when he looked over. Orlando grinned at him before he returned to his odd game of one-upmanship with Dom that had the lads burst out in random bouts of laughter.

As the evening wore on, Viggo’s tactile affection grew parallel to his level of intoxication. He repeatedly slung his arm around Sean’s shoulder and told him that he was happy for him, honestly, generally happy. Sean took that as the uninvasive declaration of friendship it was intended to be and paid for the next round.

As a result, he was slightly hung over the next morning. But morning exercise and being outside for hours did their usual good job of dispersing the fog. In fact, he felt rather lively after finishing observing this morning’s lots. Instead of retiring to his office, he went and searched for Orlando and headed for the tack room.

There, Dom was obviously entertaining the other lads. His voice was carrying as always, the sing-songy tone to it adding to that effect, practically letting half of the yard know his thoughts. Still, for once he didn’t sound like he was complaining and that (more than the fact that he was being talked about) was the reason why Sean stopped only a few feet away from the barn’s tack room and listened in.

“The fucking sun’s shining outa Bark’s arse is all I’m saying,” Dom finished just then.

“Yeah, man, scary,” seconded Elijah’s high voice. “He didn’t even bite your head off, Orlando, when Paperweight fucked up that jump earlier.”

“Totally freaked me out, it did,” agreed Britt. “I mean what’s the world come to. Unnatural, innit?”

The lads laughed at that and it was Billy who replied, “Messes with your black and white world-view, doesn’t it?”

“Abso-fucking-lutely.”

“Well, maybe he’s got some big fish on the hook?” speculated Martin.

“Or he has finally gotten laid,” argued Dom.

Stupidly, Sean felt his heart pounding faster, even though he could hear Dom’s shit-eating grin. Gossip in the racing world spread faster than Mr Frisk finished the Grand National. No way to rein it back in once it was let loose.

But none of the lads paid it much attention. They apparently were just too used to Dom’s over-the-top theories. Over-the-top, as if.

“Dom, seriously, one track mind much?” asked Kirsten.

“Oh, look who’s talking.”

“Well, I’m getting some regularly, so I don’t need to constantly talk about it, you know.”

“Could we please not talk about our sex lives? Thank you.”

“Ah, don’t be shy, Martin. I’m sure you’re a total animal between the sheets.”

“Shut up, Dom.”

“I’m really excited about the Gold Cup,” Britt announced. A moment of confused silence prompted her to say, “What? I can’t get keyed up about something?”

“Something other than sex?” Kirsten specified. “Usually not.”

“Yeah, but what all I wanna know about yours and Martin’s romps, I already do.”

“Wait, what?”

“Like it’s a surprise to you that Kirsten is worse than the Racing Post, Martin.”

“I only said flattering like things about you, love. Like, about that thing you do when you’re –“

“So, about that Gold Cup,” Martin interrupted her, earning a few chuckles from the others. “What do you think, Orlando? Think we stand a bit of a chance?”

Orlando, who up until then had kept silent, answered the direct question happily.

“I’ll die trying, can promise you that much.”

“Which is all that matters, isn’t it?” Dom said with a twinge of something bitter mingled into his joking tone of voice.

Sean frowned a little at that and couldn’t make sense of it, but apparently the lads could.

“Oh, come off it already,” Billy said.

“You trying to hold a grudge? It is like watching a blind bloke with one leg trying to win the Grand National,” Britt agreed.

“Wait, I’m getting told off? Orlando cock-blocked me all evening yesterday!”

“Well, you gotta admit, you kinda deserved it.”

“Also,” Kirsten added, “it was fucking hilarious. The look on your face, man. I’ve seen test-stallions look less frustrated than you, and it’s in their job description that they never get a leg over. Sniffing’s as close as they get.”

“I can see the resemblance,” Britt agreed.

“Fuck the both of you. And you, too, Orlando. I liked that girl.”

“She hadn’t even told you her name, for heaven’s sake,” Martin said.

“Besides,” Orlando added, “it’s not my fault that every girl in the pub stops looking at you the moment I walk in.”

“Yeah, you’re God’s gift to women, we know that already. A right living honey trap and all that.”

“Funny though,” Billy said, “that you never seem to catch anything, huh?”

The lads laughed again at that. Sean knew how little it took to challenge Orlando. He held his breath again, waited for Orlando to answer. Orlando let the laughter die down first before he spoke again.

“I don’t know why that is either,” he said thoughtfully. “Can’t be my looks, or my charm.”

“Well, if that’s not humble, I don’t know what,” Dom replied between chuckles. “Tell you what, mate. As soon as you’ve won the Gold Cup, I graciously forgive you.”

“’Cause honour’s been restored?”

“The fuck I care about honour? I’m planning on betting fucking money on that horse.”

“Now I’m responsible for feeding your gambling addiction?”

“I’m just offering you a way to get into my good graces again.”

“How fucking generous of you,” Orlando answered dryly but sounded pleased nonetheless. “I’ll remember that while I’m trying to avoid Sandstorm’s teeth and hooves after he’s bucked me off.”

“Aces. Now that that’s settled, can we talk about sun and arse and Bark again?”

As if to respond to that, feet landed on the ground, like someone had just jumped off one of the half-high racks. Dom wasn’t perturbed by that. He was still repeating various theories on the subject, even when the door to the tack room was pushed open further. Billy came out.

“I’m thinking he’s got himself a bird. Maybe that lady owner whatsherface?”

Billy spotted Sean leaning against the wall next to Little Latin Lover’s stall. Sean arched his brows.

“Oi, Dom,” Billy shouted. “Shut the hell up.”

“Bills, how often? The truth has to have its voice!”

“The truth,” Sean said, his voice raised just enough to definitely be heard in the tack room, “should better watch it and saddle a horse for me.”

A moment of absolute silence followed. Sean swore he could hear Dom swallowing. Then the tack room door was pushed open again. One after the other, the lads hurried past him, all carefully avoiding Sean’s eyes.

Dom was the last to leave, halting in front of Sean. He scratched his head and shuffled his feet, trying to brace himself against the thunderstorm he awaited to hit him now. When that didn’t come, he obviously made up his mind and looked Sean directly in the eyes.

“Which horse do you want, Guv?”

“Ponticello.”

“Five minutes, Guv.”

Dom hurried off, and Billy followed in a more moderate pace. Sean swore he could hear him snickering quietly.

The tack room was deserted now, except for Orlando who sat on one of the low racks, his long legs still dangling. When Sean entered, Orlando was grinning broadly at him.

“Hello sunshine!”

“You better be careful. I can find something useful for you to do as well.”

“Oh, I bet you can think of something.”

Sean rolled his eyes and nudged Orlando’s leg, suggesting him to get up.

“Let’s go hacking. Good weather today.”

Orlando looked at him curiously as he slid down from the rack.

“I thought we’d finished schooling? Well, Watchmaker could use some work I guess, he’s slacking a bit lately.”

Instead of responding, Sean just looked at him pointedly.

Orlando grinned, shrugged and rubbed the back of his head.

“I’ll meet you and Sand in the yard in five then,” Sean said.

“Wait, Sand? God, tell me you mean Sailor not Storm!” The complaint was evident in the way Orlando spoke the horse’s name, even if he followed Sean out of the tack room. “Why do I have to take the moody freak?”

“’Cause I’m your Guv and I say so.”

“Most of all,” Orlando murmured, and Sean heard the smile in his voice without turning around, “you’re a sadist.”

The horses were quickly saddled. Sandstorm and Orlando eyed one another like leaders of rival street gangs. Sandstorm tried to bite Orlando’s foot when he sat up. Orlando glared at Sean who only chuckled before he directed Ponticello to the small path half hidden behind his house.

The path was just broad enough for the two horses to walk beside one another but not once did Sandstorm make an attempt to bite or kick Ponticello out of his usual boredom. He was too wrapped up in trying to sort out the shapes of unknown bushes, spying behind the large trees and curiously watching birds that flew up and away when they came too close. He twisted his ears in every direction, hearing every rustling in last year’s leaves on the ground, every bird’s song.

Orlando, not as interested in the rustling of leaves as his mount, for the first minutes obviously tried to deduct where they were heading. But when they came out of the small forest and the rays of sun reached them unhindered, Sean watched his features losing this overly concentrated expression. Orlando tilted his head back and held his face into the sunlight. Though the winter had been long his skin still shimmered in a light bronze and to Sean it was like the sun melted away the tension in Orlando’s muscles until he followed every of Sandstorm’s motions as if they were one.

“Don’t know what Dom’s problem is,” Orlando mused after a while and grinned broadly at Sean. “I’m getting along splendidly with this fucker, don’t I?”

“He doubted that?”

“Yeah, sort of. We had a bit of a tussle about, well, something a while back. Basically, he was being a cunt.” His voice didn’t hold any real judgement, and he shrugged carelessly. “So, I’ve kind of started sabotaging his flirts in the pub. Dom’s hilarious when he’s pissed off.”

“I see.”

“Messing with him is fun, what can I say. Helps that he has decent taste, too. The girl he was trying to pick up yesterday, she was really sweet, nice smile and a great laugh – not that Dom’s all that funny, she must’ve been a bit pissed already. You should’ve seen Dom’s face when he came back with a beer for her. She was practically swooning over me.”

“Good thing you’re not letting that get to your head,” Sean replied dryly.

Orlando chuckled, then looked at Sean for a moment and tilted his head.

“You don’t mind, do you? ‘cause intentionally cock-blocking hotheads, I’m aces at that. But I’m shit at cheating. Not good at being sneaky and lying and all that.” As abruptly as usual, he changed gears, was openly flirtatious now. “You know, speaking of, instead of going hacking, we could’ve had sex. Next time, I’m choosing.”

Sean laughed at the utter lack of subtlety. Orlando stressed the brilliance of his idea by waggling his eyebrows before he smiled at Sean.

“Nah, this is nice, too, Sean. Quite romantic even. But I suppose I shouldn’t say that too loud, should I? Sand has objections against any kind of touchy feely stuff, don’t you, mate?”

Sandstorm shook his head when Orlando rubbed his neck, seeking his affirmation, and Sean laughed.

“He has a point.”

“You agree? You mean I don’t get a heart shaped box with chocolate on every special occasion? Like, me winning for you?”

“You’d be too fat to race within a month.”

“Oh, now you’re calling me fat, too. Nice.”

The indignation in his voice was so well acted that his horse twisted his ears back in slight alarm.

“I didn’t,” Sean defended himself. “And you’re spooking your horse.”

Without taking his eyes from Sean or removing the scowl from his face, Orlando stroked Sandstorm’s broad neck, instinctively reacting to his horse’s need for reassurance.

“I’m not. Perfectly in sync, the two of us. See, we even agree to race you two to that oak tree over there!”

And with that Orlando was off, a small signal of his legs enough to spur his mount on. When he turned his head and grinned, Sean shook his head but let Ponticello follow in an easy canter. Orlando beamed at him before he leaned over Sandstorm’s neck and he practically moulded into the horse as it stormed off.

They flew over the deserted lands, following the path’s slightly curved way past seemingly endless rows of trees to their left. Sean let Ponticello chose his own pace, was content to just lean forward and be along for the ride. Such a nice thing to do sometimes, because he knew this horse, trusted him implicitly. Yet another thing that horses made seem so very easy.

Ponticello was keen to run and eagerly tried to catch up with Sandstorm, not in the least put off by the fact that the stallion was near to unbeatable. The path curved a little, formed a light S, so that for a moment Sean lost sight of Orlando ahead of him. When Ponticello had reached the curve, Sandstorm was already running past the oak tree that Orlando had deemed the winning post. Sean watched as Orlando effortlessly slowed the horse down and patted his broad neck with approval before he turned him around to trot back to the oak tree. Ponticello slowed down on his own and Orlando fist-pumped the air just for Sean’s sake when they finally met.

“So, what does the winner get?” Orlando enquired, still slightly out of breath and full of energy.

Sean slowed Ponticello down to a halt and Sandstorm lightly nudged the gelding as if to say ‘hello again, old boy’.

“You both are disqualified for cheating.”

“Oh, bullshit.” Orlando just laughed, pulled his feet out of the stirrups and patted his horse again. “All’s fair in love and racing.”

“Some excuse.”

Orlando grinned so broadly, the corners of his mouth were close to touching his ears, then he nodded in agreement. His body relaxed though, and once again, Sean was amazed how much of an instant effect this had on every horse, even Sandstorm. Orlando gave the stallion the reins, and Sandstorm chewed on his bit eagerly but remained rooted to the spot, uncharacteristically patiently waiting for whatever came next.

“How about a bit of a break?” Orlando suggested. “Or do you want a rematch?”

“Not really. Our racing days are over.”

In an idle walk, the two horses continued their way, the familiar landscape of the downs surrounding them. Orlando gestured at Sandstorm.

“He’s as fit as a fiddle again. You gonna race him before the Gold Cup?”

“Nah, don’t want to risk any injuries before Cheltenham.”

Orlando hummed his understanding, a small frown suddenly darkening his features.

“Hey, you heard about the last minute entry?”

“Pirate King, you mean?”

“Yeah. Her in addition to Hill’s two runners? Could’ve done without that.”

“Just don’t get trapped between Bernard’s horses, and you should be alright.”

“They like doing that, I know. You think Hill specifically trains them to do it? You ever asked him about that?”

“If I did, he’d laugh his arse off and actually do it in the future.”

Orlando snickered gleefully.

“Wicked sense of humour, that man?”

“He once tried to steal my car after a race.”

Orlando looked intrigued.

“Intentionally, or was it just a mix up?”

“He drives a red Mercedes, proper midlife crisis car. You’ve seen my Land Rover. Mix up, my arse. He nicked my keys while I was busy in the winner’s enclosure.”

“Ah, hurt pride over a race lost. I can relate to that.”

“I need to safeguard my keys now?”

“I’m just saying that you’re lucky he didn’t steal a horse. I’d rather do that, trust me,” Orlando said placating, then pointed at Sandstorm and shook his head. “But not this one.”

“Your loss.”

Orlando looked at Sean silently for a long moment. The grin on his face transformed into something softer.

“Look at you,” he said. “Pride in your eyes. You really adore this sodding bastard.”

Sean felt caught in the act, as if loving his horses was something that needed pointing out all of a sudden. As if it changed things if you named them openly. He rubbed his brow with his thumb, looked up at the trees’ crowns.

“He’s a fine lad. Honest, strong.”

“He’s fast and he’s high flying, I’ll give you that,” Orlando agreed easily. “At least when he decides to concentrate. But when he’s bored? Never ridden such a mean and vicious prick.”

“He’s not.”

“I’m pretty sure he is.”

“He just doesn’t worship the ground you walk on, is all.”

Orlando didn’t respond immediately. Instead he busied himself patting himself down, in obvious search for his pack of smokes. When he didn’t find it, he pulled a face. The fingers of his right hand started toying with strands of Sandstorm’s mane again. As if fiddling with something, whatever it was, suddenly was an absolute necessity.

“Well, what can I say?” Orlando aimed for a light tone of voice, even if the smile on his lips didn’t reach his eyes this time. “I’m not good dealing with rejection.”

“You ever had to try?”

Orlando looked like he wasn’t sure whether that had been an insult or not. Then he shrugged his shoulders, then pointed at his horse.

“He’s being a splendid teacher.”

Sean looked down at Sandstorm. His powerful muscles rolled under his shiny coat and he snorted happily, his ears pricked. For once not on the grounds to prove his talent, the stallion still walked with graceful strides that made his poor state only weeks before seem like a distant memory. He wasn’t afraid of any of the new impressions, never had been. He’d always been so very easily bored because nothing scared him. Every new challenge instantly excited him. Just as a little boy who for the first time was allowed into his Grandpa’s room with the model railway.

Orlando held the reins in one hand, flexing his right shoulder muscles to loosen them up. Like always when he was on horseback, even this motion looked fluid and effortlessly smooth, completely in sync with the horse’s movement. Orlando yawned and started searching for his fags once more, just for a few seconds until he lost interest again. Then he squinted at the sky, looked back at Sean, his hands once again resting on Sandstorm’s neck.

Easily bored and always looking for a new exciting challenge.

Orlando smiled at him.

“You’ve gone mute on me now? How about some wise guidance from the horse whisperer? A heart-warming tale about the little colt that stole your heart?”

Sean snorted.

“You’re bitching ‘cause you can’t will this horse over the jumps?”

“That’s not even remotely funny. It’s fucking annoying.” Orlando shook his head and glanced down at his reins. “I dunno. Maybe you should consider someone else for him. I mean, for the Cup.”

Sean looked at him in surprise. That kind of talk from Orlando was unheard of. Sean couldn’t say he particularly liked it.

“Don’t be daft,” he said decisively. “As long as you stop doubting yourself.”

Orlando laughed, suddenly and open-mouthed and with his eyebrows raised slightly.

“You think that’s what this was? Self-doubt? Please.” He laughed again and shook his head. “I was just thinking that if you got someone else for Sandstorm, I could ride Sailor in the Cup instead. Gives me a proper chance of winning this thing.”

Sean chuckled.

“Last time I checked, I pick out the races, not you.”

“I wasn’t, I was subtly hinting at it. Well, until you accused me of –“ Orlando made a dismissive gesture, a look of distaste on his face, “chicken-heartedness or whatever.”

“You’re on Sandstorm in the Cup. If your mind-magic doesn’t work, you just gotta ride him like any other mere mortal.”

“Too bad. Was worth a shot.”

“You’ll just have to get used to the bite wounds till then.”

“Well, hate’s a genuine thing, too. I love that about horses. They’re never anything but straight with you. – Right, you old bastard?”

Orlando patted Sandstorm’s rump and merely got a twitch of an ear as a response which made him laugh, his point proven.

Ponticello slowed down to a halt. Sean didn’t spur him on again. Instead he turned his face skywards because a gap between the tree’s crowns let sunlight shine through to them. He closed his eyes against the sun, felt the reticent warmth of February on his face.

Orlando lightly touched Sean’s elbow. As he pulled his hand back again, he regarded Sean with a tilted head. Sean knew that look, same look he always got when taking a jump with maybe a bit too much risk. The corners of Orlando’s mouth twitched.

“So, considering. How about a shag in the woods?”

Sean chuckled.

“Funny.”

Orlando didn’t laugh. Instead he licked his lips, his eyes calculatingly teasing. God, this was mad. Still. The weather was warm, and Orlando and his one-hundred-percent-there presence always had this effect on Sean, madness or not.

It was crazy and dangerous, and even through the haze of his own arousal Sean knew he couldn’t be doing this. Not in these woods, not when detection was an almost certainty. Still, the way Orlando smiled at Sean was nothing short of wicked. Sean felt a shiver running down his spine for knowing that this was nothing compared to how Orlando would look once he had dropped to his knees and –

“These are public grounds,” Sean said abruptly, heard his own voice wavering, despite the resolve to keep his imagination from bolting.

Orlando kept looking at Sean contemplatively. Orlando didn’t fear detection, didn’t shy away from the risk, not Orlando. Like this was Beecher’s Brook and Orlando was planning on jumping it free-handed, Orlando felt inevitably drawn to the risk. More. He got off on it. Sean could see it in his eyes.

Resting his hands on the pommel of his saddle, Orlando hummed in belated response to Sean’s protest. The look in his eyes betrayed the harmless quiet purr.

Fuck, Sean wanted him.

Orlando cleared his throat, clicked his tongue and finally couldn’t stop his smile from turning into something both shiteating and flirtatious.

“Care to share your thoughts there, Sean?”

Sean merely growled at him. Orlando laughed and rubbed a hand over his mouth.

“You’re considering it!” he concluded gleefully. “You totally are! Oh, I like that.”

“Shut up,” Sean replied, picking up his reins again, the worn material feeling foreign in his hands. “I’m not. Bastard.”

“Oh, but you are. And God, that’s hot. Come on, tell me.”

“Nothing to tell.”

“You’re such rubbish liar, it’s brilliant. How do you deal with owners?”

“I kick them out if they bother me too much.”

Orlando chuckled again but then, easily, let it go. He turned Sandstorm on the narrow path and pulled him up next to Ponticello again. As Sandstorm walked on, Ponti automatically followed. Sean glanced at Orlando again, and that was almost enough to pull him straight back into his phantasy.

Sean’s mobile rang and saved him from further embarrassment. Orlando sighed ostentatiously. Sean chuckled and fished his phone out of his coat’s pocket. He glanced at the display.

“It’s the Banas.”

“Speaking of the devil.”

While Orlando pondered his ability to summon people just by mentioning them, Sean took the call.

He exchanged pleasantries with Bana and as per usual, it took Bana a bit to get to the point. Orlando still watched Sean with interest, and for once that interest didn’t fade quickly. Sean couldn’t blame him. When Bana finally told him his reason for calling, after a rather lengthy tale of his daughter’s first riding lesson, Sean was reduced to a lot of ‘yes’ and ‘no’. They were rather unhelpful for Orlando, just hearing one part of the conversation.

He hung up just when they were all of five minutes away from Greystone. By that time, Orlando looked at him with barely concealed impatient curiosity.

“You’ve got a look on your face. Like a filly faced with her first stallion. Did something happen?”

Instead of responding, Sean stared down at his mobile contemplatively for a moment. Then he slid it back into his jacket and looked at Orlando.

“How do you like France?”

“For a funeral or for races?”

“What do you think?”

“The tracks are nice enough, I suppose. I like Auteuil, they’ve got a nicely paced course. Why?”

Sean scratched his brow, still not quite believing it himself.

“Well, we’re going. France, not Auteuil.”

Orlando reined Sandstorm in to walk closer to Ponticello.

“Come again?“

“Bana asked me to fly down to Deauville first thing tomorrow. Bring you.”

“Whyever should you do that?”

Sean shrugged and raised his hands in the universal gesture of ‘I haven’t a bloody clue’.

“Fucking hell,” Orlando said with heartfelt intensity. “Fucking owners. Worse than loose horses on a racetrack.”

“You don’t want to come?”

“And miss the invasion of Normandy? Are you kidding me?”

“I trust you won’t try to smuggle in a tank in your hand luggage.”

“Yeah, ‘cause I got several of them parked in my driveway. What do you think the Banas want?”

Sean thought about it for a moment, then shrugged again.

“I once had an owner who wanted to sell me shares to his toy factory. Tried to sweeten the deal by shipping me to Dubai.”

“A bit eccentric, but hey, all expenses paid holiday, right? I’ve always wanted to ride through a desert.”

Orlando laughed, and since they had reached Greystone again, he halted Sandstorm in the middle of the yard and jumped off him. He slid his horse’s reins over its neck and looked back up at Sean, his the corners of his eyes crinkling with amusement.

“Bonkers rich people aside, you mind if I come over tonight?”

“What do you think?”

And it was as simple as that. They took a plane the next morning, tickets waiting for them at the airport, with compliments of one couple of bonkers rich Australians.

When they landed, the weather in France was just as dreadful as it was back home. Granted, it didn’t rain quite as much, but Sean’s slight nausea from the short flight more than made up for that small difference. He hated flying, and for the time they were up in the air, he also hated the Banas for making him do it, hated the canal for separating England from the continent.

Orlando had tried making small talk for the first few minutes in the air. But he obviously wasn’t as blind to his surroundings as he always claimed to be because he shut up the moment Sean started feeling a little sick and stayed quiet until they were on safe ground again and had reclaimed their light baggage.

“Is it safe to talk to you again?” he then asked, his backpack shouldered and waiting for Sean to follow him. “Or will you still puke on me if I do?”

“Shut up,” Sean growled as he caught up with him.

“Oi,” Orlando protested. “We’re in France now, people are polite and shit over here.”

“You just don’t understand them when they’re taking the piss.”

Orlando grinned broadly, and it didn’t really surprise Sean that he spent the next five minutes counting all the French swear words he’d picked up on French racecourses over the years. Thankfully he stopped when they saw a sign with their names on it at the exit of the airport, held by a chauffeur in a traditional uniform that instantly caught Orlando’s attention. His eyebrows shot up and Sean could practically see the speculations starting to multiply themselves in his head; about the car, the hotel, their mysterious destination.

Sean had futilely tried to protest when Eric Bana had merrily told him to ‘just come over and bring the wunderkind, I’ll see to everything else’. But in his way, Eric was as stubborn as Lee and he could charm the horseshoes from under a galloping chaser’s feet. Sean would have been wary of if he didn’t fully believe in said charm’s authenticity and Eric’s straightness. At least that was an explanation for giving in to him that he liked better than fear of losing another owner. So even if he hadn’t been given a proper reason why they should go to France he’d agreed that they’d take the next available flight to Deauville, Normandy, and meet the Banas in the hotel of their choosing. Didn’t mean that he liked it.

The belle époque building right next to the beach in front of which their chauffeur dropped them off, proved to be as imposing as expensive and made Orlando’s jaw drop for the second time in a row. The Banas were nowhere to be seen but had left a message at the reception that they were on the beach building sandcastles (despite the drizzle) and that they would meet up after lunch.

They got the keys to their rooms, both on the second floor, and when he entered his, Sean had to admit that even he was slightly stunned by the sheer size of it. High walls with gold and white striped wallpaper surrounded an area about as big as his indoor school, all the curtains and the furniture were coloured in the same dark lush red and were all arranged as if to stress the size of the huge bed in the centre of the room.

Sean dropped his bag onto the bed and, after checking in with Dave at Greystone, took a shower in the only marginally less imposing bathroom. He had just finished dressing again when a tentative knock on the door interrupted him.

“It’s open!”

A moment later he heard the door opening and closing again, the sound of footsteps swallowed by the thick carpet. Orlando stood in the middle of the room, hands in the pockets of his black jeans and wearing a black shirt instead of a hoodie for once. Just like Sean had done it he looked around and wolf-whistled.

“This place is kind of unreal,” he said, not necessarily approvingly. But his tone of voice changed when he took a step closer and caught the slight dampness of Sean’s freshly washed hair. “Did you just take a shower?”

“Didn’t you?” Sean asked back in slight confusion, reacting to the almost accusing tone of voice.

“Nah, as fresh as a daisy, that’s me. And I even dressed up and all. I’m on my best behaviour for this, guv.”

Orlando’s smile changed into a far more genuine and far more shit-eating grin and he waggled his eyebrows suggestively, but let it go easily a moment later and instead went back to inspecting Sean’s room. He obviously was past his initial awe and back to his usual nosiness and Sean watched him open drawers, peek into the bathroom, lean out the window before he turned to Sean again.

“I feel like we’re in that palace, what’s-it-called, near Paris.”

“Mickey Mouse’s castle in Disneyland?” Sean asked.

“The castle of Versailles,” Orlando replied and looked at him with such condescension that, despite his still somewhat casual clothing, he suddenly seemed far more at home. “But a place like this still seems like a waste. Who wants to stay here?”

“People who don’t have to care about money.”

“’People’ should rather buy horses.”

“’People’ already have. Horses I’d like to keep,” Sean reminded him. “Which means, don’t piss them off.”

He crossed his arms over his chest and arched his brows. He was greeted by a broad and yet knowing grin.

“Bugs you, doesn’t it?” Orlando said. “Not knowing exactly why we’re here?”

Sean just shrugged in response. Orlando nodded slowly and picked up Sean’s dark coat from the bed, tossing it at him.

“Right. C’mon then, let’s get on with it already.” And with an odd sort of tenderness he added, “Control freak.”

“Pot,” Sean said, “kettle.”

The beaming smile on Orlando’s face sparked the same enthusiasm within Sean that he’d felt the evening of Bana’s original offer. He still felt it, like a quiet hum in his veins, when they went down to meet up with the Banas in the lobby. Orlando craned his neck to regard the painting on the high ceiling and testingly rubbed his fingertips over a leaf of one of the huge decorative palm trees next. He rolled his eyes without commenting but instead he now dragged his feet a little as if to draw attention to his not to clean boots on the expensive looking marble floor.

Eric and Rebecca were once again without their kids, looking very much at home here. They got up from a leather couch close to one of the large windows the moment they spotted Sean and Orlando.

“So good of you to come,” Eric said enthusiastically and rubbed his hands together. “So, off we go then!”

Before either of them could enquire where to, Rebecca, while smiling just as widely as her husband, placed a calming hand on Eric’s arm and asked, “Maybe you want to relax a bit from the journey first? I just said that we’d be around some time this arvo, so no haste whatsoever.”

“No, it’s fine,” Sean said and wanted to say that rather than fucking relaxing he’d prefer getting on with it, would’ve appreciated something more than a cryptic summon. He kept his mouth shut though and Orlando just shook his head in agreement to his words, easily settling back into his role as the subordinate.

“Are you sure?” Rebecca still insisted. “Did you at least have some lunch? They have the best oysters here.”

“We ate on the plane,” Sean assured her. “Well, Orlando did.”

“Oh, right,” Eric said with a sympathetic smile at Sean. “You don’t like flying, do you? We completely forgot about that.”

“I suppose we fly so much, we don’t even consider that some people might not feel all that comfortable,” Rebecca added.

“Only when Becca flies herself, then I always remember why barf-bags were invented.”

“Oh, thanks ever so. I love you too, and your driving.” Rebecca was laughing and pointed at Eric while looking at Sean and Orlando. “Just last year he wrapped his Falcon around a tree. Since then we agreed that –“

“She doesn’t fly, I don’t race,” Eric finished for her with a nod, and both of them smiled at each other, not a single sign of regret visible on either of their faces.

Sean turned his eyes away from them, for suddenly it oddly felt like he was eaves-dropping on whispered endearments. Of course Orlando didn’t, smiled his own private smile while continuing to look at the Banas. It lasted a second or two, not longer, then Eric cleared his throat, the broader more public grin back on his face.

“No more heart-stopping activities for either of us.” Eric looked pointedly at Orlando, his eyebrows hopping up. “Now we do the mature and grown up thing and pay other people to break their necks for us.”

“Glad to be of assistance,” Orlando said. “Well, I’m not particular on breaking my neck today, but hey, whatever.”

Sean heard the unspoken question in Orlando’s last words well enough. If Eric did, too, however, he didn’t let on. Instead of explaining he just rubbed his hands together again.

“Well then let’s see a man about a horse. – Hah, I always wanted to say that.”

“Woman,” Rebecca corrected him, even though that wasn’t making things clearer for Sean.

He was just about to finally enquire what exactly they were doing here when one of the hotel staff came over and ever so politely informed Eric that their car was waiting outside. Quickly they were all seated in the comfortable backseats of the limousine. While their driver steered them out of the town and away from the seaside, neither Eric nor Orlando seemed all that concerned with the actual purpose of this journey. Instead – away from the track and outside the completely strict distinction between owner and jockey – it took the two of them less than five minutes to confirm that they were on the same wavelength, both of them chatting nearly constantly.

Rebecca talked about horses, as always, and told Sean who she pegged to win the Grand National this year. As per usual she was well-informed and enthusiastic, but there was a sort of nervous flutter to her voice this time. Sean listened and nodded and hummed in agreement. And again wondered what the hell he and Orlando had been summoned here for.

Eventually their driver pulled into a side road and they drove onto a large yard. All about it spoke of money well invested, the lengths of white fence stretching in both directions, the red brick-stone buildings that wore their age well, and the spacious state-of-the-art facilities.

“So, this is it, Blanchet Stables,” Eric said. “Doesn’t look too bad for a French yard, does it?”

“No, it doesn’t,” Rebecca answered, then winked at Sean. “But let’s all agree – before we get out of the car – that we like the British ones better.”

Orlando bit back a smirk, not all that successfully, and his eyes darted to Sean, the questions barely kept inside. Sean could sympathise.

As if their arrival had been announced by a silent bell they had barely gotten out of the car when a blond woman emerged from one of the buildings. She wore elegant but practical clothes and self-esteem like a comfortable coat, clearly giving her away as the yard’s owner. She also was intensely beautiful. She greeted the Banas with a sort of familiarity and was still smiling when she introduced herself to Sean.

“Cate Blanchet.”

“Nice to meet you.” He shook the offered hand. “Sean Bean.”

“Oh, the Sean Bean who trained the winner of your Gold Cup the year before last? What was his name again?”

“Mansaru. Good race.”

“Yes, yes,” she said, nodding even though Sean wasn’t sure to really believe her. “Is he still this fast, should I have some money on him this year?”

“He’s not in my yard anymore.”

The small smile playing around her lips, a mixture of wistfulness and acceptance, seemed more genuine than any of her previous responses even if no less cryptic.

“Oh. Yes, that happens, doesn’t it,” she said. “Sometimes one is sad about it, sometimes not so much. One of the things we can’t do anything about, non?”

Her eyes lingered on him for a moment longer with strange intensity and just with that Sean knew somehow that she was just like him that way. What had Orlando called it? Control freak. Aye. Even if he tried to humour his owners – some more than others and no one ever said he was particularly good at it – he only really felt comfortable when he was in charge, when he was in control of things. Nothing much you could do about it sometimes though.

Blanchet turned to the Banas now and even sounded like she meant it when she said warmly, “It is lovely to have you and you even brought the sun, there seems to be hope for spring to arrive yet.”

“We couldn’t agree more,” Eric said. “It’s been enough rain to last us for the entire year, or that’s what it feels like.”

Rebecca looked worried for a moment. “It doesn’t affect your tracks though, does it?”

“Of course it doesn’t.” Blanchet shook her head and nodded towards the track close to which they were standing. “All of ours are all-weather tracks, we’ve just been waiting for you.”

Eric beamed.

“This comes good. Just what we were hoping to hear.”

As if on cue a dark brown horse was just led out of one of the stables, followed by two much less remarkable bays. The bays already had riders on their back, wearing their usual working clothes, but the dark brown mare was led towards their small party by her lad, carrying his helmet and a whip and following straight behind Blanchet.

“Isn’t she a beaut?” Rebecca said quietly and with so much adoration in her voice that Sean wasn’t surprised to find a look of heartfelt tenderness towards her on Eric’s face before he turned his attention to the horse.

“Holy fuck,” Orlando muttered under his breath next to Sean.

Sean, too, recognised the horse alright. He’d have to be blind not to. It was the winner of the previous year’s French Grand National and the Prix la Haye Jousselin being led past him. Troy’s Heir, the dark brown mare, was a bit on the small side, elegantly built as if bred for flat rather than jump racing. He’d seen her race on telly and had noticed her speed. But as it was with some horses, seeing her standing right in front of him it was her bearing what spoke to him most. Even if there was a little white around the eyes it didn’t speak of fear but a keen interest on everything surrounding her. She held her head high as if she was sure that her self-esteem could easily make up for her size.

“Nice horse,” he said, feeling the Banas’ and Blanchet’s eyes on him.

“She is,” Blanchet agreed. “I didn’t tell her lad to mount her because I understand that you brought your own man?”

Did they now?

And just like that things fell into place. Sean’s mind, temporarily distracted by admiring the horse, finally caught up. Of course the thought had occurred to him before, he had told himself not to get ahead of anything. If wishes were horses indeed; only that most of the time they weren’t.

Blanchet’s offer was an unusual to make. Normally breeders and trainers always would put their own jockey in the saddle. To show the horse off from its best side, maybe to hide some of its flaws. Especially if they planned on selling it.

Eric seemed even more enthusiastic than before when he asked Orlando, “How about it? Care to give it a go?”

Orlando apparently didn’t mind being put on the spot like that. He just quickly glanced at Sean as if to check whether he would object. Sean just arched his brows a bit and that was enough for Orlando.

“Sure, I’d be thrilled.”

“Good,” Blanchet said. “If you just follow the two bays, you shouldn’t have any problems.”

Orlando took the helmet offered to him by the French lad and let Sean give him a leg up, sliding into the saddle with practiced ease.

“How about that?” Sean mused quietly while Orlando picked up the reins.

Orlando replied with a self-assured grin, “You know what? I got something of an idea why you got summoned here.”

“Do you really?” Sean replied and couldn’t help but smile at his easy acceptance, at his enthusiasm.

“You want this horse, don’t you?” Orlando asked and adjusted the helmet one last time, taking Sean’s confirmation for granted. “So I’ll wipe all doubt from their minds, yeah?”

“Just bring her back in one piece.”

Sean patted Orlando’s boot and stepped back. He followed the Banas who stood next to Blanchet right behind the track’s white railing while Orlando and the mare caught up with the two bays.

All three horses had already been warmed up and showed all signs of eagerness to run now, tossing their heads and walking sideways for a few steps until their riders put them straight again. Troy’s Heir was traipsing rather than walking, so much pent up eagerness not allowing her to be any slower, but Sean smiled when he saw that Orlando, no matter what his ride of the moment came up with in terms of bursts of energy, still was chitchatting with one of the bay horses’ riders.

As Sean had expected, Orlando’s matter of fact calmness kept the horse under control, and as they trotted past the railing for the first time, Troy’s Heir looked like something out of an over the top racing movie, just this side of unrealistically beautiful. Her nostrils were blown wide, showing the red, and she had arched her neck as if to consciously present herself from her prettiest side. Her strides were long and the motion of her muscles under her coat made Sean almost hum in approval, no matter how slow the pace so far.

The two bays’ riders as well as Orlando looked over to the four people watching them and Blanchet nodded her approval to let the horses quicken the pace.

Flippant and distracted Orlando might appear, but as always he had his mind on the horse and the track when it mattered. He took his weight out of the saddle as he spurred his mount into a canter, let her roll under him for a few lengths until he’d memorized her motions. All it took him with Troy’s Heir was one moment and they were in synch. The mare’s self-assured eagerness and Orlando’s love for speed and his always calm desire for risk were a perfect match.

Troy’s Heir moved flawlessly and even when she changed into a much faster gallop Sean couldn’t detect any visible change of gears, anything to disrupt the smoothness of her motions even for the shortest amount of time. She just accelerated flawlessly, her legs carrying her with so much ease that it seemed like her hooves weren’t even touching the ground. Orlando let her pass the two bays like that, allowed her to take up even more speed so it made the two other horses look like they were standing still, he and the mare like a dark flash cutting through the greyness of the day.

She slowed again when he asked her to, just a few lengths later, and she willingly accepted his signals as they waited for the other two horses to catch up with them again. As they passed the onlookers for a second time, Orlando’s eyes found Sean’s and even if it was just for the briefest of moments Sean was sure he could see the fire in Orlando’s dark gaze, something that could’ve been mistaken for arrogance if it hadn’t been paired with so much skill, so much simple joy.

The horses slowed down to a walk eventually and Blanchet went with them to see that they were put away, taking a curious Eric with her. Rebecca turned to Sean.

“So, what do you think?”

Sean shrugged, reining in his keenness as it was his job to do. “Her breeding is impeccable, her racing success speaks for itself. She seems easy to handle and runs like she’s trained well. And she’s exceptionally fast.”

“Isn’t she just?” Rebecca instantly agreed. “It’s truly pure joy to watch her.”

“Blanchet herself doesn’t seem too thrilled to let her go. I can see why. I wouldn’t want a horse like that to leave my yard either.”

“So you do like her?” Rebecca sounded pleased and her hand lightly touched his shoulder.

“Oh, of course. But why is she even on the market? Seems odd to me, if they didn’t tell you a reason –“

“Her owners didn’t ‘put her on the market’,” Rebecca interrupted him. “Eric and I, we approached them. Eric is very convincing if he has put his mind to it, you see. And the rest? Is just a question of money.”

“Why are we here, Rebecca?”

It might have been impolite to ask but this really was the one thing that was bothering him. Not the horse itself, he didn’t have any doubts about what he’d seen. But why bring him here?

“Why did you invite me here? Did you think there might be something wrong with her?”

“No, no, of course not,” Rebecca said hastily and again her hand was on Sean’s shoulder. “Don’t get me wrong, of course your expert opinion is highly valued, but we never suspected that there’d be anything amiss.”

Sean was slightly confused by her sudden apparent hint of nervousness and he was just about to enquire when Eric returned, slipping his mobile phone back into the pocket of his coat as he halted next to his wife.

“Darling, have you two reached the point of the conversation where you ask Sean about –“

“I was just getting to that, Eric.”

Eric rolled his eyes good-naturedly. Addressing Sean directly now, he laid his arm around Rebecca’s shoulder and gave Sean his most winning smile.

“I’m sure Sean is a man who prefers frank words. – You see, Becca and I had this lengthy conversation about the relationship of owners and trainers. I kept telling her the normal way things are done, trainers are in the business of wooing owners, not the other way around.”

Rebecca slapped his chest in humorous reprimand. “No one said anything about wooing. You just made that up!”

Eric ignored her protest.

“Becca of course thought it should be the other way around. If you had a trainer worth his money, that is. And of course I like bowing to the superior wisdom of my wife, which is why we’re here. So, can you think of anyone wanting to train the French Grand National Champion?”

Sean replied with a chuckle and a disbelieving shake of his head. All this just for that question? He wouldn’t have needed to even leave his living room to know what the answer to that one was. Loo-oony, as Orlando would say. Jesus Christ.

“I reckon I can,” he said with a smile.

Eric’s grin reached a whole new level of bright.

“I told you she’ll be right,” he said to his wife.

Rebecca replied, “Can you believe I spent all of last night awake because I was so on edge about this?”

“No, I can’t. I slept as deep as. See, that’s what you get for beating around the bush; insomnia.” He kissed her hair tenderly, the action completely belying his mocking words, then he held out his hand for Sean to shake. “It’s settled then? You have room for Troy’s Heir?”

“Of course,” Sean nodded and took the offered hand. “You’re pretty much free to choose which stable, too.”

“Yeah, about that –,” Rebecca said a bit too casually for Sean to buy it. “We heard that you had a few vacancies and we were wondering… while you are here and –“

“Now that we successfully baited you with this mare –“

“Whether you’d come and look at a few other horses with us tomorrow.”

For a moment Sean just stood there, looked back and forth between the two of them and carefully waited for them to start laughing. Yes, Eric had said ‘wooing’ but up to this point it had merely seemed like one of his plenty exaggerations with a side dish of eccentricity. But they looked back at him with honest eagerness clearly reflecting on their faces.

Eric’s smile wavered the littlest bit when Sean didn’t respond immediately. “This time we really do need your expert opinion. No use in buying a string of horses if the trainer doesn’t think they are worth it, is there?”

“So, how about it?” Rebecca used the exact same words that Eric had said to Orlando earlier. And Orlando must’ve felt just like Sean did right then.

“Gladly,” he said and never meant anything more.

Eric and Rebecca beamed, genuinely pleased, and right then Orlando appeared seemingly out of nowhere and announced that Troy’s Heir was worth her weight in gold.

They stayed for a little longer in Blanchet’s yard, her mood brightening considerably when she realised that the Banas weren’t just here to poach her star but that they were seriously interested in some of her youngsters, too. Sean found himself looking at promising French youngsters and his expert eye checked them for flaws on autopilot. He made the appropriate comments, while at the same time he felt like the proverbial kid in the candy store. Orlando’s quiet matter of fact professionalism in which he answered when asked had to look almost stand-offish in comparison. But Sean saw the silent excitement in his eyes and the Banas were positively thrilled, making them appear even more high-on-life then they usually were.

They drove back when it was already starting to get dark. They made plans for the upcoming day, from a list that Rebecca had made Sean pointed out yards he thought worth visiting and Eric elaborated on which kinds of horse he wanted most. Back in the hotel the Banas were greeted by their children and they parted ways after agreeing to have breakfast together the next morning.

Sean knocked on Orlando’s door only twenty minutes after they had parted ways in the lobby. He heard Orlando calling inside that he was coming and he opened not ten seconds later, still wearing his neat black jeans but a comfortable black sweater instead of the shirt now, like he hadn’t expected anyone anymore.

Orlando smiled when he saw Sean and tilted his head enquiringly, then opened the door wide with an exuberant push, freeing the view into a room. It was a twin to Sean’s, only coloured in silver and blue instead of gold and burgundy. Sean didn’t follow the unspoken invitation.

“It’s not even nine,” he said.

“Unlike some people, I actually did some work today,” Orlando defended himself easily. “And my Guv, you know, he’ll make me get up at arse-early in the morning tomorrow.”

“Whyever would he do that?”

“Prolly ‘cause he wants the bed all to himself, I dunno?”

Sean chuckled but didn’t reply, so Orlando asked,

“What are you doing here then, if you don’t wanna come in? You checking up on me?”

“Just get your coat,” Sean replied in mock exasperation. “The promenade is supposed to be rather nice, even this time of the year.”

“Now, how about that?” Orlando said with a voice so soft, so tender that Sean knew he wouldn’t ever hesitate to ask again.

He waited for Orlando to get his coat and wrap a scarf around his neck and Orlando was holding his mittens between his teeth when he closed the door behind himself. Sean rolled his eyes when as a result of that Orlando spent the ride in the elevator sticking his tongue out at himself in the mirrors in order to pick wool from it. But he didn’t say anything, and in turn – and all the clownery aside – Orlando didn’t comment on Sean’s complete silence. Instead he just swayed a little in his steps sometimes, so his arm brushed against Sean’s as if to reassure him that he was still there.

The promenade that led along the beach was indeed quite nice, old fashioned street lights framed it and their yellow light shimmered on the almost black water, illuminated the huge hotel on the other side of the walkway. The sky was pitch black and cloudless, but it was cold enough still for the promenade to only be populated by a handful of other people.

Orlando wrapped his scarf tighter around his neck, sniffled and looked at the hotel, a slight frown crinkling his forehead.

“That thing is fucking huge, man. And I dunno about you, but a bit less posh would’ve done the trick as well.” When Sean chuckled Orlando turned his head toward him inquisitively. “What?”

“Bloody waste of good dosh,” Sean said, his accent deliberately thick.

“Yeah,” Orlando agreed, a sceptical frown on his forehead. “What’s with the Sheffield lad?”

“Thought he might get on with your working class bloke.”

A smile played around Orlando’s lips as he arched his eyebrows.

“Well, Sean, yer from Sheffield, so why shouldn’t ye sound like it? Who am I to judge?” he answered in a rather good imitation of Sean’s accent.

“You’re not though. Working class.”

“So you did just call me a fake. Nice.”

“Didn’t say that.”

“Yeah, you did. And you’re right, and we both know it,” Orlando said easily. “Of course my Dad has money. I do know how to use the subjunctive correctly.” Thoughtfully he looked up to the imposing hotel again, its belle époque style standing tall against the black canvas of the night. “But tell me this - how many of our fellow guests have earned what’s on their bank account? I don’t like places like this. Just as well, you could whip out your cock in public and wave it about.”

Sean’s surprised laugh was loud enough for the family they had just past to turn their heads. It was evident from Orlando’s grin that his timing had been no accident.

When they were on their own again Sean asked, “Every time I think you might actually say something meaningful, you talk about cocks the next moment.”

“It’s because I can tell that you’re bored by all my fancy-talk and try to get your attention back.”

“Carry on then,” Sean nodded graciously, “Bloom Junior.”

Orlando turned towards him, tilting his head questioningly. As Orlando raised his eyebrow, Sean knew that Orlando understood what he had implied.

“Oh please,” Orlando replied with just a moment’s delay. “You moved across the country to not just be ‘Da’s lad’ all your life.”

“Never denied that.”

“Well, also because it’s so much nicer down there with us Southerners.”

“In your dreams.”

That glint in Orlando’s eyes was back and made Sean automatically look around to see whom Orlando had spotted now, embarrassing people seemingly being his favourite pastime as per usual. There was no one around however, they had the dimly lit promenade to themselves. Still, Orlando’s voice dropped and of course he couldn’t not say anything.

“Believe me, when I dream of you we’re not having conversations about geography.”

“Is that so?”

All Orlando did was hum his agreement, low and almost private like, not for anyone but Sean this time. He had slightly veered from their way and Sean had just followed, so they had now reached the side of the promenade, the paved ground being separated from the slightly lower beach by a balustrade. Orlando didn’t make a move to correct directions, so Sean stopped as well, with Orlando on his left side.

He leaned against the balustrade like he did it at home, only that it wasn’t horses on the turn out paddock he was looking at now but peaceful waves rolling onto the deserted beach. Orlando lit a cigarette and, after arching a questioning eyebrow in Sean’s direction, another one for him too since he had pulled his mittens off anyway. They smoked in silence and the rough warmth of the smoke filled Sean’s lungs and did its best against the chill of the night.

He had his arms crossed on the balustrade, his left hand resting on his right arm. He stood close enough to Orlando that even through the thick wool of his mitten he could feel the light contact. Automatically he looked down when Orlando moved way for a moment, flicking his cigarette butt onto the beach. He watched while Orlando shifted just that small bit closer yet. Instead of continuing to mirror Sean’s own posture, his right hand briefly covered Sean’s. Then in one smooth motion, it slid a little deeper into the sleeve of Sean’s coat, deep enough for Sean to feel the touch of his cold fingertips against his wrist.

“Bloody freezing it is,” Orlando said lowly as if they didn’t both know that he wasn’t just seeking warmth.

Still, Sean played along.

“Didn’t you have mittens?”

Orlando tightened his grip around Sean’s wrist possessively even if his voice stayed light and playful.

“Huh. Must’ve misplaced them. You don’t mind, do you?”

If Orlando slid his hand just that bit deeper, he could’ve felt Sean’s pulse, would need to ask that question, not even in jest. Funny thing, how Sean couldn’t even remember how to feel cold anymore, just from that little contact.

“This has been a good day,” Sean said quietly.

“You sound surprised.” Orlando let his fingertips rub tiny circles onto Sean’s wrist. “You know, my Dad always says that people working with horses of all people should believe in luck. Well, sort of. Exchange ‘people‘ for ‘punters‘ and ‘working with‘ for ‘betting on‘.”

Sean laughed.

“Still,” Orlando insisted.

Sean looked up from their hands to Orlando’s face again. Even in such dim light he could read Orlando’s expression effortlessly, saw Orlando’s eyes darkening, saw his lips parting and his tongue automatically wetting his lips. Orlando looked back at him and he didn’t move the littlest bit. But Sean still knew and almost felt the press of Orlando’s lips against his own already, this plain and obvious was Orlando’s intention.

In France they might be, but Deauville was still a racing-town, they were still out in the open for anyone to see. Sean didn’t need to shake his head or even pull back; he’d barely thought it when Orlando’s lips already quirked into a small understanding smile.

With friendly accusation Orlando asked, “Whose dense idea was it to go out again?”

“Not my fault romantic notions are lost on you.”

“Oh, I’ll show you romance once we’re back in the hotel. When we don’t have to wear ten layers of clothing to not freeze to death.”

“That’s not romance, that’s –“

Orlando laughed and pulled his hand out of Sean’s sleeve before he pushed himself away from the balustrade. He rubbed his hands together as he walked backwards, back to the hotel.

“Okay, fine, you want ridiculously sentimental overload? You got it. How’s this: Ever heard of the Arc?”

Sean scoffed before shooting Orlando a pitying glance.

“The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe is France’s biggest racing event of the year. ‘course I have heard of it.”

“Well, come October, we’re going. You and me.”

Sean just stared at Orlando. Barely missing a beat, Orlando continued talking.

“Granted, it’s not National Hunt, and frankly, if you ask me, a race tends to be just a tad boring without jumps. Fast horses are nice and everything, but honestly, what can be so difficult about that? You just gotta stay on and weigh next to nothing. How’s that difficult? But I guess it’ll have to do. Longchamp, I mean. You know?”

When Sean still didn’t answer, Orlando’s smirk turned into an almost bashful smile and Christ, Sean wanted him and everything he was offering so freely, wanted him so much that he could hardly keep himself from pulling him closer to kiss him. Even though he should have known perfectly well how unwise that’d be, he couldn’t think of a single reason for it, couldn’t think about anything but Orlando and always Orlando.

Whatever Orlando saw on his face now, whether it was that careless want or that lingering fear, it made him return to his usual flippant flourish.

“Longchamp it is then. Especially since the course is just a stone’s throw away from Paris. I hear it makes you wanna vomit all over the place, the city of all things utterly cheesy.”

“I think it’s called ‘city of –‘“ Sean stopped himself mid-correction.

Pleased satisfaction curved Orlando’s lips.

“I believe that’s what I said.”

They returned home on the evening of the following day, four more horses bought.

Dave and Miranda were absolutely delighted when Sean told them. Billy smiled with relief when Sean informed him that he didn’t have to sack any of the lads after all. The good news spread faster than any of the horses could ever hope to run. And suddenly, like spring had appeared after a particularly hard winter, everyone seemed relaxed again when in the middle of February the first horses started arriving.

The smiles and the jokes that returned with the horses. The renewed energy was practically tangible in the yard. It finally made Sean believe in his own good fortune, made the urge to pinch himself go away whenever one of the Banas called about yet another horse. It made him enjoy his extra rounds through the stables again instead of dreading the sight of empty stalls.

The first horses arrived and worked promisingly from day one, he got calls from more owners interested in having him train for them and all of his lads got to keep their jobs. Sir Ian was so delighted with Sandstorm’s performances on the gallops that he sent Sean a case of Bollinger and – much to Sean’s (and Orlando’s) amusement – a box of intensely healthy Perrier for Orlando.

It had been a good month indeed and so Sean let himself relax a bit, did what every punter on the racecourse did – trust his own good fortune to continue.

He should have known better of course. So many punters became reckless because they believed too much in their own good fortune, foolishly put all they had on one horse because they believed themselves so very blessed. But what were the odds that this good luck ran out exactly then? What was left when that horse fell and broke its neck?

***

Chapter Text

Eleven

Riding Darlington never was much fun, but it took Orlando only seconds in the saddle to know the gelding had a particularly bad day.

They were three jumps in and Darlington still hadn’t found his footing, Orlando’s voice was already hoarse from shouting at the horse. He let the whip come down twice on the horse’s shoulder. It barely got a reaction out of the heavy gelding. He still slowed down considerably in front of the hurdle and judging by the signals he was transmitting his pea sized brain was too busy to digest ‘oh lookit, a wooden thingy in my way’ to concentrate on galloping, let alone getting his feet sorted in order to jump properly. Orlando growled in annoyance but gave him another nudge with the whip and Darlington heaved himself over the hurdle. Distantly he could hear the crowd having a good time and getting ready to cheer them home despite the mediocre performance so far and the never ending drizzle. He was glad for the rain because at least it could hide possible tears of frustration.

A black mare appeared next to Darlington’s shoulder and for a few paces the horses galloped side by side.

“Hey there, lightweight,” the black and pink figure next to him greeted.

Orlando laughed despite his frustration.

“Fuck off, Billie. I’m aiming for three in a row.”

Just a pity that Sandsailor or Troy’s Heir – both of which he’d brought over the finishing line five length in front of the rest of the field earlier – couldn’t share an iota of their jumping talent with Darlington. The gelding was a sweet and friendly fellow and fast if he set his mind to it, but he had the grace of a shitfaced bumblebee. And it was bloody obvious, too; of course Billie would notice.

“The chances of you winning this,” Billie shouted as they approached the next hurdle, “they are about as high as me marrying your filthy Mick roommate!”

“I can see the hearts in your eyes from here.”

“Fucker.”

“Just saying there’s no way you’re finishing in front of me.”

Billie laughed but kept her mare close to the gelding on the long stretch before the last couple of hurdles. Orlando still had some difficulties trying to keep Darlington from exhausting himself too early, but Billie had time to turn around and check for the rest of the field.

“Hey, OB, isn’t that one of Christopher Lee’s horses?” she called over.

Orlando glanced over his shoulder and he, too, easily spotted Sure Bet, leading the horses that were closing in on them. But he felt none of Billie’s easy amusement, didn’t reply anything but instead felt all his attention zoning in on this one thing, like a horse with blinkers that heard the sound of the bell.

He loosened his grip on the reins and Darlington instantly took up speed, left Billie’s mare behind and tried to catch up with the handful of horses two lengths ahead of them. Another look over his shoulder showed him Billie’s surprised face, something that he’d have found hilarious on any other occasion, if it hadn’t been for Sure Bet still making ground on them.

There was no way he’d let that dozy cow finish in front of him, no way he’d let himself be beaten by one of Lee’s horses. Not on a day where he already had two wins in his pocket.

’Bloom, I honestly don’t think you could have given a more inadequate performance even if you tried. A blasted amateur could have done better than that!’

No fucking way.

Two hurdles to go and Darlington had caught up with the front horses just when the first hurdle was right there. He promptly lost a few yards, again due to his uncoordinated jump, and Orlando could hear the rhythmical slaps of the whip behind him, could practically feel Sure Bet’s jockey breathing down his neck already. He was this close to screaming in frustration when he saw the gap opening up in front of him. Barely broad enough for a horse to squeeze through but it was right there and Orlando could see the winning post through it.

Letting his whip come down on Darlington’s shoulder, he urged the gelding into the hole. Billie’s horse as well as Sure Bet appeared in the corner of his eye and they’d reached the last hurdle. He was almost there when the bay that galloped on the inner side suddenly veered sharply to the right for no apparent reason and almost collided with the railing. Billie’s horse was right there to push past, but Sure Bet shied away from the unfortunate bay and right into Darlington who already clumsily tried to sort his legs for the last jump.

The gelding was completely thrown off course, seemed to crumble in on himself, and Orlando fell forward onto his neck, pulled himself back and desperately tried to get the horse into a straight position again, even though he already knew that it was too late to save anything.

Completely confused and utterly unreceptive to any of Orlando’s signals, Darlington crashed into the last hurdle without even attempting to jump. Orlando heard, felt the thick branches that the hurdle was made of cracking and breaking, but knew they wouldn’t give enough for them to get through. Belatedly, Darlington tried to get his legs up from the ground and that was when another horse crashed into them from behind and pushed them through and over the fence. When he landed on the other side Darlington’s front legs gave in instantly. His head and neck and shoulders suddenly disappeared from in front of Orlando, there was nowhere to hold on to, nothing to save, nothing to even think as the ground came crashing in on him.

He landed hard on his right shoulder and there was just time enough to feel the sharp pain of it, then Darlington’s mass caught up with him and gravity and crashed down over him.

Darkness. All that was there was blackness.

Nothingness. Orlando didn’t even mind. That wasn’t there either, care or consciousness or hurt.

Just darkness.

The first thing that returned was hurt.

Figured.

He didn’t so much know that he had arms and legs and a back but felt them. He could tell where they ended by the pain thrumming through them and at the same time he felt completely numb. He felt his mouth, his tongue and the moment sound came rushing back into his head he groaned out the two obvious things.

“Fuck.” and “Is my horse okay?”

He felt a hand on his left arm, grip gentle but firm, and automatically opened his eyes. Grey sky, clouds. Wet grass under him. A face coming into view, framed by a bright yellow collar, a course paramedic, smiling.

“Hey there, good to have you back.”

“Fuck.”

Orlando tried to shift in order to get back up. The hand on his arm held him down, succeeding with way too little effort. He gave in, asked again,

“My horse?”

“Safe and sound. They already caught him.”

Not the same voice but a female one. Billie crouching down next to him, her silks stained, her face muddy – obviously a faller, too –, concerned.

“How is it, son?” the paramedic asked. “You reckon anything’s broken?”

Orlando experimentally tried moving but pain flashed through him as if he’d been struck by lightning.

“Right shoulder’s dislocated. Fuck.”

A light pat on his good arm from the paramedic before the man got up, gestured his colleague to come over. With the stretcher. Orlando again tried to sit up, inhaled sharply and had to give up, lie back down.

Billie shook her head, her hand on Orlando’s shoulder stopping him from trying again.

“You don’t turn down a nice and comfy ride back in the ambulance.”

Orlando growled defiantly but goddamn, his shoulder hurt like a bitch. Even just thinking of moving it brought tears to his eyes. He tried to breathe as shallowly as possibly to minimize the feeling of someone twisting a fucking butcher’s knife under his shoulder blade. No way he was gonna be able to walk back like this, even if his throbbing left thigh and ankle would support him for longer than two seconds. He’d end up face down in the muddy grass instantly.

“Fine, I’ll take the lift,” he amended reluctantly but glared at the paramedics. “But I’m not lying strapped to that thing.”

The paramedics efficiently and half-way carefully helped Orlando up and into the ambulance, and Orlando nearly broke his jaw (a second time because, shit, his jaw hurt), clenching his teeth so hard, just no sound would escape.

They delivered him to the racecourse’s doctor without delay. Sean was already waiting there, his face dark, shadowed by his flat cap, and his arms crossed in front of his chest.

The doc, a tall thin man with somewhat gaunt features and known for his sarcasm, just glanced at Sean and immediately sent him to wait outside, there was enough time to decapitate his jockey after the medical examination. Sean hesitated for a moment but then obeyed reluctantly and left.

The doctor looked Orlando over with the boredom that Orlando was used to, not even bothering to really close the door after Sean. He got Orlando’s shoulder back into its socket with quick efficiency and was completely unimpressed by the accompanying excruciating pain that nearly knocked Orlando out for a second time.

Orlando was still trying to recover from that, tried not to breathe because even that hurt. He felt slightly sick on top of everything now and just sat impassively while the doc moved to check his leg for breaks and cuts.

“That ankle seems to be sprained,” he said, poking it.

Orlando clenched his teeth against the sharp shot of pain but smiled at him.

“Feels fine to me.”

The doctor looked at him, not believing a word. Orlando might have to work on his lying skills.

“Just superficial injuries,” the doc concluded after a moment, scribbling something on his clipboard. “If you’ll continue to feel sick tomorrow, you might want to get your head x-rayed though.”

Orlando had some difficulty to focus on him.

“Huh?”

“Good thing I already ruled you fit for riding,” the doc said sarcastically and repeated, “I’d advise you to go to a hospital and get an x-ray anyway.”

“Hey, I thought you just cleared me –“ Orlando protested, but before he could continue Sean pushed the door open again.

“I’ll take him.”

“My head’s fine,” Orlando insisted, standing up and only feeling slightly wobbly. “No need to risk being benched for a week. There’s, like, a two percent chance that –“

“Save it, Orlando. I’m taking you.”

“Wonderful, I’m so relieved,” the doc replied dryly. “Now, get out.”

Despite the feeling of sickness Orlando couldn’t help but grin when Sean growled at him before he gestured Orlando to follow him.

They weren’t even out of the building before they got intercepted by Colin, still wearing his silks from the previous race. But before he could enquire about Orlando’s shoulder, Sean had pushed past him. Colin directed a wordless look of serious astonishment towards Orlando, his eyebrows nearly meeting his hairline. But by that point, Orlando had already resigned himself to his fate. He just gave Colin a one-shouldered shrug before he trailed after Sean.

They drove in silence for the first ten minutes. Orlando knew better than to start a conversation when Sean was in a mood as foul as the one he was obviously in. He
was in too much discomfort to come up with anything entertaining in any case. His leg still throbbed dully, his entire right side was sore and his head had started to hurt on top of it all.

Suddenly Sean broke the quiet however, his voice filled with barely contained anger.

“Utterly useless stewards.”

Orlando frowned, not really sure what the racecourse’s officials had done to rise Sean’s wrath. With an irritated look at him, Sean explained.

“They didn’t even look at the tapes of the race. I’m sure of it. Should be warning that woman off. Apparently they are as stupid as they are blind.”

“’That woman?’ You mean Billie?”

“Of course I do,” Sean replied angrily as if Orlando of all people should’ve known that. “Absolutely irresponsible.”

“It wasn’t her fault, that fall. It was that stupid bint Sure Bet that pummelled into us.”

Sean was quiet for a moment but was just re-routing his rage.

“She’s no good,” he then huffed. “Got no heart. Dangerous to others. I told Lee two years ago. Supercilious ignorant bastard.”

“Hooray you got rid of him then,” Orlando replied and aimed for a light tone and a smile.

Neither seemed to have any effect on Sean who just gripped the steering wheel harder and accelerated a little more.

They got to the hospital without any problems, but there of course they had to wait for quite a while. Orlando would’ve used the time for a quick nap, if he hadn’t felt growingly uncomfortable. Finally, one of the doctors on duty had time to see him. He gave Orlando’s head a clean bill of health after a glance at his x-ray and pumped him full of painkillers.

Already feeling slightly woozy, Orlando still insisted that there was no way he was gonna spend the night in the hospital. Even though the doctor looked a bit reticent to let him go, Sean manoeuvred him back into his Land Rover without much further ado. It took Orlando less than five minutes to drift off into a dreamless drug-induced slumber.

He only woke again when the engine of Sean’s car was cut off. His eyes wouldn’t open at first and when they did it was only under protest.

“This Greystone?” he asked groggily.

“Your place.”

Orlando stared out of the window, saw his house.

“My bike’s still at Greystone.”

Sean just looked at him like a police officer would at a drunk driver.

“Guess I can fetch it tomorrow,” Orlando said. “I’ll catch a ride to get to morning gallops then.”

“Don’t need you tomorrow.”

“Didn’t you say you wanted –“

“Changed my mind.” Sean looked into the rear-view mirror, having double-parked. “C’mon; out. Got evening stables.”

Orlando arched his eyebrows. Back to ellipses, they were, now?

He was too tired to ask, however. Feeling Sean’s eyes in his back, he got out of the Land Rover. He tried to make sure that he didn’t limp as he closed the distance to his house. As soon as the front door closed behind him and he heard Sean’s car drive off, he gingerly hobbled up the stairs. The flat was empty, Colin was still out, and Orlando went straight to bed.

He woke late the next day, and only because his meds had worn off. He felt like a freight train had run him over. Groaning in frustration, he remembered that he’d left his painkillers in his jacket.

When he entered the living room in search for his jacket, Orlando found Colin crouching in front of the coffee table. Parts of their disassembled vacuum cleaner surrounded him. The frown of annoyance that was already on Colin’s face deepened as he watched Orlando limping progression towards the couch.

“Didn’t know you were in,” Colin said. “Next time, give us a ring if you stay out past curfew.”

Orlando merely grunted and lowered himself gently onto the cushions. He swallowed a pill and washed it down with the puddle of cold tea from Colin’s mug. Colin returned to the bits of the vacuum cleaner and randomly picked up a small nozzle. Orlando unwrapped a sports bar he found in between the sofa cushions. Colin inspected the tube thing in his hand as if it were from outer space.

“I called every hospital in the county,” Colin said. “Well, then I remembered that you had your very own Florence Nightingale now, didn’t I.”

“Go on and call him that to his face.”

“Please, I can take a sodding Englishman.” Colin lifted the vac’s metal tube, weighing it in his hand like it was a good solid bat. “I ever tell you about that pub in Belfast?”

Orlando yawned. Colin flicked the wrist of the hand holding his make-shift bat.

“There were eight, no, ten British soldiers. And the leader of the IRA. A redhead, and a fine one at that. I normally go for blondes, but it’s the inner values that count.”

Colin shook the tube in his hand, lifted it to his eye. Then he stuck his fingers into it to fish out something obviously stuck in it. He came out with a condom, still in its wrapper, and pocketed it.

Orlando snorted.

“Yeah right. Inner values, you mean, like implants?”

Leaning over the coffee table, Colin reached over to pat Orlando on the knee, hitting his bruised thigh. With his good leg, Orlando attempted to kick him.

“Ow, you tosser, stop it.”

“That horse you were riding is the worst fucking jumper I’ve ever seen in my life. You should sue the owner for endangerment and general stupidity.”

“Tell me about it. I could have died.”

Colin grinned broadly at that, and Orlando seriously considered taking offense.

“And I hold the eulogy at your funeral. ‘Here lies Orlando, good mate, bad wing-man, worse jockey -’”

“‘Worst taste in friends’,” Orlando finished for him with the same fake gravitas. In his normal voice, he added, “I hope there’ll be tears.”

Colin returned part of his attention to the collection on the coffee table. He started fitting bits and pieces back together.

“From me or from Florence? He take good care of you yesterday?”

The leer on his face regularly got Colin slapped in pubs. Just as often, it got him laid. Orlando flipped him off, Sean’s standoffish mood the evening before a bad aftertaste on his tongue.

“You want details?” he said lightly. “I can give you details, and they’ll involve gallons of bodily fluids.”

“I’d be fucking petrified, but that sounds so pure public school. As it is, right, I just wanna sock you for being a smug prick and a show-off.”

“Potato, potato.”

Orlando watched Colin reassemble the vacuum cleaner which left him with some parts spare. Colin switched it on, and it started its loud, albeit protesting, noise. The carpet of their living room hosted an exhibition of dust bunnies. But naturally, Colin ignored those and tested the vac by sticking the nozzle to Orlando’s right foot.

“How’s that for suction?”

“If that’s as good as it gets for you, I weep for you in my sleep.”

“Dear diary,” Colin said in the false falsetto he used when imitating Orlando, for whichever reason. “‘Today, I flaunted my gay happiness again, and it was so fucking beautiful, it made me sob like a little fucking girl.’”

Orlando threw the rest of his sports bar at Colin. The second it hit the floor, Colin let the nozzle chase after it, but he ignored the vac fierce objections. His gaze switched from the put-on dreamy expression to something much sharper; assessing-jumps-and-calculating-speed racecourse kind of sharp.

Orlando instinctively leaned back on the couch, looking up at him with growing scepticism as Colin apparently tried to stare a hole into his forehead. Then, out of nowhere, the hugest of grins appeared on Colin’s face.

Orlando scowled and pointed at the vacuum cleaner.

“Are you gonna put that to use? It isn’t Lego, you know.”

Colin dropped the handle he had been holding on to as if it was scorching. He switched off the vac and got to his feet.

“You do it. I’m off to Wincanton.”

“It’s barely noon.”

“So? You wanna come along?”

Orlando pulled the small bottle of pain medication from his hoodie’s front pocket and shook it, causing the pills to rattle in it as a reminder. Colin just shrugged.

“Come on. You can come on to a Duchess again. Maybe get a few more bruises.”

“I guess I could tag along,” Orlando said contemplatively. “I could take my chances with Billie. I mean, she owes me, for that fall.”

Colin smiled pleasantly and shrugged. As he walked past the couch, he punched Orlando’s bruised shoulder, causing him to nearly double over and fall of the couch. When he had his breath back, Orlando yelled abuse after him. Colin’s laughter echoed from the kitchen. He came back, already wearing his jacket. The ice-pack he threw at Orlando was already cooling Orlando’s ankle when Colin pulled the front door closed after himself. The sudden silence in the flat seemed to jump-start Orlando’s pain meds; he was asleep in a matter of minutes.

He woke again, sometime during afternoon, and felt marginally more like a human being again. He still felt sore all over, but restless now as well. He remembered that his bike was still parked at Greystone, and the thought of being stuck in his flat made it even worse. From one of his neighbours, Orlando managed to catch a ride to Greystone in the late afternoon.

Sean had parked his Land Rover in front of Orlando’s bike, but then, Orlando hadn’t planned on driving off without saying hello anyway. Sean opened the door to Orlando’s insistent ringing, looking ready to go out. He tipped the visor of his flat cap back as he saw Orlando, as if he didn’t trust his eyes in the early dusk.

“What are you doing here?”

“Making sure you don’t sell my bike to a junk yard?”

Sean didn’t laugh, and Orlando’s smile faded. Sean pointedly looked at his injured leg.

“You’re not gonna ride back with that ankle.”

Orlando’s jaw tightened.

“Watch me.” More lightly, he added, “Well, I guess you could invite me in, try to dissuade me.”

A small smile played around Sean’s lips, then he turned around. Orlando followed him into the house, hobbling more than walking and silently cursing his stupid ankle. In the kitchen, Sean held Tim back by the collar as the dog interrupted his dinner and attempted to greet Orlando.

“You want a cuppa tea?” Sean asked.

“Well, I suppose I’d prefer a soak.”

Orlando leaned his right shoulder cautiously against the wall, so fucking grateful for the support. Sean’s finger hovered over the button of the electric kettle as he looked at Orlando.

“You know where the bathroom is.”

Orlando had meant it as a joke, obviously. He didn’t have a tub in the flat, granted, but a long hot shower usually had a similar effect. And besides, he had just come for his bike. But he couldn’t resist.

“Care to join me?” he asked with a suggestive smile.

Sean scratched his brow, the kettle forgotten, his expression unchanged.

“Got evening stables.”

Tim took that as his cue and pushed past Orlando into the hallway. Sean’s eyes followed his dog, he glanced at Orlando, then back at his dog by way of explanation. Still, he hesitated for long enough for Orlando to feel the need to respond.

“I’m not gonna flood your bathroom, if that’s what you’re afraid of. I’ve taken a bath on my own before, you know.”

Again, Sean didn’t react to Orlando’s attempt at lightness. He just pocketed his keys again and headed for the door, Tim pushing past him eagerly. Orlando looked after Sean and his dog for a moment and shook his head with a sigh, then he tackled the stairs.

Clenching his jaw, he swore to himself that he’d commit suicide before he really grew old because every sodding step was a bitch. His left thigh protested vigorously when he had to put weight on it, repeatedly his ankle just buckled under the weight. But hey, at least today he could raise his right arm enough to grip the banister for support, albeit the remaining stabbing sensation in his shoulder.

Sean’s bathroom was as state-of-the-art as most of the rest of the house, held in white and dark blue and brown, and ridiculously spacious. Orlando had joked earlier that Sean could fit an entire football team into his bathtub alone, but he considered its comfortable size an absolute blessing now. He turned the hot water tab on and while the tub filled, the bathroom steamed up, he gingerly started to undress.

He didn’t need to look into the mirror to know where the worst bruises were – aside from his entire right arm, his thigh had already turned into darker shades of blue and purple, and his ankle was fucking sore. His jaw was definitely swollen on the right side, tender when the thin fabric of his t-shirt brushed against it.

When he lowered himself into the tub, he couldn’t hold back a groan of relief and it echoed from the tiled walls, sounding almost obscene in his own ears. But the hot water really felt amazing. It engulfed him in the most careful of embraces and instantly took the edge of the worst of his aches. He propped his injured ankle on the bathtub’s rim, elevating it, and closed his eyes.

Despite his promise to Sean, he almost instantly drifted off, warmth and exhaustion and painkillers all working together. Like that he was sort of ranging between slumber and wakefulness, the pain for now merely an inconvenience. Eventually, he heard Sean returning downstairs. Tim’s claws on the floor, footsteps on the stairs, a short silence as if Sean had stopped on the second floor and didn’t know where to go.

“You can come in if you wanna,” Orlando called.

The door creaked in its hinges after a moment’s delay, and Sean stepped inside.

“Just need to wash my hands.”

“Sure,” Orlando replied placidly without opening his eyes.

“Pots cluttering the kitchen sink.”

“Yeah.”

“Pads slobbered all over them. My hands, not the pots.”

Orlando merely hummed in response.

However, instead of running water from the tap, he heard the rustling of clothes first, Sean unbuttoning his shirt and tossing it into the laundry basket. Through half opened lashes he saw Sean with his back turned to him hunched over the sink. Orlando’s eyes drifted shut once more, he heard the tap being turned on and off again, sounds of soap being rubbed onto wet skin, being washed off.

And then silence. And more silence.

When Orlando opened his eyes, he found Sean looking down at him, a towel forgotten in his hands. He was still wearing his black cords from earlier but just a simple white t-shirt in addition to it, and the thin material somehow stressed that every muscle in his body seemed to be tense. Orlando squinted a little, but no, it wasn’t just the pain meds or the foggy air. Sean’s jaw was set, his eyes were narrowed and there was something just so off about him.

Sean was staring intently at him and with something like detached interest his gaze lingered on every bruise on his body, traced its outline as if committing it to memory before moving on to the next. Orlando felt that gaze so heavily on him. He let himself slide a little further into the water, and tried to sound jovial when he said,

“What? You’ve never seen me naked before?”

Sean didn’t reply.

Orlando shifted again, pulled his injured foot under water as well, winced when his ankle immediately started thudding again.

“I look like I lost a fight with Mike Tyson, don’t I?”

Sean just grunted something like an affirmation, but otherwise remained standing where he was, right in the middle of the bathroom and looked down at him.

“Gee, thanks,” Orlando’s mock indignation sounded false even in his own ears. “Way to make a guy feel good about himself.”

“Just stop it already.”

In response to the sharpness in Sean’s voice Orlando’s hackles rose automatically despite his tiredness and the painkillers. His questioning gesture made the water splash and his arm throb.

“What?”

Sean’s jaw clenched and Orlando’s automatically hurt as if in response. But Sean didn’t snarl back, just bunched the towel in his hand in a futile angry gesture before tossing it into the sink.

“Darlington is useless. Always has been.”

“Nah, it was my fault. As soon as I saw Sure Bet coming up behind me? Had to be one of fucking Lee’s, right? Course that gap wouldn’t work for Darl.”

“It didn’t.”

Sean’s voice bore no real accusation, just this sort of tiredness, something like resignation but not quite that. Orlando turned his head a little to see him better without having to sit up.

“You wanna know something? The second Darl fell, I knew you’d be calling me a fool up in the owners’ and trainers’.”

“I didn’t –“

“Course you did. And rightfully so.”

“I didn’t.”

“But, I mean, then you dragged me to the hospital when I didn’t have to go. Man, I could’ve been barred for a week, think about that. And how stupid –“

“Shut up, Goddammit.”

Orlando sighed resignedly and closed his eyes. Sean spoke quietly enough for Orlando to nearly miss his words, to make him seem way too far away from him.

“I didn’t mean it like that.”

Orlando opened his eyes again but found Sean still standing right there next to the sink, eyes fixed on the towel drying his hands.

“My ankle isn’t that bad, and I barely feel my shoulder. I’ll be fit to ride again tomorrow. Day after, latest.”

Sean glared at him, something like fury raging in his eyes.

“I’ll be 100% for the Gold Cup, I swear,” Orlando tried again. “I won’t let you down.”

“You got any idea what that fall looked like?”

Orlando stared at Sean for a long moment. He didn’t get it. He shrugged, winced at the response of his shoulder.

Quietly Sean said, “You wouldn’t get up. You wouldn’t move.”

Orlando didn’t get it.

And then, suddenly, he did.

With difficulty he sat up, gripping the tub’s side for support, tilted his head. Sean hesitated for the fraction of a second but then closed the distance between them. He kneeled down on the tiled floor right next to the tub.

Even from that little bit of motion, Orlando’s entire body ached dully in protest. When Sean rested his hands on the rim of the tub, Orlando instantly closed his fingers over Sean’s left tightly.

“Nothing happened,” Orlando said. “I made a bad call, and I got some bruises to show for it. So what? Another day on a racecourse, yeah? Small odds that anything real bad happens.”

Sean sighed. His eyes came to rest on the large bruise spreading over Orlando’s right arm and his chest. Tentatively he reached out, but his hand stopped just before it touched Orlando’s skin. With a touch that was the equivalent to a whispered endearment, Sean let his fingertips ghost over the outlines of the bruises, caress the tattoo surrounded by them.

“I know the odds,” Sean said. “I’m a trainer.”

He looked up and held Orlando’s gaze. Orlando had to smile because Sean’s jaw was set stubbornly as if he was daring Orlando to contradict him. His fierceness, his stubbornness was just as genuinely him as his reticence and shyness. And it was enough. Orlando felt so intensely protective that it made his chest ache more than the bruises ever could.

“You won’t get rid of me. Not that easily.”

“You can’t guarantee a thing like that.”

“Watch me.”

“Well, you’re a moron,” Sean retorted automatically. Then he laughed, a surprised little chuckle. Orlando felt stupidly proud to have caused it. Sean still looked tired, but the deep lines of worry were now softened by those crinkles around his eyes that always accompanied his smiles. Sean sniffed a little before he pulled back. He rubbed his hand over his mouth.

“I don’t – I mean –. This. I’m not good at this.”

“I don’t give a shit about words, Sean.”

Sean might have perfected his guarded expression, but the relief on his face right now was so bloody obvious. With that subtle hint of flirtatiousness that Orlando was so fond of, Sean asked,

“So, this wasn’t an elaborate way to, you know?”

“Yeah, nothing says ‘fancy me’ like an impressive set of bruises.” Orlando opened his eyes wide, tried to blink as owlishly as he could and whispered with a slight lisp, “Save me, Sean…”

Sean barked out a laugh.

Orlando batted his eyes again.

“Make sweet love to me to ease my woe.”

“So that fall did cause you brain damage.”

“Not brain damage, that’s painkillers talking. Good stuff.” Before Sean could respond, Orlando added lightly, “Oh, ease up. I’m fine, seriously. I’ve had worse falls when I was still doing Mounted Games. Once, I nearly got trampled to death by my Welsh Cob. He was a mean spirited little fucker, Sandstorm has nothing on him, really.”

Sean looked at Orlando, and he looked like something had just become clear to him – not an epiphany under great stress, not one of those you tended to forget about again once the rush of adrenaline had worn of. But something uncomplicated, something that was bare pain and worry.

Orlando arched an eyebrow, but Sean didn’t explain. He just straightened a little and dipped his hand into the bathwater.

“This is getting cold. You’ll wanna get out before you turn stiff.”

Orlando snorted at that, but even sitting up properly proved to be difficult already. He groaned, both hands clutching the rim of the tub.

“Too late for that. Next time, let’s have our heart-to-heart someplace else. You know, less arctic. Fucking hell.”

Sean’s hand came to rest on Orlando’s good arm, then he slung his arm around Orlando’s waist to help him out of the tub. Orlando tried to shove him away. Sean growled at him.

“For crying out loud, stop being a bastard.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Orlando gripped Sean’s arm tightly for a second as he tried to find his balance, his ankle protesting fiercely. He took the towel that Sean offered, leaned his good hip against the sink and started drying off. Sean picked clothes up from the bathroom floor, put them on the dresser and turned to leave the room.

“Hey, I can stay the night, right?” Orlando called after him.

Sean turned around in the doorway.

“No, I’m throwing you out.”

Orlando laughed and dabbed his face with the towel.

“Yeah, alright. I’ll bunk with Sandstorm.”

“You can share his oats then, too.”

“I might just do that. Unless you have something better to offer?”

Orlando wrapped the towel around his waist, Sean’s eyes followed the movement.

“I got pasta,” Sean replied. “You might wanna put some clothes on first, though.”

“Whatever.”

Orlando got dressed again, and when he came down into the kitchen, Sean had already warmed up some food. They ate in companionable silence and then discussed training strategies, specifically for Sandstorm and the upcoming Gold Cup. Orlando itched to get back on the horse, even after just a day of abstinence. But when he suggested he should take up morning gallops again the next day, Sean just tapped his forehead at him. And truth be told, Orlando felt about as steady on his legs as a new born foal. He told Sean to go ahead and take a quick shower, get all that horse slobber off of him, while he tackled the obstacle of the stairs in peace.

When Sean entered the bedroom, Orlando had already again bandaged his ankle and taken another round of painkillers. They made his head woozy, but they also grabbed all of his aches by the collar, shoved it into boxes stuffed with cotton wool and hid those in the darkest corner of the closet. Under the blankets, Orlando shuffled into a half-way comfortable position on his back, muttering curses to himself. Sean’s responses were already muffled in his head, Sean’s calloused hand on his uninjured thigh felt heavy and anchoring.

Then he was out.

It took three full days until the swelling in his ankle had gone down enough for Orlando to be able to ride again. Sean, who knew how tightly Orlando had bandaged the ankle, eyed him sceptically when Orlando got a leg-up onto Gamekeeper. Orlando could feel Sean’s eyes on him even from afar on the downs. But apparently it was obvious even to his critical eye that Orlando’s bruises were merely a nuisance by then. Sean at least was convinced enough to let him ride Coconut Tree in the two mile chase in Sandown the following day. And he took up training Sandstorm once again.

Unsurprisingly Orlando was happier about the first than the second. Still, he needed to get the headstrong stallion ready for the Gold Cup and could use every minute on his back. But he was still the slightest bit uneasy around Sandstorm, didn’t trust the horse as completely as Sean obviously did. He certainly didn’t share the pride and certainty in Sean’s eyes at every of Sandstorm’s moves. Instead he found himself silently pondering whether that revealed Sean to be a secret pyromaniac since Sand’s frame of mind when competing obviously was as deadly as a conflagration.

Sandstorm was just bursting to get back on the track to show everyone how utterly inferior they were compared to him. And honestly, it was something that Orlando appreciated. He couldn’t really put his finger on why but ever since his fall with Darlington it was like something sat on the horse with him, like and extra weight in the saddle that slowed him down some. He envied the stallion this complete lack of self-doubt at the moment.

When they arrived in Cheltenham early in the morning – day four of the meeting, Gold Cup day – Orlando breathed in the fresh and warm air that promised spring. He was sure that this was gonna be a good day altogether. For about three seconds. Because then his ride for the day started kicking against the walls of the lorry, shaking the entire vehicle. Sandstorm, it seemed, was in for a little mayhem. What a surprise.

Sean hadn’t entered any other horses in any other race and left instantly to keep Sir Ian company in one of the posh restaurants. It left Orlando with enough free time to fight down his nervousness and fall in love with Cheltenham all over again.

Aside from the cold temperatures, the weather was great, the sky was cloudless and light blue as if especially chosen to fit the bright white and rather imposing grandstands. The quiet anticipation that always hung in the air at this time of the day was something that Orlando felt like a constant tickling vibe, it made him restless and content at the same time.

“Time for some instructions for Sand?”

Orlando looked up at Sean from his sitting position on a wooden bench. Sean had come in right after Orlando had finished pulling on his boots and most of the jockeys had already left the changing room again. Still, there were a few still fiddling with their gear and valets sorting their things.

“Sure,” Orlando nodded and got to his feet to stand closer to Sean.

“Don’t start the finish too early. Just get him to concentrate,” Sean said. “And look out for Farrell on Irish Ice and Gyllenhall on Harvester. Remember, don’t let yourself be trapped between Anurba or Hill’s Heaven Sent. They might block your path if you’re not on your guard. And you know how much of a finish Pirate King has.”

“If she’s still there on the home stretch, I’ll just shove her jockey off his saddle. No way I’m gonna let Lee beat us.”

“What a fantastic plan. Look at how level-headed you are,” Sean replied ironically, then he added, “Sand can beat her. Just pay attention that he doesn’t starthis finish too early.”

Orlando arched his brow at Sean’s tone of voice.

“If Sand does the racing all on his own, is there anything left for me to do?”

“Don’t fall off.”

“Ah, too bad. No one ever taught me how to do that. Half the time I mount, I end up facing the wrong way.” Orlando grinned for a moment, then said, more seriously, “So, I’m supposed to cut back on the kamikaze, that what you’re saying?”

Sean drew a breath as if he was going to say something. Instead he just exhaled, not in a tentative sigh but decisively. He looked Orlando up and down and his gaze lingered for a moment on the powder blue silk and Orlando’s helmet in the same colour. Then, somehow abruptly, he smiled.

“Won’t win a race by playing it safe, will we?” he said and patted Orlando’s shoulder. “You know what to do.”

Orlando was slightly surprised, but nodded as he followed Sean out of the changing room.

Only when Sandstorm followed the other horses onto the racetrack, getting in line for the Gold Cup to start, Orlando felt his heart beat a little faster with nervous anticipation.

Cheltenham racecourse had a left-handed almost circular track, the first half of it going uphill, the second downhill again. The Gold Cup started and ended in front of the grandstands and between beginning and finish the horses had to go twice around the track with its eight fences, the water jump and two ditches, the big one being right atop the hill. People were cheering, horses whinnied in anticipation and the sky was a perfectly blue canvas for one of the biggest races in the world of steeple chasing.

Orlando smiled.

“Why are you looking so cheerful?”

Billie called over but when Orlando’s eyes found her in Christopher Lee’s colours on the back of Pirate King she was grinning as well. She looked good on the horse, as comfortable as the mare herself, and Orlando knew now more than ever that he had to look out for both of them.

“Ah, you know, the usual,” he replied conversationally. “Where did you get that horse?”

“Anything for a trophy, mate,” she called back and winked at him, even though he figured it really was nothing but the truth. “No hard feelings, eh?”

Orlando shook his head. “When I wave at you from the winner’s enclosure? Course not.”

“God, you’re delusional,” Billie replied with a broad grin but seemed happy that Orlando had reacted like that. “Pirate King’s name is being engraved into the trophy as we speak.”

Several of the other jockeys laughed at her blasé tone of voice and it was Colin on the grey Irish Ice who answered for all of them.

“You need to win the race before that. ‘Cause that’s what I am gonna do.”

“Oh, dream on,” Billie said, as if she’d only waited for him to engage.

“Trust me, I’m not dreaming about that.”

“Fuck, Col, we’re about to run a race here,” Jake cut in while his bay Harvester shook his head impatiently. “Keep it in your pants, man.”

The jockey on Ultraviolet made a crude joke about riding with your cock flapping in the breeze, Orlando didn’t quite catch it but the riders of Rohan Warrior and Heaven Sent, both trained by Bernard Hill, laughed heartily. Billie however just ignored them and as they’d almost reached the starting line she pulled Pirate King a little closer to Colin’s gelding.

“If you finish behind me,” she said with a smile and the perfect imitation of Colin’s less than subtle come-on voice, “I’ll buy you a beer.”

Colin looked stunned but Orlando smiled in appreciation.

“That’s the most shameless way of getting someone to throw a race, Billie. I’m gonna report this to the jockeyclub.”

Billie laughed in return and then instantly focussed on getting her nervous horse to stand still. Colin, right next to Orlando, however looked at him for a second and even behind his friend’s goggles Orlando could see the wide eyed expression of astonishment.

“What? Go and fall off at the first fence, mate,” Orlando told him and without even looking at his horse he knew that Sandstorm was eying Mad Sparrow to his other side suspiciously.

“Well, good luck to you, too, fucker,” Colin said and Orlando nodded at his friend in silent ‘thank you, you too’ before he concentrated on his horse and the track ahead of him.

The moment the bell sounded, Orlando felt it more than heard it, and just like that there was no more room for jokes or banter.

Now it was time to race.

Chasers exploded under their jockeys, accelerating to breath-taking speed within seconds. Sandstorm’s strides were like thunder and he tried to bite Irish Ice next to him when the other horse came too close.

Up until this ride all Orlando had been able to pick up from his horse were scattered fragments of a difficult mind, almost impossible to interpret and to react to in time. But now, as they reached the first fence, Sandstorm’s thoughts were suddenly as clear as a bright winter’s day on the gallops.

’Winwinwinwin’, the stallion thought and Orlando nearly laughed as the cold wind bit his face. Yeah, that exactly. It was like a lock had been opened, like this was finally something worthy of Sandstorm’s attention and his mind was wide open and entirely on the job. And Orlando finally was able to get him to concentrate on the one thing that mattered.

Winning.

When they turned left for the first time, the track going uphill now, and reached the next fence Orlando told his stallion wordlessly ’Hold back for a bit’. Instantly Sandstorm reduced his tempo, meeting the obstacle just right without even touching the fence or Ultraviolet at his sides.

The field was still relatively close together but there were three groups forming now. Mad Sparrow was in the lead and Tiny Tony as well as Heaven Sent followed closely. Orlando held Sandstorm in the middle group, and they were now flanked by Ultraviolet as well as Pirate King and Anurba. Sandstorm grudgingly gave in to Orlando’s signal to stay right there and galloped easily even as they chased uphill.

Within the leading group there was a slight disturbance at the water, the fourth jump of the race, and Orlando saw all horses coming out of it unscathed, Mad Sparrow without his rider now. The loose horse was still running alongside Tiny Tony, easily able to keep the pace now that he was running without any weight in the saddle. Damn that, nothing worse and more unpredictable than loose horses. For the moment however, Mad Sparrow was running far right and there was no danger of Sandstorm colliding with him.

The open ditch was next and it was straight ahead of him now and Sandstorm, his strides shortening automatically, had already focussed on it, and Orlando knew he’d get it right again. The stallion once again met it perfectly but just as he landed on the other side someone bumped into Sandstorm’s hind quarters. As Sandstorm stumbled and momentarily lost his stride, letting several horses pass him, Orlando looked around furiously.

“Oi!” he shouted angrily. “Watch it!”

“Sorry,” Billie called back, already turning Pirate King right to guide her past Sandstorm. “Fucking Rohan Warrior pummelled into me.”

He concentrated on his horse again and found Sandstorm tense and angry beneath him, wildly shaking his head and demanding to be let loose so he could chase after the six horses ahead of him.

“Are you stupid?” Orlando asked him out loud, voice strained as he guided his furious horse left to stay on track and meet the next fence right. “You can’t just cannonball through the fence, you bugger! Listen to me!”

“Lover’s tiff?” Colin called over to him as he pulled up next to him. “That won’t win you the race.”

“Fuck off,” Orlando called back laughingly, resting his hands calmingly on Sandstorm’s withers and, surprise of surprises, succeeding in getting Sandstorm to cool down again.

“Be nice to your date, OB,” Colin insisted, his voice teasing as they were right before the big ditch. “Otherwise –“

He didn’t finish his sentence and was abruptly gone from Orlando’s view. Instantly after Sandstorm’s safe landing on the other side Orlando turned his head around and was horrified because of what he saw. Irish Ice’s hind quarters had to have just crumbled under him because he hadn’t managed to push himself off the ground, instead he’d just crashed into the ditch, burying his rider under himself.

Vision obscured by mud and the pace he was going, Orlando couldn’t spot Colin, just noted that the other horses in the field managed to stay clear of the faller.

Where was Colin?

He thought he saw his friend’s green and orange silks for the fraction of a second, but he couldn’t be sure, had to turn his eyes back on the track as the next fence was already dangerously close. He had to have turned his head too fast, that had to be it, because he was feeling dizzy for a second, had to grip on to Sandstorm’s thick mane and it was entirely thanks to Sandstorm’s instincts that they got over the next obstacle.

Orlando desperately tried to get a grasp on his focus again – this was the fucking Gold Cup, for heaven’s sake. But as he squeezed his eyes shut just for the fraction of a second as Sandstorm thundered down the hill, the image of Colin appeared right in front of them. Colin and Irish Ice’s massive form, coming down on him in full speed, and Orlando felt sick, tore his eyes open again, turned his head again even though he knew he wouldn’t be able to see anything.

This was how Sean had felt? This fear and helplessness that stretched seconds into years, worse if there was nothing you could do about it?

Sandstorm veered left, forced Orlando back into the moment. The stallion had decided that now was the time to catch up with the leading field, had spotted the tiny gap between Heaven Sent and the railing. Before Orlando could react he went for it, his massive form and his utter lack of hesitance letting him slice through like a knife through butter. When Orlando looked back, less than a second later, Heaven Sent had closed the gap, cutting everyone else off, and if it hadn’t been for Sandstorm’s speed and his fearlessness they’d have been trapped there. Just like Sean had predicted it.

But instead of feeling proud of Sandstorm’s instincts, the trembling returned and felt even more overwhelming now. What if Heaven Sent had closed the gap just a second earlier, what if she had pushed them into and through the railing? Would Sandstorm have fallen? Would he have buried Orlando under him like Irish Ice had done it with Colin?

His head felt clouded with questions, they rushed in on him faster than any horse he’d ever ridden and made him feel sick. He knew the statistics alright, knew the dangers of his profession, but had he ever cared? ‘Course not. If you died during a race, it was quick and it was sudden and so what? If you were dead you wouldn’t care anymore anyway, right?

But now all he could think of – even as Sandstorm took the last left turn and the grandstands appeared in the distance again, announcing half time – all he could think of was that look on Sean’s face, and he couldn’t shake this utter petrifying panic after Colin’s fall.

How could anyone stand that? How could he have promised Sean that he wouldn’t leave and still ride like this? He’d never felt more like a hypocrite, a liar, felt utterly powerless.

Anurba and Rohan Warrior appeared out of nowhere and chased each other along the grandstands. They looked more like they were bolting than racing and instinctively Orlando told a furious Sandstorm that they’d never be able to keep that pace for an entire second round, that they’d get them again eventually. Sandstorm still quickened and caught up with Pirate King just after the twelfth fence.

“Oi, OB,” Billie shouted loud enough for Orlando to hear her and turned her head to look at him. “What happened at the open ditch?”

“Dunno. I just saw Irish Ice go down.”

“Did you see Colin?” Billie shouted back with concern. “Is he okay?”

“Couldn’t see him, I dunno.”

“Fuck. Jesus fuck.”

Harvester appeared on Sandstorm’s other side and Orlando’s stallion snorted in disgust and doubled his efforts to climb the hill for a second time. Orlando stood up in his saddle after the thirteenth fence, looking over the water jump to the open ditch, but it was still too far away to see anything. Harvester was still running alongside Sandstorm, close enough for Orlando to feel Jake’s knee brushing against his own as he settled in the saddle again. Jake had seen Orlando’s futile effort and interpreted it correctly.

“Hey,” he called over and both Orlando and Billie turned their heads towards him. “When I came to the fence, Colin was on his feet and ducking under the railing.”

Billie laughed out loud with so much relief that Orlando couldn’t help but love her for it. Even if Pirate King should come in first now, he wouldn’t even be able to hold a grudge. He, too, felt as if someone had just removed a 10 lb penalty from his shoulders.

He shouted to Billie, “You owe him a beer now.”

“Guess so,” she replied in kind. “He owes me a shag for that scare.”

Orlando laughed out loud. Jake, too, grinned.

“Jesus. You’re all mad. If you excuse me now...”

Jake let his horse chase after the leaders. The open ditch was already ahead of them again and the leading field was still in view.

“Fuck,” Billie and Orlando replied in unison at the sheer unreal energy Harvester suddenly transformed into speed and they, too, spurred their mounts on.

Sandstorm pricked his ears and he saw Tiny Tony, Harvester, Anurba and Rohan Warrior ahead of him, felt Pirate King and Ultraviolet up close. Like something snapped inside of him he pulled at the reins, accelerating with the screaming determination to catch the other horses. Orlando cursed bloody murder but spoke silent thank you prayers at the same time for his horse jumped the two fences on the top of the hill like they weren’t even there at all.

“Are you trying to kill us?” he muttered under his breath when he had succeeded in reining the stallion’s fury in at least temporarily.

Sandstorm vigorously shook his head and Orlando knew that the horse knew even better than him who was still left ahead, who was still left to beat and what it would take. His utter arrogance was tangible in each of his powerful strides, in each jump, executed to perfection.

It wasn’t just because he was bred for this, born to run. He infinitely trusted his own instincts and they were as potent as his stamina, as compelling as his speed. But even though he clearly – and he left no doubt about that – thought Orlando an utter fool for holding him back he still bowed to Orlando’s will. Because he trusted him, because he blindly relied on Orlando to know what he was doing, to ensure that they’d win.

They had made it half way down the hill – four more fences to go – and Orlando already felt Sandstorm tightening like a gigantic coil spring again before the next jump when the constant flow in front of them was disrupted. Tiny Tony had set off too early and landed right in the fence, taking half of it with him as he crashed down right behind it. Orlando cursed loudly as the dark horse disappeared behind the fence and two other chasers ahead of Sandstorm collided with the unlucky horse.

’What now?’

Sandstorm sent out signals of confusion and hesitated for the fraction of a second, sensing the disaster awaiting him right behind the fence.

’Jump. Turn. Now.’

Orlando decided and almost before he’d shifted his weight or pulled at the reins Sand reacted. His massive hinds pushed him off the ground as he easily took the fence. Orlando caught a glimpse of the chaos ahead and underneath – just for a second he saw Ultraviolet on his knees, Anurba nearly stopping dead and Harvester violently veering sideways. No way he and Sand were gonna make it!

But there was no time for doubts and Sandstorm didn’t have any, so Orlando didn’t either. The alternative – hesitating, doubting, not even trying – was unthinkable. This, right here, was what he was born to do, no fear, no panic, no second-guessing. Still in mid-air, the stallion threw himself sharp left with impossible self-assurance, landing only centimetres from the fallen Tiny Tony. They came down damn close to the rail and Sand wavered a little, his front legs that close to buckling.

“Come on, lad!” Orlando bellowed on top of his lungs and pulled Sandstorm’s head up with all his might while at the same time urging him on. “You go, Sandy! Come on!”

A rush of adrenaline fuelled the large horse under him, its current running through his own veins right the same moment as it hit the stallion. Pirate King flashed past them, easily having avoided the chaos by going far left, and Sandstorm was furious to be overtaken like that. He pulled himself together and up, finding back his pace while yet more horses stumbled rather than jumped over the fence, crashing down right next to him.

Like nothing at all had happened, Sandstorm instantly found his stride again and Orlando leaned far over his neck, his hands buried in the horse’s mane, to be as little of a distraction as possible as Sandstorm set eyes on his target again and sped up. However, the chaos at the fence had slowed down the entire field and Orlando saw that Rohan Warrior, Harvester and Pirate King were galloping several lengths ahead and had already reached the twentieth fence.

And for a moment Orlando forgot about the race, about the stands packed with people they were coming close to again, forgot about his aching muscles, about Sandstorm’s loud and angry rhythmical snorts, about the excitement hanging in the air like a drug.

He just saw that smile that Sean smiled every time they had been riding out the past month when Sandstorm had been an eager schoolboy, not a vicious bully.

That smile.

“Don’t win a race by playing it safe, do we?” Sean said with a smile.

A rhetorical question if he’d ever heard one. No insecurity, no desperate plea hiding behind a joke, just something that Sean had realised, had decided and that was that. Sean had smiled and mended the picture of Orlando in his mind by combining his lover and his jockey once again. Accepting the dangers of the profession because it was so much more than just a job. It was a way of life and they both knew that no matter how risky racing might be from time to time, it was their way of life.

Orlando got it.

Only two fences more to go, three horses to beat.

It was near impossible to make up that much lost ground to horses as strong as Harvester and Pirate King. But Sandstorm never doubted that he could make it and Orlando didn’t either. Sandstorm flattened his ears and accelerated, so much power and determination and complete and utter self-assurance that Orlando felt a surge of pure and uncomplicated joy rising up inside of him, felt this almost uncontainable love for this fiercely stubborn and so very magnificent animal.

Finally, finally he understood what Sean saw in him.

Sandstorm’s brilliant jumping alone won them a length at least and it was the horse’s incredibly stubborn persistence and his magnificent jumping skills that allowed them to pass Rohan Warrior and his horrified jockey literally in mid-air. And the stallion wasn’t done. Orlando could feel it when the horse fixed his eyes on Harvester and Pirate King ahead of them, his stallion’s mind suddenly blank of everything except for this one single thought: Triumph.

They got over the last fence with just a length separating them from Pirate King and Harvester.

’Winwinwin’ Sandstorm thought as rhythmically as his gallop, and straightened, his strides becoming even wider. And Orlando laughed.

Jake turned around to see who was closing in on him and Billie, and Orlando could see the look of surprise in his face when he recognised him.

“Fucking hell,” Jake shouted as Sandstorm pushed next to him, was on the same level now.

“Where do you come from?” Billie exclaimed.

“Can’t chat now,” Orlando shouted and Sandstorm thundered past. “Got a race to win!”

There were the stands! Right ahead, so close, so close that they could already hear the crowd cheering. Orlando tensed the same second that Sandstorm’s muscles under him tightened.

”For fuck’s sake, not now, Sand!”

But Sandstorm didn’t even seem to notice the people on the stands, they weren’t the ones distracting him. Just in time Orlando understood.

He looked over his shoulder and found Pirate King already dangerously close to them again. Ears flat and neck stretched the mare accelerated one last time, incredibly speed brought out by Billie’s intense will to win. If Sand hadn’t paid attention…

“You paranoid maniac,” Orlando whispered affectionately, knowing that Sand would hear him despite the noise and the speed. He leaned down further, Sandstorm’s mane whipped his face and he smelled his sweat, could hear the horse’s furious rhythmical snorts as he mobilized every little ounce of strength left in him.

“Now let’s win this race for Sean! No one faster than the two of us, boy.”

’Yes’ Sandstorm thought. His entire being screamed it.

Under him Orlando felt the large body stretching when for one last time his stallion took up speed and flew over the green. As they galloped towards the finishing line Orlando turned his head to search for their competition but Pirate King didn’t stand a chance against them, there were already several lengths between them again. It wasn’t pretty though it was beautiful in its own way. Sandstorm’s muscles moved with the precision and the power of a gigantic steam engine and his viciousness was infective. Orlando’s jaw was tense, his gaze firmly fixed on the winning post. He didn’t think, didn’t feel anything but Sandstorm’s power under him that coursed through him, too, like they were one being.

They couldn’t be beaten.

They thundered over the finishing line and on for a few more strides, both rider and horse almost surprised to find the race over already. Cold blooded determination changed into drunken satisfaction in both of them. Orlando raised his right arm as he replied to the crowd’s cheers and he laughed breathlessly when a still cantering Sandstorm kicked out like a jaunty young colt.

The fucking Gold Cup!

They’d won, he and Sandstorm together!

His horse’s joy and the crowd’s cheers washed over Orlando like a tidal wave and made him feel breathless and dizzy and still almost super humanly perceptive. Suddenly there were people all around them, patting Sandstorm’s neck and his boots. As they were lead out he saw Jake and Billie waving and congratulating, also still on horseback, saw Sir Ian’s utterly delighted grin swimming in a crowd of congratulators.

He never wanted to dismount again, never to be parted from this vicious, moody, energetic, gloriously wonderful stallion. The people surrounding them smiled when he threw his helmet away and put his arms around the animal’s massive neck to hug him despite Sandstorm obviously thinking this entirely inappropriate. The stallion kicked out and everybody within reaching distance jumped to the side but was still smiling at them and cheering.

A strong hand ruffled his hair and Orlando looked up from his horse’s sweaty coat. Sean once again held the stallion’s reins and he was beaming, there was no other word for it. Sandstorm threw his head up, photographers snapping shot after shot of them. Orlando felt the stallion’s self-satisfaction as much as he had felt his power. And Sean regarded the horse with so much unadulterated adoration that Orlando wanted nothing more than to grab him and kiss him.

“God,” he said breathlessly, “do you have any idea how much I love –“

Sean’s eyes shot up to him, amazement in them as well as intense awareness of their surroundings. For a second Orlando’s breath hitched like it really, really wanted to say ‘you’, wouldn’t allow him to say anything else but ‘you, how much I love you’. But this wasn’t the place, and there was something else to say, something equally true.

“How much I love this sport?”

Sean’s hand was trembling ever so lightly when he briefly closed it over Orlando’s on Sandstorm’s neck, stroked Sandstorm’s neck with infinite gentleness and meant Orlando with that touch.

“Yeah, so do I.”

 

Epilogue

Half a year later, they watch a different race in a different country.

The horses chase each other in exhilarating speed – it is the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe. In midst fifty thousand spectators, Orlando and Sean stand behind the rails near the finishing line.

The horses come flying towards them, nearing the finishing line, and the thunder of hooves is nearly drowned out by the cries of the onlookers. Sean’s heart races. Next to him, Orlando is shouting abuse and encouragement. His voice hoarse and dark, and there is the broadest of smiles on his face. This is the purest addiction, the simplest joy.

In a flurry of colour and speed, the horses gallop over the finishing line. The result is too close to call, fractions of a second decide who is the winner.

Abruptly, the crowd realises that they will have to wait for the stewards to look at the photo finish. The atmosphere is suddenly almost unbearably tense. To Sean, it feels ridiculously like being denied orgasm when he is already on the brink of it. Here, in Longchamp, he just has to laugh when he thinks of that comparison. Just like that the tension dissipates. He hasn’t got runners in this race, of course not, and the betting tickets in their pockets amount to a total of ten Euros.

At the sound of Sean’s laughter, Orlando whips around. He is breathless. Excitement is flashing in his eyes like a lightning storm.

Before Sean can process this fully, Orlando has thrown his arms around him and crushes Sean to his chest. To everyone else he must seem completely mental, like he is already celebrating a win that has yet to be announced. High on the sheer brilliance of racing, Orlando buries his face in Sean’s neck and laughs.

For a second, Sean can’t even believe that Orlando actually managed to get them here. To France, like this. Ridiculously sentimental overload indeed.

Then someone bumps into them by accident and Orlando raises his head from Sean’s shoulder.

“Fucking cunt,” he mutters, the insult sounding strange, delivered by a smiling mouth. “I swear, the French. Fucking rude bastards.”

Sean grins and Orlando’s temper melts away instantly. Seconds later, the crowd erupts in cheers. Over the speakers, the horse whose name is on Sean’s betting slip is declared the winner of the prestigious L’Arc de Triomphe. Sean feels Orlando’s quiet chuckle against his neck as Orlando tightens his hug again and pats him on the back in congratulation.

***

Sean changes angles, pulls Orlando up a bit by the shoulder. Orlando’s instantaneous curses herald his climax. Sean’s hands still cling to Orlando’s hip and his shoulder as he shoves into him one last time, comes. Orlando’s groan of relief catches up with him seconds later – Orlando collapses on the bed, face first into his pillow, as he finally surrenders to his orgasm.

Sean’s vision is a bit blurry when he opens his eyes again, just to calculate where to drop down dead. He blinks when he sees Orlando’s arm half-raised, fistpumping the air in a wordless gesture of victory. Sean laughs and that is when his thighs give in, he pulls out and flops down next to Orlando. Orlando’s arm remains propped up while Orlando’s face is still buried in his pillow.

“Figures you’re competitive about this as well,” Sean says, chuckling breathlessly.

“Takes two,” Orlando replies, voice muffled by his pillow.

“You started it.”

Orlando shifts, cleans sweat from his face by wiping it on the pillow, and flops down on his back.

“And I finished it. Last.” As proof, he holds up his hand. Sean raises his eyebrows at the sticky mess there. Orlando grabs a tissue, cleans it off, and muses, “Next time I should have money on that. Finishing last, I mean.”

“Got a knack for picking the last one, I’ll give you that.”

“You made me bet on that horse.”

Sean scoffs, disposes of the condom and shifts onto his side, facing Orlando.

“Not my fault your magical powers of equine mind reading let you down.”

Orlando’s face regains some of the seriousness Sean knows from strategic sessions till well into the night.

“Very funny. And they didn’t. The horse was perfectly fine, you saw that yourself. Eager and a good sense for pacing, too.”

Even though he is talking about a horse he won’t ever be riding, Orlando’s brows are slightly furrowed, and he is chewing on his bottom lip as he contemplates its form.

“She was well trained,” Sean agrees. “I give you that.”

“Right? It’s the fucking jock who should be shot. I mean, how can anyone fall off when there‘s not even jumps in a race, I ask you?”

Sean laughs at Orlando’s indignation and stretches languidly. Idleness crawls up his skin, an overall low buzz.

“I don’t know, and I don’t care. What’s important is that you lost.”

Orlando whacks Sean without even turning his head. His hand hits Sean’s stomach.

“Thanks for reminding me. Again.”

“Whatever. I won.”

Orlando twists Sean’s hand in his own and doesn’t let go even when Sean tries to pull it back.

“You really are quite humble,” he remarks peaceably, his voice only mildly ironic.

“Yeah.”

“Makes two of us,” Orlando says. Sean knows that tone of voice, has his brows arched even before Orlando continues. “For example, I hardly ever brag about how incredibly well-hung I am.”

“Ah. A whole two minutes.”

“Two minutes of what?”

“Without sexual innuendo.”

Orlando turns toward Sean, smiling.

“Well, I like you being caught between enjoying it and being slightly embarrassed.”

“Oh, shut up.”

Sean finds himself unable to successfully keep his face from growing a bit warmer, however. Orlando reaches for him, lightly cups Sean’s jaw with his palm.

“Yeah, just like that right there,” he says, fingers moving lightly against Sean’s cheek. “I like that. Careful, Sean, people might get the wrong impression, take that for affection.”

Sean feels a horse for sale under Orlando’s gaze and bats Orlando’s hand away. Orlando snickers. Sean growls again which does fuck all to the grin on Orlando’s face.

With one swift movement, Orlando gets out of the bed and stretches, full naked glory. Sean’s eyes linger at his sharply outlined hipbones, drift to the flat stomach as Orlando rubs it in his habitual gesture of perpetual hunger who notices Sean watching and stretches again, this time purely for show, as he picks up his mobile.

“It’s fairly stupid,” Sean retorts belatedly. “Throwing stones, when you’re sitting in that same glass house.”

With a smirk, Orlando ambles over to the bathroom, eyes on his mobile, lets the door fall shut behind him.

“Never mind that. At least a glass house can’t burn down.”

“What?” Sean calls back, his thoughts stumbling for a moment. “That makes absolutely no sense.”

The toilet lid is pushed up.

“It does, trust me,” Orlando says. “I just got a text from that nitwit I’m living with.”

Orlando starts peeing, and he groans with relief. Sean shakes his head and chuckles.

“Get this,” Orlando continues, “he asked me to check whether he’d left the stove on. How the fuck am I supposed to do that? I’m in fucking France. Who does he think I am?”

He scoffs with exuberant exasperation. For the sake of the bathroom floor, Sean hopes that he isn’t also gesturing wildly in addition to his spontaneous outburst. Orlando flushes, and as the sink starts running, he continues with his rant.

“Like I am his fucking housekeeper. And while he is off shagging the competition, no less! I mean, Billie is nice and everything, and if Cols wants to spend his weekends smothering himself between her tits, good for him. I’m all for that. Doesn’t mean he gets to burn our fucking flat down.”

Sean crosses his arms behind his head and closes his eyes.

“Good thing you keep a level head about this,” he remarks.

He feels that familiar post-coital languidness weighting down his legs, then his stomach and chest, lets his mind drift towards thoughtlessness. Orlando re-emerges from the bathroom with his usual boisterousness, and Sean automatically blinks his eyes open again. Orlando cleaned up some, but is still dabbing his chest with a towel. He accidentally bumps his elbow against the doorframe, curses and kicks the door.

“You should spend some time with Viggo,” Sean comments.

“What the you talking about?” Orlando asks while rubbing his elbow frantically.

“I just reckon, if he ever got to enjoy your level of placidity first hand, he’d forever get off my back.”

“He suggested anger management counselling to you?”

“Yoga.”

Orlando barks out a laugh and flops down next to Sean again, draping one leg over Sean’s.

“You’ve got aces taste in friends.”

“Like you’re any better.”

“Whatever. I’m just fresh out of patience this week. Blame Boleyn Girl.”

The instant flashback of the promising young mare, the most recent purchase of the Banas, brings a smile to Sean’s face. Idly, he runs his fingers up Orlando’s thigh before he lets his hand rest in the dip of his pelvic bone.

“I’m happy with her performance, overall.”

“She nearly dislocated my shoulders, she was that zealous.” Orlando flexes his arms, and Sean’s attention momentarily wavers. Orlando makes a contemplative sound, then he adds, “But I guess she’s got potential.”

“We’ll focus on building up her stamina some more,” Sean muses. “Put her in a string with some of the overeager four year olds, give her something to seriously compete against. Should help her keeping her head on the job.”

Orlando just hums noncommittally.

Thoughtfully, Sean gazes at the ceiling, mentally running through form books and pre-season meetings that might be suitable for Boleyn Girl. Orlando spent two rather exciting morning gallops on her back this week, cursing a blue streak as she reared and bucked with exuberance before concentrating on her work. But once she got her head in the game, she was high flying. Definitely ready to start the season. So, Cheltenham maybe, or Towcester which his youngsters always seem to like. Sean is leaning towards Wincanton, however. Smaller meetings usually build up his horses’ self-esteem, and he likes them confident. Watching a horse reach maximum speed is the absolute climax of pleasure. One glorious moment.

“One of the novice chases down South first,” he decides. “I reckon she’ll do well on the courses there.”

Orlando doesn’t respond. After a moment, Sean turns his head towards him. Orlando is still lying on his back, one arm draped over his chest, so his hand half hides the tattoo over his heart. He has his eyes closed, and he only ever breathes that evenly when he is sleeping, or at least dozing. Sean shifts onto his side, props his head up on his hand. The movement causes Orlando’s eyes to unhurriedly blink open again. Sean arches his brows a fraction. Orlando responds by smiling leisurely, unembarrassed to have dozed off. The fierceness that makes him win races is still slumbering.

“I’m glad that we did this,” Sean says very quietly.

Orlando’s lips part slightly, but he doesn’t say anything. His eyes widen, he casts his eyes down before instantly searching Sean’s once more. And Sean can’t help it. He doesn’t even try to suppress the amusement that twists his smile into a grin, and he lightly pats Orlando’s cheek.

“Now look who’s blushing?” he coos. “Careful. People might get the wrong idea, Orlando.”

Orlando’s jaw drops open with incredulity. He shoves Sean’s shoulder, outrage softened by the grin on his face.

“You competitive fucker! That was cheating! If you did something dirty like that during a race, you’d get banned for life!”

Sean laughs in delight.

“And still I wouldn’t be the one with the rosy complexion.”

Orlando pushes up with enough momentum to throw Sean back. An instant later, he is straddling Sean’s thighs, hands on either side of Sean’s head, and looking down at him with his brows narrowed and a broad grin on his lips.

“I should be publically distancing myself from you, you duplicitous prick.”

Sean’s hands settle on Orlando’s hips. In response, Orlando slides a little lower, if only to let Sean properly feel that he’s half-hard again already.

“Yeah, I don’t see that happening.”

“Yeah, me neither.”

Orlando rotates his hips slightly. Most of Sean’s attention zeros in on that at once, desire pools in his stomach like liquid lead. Orlando’s fingers trace the outline of Sean’s collar bone, but his voice still is conversational when he continues,

“I mean, what with my house burning down, I might even have to seek temporary asylum at Greystone, considering. I won’t be a bother, I’ll just climb in through a window.”

Sean slides his hand into the small of Orlando’s back, pushing him down as Sean thrusts up.

“You’ll fall down and ruin my rose bushes.”

“There’s that, yes,” Orlando agrees, voice now slightly darker than before. “I’m not much of an alpinist. Also, I’m guessing Tim wouldn’t take too kindly to burglars?”

Sean’s gaze slides down the exposed line of Orlando’s throat.

“He might go straight for the jugular.”

Orlando chuckles and leans down.

“You might have to get up and let me in after all.”

His breath is hot against Sean’s skin as Orlando nips at his neck. Sean allows his eyes to drift shut, turns his head to give him better access. Orlando responds with a low hum, his hand idly carding through Sean’s hair. Relaxation resonates within Sean. The sensation settles, there to stay for so much longer than just this moment.

The kisses stop, and Sean opens his eyes again to the sight of Orlando’s suggestive smirk, all flippancy gone. Orlando shifts slightly to be able to slide his hand between their bodies, reach for Sean’s cock with his usual no-nonsense, unassuming self-assurance.

Orlando shifts off of him, pressing against his side, as Sean stretches to reach for the nightstand. Sean’s key chain lies there, next to his watch and his wallet, condoms. He grabs the keychain, and from the ring, he unhooks a spare key. It has been there for the last month or so. He holds it out.

Orlando’s eyes first focus on the key, then on Sean’s eyes, and he tilts his head questioningly.

“Pretty sure condoms look different.”

Sean whacks Orlando on the side of his head. Rubbing the sore spot and laughing, Orlando still has his eyes on the key in Sean’s hand.

“So, this for your chastity belt then?” he guesses with a grin.

Sean holds the key out again, for Orlando to take it.

“Front door, idiot.”

For once, Orlando doesn’t say anything. He just takes the key from Sean’s fingers, and again, he looks back and forth between it and Sean’s face, a question lingering in his eyes. Slowly, he closes his hand around the key, shakes his head incredulously.

“I win the Gold Cup, I come in second in the fucking Grand National for you. And you still beat me in the romance department. How the fuck do you do that?”

Sean laughs, affection rising to the surface like champagne bubbles. He slides his hands into the back of Orlando’s neck and pulls him down.

Against his lips, he murmurs, “Oh, you know how we win races.”