Several times, Willow threw up. The competition had started and, having the priority, they decided to be in the middle of the other competitors. She paced around a lot and her father finally stopped her to give her a pep talk. I watched the rest of the competitors. They were very good.
I just hoped Willow and Matt were better. I knew Willow could pull it off but I was worried Matt's pride would get in the way.
"It's time," a man said, coming to us. "You're Matt and Willow, right?" Willow could only nod. "All right, I know you've been here before but remember: the faster you go, the more points you get. If you knock over any of the barrels, you lose points. The same goes for the hurdles."
The both nodded and I led Willow to Flame.
"You've got this," I whispered, handing her the reins.
"I don't know if I can," she whispered, swiping at her tears. "I need Spirit."
"Remember what I said: She's here. Imagine it's her you're riding."
"But Flame handles differently!"
"True," I said, "but I saw you out there during the practice runs. I know you were pretending it was Spirit you were on." Their numbers were called. "You can do it, Willow. Now go."
She pulled Flame to her spot and had to go after Matt, something I wish was the other way around. She had her eyes closed, though, as he went through the barrels. She was breathing carefully and Aaron and I bit our lips, watching anxiously. When it was her turn, Willow opened her eyes with a determined look in them.
"Let's go, Flame," she whispered and they went off at a trot.
I ran to watch with Aaron. I hadn't seen her run that fast before. She did great and, even from here, I saw Willow's eyes close when she got to the last barrel.
"Stay tight," Aaron groaned. "Stay tight."
I held my breath. She went right around it and didn't knock it over.
"Yes!" I yelled as she ran through the last few barrels.
We chased after Flame while she tried to lose momentum. When she did, Willow was sobbing into her hands. She got off and Aaron put his arms around her. Matt looked upset and I knew why. She had beaten his time.
Willow continued to cry until the hurdles came. I had been keeping an eye on the scores and Willow and Matt were tied with two riders named Houston and Ilene. Again, Willow and Matt were in the middle and I watched as Willow did the hurdles without a single problem. I smiled in pride as she came out. They were in first place now but Ilene and Houston were up next.
I watched anxiously, making sure Aaron kept the two of them away from where they could hear or see the scores. I held my breath as Houston went first. He did it perfectly. I gulped thickly. Next was Ilene. She gave me a cocky smile, reminding me of Matt. I ignored her, though, and the whistle blew. She did great until the last hurdle. She had been focused on waving at someone in the crowd that she had pulled her horse right around the hurdle and had to go back and do it again.
I grinned. Willow and Matt were still in first place. I walked back over to where they were getting scheduled.
"When do you want to go on?" one of the coordinators asked.
"You should go last," I suggested and they frowned.
"Why?" she asked.
I smiled. "Just trust me."
She narrowed her eyes but finally nodded. They were led away to change into their costumes and I told Aaron where they were in points.
"You're kidding me!" he breathed. "Are they really?"
I nodded, grinning. "If they do their routine like they have been, the'll win. The ones they were tied for? The girl totally failed her hurdles."
"This is great!" he yelled.
"Don't tell them, though," I said. "It'll only freak them out."
"I won't," he promised.
Thirty minutes later, they both came out. Matt was in white pants and a white button up. The pants flared out and had red and blue spangled stripes. The buttons on the shirt were red and blue, too. He also had a white cowboy hat.
Willow's outfit blew me away. She wore a white leotard and a red and blue miniskirt. She wore white leggings down to below her boots where were a different set: they were white and tighter than her other riding boots. Her lips were red and her eye shadow was a vibrant blue with glitter aplenty. She looked gorgeous.
"You'll do great," I said when she looked afraid still. "I swear it."
She nodded mutely.
"You're on in 15," the man said and Willow closed her eyes.
She turned to Matt. "Please," she said. "I don't give a shit what we've done in the past, but please do it right."
"Just as long as you do," he said back.
He looked just as nervous and I'm glad I hadn't told them where they were on the scores. The fifteen minutes went by fast and Willow took a deep breath as she mounted Flame. She and Matt went over to the gates and I saw her start to relax. Ilene and Houston had gotten top marks that tied them with Willow and Matt again.
I passed my hand over my eyes as the music started. They started by doing a circuit of the stadium, waving at everyone with huge grins on their faces. They were received well by the crowd who I knew were watching the scores as closely as I was. Then their normal routine began.
Aaron stood beside me and I gripped his shoulder tightly.
"They can do this," I whispered and he nodded but he still looked a little green.
They got in position and Aaron clapped his hands twice, their signal that it was time to start. I watched as Matt, who was near us, sat up straight but flicked his reins, reaching out his right arm and Willow did the same, her face focused. I gulped as they grasped each other's upper arms. Again, Matt swung her up in the air and she posed, waving at the crowd then did the whistle that would bring Flame back on Eagle's left side.
But Flame went to the right. I knew Willow was panicking and she muttered something to Matt. I held my breath again as he spun her a little and she waved some more, adding more flare until they were right next to Flame. Matt carefully made sure she slid onto Flame's saddle smoothly.
They did one last circuit then came back in. Willow was shaking and Matt looked smug.
"Told you we'd do it," he said to me and stretched as he got down.
"I never said you wouldn't," I snapped and went over to Willow. "You okay?"
"I did it," she breathed. "I panicked when Flame went to the wrong side then-then I thought what would I do if Spirit were here? That-That's what we would have done."
I smiled and the same man came over.
"Time to get the points," he told them. "Go to your appointed spots."
Willow nodded and turned Flame around. Aaron's face was even until they were out of earshot and he grinned at me.
"They got first place, Nathan!"
I laughed and high-fived them. "I knew they would."
We went out to watch them. Willow was gripping the saddle horn tightly but she looked less pale. The scores were announced and she put her hands over her mouth. She began to sob into her hands but Matt, once again, looked like he had won it on his own. They were excused and I took Flame back to her stall, feeding her and stroking her face.
"Thanks for being there with her, Spirit," I whispered. "And you did wonderful, Flame."
I sighed and walked back to where the manager was announcing the schedule for tomorrow.