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Zen and the Art of Horseriding
By Rooineck

Part 11

"So what's this new role, then, the one you have to be able to ride for?" Nikki asked curiously after a while as Helen hadn't said anymore about her suspension.

"The Beeb are doing a drama based on some horsey book."

"Not another version of Black Beauty, surely?" groaned Nikki.

"No. It's based on a novel by some woman called Jenny Pitman. I've not read it, but the script is quite good."

"You really aren't all that au fait with the horse world, are you?"

"No. Why?"

"I'd have thought that going out with Sean Parr you'd have heard of one of the great National Hunt trainers of the of modern times – more so because she's a woman."

"National Hunt? What does that mean?"

"It means over jumps, like the Grand National. You must have heard of 'Corbiere', at least? Or the 1993 National? You know? The 'one that never was'? Jenny Pitman trained Corbiere and the winner of the non-National."

"Isn't that a 'Friends' episode?" Helen asked innocently. "So, National Hunt is like the Derby, then?"

"No!" Nikki howled. "The Derby is a flat race. What part are you playing in this series?"

"The lead. She owns a racing stable."

"You have got to be kidding? You'd only have to open your mouth to reveal how little you know about it."

"I do have a script, remember?" Helen replied coldly.

"Oh yes, I forget. You need someone to put words in your mouth and someone to tell you your motivation."

"I won't pretend it's the hardest profession in the world, but I enjoy it and I get paid to do it."

"Too bloody much, if you ask me."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Well, as far as I can make out, you get paid nearly four thousand pounds a week. Is that right? There are people starving out there and people like you charge a million dollars an episode."

"And what about footballers? They change hands for millions and run around for a couple of hours a week, getting paid ten, twenty thousand pounds a week. How fair is that?"

"I think they work a bit harder than that, Helen."

"I'm just saying it's comparable, that's all," she said huffily. "I mean, how much do you get paid for what you do?"

"In a good year, I might clear about twenty thousand US dollars."

"Oh" came the nonplussed reply. "I thought it would be more than that."

"It can be, if you're good enough. So far I haven't been that high up the rankings, or won that many competitions. I'd never make as much as an accountant, though." She shrugged. "I'll get there. It's the Olympics in a year."

"Isn't that an amateur competition?" Helen said, proud that she had remembered.

"Nothings really amateur these days. The Olympics have no prize money, but it means a lot in sponsorship. And no, you don't have to be an amateur to compete there anymore."

"Oh" said Helen faintly. Not only did Nikki constantly pick on her for her riding, or lack of ability, she was constantly correcting everything she spoke about too. It made her rather a terrifying companion, on the whole.

"Right, time for a canter, I think." Nikki said as they rounded a corner into a field.

"A canter? Is that hard?"

"It's easier than trotting, because you don't have to post." She spotted Helen's blank look. "Bump up and down in the saddle. It's smoother. Come on."

She touched her heels to her horse's sides and they were off, smoothly moving together away from them. She noticed Nikki standing up slightly in the stirrups as she urged her horse onwards. Then everything went strange as she felt her horse take off in pursuit. All instruction that Nikki had given her flew out of her mind as she started sliding back and forth in the saddle, losing a stirrup in the process.

"You irresponsible cow!" She yelled at Nikki as she caught up with her. "Why didn't you tell me that Barney would go too?"

"I assumed you'd remember your lessons and keep a check on him until you were ready for him to go," Nikki said.

"Well I didn't know that he'd do that, did I?"

"I'm sorry," Nikki said contritely. Helen was amazed that she even seemed to mean it. "When you want him to do what you want when he wants to take off, just put your weight right down in the stirrups, heels right down, and keep him on a short rein, like this." She demonstrated on her own horse, but Helen couldn't really tell the difference.

"We'll try again. If you don't lose your stirrups, try and stand a little in them, it makes for a very comfortable ride."

"I'm not sure…"

"You have to have a go sometime, might as well be now," she was goaded.

"Ok then, let's go." This time she kicked Barney off first so that Nikki was forced to chase her. As she went, feeling more secure this time, she gingerly tried doing what Nikki had told her and found herself exhilarated by the unexpected pleasure of it. She looked back at Nikki to see her coming up fast behind her, the look of pleasure on her face the first genuine smile she had ever seen.

"That was…" She couldn't find words to describe the experience, as they turned and walked back towards home.

"It was rather, wasn't it?" Nikki agreed.

"Is that what it's like?"

"Riding? No, usually it's bloody hard work – you should know."

"Yes, it is. But for moments like that, it's wonderful. Now I know what you all see in it."

"Believe me, it's not usually like that, that feeling of being together, just you and the horse, alone in the world, being one. Normally it's the horse that won't behave, or you're trying to teach him to jump or something. Like I say, hard work."

"You have to teach a horse to jump?" Helen was surprised.

"Of course. It's not a natural thing for them to have to do in the wild – all that galloping across prairies in the movies is true, but originally there were no fences on the land. They had no need to jump, so yes, we have to teach them."

"I never knew that."

"Why would you need to?" Nikki looked across at Helen and for the first time noticed that her eye's were greenish, hazel. She had always thought of them as boring and brown.

"No, you're right. Outside of a trivia quiz, I would never need that information." She smiled back at Nikki.

They rode back in silence, Helen ruminating on the fact that Nikki could be almost human sometimes, and Nikki thinking about Trish, and whether she would be able to survive in Seville without her. It would be the first competition she would have been to for ten years that Trish wouldn't be at in some capacity.

"I guess I'll see you tomorrow, then Nikki." Helen said once they had dismounted and put the horses away.

"I doubt it, unless you're going to Spain as well." Nikki picked up the tack and took it to the tack room.

"Spain? What's going on there?"

"It's the European Championships this weekend." She hung up the bridles and started cleaning one, the smell of saddle soap and leather perfuming the air.

"This weekend?"

"Yes. I'm flying out tomorrow, competing on Saturday and flying back on Monday."

"That's a quick turnaround, isn't it?"

"We do everything on one day." Nikki looked at her curiously. Trish had told her that she had told Helen what Nikki did, but she still obviously knew nothing about it. "Didn't you know?"

"No." Helen looked away and Nikki instantly knew that she knew nothing about her sport.

"We start with the shooting, then the swimming and riding. Fence everyone and then go for a run."

"Why all that?"

"The long version or the potted version?" Nikki gave her a considering look.

"Why?" Helen asked warily.

"Because if you want the long version, you can make yourself useful and help clean the tack." She threw a cloth at Helen. "If you want the short version, you can have it and then buzz off. I've got work to do and I haven't started packing yet."

"OK." Helen sat down next to Nikki. "What do I do?"

"Here." Nikki gave her a small smile and showed her what to do, then started on her tale. "The guy who founded the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertain, had this wonderful vision of an all-around Olympics, of the arts as well as sport. Anyway, he also devised the Modern Pentathlon. It was based on some romantic notion of a messenger carrying dispatches riding off into the sunset, shooting and fighting his way out of trouble, swimming a river and running the last part to deliver."

"Sounds like the plot of Zorro." Helen laughed.

"Yes, well," Nikki said. "Anyway, it was first done at the 1912 Seville Olympics. Women have been doing it for a few years now. And these days we do the whole lot in one day; twenty shots; a two hundred metre swim; a four hundred metre show jumping course on an unknown horse; fence everyone once, then a three k run."

"I'm exhausted just listening about it." She gave a final rub to the saddle she had been set to clean and turned back to Nikki. It had become dark outside by the time they had finished talking. The tack room was warm and comfortable and she was curiously reluctant to leave, but had no excuses to stay. "Right, I think that's me done. Good luck and happy packing."

"Cheers. Thanks for the help – I appreciate it." Nikki stood and stretched, seeming to fill the whole room.

"No problem." They stood awkwardly for a moment, neither quite sure how to take their leave from the other.

"I hope you get your suspension sorted." Nikki finally offered, stuffing her hands into the pockets in her jodhpurs.

"Well, if I'd kept my big mouth shut, it would have helped. And not gone on a bender, of course. I'm not underpaid, I know that, it's just that the pay scales are actually pretty unfair, especially when you see what some of the newcomers earn. And some of those storylines kind of take it out of you." Helen shrugged. In light of Nikki's revelations about her sport and earnings, she felt rather like a spoiled child.

"Yes, I guess the rape was pretty hard to portray. How did you research the role?" Nikki asked as they walked out towards Helen's car.

"How do you know?" Helen was surprised that Nikki had been watching the soap. That storyline had started three weeks ago, before she had ever come here. She got into her car and lowered the window so she could talk to Nikki.

"I watch TV. I love that one. I thought you deserved the award you got last year." Nikki said as Helen revved the engine and tapped the roof, turning and walking away before Helen could say more than 'thank you'.

As she drove down the track, she recalled exactly how many awards she had received last year: one, Rear of the Year. She blushed as soon as she realised, even though she was alone in the car.

She realised that she was going to miss being taught by Nikki over the next few days. Their ride outside today had seemed to clear a lot of the tension between them. She wondered where Trish was – probably organising everything for the trip to Spain.

Part 12

Nikki lay in her room in the athlete's village. She had had a good competition, coming fifth. Better than she had hoped, but not as good as she had dreamed, in the secret part of her soul. In her innermost fantasies she had seen herself on the rostrum, preferably in the middle, and hearing her National Anthem playing.

It had been an incredibly long day yesterday, and she had driven herself so hard that she thought she would die. 'Nothing matters as long as you have done your best'. The text message from Trish was still on her phone. She missed her – she had been such a big part of her life for the past ten years – as a colleague, a training partner, a coach and then also as a lover.

She had been terribly lonely on this trip, the first she had ever taken without Trish. She had always resolutely resisted being part of the relay event, as she always saw herself as an individual, not a team player, but now envied their camaraderie, even though she knew they didn't always see eye-to-eye.

Her bags were already packed, and she was supposed to be going out to the end of event dinner tonight, but felt more like sloping off on her own and getting blasted in a bar somewhere. The thought reminded her of Helen Stewart, going out and getting drunk after being suspended. She wondered briefly how she was getting on with her riding. She had said something about a period drama and having to learn how to ride sidesaddle too.

Her thoughts returned to Trish, as they always seemed to. It had hurt desperately, letting her go, but she had known that it was no good trying to hold onto someone if they didn't want to stay. She had seen it with her own parents. Jackie had suggested that she had given up too easily, that she should fight, but she didn't see how that would help when Trish's mind had already been made up.

She was tired all the time, too. She had known even while fencing that she had lost the finesse and was relying on brute strength, which had seen her through other disciplines but was useless in the fencing and jumping. That's where she had lost, through being too gung-ho.

Suddenly she couldn't face being trapped in the room and sprang up, ignoring the aches in her body. She lived with them pretty much all the time now. She stood under the shower, emptying her mind, as she cleaned her body.

She would go to the party, she would have a good time and she would forget all about Trish. There was a member of the Dutch team who had been giving her the eye during the weekend, maybe she would try and distract herself for a while.

Standing at the bar, she wondered if she hadn't made a mistake. Few were drinking, and even fewer heavily, because of their training schedules, and she knew that she shouldn't be having too much herself.

Dinner had been designed to fit in with even the most demanding, faddy diets and hadn't seemed all that filling to Nikki. She fancied a nice tub of chocolate ice-cream right about now, preferably with someone to eat it off.

She was approached by the Dutch girl and perked up a bit. This could have some potential, especially as they would be seeing each other on the circuit for the next few months.



"Congratulations." Nikki did her best to look modest. They talked about the competition for a while, deconstructing their own performances and having a bit of a bitch about some of the other competitors.

"I can't understand how anyone can wear that much makeup and still not look even a little bit mussed at the end of the run," Nikki said, reaching back for her drink.

"It must be industrial strength."

"More like welded on." They grinned at each other. "So, are you doing anything after this?" Nikki asked, not sure what she wanted the answer to be.

"We're going clubbing. Want to come?"

"Who's we?" Nikki was wary – if she did fancy doing anything, she didn't want an audience of other athletes.

"My friends, boyfriend, just a few of us."

"Uh, maybe not." Damn, she had a boyfriend, but she could have sworn…

"Actually, my boyfriend wants to know if maybe you'd like to come to a private party, in our room." The look on her face left Nikki in little doubt as to how many people were invited to this party and she blushed. "You are sweet, pretty Nikki." As she felt the hand stroke down the side of her face, she pulled away.

"That's not really my kind of thing, love." She made as if to go, her face burning.

"How about if he doesn't join in?"

"I don't think so," Nikki said before almost running away. She started walking back to the village, ignoring the fact that she wasn't really dressed for a two mile hike.

What a night. Maybe she should just swear off women for life? It wasn't as if she had any luck with them. She briefly considered the idea of a convent, then decided that that might be being a tad melodramatic.

The walk refreshed her, but left her feet hurting in the dress shoes she had worn. She completed the rest of the walk in her tights, ruining them. She was, on reflection, pretty happy that she hadn't managed to get herself a rebound fuck. It wasn't really her style, and she would probably have regretted it in the morning. Another plus for not drinking too much, she thought, and awarded herself a mental gold star.

Part 13

Helen drove to Home Farm again, this time admiring the signs of spring that were all around her. The wind was still high, and clouds were scudding rapidly across the sky. She could see a few snowdrops in the hedgerows as she drove along, slower than normal, taking in the beauty of the countryside she drove through.

She didn't normally care for the country, finding the nighttime noises strange after the traffic, and the absolute darkness frightened her after the well-lit streets she normally occupied. The lack of orange glow in the sky seemed weird. She hated the mud, the fact that her phone wouldn't always work and the lack of twenty-four hour shops was just impossible to live with.

"Hello." As she pulled up, she could see Nikki leaning against a stable door, talking to someone inside.

"Hi." She was taken aback by Nikki's wide smile of greeting, until she remembered the last thing she had said to her and blushed again. "Jackie, I'm off to tack up Boris, I'll see you in a bit."

Nikki pushed herself away from the doorjamb and fell into step with Helen as they walked towards the stables.

"Congratulations, by the way," Helen said, taking Nikki by surprise.

"How did you know?"

"I read the papers, you know." She watched Nikki tack up the horse.

"But it's never in the papers." Nikki's head suddenly appeared from under the horse's neck.

"Well, now you come to mention it, I logged on and checked," Helen said, finding the woodwork on the wall incredibly interesting.

"Really?" Nikki smiled again. "I hear you got your suspension lifted."

"Yeah, I had to do a grovelling apology to the slimy toad, but at least I'm reinstated. I have to report the day after tomorrow. But, I've got a feeling that they're going to replace the producer, and that means axes out all round."

"You don't think they'll replace you?" They led the horse out and Nikki went to get Barney, leaving Helen making a fuss of Boris.

"Not just yet, but I'm not sure I want to hang around much longer. I've done pretty much everything I can with my character, including half the men under eighty, so maybe it's time to move on."

"You could be right. Have you got much lined up?" They mounted and Helen started walking towards the indoor school. "Actually, I thought we'd hack again today, Helen. Jackie said you've been in the school every day since I've been gone."

"Ok." They changed direction and Nikki took her in a direction they hadn't been before. "I have a couple of series lined up. The Jenny Pitman thing is starting shooting in a few weeks, when I have a holiday from the show, and then I have a period drama lined up. After that, well, there's always panto," she grinned and slapped her thigh, making Nikki laugh.

"What do you play? The wicked witch or the good fairy?"

"This year I was Principle Boy, I'll have you know," Helen replied, mock huffily.

"Which panto?"

"Sleeping Beauty."

"And who was your beauty?"

Helen named an actress from a rival soap, eliciting a raised eyebrow from Nikki. "Go on then," she sighed dramatically.

"What?" Nikki asked, all innocence.

"Ask me what it was like to kiss her, if you like. Everyone else I know has."

"Actually, I was just thinking of a TV series she did when she was younger," Nikki said, her cheeks turning delicately pink.

Helen smiled. She knew exactly the programme Nikki remembered, and why Nikki remembered it. It was the reason that the other girl was one of the few soap stars to be a household name with men.

"I take it you're a fan, then?"

"Rather!" Helen liked the way Nikki drew out the syllables, almost as if she was trying to do an impression of Lesley Phillips.

"I should see if she'd like to come over for a few lessons." Helen teased.

"From what I gather, she's not going to appreciate a day out in a muddy field. She's got too much class."

"Oi, that was unfair."

"You know what I mean – if she broke a nail she'd be in tears and ringing up fifty people to come and fix it." Nikki waved her hand around, looking for the right words. "She's so bloody girly, she looks like she'd be upset if anyone mussed her hair." She rode on oblivious to Helen's giggles. "She's not no-nonsense like you are."

"Are you saying I'm butch?" Helen couldn't help taking the piss and put on what she thought of as her 'mean and dangerous to know' persona.

"Not at all." Nikki was quick to speak. "Just 'what you see is what you get'."

"I'm an actress, Nikki. I'm trained to be like that all the time, make people believe what they are seeing. So's she. She's nothing like that in real life, I can assure you. You're as bad as all those little old ladies that send hate mail, thinking that's what's on the box is real life."

"I'm not that bad. I know my fact from my fiction, thank you very much," she retorted.

"Are you sure? Didn't you think I was just some victim, allowing people to walk all over me?"

"No," Nikki protested. "I thought your character was a strong woman deep down, doing things for the right reasons, and I applauded her. I bet you got loads of mail about that."

"Yes." Helen looked pensive when Nikki looked at her. "Some of it was pretty harrowing, to be honest. I never knew that so many women went through things like that."

"Thought it was all fiction, did you? Don't your scriptwriters borrow from real life?" Nikki gently mocked her.

"Oh ha bloody ha." She pulled a face at Nikki.

"Ready for a canter, then?"

"Lead on MacDuff." They cantered across a field, Helen keeping her stirrups and her seat. As they pulled up, she noticed Nikki staring at her. "What?"

"You've been practicing," she accused.

"Of course. I had some time on my hands and Jackie helped me out. She said it's easier now I'm not so nervous."

"At least I'm good for something." Nikki said morosely.

"What, winding up nervous riders so that they forget their nerves and are just furious with you instead?"

"Well, I guess there are worst epitaphs."

"Anyway, I've got a riding test tomorrow, so I thought I'd better have a go. Terry lent me Lenny to practice on, though it wasn't the same without you screaming at me from the centre."

"Quieter, I'll bet."

"It was. Terry gave me a few pointers, though."

"Like what? Face the end with the ears?" Nikki laughed.

"That was one of his suggestions, yes," Helen replied haughtily.

"You're looking pretty comfortable now, almost like you know what you're doing."

"Damned by such faint praise…"

"I'd just like to see you all dressed up, riding side-saddle."

"So would I. I've seen the sketches for the costumes. I didn't think women wore that much, especially to ride in."

"Is it a corset drama?"


They rode along, the silence between them companionable. Helen stole the odd glance at Nikki and thought she looked a bit down, but didn't want to shatter their new-found camaraderie. It was probably because she hadn't done as well as she had hoped at the weekend.

Part 14

"So what have you got lined up for this afternoon, then?" Helen asked as they dismounted in the stable yard.

"I've got fencing practice then I think a swim and that'll do it for today. I went for a run this morning."

"Fencing? Where do you do that then?"

"I've converted a barn behind my place. My fencing coach comes down twice a week to give me a lesson and we have a few bouts afterwards."

"Doesn't Trish coach you?"

"She's not trusted her knee ever since her injury, and she was good, but she's a better jumping coach then she is a fencing one." Nikki was occupying herself with brushing the horse and didn't face Helen at all, and hoped she hadn't noticed the way she stiffened when Trish's name had been mentioned.

"Can I come and watch?" Helen almost surprised herself with her request. It was a way to get to know Nikki though, after all, and if 'Operation Seduction' was to work, she had to try and get to know Nikki as well as possible.

"If you like." Nikki shrugged and continued what she was doing.

"I've never seen anyone fence properly before, just at drama school and for the odd play. It's all choreographed and doesn't look real."

"It's nothing special, but if you want you can watch."

"Cheers, thanks." Helen gathered the tack as Nikki straightened up. "How did you get into doing pentathlon in the first place?"

"I was a swimmer, at county standard, but I would never go much further, and I could run. One of my teachers was a pentathlete and suggested I had a go. She taught me to fence, took me to a shooting range and that was it. I got hooked pretty quickly." Nikki settled down to clean a bridle.

"What about the riding?"

"I've been riding since I was about five. I can't remember not being able to ride."

"Why didn't you go into riding?"

"I wanted to do eventing, but I never had the patience for the dressage, although Jackie makes me do some every now and again, just to keep me humble." She noticed Helen's blank look. "Three day eventing – dressage, cross-country and show-jumping?"

"Is that what Princess Anne did?"

"Yes, that's it. What about you? Why acting?"

"I was into school plays and stuff, then it was a way out – away from my parents and stuff. I got a scholarship to RADA and a few lucky breaks along the way."

"Would you do anything else if you could?"

"I'd like to write, you know, screenplays, that sort of stuff. How about you?"

"I wouldn't want to do anything else. I love doing this."

"How much longer have you got left?"

"At this level? Maybe four or five. I'll make the next Olympics, if I qualify, then we'll see."

"What will you do afterwards?"

"I don't know," Nikki confessed, looking like a child. "I don't really want to think about it."

"That's a bit short-sighted, isn't it? What if you get injured?" Helen spoke without thinking.

"Gee, why didn't I think of that?"

"There's no need to be sarcastic."

"There's no need to point out the obvious."

"All I'm saying is look at Trish. She's screwed now."

"Hardly, she still coaches."

"Is that what you're going to do?"

"I doubt it. I'm not the coaching type."

"You teach riding very well."

"Thanks, I have my moments, I think," Nikki said, with a sideways smile. "I can cope with adults, but the kids drive me up the wall. I'd never cope with them. I'll figure it out someday."

"Good luck to you."

"Cheers. Come on, time for the fencing." She reached out and pulled Helen to her feet.

Helen struggled to keep up with Nikki as she led the way across to her barn. She was quite surprised to find it was huge, kitted out as a gym as well as having a fencing piste. They had passed an indoor swimming pool on their way across.

"Where's your place?" She asked.

"That cottage we passed. The half-timbered one."

"The one with the mullioned windows?" Nikki nodded. "It's beautiful."

"It's draughty."


"Antoine." Helen gasped. The most beautiful man she had ever seen was walking into the room. He was divinely proportioned, tall, with broad shoulders and a lean body. His hair flowed to his shoulders and there was hint of stubble across his chin.

"Put your tongue away before you trip over it." She glanced at Nikki who was smiling broadly.

"I'm dazzled. Is he for real?"

"He's very real, very gay and very taken. If you can't manage to keep your hormones under wraps, I'll have to shut you out with the cat."


"'Fraid so. Sorry to disappoint. I'm going to get changed. I'll leave Antoine to keep you entertained."

Helen and Antoine talked briefly, mainly about Nikki and the soap, before she reappeared.

"Please, Mees Stewart, I need you to sign. I think you are wonderful."

"Antoine, stop hassling my friend. If you're good, I'll try and get you a signed photo." Helen was amused to see Nikki wink at her.

"I'll bring you one next time I'm over here, I promise."

"Right, now that's all sorted, let's try and see if my lunge has improved, shall we?" Nikki selected a sword and swished it idly through the air.

"Of course." Antoine turned back to Helen. "It was an honour. Now I dispatch Nik and we can talk again." He too selected a sword and he and Nikki faced each other.

"En guard."

Part 15

They slipped the mesh masks over their faces and crossed swords, assuming stylised positions. Helen watched, fascinated, as they started to fight. Nikki was obviously quite good, fast and strong. The two of them drove each other back, advanced and retreated, fighting furiously.

"No, Nik, no." Antoine called a sudden halt to the bout, surprising Helen, rousing her out of a favourite fantasy of Orlando Bloom, inspired by a film she had seen.

"You extend too far on the lunge. If I parry and riposte, you have no balance and you are beaten. One touch is all it takes. Try again."

Helen was unused to seeing Nikki in the role of pupil and was surprised that she looked interested, rather than put out. She practiced the movement again and again before standing upright, ready to fence again.

Once more they completed the formalities, then Nikki launched a blistering attack on her coach, forcing him back, right to the limit of the piste. Their swords were a blur as they fought furiously, culminating in Nikki lunging forward, her weapon bent in an arc, it's point squarely in the centre of Antoine's belly.

"Ver' good, Nik. When you take the cloth from your ears, you are good. You must work in the beat, too. You hold the epee too gently. Your grip should be gentle, like a lovers touch, but not so weak that you have no control. Again."

Once more they fought, this time back and forth, like a fight in a pirate movie. This time Nikki went back too far, off the end.

"Shit." The expletive echoed in the large space.

"Riposte, Nik. Riposte. Again."

Helen lost count of the times they fought, the corrections and criticism given by Antoine. It was interesting watching them, Nikki almost as tall as her tutor, their bodies curiously similar, the only visible difference the swell in front of her white jacket.

"Enough. I yield." Nikki said eventually. "I still have to go swimming today and I'm knackered."

"You are lazy. One more."

"Please, I can't." She came to sit on the bench by Helen, drinking from a bottle of water. She wasn't even breathing that heavily, although her hair was soaked.

"You will take your guard one more time."

Helen almost laughed as Antoine growled at her friend, while Nikki gave an exaggerated sigh and heaved herself to her feet, dragging them as she put her mask back on.

After another two minutes, they were finished and Antoine took his leave, kissing Helen's hand gallantly.

"Fancy a swim?"

"Is the pool heated?"

"Even I'm not enough of a masochist as to have an unheated pool. I'm afraid there's no wave machine, but if you fancy a splash around, you're welcome. I'm going to be doing lengths, I'm afraid."

"I haven't got a costume."

"There's bound to be one that fits you somewhere." Nikki looked her up and down calculatingly.

"Then, yes, I'd love to have a swim, if you're sure I'm not going to intimidate you with my turtle-speed breast stroke."

"I'm sure that I'll cope with the mental scarring." Nikki laughed and led the way out. They made their way across to the pool in the darkness of the early evening. Nikki found Helen a costume and they separated to change. Helen came back first and lowered herself gently into the water, leisurely paddling herself around, enjoying the peacefulness and solitude.

Nikki appeared about ten minutes later, just as Helen was thinking about going to look for her. Her yell echoed around the eerie space as she precipitated herself headlong into the deep end of the pool, before ploughing her way in a speedy, economic crawl up and down the pool for ten lengths before she stood in the shallow end, brushing her hair back.

Helen found herself staring, much to her own surprise. Nikki's riding clothes left little to the imagination, being very tight and showing off her body to it's full advantage, even if that wasn't what she intended.

In a swimsuit, she looked curiously the same, but different. Her body was lean and well muscled, her movements careless of the attention Helen was paying her. She was very un-selfconcious in her semi-nudity, unlike Helen, who was all too conscious of the various bulges on her anatomy that owed a lot to her party lifestyle.

"You alright?" Helen jumped as Nikki glided up beside her.

"Fine thanks."

"You look like you were lost to the world there."

"I was just thinking that I need to lose some weight."

"You look fine to me," Nikki leered at her, licking her lips in a pantomime of lust.

"Thanks, I think." Helen laughed with her.

"I think the exercise is good for you. You certainly are starting to look like you're losing weight."

"I'm not, but it's nice of you to say so."

"You're blind, then, that's all I can say."

"It's alright for you, look at you, you're thin as a rake."

"I'm too thin. When I'm not in training, I'm about a stone heavier and it suits me more."

"You look alright to me." Helen said shyly.

"Well, I don't know about you, but I'm starving. Fancy grabbing a bite?"

"What do you have in mind?"

"Well, I could murder a pizza, but it's pasta for me tonight. Would you like to join me?"

"Are you cooking?"

"Yes. Nothing spectacular, I'm afraid, just carbonara."

"It sounds good to me."

"OK then, let's get changed and get going, or I'll be ready to eat Barney."

"Oi, leave my beautiful boy alone."

"I think somebody's found a new love." Helen watched as Nikki easily levered herself out of the pool, the muscles smoothly moving under the skin. It reminded Helen of the play of muscles under Barney's skin as he moved, graceful and strong.

"He's my sort of boy – strong, sweet and a gentleman. But why's he pink?" She asked, wading to the ladder to climb out.

"Pink? He's not pink." Nikki's laughter echoed loudly. "He's a strawberry roan. Look closely at him – there's bay hair mixed with white."

"I thought he looked a bit odd." Helen conceded.

"You haven't been going around telling people I've got a pink horse, have you? I'll never live it down. And neither will you."

Nikki led the way to a shower room and stripped off unconcernedly, not even bothering to pick up a towel. Helen turned away, embarrassed. She was used to sharing changing rooms and seeing colleagues in various states of undress, but something about Nikki made her feel unusually embarrassed.

She wrapped herself in a towel and changed without bothering to shower, ignoring the unpleasant smell of chlorine clinging to her.

"You'll regret it."

"What?" She turned around. Nikki was standing behind her, now wrapped in a towel.

"Not showering." She walked away and shed the towel. "You're going to stink."

"I'm hungry." She averted her eyes.

"Here's a towel. Have a quick shower, then take that door. It'll bring you out by the kitchen door. I'll see you in ten."

Helen did as she was told as Nikki quickly dressed and left her. She pondered her reaction to Nikki, but couldn't work it out. Today had been a really nice day, and would be the last break she had for a while. She was due in Richmond Park at early tomorrow to have her riding test, then she had to get up to Leeds to report for work at 8am the next morning. After that it was a full shooting schedule for the foreseeable future.

In a way, she wanted to leave the soap, try her hand at other parts, maybe some situation comedy, or take a break, do some writing. It's not like she constantly needed to work, not any more. Her few years stint on the soap had removed the need to worry about money for quite some time, and she hadn't blown it, remembering the lean years she had suffered when she was just out of drama school.

Part 16

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