DISCLAIMER: The characters all belong to Shed; they are not used for profit etc...
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Zen and the Art of Horseriding
By Rooineck


Part 26

"Nikki." She turned around at the sound of her voice, knowing instantly who was talking to her.

"You came then," she replied flatly.

"I had to see you."

"I don't recall saying that I wanted to see you."

"No." A pause. "Do you want me to go?"

"It depends what you came here for."

"Don't be like that."

"Like what? You walk out of my life and now you just choose to walk back in whenever you like? What about me? What about what I want?"

"Do you know what you want?"

"I know a damn sight better than you do, Trish. I wasn't the one who had to go off and 'find myself'." She ran her hand through her hair. "Do you actually want something, other than to distract me completely during an event? Because I'm kinda busy right now. How did you get back here anyway?"

"I'm still listed as one of your coaches."

"An oversight I'll have to correct at the first opportunity," Nikki said dryly, turning away.

"Why is Helen Stewart on the list as one of the people you'll let in to see you?"

"Jealous, Trish? I can let in who I like."

"I just thought you didn't like or trust her, that's all."

"I changed my mind." She shrugged, continuing her warm up, limbering her muscles.

"Nikki…why are you so hostile?"

"Come again?" She stopped moving, unable to believe her ears.

"I mean, you're so distant."

"What do you expect? You're the last person I expected to see here today, and I'm trying to concentrate. I would have thought you'd have had the respect to at least let me finish in peace, whatever you want to say to me afterwards. Go away."

"I'll see you afterwards, we can have dinner together."

"I'm busy for dinner. Leave a message with my answering service and I'll get back to you."

"Who are you having dinner with?"

"Helen." Nikki grasped at the first name to come to mind, trying to push away the fact that it was often in her mind away. She needed to concentrate and all of this was taking her focus away.

"Are you seeing her?"

"She's straight, remember? Going out with your half-brother?"

"She dumped Sean months ago, Nikki." Trish laughed at the look on Nikki's face. "And she didn't tell you? I also heard a rumour that she was playing for both teams these days. Do you care to confirm that?" She leaned into Nikki's space, insinuating her arm around her waist and pulling her close.

"I have no idea, Trish. Why don't you go and ask her? Now piss off and leave me alone." Nikki pushed her away.

"We need to talk Nikki, we have unfinished business."

"As far as I'm concerned, you finished it some time ago. Goodbye." She grabbed her towel and walked away to fetch her number, leaving Trish staring after her. She didn't look back.

As soon as she was out of sight, she ducked into the nearest toilet and sank down onto the seat. She tried to put Trish out of her mind, focussing on the swim ahead of her, thinking of the feel of her body cutting through the water, the tightness of her lungs, concentrating on her breathing pattern.

She walked out for her race, her mind solely back where it needed to be. Until she saw a face she really hadn't expected to see: Helen Stewart. This was all she needed. She sketched a wave and tried to ignore her presence, but it was almost as if she could physically feel it now. She felt her eyes sliding towards the spot where Helen sat as if of their own volition.

She also felt the smile that had appeared on her face. Trish's news that Helen and Sean had split was certainly unexpected, even after what had transpired in Helen's hotel room those few short months ago. She hadn't had much of a chance to read the English papers recently, although she had scanned them for any news of Helen when she had.

In some ways she regretted walking out of Helen's hotel room that night, but on the other hand, her conscience was completely clear. She hadn't taken advantage of Helen's uncertainty, and was glad that Sean was history, but of course, there might be someone else in the picture by now. Though according to Trish, it could be anyone of either sex. She had wondered at the time whether Helen had meant what she was saying or was just playing games. It seemed as though she was being honest with her after all.

Did it really matter though? Was she going to do anything with this knowledge? Did she even want to?

She sat on her seat, her goggles tight around her head, flinging her arms around, staring down the lane, her mind back in it's pre-race pattern, visualising herself launching herself off the block, swimming strongly, how she would execute the turns. She shut her eyes as she raced in her imagination. She could hear her breathing in her ears, the surrounding noises not penetrating her consciousness. She felt her body stroking through the water and saw herself touching the final wall, raising her head and breathing deeply, opening her eyes to see the time and looking into Helen's eyes after Helen's kiss…

She shook her head. This was not good. Between the two of them, Helen and Trish had distracted her attention and she had to try and find a way to put them both out of her mind if she was to have any chance at all of getting in the top five at this event. Anything lower would mean she would be out of the running for the World Championships in a few weeks time.

She had worked so hard for this, and after the last three months, she was determined not to bottle it now.

She opened her eyes and looked down the lane again, forcing all thought out of her mind and letting her body just react. She heard her name announced as if from miles away and stood and waved without even seeing or hearing the crowd. She removed her t-shirt as the announcer worked down the line, all the time looking at the pool, determined not to look anywhere else until she had finished.

She stood on her blocks, the familiar routine of the start calming her, forcing her to focus on the race ahead. As she heard the gun, her body took over and the next thing she was aware of was holding onto the wall and taking off her goggles, staring around her as if waking up from a dream.

She felt her eyes drawn to Helen and saw her applauding, Trish seated a few rows behind her, also applauding, but scowling. She frowned; she did not need this complication in her life, especially not now.

She levered herself out of the pool and made her way back to the changing room, feeling tired already. She had the fencing next, her weakest discipline. As she stripped off, she fought to keep from thinking about how the evening would pan out. She was quite please with her swim, getting very close to her personal best, a best that had put her in the fastest heat of the swimming, and she was now lying in eighth place, one of her best ever placings after two events. The shooting had gone well for her, and she hadn't missed many. It was a blessing that Trish and Helen had waited so long to show themselves, really, she thought as she caught her hand shaking as she gathered her belongings together to move to the fencing hall.

Part 27

Helen studied Nikki carefully. She looked strained as she came out for the fencing, frowning and pensive.

She had thought that Nikki had seen her when she came out for the swimming, because she had smiled, rather like the way she had smiled when Helen had told her she fancied her – soft, genuine and very surprised. But afterwards, when she had turned to leave, she had caught a glimpse of Trisha and now didn't know what to think.

If Nikki had been smiling at Trisha, did that mean that they were together again? Or had Nikki been smiling at her? She had seemed very distracted for a few moments, as if not concentrating fully on the day before her.

She couldn't help admiring Nikki as she stood, mask in hand, swishing her epee lightly and checking the electronic contacts. She was quite tall, and the white added elegance. She had seen her fence before and so settled down to watch the other bouts.

The women fought swiftly and soon Nikki was stepping onto the piste in front of her. During one of their chats she had explained fencing to Helen, at least, in the context of the modern pentathlon.

The bout was swiftly over, the other woman recording a hit on Nikki. Helen could see Nikki's frustration in the line of her body, the shoulders not quite as set as they had been. She moved to the side and practised her lunges, very much as Helen had seen her do before.

She felt a presence beside her, and looked around, half-expecting to see Trish. She was gratified to find herself staring into Antoine's deep brown eyes.

"Allo, bella." He lifted her hand to his lips, making her laugh.

"Hello Antoine. How are you?"

"I am much better for seeing you. Nikki say she has not seen you for a long time."

"No, we've both been busy." She wondered what else Nikki had said about her.

"Yes, she say that too. I think she no too happy, eh? She fence ver' badly just now." He turned to look at his pupil, once again on the piste.

This time she won, much to Antoine's delight.

"I tell her just now, you must fight as if each fight is worth more than the points. Imagine you are fighting for your life. It seems she listen sometimes." He smiled broadly.

"Maybe every time she gets a hit she is killing you," Helen suggested.

"Maybe, although I think not." He nodded off to their left and Helen saw Trish.

"She hates Trish?"

"No. I do not know. Maybe. She never talks of her to me. To you, perhaps?"

"No," Helen said. "She's never really talked much about her to me." She was dying to ask Antoine about Nikki and Trish, and if she had ever mentioned her.

"Maybe it is you? She always says that your riding could drive her to drink."

"I think it's more likely to be you, Antoine. I think she dreams of driving her blade through you."


"I think she wants to win, somehow." Nikki had suddenly caught alight. She had dispatched another five opponents while they had been talking, although she had also been defeated again.

"This is the first time I have seen her fight like this. It is the first time you have been to see her. She goes fast because she wants to talk to you, perhaps?"

"I doubt it, Antoine," she demurred, despite wishing that it might be true. "More like she wants a rest before the jumping starts. Maybe she wants to see her horse."

"No, she only gets to know which horse 20 minutes before the first ride starts. She wants to rest, I think. But she is not usually this intense. I think it is because it is her first real competition for a while. She is scared she will not be good, and she fight harder. It give her an edge."

Nikki checked her scorecard. So far, out of thirty-two, she had fenced twenty-nine and had beaten twenty-two, giving her a good score so far. Normally she was lucky to walk out with an average thousand points. She wasn't sure, but thought it might be a personal best score in the fencing for her.

She felt pretty chuffed with herself, although she wasn't relaxing just yet. She had to fight the best fencer in the competition yet, as well as some ranked higher than her. She had noticed Helen and Antoine in the stands, talking animatedly, and also Trish, sitting elsewhere, biting her nails, as she had always done when she was nervous.

She had managed to carry her concentration forward, but it was hard. Once she was riding, she had to concentrate on walking the course and getting to know her horse for twenty minutes, including trying the practice jumps. That would take her mind off what was happening around her, which was good; she didn't think she could stand being emotionally wound up this tight for the rest of the day without that respite.

Horses had always made her forget herself, and what was going on around her. She had tried to instil that in everyone she had taught to ride, and had been gratified to see that Helen had been starting to get that instinctive rapport that made the difference between riding for a reason and riding for pleasure's sake alone.

She wasn't too worried about the jumping, more about the personality of the horse. Once, as a junior, she had been given a monster that hated water, and had ended up sitting in the middle of the water jump. Once it had had a taste of freedom, the horse had refused to be caught again and she had run out of time.

She heard herself called and donned her mask once more, taking deep breaths to relax herself and try and fight the tension she felt from the adrenalin coursing through her veins.

As she went en garde, her hand trembled slightly, and she took another deep breath. As she heard the shouted "Fence" from the referee she felt her blade beaten and smartly stepped back, watching her opponent lunge at her. Again she retreated, leaving her guard slightly open, hoping to entice an attempt at a hit so she could reposte and make her own winning thrust.

An unexpected stab at her legs made her jump and she sidestepped a charge from her opponent, just managing to get her weapon in a scoring position, pushing it into the woman opposite. "Halt."

"Yes!" She knew her fencing had never been this good, and she turned to scan the crowd, her gaze stopping on Antoine, sitting in the crowd with Helen. She bowed to him, then, doffing her mask, bowed again to Helen and went to sit down.

Two to go. She had very few illusions about who she had yet to face, including the current event leader. She tried to do some mental calculations to see what position she would be in if she lost them all, but gave it up as a bad job. She didn't have enough fingers to work it out on. All she had to do was try.

She drank water, trying to work out whether Antoine was bothering Helen, or if Helen was bothering Antoine. She had been surprised to see them together, although she had a surreal feeling about the day. She wouldn't be surprised to see Barney waiting for her at the jumping, the way she felt at the moment.

Trish was nowhere to be seen, for which she was thankful. She'd already told the organisers that she wanted her ex-lover to be taken off the list of people who had access to her during a competition and felt more comfortable as a result.

She fought her remaining bouts, her concentration fraying a little. She managed to beat one girl, but as she'd already been beaten twenty-six times, felt very little pride in it, but lost the other bout and checked the scoreboard to see that she had moved up to fifth place.

She needed a good round in the jumping to give herself any sort of chance in the running. After she changed from her jacket and fencing breeches into a sweatshirt and shorts, she went in search of Antoine while she waited for the remaining bouts to finish. She was uncertain of her real motive for seeking him out, not quite certain if her real motive hadn't last been seen talking to him. She shook her head. She always talked to Antoine after a competition if he was present. It was nothing unusual, and she shouldn't read too much into it.

"It was a personal best. She should be ver' 'appy. You bring Nikki luck, no?" She climbed over the barrier and came up behind Antoine rhapsodising about her. She didn't quite like the connections he was making, either.


"Nikki, zat was excellente, I am so proud of you." He turned and kissed Nikki on both cheeks, almost pulling her off balance with his enthusiasm.

"Steady on, it's not over yet." She pulled away, embarrassed by his show of affection and looked into Helen's equally embarrassed eyes. "Helen."

"Nikki." Their shared look was interrupted by Antoine breaking in, telling Nikki where she had let herself down. She allowed herself to be talked at, not really taking her eyes from Helen's. She made a face or two, just to test the water and was pleased when Helen smiled back at her.

"Look, Antoine, can we discuss it later? I need to talk to Helen for a minute," she finally broke in, knowing that time was short.

"But of course. Why you no say so sooner? I knew there was a reason she is 'ere." He winked at Nikki and put his finger into his cheek in the Italian gesture for 'delicious' before indicating Helen, the gesture bringing a hot blush to Nikki's already coloured face.

He sauntered away, leaving Nikki looking down at the floor, uncertain exactly how to begin, but smiling at the thought that Helen was there. Their bodies were almost touching in the confinement of the row of seats, and she could feel the warmth of Helen's body.

There were several things she wanted to tell Helen, like to watch the riding from the athlete's stand, to be free for dinner that night, that she was glad to see her. She hoped that Helen had been able to read at least that from her face whilst Antoine was talking.

"Nikki, there you are. Come on, you need to get ready for the riding."

She looked up. Helen was no longer smiling, but looked sad and stricken. She gave a sort of half smile, muttered 'excuse me' and was gone before Nikki could react to Trish's voice at her shoulder or shake off the hand possessively gripping her arm.

"Come on." Trish pulled her, unresisting, out of the hall and into an office. "Are you out of your mind? Helen is just going to distract you. Leave her alone until the end of the competition."

"I wasn't doing anything!" Nikki shouted, stung. "Anyway, if anything's going to distract me, it's you muscling in on my business. Just where do you get off, interfering like that?"

"I'm trying to keep your mind on the job, Nikki. You'll thank me for it if it gets you a medal here."

"Just what have I got to thank you for, Trish? I helped you when you were low, taking you on as my coach. When you couldn't face going back to Terry, I let you keep me out of international and domestic competition for two years. You left me three months before my first international competition, after you encouraged me to go for it, so I lost my lover and my coach in one, then you turn up during that competition just when I thought I was never going to see you again. Thanks. Now let me go." She stood up, just as Trish moved to stand in front of the door. "Now what?"

"You're not really in the mood to be going to meet a new horse, Nik. You need to calm down."

"I was perfectly calm until you stuck your nose in. I don't know what your game is, but I have no desire to play, Trish."

"I am not playing games. You told me you weren't going to compete until we were both ready for it. You told me we should stay friends. If I remember right, you begged me not to leave you and told me you would always love me."

"I lied Trish. I was ready to compete long before you were. I'd have thought you might have noticed that, being a coach. I was in love with you and you rejected me. I'd have said anything to keep you, but it didn't work."

"So you didn't mean what you said then?" Trish asked sadly.

"Of course I did! I would have walked through fire for you. You know that."

"But not now?"

"I don't know any more. You left me!"

"And you've met someone else?"

"No, yes" Nikki said, drawing out the word, thinking of Helen. "I might have."

"Helen Stewart? I don't think so, Nikki. She's trouble, a media junkie. She'll drag you down."

"And you won't? I could have been at the last World Championships if it hadn't been for you. I lost two competitive years because of you."

"Nikki, you were good, now you are much stronger and fitter, admit it. OK, I was selfish and denied you competition, but I have helped you become better in all the disciplines."

"Trish, you did what you had to do, and I loved you, so I went along with it. Yes, I'm a better athlete now, but it's over. What was between us has gone, regardless of whether you or I want anybody else. Right now, all I want is to get to New Zealand with a good result from here behind me. I don't want or need you, in any capacity right now. You're too much of a head fuck."


"I don't know if you want me or not. All I know is you should leave me be. I don't need this, and you know it." She pushed Trish gently, expecting her to stand firm, but when she allowed herself to be moved, opened the door.

She ran back to find Helen, but she had vanished. Antoine hadn't seen her, and she had to move on to the next event. She slumped in the bus that took her to the outdoor arena where the show jumping would be held, staring out of the window, hoping to see Helen and trying to work out Trish's behaviour.

Changed, smart in her stock and breeches, she brushed her jacket absently, uncaring that there was no dust on it. The draw for horses would be held in a few minutes, and on this would hang the handicapping that would dictate the starting places for the final discipline, the three kilometre run.

She donned her jacket and went out with a heavy heart, trying to remember all that she had ever learnt about making friends with horses. She never usually worried about this aspect of the competition, she was good with horses, they trusted her and she trusted them. They were certainly less complicated than human beings. But there was always the horse that hated jumping…

Part 28

Helen sat at the back of the stands, a baseball cap covering her distinctive hair and sunglasses hiding her eyes. She wasn't going to take any chances that Nikki would recognise her again.

She couldn't believe she had left herself so open. Nikki was obviously involved with Trish again and she couldn't believe how much that knowledge hurt. Her conversation with Antoine had suggested that Nikki was anti-Trish, but now here she was, running Nikki's life.

She was confused at Nikki's obvious enthusiasm at seeing her. The way she had smiled at Helen, and the way she had chased Antoine off had indicated that she wanted Helen around, but the way she had allowed Trish to order her about told a whole different story.

"What are you up to?" She whispered aloud as she saw Nikki cantering into the ring about eight competitors from the end. She sat very proud on a horse, upright, with her shoulders back and her legs never seeming to move. Helen always felt very clumsy when riding with Nikki, flopping around besides her.

As Nikki reached the centre of the ring and bowed, she could see her scanning the crowd. Searching for Trish, or her? She wasn't looking at the athlete's section, which was to Helen's right, but as she followed the direction of Nikki's gaze, she saw it pass over Trish and keep moving.

What was Trish doing over there? Surely she should be in the athlete's stand? She felt her heart jump a little in her chest as Nikki's searching gaze continued over her, then disappointment as it carried on. She hadn't recognised her.

The buzzer sounded and Nikki was off, circling slowly as she headed for the first jump. The whole arena was silent as she cleared it, already looking around for the next one.

Helen crossed her fingers and held her thumbs as Nikki rode, willing her on to a clear round. She held her breath as she jumped. She could see Nikki patiently urging the horse on, but could also see that this horse was slow, and that Nikki was pushing it on as fast as she dared.

She almost shouted when the horse's hind leg caught the last part of the triple and it rocked for an agonising age, before toppling gently to the sawdust, but as Nikki urged the horse on past the finishing line, she was with her for every step.

As Nikki came out of the ring, Helen decided to try and see her one last time. Nikki had seemed to keen to talk to her and from the way she had behaved, she doubted it was just to give her the brush off.

She saw Trish move as she did and fell in behind her, hanging around a hot dog stand while Trish tried to get into the athlete's entrance, but was knocked back. Helen watched as she hung around outside, puzzled as to why she hadn't been let in and trying to make herself as unobtrusive as possible as they both waited for Nikki to emerge.

Helen was intrigued to see that Trish seemed to be very nervous, constantly moving, chewing her nails restlessly. She had no idea what was going on, but was beginning to feel better about hanging around.

Eventually Nikki appeared, flanked by Antoine and a woman Helen didn't know, a shadowier version of Nikki – like an incomplete carbon copy. She watched as Nikki kissed Antoine, her jealously mounting as she hugged the woman, almost as tall as her, and whispered in her ear, making the interloper laugh.


For a moment Helen wondered if she had been she who had shouted so loudly, then realised that it was Trish. Nikki stopped and turned and Helen was gratified to see that she was frowning. Trish went up to Nikki, and Helen tried to understand the pantomime of their body language.

Nikki didn't seem as pleased to see Trish as Trish was her. She took off her glasses to see better. Trish grasped Nikki's arm and seemed to be pleading, her hand spread open in supplication before her. Nikki was resisting whatever Trish was saying, trying not to look at her and pulling away, clearly embarrassed.

Antoine and Nikki's mystery friend were close by, but not interfering, although her female companion seemed to be being held back by Antoine, Helen noticed with a stab of envy. The woman was quite close emotionally to Nikki, it seemed, if she wanted to get involved. Maybe that was the problem. Nikki had moved on since Trish and Trish was unhappy about it.

Nikki looked up, straight at Helen and a flash of recognition washed over her face. As she detached herself from Trish and moved in her direction, Helen took off through the crowds. She did not want Nikki to think she was stalking her, which would make for an unusual headline – 'Celeb stalks ordinary person' – although Nikki was anything but ordinary.

Part 29

Seeing Helen's face, Nikki pushed Trish away and gave chase, pushing her way through the crowds, seeking the elusive Helen Stewart. After a few minutes, she had to give up because there were too many people around. Maybe it had been a figment of her imagination. Had she seen Helen because she wanted to see Helen?

She certainly didn't want to see Trish again and hoped that by now Antoine and Sarah had managed to remove her so that she could get to the running course in peace. One more event to get through, then she could turn her attention to the tattered remnants of her private life, at least for a couple of weeks, before the World Championships.

She needed a good score here to make up for her years of not competing. She could feel that her edge had slipped, and this whole Trish/Helen fiasco was blunting it further.

She took a roundabout route back to the bus, scanning the crowds for another glimpse of Helen, and peered around the corner of the bus, catching Antoine's eye. Trish was standing with Sarah, facing away from Nikki, watching the crowd, presumably looking for Nikki.

She scooted onto the bus while they were looking away, sliding down into a seat on the other side, so they wouldn't see her. She sent a quick text to Antoine, telling him to look for Helen. She needed to see her, wanted to see her.

At the final changing room of the day, she checked her kit carefully, examining her shoes minutely for any weaknesses. She knew that the only weakness was her fragile concentration and used every technique ever taught her to blank out the rest of the world, wanting only to get into 'the zone' and stay there.

'I can do this, I can do this' she repeated under her breath as she changed, pinning her number carefully to her shirt. She followed the routine she had followed countless times before, feeling it's familiarity sooth her as she tried to keep her heartbeat low. The time for adrenaline would come all too soon, and she could already feel the familiar harbinger in her body, the tightness across her chest, the heightened awareness of the sounds around her.

The changing room felt stifling and she went out to find a quiet spot for a few moments. She had twenty minutes left before this last massive effort, and she needed a good run. She had had time penalties as well as the knocked down fence in the jumping and had slipped to eighth. She was a good runner with a very strong sprint finish, and she knew if she could tuck herself in behind the front runners, she had a good chance of overtaking some of them in the last three hundred metres.

She stretched, feeling her body move fluidly and concentrated on physically feeling each movement, absorbed by how her muscles were moving, hypnotising herself into her 'running mind' as she called it.

She allowed herself to feel the ambient temperature, the sensation of dapples of sunlight warming her skin, and the texture and firmness of the ground beneath her shoes. The going was reasonable, not too muddy and heavy. She should do well on such a course, especially as there were few steep inclines to surmount.

She stood at the start box, watching her competitors blankly, trying to analyse how they were feeling from the way they moved, and feeling her body react with a burst of adrenaline every time she heard the starter call someone, ask them to take their mark, to 'get set', then the pop of the gun. She closed her eyes and felt it in her own body each time. Then she was being called.

She stood, head down, poised for the gun on the starting line – returning to her time-worn joke of 'assuming the position' as the starter called for her to take her mark. With the handicap system based on points earned in the competition so far, she was starting eighth and in order to come higher up the placings, she needed to overtake the women who had already started.

The gun cracked and she was off. She had to catch up with the front-runners and run faster than the running specialists behind her. She knew that the next runner was only a few seconds behind her and would overhaul her in a moment, given half a chance. She was determined not to give that chance.

She put her head down and dug deep, looking for the easiest route, knowing that going so early would mean she avoided the worst of the mud on the first circuit of the three she had to do.

As she rounded the corner that would lead to the finish at the end of the third circuit, she could see three runners in front and put on a spurt, trying to get right behind them and maybe threaten their strategies a little. Antoine and Trish had always advised her to try and crowd the athletes in front, because it was possible to spook them out of their game plan and then overtake them towards the end of the race.

She deliberately increased the volume of her breathing to try and make the woman in front feel more secure so that she was better placed to take her by surprise when she did move to overtake and glanced around. There was no one immediately behind her at the moment, although there was a runner about forty metres behind. They rounded a corner and lost sight of the chaser. The incline sloped up and Nikki poured on a burst to overtake her nearest rival, relying on the fact that she wouldn't be expecting it, and would follow for a while, taking some of her reserves.

It worked and she charged down the incline in seventh place, rapidly overhauling the fifth and sixth placed athletes, using the slope and her long legs to her advantage. Two more laps to go, and she had to hold onto her place.

She stayed where she was, gradually getting closer and closer to the leading group, which by now was bunched up quite nicely. She felt full of running, the best she had felt for a long time, buoyant and light, ready to attack from halfway through the final lap.

She gained cautiously, anxious not to show her hand too soon, knowing that she didn't have the stamina for a long sprint in. She had to be less than fifty metres behind at the five hundred metre mark if she were to have a chance. She expected to be overtaking at least one of the runners ahead of her, a swimming specialist who was invariably in the top three at the start of the running, but who couldn't run very well at all and depended on the handicap to give her a good placing, if not outright victory.

She didn't think that she would overtake the Australian at the front, running on home soil and responding to the cheers of the crowd, but she thought she might have a damn good shot at a medal and had no intention of letting that chance slip.

She gained a little ground on the hill again, more on the downhill than the draining uphill, and kicked off it knowing that she had barely five hundred metres left. She had to start winding up now if she was to be able to kick off the last three hundred metres and sprint for home.

She upped her pace just as the front three of the leading group upped theirs. She overtook the fourth placed runner and gave chase to the leading group. She glanced behind her to see that she herself was being pursued.

Part 30

Nikki looked to be in trouble as she turned into the final straight, running up a slight incline for the final two hundred metres. She was running very fast, getting closer and closer to the girl in third place, but it looked like she had left her attack until too late.

Helen watched anxiously as they both seemed to be running through treacle to get to her, her actor's eye seeing the scene as it would be in a film, head on; the dash for the tape, in slow motion, the cheers of the crowd barely audible at first, building to a crescendo in her ears as Nikki crept up on her opponent, both running flat out, heads lolling from side to side, showing their exhaustion as they raced for the finish line.

Of course, in Helen's mental movie, it would have ended differently, them both contesting for a gold medal in the Olympics, or something similar, and Nikki certainly winning, but whereas art imitates life, today life wasn't imitating art.

Nikki collapsed in a heap about five metres beyond the finish line, gulping in great breaths of air, her face covered in mud and contorted in pain as she contemplated coming outside the medals.

Helen watched as she eventually got to her feet to congratulate the others, her face belying her words, her mouth pursed with anger. Her eyes burning, intense and inward looking. She looked like a wild animal, purely physical, her presence dominating the scene as far as Helen was concerned.

Helen's heart went out to her, making so much effort and yet not achieving the placing she wanted, had worked so hard for. To her, fourth seemed pretty good, given the level of the competition, yet she could see from Nikki's face that it wasn't enough, would never be enough.

She knew that one day she'd use the expressions she was seeing now, the exhilaration of the face and stance of the victor, standing broad and proud, arms in the air; the various looks of relief at the event being over and upset on the faces following her over the line, the slumped shoulders, the heads hanging down; and she took them all in perfunctorily as she kept her eyes focussed on Nikki, now walking around, warming down, her head thrust out in front of her, her eyes wandering back over the course, obviously rehearsing how she would have done it differently, if she were ever to have this day back again.

She stopped and slumped to her haunches, her head dropping and she looked defeated, lost. Helen was reminded of the time she had seen Nikki crying in the indoor school at home Farm. She had seemed reduced in size then, smaller than life somehow, as she did now.

She ached to go to her, hold her, as she had when she had seen her at the cross-country championships. She gave herself a mental shake. This was a woman about whom she knew practically nothing, a woman whom she disliked, for the most part, who had the power to reduce her to tears in the privacy of her own soul.

She was a woman about whom she thought constantly, whose endeavours today had had Helen reaching into her soul for every reaction, the euphoria of the excellent fencing result, to the gut-wrenching climax to the competition.

She stood as Nikki vanished from her sight and left the bleachers, wandering aimlessly, trying to work out what she should do next. She wanted to go to Nikki, make her world right, but knew that she was not what Nikki needed, not at this moment.

"Shit." Helen was roused from her reverie as a woman walked into her, pushing her over.

"I'm most terribly sorry. Are you all right?" She recognised the woman as Nikki's earlier companion and turned up the level of agony a little.


"Oh my God, you're hurt. Come over here and let's have a look at you." She was picked up and manhandled out of the crowds to a quiet corner and felt soft hands run over her jeans. "Do you want me to get some ice?"

"No, its just shock, I think." The hands made her think of Nikki again, wondering what relationship these hands had with her.

"Are you sure?" She looked into Cambridge blue eyes, shockingly pale against the darkness of the hair and olive skin, regarding her seriously.

"I'm fine thanks." She watched the familiar pattern of half recognition and sought to extricate herself quickly. She couldn't afford to have Nikki knowing that she was still hanging around; it was far too embarrassing.

"Aren't you…?"

"No, but I get mistaken for her all the time." She tried to stand and go, but the hands were still on her thighs, pressing her down, keeping her immobile.

"I bet you do if you insist on wearing dark glasses all the time."

"It is sunny and half the spectators are wearing glasses. Please, I'm not who you think I am, and I'm fine, so why don't you let me go," she half-pleaded.

"And just who do I think you are?" The tone was as light and amused as Nikki's when she criticized her seat on a horse. It was familiar enough to tug at her, but coming from this stranger, it felt presumptuous.

"Does it matter?" Helen snapped.

"Touchy, aren't we? Not used to mixing with the hoi polloi?" She sounded even more like Nikki now, using the same bored drawl that Nikki had used when they had first met. Helen could feel anger at the tone and embarrassment at what the woman thought of her mixing inside her.

She said nothing and felt the hands withdraw from her leaving a coolness as the other woman moved back, her shadow falling across Helen as she stood shielding her from the late afternoon sun.

"Nikki wants to see you, so you'd better come with me." She started to move away, stopping when she saw Helen hadn't moved.

"Are you sure you're not hurt?"

She shook her head, as much to clear it from confusion as to indicate that she was OK. She wasn't OK, not emotionally, at any rate. Nikki wanted to see her. Was this good or bad? What did she want? It was no crime to come to a sporting event. She did it all the time when she was seeing Padraig and then Sean – except of course she had been going out with each of them, and her relationship with Nikki certainly wasn't on that level. Yet. Why did she over analyse everything?

The woman was still standing, her impatience badly hidden as she tapped her foot. She stared at Helen without blinking, looking her up and down and Helen felt her defences bristling. She was just about to say something when the woman pulled out a mobile phone, dialling a number and speaking quickly into it.

She made out "she's still here," and "doesn't look like it". She listened for a moment and said "I'll try" before returning the phone to her pocket.

"Come on then."


"I told you, Nikki wants to see you."

"And what Nikki Wade wants, she gets?"

"No, not really. Isn't that more your style?" The barbed reply stung.

"Ouch." Whoever this woman was, Helen had no illusions that she was going to sing her praises to Nikki. Was it jealousy? Over protectiveness? What was their relationship? "What's it to you, anyway?"

"None of my business, I just do what I'm asked. Are you coming, or what?" She was terse, something having changed, the amusement disappearing and replaced with this brisk efficiency.

Tempted to reply "what", Helen bit her lip instead. She really did want to see Nikki, but not to be rejected again.

"I don't think so. I don't want to see her."

"Look, if I don't take you to her, she'll come to you. Your choice."

"Actually, I was just leaving." She walked forward to get past the woman who sidestepped to intercept her. She stepped left and the woman matched her, step for step. "You can't keep me here." She laughed nervously at the ridiculous sight of them moving as if in a formal dance, or a chess match, pacing each other.

"No," the woman agreed, sidestepping again as Helen feinted left. "Just long enough for Nikki to get here."

They stood a pace apart, stalemated, faintly smiling at each other, at the farcical situation they found themselves in.

Part 31

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