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 41

"Helen, what a pleasure to see you. I'm looking forward to our interview." Trish was gracious, but her gaze raked over Helen, surprise evident in her eyes, her smile frozen on her mouth. "That's an interesting choice of dress."

Helen smirked, knowing that the dress accentuated her curves, making her look demure and younger. She had immediately put Trish on the back foot, which, if she was going to try anything, would give Helen the advantage.

"What, this old thing?" She mocked Trish's knowledge of whom the dress really belonged to. "Just something I found in my wardrobe."

She turned to the tray held at her elbow, taking a glass of sparkling water, willing her hand away from the wine, and hoping that no one could see her hand shaking.

When she turned back, Trish was gone, and a girl waited to take her through to make up, chattering away, asking Helen if she had any 'inside guff' on the storylines in the soap. She bore with it patiently, repeating, as she had done, ever since her first interview, that all of her co-stars were exemplary in their behaviour; knowing all the time that she was lying. One had a penchant for under-age teenagers; another had been recently disciplined for arguing on-set with another colleague, not to mention the constant bitching over pay. Her mouth answered mechanically for her as her mind tried to predict the next few hours.

A former Olympic gold-medallist was also being interviewed, as well as an ex-gymnast and a dragon-boat racer. Helen wasn't quite sure what the link to the pentathlon was, but, however tenuous, she was here now, and at least she wasn't on her own with Trish.

"…Thank you for that insight into Hong Kong, Terry. And now here's Helen Stewart, an actress over here for a small part in a film. How are you finding New Zealand, Helen?"

They were off, and Helen's heart accelerated painfully in her chest, the hot studio lights beating down on her. Trish's first dig wasn't entirely unexpected; she did have a very small part, but Jane Campion was an accomplished director and she had no doubts over her professional ability.

"It's a lovely country, Trish. Beautiful. I haven't had a chance to see much on this trip so far, but I was here when I was younger, and I loved it."

"So what are you working on now, then, Helen?"

"I'm playing a small part in a Jane Campion film, an adaptation of Rose Tremain's book "The Colour"."

"Not the main part?" She was deliberately trying to provoke Helen, she was sure, or was she just that ignorant? She obviously had no idea what Helen was talking about.

"No, I wasn't offered Harriet, and to be honest, I don't think I would do her justice." She left it at that, wondering if Trish would chase it.

"Why's that? I thought that you actor's could play any part?"

The gloves were off now, and Helen could see the floor manager flipping anxiously through his notes, looking for Trish's last question.

"We are trained to be able to interpret a character. I certainly didn't understand all the motivations behind Harriet, and I think that Jen," she mentioned her colleague's name casually, making it quite clear that they knew each other well, "will do a wonderful job."

"So you are trained then?" Even the ex-gymnast winced.

"Yes, I studied at RADA."

"Weren't you nearly expelled from there?"

"I was offered a wonderful part, but the rules at the time required that I had permission to accept. I … didn't quite obey the rules, but it was all sorted out satisfactorily." She refused to let this woman faze her. But she knew what was coming next, and knew that somehow, a tape of the full interview would find its way to Nikki.

"It was after that that you developed your drink problem, wasn't it?"

At least she had read Helen's file, even if she obviously hadn't read it up to the present.

"Yes." She replied, candidly. It had always been a taboo subject in interviews before, and Helen had even walked out when a breakfast TV presenter had tried to push her too hard. The floor manager was now standing, mouth agape, unsure whether to stop the interview, or make the segment longer.

"It was a tough time for me; too much, too young, you might say." She arranged herself more comfortably in the chair, unexpectedly starting to enjoy herself. She knew that this was in part due to Nikki, whose horse charm she was gripping in her hand, but also she felt an unexpected aura of freedom cut through the miasma of her life and other people's expectations, setting her at liberty.

"I lost control of myself, and I was taken in by the glamour of it all. It was all I ever wanted, and I thought it was real. I know so much better now of course; entertainment and the media is a very fake world." She opened up in public for the first time in her life, despite the voice of caution that told her this would be all over the papers at home tomorrow. She'd have to ring her parents and warn them later.

"You received critical acclaim for those first roles, but the public never really warmed to you, did they?"

"On the contrary, they've always responded very positively to me professionally. When my character was raped recently, I received so much support." She paused, briefly, looking directly into Trish's eyes, until she glanced away uncomfortably.

"Of course, my personal life hasn't been exemplary and I am the first to admit it." She held up her hands and smiled self-deprecatingly.

"No. It does rather read like a who's who of celebrity, really doesn't it?" Trish was trying to recover, unsure how to proceed in the face of Helen's candidness.

"I was promiscuous – what eighteen year old isn't?" Even as she said it, Helen realised that she had made a mistake.

"Except that it didn't stop at eighteen, did it?" Trish reminded her, a glint of triumph in her eyes.

"No, but I was young, free and single. So was everyone I was involved with."

"Was?" Trish pounced on her like a cat on unsuspecting prey.

"I've recently met someone," she conceded. "But I am not going to talk about that tonight."

"Someone special?" She just smiled, refusing to be drawn. There were niceties to be observed, and she knew that Trish couldn't press her too hard. "So who is sh…?" It was artfully done; Trish just 'managed' to catch herself at the vital moment, having successfully outed her to the world at large. Helen was stunned into silence

"You came out of rehab less than three months ago. That has to have affected your marketability?" Trish continued blithely, as if unaware of her 'slip'.

Ouch, thought Helen. If prospective employers didn't know already, they soon would. Trish was deliberately trying to wreck her career. Well, being outed hadn't ruined Will Young, Amanda Barrie or Pam St Clemence, although it hadn't done much for Stephen Gately. She would just have to weather it as best she could. She couldn't talk to Nikki about it, not now. It would be too distracting for her. After the competition would have to do.

"Yes. I'd had enough and wanted to clean up my act. None of us are getting any younger Trish, as you know." That should shut her up.

"Well, we all have a shelf life. For some of us it's when our popularity wanes, when the public no longer finds us interesting." She had recovered quicker than Helen had expected.

"On the other hand, as long as we can still work, doing what we enjoy, and getting paid for it, then we can be happy, can't we?" Trish looked for a second as if she had been slapped, and Helen felt pity for her in that second; Trish was hurting, unable to do what she wanted, her sport, and this wasn't much of a substitute. Then her face hardened and Helen remembered that she had just been effectively outed, and her pity faded.

The floor manager started to make frantic 'winding up' signals with his hands, and Trish was forced to turn to the ex-gymnast, giggling nervously as she picked up on the tension.

"Now, Annie, rumour has it that you…"

Helen tuned out, not really caring what 'Annie' had been getting up to. As the recording came to an end, she tried to picture what, if any, the effects that the interview would have on her life.

There would certainly be a lot of interest over her love life; that always fascinated the tabloids – who was seeing who, or, even better, was having an affair with who. If they got wind that Helen was seeing a woman, it could have major consequences, even in this day and age. More to the point, Nikki wouldn't like the attention, and if they did split, it would be news all over again.

For the time being, maybe she should out Trish, point out that as a lesbian, she automatically used the word? It might work, but it might not be so much fun for Trish, now that she was part of the world of entertainment. She smiled, rather viciously. It would be quite suitable revenge for the set-up she had just undergone.

"So, if you're seeing someone, I take it there's no chance of a date?" It was the dragon-boat racer, at her shoulder in the green room, as he grabbed two sandwiches to stuff in his mouth.

"I'm afraid not, Terry. I'm very much spoken for." She smiled at him, amazed that he didn't appear to have noticed Trish's almost comment. Maybe she was doing paranoid.

"So, you've decided to join the sisterhood, have you, Helen?" The Olympian, and ex-swimmer and now also a commentator slapped her heartily on the shoulder, her hand staying there a little too long before sling down Helen's back a little too far.

"Liz, I don't think you should believe everything you hear in interviews." Helen stepped away from her to grab a glass of wine, sighing and putting it back quickly. She did want a drink, but she didn't need it, and couldn't afford what it would do to her. Twelve steps? They were more like bloody mountains sometimes.

Nikki's face rose up in front of her briefly, and her resolve stiffened. She took a glass of mineral water, and helped herself to some nice chocolate fancies. There was nothing to say that she couldn't have chocolate, although, as she had already been measured for her costume, she couldn't have too much of it.

"Ladies, having fun are we?" Trish was amongst them, buoyant and annoyingly bouncy. She held Helen's scornful glance, smiling back at her, saccharine sweet, and just as false.

"It's been great, Trish." Liz smiled back, taking in Helen with a long glance, raking her from top to bottom. Helen had met men that hadn't mentally undressed her so expertly. "We were just getting acquainted."

"Yes, but Helen's just ruined my life by telling me she's not single," Terry joined in, rescuing Helen from she wasn't sure what.

"I'm sure you'll survive Terry. By the way, Trish is single now." She told him, all the while watching Liz, whose gaze shifted rapidly to Nikki's ex. Result! Liz leaned over Trish, standing by the table, her body millimetres from Trish and Helen almost laughed out loud as she allowed her body to brush the interviewer's suggestively.

She looked around for a flunkey, suddenly tired and wanting to go back to the hotel and ring Nikki. Not to tell her about tonight, although she might have a few words with Sarah about that; but just to allow Nikki to reassure her that everything was all right.

Her relationship with Sarah was changing, she realised. She needed to confide in somebody, but had no one of her own to do so in. She couldn't talk to Nikki about the way she felt, about what was happening to her, and had latched on to another piece of Nikki.


Part 42

"She's out to get me, Sarah."

"She can't do much."

"It's not going to help Nikki to be linked with me. I've got quite a few skeletons."

"And the rest." Helen was surprised as Sarah laughed. "I've read your cuttings file. It makes pretty good reading."

"It's not going to do me much good."

"In this day and age, Helen, being gay's not such a stigma. You'll survive. Others have."

"I didn't want it to be like this, though. And Nikki's going to hate it, especially if it gets out before Saturday. You have to keep her away from the papers."

"I always vet them first, so don't worry about that. Anyway, it's not as if she cares for them much. She'd rather read a book, or sleep. That woman could sleep for England! And she frequently does."

"How do you cope?"

"With what? Nikki?"

"No, you know."

"Helen, I don't know. Is this twenty questions, or are you going to ask me a proper question?"

"Well, isn't it hard being," she paused delicately. "Gay."

"I don't know. You should ask Nikki."

Helen stopped dead in her tracks. What was all this?

"Nikki thinks everything is easy."

"You'd be surprised, Helen." She certainly was, especially by the dry tone of voice, but she refused to be deflected from her mission.

"Well, is it?"

"Is what?"

"Being gay no great stigma these days."

"Not as far as I'm concerned, it's not."

"How do you do it?"

"Do what?" Helen could hear the sigh at the other end. The conversation was nowhere near as she had imagined it. Sarah was losing patience with her, and no wonder; she probably had more important things to do; Nikki for instance.

"Live life that way."

"I don't, and I don't think my boyfriend would like it if I tried." There was definitely suppressed laughter in Sarah's tone now.

"Your boyfriend?" She repeated, stupidly, feeling as if she had been hit over the head.

"Yes, you know, male partner?" She was being made fun of.

"I am aware of the concept." She replied loftily, aware that she sounded as stupid as she felt. So, Nikki's relationship with Sarah was as pure as the driven snow – or was it? After all, she would have described herself as about 110% straight until fairly recently.

"As I say, you'll have to ask Nikki how it is, living the gay life. I wouldn't know. She seems to find it fairly easy, and I'm sure she'd like to educate you."

"So you and she…"

She was rewarded for her question by gales of laughter as Sarah finally let humour override politeness. She waited, feeling a complete idiot, until Sarah managed to get herself under control again, muttering 'I'm sorry' at her.

"Nikki's not my type, Helen. Yeah, I do go for tall and dark haired, but handsome, and definitely with all the right equipment, if you get me. And I'm certainly not her type."

"And what is that?" Helen asked haughtily.

"Oh, petite Scottish actresses who stalk her halfway across the world."

"Ha bloody ha."

"Helen, she's totally in love with you. She wouldn't even look at me, or anyone else." Helen felt a warm glow spread through her. "Whatever she reads in the paper about you, it will be after the competition, I promise you. But you'd better warn her, first chance you get. She's very private and won't want her business spread all over the Sunday Sport."

"I'm a…" She winced, hating the word. "Celebrity. The world thinks it's got a right to know my business, and they really will if they think I'm seeing a woman. Nikki will have no chance. It's all long lenses and being followed around these days."

"She knows that it's a risk, and believe me, she won't back off, but if Trish lets the cat out of the bag, God only knows what Nikki will do."

"I think Trish might be distracted for a while." The last Helen had seen of Trish, Liz was dragging her, unresisting, into a dark office.

"Really? Did you tie her up and leave her in a broom cupboard?"

"Not quite, but I think one of her colleagues might like to do that?"

"Why? Trouble at t'mill?"

"No, but one randy ex-swimmer has taken quite an interest."

"Not Liz James, was it? I always thought she had the hots for anything in a skirt. I'd have thought you were more her type."

"I think she likes single rather than complicated."

"That'd be about right." They laughed together, and then Helen heard someone else come into the room. A hand was obviously put across the mouthpiece and she heard a muffled conversation, then: "I've got to scarper. Milady wants a word or two with you, then she's going to 'deal' with me for not telling her you were on the phone earlier. Catch ya soon."

"Bye, Sarah, and thanks."

"Thanks for what?" Nikki sounded put out, suspicious, even.

"For listening to me rabbit on. Why aren't you in bed?" She kept her tone light.

"Because I haven't had my goodnight kiss yet."

"Why not?"

"Some damn fool woman was keeping my goodnight kisser from me."

"You'd better ask nicely for it."

"OK, Sarah, Helen says it's OK for you to kiss me goodnight now!"

Helen was surprised at Nikki's forwardness – she knew how much Helen hated being reminded of Sarah's relationship with Nikki. Or was she being punished for talking too long to Sarah? Did Nikki even play those sorts of games? Somehow, she didn't think so.

"I beg your pardon?" She heard her phrase echoed by Sarah in the background.

"Just kidding, honestly."

"You'd better be, Wade. I don't let any masseur go round kissing my woman."

"Your woman? I like the sound of that. Makes you sound all dominant." She could hear the smile in Nikki's voice now, along with odd gagging noises that she guessed must be Sarah.

"How's it gone today?"

"Not too bad. Anton killed me five times, but I killed him back three."

"Just another day at the office?"

"Just a regular day at the office," Nikki agreed. "How was your day?"

"I'm a bit sick of the corsets, but the riding is fantastic. It's going to be just as bad in NZ. Maybe I should try for a Black Beauty revival, after all."

"Try Flambards; I spent half my life in love with Christina. I could never see what she saw in any of the men – I thought horses were for life."

"Then you discovered women?"

"Yeah, and then I realised that with a good woman and a good horse, the world is at your feet."

"I'm so glad you rate them in that order."

They bantered for a while, until Helen heard Nikki yawn.

"Shouldn't you go to bed now? You'll turn into a pumpkin."

"Only if you come with me." She sounded tired, her voice slurring in a way that reminded Helen of their first night together.

"Of course I will, beautiful. Go and get ready, and I'll ring you in ten."


Part 43

Her hands were shaking, the aim quivering in front of her eyes, the target a blur miles away from her. Each time she pulled at the trigger, grabbing at it, the gun kicked in her hands and she knew, her heart sinking, that all of her shots were so far off target she might as well not bother being here.

Her score was one of the lowest competitive scores ever recorded. A new record for the World Championships. Just not the record she had envisaged.

She moved on to the swimming, trying to put it behind her. She couldn't find her lucky costume, though. She threw her belongings from her bag, certain that she had packed it. It wasn't there. All she had was an old costume, one that didn't quite fit properly.

As she waited until she was called, she could feel the cold sweat pricking all over her body and she could smell fear emanating from her, no matter how many times she went under the shower.

This was turning into a brutal disaster. Her costume was cutting right up her behind, and every time she raised her arms, she could feel how tight it was. She tried to concentrate on the swim, envision the water surrounding her body, how she would breathe and turn, but all she was certain of at this moment was that she couldn't swim. She couldn't even remember the requisite movements of her body.

She was called and stood there, shivering, everyone thinking that her frantic movements were her warming up, whilst instead, she was panicking. Her body came to a moment's peace as she stood on her block, waiting for the whistle, her body taut.

She leapt, a perfect start, knifing cleanly into the water. She wriggled her body frantically through the water, coming up for air, only to hear the whistle. A false start. She had blown it.

She made her way back to the start and levered herself out of the pool, keeping her head down, not wanting to meet anyone's eyes, especially not Helen, Anton or Sarah. Especially not Trish, and certainly not any of the opposition.

She lined herself up again, forcing her mind to look straight ahead, until her lane was a tunnel and she wasn't aware of anything except the starter's voice as she took her mark, her body folded. She could feel the material of her costume pulling at her, threatening to cut her in half.

She forced herself to wait for the whistle, and got away very slowly; too slowly. There were distances ahead of her that she would never make up, not in a moth of Sundays. The water was an alien environment to her. She swam furiously, her lungs hurting with the effort as she stretched further than she should have, pushing to catch up with the leaders, anxious to get some sort of decent score on the board.

She wasn't last, that was one consolation; and as a good swimmer, being in a fast heat, she hadn't disgraced herself terribly in an event she should have excelled in. It wasn't good enough though, and she knew it.

She swam to the side as quickly as she could, her heart bursting inside her, her face aflame with shame. She managed to hold her head high until she had made it into the changing rooms, fighting to pretend that the water on her face was from the pool, not her tears of frustration.

As she went out for the fencing, her hair barely dry, she once more refused to consider the crowd. Helen and Anton were out there, watching her anxiously and she felt the weight of their expectation, even though she couldn't see them.

She fiddled with her blade, fussily checking and rechecking the connections, the mask, the straps holding her jacket on. The 'begging bowls' that sat in the front of her suit protecting her breasts didn't feel right, as if she had changed shape.

She took her guard for the first bout, arm outstretched and felt adrenaline pulsing through her veins, briefly considered flight, until she heard the shouted command: 'Fight'.

She fought, her legs seemingly belonging to someone else. And her arm, her wrist and even her fingers. She felt the pressure against her side, where the padding of her jacket was thinnest, and looked down, watching her white jacket blossoming crimson, the stain growing larger by the second, the sharp pain following on from her shock.

She put her hand to the stain, convinced that this was all some kind of terrible mistake, a dream, even. But it came away red. She pressed it against her breeches with a feeling that this couldn't possibly be real, but there it was, a red handprint.

She looked up, watching people racing towards her as her legs disappeared from under her, and all she could think of was that she couldn't see her.



Part 44

"Nikki, what's wrong?" Sarah was by her side, instantly.

"I'm hurt. Look, it's bleeding. Where's Helen?"

She grabbed at her shirt, finding, instead of the tight, closely woven cloth, the loose bagginess of a t-shirt. A soaked t-shirt.

"How long have I been here? Why am I still bleeding? Help me, please?" She could feel the heat of tears on her face, the pain in her side excruciating.

"Nikki, Nikki," Sarah soothed her, grasping her face in her hands, forcing Nikki to look at her. "You're fine. It's just a nightmare, I promise."

"No, you don't understand. I've been stabbed. I'm bleeding. Please help me!"

"Nikki, it's fine. Nothing's wrong. I promise you." She was still sitting on the bed, talking to Nikki, holding her face tightly. "Look around, you're in the hotel. You don't compete until tomorrow. I promise."

Nikki darted her eyes around the room, taking in the fact that it had that pre-dawn glow about it. She was in bed, wearing a t-shirt, red and wet. She gripped it with her fingers, releasing it to see that there was no red stain on her fingers.

She grabbed Sarah, running her fingers over her face.

"Are you sure?"

"Nikki, it was just a dream. Don't tell me, you appeared naked to compete?"

"No, it was … different, horrible. I can't explain." She ripped off the t-shirt, running her fingers over her side frantically, checking that she really was OK. Sarah's cough brought her back to herself.

"While Helen might appreciate that, Nikki, I don't." She went to the drawers and pulled out a fresh t-shirt, throwing it to Nikki. "Are you alright?"

"I don't really know. Where's Helen?"

"Somewhere in Australia, sleeping. Nikki, you're fine. You're not bleeding."

"I need Helen. Ring her now."

"At five thirty in the morning?"

"Please?" She couldn't believe how real it had all seemed, even to the stabbing pain in her side. She looked in the bed. The TV remote was lying where her body had been.


"What?" Sarah had whirled away from the phone even before she had got the sibilant of the expletive out of her mouth.

"I feel like a bit of a tit. But Christ, it was so real." She sighed, wiping her forehead with her hand. It came away wet and she suddenly felt freezing. "Why can't I have had an erotic dream?" She grinned, hiding her fear, trying to make Sarah feel more comfortable. That worried look on her face scared Nikki almost as much as the dream.

"Do you wanna talk about it?"

"I was just unbelievably crap. But it was so real, and then, when I went out for my first fencing bout, I got stabbed. It was like something out of the Count of Monte Cristo, blood everywhere."

"And you called for Helen."

"Did I?"

"Nikki, you woke me up screaming her name. I thought for a minute you were having a wet dream." She smiled, trying anything to calm Nikki down.

"I wish. I'd rather that sort than nightmares." She stretched, moving towards the bathroom. "Back in a tick."

"Nikki, Helen's on the phone, wondering what the hell you want at this ungodly hour of the morning, and you'd better have a damn good excuse, because she's not due in the gym for another half hour at least…"

"Did you ring her?" Nikki's disembodied voice sounded through the door.

"Of course, you asked me to."

"Bugger. I'll be there in a sec."

"Nikki? Are you alright?"

"I'm fine."

"And you called me at half five to tell me that?" She sounded slightly displeased, to put it mildly.

"I couldn't sleep for thinking about you?" Nikki tried, knowing that if she weren't careful, Helen would pick up on her fear and insist on being on the next flight.

"Don't bullshit me, Nikki. Are you OK?"

"She had a pretty bad nightmare, Helen, and wanted to check that you were OK." Sarah's voice broke in on their conversation.

"What? It must have been pretty bad. Are you OK, Nikki?" Nikki scowled at Sarah. Sometimes she just got involved when she shouldn't.

"I'm fine, honestly. I just panicked when I woke up, and Sarah did what she was told for once in her life."

"What was it about?"

"Just the usual. Shooting myself in the foot, forgetting how to swim and being killed in the fencing." She tried to make light of it, even as the images rushed back to her again, catching her off guard, making her relive their frightening intensity.

"A normal day at the office, in fact?" She could hear Helen almost smiling, but she still sounded worried.

"Look, I feel a bit if an idiot. I didn't mean to wake you up."

"It's not a problem, Nikki. For you, the world."

"Yeah, but you're working tomorrow. Today, I mean."

"Not until later. And I get up early to go to the gym now, or had you forgotten?"

"Wonder how you got into that?"

"Mmm, I wonder. Look, are you sure you're OK? Is there anything I can do?"

"No, just talking to you is enough."

"Then I'm glad I could help. You know I'm always here for you, whatever, don't you?"

"I know. Thanks. Just…I miss you." She heard veiled gagging noises from Sarah, and then she was gone, locking herself into the bathroom.

"I miss you too, sweetheart."

"You are coming, aren't you?"

"Wild horses couldn't keep me away. You're going to do brilliantly, and if you don't, I'll still love you anyway."

Nikki fell silent, the weight of other people's expectations once more bearing down on her. Still she was her own worse critic.

"I'm sorry, what did you say?" She had just caught the tail end of Helen's last phrase.

"I said…I think you're a star, whatever happens." There was a big pause. Maybe Helen had just said it as a turn of phrase, or being silly. Should she leave it?

"No, seriously, Helen. Please tell me what you said."


"If you don't want to, it doesn't matter. I love you too, Helen. Whatever happens."

Silence. Drawn out, pregnant with so much emotion.

"Be safe Nikki. I'll see you soon."


Part 45

Helen sat on the plane, on her way to Auckland, filming in Australia over. She now had a week in New Zealand, after the competition, filming on the South Island.

She had been thinking about Nikki ever since dawn the previous morning. Nikki had told her that she loved her. No strings, no conditions. No pressure there, then, except that Helen had been unable to screw up the courage to reply in kind, despite the fact that she had said it first.

'I love you.' What on Earth had Nikki meant by that? She had been agonising over it ever since she had said it. For the first time, she had told Nikki how she felt when they were not in the throes of passion. Now it was out in the open, and Nikki knew she hadn't been joking. Neither had Nikki.

She shifted awkwardly in her seat. She had been thinking about Nikki so much that she had fallen off yesterday in filming, and now her bum was sore.

"Would you like a drink?" No thank you. "A paper?" No. She just wanted to be alone, to think of Nikki. She wanted to open her phone and look at her favourite picture of the dark haired woman, grinning at her, sidelit by the beautiful evening sun as they had walked by the banks of the Yarra in Melbourne. But she couldn't.

She put on her headphones, trying to slow down her heartbeat. She had a connection to Wellington, and then Sarah would meet her, as they had scheduled her arrival to coincide with Nikki's evening run. She was going to be smuggled into Nikki's room to share a quiet dinner, although she had been warned off any 'funny business'.

She wasn't necessarily anticipating a warm welcome from Nikki, having not repeated her declaration of love, even when invited to. She had bottled it, in fact. Or then again, Nikki might not want the distraction.

Anton and Sarah had both spent hours trying to convince her to come over earlier than planned, and she had fought them tooth and nail, anxious not to cause any disruption.

Nikki had been quite cool last night – distant and aloof; but whether that was because she had already been getting into competition mode, or because of what had passed between them, she wasn't sure.

She had been loving and sweet, tender, as always, but there had been a gulf between them; one that Helen didn't know how to bridge.

She disembarked, mechanically following the signs, idly considering how much of her working life had been spent in airports. Not as much as she would have liked, she admitted to herself ruefully. She wanted to break America. But then, didn't everyone? LA was full of actor-waiters. She didn't want that.

'The Colour' was a big chance to impress, even though, as Trish had been at great pains to point out, it was only a small part. Still, maybe she could get a part as an extra in one of the millions of series that were forever being shot in New Zealand.

She had backpacked there as a teenager, impressionable and still so very innocent. She remembered the Wellington she had worked in as a nineteen year old, the dodgy pubs; the grubby backpackers hostels, eating cheap food and hitchhiking. She had loved it, found it to be a beautiful place and had been intending to return ever since.

She embarked on another, much smaller plane, doing up her seatbelt and leaning back, trying to ignore the feelings building in her the closer she came to Nikki.

The flight was short, over too quickly and once more she disembarked, collected her luggage and found her way to 'Arrivals'.

Nikki was waiting for her. She held her breath as she watched her from behind, before she turned and the illusion was gone. Sarah saw her and waved, a half-grin welcoming her.

"Hey you. How was it?"

"A bit rough. I don't know what it is about me, but I always end up with a cup of coffee in my lap."

"The Gods obviously don't approve of you flying. I'm the same. Let's get you to the hotel, shall we?"

"Does Nikki know?"

"Not bloody likely – she'd kill me for distracting her."

"Are you sure this is such a good idea?" Helen asked, not particularly caring to get on the wrong side of Nikki.

"Trust me, she needs something tonight to take her mind off this all."

"Did she have another nightmare?"

"Yeah. This time Trish beat her and the first prize was the gold medal and you. And she was pretty gutted she didn't win, let me tell you." Sarah led her at cracking pace to the outside world while Helen fought with the trolley. She'd never mastered these bloody things.

"Does she know about the interview yet?"

"No, and don't you go telling her. The papers at home had a ball with it, and they're all trying to work out who you're shagging."

"I know. It was a nightmare getting away from the hotel. But I'm afraid my name is still on the flight manifest."

"All we need is a few hours start on them, so they can't find you here. You're booked in as 'Janet Leigh', by the way."

"Really? And you and Nikki?"

"Nikki's Meg Rutherford and I'm Christine Hamilton."

"Interesting choice of names."

"Mmm. I had to think up some common enough to be OK, but silly enough to give me something to do."

"So what's Anton?"

"I wanted Lord Lucan, but I thought that might be a bit of a giveaway."

"Not to mention the police turning up looking for a man who's been on the run for thirty odd years."

"Yes, I did think that might be a bit of a problem, so I'm afraid he's just Alec Guinness."

"Nikki's doesn't quite fit, somehow – and neither does yours. I like mine and Anton's though."

"Yes, I thought them rather good. Still, it shouldn't be a problem. No, to be honest, it's only you booked in secretly. Nikki doesn't need that protection yet."

"Not as long as Trish keeps her mouth shut."

"I saw her yesterday. Believe me, she won't be talking with Liz stuck halfway down her throat. Longest game of tonsil hockey I've ever seen."


"Really," Sarah confirmed, as they drew up at the hotel.

"Swish place this," Helen said, looking around the lobby.

"It's alright if your girlfriend's famous and got money, I guess." Sarah's smile took the barb from her comment, and Helen accepted it as teasing, rather than as a slight, hoping that she and Sarah were finally entering a period of entente.

"Nikki's scheduled to work until about seven, so why don' you relax and shower. Here's the spare key to her room."

Helen took the credit card sized piece of plastic.

"Are you sure she'll be ok with this?"

"No, but I think she needs something to make her relax." Helen's eyes widened and Sarah read her mind. "But not like that! Just spend some time with her. Calm her down. I swear, I've never seen her this uptight before. She's ready to explode."


Part 46

Tired, she started stripping off even before the door was fully shut, unmindful of the people passing in the corridor. It had been a really hard day, but tomorrow, there was rest – R&R and plenty of it. Then…well, she didn't even want to think about the day after tomorrow, except that later on, after it was all over, she would be with Helen again.

Not that that would mean much if she didn't do well. She was aware that while she was gracious in public about defeat, as befits a Brit, she hated losing. Always had done, ever since she was a small child. Chess, Snap, Happy Families, dominos, even Snakes and Ladders.

She remembered playing cricket with her older brother, being used for bowler fodder until she had broken the conservatory window with what would have been an excellent six. Then she had picked up tennis quicker than him too. That had been a very sore point for a long time, until he had 'decided' that tennis wasn't his game. Their sibling rivalry was based on an intense competitiveness that had prevented the forming of any 'normal' relationship until both had passed their mid-twenties.

She shrugged her bra from her shoulders, cursing as it got caught in her top, which she still had round one wrist. She flung it away from her, across the room and started taking off her trainers, hopping over to the bathroom as her impatience to be sinking into a relaxing sea of bubbles got the better of her.

As she hopped, she thought she caught the smell of the bath oil that Helen had packed in her bag and stopped, closing her eyes, letting the smell evoke Helen, standing beside her. Magic. But she was just imagining things – creating images of Helen with all of her senses because she missed her. She wished she were here tonight – she needed someone to hold her, and well, just hold her. Probably just as well Helen wasn't here, though, she was so moody because she was shit-scared that she'd probably frighten her off.

She was naked by the time she reached the bathroom, and drew herself a bath, making tea as she went. After a few minutes, she was settled with her book, her tea and the heat relaxing her aching muscles.

She loved her suite, thoughtfully paid for by Helen. She left the book unopened as she considered the plus points of their relationship, as well as the more negative ones, such as Helen's fragile emotional state. Not that she could talk. Right now, she was the worse off of the two. Her sleep was so disturbed that she doubted she had had a full uninterrupted two hours. Those dreams were hell.

After an hour, she finally roused herself. She was shortly supposed to be meeting Sarah for a nice, carefully balanced meal somewhere, although, come to think of it, Sarah hadn't told her where. Never mind, she'd call her in a bit.

She towelled herself and slipped, still damp, into one of the luxurious soft robes provided by the hotel. 'How the other half live' she thought as she wondered what it would be like to stay in exotic locations with Helen. She smiled to herself. Pipe dreams for the future, especially given Helen's attitude to them being seen together, let along staying in the same room together.

"Well, you took your time. I thought I was going to have to come in there and fish you out before you turned into a prune."

She whirled, not believing her ears. Standing staring, her mouth open.

"Hey, beautiful. I was just thinking about you." Helen spoke again.

"Strange, me too." She recovered quickly, but couldn't help her staring. Was this real, or was she in bed and dreaming already? "What are you doing here?" Nikki took in Helen, lying on her bed.

"You thought of me, and here I am." She'd heard the light laugh on TV. It was an act, nothing like Helen's real laugh. Helen wasn't quite as comfortable with this as she was pretending to be.

"Seriously," she demanded. "Does anyone else know that you're here?"

"Apart from Antoine and Sarah, no. Why? Was I supposed to announce it to anyone? The other competitors, perhaps?"

"Sarcasm is the lowest from of wit, Helen." She said scathingly. She had wanted the woman here, but now she was here, she didn't know what she wanted from Helen, if anything at all. She sat on the sofa. "Thanks for the suite. Sarah hasn't made it out of the hotel yet."

"You're welcome." She could see the tension surrounding Nikki, like a black aura, tight about her body. She recognised the attempt to be normal, but wasn't sure how to follow it up, and neither, it seemed was Nikki. They sat in silence, as each minute that passed stretched unbearably.

"Nikki…" She stood, as did Nikki, who started dressing. It was all so…theatrical. The two of them, as if on a stage, neither knowing their lines. "It's time to go out for dinner. I'm starving."

"Are you assuaging all of my hungers tonight?" She couldn't tell if Nikki was joking or not. Her eyes, usually so expressive, were clouded and half-hidden by lowered lashes. For once, Helen found those usually animated features completely blank and impossible to read.

"I think that that would result in Mummy and Daddy not letting us play together anymore." She made her own tone deliberately jokey and childish, trying to relieve the tension between them as she walked over to Nikki, who hadn't even touched her as yet.

"Mummy and Daddy don't have to know everything." Nikki stood and turned as Helen approached her, her arms opening to accept her into their circle, her chin on her head, her voice whispering into Helen's hair.

"And you really think that that would be the best use of your time tonight?" She almost couldn't finish as Nikki enveloped her in a bear hug, preventing her lungs from filling with air.

"I think flying home would be the best use of my time tonight," she said dryly as she released Helen and walked away, the tone of her voice not quite achieving humour.

"Nah, I can think of much better things to do." She was shocked at how listless Nikki was. She'd expected her to be bouncing off the walls, not looking like she'd lost £50 and found a 5p piece.

She reached for her bag, smiling as Nikki widened her eyes as she pulled a package from it. She'd deliberately chosen the bag for this, bearing the name of a famous shop in Kings Cross, the red-light district of Sydney. Nikki had once joked that they should 'browse' around one day,

"What's that?"

"It's a present. Duh!"

"What for?" Nikki sounded suspicious.

"Do you need a reason for pressies? You've sent me enough this last few weeks."

"That's different." She still hadn't taken the parcel, so Helen stepped forward, thrusting it into her hands. "This isn't what I think it is, is it?"

"I don't know, Nikki. What do you think it is?" This Nikki was confusing her. She seemed glad to see her, and yet she wasn't behaving as though she were. She had barely touched Helen, and hadn't tried to kiss her once. She was behaving almost as if she were a close associate, not a lover.

"Um, I'm not sure." She looked at the parcel almost as if she weren't seeing it, and Helen resisted the urge to grab her by the scruff of the neck, shake her and demand the return of the real Nikki.

"Come on then, dinner first." She grabbed Nikki's hand and almost pulled her out of the room, glad now that she had taken Sarah's advice, and not gone for a romantic dinner a deux.

"Where are we going?" Nikki was like a small child, her fate entirely in the hands of another.

"I thought we'd have something simple tonight – pasta. So we're going to what Antoine promises me is the best Italian in Wellington."

"Antoine and Sarah know you're here?"

"Yup." Was she really not taking anything in at all? She'd made it clear earlier that they knew, surely?

"Are we eating with them? I always eat with them, the night before…" She was worse than a child. It was as if her mind couldn't grasp anything more complicated than eat, sleep, breathe.

"Of course we are. You didn't think I'd let Antoine eat at the best Italian restaurant in New Zealand without me to 'test' everything, do you? Especially not the desserts."

"No, I guess not."

They stood in the lift, the silence on the edge of oppressive.

"I'm shitting myself."

Helen looked across at Nikki, who, for the first time that evening, sounded normal, even if her words had been unexpected.

"I know, honey. I know." She reached across and squeezed Nikki's hand, pulling her in for a hug.

The tears were unexpected, and as soon as they got to the ground floor, Helen pressed the button to take them back upstairs, her shoulder growing wetter as Nikki hunched over her, sobbing like her heart was breaking. She guided her back into the room, and rang Sarah. It looked like room service after all.

Nikki was curled up on the bed, her face buried in Helen's lap now, Helen's hands stroking through her hair, over her shoulders and down her back, trying to sooth the athlete. "Shh, honey. It'll be fine."

There were still 36 hours to go, and Helen hoped that Nikki wouldn't be so emotionally keyed up for the full period.

"I can't do it."

Helen pulled herself out of her doze and realised that she was still lying on the bed, fully dressed. Nikki was standing by the window staring out. Her voice was toneless.

"What do you mean, you can't do it? Of course you can. You've proved that you've got what it takes." She didn't know how long she could bear this. Sarah and Antoine had stayed away from them earlier in the evening, giving Helen the opportunity to calm Nikki down alone. Looking at Nikki now, Helen wasn't sure that that had been such a good idea.

"No. I haven't, but it's sweet of you to say so." She came back to the bed, and gave Helen a kiss. For a moment, time seemed to be suspended, until Nikki broke the contact and picked up a suitcase from the foot of the bed.

"What are you doing?" She couldn't believe what she was seeing.

"I thought you were cleverer than that, Helen." The sarcasm bit viciously into her.

"You're running away?" Nikki nodded. "Like a little kid?" She could see Nikki's scowl in the faint light from the window. "Don't be such an absurd drama queen."

She couldn't believe that this was the normally well-balanced Nicola Wade that she had spent so much time with in the past months.

"You, calling me a drama queen? Pot calling kettle, Helen."

"I agree, it takes one to know one, but don't you think you're overreacting just a little? You came 4th last time out, Nikki, not last." She stood and moved between an indecisive Nikki and the door.


"Nikki, this is no way to rest before such an important competition. It's" she squinted at the digital numbers on the bedside clock. "Too bloody early to think about going anywhere. Come back to bed and talk to me about it, but don't do anything silly."

She tentatively reached for Nikki's free hand, pulling her gently in the direction of the bed.

"Helen…I can't. I can't do this. I'm never going to be the number one."

"You'll never know, though, for sure, will you, if you don't do this now." She spoke gently, trying to soothe Nikki again. She undressed her like a child, as she allowed herself to be moved, and tucked her into the bed, stripping herself and getting in beside her, hugging her.



"Are we supposed to be naked?" It was the first emotion that she had heard from Nikki apart from the tears, and the release of her tension was such that she burst into tears.

"Probably not. But what the grownups don't know won't hurt them tonight." She wrapped herself around Nikki, rocking her gently. "Sweetheart, it's natural to feel scared, but you'll do fine. I have every faith in you. And however well you do, as long as you do your best, what have you got to worry about?"

She was answered by a distinct snore from Nikki, and then she noticed the heavy, rhythmic breathing. She got up to go to the loo, and moved the suitcase. She didn't think that Nikki would care for such a reminder of her 'weakness' when she woke up in the morning. It was light enough to be empty, which led Helen to wonder if Nikki had even been properly awake the night before.

She took the case into the bathroom and opened it. All it contained was a towel and Nikki's toothbrush. She felt her heart lurch at this. Nikki was really under so much pressure, she didn't know if she was coming or going. Still, she hadn't had any nightmares yet.

Just then Nikki started to mutter, and Helen cursed herself for tempting fate. She rushed back to the bed, where Nikki was moving restlessly under the sheet, her words still unclear.

"Hey babes." She got into the bed and touched Nikki, who quietened down. "It's going to be all right, angel." She kissed Nikki's forehead and settled down to hold her, hoping that she would be proved right.

"What?" Helen shook her head and looked back down at her book. She had read the same page 5 times now, and it still wasn't making sense. Today Nikki had been snappy and savage all day, picking on all of them at various stages. She had been checking and rechecking her equipment for the past two hours now, and Helen was trying to be as unobtrusive as possible.

"I asked you a question." She felt the bed shake and then her book was gone, dashed to the floor by Nikki. The face before her was pale beneath the tan, and she thought that Nikki was probably going to spend the night on the big white telephone to God, judging by her reaction to food so far.

"Nothing, Nikki. I said nothing. Sarah said nothing, Antoine said nothing. None of us said anything. We are merely sitting here, waiting for you to finish up checking your equipment and come out to dinner with us." She kept her voice level, even managing to suppress the sarcasm.

"I've nearly finished." Helen watched her, her face impassive, and completely at odds with the emotions raging inside her, compassion for Nikki, irritation at her behaviour, frustration at her own inability to rise above it all.

"And is this the final check?" Helen dared to ask, but so quietly that she didn't think Nikki would hear her. There had already been three 'final checks' that evening, not to mention all the other times Nikki had checked everything.

"Right. That's it." Nikki straightened and rolled her shoulders tiredly. She turned around, and it was as if her earlier bad temper had never existed. "What are we all waiting for?"

"I wonder," Antoine whispered to Helen as they followed Nikki and Sarah to the lift.

"Is she always like this?"

"Just who is 'she' in the first place, the cat's mother?" Nikki rounded on them suddenly.

"Nikki, I didn't mean…"

"And yes, 'she' is, always like this. Just not usually this bad. I'll try and behave tonight." The smile she gave wasn't as bright as her usual grin, Helen thought, but it was a start. She moved forward and took Nikki's hand, gratified by the surprised look of pleasure on her face.

"OK, well, I need feeding, so lead on. Where are we going, anyhow?"

"Italian, as you had to put up with a sandwich from room service last night." Nikki dropped her hand and slung her arm around Helen's shoulders, which Helen allowed, for the time being at least.

The taxi motored up and down the hills, taking what seemed to be a very long route to Helen, until, eventually, they were atop what appeared to be a mountain, looking down on the city spread at their feet.


"Wow indeed. Awesome." They laughed at such an unexpected word coming from Antoine, and then Nikki took her hand again as they went into the restaurant. For once, Helen was surprised not to mind, relishing the contact and the return of 'her' Nikki from the alien who had infested her body for the past 24 hours.

"Too right. And I hope the desserts live up to the view." Helen laughed.

"It's a good thing you've started working out, Miss Stewart, or I think you'd be getting decidedly podgy." Nikki's hand crept round and pinched Helen's emerging love handle.

"Oi, I have to look matronly for my next part. I only eat dessert in pursuit of my art." She lifted her nose in the air and followed Antoine into the restaurant, leaving the cousins laughing outside.

"I'm so sorry, milady," Nikki said, doing her nasal 'Parker' impression as they caught up and seated themselves. "You are a true artist, indeed."

She continued to make jokes and be silly throughout the meal, being preternaturally bright. It brought a phrase to mind that Helen's mother had forever been uttering 'tears before bedtime'. It didn't suit Nikki at all, and she knew she wasn't the only one noticing it as she caught the worried glances exchanged by Sarah and the fencing coach.

By the time the two of them were alone again, it was almost eleven.

"Don't you think you should try and sleep?" Helen had already stripped for bed, wearing passion killer pyjamas.

"I'm not sure I can." Nikki was pacing the room, her impatience for the night to be over obvious.

"You should try, at least. Anyway, you said just a month ago that you'd never be able to get out of any bed that had me in it; are you making yourself out to be a liar already?"

"You dressed like that wasn't quite what I had in mind when I said that."

"And what's wrong with these?" Helen pulled the top away from her body, looking down at a rather revolting tartan pattern in clashing colours, pleased that at least they were keeping Nikki's libido in check.

"They're … well… a bit old for you." Nikki's face showed distaste.

"So would you come to bed if I was wearing something else?" Nikki's prowling was starting to get on her nerves. She was just working herself up, more and more.

"I might do. What else have you got?"

"I could probably manage a birthday suit, if you're interested?" She smiled up at Nikki, hoping that she wouldn't take her up on the offer.

"Now that's what I call a tempting offer." She bit her nails frantically for a moment and then came and sat beside Helen, stroking her shoulders through the cotton. "But I can't…"

"I know, babes. But I'll still be here tomorrow, and these will be history, I promise." They held each other, Nikki's tension transmitting itself into her body. "Would you like me to rub you?"

"A massage?" Nikki's forehead creased in a frown. "I've just had…"

"No, just a backrub. I'm not going to compete with Sarah." She started to move her hands slowly over Nikki's muscles, feeling the tension, and the power in them. They slowly relaxed under the gentle pressure, and she felt Nikki become more peaceful.

"That's nice."

"I know."

"You will be there tomorrow, won't you?" Nikki's voice was becoming quieter and quieter.

"I wouldn't miss it for the world." She smiled. This childlike, vulnerable Nikki was quite sweet, when she wasn't completely intolerable. Rather like the other sides of Nikki she had seen so far.


Part 47

Nikki was already awake and once more restlessly pacing the room when she woke up. Her gear was spread all over the floor in a parody of packing, as she had obviously felt the need to keep double-checking everything. Again.

"Hey you."

"Hi. I made you tea." Nikki barely looked up from her packing.

"Thanks, sweetie. You'll make somebody a lovely wife someday." She reached out for the cup, noting that it seemed to have been made some time ago, as it was barely tepid. How long had Nikki been up for? She leaned to see the time and was shocked to realise that it was only 5.30.

"How long have you been up for?"


"Well, was it light when you woke up?"

"Yeah, I think so."

"How are you feeling today?" She gave up that tack as a bad job. Hell, even she hadn't had a long, or a good night's sleep – she could feel her own butterflies exponentially multiplying in her stomach.

"A bit het up."

Judging by Nikki's face – white with high spots of colour in each cheek – she was more than just a 'bit' excited.

"Have you eaten?"

"Some of Sarah's hi-energy juice and some bananas. I'm not really hungry."

"I can imagine." She got out of bed and padded over to Nikki in her bare feet. "It'll all be over in about fourteen hours."

"That's a lifetime." She grabbed Helen's hand and held it to her face for a moment, becoming completely still. So still that Helen could feel her shaking.

"Just a short one. It will be over, I can promise you that." Nikki released her and carried on, barely acknowledging her. Helen tried to keep her frustration in check.

"If I don't drown myself in the water jump first. Or shoot myself. Or someone else."

"My, we're looking on the bright side this morning. I'd point the guns at the coloured circly thingy, if I were you;" she paused, thinking. "Unless you think someone's got far to much of a lead over you," she said, seriously.

"Ha, ha, ha…"

"Or Trisha, of course."

"Meow, pussycat. You should put those claws away, before you hurt someone."

"Mmm, I can think of a few people…"

"Morning people. And how are we today?" Sarah breezed in looking relaxed and refreshed. Nikki and Helen both took the time to scowl at her.

"Feeling like murdering anyone who thinks the day is wonderful," Nikki growled.

"Looks like someone got out of bed on the wrong side this morning."

"Yeah, well, my wench was hogging my side of the bed." She was relieved that Nikki was joking, albeit she was more 'Grumpy' than 'Happy' this morning.

"Some people don't deserve wenches if they don't talk about them nicely," Helen rejoined the conversation.

There was a long pause as Nikki counted things into and out of her various bags. Nikki and Sarah alternately watched her and each other, shrugging and rolling their eyes. Just as Sarah was miming 'how long did she sleep', Nikki looked up.

"Don't mind me. I am still in the room you know."

"Yes, but you're not really present, Nik. Come on Helen, let's go and get some caffeine." Sarah pulled her away. "We'll see you later."

"You can't leave me!" Nikki looked distraught.

"We're not leaving you, we're just letting you finish what you're doing."

"Same thing," Nikki muttered mutinously.

"Hey, honey, we just don't want to get in your way, that's all." Helen tried to be more diplomatic.

"If you don't want to be around me, you can just tell me. I know I'm not the most exciting person in the world to be around right now…"

"Nikki, it's nothing like that, and you know it. All your energy and focus is on today, and that's exactly where it should be, but it's not fun watching you pack and unpack. And you don't want to watch me tuck into my breakfast either, so we'll be back soon. Antoine is up, if you want to go for a jog with him, get yourself loosened up." Sarah walked out decisively, leaving Helen to follow in her wake, half-running to catch her up.

"Heavy, isn't it?"

"How do you mean?" Helen asked, ripping apart a croissant.


"Ah, yes. Little Miss Moody."

"You can't blame her."

"Of course not, and, let's face it, people who live in glass houses…I'm the same when I'm doing theatre. Only a lot more unpleasant to be around."

"She's OK, just so afraid. She's the UK number one, and that always carries a huge amount of pressure. Plus, she came second in the junior world championships when she was eighteen, and being marked as a future world champion doesn't exactly make the pressure go away, even when everyone changes their mind and marks you down as an 'also-ran'."

"Will she be like this all day?"

"She probably won't even notice that we're there later. I've often wondered if she'd notice if Cameron Diaz and Halle Berry got down and dirty together right under her nose, and to be honest, I don't think even that would distract her."


Part 48

Helen didn't recognise this Nikki; she was a blank, unemotional stranger, staring at the targets, glaring at the other competitors and so withdrawn, she even looked like a different person.

Once she had caught a glimpse of the scared woman underneath the hard shell; Nikki had looked down at the pistol, held awkwardly in her hand, as if she didn't recognise it. The moment of confusion was fleeting, but Helen hadn't missed it.

She had barely taken her eyes from the athlete all morning, enjoying the privilege of going 'backstage' into a world that wasn't all too different from her own, really. There were costumes, people 'getting into' their roles – changing, like Nikki, from ordinary, everyday individuals into focused physical machines.

They all had a similar look on their faces, these world-class athletes. Helen could understand Nikki's self-doubts; after all, it was hard to believe that 'her' Nikki, loving, silly, joking, arrogant, hateful and loveable in equal measures, was one of these women; strong, silent, determined. She felt physically intimidated, the knowledge that she could manage to actually run for a whole mile without stopping not the awesome knowledge here that it was on the film set.

Nikki was pretending to be nonchalant now, lying on a bench, a baseball cap pulled down over her face. Helen could see the lines of tension in her muscles, though, and however hard she was trying to look relaxed, she wasn't entirely convincing, at least, not to Helen, although she wasn't doing a bad job as far as the rest of the competitors were concerned, judging by the looks she was getting.

She felt a tug on her arm, and Sarah was pulling her away. She followed, looking behind her, watching Nikki's lean form until other athletes hid her from sight. They passed Trish on their way out, film crew attached. Helen was relieved to see that they were hanging around on the boundary of the athletes' area, and wondered how she could protect Nikki from her intrusion.

"Hi Helen. How's it going?" She nearly jumped out of her skin as Trish addressed her, the camera staring with it's red Cyclops eye just over her shoulder.

"Fine thanks," she replied, unable to get away in time.

"Been reading the papers recently?"

"Nah, they're mostly full of rubbish. You should know that." In an attempt to pre-empt Trish's story about her, she'd been on the phone to her agent, managing to persuade her to artfully drop a few tid-bits in the ears of some friendly journalists.

"Really? I heard that there were some quite good stories these days."

"Good as in serious investigative journalism, Trish? Or good as in straightforward reporting? Or good as in sensationalism?" She deliberately left a pause between each question, knowing that she had put Trish in the last category by implication.

"Would you agree to another interview?"

"Actually, I'm giving an exclusive soon, so I'm afraid that I won't be able to do so." That wasn't strictly true; she'd only just thought of it, but it might be a way to silence the gossip. She had already talked to her family, to prepare them, and had been pleasantly surprised by her mother's reaction – not welcoming, but not a rejection either. Her father had been much shorter with her, accusing her of doing anything to further her career, an accusation that had hurt her badly, and it wasn't even as if she had had Nikki to share it with.

"Come on, I want to get a good seat." She smiled sweetly and allowed Sarah to pull her away.

"What about her?" Helen almost spat, jerking her thumb contemptuously in Trish's direction as soon as they were out of earshot.

"Oh, I would worry too much about that, if I were you. I think she'll have plenty of distractions of her own." And, indeed, Liz was bearing down on her as they watched, glowering at them.

"What's she doing here?"

"Hello? They both commentate on this?"

"Oh. I've never seen it on the TV."

"That's because you've never had reason to watch, until now." Sarah smiled at her, pityingly. "Not that you were into sport either, I bet."

"Not really, I guess."

"Although you've been into sportsmen for a while now, haven't you?"

"Ha bloody ha. Just because I've seen a few doesn't mean a thing." She changed the subject. "Is this what Nikki will do when she retires?"

"No idea. I don't think Nikki's thought about it yet. She's still got a few years to go, you know. Maybe she'll coach. I hear she's not a bad riding teacher though." She looked slyly sideways at Helen, a smirk on her face.

"No, not bad at all, though I don't think she'll ever make me love horses."

"They're OK, but not really my cup of tea, either, truth be told. I prefer sailing, myself."

"Does Nikki sail?" This was a surprise – she'd seen Sarah ride, and she seemed quite good, effortlessly keeping up with Nikki.

"Nikki? No! She's scared shitless of the water."

"But she swims."

"She can swim, yes, but she's not fond of water, and certainly not deep water. If you've got any illusions about a romantic diving holiday at the end of this, I'd think again, if I were you."

"She does a damn good impression of liking the stuff."

"Nikki hates to admit she's scared of anything."

"I'd kind of noticed."

"She's more scared of you, then you are of her." Sarah wasn't looking at her.

Helen flashed a shocked look at Sarah. That was a bit of an impertinence. And a bit too close to home. How did Sarah know that Helen was scared of Nikki's intensity?

"She won't hurt you, Helen. She's pretty scared of being hurt herself."

"She really doesn't show that."

"If she did, would you be together?" Sarah turned to look Helen in the eye. "You'd have both run off in opposite directions by now. And been miserable for it." She continued, with a ghost of smile.

"You're a bit presumptuous, aren't you?" It was all Helen could think of as a retort.

"Why should I keep quiet? I'm calling it like it is." She shrugged and turned away again.

"And next you're going to tell me not to hurt Nikki, you're her best friend, or you'll 'do me'?" Helen asked sarcastically.

"No, I'd rather you didn't hurt Nikki. She really likes you, and you must like her, following her around like that, but you're both adults; you'll sort it out for yourself." She swung her head round. "I told Nikki not to hurt you, actually."

As Helen sat there flabbergasted, Antoine came and sat in the empty seat between them, effectively ending the conversation. She was unable to seethe for long, as the competitors were starting to come out now. Forty of the world's finest pentathletes, they were a breathtaking bunch, all at the peak of physical fitness, strength and control, competing for the Blue Riband in their sport. Once more, Helen found it hard to reconcile the Nikki that she knew with the woman below.

"She'll do it." Somehow she found Sarah's last words comforting, they were said with such certainty, and Sarah seemed so calm.


Part 49

Nikki, on the other hand, was feeling anything but as certain, and was certainly not as calm. She knew that Sarah and Antoine would be in the stands, feeling nervous on her behalf, although they wouldn't be feeling anything like she was. However, she wasn't sure how Helen would be feeling. She spotted Helen's face, paler than usual, under the tan she'd achieved whilst they'd been in Australia.

She briefly remembered Helen telling her that she was never allowed to change her hair, or look, or get a tan whilst she worked on the soap, as she had smothered herself in suncream, and settled down by the pool.

She shook her head, clearing it. She couldn't afford to let anything to distract her now. She walked up and down, shaking her arm, stretching and relaxing her fingers, talking herself up under her breath.

As she went, her awareness of the rest of the world slipped from her, but not before she'd thought that if an outsider could see her and her fellow competitors, they'd all be committed to a mental institution pretty sharpish, talking to themselves like that.

The world melted away, becoming something she was vaguely aware of in the background. She was due to be called shortly, and wandered around in the holding area, seeing the target in her mind, feeling the gun in her hand, the pressure as the shots were fired, how she would tense her muscles against it.

She heard her name called, and stepped up to the range, pulling on her ear protectors, along with the others shooting with her. She had the impression of tunnel vision – an experience that Trish had told her about, but a hitherto unexperienced phenomena for her. It was like the world closed in to just her and the target. She couldn't even hear the sounds of the crowd, which she was always vaguely aware of, even through the ear guards. Not that she wanted to hear anything right now.

She took aim, feeling the familiar weight of the pistol in her hand, squeezing the trigger gently, her arm tense, her posture sideways. She didn't waver, saw the sight move minutely in time with her breathing and slowed it down, held her breath and squeezed gently, feeling the trigger give. She didn't even hear the report of the shot, and held her arm straight until she felt the last of the vibrations fade.

She took a deep breath, raised her arm, and repeated the cycle, again and again, until her shots were spent. She lowered her arm and stepped back, feeling like she had been there for hours. Suddenly her world was wider, and the sound was turned up. She became aware of other people inhabiting the world as she turned to stand down, laying down her pistol.

She looked up at the scoreboard, as she was completely unaware of what had actually happened during her shooting round. She had been so focussed on the feelings that she wasn't aware of the actual score, although she knew she had hit the centre are at least once – it had just felt so right.

She gave a cheer, punching her clenched fist into the air, as her name came up with the 1 beside it. She was in first place. It was pleasing, as she'd never led during the shooting before – she was competent, but not outstanding. It was nice, but she wasn't going to get too excited – after all, there were still another 15 to shoot, and although her score was high for her, it wouldn't be enough to maintain the lead. She wouldn't know what her score was until all had finished the shooting, but it would give her a good platform for the swimming.

Her eyes sought out Helen, Sarah and Antoine, and she gave them a cautious thumbs up as she saw their broad grins. Helen blew her a kiss, and she felt herself blushing – proud that she had started so well, yet feeling curiously humble as well.


Part 50

Helen caught Nikki's eye and was pleased to see someone she recognised looking back at her. She had seemed so unnatural, standing motionless except for raising and lowering her gun between shots. Helen had found herself holding her breath, and was grateful that she had started going to the gym, or she'd be panting like a dog right now.

She stretched, feeling her muscles tense, and slid her legs to the side, as Antoine was doing, to let Sarah out to go to Nikki. She fought the jealousy that Sarah was permitted to go to Nikki between disciplines, but that she, the person that Nikki herself had stated was most important to her, was not. She browbeat her emotions down - Sarah's skills were what was needed now. She was a distraction, apparently.

She tried not to be bitter – she wouldn't like Nikki appearing during the interval if she were working, she knew; and it was better to be considered a distraction than to be permitted to appear, as if she was that unimportant to Nikki, but it still hurt, nonetheless.

She stayed and desultorily watched the remainder of the shooting as Antoine followed Sarah after a few minutes, muttering apologies as if he understood that Helen was upset about being excluded from Nikki's inner circle. After all, somebody had to let Nikki know the position at the end of the shooting, when all the points had been calculated.

She waited until the results came up, and passed on the good news. Nikki was thirteenth, and she was one of the best swimmers in the field, so had a good chance of getting near the front after the next event. One personal best down – four more to go would probably seal the championship for her.

She rang Sarah, so that she could relay the news to Nikki, and waited as her row emptied. She was still unhappy that she hadn't been able to smuggle good luck messages into Nikki's kit, but Nikki's constant packing and unpacking had precluded that. She had settled for giving good luck messages to Sarah to deliver before each event, as she treated Nikki.

And she had given Nikki a small toy black cat – a good luck gift that seemed to have become imbued with much more than just luck for this event. Somehow the result today seemed to be more of an omen for their future, not just a competition for Nikki to fight.


She looked around, her eyes meeting a pair of glittering brown ones, sitting barely two inches away from hers.

Part 51

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