Zen and the Art of Horseriding
As soon as they were out of sight of the crowd, Nikki slipped down from the horse. Not her usual arrogant, confident dismount, but the more correct style that she had taught Helen. She let herself to the ground gently, patted the horse's neck half-heartedly and stepped away to the side of the tunnel, as he was led away by the now silent groom, slumping to the ground.
"Are you alright?" Helen grabbed her shoulder unthinkingly, letting go the instant Nikki winced.
"Bruised, but hard to decide it it's me or my ego that's more damaged." She used the wall to help her to her feet, her eyes on Helen's face as she fought the pain of her fall, watching Helen battling the urge to help her.
"Are you hurt?" Nikki opened her mouth to make another facetious remark and Helen interrupted her. "Seriously, Nikki."
"Shh, sweetheart, I'm fine. That sodding horse should be called Diabolo, not Seraphim. Or maybe Aquaphobic. Or even Bastard." She smiled at Helen, and without thinking, Helen moved into the circle of her arm, something that she had never done in public before.
"Maybe you should get checked out by the medics?" Sarah suggested as she walked up to them.
"I've lost at least 150 points, if not any more thanks to that bucking bronco. I'm not being banned from running as well." Nikki pushed Helen away and, leaning once more against the wall, pulled herself up to her full height.
Helen interrupted, suggesting that Sarah take Nikki away and get her checked out. Even from here, Nikki could read her concern, her attempt to make sure that she hadn't caused any serious, or, even more importantly, permanent damage.
Grateful for Helen's diplomacy, she grasped at the straw offered to her, although vetoing Sarah's involvement, insisting that Helen be with her. She knew that she would continue competing, whatever her injury, whatever it was, although she was certain that it wasn't serious, although painful. She'd bloody well do this whatever. Helen wasn't as savvy as Sarah, and didn't know her as well. Helen would never know how she felt, whereas Sarah knew enough to stop her.
The medic was so slow, she thought the competition would be over before she'd even been seen, but it was just her perspective. She was seen within a half an hour that stretched to eternity.
"You're bruised and you shouldn't run. Maybe you dislocated something, if it hurts that much, but it's gone back in now, if you did. Your nerves hate you, and you shouldn't push them any further. But I don't s'pose that'll stop you running, but if you hurt too bad, stop. Once you're done, take these pills and go to bed."
Nikki listened to the orders, knowing damn well that he knew what was at stake here. There was no way that she wasn't going to run. She might not have a chance of a place, but she did have some pride left, and it was damn well all she had, and so she was going to see what she could do.
She slid back to her feet, hiding the wince the action caused. Helen helped her with her shirt, a disapproving look on her face.
"Are you sure you're OK?"
"Positive." She was deliberately short, hoping that Helen wouldn't press her; that Helen didn't know her well enough to even try.
"Bollocks." The disclaimer was unequivocal.
"Helen, I'm fine; just sore. What do you expect when some bastard horse decides that he doesn't want to play?"
"Nikki " She heard the plea in Helen's voice and decided to ignore it. There was too much at stake for a little bruising to affect her now; after all, it was only running, and how much could that hurt?
"Helen, I'm fine," she snapped, ignoring the hurt expression that crossed Helen's features. They emerged into the changing room. "Tell her, Sarah."
"Nikki's a stubborn bitch, and I wouldn't cross her, if I were you, Helen. She'll run, and she'll be in agony for a week, but to her it'll be worth it." Sarah said dispassionately, her voice monotonous.
"Don't be so fucking stupid, Nikki," Helen almost screamed, oblivious to the fact that the room was full of people.
"Helen " She knew that the hand on her arm wasn't Nikki's, or the voice warning her off, but the cold eyes across from her were Nikki's and she was brooking no argument. She was pulled away by Sarah as Nikki watched her blankly.
She had crossed a line, and she knew it, but also couldn't fathom quite what was so wrong about her attempts to stop Nikki. She yanked her arm away from Sarah, but didn't even get a chance to make a move before Sarah was steering her away once more.
"Leave it, Helen. Let her do what she wants. She will, anyway." Sarah's voice was a little bitter, to say the least.
"How can she?" They came to a stop in a corridor and Helen leant against the wall, gesticulating, unable to put her emotions into words. She felt close to tears, but wasn't sure just who for her, or Nikki.
"She does it because she needs to. She needs to prove herself, all the time." She looked at Helen, a small smile on her face. "Don't you do hard stuff because you need to prove yourself?"
"Yeah, but not something physically dangerous."
"You can lose your livelihood from a crap review."
"It's not the same, Sarah."
"Of course it is, for her. This is it. She has to win, to be the best. If she can't do that, what's the point?"
"The point is that there can only be one winner. Someone has to come second. And if she's not fit, then she won't win anyway, will she?" It looked like subtlety was lost on Sarah. She pulled her arm, but Sarah kept her grip.
"Why accept second best if you can be best? She might still do it; she's a very strong runner."
"What if she's not capable because she's injured? What if she's not the best today because of that? Then she'll have spent her life trying to be something she's not; always unhappy, never satisfied. What kind of life is that?" Sarah looked as though Helen had slapped her. "Well? Answer me that. What if you try that hard, work that hard and dream that hard and you're still not the best? What do you do then?" She couldn't help her own deep-rooted fears coming out in her voice; knew that the passion behind the words was her own angst at never being good enough.
"You've got this wrong, Helen. Nikki is good enough. On a perfect day. She knows that she'll never be the best that ever was. All she wants is the chance to try. After all, until you spread your wings, you'll never know whether or not you can fly, will you?"
"Just because you can fly doesn't mean you're going to stay up. Look what happened to Icarus." Helen retorted.
"Don't project your own fears onto Nikki, Helen. She might never be World or Olympic champion, but all that crap about it being the 'taking part that counts' is rubbish. Especially here. You have to be good to get into this competition. The Olympics is different after all, if Eric the Eel can swim in them, they'll let almost anybody have a go. But this is serious, and it means you are seriously good. Anyone could win."
She turned, pointing at a guy standing at the entrance, his face in his hands.
"You see that bloke?" Helen nodded, not sure where this was going. "He trains the world number one. She came thirtieth in the shooting, and only fifteenth in the swimming. Her fencing was ropey, and she's now lying twentieth, and those were her best events. She's all but blown all her hard work. She's got to win the riding, which it doesn't look like she has, or she's completely fucked, not even likely to be in the medals. One bad event can screw you. Three will destroy your chances. But she'll continue, because she's a fighter, and she won't give up her crown easily. She won't even make it to the Olympics if she doesn't get further up the rankings here, as these are the Czech Olympic trials. The highest placed three Czechs will, and I don't think she's gonna make it, and neither does he. But she'll try. For one last chance, she'll try."
Helen looked across at the man. His body language was eloquent of defeat.
"I want Nikki to be happy, but not at this sort of cost. This could break her."
"And if she gets top ten, and decides to carry on? One last crack at the Olympics how would you feel if you had a chance to break into the big time, and Nikki took it away from you, because she thought you wouldn't do your best?"
"What if she hurts herself in the process, and never gets the chance?"
"You think I don't know that? Or that she doesn't? She's not an idiot, Helen. Mad, but not stupid. She knows the risk. To her, it's worth it. I think she's a nutter, myself." Sarah smiled, a tight, resigned crook of her lips.
"I beg your pardon?"
"When Sir Edmund Hillary was asked why he climbed Everest, he replied 'Because it was there'. That's why Nikki is doing this."
Helen took Sarah's hand and squeezed it. It was good to know that she wasn't the only one worried about Nikki.
Nikki was worried about Nikki. She'd managed to get some strapping for her shoulder, but was trying not to move around too much, especially as movement betrayed the pain she was in. She knew that the others were deliberately not watching her; a case of 'there but for the grace of God go I', but also knowing that they wouldn't hesitate to exploit her weakness once the run started.
She had slipped to twenty-third. She doubted very much that she'd get top ten now, but threw that thought out as soon as it tried to lodge in her mind. She didn't need the betrayal from within, and kept trying to think positively, trying deep breathing to relax.
She badly wanted Sarah back here with her if not for the company, for a massage. She could feel her muscles, taut and tense as piano wires. She wanted Helen here, holding her hand, even if she had almost embarrassed her beyond belief by exposing the extent of her weakness in public.
She completely ignored the twinge of guilt she felt whenever she thought of Helen. If she hadn't already blown it with her, she'd need to do something serious about it later. She had lashed out through fear and frustration, and she hoped Helen would forgive her for that.
She struggled into her running clothes, and did some leg stretches while they waited for the showjumping arena to be turned into a running course. She hated it when the organisers did this, because there were always unexpected divots in the grass, however well they tried to repair the surface.
She ached. She ached so badly she thought she'd never be able to move again, and knew that she would pay for today in more pain and discomfort tomorrow; just like every other competition, only more so.
She was furious with herself for falling off, and not particularly enamoured with Seraphim. She re-rode the last third of the course again in her mind, even though she knew she shouldn't be looking back, but looking forward. She knew what she could have done, and was furious with herself for not thinking faster during the event. Still, it was all over now; just the run to go, and this is where places changed rapidly.
If she could hold it together, she could do well here. If she stayed in touch, her strong finish would be likely to gain her several places in the last two hundred metres. If she could make her legs work; if she could force her body to move; if she didn't collapse screaming in agony.
She shook her head to clear out the ifs and buts from her mind. No matter what else happened, she had to try. To come this far and fail at the final hurdle was one thing; if her body couldn't carry on, well, that was another, but to not even try? That would betray everything. Herself, her coaches, her years of training, but most of all, herself.
The three of them sat in a row, awaiting the entrance of the athletes for the 3km run, the last event. Both Antoine and Sarah had made separate attempts to make Nikki's position clear to Helen, and each had stressed that, given a following wind, if she was loose enough, if someone ahead of her tripped up, if, if, if, Nikki could still move back up the field.
As they sat, Helen looked across and couldn't help herself.
"Talk about three monkeys," she laughed. Antoine, with his mobile phone to ear was obviously 'hear no evil'. Sarah, with her policy of maintaining that Nikki could do it had to be 'speak no evil'.
"The dirty looks you're giving to Trish and Liz, I don't think you'd be able to pull off a good impression of 'see no evil', Helen." Sarah had got the joke, although Antoine was ignoring them, still gabbling away in Italian.
"Italian is such a romantic language, isn't it?" She said dreamily.
"You should ask Nikki to speak to you in Italian, then," Sarah laughed.
"Why, is she fluent?" Yet another side to Nikki. She was a 'riddle inside a mystery, wrapped in an enigma', constantly surprising Helen.
"Um, not quite, but she can swear like a fishwife in Italian, even if her pronunciation is appalling. It's fun to watch, and let's face it, in Italian, even curses sound romantic."
"Sarah." Helen smacked her on the arm. "Do you always have to make fun of everything?"
"I'm not making fun it's true. You should see her and Antoine trading curses sometimes. The air turns blue, but very sexily."
Helen just harrumphed and retreated back into her own thoughts while they waited. There seemed to be a dispute between some of the people putting out the tape marking the running course, and there seemed to be a dead end in the maze.
"I don't think that ought to be there, should it?" She heard Sarah say to Antoine.
"I theenk someone over-indulge at lunchtime." His gesture was eloquent. "Eet look like 'Ampton Court Palace maze. Ees it a new twist?"
"How do you know about Hampton Court Palace maze?" Sarah seemed surprised.
"Nikki take me once. She tell me about getting lost wiv a girlfriend and nearly getting locked in for the night. The guards, they caught them kissing, and I teenk a little bit " The end of his sentence remained unfinished as they remembered who they were sitting with. "I say to her, I want to see this place, when she tell me about ze ghost," he finished lamely.
Helen felt the slow burn of jealousy. It was ridiculous to think that Nikki had no past after all, she could see all too ample evidence of that every time she looked at the commentators box. But the little silly things hurt. They hadn't done anything as silly as getting caught kissing in a maze not that Helen would want to be in a position to be caught; not before she had told her parents. But told them what, exactly?
'Hi mum, hi dad. Guess what? I'm a lesbian!' She didn't think that would go down terribly well, and besides, at this stage, she was reluctant to label herself. She'd had enough labels in her career already, and not many of them particularly flattering. Besides, it's not like she was looking at other women and drooling.
She remembered the suggestive, provocative comments Nikki had uttered the day they first met, blatantly eyeing her up and mentally undressing her. She had believed Nikki at the time, even though she had obviously just been toying with her. And she had been right, she had taught Helen a thing or two. She almost blushed just thinking about it.
But she didn't feel like that about other women; she looked at them like she had always done, judging appearance, comparing looks. She wasn't attracted to them. Or was she? She sighed. She couldn't work it out.
Maybe she should just take Nikki to meet her parents. She was certainly charming enough to win over her family, and at least she wasn't a 'bit of rough', and wasn't likely to embarrass her. She was presentable, and knew which knife and fork to use. It did seem a bit unfair on everyone though. She should just talk to her mother, tell her, make the arrangements to share a room, and let her mother tell her father what was going on. Trouble was, would Nikki be OK with that? Did Nikki even care?
The answer to that was a resounding 'yes'. Nikki did care; she'd seen it in her eyes when Helen would barely acknowledge her in public or would chastise her for being too familiar when they were around people. Nikki wasn't the sort to hide her feelings, and it hurt her to think that she wasn't good enough for Helen to be seen in public with her. It wasn't that, but that was how Nikki perceived it, although she had been good about it until now. But it wouldn't last forever, and would surely tear them apart, as much as this competition was doing.
She was distracted from her inner musings by the appearance of the runners. Her eyes automatically sought Nikki, way down the field. She gave no indication that she knew anything but the course as she surveyed it through half-closed eyes. She was moving very stiffly, her upper body virtually motionless as she walked. Instead of just a vest with a number on it, she wore a t-shirt underneath, no doubt hiding the visible signs of her strapping, her weakness.
In spite of everything, she looked beautiful to Helen, remote and unreachable, like a far off mountain peak; glacial and forbidding, but compulsive. She now understood Sarah's 'Everest' comment.
The lead athlete stood in the starting gate, poised to run at the whistle. She was an unexpected leader at this stage, and looked absurdly small in the great arena as she started on her run. Almost immediately, the next runner set off, followed by two more. The lead was so close, at this stage, and the course so convoluted, it was hard to tell which of them was in front.
One by one they set off, dreams of glory now solidified into a hard slog on a thankfully flat course. Nikki walked around, watching as they ran. That quick start, designed to the wind up the person you were following, quickly settling down into an unrelenting rhythm of feet on turf, straining to go that little bit faster, and listening for someone coming up behind you. Trouble was, because of the way this course meandered around the stadium, those footsteps behind you might be someone on a different section. It was going to be very hard to judge.
She was going to go in just a few seconds time. The competition was very close, although there was over two minutes between her and first place; around seven or eight hundred metres. She briefly considered jacking it in right now, knowing that no one would blame her. She would have tried and retired injured, and no one would think any the worse of her; except for herself. She knew that there was no way she could quit now and keep any shred of dignity in her own eyes.
There was just her and the runner ahead of her now, the only two souls in the world, whoever she was. Her aim was to overhaul her quickly. She could run her usual race, strategic, not doing more than she had to, knowing that at four hundred metres she could kick and overtake maybe three, four, or even five athletes as they neared the tape. Or she could just try and run a fast race now, try and make this as short as possible for the sake of her shoulder, and hope that she would have enough left at the end of the race to overhaul whoever was in front her. If she had been fit, apart from not starting this low, she'd have been contending for the podium. Now she had to try and move up twelve or thirteen places just to retain her dignity, let alone a top ten finish. If she didn't, this would be her last World Championships; she wouldn't be back next year.
'No pressure, then,' she thought as she composed herself, poised to spring forward, trying not to wince as she brought her arm back.
The whistle sounded and she pounded off, determined to get this over with as fast as possible, feeling the ache across her shoulders and running down her arm. As she moved, she realised that the doctor was probably right and that she might have dislocated her shoulder it had happened before, and once it was back in place, it had felt rather like this. The strapping was bulky and cumbersome, forcing her to move her arm in a peculiar way. At least the shoulder had gone back in of it's own accord straightaway. She'd never have been able to run otherwise.
She overhauled the woman in front of her quite quickly, and had moved up three places by the end of the first lap, putting her in twentieth place. She was feeling every step now, gritting her teeth, and knew that she was getting tired. She risked a brief look at her watch, and realised that she was way ahead of her usual time, some ten seconds faster than she would usually aim to be running.
At least the swimming was over. If she'd managed to injure herself like this, there would have been no question of competing this weekend. She cursed the horse again, mentally, not wasting her increasingly laboured breath.
She fought to maintain the pace, although she knew it was dropping, slowly. Her knees felt weak, and by the end of her second lap, she could feel her head lolling around on her shoulders, a la Paula Radcliffe. She had managed to overtake another six people, and there were several athletes out here in a worse state than she was.
She pushed herself. The pain was incredible and for a split second she considered giving in, and giving up. The sound of the bell revitalised her and knocked that idea dead. Just three more minutes and it would all be over. Three minutes of hell, that was all.
She could hear her breath echoing in her head, the panting sounding laboured, and very unlike her. She overtook someone else, unaware of who it was. She'd lost count now, consumed by her own thoughts, lost in the pain, knowing that soon it would stop and that she would be able to relax.
She heard breathing on her shoulder, but could barely twist her head to look. She put on a small burst of speed, not wanting to use up her reserves, but wanting to show the chaser that she meant business. The sound receded, and she wondered if she had been mistaken. It was a familiar trick, one that she sometimes used herself. Come up behind somebody, breathing heavily, force them to speed up, then drop off again. As they relaxed, shoot past them, and then it would all be over. They would use up so much energy chasing you, you could tire them out.
She remained tense, listening for the tell tale footfalls behind her, not relaxing her pace much, knowing that her body was finally reaching it's limit. She had slowed a huge amount now, and roughly calculated that she was taking ten seconds more now to do each 400 metres, than she had earlier.
She overtook someone else, but at the same time was overtaken. Back to square one, but starting to get close to the finish line. She could see someone bending over, hands on knees to catch their breath. The medals had been decided. Now it was time to decide her future. She took a deep breath, ignored the pain in her lungs, legs and shoulder, and kicked for home.
Helen felt her knuckles turn white as she gripped Sarah's hand harder as the winner crossed the line. She tried to trace the route back to Nikki, to see how far back down the field she was, but gave up as the white tapes ran into each other within seconds. She had no idea how Nikki even knew where she was, let alone how far she had left to run.
She'd also lost track of the positions, having seen Nikki overtake several people, and then, as she had looked forward to see where the next one was, had heard various groans from Sarah and Antoine as Nikki had been overtaken, more than once.
She could see that Nikki was starting to get very tired as her head rolled on her shoulders slightly. Her injured arm was moving awkwardly and it was obvious that she was hurting. She'd heard of grim determination before, but had never seen an expression to fit. Until now. Pain or no pain, Nikki was giving everything she had to this race, and it was easy to see that it mattered to her.
She didn't think that she'd ever been that single-minded about anything before, except playing Mary in the school nativity play. Not that it had mattered, as the part had gone to Michalea Turner, whose dad was a governer, and who had coincidentally managed to get pregnant in the Third form. Hardly a perfect example of a virgin, even at fourteen.
Nikki was now moving faster, and she could see her pushing to catch up with the two runners only a matter of metres in front of her. It was almost as if they were running backwards as Nikki's longer legs ate up the ground.
Someone was catching Nikki up as she hounded the next group, the two of them running together, stride for stride, Nikki slightly ahead. Being in the lead, Nikki managed to move out and take the best line around the corner.
A collective groan sighed from the crowd as someone further back slipped and fell to her knees, all eyes on the poor woman as she pushed herself to her feet and limped on for a few paces before pulling up, limping. Someone's dreams turned to dust in the space of a few seconds. Helen felt her eyes tearing up, feeling for this unknown woman who had nothing left to give.
She moved her eyes over the rest of the field, searching for Nikki again, anxious that the same fate would not befall her. She was still running, head up, putting everything she had into the final sprint for the line, overhauling the woman in front, and being caught by the woman behind.
Sarah had grabbed her hand back by now, and had assumed an attitude of prayer. Her lips were moving rapidly. Antoine crossed himself. Nearly there nearly there. Come on Nikki, you can do it.
She turned into the headwind and for a second panicked as she didn't seem to be making any headway. However had she ran, she didn't seem to be gaining on the woman in front. As they turned the next corner, so that the wind was coming from her right, she seemed to find a sudden burst of speed, overhauling the woman in front and closing down the group of three ahead of her.
As she pushed forward again, she heard footsteps and then panting behind her. She tried to find something else, but was unable to prevent someone from sweeping past her. She tried to hang on to her tail, using her speed to help her past the group in front, as she rounded the final bend and the finish line was barely thirty metres away. She put everything she had into making her legs move faster, but she seemed to be running through treacle and her body no longer seemed to belong to her.
She breasted the finish line simultaneously with someone else, with no idea of how she had done. She slowed, staggering, and then, unable to keep her standing any more, her legs seemed to crumple of their own accord and she sank to the ground.
She sensed rather than saw somebody standing over her as she fought for breath against her burning lungs and the pain radiating from her shoulder.
"You OK, love? Do you need attention?"
She shook her head, unable to find the breath to speak. What she wanted now was a nice shot of pethedine, or preferably morphine; something strong enough to knock her completely out. She felt wrung out, like she'd been put through a mangle. Several times.
An official arrived, unwrapping a nice shiny space blanket. Its warmth was comforting, despite the fact that she was sweating with the effort she'd made. She drank the bottle of water thrust into her hand and started to sit up, feeling a little more equal to taking stock.
There were still women crossing the line, although, as more and more finished, she was unable to count, to try and get an idea of how well she had done. She cared, deeply, but at the same time she didn't. She was proud, and felt that she had done all she could, in the running at least; even if she could somehow have managed better in the riding.
"Glad it's all over?" Emma, the Irish competitor asked her, helping her up.
"Too fucking right. That bloody horse did for me though. How'd I do?"
"Dunno about that. You'd have to ask an official." She walked away and a medic appeared. He manipulated her shoulder, bringing forth a gasp of pain followed by a torrent of abuse as Nikki fought to free herself.
"The doctor wants to see you. Said you might need a shot."
"Right now, all I need is for you to piss off and leave me to find out how I've done." She stood up, clutching the space blanket to her, and pushed the medic out of the way, so she could see the scoreboard.
"How's she doing? How's she doing?" Sarah was practically jumping up and down as they watched the list of names on the scoreboard grow ever longer.
"I have no idea." Helen was watching Nikki, turning another corner, and being overtaken again, wondering if even she knew.
"Shit." Sarah's utterance was no more than a whisper, but it caught Helen's attention as much as if she had screamed.
Sarah didn't reply, merely pointing at the scoreboard. Helen squinted in the evening sunlight, reading down the list of names. Nikki's wasn't yet on there, and there were already eleven names on the list. "Fuckbuggershit."
"She's not going to be a happy bunny tonight." Sarah gave her a half-hug. "It's going to be a horrible night for you, love. You have all my sympathy."
"Maybe I should just fly back home now."
"She'll need you tonight, if she's not thinking about making chops out of that horse. Seriously, though, it's going to be hard. Don't be surprised if you get shouted at. Chances are, she's not going to talk, though."
"You two are going to be there too, right?"
Sarah regarded the other woman for a moment. She looked absolutely petrified.
"Of course we are. On hand with alcohol and bleep boxes, just in case Trish finds us."
"I rather hope she does you know." Helen's face was grim.
"Nikki will probably need to take her frustration out on something, and I'd rather it was her than me."
"Strangely enough, you have a point, and Nikki swearing like a trooper will stop Trish applying for kids TV." Sarah laughed. "Oooh, ooh!"
They looked around to see Nikki in a race for the line with an Amazon wearing Bulgarian colours. The determination on both their faces was compelling and they seemed to breast the line simultaneously.
Helen couldn't take her eyes from Nikki as she sank to the ground, even to try and work out what position she had finished in. She felt for her, crouched on the ground, wrapped in a foil blanket, looking like her world was ending.
After an age, the scores came up. Nikki had finished thirteenth. Outside her optimum tenth position.
They sat in silence as everyone else completed the course. There wasn't much to say, really. She only wanted to know what Nikki's decision would be.
"Do you think that's it?" Helen eventually asked. Nikki's body language wasn't positive as she had turned to look at them, her face looking bereft.
"She might give herself some leeway because of that horse; but honestly? I don't know." They watched her leave the arena, some woman talking to her animatedly.
"Come, Mees Helen. We have a duty to do." Antoine grasped her hand and pulled her to her feet.
"We 'ave to console the lady, and congratulate her."
"She did manage a personal best in the fencing, although I think she won't want to be reminded of her run time."
"She was injured. It was hardly her fault."
"I know, Helen. Don't get your knickers in twist. Come on, though, or she'll think you've skipped town." Sarah joined in and lay her arm about Helen's shoulders, pushing in the one direction she both longed to go in, and wanted to run away from - towards Nikki.
Showered and changed, dosed up with a shot of painkillers and with her arm in a sling, Nikki sat in amongst her bags, unsure about how ready she was to face the outside world. Her one amazing day had turned into a horrendous nightmare, and she wasn't sure she wanted to be with anyone right now.
She felt completely drained, physically and mentally, and was contemplating her future, although right now she didn't think she had the energy to make that kind of decision.
She looked up and felt the tired smile that washed across her face as she saw Helen leading the small group coming towards her.
"Are you a sight for sore eyes." She stood up and the three of them enveloped her in a group hug.
"You OK?" Helen whispered in her ear.
"I'll survive," she whispered back, squeezing Helen's arm with her good hand.
"What's up with your arm?" Sarah demanded.
"The doc says it's bruised, and I gave the nerves a bit of a shock. I have to rest it for a few days."
"You will 'ave to keep it in your trousers, Nik." Antoine said, waggling his eyebrows dramatically, making them all laugh.
"Now that's somewhere I reckon I can work around this." She lifted her arm slightly, trying not to wince.
"I'm sure we'll manage something," Helen said primly. "In the meantime, I think it's time we got out of here."
"Bananas." Nikki nodded sagely.
"OK, I'm going to regret this, as you two seem to have a whole separate language based on one-word phrases, but what does that mean?" Helen asked.
"Let's split." Sarah said.
"Let's make like a banana and split?"
"That's bad, Nikki."
"Don't blame me, it's what happens when you have younger cousins." Nikki fondly ruffled Sarah's hair.
"You two are mad. Can we go now?"
"Sure. Everybody grab a bag." Nikki stood back as everyone else picked up her gear.
"Aren't you forgetting something?" Sarah asked her, once they were all loaded up.
"This is your stuff, you lazy hag!"
"I'm injured, or I wouldn't ask." She fluttered her eyelashes winsomely at her cousin, before taking Helen's arm with her good one. "Come serfs. I need sustenance."
They led the way out, followed by a moaning and overloaded Sarah and Antoine.
"So how did you enjoy your day?" Nikki tried to be normal, forestalling any enquiries about her own state of mind.
"I'd have been better without the ghost of ex's past hanging around, trying to trip me up at every opportunity."
"Speak of the devil," Nikki groaned as Trish appeared around a corner, bearing a microphone, followed by a cameraman.
She dropped Helen's arm and squared herself up for the meeting. This was the last thing she felt like doing and braced herself for the confrontation.
"Hey Nik. That was a bugger, drawing that horse. Are you OK?"
Nikki gawped at her ex-lover. She had expected her to be condescending, bitchy and to take swipes at Helen; she hadn't been prepared for a resurrection of the woman she had cared so much about. The camera was off; that much was clear.
"Well, you know how it goes." Completely wrong-footed, she was gratified to hear Helen step into the silence. "Never work with animals or children."
"The animals are usually a bit better behaved. You aren't badly hurt, are you, Nik?" The genuine smile took Nikki by surprise.
"No. I'll be fighting fit again soon."
"Ready for the Olympics? You scored enough points to qualify, you know?"
"Really?" She felt Helen squeeze her hand gently and turned to exchange a look with her.
"Yeah. You know, if you hadn't had the beast from Hell, you'd have come third, given the timing of your run."
"First, if I'd been able to run properly." Nikki interrupted her, unable to keep the grin off her face.
"Probably. You did great, babes." Trish leaned in to kiss Nikki, and as she turned her head to avoid being kissed on the lips, Nikki saw Helen looking daggers at her ex.
"Thanks, Trish. Look, I've got to get a move on I need a massage and to relax. I'll catch up with you soon?"
"Sure, Nik. I'll look forward to it."
"What the Hell did you say that to her for?" She could feel Helen's fury and tension as she almost flung Nikki's hand away from her.
"Why, are you jealous?" Nikki teased her lightly.
"Of that? If that's what you want, go and get it. Just don't expect to come back to me when she decides she doesn't want you again." The tone was jokey, but the sentiment behind it was very serious.
"Children! Can we at least get back to the hotel before we brawl, please?" Sarah interrupted before they got out of hand.
"Sorry Mum. Helen, I have no intention of going back to Trish. Ever." She brought Helen's hand to her mouth and kissed the back of it. Her face showed her displeasure as Helen jerked their joined hands away and she dropped the hand as if it burnt her.
The bad feeling lasted all the way back to the hotel. Nikki was barely acknowledging her, she was sulking and Sarah and Antoine were trying to fill in the gaps, but their conversation was sporadic and stilted as Nikki merely grunted in acknowledgment.
The most awkward moment was when they went back to their rooms. Nikki solved that by flouncing off straight into the bathroom. Helen could hear her struggling and cursing as she fought to undress, then the door was shut with a bang, leaving her sitting in the lounge area of the suite, bleakly contemplating securing a second room for that night, as there was only one bedroom, with one double bed.
How did it all manage to go so wrong so quickly? She had been furious when Nikki had been talking to Trish, and had made her intentions very clear; the thrill of pleasure when Nikki had told her that Trish was history had been incredible. Then her old fear had resurfaced when Nikki had kissed her hand.
She sighed and stood to undress, stopping when she realised that Nikki was in the bathroom, and that she was the last person that she wanted to see. She sat back down again, then started pacing around the room. She could feel herself become more and more worked up and emotional. She had to get out.
She left the suite, heading downstairs to the bar.
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