Zen and the Art of Horseriding
Nikki scowled as she threw another screwed up newspaper on the growing pile in the middle of the room. Helen sighed. That was becoming to be Nikki's habitual expression these days. She never seemed to smile at all anymore; either her training wasn't going right or Helen had filming so they couldn't be together. And now this.
"Thank God you told your parents," Nikki said as she ripped through one more tabloid.
"Mmm. I don't think I'd have liked for them to find out quite like this." Helen turned the page she was reading to see yet another hugely blown-up photo of Nikki kissing her after the premiere of Zorro 2. Nikki did look rather dashing, dressed suitably for the occasion, looking almost like an extra from the picture, in long boots and trousers and a black silk shirt with full arms. "I think you look quite photogenic though, don't you?" She held up the page, displaying the picture.
"I look like an idiot here though." Nikki snarled as she grabbed a different photo, one of her after a race, with Helen wrapping a blanket around her. She was red-faced and looked like she was about to throw up, which was exactly what she had done two seconds later. Nikki viciously ripped it to shreds, dropping the pieces casually on the carpet. "How can you be so calm about this?"
"I'm not, but what can I do about it? Sue? Hardly, it is true." She shrugged, a gesture that she knew would inflame Nikki's temper, but one she couldn't really help.
"Did you think it would be this bad?" Nikki demanded, standing up to stride around, kicking balls of screwed up newsprint around the room.
"No, not quite this bad. It must be a quiet week for news. They really seem to have gone to town on you."
"Gone to town? My arse!" She read aloud, "'Gorgeous Scottish actress, Helen Stewart, up for a BAFTA for 'Best Supporting Actress' for her role in 'The Colour', has recently been regularly seen out with Nicola Wade, lesbian pentathlete best known for her swearing on BBC1's 'Superstars' programme. Does Gold equal gold? Or does this equal two careers needing publicity?"'
"Not quite approving, is it?" Helen sat up and watched Nikki pacing.
"No, not really." Nikki mimicked Helen's calm tones and swore savagely. "How come I'm a butch lesbian and you're the gorgeous actress? I'm not that bloody butch. Half the field athletes make me look as butch as 'My Little Pony'"
"You looked very butch riding up that hill on your bike in 'Superstars'."
"I looked more like I was having a fucking heart attack." She looked at Helen. "How do you cope? These photographers are driving me crazy."
"Ignore them and get on with my life."
"Helen, they're camped outside right now. They've interviewed everyone you ever went to school with, and even Trish has been approached to see if I've got any interesting sexual peccadilloes, apart from the obvious."
"How do you know that? Did she tell you? When?" Helen's senses, always alert for news of Trish, hit the stratosphere whenever Nikki mentioned her. She couldn't quite get over Nikki's past, particularly as Trisha had been one of the 'Superstars' presenters. That had been a very uncomfortable few days, having Nikki and Trish loose in Spain, filming, while she had been stuck in Elstree Studios doing post-film recording.
"Helen, you know I don't talk to her unless you're around. I no longer have her numbers, I've changed mine so she no longer has them, and I'm not interested in her anyway. Please, just get over it."
Helen was silent. She knew that she had a huge jealousy problem where Nikki was concerned. She felt sometimes like she wanted to be with Nikki 24-7 and Nikki wasn't having it at all. She even got jealous of the make-up girl who had done their make-up for the Screen Actors Guild Awards after Nikki had made comments about the girl's cleavage. Nikki had protested that it hadn't been her fault; the girl had asked her to look down, and when she had, Nikki had been able to look straight down her top. And so had Helen when it had been her turn to have her make-up done. And she had been just as impressed as Nikki. But then she had worried about getting a boob job, because maybe Nikki didn't think hers were good enough.
Neither of them spoke for a minute. Helen because she knew she wanted to ask, but didn't want to give Nikki the satisfaction of displaying her paranoia, and she knew that Nikki knew she wanted to ask, but wasn't going to volunteer the information. It was one of her most annoying traits.
"It's all here. Page 8." She threw a page at Helen. Looking at Trish's picture, she could see that Nikki had been there already, even if Nikki hadn't told her. Trish's eyes had been punched out with a pen, and Nikki had childishly drawn spots on her and blacked out several of her teeth, making her look a little like a horse.
"Christ Almighty!" Helen rapidly scanned the interview, taking in several of the more lurid details.
"Is that because I frequently bedded her and our friends, usually at the same time, and not to mention the horses, or because I apparently gave a whole new meaning to 'the food of love'? Nikki grinned slightly.
"I don't know what you're grinning about. Sounds like your appetites aren't entirely natural, the way this reads." Helen snapped. It wasn't the obviously made-up details she cared about she knew all about those from her own experiences; it was the revelation that Nikki was a ten times a night 'love monster' who wanted it between events at competitions that bothered her. Nikki had never, ever been like that with her. Energetic, yes, she conceded, thinking back to her birthday, but not, what was it that Trish had said? Ah yes: 'Nikki Wade would go at it with more energy than the Duracell bunny'.
"If you believe anything Trish says, you're sorely mistaken. I've never been at it all night, certainly not before or after competitions; you've seen what I'm like."
"I've seen what you're like with me, yes. I have no idea what you were like with her." Helen said coldly, knowing how unreasonable she was being. Several of her ex's had crawled out from under their various stones and made equally untrue comments about her. She was still considering suing over the 'four in the bed', only doing it when she was dressed up as a nurse, story. Interestingly enough, Nikki had howled with laughter over that one.
"Not as good as I am with you." Nikki crouched in front of her. "I love you, Helen. I mean it." She fumbled at her pocket for a minute. Look, I was saving this for Monday night, but I want you to have it now." She held out an unmarked, dark blue jewellery box.
Helen stared at it, mesmerised. Was Nikki finally proposing to her? They had never really mentioned Helen's joke about getting married again. They still hadn't had the chat about what they both wanted from life, or children either, really. Helen had been too afraid that she would drive Nikki away. Had Nikki really not forgotten it either?
"Don't you want to open it, then?" She hadn't seen Nikki smile like that for ages; her eyes were warm and tender, not reserved and closed as they had been so often of late.
"I don't know what to say."
"I'd open it first, if I were you. You might hate it." She shifted awkwardly.
"I'll love it because it's from you." She leaned forward to kiss Nikki before taking the box, leaned back and opened it carefully. There was the reassuring twinkle of gold before she realised it was what looked like a miniature BAFTA award on a gold chain.
"I just thought, Janus would protect you look after you now and in future.." She was shifting awkwardly on her feet now.
Helen picked up the charm on its chain and admired the two faces, one smiling, one with a downturned mouth. The face seemed very familiar somehow, and glancing at Nikki, she could see why.
"Do you know the artist who made this?" She asked suspiciously.
"Sort of a friend of yours, was it?" Helen's suspicions were in overdrive. It seemed too coincidental that whoever had made this didn't know Nikki.
"A friend of Sarah's actually. She's a wannabe jeweller to the stars, and I thought, you know, a favour for a favour." She grinned, engagingly. "Sarah asked her to make it for me. Even sat for it, see?" She pointed out the profile that now Helen looked at it, did resemble Nikki's, but was definitely her younger cousin.
"It's beautiful." She stood up and walked into the circle of Nikki's arms, held out to her. "Thank you." She held it up to Nikki with one hand as she pulled her hair away from her neck with the other, turning to face the mirror.
"I thought so. Like you." She felt Nikki's lips move gently to where her hands had just rested.
"You're so sweet."
"You're very trying Nicola Wade." She felt hands on her body now, moving gently but restlessly over her hips and abdomen. "Now, how would you like to show me some hot love-bunny action?" She felt the rush of air against her neck as Nikki laughed, and then she was wrapped in warm arms.
"Sounds like a plan, although I hope you don't want a virtuoso performance. I'm not as young as I once was, you know." Helen could see Nikki laughing in the mirror, and grabbed a cushion and hit her with it, not quite managing to break free from Nikki's tight embrace. Laughing herself, she reached behind her to tickle Nikki until she was pulled away, in the direction of the bedroom.
Helen leant forward, hands on her knees, panting, trying to catch her breath.
"How the fuck did they get here?" She gasped.
"A little bird must have told them," Nikki replied, leaning back against the wall and glancing around the corner in her best 'spy' mode, trying to see where the chasing pack of paparazzi had got to. "I think we lost them."
"What possessed you to decide to go out tonight? Talk about sheer bloody lunacy."
"More like a desire to commit very public hari-kari." Nikki replied, critically watching Helen finally stand upright. "I think you should go back to riding again. You're not as fit as you were this time last year." She was proud of the fact that she had barely broken a sweat, and that she wasn't even breathing hard.
"We are not all super-fit athletes, you know. Some of us are just boring actors, strolling players trying to entertain, to make people forget about their lives for a while." She ducked below Nikki, looking around the corner before pulling back and giggling.
"What's up with you?"
"That was fun, that's all. I haven't had to run from the press since I snogged you at Zorro."
"No," said Nikki thoughtfully. "But then again, that was the last time we went out together.
"Hmm, before you finally became famous."
"Give over. 'Superstars' is hardly fame."
"Saturday tea-time telly is obviously popular with all the baby dykes out there." Helen grasped Nikki's arm firmly as they began walking. "How many photo requests have you had?"
"One or two." Nikki was defensive, knowing exactly what was coming next.
"More like thousands. All wanting signed piccies of you in a crop top and shorts. Or less. All from women. Strange that, isn't it?"
"Helen, the letter you got from that bloke last week wanted you to wear nylon knickers for two weeks, and then vacuum pack them before posting to him for 'freshness', and you're worried that I've had to send out a few photos?" Nikki couldn't help herself and started laughing, the indignant look on Helen's face sending her into fresh paroxysms.
"You are a cruel woman. That was a one-off."
"And what about the woman who was convinced that you were the new gay messiah? Move over Peter Tatchell, your crown has been stolen by a woman who managed to bring a 'moving awareness of homosexuality' to a straight prostitute in 'Oliver Twist' Sunday tea-time telly, no less. Which I thought was a contradiction in terms, by the way."
"That was an ambiguous review," Helen sniffed back at her. "You are the latest lesbian icon." She reached for Nikki's arm, tucking her own inside it as they began to wander aimlessly, enjoying spending time with each other.
"Just because I'm gay doesn't mean I'm a cause, Helen." Nikki snapped.
"You're nervous, aren't you?" Nikki hated the fact that Helen found her so easy to read sometimes.
"You'll be great."
"I've got the eyes of Britain on me. It's hell."
"This time tomorrow "
"It'll all be over and I'll be comatose." Exhaustion or alcohol; she had no idea which, she just knew that one of them would have removed her from the world.
"You should go back to the Village."
"I'd rather be here with you."
"You need to sleep."
"Tomorrow I'll be vilified before I even set foot on the range, just because I was out here with you. If I lose, you'll be the villain of the piece, for leading me astray before my 'best-ever chance of Olympic glory.'"
Huh. You've been condemned for changing me from a 'family' actress, whatever that is, into 'every young man's fantasy'."
"I don't know about that, but you're my fantasy." Nikki let her lips start a trail across Helen's face.
"You know, for someone completely unknown before winning 'Superstars' and snogging a BAFTA nominated actress, you've come an awful long way in the last 6 months. Everyone wants you to win a medal."
"Which means that if I fail, I'll be in such deep shit, I might as well not go home."
"You'd bloody better; there's a you-sized hole in my bed!"
"Ah, with plaudits like that, how can I fail to impress my waiting public?" She mock-bowed to Helen as they came to a stop outside the electronic gates. "I guess this is my stop." She looked up, and was unable to stop a shiver passing through her. Anticipation, or fear?
"Just a goose walking over my grave. I'll be fine." She leaned in to kiss Helen. "You could try to sneak in; or use all that lovely wonga of yours to bribe a guard," she suggested as they surfaced a few moments later.
"You could try to sleep tonight," Helen suggested.
"I need you."
"You could always ask your room-mate," Helen said mischievously.
"Hairy Mary? Good God, no. I think she'd enjoy it too much. I've always had my doubts about shot-putters and steroids."
"I thought her name was Michela?"
"Probably Michael on weekends. Have you seen the size of her? She could eat me for breakfast."
"Just make sure she doesn't!"
"Don't worry, little one, you're the only one for me, and I think that the British press have made that very clear over the last few weeks."
"If I'd known they'd be that intrusive, I'd have left you alone for the last few weeks."
"I'm glad you didn't, Helen." She leant down and breathed in Helen's perfume. "You know, I feel like a knight going into battle. I should have a favour from you." She gripped Helen's hips firmly.
"No, Nikki, not in the street where anyone can come across us." She felt Helen struggle in her arms.
"I don't mean that sort of favour," Nikki protested. "Although if you're offering " She grabbed at Helen again, and she twisted out of her arms.
"Well I'm not. What sort of favour?"
"This will do just fine." Nikki pulled at the thin piece of silk around Helen's neck.
"If that will inspire you, have it by all means." Helen unwound it and passed it over to Nikki. "Will you be alright?"
"Nine o'clock now, I'll be in bed in an hour. I probably won't sleep all that well, though." She sighed. "Thanks for coming."
"I wouldn't be anywhere else in the world right now."
"Not tomorrow you won't." Nikki allowed Helen to pull her into her arms, stroking her back. "Tomorrow you won't be able to wait to get out there."
"I know. I know you, Nikki. This time tomorrow, if you haven't done your best you'll be moaning and cursing. Even if you have, you won't consider you have. Whatever happens, however well you do, I'll be there for you."
"Thanks." They hugged and kissed, and finally Nikki reluctantly detached herself. "I have to go."
"I know, darling." She stood on her tiptoes and kissed Nikki's forehead, eyes and mouth. "For luck, for a good night's sleep, and just because."
"Oh, and my parents sent this for you." Helen thrust an envelope at Nikki before turning and walking quickly away.
Nikki turned into the gates, showing her pass at every checkpoint along the way to her room, a process that normally irked her to a level way beyond irritation. She felt as if she had left part of herself behind when Helen had walked away, and laughed and mocked herself for so quickly becoming so used to Helen's presence in her life. She had prided herself as a loner all her life, being like Rudyard Kipling's 'Cat that walked by himself'. Now she wanted Helen with her at moments like these, where she had hitherto retreated inside herself. For the first time, she really needed something, and she wasn't entirely sure how happy she was about it, although she couldn't even comprehend what life would be like without Helen Stewart.
As she let herself into her shared room, she could hear 'Hairy Mary' snoring and moved straight into the en-suite bathroom. She sat on the floor, back against the door, fiddling with the letter for ages. She wasn't sure she wanted to read it. Her relationship with Helen's father wasn't easy. They liked and respected each other, but there was always the undercurrent that he thought Helen would change her mind. Or at least, that's how Nikki read it. Maybe he thought she would change her mind about Helen? Fat chance.
As she started to lose feeling in her bum, she ripped the envelope decisively. A page fell out, written in a small, copperplate hand on a single sheet of onion-skin paper. It had obviously been written with a fountain pen.
It was one phrase, from the Bible. She stared at it, uncomprehending for a moment.
' they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary '
She smiled as she folded it back up and replaced it in the envelope before turning off the light and returning to her bedroom. She slipped Helen's scarf and the envelope under her pillow and tried to relax her mind, deliberately putting tomorrow's pressures away from her and letting sleep claim her.
Once more, Helen sat, gripping Sarah's hand, squeezing it as hard as she could. Antoine was on her other side, busy with a pen and paper, as ever trying to work out the current rankings and failing miserably. They were all silent as they waited for the final event, the run, to begin.
This time, Nikki had had a reasonable show in the shooting, done very well in the swimming with a personal best, done OK in the fencing, causing Antoine to groan and hide behind Helen. Her ride had been quite good, and she was currently lying 13th, which made Helen wonder why Antoine was even trying to make his calculations.
"Yes?" She gripped Sarah's hand even harder, the waiting driving her mad.
"They haven't even come out yet."
"I know." She looked across at the so familiar and yet so strange profile.
"I can't feel my fingers." As Helen stared across at her, confused, she extricated her fingers. "Can I have my hand back?"
They stared into each other's eyes for a moment until Sarah took pity on her, holding out her hand again.
"Come on, old woman. She'll be fine."
"Old? What do you mean, old? I am not old. It's that bloody cousin of yours that has turned me grey! She's trying to send me into an early grave. You see this?" She grasped her hair, which hadn't been coloured for a while. "It's her fault."
They were distracted by a cheer as the athletes came out for the run. She picked out Nikki, looking relaxed and remote among them. She didn't look around her at all, and barely seemed to be on the same planet as anyone else. Helen envied that detachment, and loathed it at the same time, knowing how it felt when it was turned on her.
The first runners sped off, the jostling for position commencing immediately, and then the next runners were off. All too soon it was time for Nikki, starting about two seconds behind the woman in front. It took barely ten seconds for her to overtake her, and then Helen lost her position among the convoluted course.
"How's she doing?" Antoine asked her a few seconds later.
"I'm not quite sure." Sarah replied after realising that Helen was lost to them for the duration.
"Is she OK?" Antoine pointed at Helen.
"Give her about 10 minutes, and she'll be fine."
After the first lap, Nikki was doing quite well, and had overtaken several people, although she was being hard pressed by a small group behind her. She was looking quite strong, still tall and striding out long.
Helen was feeling the adrenaline surging through her body, and was finding it hard to sit still and watch. She would have done anything to help Nikki at this moment in her life, running under the 5-ringed flag and the flame. She had done her best to instil her own belief in Nikki into the woman, but wasn't sure sometimes if Nikki had that self-belief of her own, despite her arrogance when it came to sport.
"What do you think?" She leaned over to ask Sarah.
"I think that this time she's got a chance."
The bell rang as the leaders swept past into the final lap. From what she could see, Nikki seemed to be lying around seventh, but it was hard to be sure, as several of them seemed to pass the bell at the same time.
Nikki felt like her lungs were being ripped out. The fire spread up through her chest, and she felt the pressure growing behind her eyes. The power of the adrenaline flooded her body and she surged forward, psychologically pushing at the bell, with 500 metres left to run.
She sensed the woman hanging behind her shoulder, and gave an extra push to destroy her. As she left her behind, she closed in on a friend of hers, Emma, an Irish competitor she'd known on the circuit for many years. She drew level, gave her a sideways glance, semi-apologetic, as she'd never beaten her, and strode past her. For a fleeting second, she felt incredible, indescribably invincible. She could do this.
She threw her head up and strode out, keeping her concentration on avoiding the divots, and slowly, inexorably closing down the woman in front of her. The seconds ticked on, the distance to the end ever-shrinking, slowly but surely drawing to a close her last Olympics; probably her last competition. She was never going to go through this again. The realisation galvanised her, and as they drew closer to the finish tape she pushed herself harder and harder, determined that she was not going to go out with a whimper, but with a bang.
As she closed down and passed the runner in front, she could feel the crowd start to lift her. For once in her life she became conscious of what was around her when she was competing, and she used the surge of emotion she felt as she ran, driving her beyond that which she thought she could do.
Dimly, she heard the echoes of the bell as those well behind her entered the final lap. Given the course, once more set out in the show-jumping arena, she wasn't exactly sure of much, except that there were several women ahead of her that she had to overtake if she were ever to lay claim to having been able to do her best.
The metres crept up on her and crawled past. Each one felt like she was running through treacle, and yet vanished before she was even aware of it. The seconds slipped away like grains of sand that she was unable to capture and hold in her hand.
As she threw one leg in front of the other, constantly striving for something more than she thought she could give, for the moment she believed. She believed that she could win, that her fantasies would come true and that the gold could, and even would, be hers.
The burning spread from her chest to her legs, an all-consuming fire, subsumed into her very being. She saw the target in front of her, felt the beat of feet behind her and stepped up a gear. She had the third placed woman in her sights. This was the moment to step up a gear. She kicked for home. Beat by beat, step by step, she could feel her progress and she overtook, and again. Once more, and for an amazing, dizzying moment, she was in the lead.
Even as she lengthened her stride, pushing forward for the ultimate prize in sport, she wondered if it could possibly be real. What she had wanted, dreamed of, ever since she had been a child had been placed within her grasp; the Holy Grail of all athletes, anywhere, and everywhere, in the world was within reach. All she had to do was take it.
She was determined to make no mistakes; to be the ultimate, the woman with her name on the record books in this competition was incontrovertible; there forever; incontestable; irrefutable, and indisputably the champion. A dream lived, and achieved. A dream in itself.
She could sense someone behind her, speeding into her space. Suddenly, in a flash of red, white and blue, Nikki had competition. From leading from the front with a hundred metres to go, she was carrying a passenger on her shoulder. They fought, the battle almost physical. The pressure was immense and she tried to compensate, pushing at her own physical barriers. She could hear breathing at her shoulder, and tried to inject even more urgency into her own stride, lengthening it as far as possible, greedily grabbing inches.
The feeling of pressure built behind her, with every single stride. Dum dum dum It was her heartbeat, but just slightly off. Once more, she tried to do something about it, pushing, extending her stride, her ability, her desire just that little bit more. It was the one who wanted it most who would get what they wanted, wasn't it? She wanted it, more than anything else on Earth. More than anyone else had ever wanted this. So she should win. Shouldn't she?
She didn't even know what had happened. One moment she was running her heart out, and the next she was lying on the ground wondering what had happened and who had won. She'd been in tie situations before, and she had always known who had won. You always knew, ultimately. She knew now.
The music blared out, 'Land of Hope and Glory' echoing around the stadium, the athletes standing on the podium as the flags were raised. Helen couldn't even bring herself to sing; she was too busy trying to suppress the tears that threatened to overflow, and the lump in her throat. It was unbelievable.
Nikki stood there with her flowers, a Union Jack tied around her neck, like a cape. She had started singing, but had stopped, and Helen was sure she was crying.
As the music came to an end, Nikki raised her arms, flowers and all, and acknowledged the crowds cheers, before once more shaking hands with the others, and hugging them. Then, for the final photos, she stepped up one place, onto the first place podium, as did the bronze medallist. They held their medals out, Nikki's gleaming silver in the sun.
"Are you proud?" Sarah asked her.
"Very. She did her best."
"You know what she'll say, don't you?"
"That no one ever remembers who came second?"
"Got it in one. Nikki will never be happy with that."
"You think? Look at her. She's proud as Punch." Nikki was indeed grinning like a maniac, waving frantically at them, and posing proudly for pictures with her team mate, a young 20 year old in her second year of senior competition who had pipped Nikki at the post. Her grin was wider than Nikki's, and she kept looking at her gold medal as if she couldn't believe it.
"What do you think, Antoine?" Helen pulled him into the conversation.
"Me? I theenk eet is a leetle sad. So young, and now she haf no idea what to do now. To get your dreams so young must be hard."
"That's not quite what I meant, but yes, it must be hard for her." She wondered what it must feel like to get what you wish for so early on in life. Would anything ever better it, that feeling of being on top of the world?
Her eyes moved back to Nikki. She would never know it now, although she looked pretty happy with herself. She was trying to pry herself away from the gold medallist, but was being held back. Nikki wouldn't want to take anyone else's glory, although it appeared she was basking in some of her own, as flashbulbs popped around her.
As if she knew Helen was thinking about her and watching her, she looked up at her, mouthing what looked like 'soon'. Helen hadn't even been able to meet up with her yet, to congratulate her. She felt sidelined, almost. She was not a part of this part of Nikki's life, and after the razzamatazz of the next few days were over, neither would Nikki be.
"I'm retiring after this." She had said to Helen over dinner the previous night.
"What are you going to do?"
"Pop star, astronaut, train driver," she had laughed, ticking off each job on her fingers. "I thought about getting married, settling down and teaching kids to ride, or something. Or maybe running a riding school for egotistical actresses."
"Not commentating?" Helen had asked archly, unable to resist.
"It's not my scene. I'm not happy in front of a camera, Helen. I'd like to go back to what I'm good at."
"Did you say get married?"
"Yup." Nikki's eyes had glinted in the candlelight.
"Some Chinese athlete who needs an English wife to get a passport."
"Helen, I want to settle down, that's all I meant. You know, no more living out of a sports bag, getting up early to train. I thought we could take a little time out to be together for a while. Then I can start to sponge of my rich girlfriend so I can be a lady wot lunches."
"A lady wot lunches?" Helen had asked her, amused. She couldn't quite see Nikki as part of the Harvey Nicks set.
"I don't know. Maybe a personal trainer?"
"Not to women if I have any say in it."
"Maybe to one particular actress," Nikki said slyly, giving her an arch look.
"I think one actress might benefit from having you around. I believe she pays quite well, too."
"Great. Why don't you get her people to talk to my people and maybe we can do dinner tomorrow night?"
She looked at Nikki standing there now and wondered what was going through her mind. Her past? Her future? Probably just the present. Helen hoped that Nikki would relax long enough to enjoy what was happening to her right now. This wouldn't last for long, and the future would happen all too soon.
She felt the outside of her pocket, feeling the paper crackle satisfactorily under her hands. She'd been offered another job, just for a few months in the States, and she wanted Nikki to come with her this time. Then, well, who knew what? But it would sure as hell be a better ride with Nikki than on her own.
The stood apart at the gates to the athletes village, almost as if meeting for the first time. Nikki looked tired, but aglow with something that Helen recognised as achievement. And happiness. The smile on her face was apparent, ever-present.
"You did it."
"Close but no cigar."
"Can I see?" Helen realised that Nikki wasn't wearing her medal, rather holding the case in her hand. She opened it up for her to look at.
"It could have been worse."
"Anyone but a Brit," came the laconic reply.
"I thought you'd never ask. I'm starved."
They started walking together, slowly, shoulders barely touching.
"I'm very proud of you."
It wasn't the Nikki that Helen knew. She would have thought that Nikki would be as high as a kite after the day's events, and wasn't sure how to take this intense, quiet, self-possessed woman.
"Thanks." The word came out of nowhere after a long silence, taking Helen by surprise.
"For what?" Helen replied.
"Everything. Being you. Understanding."
"I'm not the understanding type."
"For letting me have the chance. For the support. For not judging." She sighed heavily. "I feel like I let you all down."
"You didn't let anyone down, let alone yourself."
"It seems weird to be over the hill at thirty-two, you know."
Helen grasped her hand, interlocking their fingers. There was nothing to say to that. As they walked on in silence, autograph hunters came up to Nikki, waving their books and pens like talismans at her. Then, realising who she was with, they waved them in Helen's face too.
Helen stole brief glances at Nikki as she coped with the recognition. The people were unusually deferential, quiet, well-behaved. Helen wished it was always like this. There had been times when she feared for her clothes.
"Are you happy?" She asked as they finally managed to make it to the restaurant.
"With you, yes."
"With everything else?"
"I feel like I'm on a precipice looking down right now." She turned to look into Helen's eyes. Not for the first time, Helen felt that those eyes had the power to see into her very soul. "It's kind of scary."
"I'm right there with you, baby. Always. Let's take the plunge together." She gripped Nikki's hand and gripped it hard, and they smiled at each other. "Together," she repeated.
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