The Coward

by Mark Annetts

Pointless rambling introduction/disclaimer: This is one of those uber things that rather cleverly gets around any unfortunate copyright nonsense. But between you and me, the two main characters do bear an uncanny resemblance to two of Greece's finest. Well, Greece in a sort of Texan and New-Zealanderish kind of way, if you know what I mean.

Anyway, this is about a rich kid from California and a stoical private eye from London, and how their courage changed the world. Or something.

The only warning I can give is that at one point two women get hot and sweaty with each other, in amongst all the car chases, huge punch-ups, and massive explosions. Now really, come on, people, this is the twenty-first century. Surely love is love and hardly requiring any such warning, is it?

By the way, I might have exaggerated the action a little bit. Well, quite a lot, really. Sorry about that. And to be honest the sex is pretty tame, too. Oops.

Serious bit: I'd like to thank the Bards' Village for enduring the early versions and being kind enough to point out my many shortcomings. I'd especially like to thank Stacia for her fabulous proofing, without whom this story would be riddled with ofs instead of offs and yours instead of you'res etc. So, if you think it's bad now, just imagine how awful it was before Stacia spinkled her magic dust on it. :)


Part 2

"So, is it back to the club, or go see my dad's office?" asked Nikki, munching her way through a bowl of cereal. Terri was doing sit-ups, using her metal foot loops.

"Not sure, haven't decided," she grunted between sit-ups.

"Well, let me know when you've decided," Nikki said, picking up the remote, flicking channels from CNN to Channel 4's breakfast show, and turning up the volume.

Terri stopped her exercising to say something about asking first, but shook her head and continued with her sit ups. Nikki laughed and muttered at something on the screen.

Terri stopped again. "What... what did you say?" she panted.

"Nothing, I was talking to the TV."

"You were talking to the TV?"

"Sure, doesn't everyone?" asked Nikki, spooning another great heap of Cornflakes into her mouth.

"Not everyone," muttered Terri darkly, trying to get back into a routine. "Oh, this is hopeless." She got up and unsnapped the loops in disgust, stalking off towards the bathroom for a shower.

"What's the matter, Farmer, another cold, lonely night getting to ya?"

"The rent just went up, Blondie," she shouted back, through the open door of the bathroom. Nikki grinned at her ability to rile Terri so easily. She leaned back on the comfy leather chair, looking over to the bathroom. She realised the door was open enough for her to see the mirrored wall at the back. Her breath caught as she watched Terri stepping into the shower.

"Bad grrrl, stop it... stop it at once!" she chided herself quietly. 'Yeah, right,' she thought, unable to tear her eyes away.

"Stop what?" Terri called from the bathroom, rinsing her long, dark hair, apparently oblivious to Nikki's scrutiny.

'Damn her and her freaky hearing,' she grunted to herself.

"Oh, nothing, Farmer, just something on the TV," she called back, breathing a sigh of relief at her quick thinking. Terri stepped from the shower and started to dry herself. Nikki closed her eyes and sighed. 'Why me? This is just so not fair!'


Nikki jumped. Terri was standing right next to her, towelling her hair dry.

"Er, no, everything's just fine."

"You looked a little worried there for a moment."

"No, I'm fine. Even my back's feeling better, see," she said, bending over and twisting to demonstrate her new-found suppleness.

"That's good. Maybe we can get a bit more done now you're on the mend," said Terri, moving off to her bedroom.

Nikki closed her eyes and moaned in frustration, shaking her head slowly from side to side.

Part Five

Terri paid the man in the kiosk, taking the paper he held out in return. She quickly flipped through the pages looking for any news on the incident at the club.

"Couldn't you just ask your friends at the station?" asked Nikki, walking by her side as they made their way through the congested streets of the City, the commercial centre of London. They were heading for the main offices of Sparcon, the shipping company owned by Nikki's father.

"I could, but this might tell me what I need to know," replied Terri, still scanning the pages, deftly weaving in and out of the pedestrian traffic without looking up from her paper.

"Do you have built-in radar?" asked Nikki, having been bumped for what seemed like the hundredth time by on-comers.

"It helps being six feet tall, they tend to see you coming," Terri answered, still reading the paper.

"You saying I'm short?"

"Wouldn't dream of it, Kontos."

"That's a bit harsh, isn't it?" said Nikki indignantly.

"Not really."

"Farmer, did you just say what I thought you said?"

"What did you think I said?"

"I'm not going to say."

"That makes it a little hard for me to answer then, doesn't it?"

"You said something crude."

"No I didn't."

"Yes you did!"

Terri grinned at Nikki. "Calm down, I said 'Kontos', it's Greek."

"Oh," said Nikki blushing lightly. "Of course... I knew that. What does it mean?"

"You don't speak your mother tongue?"

"I sure do, I speak American, just like my mom."

"Uh-huh, well read this," Terri said, handing over the neatly folded newspaper, pointing to a small item on the previous night's events at the club.

Nikki read out loud "Police are treating as suspicious an incident in a private club in Soho in which a woman drank some corrosive cleaning fluid. The unnamed woman is said to be poorly but in a stable condition, said a hospital spokesperson last night."

"Interesting, don't you think?" said Terri.

Nikki shrugged. "I suppose... er, why?"

"Well, for one thing there's no mention of the club's name, nor the name of the victim herself, let alone that Rachel's a policewoman."

"What does that mean, that the journalists are lazy, or what?"

"It means that someone's deliberately keeping it low key and out of the papers."

"Is that good or bad?"

"Don't know yet. It could mean many things."

"I thought you said it was interesting?"

"Interesting's such a relative term, don't you think?"

"Why are conversations with you such a chore, Farmer?"

"Are they?"

"See, there you go, answering a question with a question."

"Do I?"

"I give up."

"Good, because we're here."

They both looked up at the towering skyscraper looming above them. Nikki stumbled slightly but Terri caught her, still looking upward herself.

"Sorry, Farmer, looking up at tall buildings this close always makes me lose my balance."

"Why do you do it then?"

"Dunno really," she said, frowning.

"Uh-huh, well, lay on McDuff, take me to your company ferrets."

"Yeah, they are pretty weasely, now you come to mention it," Nikki grinned.

They passed through the revolving doors into a small, nondescript room. A board on the wall detailed who was housed on what floor. Ten lifts with several people standing waiting completed the foyer. Terri and Nikki managed to get a lift to themselves.

"So, Sparcon only takes a couple of floors, I thought it would be more." said Terri.

"No, this is only their London office, the main headquarters are in Athens," replied Nikki.

"That where your dad is?"

"Probably, though he could be anywhere, Sparcon's got offices in New York and Hong Kong, plus a few other places."

"You go to any of them much?"

"Not really, only if there's a boat show near-by."

"Do they have that many boat shows?"

"Enough to keep me travelling for a lot of the year."

"Must be a hard life."

"Well, someone's gotta do it, so I figure it might as well be me," Nikki said, smiling smugly.

"Have you considered your future with Sparcon?"

"No, not really. What do I know about running a shipping company?"

"Christos seems to see you as a threat."

"He's a jerk."

"Doesn't mean he's wrong."

"Well, I don't want the stupid job, and the sooner these goons understand that, the sooner they'll leave me alone."

"What did you mean when you said that they wanted to hurt you?"

"I think they want me to lose my job and come and work for them."

"Who's them, your dad?"

"No, I don't think he's involved. I think there are people in the company that don't want to see Christos take over, and they think I'd make a convenient substitute."

"How long before your dad steps down?"

"Oh, decades in theory, but every now and then he threatens to retire early and 'leave it to the kids' as he says."

"How do you know this if you never see him?"

"I've been told."

"By who?"

"Well, John, for one."


"Yeah, he's the guy I asked to find where you lived. His team does all sorts of searches and investigations into whatever the company needs."

"How do you know you can trust him?"

"Jesus, Farmer, you're as suspicious as Christos."

"Maybe, but I've found it's the best way to be."

"Best for what?"

"You don't get hurt so much."

Nikki snorted. "Can't see anything hurting you, Farmer."

"What makes you think that?"

"You're so... together, so at ease with yourself, assured and confident, dynamic... stuff like that."

'Yeah, well add lonely and bored to the list,' Terri thought sadly to herself.

"What you thinking?" asked Nikki.

"That it's a nice lift."

"Right... er, nice."

"Where are we going?" asked Terri.

"Eighteenth floor. That's where operations lives. Where John and his team hang out."

"Why have offices in London at all?"

"Back when my great-great-grandfather founded the company it was originally called the Anglo-Greek Shipping Company. Back when Britannia ruled the waves, it was de rigueur to have a presence here. Not so important now, of course."

"No, I guess not."

"I believe they used to have over half this building back in the seventies, but it's shrunk to just two floors now."

"You weren't even born in the seventies."

"So, I can read, you know."

Terri was about to reply when the lift arrived. A large imposing desk, complete with a sleekly groomed woman, blocked the way to the rest of the floor. Two security guards stood impassively behind her, apparently ready to repel all unauthorised boarders.

"Ms Takis, a pleasure to see you again, and so soon after your last visit," said the woman behind the desk.

"Hi Gloria. This is Terri Farmer, she's my guest, I'm going to show her around."

"Would you like any assistance?"

"Nah, I've got it covered."

The receptionist managed a fixed smile and nodded.

"Would you care to fill out a visitors form please, Miss Farmer?" Gloria asked, sliding a piece of paper towards Terri. Nikki took the form and ripped it in half, dropping it back on the desk.

"Not required, she's my guest," she announced sweetly.

"Miss Takis, it's company policy that all visitors--" Nikki leaned forward holding up a hand, shutting Gloria up mid-sentence.

"One day I'll be running this company, so be nice and do what I say, huh?" Her voice had dropped low and menacing. Gloria swallowed, simply nodding.

They swept imperiously past reception, down a long corridor into a small office. A large door with Nikki's father's name was at the other end, behind an expensive desk.

Terri raised her eyebrows. "So, you're going for the top job after all?"

Nikki shrugged. "Nah, but she doesn't know that. You have to put them in their place every so often, they forget themselves. We can ask John to come up and see us in Dad's office and get this all cleared up."

"I take it you don't think John is involved in your blackmail, or any conspiracy to dump Christos?"

"No, I'm pretty sure he's clean."

"How do you know for sure."

"He's in love with me," Nikki said casually.

"He doesn't know you play on the other team?"

"It's never come up in conversation, but as his job's research and investigation I can't imagine he doesn't know."

"But you do keep it hidden enough to worry about what your present employers might think."

"It's dumb. I'm pretty sure they won't care one way or the other, but they're old fashioned enough to think that it matters that they appear to be, so they'll feel obliged to do something. The stupid thing is, I doubt anyone really cares that much these days, they're all just afraid about what the other person thinks and they act accordingly. If we could just get people to realise that nobody cares it would all just go away."

"You can always try for Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park, I'm sure we can find an extra tall soap box for you."

"You're making fun of me again, Farmer."

"Never," Terri said straight-faced.

"Good, because I'll be forced to prod you in the ribs again."

"That'll cost extra."

"It'd be worth it."

They stared into each other's eyes for a moment till Terri broke away and perched herself on the secretary's desk. "Shall we call John and get this show on the road," she asked.

"Let's get comfortable in the big chair next door first."

"After you," Terri said, sweeping her hand towards the inner office door.

Nikki opened the door and stepped through with Terri a pace behind. Had Terri not possessed the reflexes she did, she would have crashed into the back of Nikki who had stopped still, mid-stride.

"Hello, Nikkoletta," said a man behind a huge desk filling one wall.


"In the flesh." He spoke in clipped English without a trace of an accent.

"How come... no one said... why..."

"No one but you and your friend knows I'm here." He stood up and came round the desk, holding out his hands. Nikki ran into his outstretched arms, both of them hugging each other.

"Oh, Dad, it's been too long," Nikki whispered, tears in her eyes.

"I know, little one, I know."

"How'd you get here without anyone seeing you?"

"I can't tell you all my secrets, Nikki," he said, smiling.

"Hidden executive lift," said Terri. Nikki relaxed her hold on her Dad, swinging round to look at Terri. He laughed, but didn't deny Terri's statement.

"You must be the redoubtable Miss Farmer," he said, holding out his hand.

She took it, returning the strong grip measure for measure. "And how do you know who I am?"

"I know lots of things, Miss Farmer. I'm grateful for the help you've given my daughter over the past couple of days."

"You knew about that?" asked Nikki.

"My own daughter being admitted to hospital with a major wound? I could hardly miss it, there were so many communications on the matter."

"You never called," Nikki said reproachfully.

"I knew you were in good hands."

"Your fatherly concern does you proud," said Terri.

"Farmer..." growled Nikki.

"No, she's right, I shirk my duties as a parent, I always have. That you've turned out as well as you have it entirely due to yourself and your mother. How is she, by the way?"

"She's fine."

"As if you don't know already," added Terri. Nikki's father slowly released his hold on his daughter.

"You are perceptive, Miss Farmer. My information on you didn't do you nearly enough justice."


"Let me see," he said, reaching over to a slim file on his desk. He flipped it open, reading the first page. "Teresa Jane Farmer, born eighth of December, nineteen seventy. Educated to degree standard, reading science and engineering. Fluent in several languages and beyond black belt in at least two of the martial arts. Joined the British Army as a graduate student, fast tracked through Sandhurst, where you passed out top of your year. Seconded to the United Nations peace keeping force as a Captain in the Signals regiment. Resigned your commission unexpectedly. Why was that exactly, Miss Farmer?"

"I didn't like the food."

"Of course," he said, smiling faintly. "Returned to the UK and joined the police force, but left after only a year. The food again, I presume?"

"No, I didn't like the hat."

"Ah, quite so. Presently self-employed as a private detective. The food and hats more to your liking there?"

"So far."

"You live in an expensive apartment in Chelsea but still owe over a million pounds on it."

"Yeah, but I own half of it already."

"Would you care to own the other half, while you're still young, Miss Farmer?"

"Is that some sort of threat?"

"No, no, you misunderstand me. I'm offering you a permanent position that will help you to achieve financial security."

"What sort of position?"

"To the point. I like that, Miss Farmer. May I call you Teresa? I'm sure there's no need for such formality."

"Farmer's just fine."

"As you wish. Well, firstly, I want you to protect my daughter. Just do what you've been doing. Secondly, I might have an investigative job for you. Would you be interested?"

"Depends what the job is."

"I think some of my ships are being used by an organised gang of smugglers. I wish to put a stop to it."

"You've got John and his team, so Nikki tells me. Let them handle it."

"They have been trying but with little success so far. One might be tempted to come to the conclusion that they're not trying very hard. But I'll give them the benefit of the doubt for the time being. No, this would be an independent investigation by an outsider, someone with no potential vested interests."

"Why not just hand it over to the police?"

"Of which country?"

"Whichever one suits."

"I think not."

"What if it led to places you might not be comfortable with?"

"Ah, you mean my son?" Terri raised her eyebrows in acknowledgement. "I don't care where it leads, I want the truth. Does this mean you're interested?"

"I'll think about it."

"You're very quiet, Nikki," he said, turning to his daughter.

"It's all a bit sudden, Dad, is all. I'm having trouble taking it all in."

"That's understandable."

"Is there any point in asking to see John now?" asked Terri.

"I've had words, it won't happen again."

"What won't?" asked Nikki, a puzzled look on her face.

"I think someone misinterpreted one of your orders, no?" said Terri.

"Again, I admire your astuteness, Miss Farmer. Yes, somebody over-reacted when I suggested casually to them that it would be interesting to put my two children under some pressure to see what they were made of."

"What the hell did you do that for?" demanded Nikki.

"It wasn't my plan to see either of you hurt, I assure you."

"Well I hope you fired the sorry sonofabitch's ass," ranted Nikki.

"He has been dealt with, I promise you. Now, Miss Farmer, what is your decision?"

"Let me think on it. I've got other things to deal with at the moment. I can't just drop them."

"If it's a financial problem then that can be dealt with swiftly, Miss Farmer."

"Not everything revolves around money, Mr Takis. Or can I call you Alex, now that we're not being so formal?"

He smiled his thin smile again. "I like you, Farmer. I can't tell you how refreshing it is, not to have yet more obsequious fawning."

"I try my best."

"Yes, I think you do." He looked at his watch. "Still, time is money and I'm booked on a flight to Moscow in an hour. If you don't mind I've a few things to attend to before I go."

"How will I contact you," asked Terri. He reached into his jacket and pulled out a business card.

"That's my private mobile and my secretary's private line. One of us will always answer twenty-four hours a day. Please contact me when you have something to tell me."

"Come on, Nikki, we're being politely thrown out."

"Dad?" Nikki said, looking at her father.

"Go with Miss Farmer, Nikkoletta, you're in good hands."

"But... but... "

"Come on," Terri said, gently taking Nikki's arm and leading her to the door.

"One more thing, Miss Farmer," Nikki's father called out.


"I see that you've never been married, and you are presently without a partner."


"Is it something I should be interested in?"



"I hope you find it interesting that it's something that's none of your damn business."

He nodded, pausing for a moment. "Yes, you're right."

"That it's none of your business?"

"No, it's interesting that there is something that isn't my business. Good day, Miss Farmer. I hope to hear from you soon."


"Interesting person," said Terri between long, slow licks. They were both sitting on a park bench, eating ice-creams.

"Yeah, that's one word for him," replied Nikki sullenly.

"Not someone to get on the wrong side of, I'd imagine."

"I wouldn't know."

They lapsed into silence, Terri concentrating on her ice-cream, Nikki staring at the carefully laid-out herbaceous borders of the park, not really seeing them.

"You want that?" asked Terri, nudging Nikki and pointing to her melting ice-cream.

"No, you have it. I'm not in the mood right now."

"I've always figured that there is never a bad time for ice-cream," she said, happily relieving Nikki of her cone.

"Why can't I have a normal father?"

"Probably goes with the territory, I'd imagine."

"What territory?"

"Super-rich business types. All work and no play. Not surprised your mum bailed."

"He couldn't have always been like that, surely?" said Nikki.

"What else were you thinking of?"

"You know, love, romance, dating, all that."

"Maybe your mum liked the idea of a never-ending supply of spending money. Found out too late it was way over-rated?"

"I guess."

"You're young, Nikki. One day your princess will come. Then you can spend the rest of your life showing your dad how it should be done."

"What about you, Farmer. Will your er... whatever come?"

"If they don't I'm not doing it right."

"Very funny, Farmer. I'm being serious here."

Terri shrugged, licking another great scoop of ice-cream into her mouth. "Not something I've ever really dwelt upon," she said, frowning slightly, obviously uncomfortable with the subject.

"You think there's someone out there just for you, the other half of your soul?" Nikki asked.

"I don't know."

"What if they're close by already, but you just don't recognise it?"

"Damned if I know," muttered Terri.

Part Six

Farmer finished her ice-cream. "What now, Boss?"

"Hah, it's only Boss when it suits!" replied Nikki, scornfully.

"At the moment it suits."

"In that case, take me home."

"Would that be hotel home, Farmer Mansions home, or California home?"

"Farmer, I'm not in the mood, just take me back to your place... please."

"Home it is," Terri said, rising fluidly from the park bench, holding out her hand. Nikki took it without comment, allowing herself to be pulled effortlessly to her feet.

"Do we have to go back on the subway?"

"Not if you don't want. There's buses, taxis or legs; take your pick."

"How far would it be to walk?"

"Oh, if we kept up a good pace we could be there in a couple of hours."

"Fine, we'll get a taxi."

"As you wish." Terri looked up and down the street. It was teeming with traffic, but no taxis were amongst the rush. "Let's walk down towards the river. There'll be plenty of taxis down there."

"Sure," Nikki replied, not really listening.

"Still thinking about your dad?" asked Terri, as they ambled slowly southward.

"Yeah, I guess."

"Not happy thoughts."

"No, not really." They lapsed into silence.



"Did you get along with your dad?"

"He was my best friend."

"And your mom?"

"Her too, though she and I, well... we tended to argue a bit."

"What about?"

"Oh, this an' that; the usual."

"Tell me."

"She didn't like my tomboy ways much. It always caused tension between us."

"You a tomboy, who'da thought?" Nikki said, smiling for the first time since they'd left her father's office.

"Yeah, big surprise, huh."

"When did you realize it was cool to be a girl?"

Terri thought about it for some time. "Not sure really," she said quietly. "Cost me a lot of things I really wanted, over the years."

"Farmer, you can't be serious, you couldn't be more woman if you tried."

"Didn't say I wasn't any good at it," Terri smiled.

"Not that you bother with all the frilly stuff. No makeup, no girly clothes, but you can't hide what you are. I bet the boys were all over you in college."

"A few tried."


"They didn't try a second time."

"Kick-ass even then, huh?"

"My dad let me go to karate lessons from when I was four," Terri said, her eyes losing focus as she thought about the past. "My mum wanted me to go to dance lessons and piano. We compromised on martial arts. She must've talked herself into believing it was just another form of dancing." Terri laughed at the thought.

"But your dad knew?"

"Oh yeah. He used to take me to the competitions."

"I bet you had a room full of trophies."

"A couple."

"Is that when you wanted to be a boy?"

"Yeah, they had all the power. I had to work so hard just to be as strong. I felt I'd been cheated. Then I figured God just wanted me to work harder than all the others."

"Which you did, of course."

"They took their muscles for granted, I didn't."

Nikki reached out and squeezed Terri's upper arm. Her bicep tensed at the touch, swelling slightly. It felt like oak covered in velvet to Nikki.

"Damn, woman, they're like... like rock-solid. Awesome," Nikki enthused.

"Yeah, well, I've been doing it for so long, I don't even think about it." Terri shrugged, slightly self-conscious at the close scrutiny.

"So now you can thank God for giving you the drive. Had you really been a boy you would've taking it for granted, like they did."

"Don't believe in God anymore."

"Oh, why not?"

"Nosey little thing, aren't you?"

"Just making conversation, Farmer. Getting to know you more. I think we need to if we're going to be together so much."

"Who says we're going to be together?"

"But I thought... Dad's offer an' all... you'd--"

"Haven't decided yet," Terri said brusquely, cutting off Nikki's words.

Nikki frowned at the thought of Terri not being around for much longer. "Well, you must be getting to like me."

"And why's that?"

Nikki swung round and started walking backwards a few paces ahead of Terri. "Because you let me touch you and you didn't flinch or toss me on my butt," she said grinning. Terri stopped walking, reflexively touching her arm where Nikki had squeezed her.

"You'll catch a fly," Nikki called, still grinning.


They reached the Thames, neither of them apparently in any hurry to locate a taxi for the ride home. Nikki leaned on the railing overlooking the large river. Across from them, on the opposite bank, they could see the London Eye, the capital's latest landmark, a huge Ferris wheel built to commemorate the new millennium.

"Impressive," Nikki said.

"I suppose," Terri replied.

"Nothing much impresses you, does it?"

"A few things."

"Such as?"

"What is this, bug the bodyguard day, or something?"

"Just answer the question, Farmer."

"Why should I?"

"I'm the boss, remember?"

"Oh yeah, silly me."


"You wanna know what impresses me?"

"Yeah, and don't say employers who don't ask any questions, either!"

Terri was about to comment on that, but she thought better of it; instead, she closed her eyes briefly, shaking her head. "I like watching the sunrise on the African plains. I like the way light reflects off a butterfly's wings. I like sitting in a comfy chair reading Shakespeare on wet Sunday afternoons. I like people who respect the sanctity of life. I like the smell of new-mown grass. Most of all, I like people who leave me alone."

"Wow, Farmer. And I thought you'd tell me how impressive a Smith 'n Wesson was, or how great a Chevy V8 sounded."

"Yeah, well, it just shows you never really know anyone, no matter how much you think you do," Terri said, walking off towards the Tower.

Nikki jogged up beside her. "You're not cross, are you?"


"You kinda look it, a little."

"Not cross, 'promise."

"Good. Where're we going?"

"There'll be plenty of taxis up by the Tower, what with all the tourists, an' all."

"Wow, the Tower of London. I've never been there."

"Just a castle full of old stuff."

"Not on your list, then."


"Why not?"

"It's a homage to war and death."

"I thought you liked all that?"

"Used to, not anymore."

"Is that why you left the army?"

"Sort of."

"What does that mean?" asked Nikki.

"It means sort of."

"You liked the army but not the reason why it's there?"

Terri smiled. "Very good, Nikki."

"I'm not as stupid as you look, you know, Farmer."

"No, I guess you're not."

"Hey, can we stop and sit for a while?" Nikki said, pointing to one of the many benches that lined the river's edge.

"I thought you wanted to get home."

"I do, but... my back's hurting, I'd like to rest it a little."

Terri looked at Nikki. "Why do I get the feeling that you're milking your back a little?"

"You've got a suspicious mind, you told me so, remember?"

"Yeah I did, didn't I. Okay, we can sit awhile, if that's what you want." Nikki grinned in triumph. They sat down, looking out over the river.

"You haven't told me why you don't believe in God anymore," said Nikki, idly watching a small barge drift by below them.

"Do you ever stop asking questions?"

"Not usually."

"You'd make a good detective."


"Yes, really. That's the first requirement of any good investigator, to ask as many questions as possible."

"That I can do."

"Yes, you can."

"So, why don't you?" asked Nikki again, after a short pause.

Terri sighed. "It's a damn good job I'm going to charge your father a lot of money for this."

Nikki grinned. "Does that mean you're taking his job offer?"

"Not permanently, and on my terms."

"I wouldn't expect anything less," Nikki beamed.

"And if you really want to know the reason I don't believe in God anymore is because if he, she, or it, exists and they let the things I've seen happen, and go on happening, well, they're not worthy of my, or anyone else's, belief."

"What things?" Nikki asked softly, slightly alarmed by the venom behind Terri's words, and the sudden fire in her eyes.

"You don't want to know," Terri said flatly. Nikki could see that she had no intention of continuing the conversation.

Nikki wanted to change the subject and said the first thing that came into her head. "Did you ever have any dolls when you were a kid?" 'Ooh, that was lame, even for you, Nikki,' she winced.

Terri paused for a moment, raising an eyebrow. "A few."

"What sort?" asked Nikki, surprised that Terri had even answered the question.

Terri coughed and shrugged slightly. "I erm... I had a couple of Action Men. I think they called them G.I. Joes over on your side of the pond."

"Figures," she said, smiling. "No Barbies?"

"Didn't want one."

"I had loads of them, plus tons of accessories."

"I bet you did, Miss Silver Spoon in her Mouth. I had to make do with a heavy machine gun emplacement and a frogman's outfit, but they were cool. I gave my Action Men names, they were Clint and Burt."


"Burt was never the same after Prince chewed him and buried him in the back garden; suffered some real battle fatigue." Terri smiled at the memory.

"I take it that was a dog formerly known as Prince?"

"Yeah, a big old Alsatian. One of his ears always hung down, never did stand up like the other one. Daft as a brush, but he loved us unconditionally, for all that."

Nikki smiled back. "I can beat that; my mom caught me having two of my Barbies making out on their fairy tale four-poster bed."

Terri laughed out loud. "Even then it was an exclusive girl's club, huh?"

"Oh yeah, I knew even back then that would be no Ken in my life."

"How old were you?"

"Seven or eight, something like that."

"And you knew all about the birds and bees at eight?"

"No, not really. I just knew that I didn't like boys. Not just 'cause they were loud and stupid. Hell, there's plenty of girls afflicted the same way, it's just I knew, and that's all there was to it."

"What did your mum say when she found you and the Barbies?"

"She said I shouldn't do that in public but it was okay at home."

"That was all, no recriminations, no rants?"

"No, she was cool about it."

"Chalk one up for your Ma, I like her already."

"Yeah, she is kinda neat," Nikki smiled.

"And how did your dad react, assuming you've told him."

"I did, when I was fifteen. He didn't react at all, just said 'Oh' and left it at that."

"Could've been worse."

"True, the horror stories a couple of my friends tell just defy description."

"It's a cruel world."

"That it is," Nikki replied, sadly. They watched another barge drift by in silence.

Terri turned to Nikki. "Is your back rested enough, or haven't you quizzed me sufficiently yet?"

"I think it's time we went home," Nikki replied, smiling.


"This will cost me an extra hour on the bars, you know," said Terri, happily chewing into a large pizza they'd picked up on the way back to the flat.

"A growing grrrl needs sustenance," replied Nikki between bites.

"Yeah, well, when you start growing a fat little tummy don't blame me."

"Abs of steel," Nikki said, proudly jabbing herself in the stomach and taking another large bite.

"Not if you keep this up."

"Then I'll have to join you on the bars."

"I figured you more for a fancy gym type, with lots of expensive exercise machines and hot and cold running personal trainers."

"Unfortunately they wouldn't let me take them on the plane."

"What is it with airlines today, huh?"

"I know, they just don't get the important things, do they?"

They both smiled at each other, their eyes locking. Terri coughed, turning away. "Erm, I don't think there's a lot to be gained by watching the club tonight. I doubt anything's going to happen. I expect the place will still be crawling with cops."

"Whatever you say, Farmer," said Nikki, grinning.

"I'd better phone your father and tell him the good news," Terri said, picking up the telephone and pulling his business card from her pocket. She got up, dialing his number as she headed for the kitchen. Nikki switched the TV on, flicking through the channels. She didn't find anything she wanted to watch despite two full cycles through all of them.

"He accepted my terms," Terri said, coming back into the room.

"You didn't expect him to?"

Terri shrugged. "I doubled my normal fee just to have a starting point to haggle a bit, he accepted it without comment. Wish I'd have trebled it now."

"How did he take you not wanting to become a permanent employee?"

"He didn't say. Maybe he'll offer again, when this is all done."

"Will you accept?"


"Didn't think so. So, what now?"

"Now we wait for a courier. He's going to get some details sent over to fill in the background to the case he wants me to look into."

"What'll we do in the mean-time?"

"There's books, videos, DVDs, and satellite television. I might even be able to come up with a pack of cards."

"Ooh, a girls' night in."

Terri's eyebrows lifted. "Let's just make it perfectly clear. There are no fairy tale four-poster beds here."

"Spoilsport," said Nikki, grinning.

"That's me." Terri smiled back, but inside she was confused. It was all happening so damned easily. Nikki was fitting into her cloistered life as if she was always meant to be here. Could she have found a real friend after all this time?

"Penny for them."

"What?" asked Terri.

"Penny for your thoughts. Or has inflation struck and it's now a pound?"

"That's a great idea."

"What is?"

"I can get you a jar. Every time you want to ask me a personal question you have to put a pound in the jar. That way I'd soon be a multi-millionaire and I could retire to the Bahamas."

"Yeah right, and what would you do in the Bahamas?"

"That'll cost you a pound to find out."

"Screw you, Farmer."

"You can't, you know what your mum said, it was only okay at home."

"I like to think of this as my second home now."

"Tricky," said Farmer, grinning at Nikki's quick thinking.

"That's me," she grinned back.

"How about we just find a film to watch?"

"Do you have any popcorn?"

"Sorry," Terri replied, shaking her head.

"How can you watch a movie without popcorn?"

"Oddly enough, I've managed on a fair number of occasions so far."

"Okay, what did you have in mind?"

"I don't know, I haven't checked on Sky, they've got a dozen or so movie channels, there's bound to be something on."

"Bound, now there's a good movie," said Nikki.

"It's all right, I guess. I preferred The Matrix, their follow-up."

"Yeah, well you would, all that kung fu stuff."

"I liked the science fiction aspect more. The kung fu was... exaggerated."

"You don't say."

"I do say."

"And you should know."

"Yep, I should know."

"Anyone ever tell you, you were too smug for your own good at times, Farmer?"

"Not to my face," Terri said smugly.

"Hmmm, so while we watch a movie, some fruit-loop is out there attacking innocent women?"

"What do you suggest, we go on patrol?"

"Like the Scooby gang?"

"The who?" asked Terri, puzzled.

"The Scooby gang, you know, Buffy."

"The Vampire Slayer?"

"Yeah, her."

"I've never watched it."

"But you've got a mug."

Terri shrugged. "It was a present from a young boy I helped find. He'd had an argument with his parents and ran away. He had it sent to my office."

"So, you don't watch Buffy, is that what you're saying?"

"Er, no, sorry. I've seen enough real horror to not go seeking more of it for entertainment."

"Buffy's not horror," Nikki snorted. "It's comedy."

"Oh, I just figured what with the vampires and stuff... you'll have to introduce it to me, then."

"I'll do that. I'll even hold your hand during the scary bits."

"I thought you said it was a comedy?"

"It is, but it does have vampires, so I thought I'd offer."

"You're too kind," said Terri.

"Are we going to watch a movie or are we just going to talk about it all evening?"

"Call up the guide and see what's on."

"You do it, it's your TV," she said tossing the controller to Terri.

A few presses of buttons and exasperated mutterings later, "There's nothing worth watching."

"Told you," said Nikki.


"After I'd gone through all the channels when you were in the kitchen."

"You did not."

"Did too."

"Did not."

"Did too."

"And they say the art of conversation is dead," said Terri, rubbing her eyes.

"You sure there isn't a fairy tale four-poster around here?" asked Nikki with an evil grin.

Terri sighed. "Why me?"

The door-bell chimed. Terri flicked on the TV to show a courier standing at the door carrying a large brown bulky envelope.

"You watched me on that thing?" asked Nikki.


"You're so sneaky, with your hidden cameras and your bugs."

"I like to have an edge," Terri said, opening the door and signing for the package.

"Being Superwoman's not enough?"

"I might meet a small blonde with a fistful of Kryptonite, then where would I be?"

'At my mercy,' thought Nikki, smiling to herself.

Terri opened the envelope, pulling out some documents and photographs. She quickly read through the first few pages.

"So, what's it all about, where're we going?"

"How's the south of France sound? Marseilles, to be exact."


Part Seven

"Would you... come with me? I mean right inside," asked Nikki, hesitantly. Terri could see Nikki was growing more agitated by the minute.

"If you really think it's necessary."

"I do, I do. And besides, Farmer, it's your job to protect me!"

"I think you'll be safe with the doctor. They've taken an oath, you know."

"They could've lied," Nikki said petulantly.

Terri smiled. "If you want me to be there, then I'll be there, okay?"

Nikki's shoulders relaxed. "Thank you, Farmer. I know I'm being a coward, but I've got hundreds of the damn things to come out."

"I know," Terri said, instinctively taking Nikki into her arms and giving her a gentle hug. Nikki sighed, closing her eyes and leaning her head against Terri's shoulder.

"Hmm, this is nice," she mumbled into Terri's shirt.

"Don't get too attached, it's just a hug," cautioned Terri, but still smiling. 'If Nikki were a cat she'd be purring,' she thought.

"I'll take what I can get."

"I'll bet you will, but time's up, Nikki I'm afraid, we should be getting you to the Doc's." Nikki resentfully allowed herself to be gently pushed away from her safe haven.

"You will hold my hand when they break out the pliers, won't you?"

"I think they'll need me to hold you down, especially when they start with the heated needles."

"It's not funny, Farmer," Nikki pouted. "I don't like doctors at the best of times, let alone ones I know are going to hurt me."

"I doubt the doc will actually do it himself. Probably get one of his nurses to do the dirty work. He'll just take a quick look and send you a huge bill for the privilege." Nikki's father had arranged for her to be booked into one of the prestigious, but very expensive, private clinics in Harley Street.

"Will she be a babe?" asked Nikki, perking up a bit at the idea.

"For the money they'll doubtless be charging your dad, I think it highly likely."

"Well, come on, Farmer, what are we waiting for, let's go!"

"Yes, Boss."


Against either of their expectations it was a young female doctor who saw them. She was happy for Terri to accompany them into the surgery, once they explained she was Nikki's personal bodyguard. Harley Street doctors were obviously used to that sort of thing.

"I thought you'd get a nurse to do this -- ow!" Nikki said. She was lying face down on a deeply padded leather examination table. The room was more how Nikki imagined a gentleman's club to be decorated than a doctor's surgery.

"That's one down, only another forty-seven to go," the doctor said cheerily, dropping the stitch into a stainless steel dish.

"Forty seven!" Nikki exclaimed. "Jesus, I'll never survive," she groaned, gripping Terri's hand harder still.

"I'm sorry, Ms Takis, but you heal faster than anticipated. Some of your stitches are getting a little over-grown, I'm having to dig for them. That's why I'm not asking my nurse to do it. He's a bit squeamish at the sight of blood," she said, chuckling to herself at her little joke. She merrily continued snipping, digging, and tugging her way down Nikki's back.

"Remind me not to get cut up by a loony again, will you Farmer -- ow! " she squealed for the fifteenth time, scrunching up her eyes so hard a few tears squeezed out and ran down her cheeks.

"Doc, can't you do something about the pain?" asked Terri.

"I can give you a quick spray with a mild numbing agent, will that do?" asked the doctor.

"Please," Nikki said gratefully. The doctor left for a moment to get the aerosol.

"Damn doctors, no sense of other people's discomfort. They're the same the world over." said Terri, tracing her thumb across Nikki's cheek, removing another stray tear.

"Sorry, Farmer, you must think me a total wuss," Nikki said, biting her bottom lip in pain.

"Shshhh, Nikki, it's okay. It'll soon be over and we can get out of here. How about we go find some new DVDs to buy? There might be a small cafe somewhere nearby, we can order some ice-cream sundaes?"

"Sounds good," she mumbled into the table. The doctor returned and sprayed Nikki's back. Ten minutes later all the stitches were removed and the wound re-covered.

"It's not going to split back open when I'm least expecting it, is it, Doc?" Nikki asked, attempting to button up her shirt with trembling hands. Terri gently pushed her hands aside, doing up her buttons for her.

"Just take it easy for a week or so," said the doctor. "I wouldn't recommend swimming for at least a month, and try not to disturb the scab too much. Let nature takes its course and you'll be good as new, with nothing but a faint scar to show for your little adventure."

"Thanks, Doc, though I wished you'd have used the spray earlier," Nikki said, sniffing.

"Expensive item, we only use such things when we must," the doctor said cheerily, pulling her latex gloves off and dropping them in a bin.

"Nikki, you go on and wait outside for me a moment. I'd like a word with the doctor," said Terri, gently propelling Nikki towards the door. Nikki stood by the open door, uncertain, looking back at Terri.

"There's not a problem, is there, Farmer?"

"No, no problem, Nikki. You go on, I'll only be a minute." Terri said, smiling warmly.

"Okay, see you in a minute." She closed the door behind her. Terri's smile dropped and her eyes narrowed. She slowly turned around.

"Can I help?" asked the doctor.


"I thought you said we were going to the south of France, not this... this Southampton place," said Nikki indignantly. They were on a train heading away from London, towards the south coast of England. It had been two days since Nikki's stitches came out, and to Terri's eyes at least, Nikki seemed fully fit and back to normal. They had watched the club again the previous night but nothing of any significance had happened. The night of Nikki's return from the doctors had been spent eating ice-cream and popcorn -- which they'd made a point of stocking up on -- and watching DVDs on Terri's big screen television. Terri was somewhat surprised to discover she had enjoyed herself immensely, chatting about movies and munching popcorn, which she had to admit had added greatly to the experience.

"Patience is a virtue," replied Terri, looking out the window at the passing countryside.

"I don't see how the south of England can be mistaken for the south of France."

"It can't. Well, it shouldn't be, put it that way. I did read once of a tourist who thought he was driving to Newcastle in the far north, from the southern port of Dover. When the police finally caught up with him he'd driven round the London orbital motorway about ten times. So I guess you can never underestimate the ability of folks to get things wrong."

Nikki laughed at the story. Terri found herself unaccountably pleased to have made her happy.

"So why are we going to Southampton and not Marseilles?"

"It's pretty simple really, we're joining a vessel at Southampton oil terminal that sails for Port-de-Bouc in the morning."

"We are?"

"We are."

"And where does the south of France fit into all this?"

"Port-de-Bouc is the major oil terminal a few kilometres down the coast from Marseilles."

"Think you've got it all worked out, huh?"

"Nope, it was all written down in the stuff your Dad sent, which, if I'm not mistaken, I told you to read, and inwardly digest, before we left, did I not?"

"Yeah, yeah, I was busy."


"Yeah, I had lots of things to do," Nikki said defensively.

"Such as?"

"Hey, is that a cow?" Nikki said, pointing out of the window.

"I expect so, we killed off all the bears centuries ago," Terri said, smiling, closing her eyes and leaning back into the comfortable seats of the first class carriage. When Nikki's father organised things they certainly were organised.

"So, what's our cover?"

"It's tricky, but we should manage. You're playing the part of the owner's daughter on a fact-finding mission to see what it's like to run an oil tanker, and I'm going as your personal bodyguard. Think we'll be able to pull it off?" A smile hovered fleetingly about Terri's lips as she slid her sunglasses down from the top of her head.

"Very funny, Farmer, ha ha."

"Thought you'd like it."

"Farmer, can I ask you a question?" asked Nikki after a short pause.


"It won't cost me a pound?"

"On the house."

"What did you say to the doctor the other day, after I left?"

"Nothing much," Terri's voice an icy monotone.

"Come on, Farmer, I know you said something."

"It's not important now, it's all in the past."

"I wanna know," Nikki said stubbornly.

"I simply reminded her of her duty as a doctor."

"I sort of figured it was something like that. You didn't, erm, hurt her or anything, did you?"

"Never laid a finger on her, though the callous bitch would've deserved it."

"Which of the Farmer's rules did she break?"

"She--," Terri paused, an inner truth revealing itself to her. "She was hurting a good friend of mine, which could have been avoided, all for the sake of a few lousy quid."

"She was only doing her job."

"No, she wasn't, she was failing in her job."

"What did you say to her?"

"I pointed out that the love of money was the root of all evil... amongst other things."

"Is that all?"

"That's all."


"Would I lie?"

Nikki considered it for a moment. "Think she took any notice?"

"Oh yeah, she won't be pulling a stunt like that again in a hurry, least not while I'm around."

Nikki couldn't help smiling at her dark knight defending her behind her back. "Farmer, did you just say 'good friend' a moment ago?" she asked, thinking back to what Terri had said.

Terri paused again. "Yeah, I guess I did."

"Are we?"

"Would you like us to be?" Terri said, a touch of uncertainty in her voice.

"I'd like that very much, Farmer."

"Then it's official, we're good friends," said Terri. Nikki grinned broadly, launching herself at Terri and wrapping her arms around her startled bodyguard. "Hey, steady on there, friend, we're not dating or anything."

"I know, but I hug all my friends when we first meet," Nikki whispered in her ear, underlining her remark with an extra squeeze before letting go of Terri.

"But we met over a week ago, remember we were both there at the time."

"Yeah, but now we're officially friends, we weren't then."



The taxi dropped them off at the gangplank leading up to the oil tanker, the SS Golden Fleece. At just over one hundred and thirty five thousand tons displacement it was an impressive sight. The side of the ship towered up above them with imperious majesty.

"What do we do now?" asked a slightly overawed Nikki.

"I guess we pick up our bags and climb on up the gangplank, unless you reckon they've got slaves for that sort of thing," replied Terri, shouldering her bag and starting up the steps of the steeply raked aluminium ladder.

"Farmer, what about my suitcases?"

"Told you to pack light."



"I can't carry these, what about my back?"

"Easy, make two journeys," said Farmer, still climbing upward.

"I thought you were my friend!" Nikki shouted up at her.

Terri stopped. 'You had to go and tell her didn't you, loudmouthed twit!' she admonished herself. She sighed, looking up at the top of the ladder she could see some men leaning over the railing grinning down at her, waiting to see what she'd do. They'd apparently been drawn to Nikki's shouting down on the jetty and came to see what the fuss was about.

Shaking her head she turned and made her way back down to the bottom of the steps.

"You rang, Milady?"

"Yes, thank you Farmer, would you be kind enough to carry my bags up the gangplank for me please?"

Terri pursed her lips and looked up at the sailors looking down at them both. She turned back to Nikki, who was smiling beatifically at her.

"Certainly, your Highness," she growled, slinging her own bag diagonally across her shoulders. She effortlessly picked up both suitcases, sliding one of them under her right arm, leaving her left arm free. Without warning she scooped Nikki off her feet and over her shoulder, then marched back towards the metal stairway again.

"Farmer, put me down!"

"When we get to the top. Wouldn't want you to tire yourself out now," Terri grunted as she made her way up the steps.

"Farmer, I'm warning you, this is not funny."

"Never said it was."

"Farmer, I'll bite you in the butt if you don't put me down right now."

"Then you'll fall in the water and I really don't feel like diving in after you, so keep still and enjoy the ride... friend," she said, somehow making the last word sound like an insult.

"Oooooh, you are so dead, Farmer," Nikki snarled, her face turning bright red, a combination of acute embarrassment and hanging upside down.

They reached the top of the swaying staircase, much to the amazement of the watching sailors. "Where can I drop this?" Terri asked one of them.

"My cabin's number four on the lower deck," said the nearest sailor, in a heavy Greek accent.

"Don't think you want to share your cabin with a really pissed off daughter of the ship's owner, do you?" said Terri, grinning at the man.

"I'd take my chances," he said, grinning back.

Terri swung round so that Nikki was facing the man. "What do you reckon, Boss, you wanna camp down with our friend here?" Terri said, addressing Nikki's backside.

Nikki braced herself on Terri's lower back, pushing herself up to meet the man face to face. "Hi, could you tell me where the captain's cabin is, I've got to arrange a keel-hauling."

He laughed and pointed to a door at the base of the superstructure. "Through that door there, up the first set of stairs then take the elevator to the top floor. The captain's cabin is to your right as you come out."

"Thanks," she said and smacked Terri on the rump. "Onward, slave, take me to our new leader."

"If I'm going to get keel-hauled it might as well be for a sheep as a lamb," said Terri moving across the deck to the ship's edge. She made to toss Nikki over the hand-rail. Nikki shrieked at the top of her voice followed by a fit of giggling.

A man leaned over the bridge wing high above them, shouting something in Greek.

"What did he say," asked Nikki breathlessly, calming down from her laughter.

"I think he's a bit miffed that some silly women are disturbing his watch."

"Is he important?"

"Don't know, couldn't see the number of bars on his shoulder."

"Guess you ought to put me down, huh, Farmer?"

"I guess so," Terri said, lowering Nikki to the deck. "Maybe we should go and present ourselves?" she added.

"Right. And Farmer, thanks for that."


"It's been a while since I laughed so much."

"Perhaps we should both get out more?"

"Wherever you want to go, I'll always be with you."

Terri raised an eyebrow and looked at Nikki. The blonde blushed slightly. "That didn't come out quite the way it sounded in my head before I said it."

"Sounded all right to me," said Terri, stepping over the raised threshold of the door and disappearing inside the accommodation. Nikki looked around the deck at the sailors looking back at her. She smiled at them and cleared her throat. "She's British," as if that explained everything.

"She's very strong," one of them said, leaving the others to nod rapidly in agreement.

"You have no idea," she said, grinning.


Terri knocked on the door to the captain's cabin. They'd dropped their bags in the corridor, not knowing where else to put them.

"Come," a voice called through the door. They entered the room. It was huge in comparison to the ones they'd passed on the way to the lift. Rank obviously had its privileges.

"Captain," Nikki said, walking forward and offering her hand to shake.

"And you are?" he said, ignoring the hand.

"She's someone who can lose you your job," Terri stepped forward, looming over the man. "Easy, Tiger," cautioned Nikki. Terri glared at the man, but stepped back slightly.

"Miss Takis, I presume," he said, finally taking Nikki's hand. "And you must be Miss Farmer, the companion," he said, turning to Terri.

"That'd be me," she said, not offering her hand to shake.

"I'm not sure why either of you want to be on board my ship, but I must do as I'm told." It was obvious he wasn't happy with the situation.

"I'm not here to spy on anyone, I'm just getting a feel for the company as a whole. We'll do our best not to get in anyone's way," smiled Nikki.

"Please bear in mind that this is a working ship and many places are dangerous, especially to inexperienced civilians such as yourselves."

"We'll keep that in mind, Captain."

"Naturally you'll have the owner's cabin. It's down the corridor, past the bridge, next to the chief engineer's cabin. I've asked the third officer, Martina Gerhard, to be your guide during your stay. She's a good officer, I'm sure she can answer any of your questions. Enjoy your voyage, ladies," he said, returning to his paperwork.

"Where might we find Martina?" asked Terri.

"I expect she's on the bridge at the moment," he said without looking up. They left the cabin, Terri closing the door behind them.

"He's a barrel of laughs," she said to Nikki in a low voice.

"Maybe he's got something to hide?"


"Shall we take our bags to the cabin, then go find this Martina?"

"Sounds like a plan."

The owner's cabin was as large as the captain's. It consisted of a day room, a shower and bathroom, plus a separate bedroom. Most of the cabins on the ship consisted of a single room. Terri dropped Nikki's suitcases on the bed before shrugging out of her own bag.

"Er, Farmer, there's only one bed," said Nikki, looking directly at Terri.

"S'okay I can sleep on the couch in the living room."

"It's called a day room."


"You'll have to get with the programme, Farmer. It's now port and starboard, fore and aft, not left and right, front and back. Walls are bulkheads and floors and ceilings are deckheads."

"Yeah, well the captain's a deckhead, let's hope the third mate's a bit more human."

"We can take it in turns."

"For what?"

"To sleep in the bed."

"No, you take it, I've had to put up with a lot worse in my time."

"If you insist."

"You could at least have haggled just a little more."

"You've said it now, so I'm keeping it, the bed is mine," Nikki said in triumph.

"And I seem to recall you wanting to organise a keel-haul," Terri said, advancing on Nikki.

"Now, Farmer, quit it, or I'll be forced to call some of those sailor boys to come and restrain you," she said, laughing, but prudently backing up all the same.

Before Terri could respond someone knocked on the door. Nikki hastily leapt around Terri and raced into the dayroom to open it.

"Evening, Ma'am, I'm this deck's steward. Is there anything I can get either of you ladies?"

"Got any handcuffs?"

"Excuse me?"

"Never mind, I think she's calmed down now."

"Er, right. Dinner will be at nineteen hundred hours in the officer's mess."

"Where would that be?"

"Two decks down, straight across from the lift."

"Thanks," said Nikki, closing the door.

"Handcuffs?" whispered Terri directly into Nikki's ear.

Nikki jumped in shock. "Jesus, don't do that, Farmer! How many times have I told you to get a bell or something, creeping up on people like that ain't right."

"Oh, and handcuffing them is?"

"You'd probably enjoy it. Control freaks are all the same," Nikki said, grinning.

"He seemed like a nice boy, if you know what I mean?" Terri said, ignoring Nikki's comment.

"Who, the steward?"

"No, the guy in the leopard skin loincloth swinging past the window."



"It's porthole, not window."

"Any more perfectly good words I'm not allowed to use?"

"Probably, but I'll feed them in gradually, so you're not overwhelmed. And if you mean the steward was a bit camp, then yes, most stewards are. It seems to go with the territory."

"So we're safe in our beds, or in some cases, sofas?"

"Oh, I don't know, Farmer, I reckon if you flex those muscles at him he might have a change of heart."

"You reckon?"


"What about this third mate, reckon I've got a chance with her?"

"Who knows, we haven't even met, you might not be her type."

"I bet I could turn her head, if I wanted to."

"Are you purposefully trying to aggravate me, Farmer," Nikki said, trying hard to disguise her annoyance but failing miserably.

"Is it working?"


"Good, that'll give you something to think about when you're tucked up in that nice big double bed and I'm stuck on the sofa," she paused. "And to think I gave up hunting loonies to be here. Shall we go to dinner now?"

Nikki's eyes narrowed. "Farmer," she growled.

Part Eight

The ship shuddered as the tugs began to pull in earnest. The cargo booms had been disconnected several hours previously as the cargo loading was completed. Nikki watched transfixed from the bridge wing as the bow of the immense tanker swung out into the estuary.

"Awesome," breathed Nikki softly. Terri turned to look at her charge. The sun was just rising, catching the young woman's blonde hair, bathing it in a shimmering glow.

"I didn't think you were a morning person," replied Terri, wiping her face with a towel draped casually round her neck. She'd been exercising on the poop deck since before dawn, her sports vest now stained with a deep vee of sweat down to her tight running shorts, her long muscled legs gleaming in the sunshine.

"Oh, I'm not, but I didn't want to miss this, my first departure."

"It's only leaving port, Nikki, it's not sailing for America with a band playing, and streamers and stuff, you know," Terri said, smiling at the young woman's exuberance.

"Yeah, but it's just so... big. I've never been on anything so huge before. They've all been toys compared to this."

"Size isn't everything."

"I wouldn't know," Nikki sniffed haughtily.

The captain came out onto the wing from the wheelhouse. "Would you care to operate the wheel, Miss Takis?" he asked.

"Could I?" she said with undisguised glee.

"As long as you do as you're told and don't go crazy," he smiled.

Terri regarded the captain thoughtfully. 'Must've realised sucking up to the boss's daughter was a good career move,' Terri grinned to herself.

"The thought of Miss Takis driving amuses you, Miss Farmer?"

"The thought of Miss Takis doing most things amuses me," Terri replied. Nikki gave her a quick shove in protest, pursing her lips. Terri stepped past her, back towards the poop deck at the rear of the accommodation. As she did so her shoulder caught Nikki, making her stumble slightly.

"Sorry," Terri said sweetly.

"Don't mind her, Captain, she's just jealous because you didn't ask her to drive," snorted Nikki, loud enough for Terri to hear, as the bodyguard gracefully slid down the metal stair's handrails to the lower deck.

"I've been watching her do her stuff; flips, twirls, kicks and punches. She's quite impressive."

"Yeah, that's Farmer. Impressive's a good description," Nikki said, dreamily. The captain turned to look at Nikki.

"I see you're not the only one smitten, Miss Takis."

"What?" she said, coming out of her reverie. She followed where the Captain was looking. Several crewmen, and a couple of the junior engineering officers, had found themselves convenient spots to watch Terri as she performed her workout.

"Shouldn't they be working?" Nikki asked, frowning.

"It's their breakfast break. I can't really expect them to go elsewhere or look the other way when a fine looking, semi-naked woman decides to perform impromptu gymnastics for them, now can I?" he said, chuckling.

Nikki continued to frown. Hardly any breakfast was being consumed. Not that it would have been easy to eat with so many mouths hanging open.

"That's enough of that!" said Nikki marching towards the stairway down to the lower deck.

"What about your steering lesson, Miss Takis?"

"Later," she replied curtly.


"Are you still angry with me at the shove in front of the captain?" asked Terri, freshly showered and drinking some tea. She was lounging on the day bed in their cabin, the stewards having already been in and tidied away the bedclothes.

"Wasn't that that I was mad at, as well you know," grumped Nikki.

"What was it then, I didn't do nothing else."

"You practically put on a peep show for the crew," Nikki said indignantly.

Terri frowned. "I did no such thing."

"Don't tell me you don't know what you're doing when you let fly with those high kicks wearing those skimpy shorts of yours."

Terri burst out laughing. "So that's what all this is about?" She'd been more than a little puzzled at Nikki's sudden appearance on the poop deck demanding she accompany her to their cabin. When she'd refused to say what was on her mind, Terri had simply shrugged and gone off to take a shower.

"Damn it, Farmer, it's not funny!"

"Seems that way to me," Terri said, taking another sip of her tea. "Uggh, I do not like long-life milk!" she grimaced. Nikki didn't reply. "Besides, what's it to you if I want to show my all to the world?"

"You're my bodyguard, I expect you to behave with a little decorum." Even Nikki knew that sounded a little feeble.

"What's really bothering you Nikki?" Terri asked quietly.

Nikki came and sat down beside her. She looked into Terri eyes. "I... I don't like to share you, Farmer." she said haltingly. "I know I've got no real hold over you, and I now you're not like that. It's stupid of me, isn't it," Nikki wound down, tears forming in her eyes.

Terri put down her mug. "No, Nikki, it's not stupid, I understand, really I do." She took Nikki, in her arms, gently pushing her head onto her broad shoulder. "Please believe me when I tell you that I'm deeply flattered you feel that way about me. If I were to have a girlfriend, in that sense, I can't think of a better one than you. It's just that... well, I..." she hesitated "You're right, I'm not like that. Please don't be angry, especially with me. I'd hate to disappoint you."

Nikki closed her eyes, helpless to stop the tears. She felt foolish and embarrassed, especially with Terri showing her nothing but kindness and understanding. "I... I think I've fallen in love with you, Farmer, and it's clouding my judgement."

"Shssh, Nikki, you don't need to explain anything to me."

Nikki pulled away from their embrace and stood up. 'Any moment now she's gonna say it,' she thought dejectedly.

"Please, Nikki, we can still be friends, can't we?" Terri asked.

Nikki spun round, closing her eyes tight shut. 'I knew it!' her voice screamed in her head. She slowly turned back to Terri, surprised by the pain in her eyes. "Yes... yes of course we're friends, and we always will be," she smiled weakly at Terri.

"Come'ere," Terri said, holding out her arms. Nikki stepped forward but instead of embracing Terri she just squeezed her shoulder and stepped back.

"I think I need some fresh air. I'll see you later." She stood in the doorway looking back at Terri. "I'm sorry, Farmer." Before Terri could respond, she was gone.

Terri sat on the day bed, letting her head rest on the back of the seat. "Shit!" she said to an empty room and closed her eyes. She rubbed her hands over her face, trying to rub away the anguish she felt. "Crap, crap, crap, with a side order of crap!" Sudden anger bubbled up past her control. Her eyes narrowed and her mouth turned down. God, she wanted to punch somebody so hard, anybody, it didn't really matter who.

She forced her fists to unclench, knowing that it was herself who she was really angry at, not anyone else. "You're such a friggin' coward, Farmer," she growled, settling for a half-hearted punch to the day bed's upholstery.


"Miss Takis?" said the officer. Nikki was looking out over the ship's railings watching the coast slip away over the horizon.

"Yeah, for my sins, that's me," she replied, not looking up

"Hi, Martina Gerhard," the woman said, holding out her hand. "The captain said I was to give you the VIP guided tour." She spoke with a thick German accent.

Nikki continued to watch the fast diminishing land. She shook her head. "I should've given her more time. I always do that, just too damn impatient," she mumbled.

"I'm sorry, Ms Takis?"

"Oh, don't mind me, Ms Gerhard, just wallowing in some self-pity. What was it you wanted?"

"The captain--"

"Ah, yes, the captain. Nice guy, shame about the manners."

"Yes, he can be a little, how you say, abrupt, no?"

"I say abrupt, yes." She finally turned to the third mate. "I'm supposed to be learning how to run a ship, reckon you can teach me?"

"I can try, Ms Takis, but shouldn't you be learning how to run a company instead?" she asked, smiling slightly. Nikki smiled back, feeling a bit better than she had a moment ago.

"You're probably right, but then how would I learn all about all your dark, dirty little secrets?" Martina's face became immediately serious. "Relax, Martina, I'm only joking," said Nikki.

The third mate tentatively smiled again. "Of course, Ms Takis."

"And Nikki will do fine."

"Thank you, Nikki. Where would you like to start?"

"Where would you suggest?"

"We are an oil tanker, perhaps a walk of the main deck to look at the cargo tanks?"

"I'm all yours, Martina, lead on."

"Will Ms Farmer be joining us?"

"I doubt it," Nikki said, miserably.


Terri paced restlessly around the rear deck, like a tiger in a cage. Every now and again she'd stop to look over the railing at the wake. But a few moments of watching the churning water only made her feel more restless. Something about the roiling water unsettled her greatly and she wasn't in the mood to analyse why.

'Damn it, Farmer, why must you hide? Haven't you been alone long enough?' she scolded herself as she paced. 'Fate does you a wonderful twist for once, and what do you do, you run and hide, like you always do, like you've done all your life, you coward.'

She was stopped in her thoughts by the sounding of a klaxon and shouting. Men started running along the side of the accommodation towards the main deck. Not knowing what else to do she sprinted after them, easily catching the tail enders.

"What's going on?" she asked as they ran.

"Been an accident in the for'd pump room," he replied.

"What sort of accident?"

"Not sure, something about a gassing, I think."

"A gassing, what does that mean?"

"Someone's gone into a chamber that's not been vented. Gas from the cargo is poisonous, it only takes a few minutes to kill you," the man gasped out as they ran.

"Why would somebody do that, you're all trained, aren't you?"

"I think it's your friend and the third mate."

The colour drained from Terri's face. Without another word she sprinted to full speed, easily passing all the running men making their way forward up the long main deck.

At the bow of the ship a small raised deck stood proud, a shipwide bulkhead with a door in it, acting as its support. Terri jumped through the open door, landing on some mesh decking. She took a moment to look around, assessing the situation. It was a narrow room filled with nothing but heavy mesh mezzanine decks, connected by a series of metal stairways leading down into the gloom far below. The acrid smell of crude oil assaulted her nostrils.

"What's happening?" she barked at a man standing by the deck's railings looking down.

"I've sent Peterson to get some breathing gear. This one's not been refilled since the last exercise," he said disgustedly, kicking at some apparatus lying on the deck beside him.

"Where are they?"

"Down on the pump plates five decks down," he said.

Terri started for the stairs. "Wait, you can't go down there without breathing gear. The gas will kill you too."

She stopped, turning back to the man. "How long have they got?"

He shrugged. "Could be dead already. That stuff sneaks up on you and you just go to sleep, never to wake up. If it's any consolation, it's completely painless."

"Not to me it's not!"

The man shrugged. "I'm sorry."

"There must be something we can do?" Terri shouted, panic beginning to take hold.


Terri sprang forward, grabbing the man by the front of his boiler suit. "Yes?" she screamed in his face.

"There's a couple of resuscitators in a cabinet down on the bottom deck. They're automatic, just put them on and turn the big valve, they force the wearer to breathe, even if they're unconscious." By the time he'd finished speaking he was alone, Terri had simply jumped over the railing and disappeared from sight.

"Jesus!" he said, running to the handrail. He watched, astonished, as she caught a support stanchion, swinging out then letting go at the full length of her arc, dropping cat-like to the deck below. No sooner had she landed than she performed the same stunt again, dropping down to the deck below that one. "Jesus," he said again.

Terri reached the bottom plates in less than ten seconds, bruised and winded. Some of the drops had been further than she'd have liked, but luckily the decks were of heavy meshing, instead of solid checker plate, and had a good deal of spring in them. Martina and Nikki were sprawled out on the floor, Martina with a nasty cut on her forehead. She'd apparently fallen down the last flight of steps. Still holding her breath, Terri turned Nikki over, touching her throat. Her eyes were closed and there was no sign of breathing. Worse still, she could feel no pulse. Not stopping to check the third mate, Terri jumped over Nikki, heading for a bright red box bolted to the wall.

For some reason her hands weren't responding as quickly as her brain. Frustrated that the box wasn't opening as fast as it should, she stepped back and kicked the glass fibre door straight off its hinges. Reaching into the shattered box she grabbed the two resuscitators and ran back to the two women on the deck. The resuscitator consisted of two small oxygen cylinders in a webbing framework. A rubber mask connected to one of the bottles via a large valve that Terri turned. A little gauge on the side of the valve assembly started to rise and fall.

"Come on, Nikki, breathe for me," she said clamping the mask across Nikki's nose and swollen blue lips. Satisfied that the machine had taken over Nikki's breathing, she crawled over to Martina and did the same for her, rolling her onto her back first to fit it properly.

She blinked away the darkness that was beginning to surround her, swaying slightly as she knelt over the prone form of Nikki.

"Come on, baby, breathe for me. That's it, you're... doing fine." 'God, I feel sleepy, so... tired... got to sit down. Oh, I am already.' Random thoughts drifted through her rapidly clouding mind.

"'Scuse me, Nikki, I think I need a quick pull." Her arm felt like lead as she tugged at the mask over Nikki's face, her eyelids drooping involuntarily over her eyes. Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime, the mask came free and she took a deep, cleansing breath from the mask. Time sped back up and the lights brightened all around her as she took another lungful. 'Damn, that stuff's sneaky, I didn't even smell it' she gasped, hurriedly placing the mask back over Nikki's face.

"Nikki, wake up, you're scaring me, sweetheart," she said, lightly tapping Nikki on the cheek. She leant down, placing her head on Nikki's chest, listening for any signs of a heartbeat returning. She could hear nothing but the roaring of blood through her own ears.

"Come on, damn you!" she shouted, trying to jog Nikki back to consciousness. There was still no response. She could hear shouting and movement way up above as people began to descend the stairways. 'Must've got the breathing gear,' she thought foggily.

She stood up, "Come on, what's taking so long? My friend's dying here, you sons of bitches, get your arses down here!" she screamed up at them, but they were still a long way up and moving slowly in the bulky breathing equipment.

"Shit, this isn't good, Nikki," she said squatting down and taking another deep breath from the resuscitator. "Damn you, you stupid bitch, don't you dare die on me, your father will never pay me now," she shouted at Nikki's limp form. Tears were forming in her eyes and running unbidden down her cheeks. She wiped them away angrily.

"Screw you, Takis," she shouted, pressing down on Nikki's chest in a steady stream of pulses. "Come on, start, you bastard!" she roared at Nikki's chest, willing her heart to kick back into life.

"Please, Nikki, please. If you wake up I'll be truthful with you this time, I promise, no more lies. Never again, no more lies." She frantically pressed on Nikki's chest again.

Nikki's eyes flickered open and she immediately struggled against the mask. Terri let out a whoop of joy. "No, you must leave... it on, honey, it's... helping you to breathe," she panted. The world around her was beginning to drift into darkness again.

Nikki managed to pull the mask off her face. "Farmer?"

"Yeah, it's me Nikki, put... you must... mask... back on, darling. It's keeping you... alive," she whispered, swaying as the room started to spin.

"If this is keeping me alive, Farmer, what's keeping you alive?" Nikki croaked in alarm.

"Damned if I know," Terri managed to smile before she passed out, falling on top of Nikki.


Terri slowly rose to a bleary consciousness. She opened her eyes, immediately shutting them again at the blinding light and the pounding in her head. 'Shit, that hurt,' she groaned.


'Did I imagine that,' she pondered. 'Only one way to find out, I guess.' She tentatively opened one eye to a narrow slit.

"Come on, Farmer, I know you're in there. It's time to wake up and greet the world."


"In the flesh, thanks to you, Supergirl."


"Oh, yes," said Nikki smiling. "I understand I owe you my life."

"Maybe," Terri croaked. "You wouldn't happen to have a glass of water and some aspirin would you?"

"I can manage that, for a hero, I reckon." Nikki got up from the bed and disappeared into the day room. She returned with a glass and some pills in her hand. "The chief steward said you'd probably have a major headache when you woke up. It's a side effect of the gas. I know I sure did."

Terri opened both her eyes and groaned. "Oh, god, somebody shoot me, shoot me now," she whined pathetically.

"I'd rather not, now that I've just got you back again."

Terri sat up, gratefully accepted the drink and the pills. She'd swallowed the water and the medicine before she noticed she was naked and sitting up in full view of Nikki. She hastily pulled the sheet back up to cover herself.

"Sorry about that."

"Don't be, I was kind of enjoying the view," smiled Nikki. Terri blushed and looked the other way. "How's my champion feeling now?" she asked, sitting on the bed and taking Terri's hand in her own.

"Like I went under a low slung bridge and forgot to duck." She closed her eyes, cringing at the pain. "How's Martina? Is she... "

"No, she's fine. Seems the bang on the head worked in her favour. It slowed her whole body down enough to survive till you got there. A few minutes longer and she'd have been lost." She went quiet for a moment, looking down at her hands. "We both would," she said, quietly.

"Lucky I was passing by then," said Terri smiling, then grimacing as the muscles required to smile made her head hurt more.

"You're my guardian angel, Farmer, I'd expect nothing less."

Terri snorted, which was another mistake. She held the chilled glass to her forehead, rolling it back and forth.

"Remind me to keep you locked up for the rest of the voyage. You're just too dangerous to be let out on your own," Terri said, keeping her eyes closed.

"If you stay here with me, I might consider it."

An awkward silence descended upon them.

"Look, about yesterday..."

"The day before yesterday," Nikki interrupted.


"You've slept for nearly eighteen hours, Farmer."

Terri slumped back onto the bed. "Gee, I guess being a regular all round superhero can really take it out of a gal."

"Don't kid about it, Farmer, you are a superhero."

Terri snorted and immediately regretted it again. "I wish I'd stop doing that," she groaned, rubbing her forehead. "I'm not a superhero. Just a slow bodyguard finally doing her job, is what I am."

"I suppose ordinary people swing and jump their way down over a hundred feet in less time than it takes normal people to get down one ladder?"

Terri shrugged, looking a little sheepish. "It seemed the best thing to do at the time. Damn foolish really, I could've broke my neck then we'd all have been screwed. Some hero."

"But you didn't break your neck and you saved us both. The chief steward said if you hadn't done what you did, we'd both be goners."

Terri looked up at Nikki, still holding hands. "What were you both doing down there, or shouldn't I ask?"

"I wanted to see what was down there, I was curious. Martina thought it was safe. The chief engineer's had a look down there and found a leaking coupling on one of the pumps. It let some of the cargo pool in the bilges underneath the bottom deck. There shouldn't normally have been a problem. The whole thing was just an accident."

"Chief engineer, chief steward, you have been rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty, haven't you?" Terri grinned up at Nikki.

"I'm the boss's daughter, they've got to be nice to me."

"Yeah, of course they do. Look, about the day before yesterday, I... "

"It's all right, Farmer, you don't need to say anything. I understand, it's okay, really."

'No, you don't understand, Nikki,' Terri thought regretfully. 'Go on tell her, you promised remember?' "No, Nikki, I have a confession. I want to be honest. I..."

There was a knock at the door. Terri frowned. 'Not now, please, not now!'

"I'll get it," said Nikki, letting go Terri's hand and leaving to answer the door. It was Martina, in her dress uniform.

"May I come in?"

"Of course," replied Nikki, stepping back to allow Martina in.

"I've just come off watch, and I thought I'd check on Ms Farmer to see if she had recovered yet."

"Yes, she's awake, go on through, she won't mind."

'The hell I won't!' thought Terri, her acute hearing picking up every word. Martina hesitantly stood in the doorway to the bedroom.

"Ms Farmer. I'm glad to see you're awake. You had us all worried." She moved into the room and stood beside the bed. "I brought you something. As a small way of saying thank you for saving my life. It's not much really," she said, handing Terri a small box, "but I can't get to the shops at the moment," she smiled shyly, not knowing if Terri would appreciate the gesture.

"This isn't necessary, Martina, I was only doing my job."

"No, if you only did your job you would have picked Nikki up and got her out of there. You didn't, you stayed and saved us both. I am forever in your debt."

Terri didn't know what to say, her usual caustic wit having deserted her. She opened the small box. Inside was an old battered naval compass. On the back a St Christopher was engraved with the words "Enjoy the journey, but arrive home safely" written in German.

"It was my grandfather's, during the war. He passed it onto my father when he joined the navy. He in turn passed it onto me when I joined the merchant navy. It means a great deal to me, but I want you to have it." She leant down and gave Terri a squeeze on the arm. "Be well my friend, safe journeys always." Terri watched silently as Martina left the cabin. She looked at the compass again, still too stunned to say anything.

"Finally, Farmer doesn't know what to say. Strike one for Martina."

"She didn't need to do that," Terri said, finding her voice again.

"No, but she wanted to. Get used to it, Farmer, you really are a hero to some of us."

Terri scowled, but was more than a little pleased to discover that it didn't hurt so much, causing her to smile. She carefully put the compass back in its box and put it on the stand beside the bed. "It was a nice gesture, but I'll give it back to her before we leave."

"Won't that offend her?"

"Not if I slip it into her stuff with a thank-you note before we leave." Terri smiled again, pleased with the plan.

Nikki sat down on the bed again and once more took Terri's hand. "Now, what was that about a confession?"

Part Nine

Terri looked everywhere but at Nikki, finally settling on staring out the porthole.

"If it's too difficult for you, Farmer, we can do this another time," Nikki said gently.

"No... I want you to know."

Terri lapsed into silence. Nikki wasn't sure what to do or say. It was obvious that Terri was trying to find the words. Finally the troubled woman turned back to Nikki.

"When I told you I wasn't like that... well, how does that expression go? I was, um, being a bit economical with the truth."

'I knew it!' rejoiced Nikki mentally. She smiled, leaning towards Terri hopefully.

"Farmer, whatever you want to tell me, you know it's just between you and me. You know that, right? You do trust me, don't you?"

"Of course, Nikki, but... god, this is so hard." Terri swallowed, looking as miserable as she felt. "Well, the truth is... it's true... I'm not like that."

Nikki frowned, her shoulders slumping. "Oh," she said, not hiding her disappointment.

"No, you don't understand," said Terri quickly, seeing the look on her friend's face. "I'm not... like anything, that's what I mean."

"You're right, I don't understand," said Nikki, puzzled. "What do you mean you're not like anything?"

"I'm not gay, I'm not straight, I'm just... me." Terri sighed wearily.

"I don't get it."

Terri pulled her knees up, crossing an arm over the top and resting her forehead against it. "I've never been with... anyone. Never wanted anyone... before now. You're looking at a genuine thirty-year-old virgin," she whispered.

Nikki didn't know what to say. She tried to think of something, and a couple of times came close to speaking, but each time she said nothing, closing her mouth again. Terri's confession had taken her completely by surprise.

"But surely... well, you know, you have feelings, desires, needs?" she asked finally.

Terri's face remained firmly hidden behind her arm. She just shook her head in denial.

"Being a virgin doesn't make you sexless, Farmer, just... unproven."

"Look, Nikki, all I can tell you is I don't know what I am, okay, let's just leave it at that."

Nikki could see that Terri was close to tears. "Hey, Farmer, it's okay, really," she said soothingly, sliding forward and putting her arm around Terri's shoulder. Terri turned immediately, burying her head in the crook of Nikki's neck, grabbing the startled blonde and holding on with tenacious strength.

"It's okay, Farmer, I've got you. You're safe now." She could feel Terri shaking as emotion overtook the older woman. Warm tears soaked through Nikki's shirt. She gently stroked Terri's long black hair, waiting for the tears to stop.

"I'm sorry, Nikki," Terri gasped between sobs. "I've spent all my life on my own, never wanting anyone's company, but lately, well, I've started feeling so lonely, and you came into my life. I... I felt so disorientated, so out of control," she sobbed. "So helpless, and when I saw you lying on the floor of the pump room and I thought... thought you were dead, I felt I would die, I was panicking so much..."

"Shssh, Farmer, it's okay. You're the most together person I've ever met. A little scary at times maybe, but so together it's not true."

"You... you really think so?"


Terri's crying tailed off to some quiet sobs and a few trembles. "Oh Christ, I hate this," she moaned.

"Am I really that bad?" asked Nikki, knowing that wasn't what Terri meant, but hoping a joke might cheer her a bit.

"No not that, I mean this whole emotion thing. It sucks!"

Nikki smiled. "I know, Farmer, I know. Welcome to the real world of us mortals."

"Sod the real world, I wanna stay here."

"Getting comfortable, are we?"

"Yeah," Terri said dreamily, nestling her head a little further up Nikki's shoulder like some overgrown cat. 'A big black shiny panther,' thought Nikki, smiling at the idea.

"Farmer, believe me, I want us to cuddle for days on end, but do you think you might relax a bit with the grip, it's getting a bit hard to breathe here."

Terri released her death hold on Nikki and tried to pull away, suddenly conscious of her weight resting on top of the smaller woman. "God, I'm sorry, Nikki, you should have said something."

"It's okay, Farmer, I just did. Now come back and cuddle some more. Just... quit with the bear hugs, 'kay?" she said, smiling and pulling the scarcely resisting Terri back against her shoulder. "There, that's much better."

Terri closed her eyes, relaxing against the warm body beneath her.

"You rest some more now, Farmer, I'm here to take care of you, like you took care of me." She stroked Terri's hair again, her other hand gently rubbing the small of the troubled woman's back. "We'll talk some more when you're more yourself." It wasn't long before Terri's breathing evened out and deepened into sleep. Nikki closed her eyes and relaxed, joining her complex friend in sleep, a contented smile playing on her lips.


Terri awoke an hour later, her nap more an emotional reaction than a genuine need to sleep. Nikki was snoring gently just above her head. She smiled at the sound before closing her eyes and groaning. Had she really broken down and cried on Nikki's shoulder? She couldn't believe it. Thirty years old and blubbering like a baby. She couldn't remember the last time she cried it was so long ago. 'Oh, Nikki, what have you done to me?' she wondered.

Nikki's snoring turned into a snuffling noise followed by a sharp intake of breath. Terri could feel Nikki swivel her head from side to side. She could just imagine the cutely rumpled look of bleary confusion on the young woman's face. She groaned silently again. 'God, she's killing me' she chided herself. 'This has got to stop if I'm going to do my job properly.'

"Hey," Nikki said, when she realised Terri was awake too.

"Hey yourself."

"You feeling better?"

"A little."

"Only a little?"

"Nikki, I'm sorry, but this can't go on," Terri said softly, not daring to look Nikki in the eyes.

"Why?" Nikki asked quietly, trying to keep the hurt out of her voice.

"Because... because I can't handle it," Terri sighed.

"Farmer, I think I know you enough now to tell you that you're the toughest person I've ever met. If you can't handle it, then no one can, and plenty of lesser people do. So I have to say you're wrong."

"But I can't handle this emotional stuff, Nikki, I just... can't," mumbled Terri, still keeping her head tucked firmly into the crook of Nikki's neck.

Nikki placed a couple of fingers under Terri's chin, gently forcing her to look up to face her. "Farmer, yes you can. I'll be with you, we can do this together, the two of us."

Terri searched Nikki's eyes for any sign of duplicity, but could see none. "I... want to trust you Nikki, but it's really hard, I'm not sure I'm capable."

"Then I'll teach you."

"Can you do that, can you teach someone to trust so deeply?"

"I'll give it my best shot."


"Ever the pragmatist?" Nikki said, smiling down at Terri.

"I need to know," Terri almost whispered, swallowing hard and feeling more vulnerable than she'd done in all her adult life.

"By holding you whenever you need to be held. By being there for you whenever you need me close. By teaching you to share your feelings with me when they get too much for one person. By holding your coat when you feel the need to defend my honour. Things like that," she said, smiling gently.

Terri swallowed again and licked her dry lips. "You'd do all that for me?"

"And more."

"Why, Nikki, why me?"

"Because I love you."

"We hardly know each other."

"Doesn't matter, my soul's found its mate, the rest can catch up later, there's plenty of time for that."

"Got it all worked out, huh?"


"What if I find I don't like playing on your team, what if I find I prefer the company of men?"

"Let's find out, shall we?" Before Terri could answer Nikki leaned down and softly kissed her on the lips.

"How did that feel, revolting or pleasurable?"

"Hmmm, not sure, maybe we should try again?"

"Perhaps we should get one of those sailor boys in here and you can try us both out, see which one you prefer?"

"Nah, leave that for another day, Right now I think we should keep experimenting between just the two of us; see how it goes. In the name of research, of course."

"Of course," Nikki said smiling.

She leant down for another kiss but Terri put her hand up between them, stopping her a few inches from her face. "Nikki, promise me you won't abuse my trust. I think it would kill me if you did."

"I'd never do anything to hurt you, Farmer, I promise," she said, leaning in and kissing Terri again. And again.


Continued in Part 3.

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