For disclaimers, see chapter 1.

Adventures in the Dust Trade, Part 5

By WolfDragon.

Tuesday, Central Australia

Kris slowly opened the door and stepped into the room, being careful not to make any noise. As she had guessed, Nicole was curled on her side, hugging the second pillow close to her chest, still deeply asleep. The dark haired woman smiled at the sight and briefly considered joining her lover in bed for the couple of hours left in Uluru but one look at her dusty clothes and skin made her change her mind.

She walked into the bathroom and closed the door behind her. After adjusting the water to her satisfaction, Kris quietly undressed and stepped into the shower. She let the hot water massage her aching shoulders and closed her eyes as it cascaded down her head and back. Turning around to face the showerhead, Kris rested both hands against the wall and bent her head, letting her long, dark hair fall forward and shield her view from the outside world.

Long hours on unknown roads and tracks, many of them spent driving in total darkness, and the added stress of dealing with a man that seemed obsessed in wanting to cause them trouble was starting to take its toll on her. She was starting to worry that Tony might do something to their car in revenge for the flat tire he claimed they were responsible for.

Having arrived in Uluru around four thirty in the morning and slept for a few hours only, Kris had walked out of their hotel room as soon as the sun was up and started working on the rally car by doing a full inspection. Thinking along the same line, Kris' brother, Ludwig had parked his vehicle next to hers and together, both siblings had helped each other doing minor repairs.

As if she didn't have much to worry about, Kris was now thinking back on something Lou had asked her to consider; an equal partnership in the stunt school in Innsbruck. She shook her head slightly and sighed. It was an interesting offer but Kris knew that by working as a stunt instructor, she'd be too tempted in demonstrating the stunts herself, thus breaking the promise she had made Nicole.

"But those gags would be done with a minimum of risk," she argued softly with herself. "I wouldn't be performing incredibly difficult stunts, just showing the students the basics." She lightly banged the shower wall with her fists. "But I can't. A promise is a promise."

"But Kris," Ludwig pleaded with his sister, "If I have you working at the school on a regular basis, half my problems would be solved." He walked around her car, leaned his hip against it and crossed his massive arms over his muscular chest. "I'm tired of always having to look for new instructors. With you there, I'd have no problem in getting the stuntmen to stay longer and we'd have more students too."

Kris slid out from under the car and raised an eyebrow at her older brother. "Just because I'd be teaching at the school?" she snorted. "You're imagining things, Lou. I'm no better than any other stuntman."

"Don't underestimate yourself. You're a hell of a lot better than most, Kris," Ludwig argued. "Whenever you're scheduled to work as an instructor or as a guest lecturer, the classes are booked solid weeks in advance. We even have to refuse offers from instructors who wants to be there."

The dark haired woman stood up and brushed the red dust off her jeans then grinned at her brother. "The only reason you want me at the school is that you want to make money," she teased and let her wrench drop in the toolbox with a clank.

"We'd be making money," he gently corrected. "Not only do I want you as a permanent instructor, but I'd like you to become an equal partner too. We can make the school bigger and even better. What do you say?"

She couldn't care less about the money. She already had so much she didn't know what to do with it. But the chance to show people her craft and teach them the safe way to do it was very tempting. There were too many young men and women who called themselves stunters who had little or no training, often resulting in serious injuries or sometimes death.

'With the friends and acquaintances I have in the business, I can easily bring a few of them out of retirement and have them work…' She shook her head at the sudden thought. 'I'm talking as if I already agreed to his plan.' Kris looked at Ludwig, his facial expression hopeful and pleading at the same time. Blue eyes blinked at her as he mouthed a silent "Please," and she couldn't stop herself from laughing.

"Is this how Nicole feels when I give her a puppy dog look?" she asked her brother who smiled in response but stayed silent as he waited for an answer. "Nicole…how can I do this to her? I told her that I wouldn't be performing anymore."

Sensing a victory heading his way, Ludwig pressed on. "You wouldn't be going after world records, Kris. We're talking teaching basic stunt techniques, nothing more." He saw that she was about to say something but he gently stopped her with a raised hand. "Just think about it, okay? Talk it over with Nicole if you want but give the idea a serious thought. That's all I ask."

Too tired to argue, the stuntwoman simply nodded and put the toolbox back in the trunk of the car. "I need a shower," she said as she glanced at her dirty jeans. "Will you be able to keep an eye on the car for me? It'll only take a few minutes. I don't trust either Tony or Roberto near it."

"Take all the time you need," the tall man smiled. "Maybe you should get more sleep too. You look dead tired, sis."

"I do, huh?" she smiled tiredly and looked at the hotel behind her. It was a very tempting idea. "You don't mind?"

"Of course not! Besides, I'd like to talk to Greg about the next stage and the stupid pictures we have to take."

"Where is he anyway?" she asked as she looked around them. Only a few rally participants could be seen among the tourists visiting the different arts and crafts shops. "We don't often see him."

"Yeah, I know," Ludwig grumbled. "He went pub hunting a few times and played pool with Kyle. Last time I talked to him, he was going to make a phone call to see if he got that job he's waiting for."

Kris nodded and stretched her back muscles. "You just reminded me about the pictures. Maybe the stunt team can get together and figure out the riddles they gave us."

"I'll ask around," he smiled and gently pushed her in the direction of their hotel. "I'll make sure the car stays safe until we leave. Go for your shower and get some sleep."

Coming back to the present, Kris lifted her head with a sigh and let the water from the shower pelt her face and chest. 'Why do I keep having decisions like these?'

"Hey gorgeous, want some company?"

Startled by the sudden voice near her, Kris brushed her wet hair back and blinked to clear the water out of her eyes. A sleepy looking Nicole had poked her head around the curtain and was smiling at her. The naked blonde stepped into the shower and stood right behind her partner.

"Hey," Kris smiled as her lover's arms tightly wrapped themselves around her waist and she felt a gentle kiss between her shoulder blades. "Did I wake you up?"

"No. The empty bed did," Nicole mumbled, her lips firmly attached to the broad back in front of her. "You're in a pensive mood. What's up?"

"I had a talk with Ludwig earlier," she explained as she turned around to face the smaller woman.

"Earlier?" she repeated with a frown and looked at Kris. "But…I just saw the time and it was only nine thirty. How much sleep did you get?"

"I had enough," Kris replied, certain that her partner wouldn't believe her. She grabbed the bar of soap and a washcloth, but both items were quickly taken out of her hands.

"You're really not reasonable, you know that?" Nicole said as she discarded the cloth and opted for the use of her bare hands to wash her lover. "You've been driving ever since we started and I know you didn't get enough sleep last time." 'Which is partly my fault,' she added silently, thinking back to their night of lovemaking.

"Not much sleep maybe, but what a way to relax!" Kris grinned and leaned into her lover's touch as the small hands proceeded to wash her body. She then took the soap from Nicole and started doing the same for her partner. Letting her hands glide over the blonde's hips, Kris continued her gentle exploration and brought them to rest on the firm round buttocks, drawing Nicole towards her.

With a dip of her head, the taller woman captured her lover's lips and kissed her thoroughly, letting a moan escape her as Nicole slid her hands up and softly caressed her breasts. "I…think we'd better…get out of the shower first," Kris managed to say, her voice heavy with desire.

"Why?" Nicole asked as she turned her partner around and made her back up against the wall. "I like it here." With a low growl, the blonde kissed Kris again then slowly licked her way down to stop at an erect nipple. Flicking her tongue at the swollen bud, Nicole sucked it in her mouth as she let her hand continue its soft massage over the other breast. "It's nice…" she whispered, "…hot…" her fingers descended south to circle Kris' bellybutton, "…and so wet…" she breathed as her hand made it all the way south.

The dark haired woman sucked in a breath and closed her eyes at her lover's touch, "Hmm…"

******************************

A low buzzing sound startled Nicole awake and she felt the muscular arms surrounding her tighten slightly as her lover began to stir. She quickly reached for Kris' watch on the night table to shut off the alarm and looked at the time. "Eleven," she smiled and went back to her original position, spooned against the longer body behind her. Her little plan had worked beautifully. She knew that Kris wouldn't have taken a few hours of sleep, claiming too many things to do as usual, but she also knew how her lover's body reacted after a session of lovemaking.

"Tricky," a sleepy voice mumbled in Nicole's ear, the warm breath softly brushing her neck.

"Moi?" the blonde grinned and turned around to face her partner, green eyes blinking innocently. "I don't know what you're talking about."

Kris snorted. "Huh uh." She raised to lean on an elbow and rested her head on one hand. "Thanks by the way. I guess I really needed sleep after all."

"Told you so. Maybe you'll listen to me the next time I say something," Nicole replied with a smile and brushed a strand of raven hair behind her friend's ear. "You seemed preoccupied earlier. Wanna tell me what's bothering you?"

The older woman silently looked at her companion. How different Nicole was from the young and na´ve girl she had met so many years ago in Montreal. The scared and uncertain girl had eventually merged into a mature and confident woman, but the past events could have easily prevented her from becoming so.

She had lived with an abusing father but had found the strength to leave him, had seen first hand the death of her husband who was a childhood friend of hers, had fallen victim to her father's attacks and had become a target by a mad woman. But what was most important was the fact that she had saved Kris' life when their plane had crashed in the mountains in Greece.

With all that, Nicole didn't deserve to have avoidable stress added to her life and that's exactly what would happen if Kris accepted her brother's invitation. The younger woman had always been a nervous wreck every time she knew that a stunt was going to be performed.

Kris lightly caressed her lover's cheek and smiled. "Nothing's bothering me, Love, at least, not anymore. Ludwig asked me to think about something and I just decided that I won't accept his offer."

"Oh?" Curious, Nicole sat up in bed and looked at her friend. "And what was it?"

"He wants me to be an equal partner in the stunt school."

Nicole waited for Kris to continue but the dark haired woman stayed silent. "And?" she urged her. "Why are you refusing? I thought you really liked working at the school."

"I do," she replied softly. "But he also wants me to teach there…on a permanent basis."

Totally confused, Nicole scratched her ear and shook her head. "I don't follow you. Kris…you love teaching. You practically glow when you're working with students, you look so happy. I don't understand why you're refusing to do this. I thought you'd be thrilled to have an offer like this."

Kris slowly sat up and took Nicole's hand in hers. "Remember the first stunt you saw me perform? After that, the one I did for that magazine in Montreal?"

"Yes, I do."

"Then there was the demonstration at the school's high tower when the ropes broke, the skiing stunt that went wrong, the rollover I did in the competition…"

"You're refusing the offer because of me, aren't you?" she stated softly. "Is that why you won't accept Ludwig's proposition?"

Kris closed her eyes, not sure how to reply, then opted for the truth. "I just don't want to see you hurt."

"Me?!" Nicole blurted, surprised. "How can I get hurt when you're the one who's performing?"

Blue eyes opened and softened when they looked at the green ones staring back. "I know how much it hurts you to see me doing gags; I won't do that to you, Nicole. My brother's marriage was nearly destroyed because of the stunts he did. His wife couldn't stand the stress it caused every time he performed. I don't want this to happen to us."

Taken back slightly at the sincerity in her lover's voice and eyes, Nicole reached out a loving hand as her understanding eyes captured Kris'. Sometimes, words just couldn't convey what her heart felt and so Nicole leaned forward and kissed her lover sweetly. "We're nothing like Franz and Angela," she said softly. "Is this the reason why you quit doing stunts?"

"No…yes…well, both I guess." Kris answered truthfully. "The last stunts I did didn't give me the satisfaction I used to get and I knew that it was driving you nuts with worry. You're more important to me than the job."

Nicole smiled. "I won't lie to you by saying I wasn't worried when you performed, because I was, that's because I love you. But there's a big difference between performing difficult gags for movies or competitions and teaching at a stunt school." She saw that Kris was going to comment but she stopped her with a finger on her lips. "No, listen to me. I know accidents can happen at the school too. Heck, they can happen even if we're doing ordinary stuff. Remember when I fell off Ares? I still say that horse hates me."

Kris chuckled. "You just forgot his apple, that's why. He doesn't hate you."

"Yeah, well…" she laughed softly. "Anyway, what I'm trying to say here is that I know that stunts are important to you. You say that they don't excite you anymore. You worked as a coordinator and consultant but still, something's missing. Can you say that you'd feel the same way working as a stunt instructor?" she asked and lifted Kris' hand to her lips and gently kissed it. "I want an honest answer."

"But I promised you…"

"Never mind me, Kris. We're talking about you now." She smiled to take the edge off of her reply. "What do you need to bring that spark back in your eyes? What do you want to do to make you professionally happy again?" she asked softly. "This rally made me understand something. I now have a better understanding of what an adrenaline rush can do. I can only guess what it would do to somebody who had it all their lives and suddenly find themselves without it one day."

The dark haired woman looked down at their entwined fingers. "Teaching at the school doesn't give you much of an adrenaline rush," she said softly then looked up at her lover again.

"Maybe not," Nicole admitted. "But you're so damn happy when you see the students succeed in their classes. If you don't care much for them, then why do you follow their career once they leave the school?"

"Busted," Kris mumbled and smiled when her partner nodded. "So you're developing a taste for racing, huh?"

"I love it." She looked at the clock and gave her lover's hand a squeeze. "Come on. We're scheduled to leave at twelve thirty. We have to get dressed and eat and I do believe you owe Ludwig an answer to his offer." She winked and bent forward to kiss her partner. "I love you."

"I love you too," Kris smiled. "Thanks for the pep talk."

"Anytime."

******************************

Carrying their overnight bags, the women walked out of the hotel and into the bright sunlight. Shielding her eyes with a hand, Kris spotted her brother talking with his teammate, Greg. Both men were standing guard in front of the cars, deeply engrossed in a conversation. She shook her head with a smile and started walking their way.

Having arrived in Uluru in the middle of the night, Nicole hadn't noticed the breathtaking spectacle that nature was offering her and so took a moment to fully enjoy the scenery. Before her stood the most recognizable landmarks the country had to offer, Ayers Rock or Uluru as the Aboriginal people called it.

Located in Central Australia, the Uluru National Park hosted the largest monolith in the world. Pitched against a typically blue sky and covered in a distinctive red iron oxide, it suddenly rose 348 meters above the surrounding desert plains and was nearly 9km around its base. Aside from the sheer size of the rock, what it was renowned for was its changing colors as the light reflected from its surface at different times of the day, from deep red at sunrise to shiny black after rain.

A magnet to visitors for years, this popularity resulted in the building of a modern tourist village called Yulara Resort, well-equipped to cater for the half million annual visitors and located 20km from the base of the rock, just outside the national park's boundary.

After pulling her camera out of her bag and fixing the powerful zoom, Nicole started to take pictures of the monolith and of its surroundings. To the west of Uluru lay the 36 smaller monoliths known as Kata Tjuta. The highest of the monoliths, Mount Olga, rose 200 meters higher than Uluru, the rest spread across an area of some 3500 hectares.

"Impressive isn't it?" a voice said from behind her.

The sudden sound made the blonde jump in surprise and she turned around. "What are you trying to do to me, Shannon? Give me a heart attack?"

"Sorry mate," the stuntwoman grinned and patted Nicole's back. "So, you got your picture already?" she said as she pointed to the huge monolith.

"Oh yeah," she nodded and put the camera back into the black leather bag then shouldered the large strap. "And plenty of them too. I wish I had seen it at sunrise. I heard it's a spectacular sight."

"It is," Shannon agreed and fell into step with Nicole, heading for Kris and a few other rally participants. "How about the Polaroid picture. You got that too?" She saw the slight frown on the woman's face and she elaborated. "The pictures we have to take for the scavenger hunt, the third riddle we got back in Laverton?"

Nicole thought back to the clues and mentally slapped her forehead. "Ayers Rock! Of course," she exclaimed, which caused the Australian woman to smile. "I'm still working on finding a way to get a picture of a kangaroo paw. Somehow, I don't think we'll be able to catch a roo for it though." A loud laugh escaped the brunette and Nicole stopped in her tracks to watch the woman curiously.

"Oh, I'd pay a large sum of money to see Kris running after them with a camera in hand!" Shannon said and started laughing anew when she spotted blue eyes staring back at her. "However, I'll let you in on a little secret. I'm ready to bet that most of the rally drivers are planning to take a picture of a real kangaroo paw and if Dean and Scott can hold their tongues, I'm sure none of them will figure out that the paw is also Western Australia's floral emblem."

Green eyes opened wide in wonder. "Something only Australians would know!" she smiled. "You think the guys said something to the rest of the rally drivers?"

"I doubt it very much. Team work doesn't seem to be part of their nature," Shannon giggled. "Which is good for us. We'll just pass the word to the rest of the stunt team and that'll earn us a few extra points for the pictures." They continued toward the cars and the stuntwoman spotted her brother and his teammate talking with the rally officials. "Unfortunately, it won't help us much, especially since Richard and Martin pulled out of the rally."

"Why?" Kris asked as she took the heavy bag from Nicole and put it in the car. "What happened?"

"They don't really know," Shannon answered as she looked back at her brother who was shaking the official's hand. "They drove over a few bumps and potholes last night but nothing that could've done the kind of damage the car suffered. Two brake lines were broken among other things. They barely made it to Uluru."

"They can't fix the car?" Nicole asked and saw Shannon shake her head. "Damn! They were doing so well. They've been in the second position since the beginning."

"Sad way to end the rally," Kyle said from his spot on their car's hood.

Ludwig nodded, "Yeah, but at least they're okay."

"Here comes trouble," Kris mumbled under her breath when she saw Tony and Roberto head their way.

"Stay calm, love," Nicole said softly and slowly brushed her hand on the taller woman's back. "Don't let him get to you."

Greg shoved both hands into his jean pockets and jerked his chin towards two approaching men. "I bet he's thrilled at the news," he said, looking at Tony. "Ever since the beginning, he's been telling everybody that he would win the rally and he wouldn't hesitate to get rid of whoever stood in his way."

"You think he's got something to do with the damage on Richard's car?" Ludwig asked and saw his partner shrug.

"Well, well, well," Tony smirked at the assembled group. "A little meeting to figure out what to do?"

Kyle let himself slide off the hood and stood before the Italian. "What do you want?"

"Are you planning on hitting me again?" he asked the American. "I'd be careful if I were you. I want to win this race and you now hold the second position. I'll be coming after you once I take care of the bitch over there," he said as he pointed his thumb at a silent Kris.

Nicole's jaw tightened at the insult. She could easily deal with rude comments but when they were directed at her best friend… She balled her hands into fists and looked at the older woman. Kris was leaning against the car, both arms crossed over her chest with a silly smile on her face.

"Which shouldn't be hard to do," Tony continued as he glared at Kris. "They say the more muscles you have, the more stupid you are. You must be dumb as a rock."

"Who are you calling dumb?" Nicole demanded. She cast an eye at her partner who still looked calm.

"Hey!" Ludwig protested and took a step towards the Italian.

"Lou…" Kris warned her brother. She shook her head, stopping him from doing something stupid.

"Come on, Tony. Let's go," Roberto said from behind his teammate. "I'm getting tired of listening to you insult people."

One of Kris' eyebrows lifted at the unexpected comment. 'What do we have here? Trouble in paradise?' she silently chuckled.

Frustrated at his inability to make the stuntwoman angry, Tony stepped closer to Kris and growled, "You're the next car out of the race and I'll take whatever means necessary to do it."

Fed up of hearing his nonsense, Nicole stepped closer to the rally driver and poked him in the ribs. "Was that a threat?!" she exclaimed. "If you intend to kick us off the road, you'll have to catch us first, buddy."

Surprised by her lover's sudden outburst, Kris quickly grabbed Nicole and pulled her back out of harm's way. "Nic…"

The solid hands on her arms barely registered in her mind as she continued with her raving. "Just remember that you'll be leaving ten minutes after we do so you'll have some real driving to do before we see you, which I doubt you're capable of doing anyway!"

"Why, you little…" Tony barked and moved towards Nicole, but he was suddenly stopped by his teammate.

"That's enough, Tony!" Roberto shouted. "I'm really fed up with your stupidities!" He pushed the man backwards then switched in his native tongue to continue with his berating, leaving the stunned group behind.

Shannon blinked at the retreating men and turned to look at the blonde. "You go you little spitfire," she grinned. "That was impressive."

"That was gutsy," Kyle laughed.

"That was stupid," Nicole corrected and gave her smirking partner a shy look. "Guess I got carried away with the spirit of competition."

"That's okay. Good thing you asked me to stay calm," Kris smiled and wrapped her arms around her still upset lover. "We better not let him pass us or we'll never hear the end of it," she whispered in Nicole's ear.

"Sorry about that. I got us into a lot of trouble, huh?"

Kris shrugged and winked to calm her worried friend. "Not really. I just have a feeling that the road towards the next stage will be very interesting."

******************************

With the mandatory eight-hour stop done, the first car left Ayers Rock at 12:15 in the afternoon while the last of the rally participant departed at 1:30, heading south on Highway 87, or otherwise simply known as the 'Track'. Only Shannon's brother and his teammate stayed behind with their damaged car, unable to have it fixed and continue with the race.

The pleasantly smooth and sealed grey tarmac of the Stuart Highway neatly bisected Australia from Darwin in the North to Adelaide in the South, guiding people through a quite desolate and barren landscape, stretching endlessly. The Highway contained very long stretches of relatively straight road, which could be mesmerizing, and where a momentary lapse in concentration could easily throw one off the road.

The whirling dervish of dust devils or a blazing bush fire occasionally animated kilometers upon kilometers of red earth and scrub. Mirages made distant bushes appear to float in the air, and gave the impression that the road was covered in water. Above, the blue sky was huge, stretching out over this strange land seemingly forever.

Relief from this inhospitable red ocean of sand came in the form of the odd roadhouse oasis along the highway, offering fuel and food. More common along the Track were the ungainly towers of termite mounds that rose up like dusty, misshapen cactus trees from the desert floor.

Off the road and into the bush, carcasses of rabbits and birds littered the area, killed by passing vehicles. Some of the bodies were whole while others were halfway eaten by different creatures. Standing beside a family of ravens, a magnificent wedge-tailed eagle was lunching on a kangaroo carcass, its chest as powerful as a bulldog's. The eagle flew off as the red and white Mitsubishi Lancer approached him, its wingspan gigantic, and nearly swerved into the racing car as it drove pass.

"Eek!" Nicole squeaked and reflectively jerked her arm back from the window as the bird flew by. "That was close!" 

"Yeah, I didn't expect it to take off like that either." Kris replied. "At least it gave us some action." Blue eyes kept a regular pattern as they checked the side and rearview mirrors then went back to the road before them. Barely succeeding in stifling a yawn, she moved her legs slightly, trying to get her cramped muscles to relax a bit.

"Are you tired?" Nicole asked, having spotted the covert movements of her friend. "I could drive for awhile if you are."

Kris smiled. "Nah. I'm just getting bored." She shifted her attention back to the road then looked at the blonde again. "Unless you really want to drive. I could…"

"Not really," Nicole chuckled and continued to look at the scenery, "I was just being nice." She smiled at her partner's soft laugh and she leaned her head against the padded headrest. "I still can't believe how immense it is out there. I've never been able to see this far ahead. No houses, no trees or mountains to block the horizon…simply unbelievable." Receiving no reply from Kris, Nicole turned her head and looked at the taller woman. She was concentrating on her rearview mirrors, a grin slowly forming on her lips. "What is it?"

"I'm not sure, but I think we've got company coming."

"Tony?"

Kris nodded. "Looks like it." If there was one thing to say of the Italian driver, it was that the man kept his promises. He had sworn to catch up to them and apparently, he was doing just that. The stuntwoman cast a glance at her partner, trying to see any signs of nervousness. All she saw was a concentrated look that she gave to her own side mirror.

"Wow! Looks like he's driving like a maniac," she shook her head. "Did you see the cloud of dust he's causing behind him?"

An elegant dark eyebrow lifted in question. "So, what do you want to do?"

Surprised by the question, Nicole tore her eyes from the mirror and saw blue eyes watching her intently. "Well, we've got two choices," she started as she scratched her ear. "We can let him drive past us but then we'd have to suffer through his interminable boasting that he's a better driver than you are." She shook her head. "I know he's not so we can't have that."

Kris smiled at the serious look on her friend's face. "Okay," she drawled and waited for the young blonde to continue.

"So I guess we'll just have to make him eat dirt and put the metal to the pedal…pedal to the metal…"

"I got you," she laughed and didn't wait for the Italians to catch up to them. The stuntwoman's eyes shone with glee as she demanded and got more power from the racing car's engine. "Hold tight!"

Nicole made sure her safety belt was secured before she grabbed the roof handle with a tight grip. She could feel her heart hammer in her chest, not from fear but from excitement, a reaction that surprised her a lot. Nicole never cared much for speeding vehicles, but finding herself sitting in a race car with a driver she had the utmost confidence in, things simply weren't the same. She knew that Kris wouldn't take unnecessary risks but would still make the race an event to remember.

'Tony sure did a major mistake by going against Kris,' she thought as she switched her gaze from the road, to the side mirror, then back in front of them. "They're catching up."

Kris looked in her rearview mirror and nodded. "I see them." The silver and black Lancia Integrale was quickly gaining ground. Glad for the lack of traffic, the stuntwoman passed the car in front of them and continued driving at high speeds, heading for a second car blocking her way.

Twisting her neck to look back at the Italians, Nicole saw their car easily follow them in hot pursuit. She heard her partner grumble under her breath and turned to look ahead. They had quickly come upon Shannon's green Mitsubishi but oncoming cars made it difficult for them to safely pass in front.

Kris cursed in German and held the steering wheel tighter in her hands. Her slight hesitation had caused the Italians to drive up to them and had taken position smack up to their bumper.

The passengers of the green Lancer had been following the race behind then and weren't surprised to recognize Kris and Tony's cars. What did surprise them however was the speed at which they were driving. Sitting in the driver's seat, Kyle spared a quick look at Shannon.

"Do I get out of their way?"

"No!" she quickly answered, keeping her eyes on the cars behind. "Keep the same speed and direction. They'll either stop or go around us."

"Kris stop? I don't think so," Kyle mumbled and his eyes opened wide in alarm when he noticed that the white and red Lancer was preparing to drive by on the right, about to face the upcoming traffic and a car heading their way. "Oh shit!"

Calculating her speed and the one from the car driving the other way, Kris cast a quick glance at the Italians behind her and thought, 'This is gonna be tight!'

Completely caught up in the race, her body shaking with the adrenaline the excitement was producing, Nicole growled. "Damn! They're about to pass us!"

"Not if I can help it!"

A fraction of a second after the car had driven past them, Kris quickly turned the steering wheel right, efficiently blocking Tony's access to the road, raced past Kyle and took position in front of them.

The silver and black Lancia jerked slightly caused by brakes being applied. Cursing his reflexes that were slightly slower than the stuntwoman's, Tony switched sides and drove along the side of the road, passing Kyle and Shannon on the left. Nothing much was gained as he found himself once more behind the woman.

"Are you trying to get us killed?" Roberto yelled at his teammate but he received no reply. Tony had his eyes locked on the Mitsubishi in front of them and kept silent. In normal times, Roberto would've enjoyed such a race. But Tony's motives had long ago stopped being about the race and were now solely directed at humiliating the Austrian stuntwoman.

'I can't believe I'm enjoying this!' Nicole shook her head in wonder and looked at Kris. The woman had a fierce and determined expression on her face. 'Is this how she looks when she's performing stunts?' she thought, amazed by the cool control Kris seemed to have over her body. "Wow!" she said out loud.

"What?"

The blonde slightly shifted her grip on the roof handle and smiled at her friend. "This is great!"

Kris spared a quick look at Nicole and saw her wink. A weight she didn't know she carried suddenly lifted off of her shoulders when she saw her lover smile. Happy beyond belief that Nicole seemed to be enjoying the thrill the race was offering, Kris gripped the steering wheel tighter, determined more than ever not to let Tony win.

Glad to see that no more cars were heading in the opposite direction, the stuntwoman didn't move a muscle when she saw the silver and black Lancia come up next to them, both racing cars driving side by side with Tony on the wrong side of the road. 'They can stay there for as long as they want, but I'm not allowing them to pass us,' Kris silently vowed.

Nicole bent forward peering past Kris and into the Integral. Roberto seemed to be yelling something at his teammate, his hands gesticulating angrily. "Wonder what they're arguing about," she chuckled and looked at her side mirror, seeing their friends' car growing smaller by the distance. "We sure lost Kyle and Shannon in a hurry."

"Yeah," Kris grinned, keeping half of her attention on the road and the other on their neighbor. "Probably wondering what the hell's going on."

The blonde laughed. "Probably wishing they…Kris…he's moving forward again!"

"I know," the stuntwoman replied. "I'm matching our speed with his. He won't succeed in getting in front of us." She cast a quick look at the racing car beside her and chuckled. "Looks like he's getting more frustrated."

"Damn woman!" Tony growled and continued to push the car's engine as hard as he dared. But it seemed to have very little effect. They were still driving side by side, neither giving the other a single inch. "If I can't pass you, then I'll just have to…"

"Ah shit!" Kris exclaimed and moved the car out of the way to avoid a side collision with Tony. The damn man was trying to kick them off the road. "Hang on!"

"What…" Nicole started to ask then her eyes opened wide in surprise when their car suddenly shifted to the left and skidded slightly on the embankment before coming back to its original position on the road, Tony and Roberto still beside them. "Did he just do what I think he did?" she asked, outraged.

"Yep, he just tried to ram us," the stuntwoman replied calmly. Keeping a more attentive eye on the Italian's car, Kris mentally prepared for another attempt, knowing that he wouldn't settle for just one try. And she was right. Once again, the Lancia jerked left, coming dangerously close to the Mitsubishi.

"This is insane!" the younger woman breathed as she shook her head and kept her eyes on the car next to them

Nicole's murmured comment made Kris briefly look at her. Her partner seemed worried and slightly upset. She spoke softly. "Listen, if this is making you nervous, I'll slow down and let him pass. I thought…"

Green eyes shifted and locked onto blue. "Wh…" she frowned. "I'm not nervous…well, maybe a little."

"Want me to stop?"

"No!" Nicole exclaimed. "I'm a little nervous but that's because I can't believe he'd go as far as to try to…he's doing it again!"

Handling the car like the professional driver that she was, Kris easily avoided another collision, but this time, it was she who gave Tony a scare. Instead of driving back to take her place on the road like she had done previously, she continued on her path and crossed the highway all the way to the right, bringing the other car with her.

Tony swore when he realized what the woman was trying to do. "Is she insane?" he yelled as he wrestled with the car that had begun to fishtail all over the road. "How dare she…"

"She's just playing your stupid little game," Roberto shot back, holding on tightly to the roof handle with his left hand and gripping his seat with the other. "You're gonna cause an accident, Tony! We're on the wrong side of the road."

"Shut up!" the driver growled. He succeeded in getting the car back under control and swore again when he saw that the near spin had put some distance between them and the Mitsubishi. "That bitch won't win!"

With a relieved sigh, Nicole patted her partner's thigh and relaxed in her seat. "Think you scared him. Nice driving."

Kris smiled. "Thanks." Looking in her side mirror, she noticed with some satisfaction that Tony wasn't making any further move to pass them. "I know there's no traffic but I can't imagine why that imbecile insists on driving next to us. At least he's staying behind."

"Hmm mm," Nicole silently agreed and briefly closed her eyes to calm her racing heart. 'What a rush that was!' she chuckled softly. 'Now I understand why she's so full of energy after she performs. No wonder it's so addictive.' She turned her head and looked at her lover. The woman was practically glowing. Her eyes were shining bright and the smile she wore threatened to split her face in two. "You really like this, don't you?"

"I do," she replied simply and winked at the younger woman. "Looks like I'm not the only one though."

"Never thought I'd say this but yeah, I'm having fun," she smiled. "But I bet there's someone who's not enjoying this little race as much." With a slight twist of her body, Nicole looked back and saw that Tony had started to move up again, gradually reducing the distance between them.

"What the hell…is that?" Kris suddenly said, wonder in her voice.

Nicole switched her gaze from the car catching up to them to her partner who was concentrating on something on the road. She looked in the same direction and frowned at what she saw. Some distance away, the highway they were driving on suddenly disappeared in an immense cloud of dust. "Sand storm?"

"I don't think so," she replied, "It's too localized. Besides, the wind isn't that strong. Look everywhere else, it's clear."

"Well, it doesn't look like a tornado, that's for sure." Nicole forgot the other car now riding next to them to concentrate on the road before them. "Can one car cause that much dust?"

Kris shook her head. "Not even on the worst dirt road."

"A stampede maybe?"

The dark haired woman snorted and looked at her friend with a half serious expression. "Of what? Kangaroos?"

Nicole shrugged and grinned. "Who knows?"

"At this point, your guess is as good as mine," Kris replied and saw that Tony was again parallel to them. She pushed the engine a little more, just enough to keep the Italians from passing them. Then as she turned her attention back to the highway, she blinked in surprise at the cloud of dust, which had doubled in size in a very short time. The only difference from earlier was that a dark pinpoint was now visible in the center of the disturbance.

A brilliant flash in front of them caught Nicole's eye. It came from within the rust colored cloud. "Huh…Kris?"

"Hmm?"

"I guess animals aren't causing that. Did you see that reflection?"

The stuntwoman slowly nodded, her eyes frozen on the rapidly approaching object. She started to think that maybe it was a car after all, the flash of light caused by the reflection of the sun on metal. But the size of the vehicle quickly doubled then tripled as it came closer. "Oh…shit!" she exclaimed and shot a quick glance to her right. Tony was maintaining his position beside them, still driving facing the traffic.

"Tony better get behind us or else he'll get creamed!"

"You want me to slow down and let him pass?" Kris asked, knowing her partner's reply.

"Heck no!" Nicole answered. "We're the ones driving on the proper side of the highway. If he wants to play chicken with that," she said as she pointed to the vehicle heading towards them, "He's crazier than I thought."

Kris unconsciously tightened her fingers around the steering wheel and held her breath. 'Yeah. Crazy and suicidal,' she silently agreed. 'But what if there's an accident because we're both being stubborn? Would I be able to forgive myself if somebody gets hurt? What if it's Nicole?" She shook her head and bit her lower lip. "No matter what we do, the thing won't get out of the way."

That 'thing' in particular was a Multi-Combination Vehicle, or otherwise known by the Australians as a Road Train. It was primarily a semi-truck. However, the reason why it was termed as a train was the fact that located right after the tractor, were three trailers, the whole vehicle a total of 53.5 meters long. The three cattle crates had two internal decks designed to carry livestock and were 4.6 meters high and 2.5 meters wide.

Both women jumped when the huge truck blew its air horn, warning the tiny silver and black vehicle to clear the road. "Is he willing to lose his life over a stupid race?" Nicole exclaimed. "Why is he so pig headed?"

"He's probably as stubborn as I can be," Kris replied. "But this is starting to be ridiculous. I'm putting an end to this."

Before Kris could do anything, Nicole put her hand on her partner's lap and gave it a gentle squeeze. "Do it if you think we're in trouble, not because he's risking having an accident due to his own stupidity."

Blue eyes locked with green for a brief moment before Kris nodded. Even though she didn't want to give Tony the satisfaction of winning the unplanned race, she was beginning to worry about their own safety, thus the reason for wanting to stop. Following the massive truck was a thick cloud of dust, which rendered visibility to near impossible and the stuntwoman also guessed that all kinds of debris would probably be heading their way. A broken windshield was the least of her worries right now.

"I don't want to be close to that thing when it drives by." Making a last minute decision, Kris shifted gears and guided the rally car outside the highway, trying to give them as much distance as possible from the speeding truck…and prayed that nothing would go wrong.

"Back off, now!" Roberto yelled, his eyes wide with fear. The juggernaut was heading straight for them and if the rumor was true, that truck wouldn't brake or swerve to avoid the much smaller vehicle. Solid rails graced the front of the cattle truck, usually there to protect the radiator from animals crossing the road. But this time, Roberto had a vision of more than a simple kangaroo smashed against those bars. "Are you mad?! Get off the road!" he yelled again when he heard the truck driver blow the horn.

Tony didn't reply and kept the car racing forward. He was certain that the damn woman would give up and let him pass but if he was honest with himself, the sight of the massive vehicle barreling down the highway straight for them was making him very nervous. He cast one last look at the stuntwoman and cursed in his native tongue. The red and white Mitsubishi wasn't moving to allow him access and the road train was gaining ground at an alarming rate.

Unless he wanted to kill himself along with his navigator, Tony had no other choice but to abandon the race with the Austrian woman and jerked the steering wheel hard to the right, driving off the road, barely avoiding the road train. The silver and black Lancia disappeared in the cloud of dust, both occupants praying that they wouldn't collide against something.

Nicole closed her eyes tight when the huge vehicle roared past them, half expecting to hear the sound of metal being torn apart. The only noise heard was the decreasing sound of the cattle truck as it continued down the highway. She opened her eyes and twisted in her seat to look behind them. "Where are they?" she mumbled to herself.

Having pulled off the highway to let the road train go by, Kris wrestled with the car as she drove on the soft desert ground. She briefly looked for incoming cars and seeing none, brought the rally car back on the road and under control once again. The cloud of dust wasn't as thick anymore and she was able to finally see in front of them. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," Nicole quickly reassured her lover. "It was a hell of a bumpy ride though."

"Yeah, it was." Looking in her rearview mirror, Kris frowned at the scene behind them. 'Should I just keep going or should I…' she debated for a while before her common sense took over. "Blasted piece of…I can't believe I'm doing this," she growled and warned her companion. "Hang on." With an expert move, the stuntwoman pushed the brakes and spun the car into a perfect 180 degree turn then gunned the engine, racing back down the highway.

"Why are you…oh!" The reason for Kris' sudden change of direction became clear to Nicole when she spotted the Italians' car lying on its side some twenty feet off the road. Kyle and Shannon had stopped and were stepping out of their car while Ludwig and his teammate Greg drove off the highway and parked behind the green Mitsubishi.

Grumbling under her breath, Kris parked a safe distance away from the road and stepped out of the car, Nicole doing likewise. "Where's the idiot?" she called out as Kyle headed towards her.

"What happened?" Ludwig asked his sister but received no answer. He looked at Nicole. "Is everybody okay?"

The blonde nodded. "We are." Movement in the silver and black Lancia made her shift her attention from Kris and she saw Roberto pull himself out of the opened window. The man sported a cut on his brow, a thin trail of blood dripping down the side of his face. "I better get the first aid kit."

Ludwig watched as his sister in law reached inside their car and took a small white box out. The sound of another car made him turn around and he saw the rally drivers from New Zealand stop near the group as well.

"Is somebody seriously injured?" Mario asked as he approached the Austrian.

Ludwig shrugged and started walking towards Kris. "I don't know. We just arrived." Loud cursing made the men hurry their steps as they recognized Tony's angry voice.

Both arms crossed over her chest, the dark haired stuntwoman waited next to the turned Lancia with a neutral expression on her face. She didn't make a move to help the driver as he made his way out.

Kyle stood beside the tall woman and frowned at his friend's posture. He had expected her to be upset or maybe angry by Tony's irresponsible driving, but not the bored expression she wore. "Looks like he got a good dose of what Kristina Von Deering can do."

"Hmm. Guess Nicole was right. Tony's not as good a driver as he thinks he is." She was faintly aware of Roberto standing near them, but her attention was focused on the Italian driver who jumped down from the side of the car. Both men's racing suits were covered in a thin film of red desert dust.

"You bitch!" Tony's voice cracked and he coughed, trying to clear his throat from the dirt he had breathed. "This is all your fault."

"I don't think so," Kris replied calmly. "You're the one who was obsessed in racing with me."

"You saw the damn truck!" he coughed again. "Why didn't you let me pass?"

Kris shrugged. "Why? There was plenty of room behind us."

"I should have you arrested!" he yelled as he took a step closer to the woman. "That was reckless driving!"

"What?!" Roberto finally spoke and stood between the stuntwoman and his teammate. "Now I know for certain that you're mad. You've been driving on the wrong side, tried to push them off the road and nearly caused us to crash against a road train. And you accuse her of reckless driving?!"

"You stay out of this, Panizzi. This is between her and me. You…"

Surprising everybody, Roberto cocked his arm back and slammed his fist on Tony's jaw, sending the older man sprawling on the ground. "I've had enough of you!" he growled and took a menacing step closer to the stunned driver. "I can't say I'm totally blameless in how we treated the women, but you've gone too far, Tony. Give it up!"

Rubbing his sore jaw, he glared at Roberto as he slowly stood up. Tony faced the man and spoke in his native language so only the navigator could understand, then roughly pushed him to clear the path and walked away from the assembled group.

A gentle hand on Roberto's arm made the navigator look down at Nicole who now stood next to him.

"Let me take a look at your cut, okay?" the blonde said softly and gently tugged on his sleeve. The Italian slowly nodded, too surprised to speak. She guided him towards their car and made him sit down in the passenger seat. "It doesn't look like you'll need stitches. I'll just clean it up." She opened the first aid kit, took the bottle of disinfectant and a few sterile bandages.

"Are you a medic?" Roberto asked, having found his voice.

"Not really," she smiled. "I just have some experience in dealing with injuries." Nicole cast a quick glance back at Kris and saw her watching her. With a wink at her lover, she turned her attention back to the wounded man and started cleaning the blood off of his face.

"Why?"

Nicole froze at the sudden question. "Excuse me?" she frowned.

Roberto pointed to the supplies in her hands. "Why are you doing this?"

"Because you're hurt," she answered truthfully and continued with her treatment. "Wouldn't you have done the same thing?"

"I…huh…" He cleared his throat, feeling slightly ashamed by the answer he was about to give but decided not to say anything. "I don't understand," he mumbled as he stared at his dirty hands, unable to look at the gentle green eyes he knew were watching him. "We…I…insulted you, attacked you, and you're still willing to help me." He lifted his head and looked past Nicole at the group surrounding the rally car resting on its side. "You know…Tony wouldn't have stopped if it was your car instead of ours there."

"Kris isn't like Tony," she replied as she fixed a bandage over Roberto's cut. "She may be tough and has a temper to scare most people, but she'd never leave behind somebody who needs help." She studied her handiwork with a slight tilt of her head and smiled. "I think that'll do. But you might want to see a doctor just to make sure the cut was properly cleaned."

Roberto stood up and nodded. "I will." He gave the smaller woman a tentative smile. "Thank you." He started walking back to the car then stopped and turned around. He waited until the blonde finished packing the first aid kit and looked at him before speaking. "I…I'm really sorry…about everything."

Nicole watched the man leave with a stunned expression on her face. "Well I'll be..."

"…Damned," Shannon finished for the younger woman. "Guess that spin finally put some sense into that thick skull of his."

"I guess." She shook her head and patted the stuntwoman's back. "Come on, Boomer. Let's see what they have in mind for that car."

"Right with ya, mate."

Another car slowed down and drove up on the embankment to meet up with Shannon and Nicole. "Hey, what happened?" Dean asked and looked at the silver and black Lancia Integral. "That's Tony's!"

"Yeah," Shannon chuckled. "He raced against Kris and lost. He's pouting by himself over there," she said as she pointed to the man in question. Tony was standing some distance away, glaring at the group. "Roberto got cut but he's okay. Nurse McGrail here took care of him."

The blond rally driver and Scott stepped out of their car and joined the women "Huh?" Dean frowned. "I didn't know you…"

"I'm not a nurse," Nicole said and swatted the brunette's arm when she heard her chuckle. "I just patched him up."

"Why? Scott asked, totally confused. "You took care of him even after everything he's done, I mean, I would've…"

"He apologized for his behavior, okay? So everybody, drop it." Nicole sighed and shook her head. "I don't think we'll get any more trouble from him. It's Tony I'm worried about." She sensed a presence close to her and she looked back to see Kris standing there. "Hey," she smiled as two strong hands gently squeezed her shoulders.

"Hey," the taller woman winked at her partner and waited until the group gathered around them. "Looks like we can't count on Tony to help, but with all of us here, I think we'll be able to push the car back on its wheels."

Mario, the New Zealander, cleared his throat slightly and looked at Kris. "If you don't mind my asking, why would you do that? I mean, during a rally, nobody stops to help another."

"That's because there's a staff hired just to do that," Shannon replied. "We're in the Outback. How many tow trucks and security people do you see around here?"

"I say we should leave the car like that," Greg spoke from behind the group. "That should teach Tony a lesson. He's been nothing but trouble since the beginning."

"Come on, Kris," Kyle looked at his friend. "We put him back on the road and we risk having more problems with him. He tried to push you and Nicole off the road for God's sake!"

"What?" Dean exclaimed and glared at Roberto who was silently standing next to him. "Is that true?" he asked and saw the man nod. "I warned you…"

"Roberto had nothing to do with it, Dean," Shannon said.

The Italian circled the group with his eyes. "Listen, I understand if nobody wants to help. Greg is right. All we've done is cause trouble. But I want you to know that from now on, I'll be driving, not Tony." He looked at the car and shoved both hands into his pockets. "If the car's not too badly damaged."

While the rally participants argued about whether to help or not, two cars had arrived and parked beside the group. The Australian stunt technicians Claire and Eddie took positions next to Shannon while the French rally drivers stood next to Roberto.

"From what I've heard so far," Eddie said and briefly looked at his wife for support, "I don't think it's fair to help them. Nobody could do anything for Shannon's brother and his mate."

"That's because we didn't have the mechanical parts, stupid!" Stephane, one of the French drivers replied. "All we have to do is flip the car over." He turned to his teammate. "Right?"

"That's right," Gilbert agreed and pointedly looked Eddie. "Looks like the only reason why you don't want to help is to get the odds even again. You get a team out of the race, you want one of ours out too."

"I can't believe what I'm hearing. I've seen children behave better than you guys!" Nicole exclaimed as she stepped between the big men. "Listen, the only one who has a reason not to help is Kris. But you know what? Even though she was nearly thrown off the highway, she's here willing to help. Why can't you do the same thing?"

Eddie shook his head, unwilling to agree. "But Nicole, Tony wanted to play rough and he lost. Let this be a lesson for him. I don't understand why you'd want to help."

"If you don't want to, Eddie, then why did you stop in the first place?" Nicole asked and stared at him.

The Australian technician held the smaller woman's gaze for a few seconds before speaking. "Just wanted to make sure they're out of the race," he replied bluntly. "We don't need trouble makers in the race."

"Is this why you all stopped?" Nicole's voice rose up a notch as she glared at everybody. "Would you have been happier if they were trapped in the car, seriously hurt?" Her eyes traveled over the men who disagreed to help. Mario and Kyle quickly looked down as green stormy eyes caught them while Eddie and Greg defiantly held their heads up. "It's just a simple rally," she continued. "Why do you take this so seriously?"

Greg took a step forward and faced Nicole. "It's not a simple rally. We've been challenged, remember? We've got to win to show them who's better."

The younger woman threw her hands in the air and blew a breath in frustration. "I give up! Do whatever you want," she shot back and left the group.

"We have to stick together, Nicole," Greg said to the retreating woman's back. "But then how can you understand. You're not part of any stunt related work."

"That's enough!" Kris suddenly yelled, making people jump. "Everybody shut up! Especially you, Greg."

Total silence answered her. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I'll say this only once. People who want to help, stay. Everybody else, leave now. I don't want to hear any more bickering, complaining, or any bitching." She let her angry blue eyes rake over everybody and growled. "Is that clear?"

Kris watched as Greg, Eddie and Claire left the group to go back to their cars, their action indicating their refusal to help. She knew that they didn't agree with what she wanted to do, but Kyle and Mario finally looked at her and with a nod, started walking towards the sided car.

She spotted Nicole standing by herself and went to join her. "You okay?" Kris asked softly.

"Yeah, I am." She shrugged. "I'm just disappointed at seeing people's reaction," Nicole said as she glanced at the group then looked up at Kris. "Did I miss anything? What did Tony do to make everybody so upset?"

"Aside from acting like an asshole towards us?" Kris asked as she brushed a hand through her hair. "Honestly?" She sighed. "I don't know and I don't care. I wonder why we even bother to do this."

"That's because you can't leave somebody behind when you know they need help." Reaching for her partner's hand, Nicole gave it a small tug and smiled. "Come on, Ludwig's waiting for us. Let's get that car back on its wheels so we can continue with the rally." 

Kris watched as the men did a full inspection of the car still lying on its side. Her brother seemed to be in a disagreement with Mario and Kyle, and Shannon kept shaking her head. "Yeah. Let's get this over with so we can have some peace and quiet," she mumbled and headed towards the small group. "What's the damage, Lou?"

"Nothing that can't be fixed as far as I can tell," the tall man replied. "Roberto was saying that after they swerved to avoid the road train, Tony tried to get back on the highway but lost control. The car caught a rock that flipped them, causing them to do a full rollover and ended up on their side." Ludwig walked around the car in question and pointed to the front end, which was crushed on one side and was pushing against the wheel. "They'll have to do some body work before they leave, though."

"The windshield's cracked on the side," Mario continued and picked up where Ludwig left off. "And thanks to the roll bar inside, the body's just badly bumped, the roof didn't cave in."

"So, what do you want us to do, Kris?" Kyle asked. "Do we just push the car back on its wheels or do we fix it too?"

The dark haired stuntwoman glared at her friend and pointed a finger at him. "Don't you start!"

Two hands lifted in a placating gesture. "Hey, I wasn't being sarcastic. It's an honest question."

"I know, Kyle. Sorry." Kris looked around and saw that everybody was watching her, silently waiting for her instructions. Coming closer to the group now were the second New Zealander driver, Phil, then Dean and Scott, Roberto stood slightly apart from the group. Her muscles under her skin jumped as she tightened her jaw and she frowned. 'Why am I always the one telling people what to do?' she silently asked herself. She felt Nicole step closer to her and saw her rise on tiptoes to whisper in her ear.

"That's because you always know what to do," were the whispered words.

A smile broke on Kris' lips and she winked at the smaller woman. "Didn't know you could read minds too."

"I have many skills," Nicole playfully replied and smiled as a dark eyebrow rose.

"That's usually my line," she chuckled then looked at the Italian. "Roberto, do you think you can manage with the repairs once we put the car back on its wheels?"

The navigator nodded. "From what I can see, it's only a matter of clearing the wheels from the torn metal. If there's anything I can't fix, I'll call the race officials for a tow truck."

"Okay then, let's get to work."

Before heading towards the silver and black Lancia Integrale, Shannon stared at the remaining rally participants who weren't helping them. Eddie, Claire and Greg were off on one side, watching them while the two French drivers stood with Tony. She tugged on Kyle's sleeve and pointed to Stephane and Gilbert. "After all the complaining they did about people not wanting to help, the least they could do is get their arse over here and do something!" she growled.

"I know," the bald man agreed. "I trust those guys as much as Tony." He sighed. "Let's get this over with."

******************************

With the car back on its wheels and everybody heading towards their own, a silent figure watched as Kristina's red and white Mitsubishi Lancer left the group first and drove back on the highway. 'Why did she stop?' he asked for the tenth time. 'Because of that, there's a bigger distance between the leader and her. How will she be able to get into the first position now?'

He kicked a rock in frustration. 'And things were going so well! Looks like I'll have to do something again. That woman better not disappoint me. I've got too much money riding on her.'

******************************

Darkness eventually fell, bringing with it a colder temperature. The day had been long and tiresome and Kris wasn't unhappy to see that traffic had dwindled to near nonexistent. Having sped most of the way since leaving the accident scene, they had succeeded in putting some distance between themselves and the rest of the participants.

Even though there were few cars on the Highway, another road hazard came with the darkness; the roaming animals. The stuntwoman brought the speed down after spotting a few kangaroos by the side of the road, very much alive and unsure about whether they wanted to stay there or if they wanted to cross to the other side. Kris had enough experience already to know that the animals often waited until the vehicles were nearly on them before moving. It wasn't something she wanted to go through again.

She cast a glance at her companion and smiled. Nicole had a little portable lamp clamped to a tourist book she was holding but all she did was stare at it. "What are you thinking about?"

"Hmm?" Nicole blinked in surprise at the sudden question and looked at her partner. "Oh…nothing much. Just browsing through the book."

"Huh uh," Kris chuckled. "You usually read faster that that, Nick. You've been staring at the same page for the past fifteen minutes. What's up?"

The young blonde switched the small lamp off and closed the book. "I keep thinking about what Roberto said."

"When he asked how much my help would cost him?"

"Yeah," she sighed. "Why would he ask something like that?" Nicole asked, thinking back to a few hours ago. The group had succeeded in getting the car back on its wheels without any problem and everybody was heading towards their own car when the Italian had intercepted them.

"Most people think that help isn't free," she explained. "One favor for another."

"But you didn't ask for anything," Nicole argued. "He really doesn't understand why we stopped. In fact, a lot of people don't."

"Does it bother you?" Kris asked softly.

"To know that people think of you heartless enough to keep going when somebody needs help? Yes, it does bother me," she replied without hesitation. "I wish that they could see you the way I do."

Kris reached for her companion's hand and gave it a small squeeze. "But I did think of leaving them behind, especially after all the trouble they caused."

"But you didn't."

"No, I didn't," she agreed and turned her attention back to the darkened road. "But that's only because I remembered…"

Nicole waited for her partner to continue but the taller woman kept silent, lost in her thoughts. She prodded her gently. "You remembered…"

'So many years ago,' Kris thought, 'Seems like a lifetime.' She took a deep breath, then let it go slowly. "There was a time when I wouldn't have hesitated to leave the bastard behind. You play, you lose, so you pay the price. That's what happened to Tony today." Kris briefly looked at Nicole and saw her watching her, listening intently. "That's exactly what happened to me a few years ago."

"What happened?" the younger woman asked.

"We were racing on a deserted road, a friend and I…well, at least I thought he was a friend." She shook her head at the memory, trying to keep the anger away. "Anyway, I still don't know what happened, but the next thing I knew, the car I was driving headed straight for the fields. I spun out of control and crashed some distance away from the road. He just kept driving."

"You mean he didn't even stop to see if you were okay?" Nicole exclaimed, outraged. "But that's criminal! Were you injured?"

"I was, but the worst part was that I spend nearly twenty hours trapped in the car."

"Oh my God…" Nicole breathed and closed her eyes. "You mean nobody stopped and helped you?"

"No." They drove in silence for a while each lost in thought. Then Kris continued softly. "I heard two cars drive by but the only one who stopped was an old man walking his dog. I promised myself then that I would never make anybody go through that kind of experience."

"Even if it was a man like Tony?"

"No matter who they are," she stated.

Nicole absentmindedly played with a corner of the book resting in her lap while images of Kris, injured and alone, crossed her mind and made her shudder. She looked at her partner and frowned. "You never told me this story before."

Kris shook her head. "There's a lot of stupid things I've done and didn't tell you. That was one of them. I just didn't think it was worth mentioning."

"Not worth?" Nicole's voice squeaked. "Are you nuts? I'd consider this a very important event, Kris. You could have bled to death or something. I hope you took care of that 'friend' of yours," she asked and saw the beginning of a smile forming on her friend's lips. "What's so funny?"

"You're so damn cute when you're upset, you know that?" Kris chuckled. "Come on, Nick, that happened six years ago. Everything turned out okay and to answer your question, it's my brothers who dealt with him, not me. I haven't seen him since that day."

Green eyes opened wide as the comment registered in her brain. "Oh…ouch. That must have been nasty." She saw Kris nod but no further details were supplied. 'You're getting better at communicating, but you still hate talking about your past, don't you my love?' She smiled. "I'm sure you must have a lot of interesting stories to tell."

The stuntwoman nervously fingered the steering wheel as she felt her friend's intense gaze on her. She voluntarily kept her eyes on the road, hoping that Nicole would change subject. 'No way I'm gonna start talking about those insane stunts. They'll have you running away from me, thinking I completely lost it!' From the corner of her eyes, Kris saw that her partner was still looking at her and she sighed. 'Gods, I know she wants to hear a story, I can see it in her eyes.'

Not wanting to force Kris to talk, Nicole softly patted the taller woman's thigh and smiled. "You know what we could do? We could keep those stories for when we're sitting in front of the fireplace back home on a cold winter night."

Kris' eyes softened as she relaxed, glad that her friend wasn't pushing her. She took the small hand resting on her lap in hers and smiled. "Keep 'em for when we're both old and gray, huh?"

"I wouldn't wait that long to hear them though," Nicole grinned. "But I like the thought of the both of us sitting by the fire, thirty years or so from now."

"And think back on everything we've done. Even the stupid things I did?" she asked with a wink.

The young blonde nodded with a chuckle. "Especially those. They'll be good for a laugh or two." She brought the larger hand up to her lips and kissed it. "But I wouldn't say stupid. How about, adventurous?"

Kris snorted. "Is that a polite way to say irresponsible?"

"Come on," Nicole laughed. "You know what I mean. Maybe you did some…"

"Some stupid things?" Kris cut in playfully and got her arm swatted for it.

"No! I was going to say audacious," she corrected with a half serious scowl. "But I know that the woman sitting beside me now is far from being irresponsible and certainly not stupid. You're the most intelligent and trustworthy woman that I know."

"Intelligent, huh?" The dark haired woman shrugged. "I guess I am. I did ask you to marry me, didn't I?" she smiled. "It was the best thing I ever did." Even though it was dark, Kris knew that her partner was blushing furiously. It always happened when she received unsuspecting compliments.

"You love doing that, don't you?" Nicole replied as she rubbed her heated cheeks.

"Of course! You're beautiful when you blush." She smiled then pointed to the book on Nicole's lap. "So, what did you learn about our next stop?"

"No, you're the one who's beautiful," Nicole corrected softly and giggled when it was Kris' turn to blush. "Got ya!" She opened her book to the marked page. "Well, Coober Pedy's the largest opal center in Australia. It yields around eighty percent of the world production. Did you know that more that three quarters of the population lives underground?"

"Really?"

"Yeap, and they even have a church," she said as she lit the small portable reading lamp attached to the back cover. "It says here that the motels built underground are as good as any built above ground. The floors are tiled and the mechanical equipment, which digs out the rooms, leaves attractive patterns in the walls. I can't wait to see that. How far are we from Coober Pedy?"

Kris moved her wrist to catch the lamp's light on her watch. "I'd say three more hours to go. We should arrive around eleven thirty. Are you tired?"

"A little bit," she admitted. "My legs are getting cramped. It'll be nice to get out and walk once we stop and…" She noticed that Kris had slowed down and was guiding the car to the side of the deserted highway. "I didn't mean stop now."

Kris turned her head and saw Nicole looking at her with a curious expression on her face. Without a word, the dark haired woman smiled and pointed a slender finger at the windshield, indicating something beyond. Standing in the middle of the road was a young dingo, its even sandy coat unmarked by scars. He had something interesting, either a dead marsupial or lizard, which he wanted to eat.

They both slowly exited the car, being careful not to startle the animal and stood close, watching him. It didn't scare him off. After eating his find, he decided to investigate the humans. He lowered his head and came in cautiously to within five meters. Nicole made sounds designed to arouse his curiosity and he came closer. She easily got the impression of a very intelligent dog.

They were equally curious about each other so a strange ballet for dog and woman ensued as he tried to circumnavigate her. Eventually satisfied or bored, he continued on his way.

"That was fun," Nicole smiled at the retreating animal and stretched her sore back and legs. "I heard so many things concerning dingoes. They don't look mean."

"They only are if you're a sheep," Kris replied. "I think they're more of a nuisance than anything." She waited until her companion walked around the car a few times before settling back in her seat. "Let's get back on the road before the others catch up." She shut her door closed and shifted the gears once Nicole was safely strapped in. "I hear a bed calling us."

******************************

Coober Pedy

The man wiped his oily hands on a rag and slammed the hood of the car shut as he yawned. It was past midnight and the last of the rally participants had arrived fifteen minutes ago. Some went directly to their motel rooms to sleep, while others had either gone to eat or like him, performed a full inspection on their car, not wanting to wait until morning to do so. They had done a lot of kilometers so far and the vehicle was performing like a dream, but rough roads were ahead of them and this was the best time to do an oil change.

"Are you coming to eat?" the man's teammate asked as he put the toolbox back in the car's trunk. "I'm starving!"

"You go ahead. I'm more tired than I'm hungry," he replied and stretched his body, not bothering to hide another yawn. "I'll just get a bigger breakfast tomorrow morning." He waved at his teammate and watched him until he disappeared into one of the restaurants still opened for business.

He walked to the back of the car as he casually looked around him to see if he was alone then chose a few pieces from the toolbox and put them in his jacket's pockets. With a low chuckle, he closed the trunk and headed towards a public phone. He stopped briefly in front of a panel that indicated the new standings for the rally and shook his head, unhappy with the results.

The Finns were still leading with Kristina and Nicole following in second position with a ten-minute difference. Kyle and Shannon were next, followed by the teams of Ludwig and Greg, Dean and Scott, Claire and Eddie, and the Frenchmen Stephane and Gilbert. The last ones to arrive had been the Italian team. Out of the race were Shannon's brother Richard and his teammate and now the New Zealanders, Mario and Phil, joined them, recorded out of the rally for one reason or another.

'That makes one car out on each of the teams,' he silently thought as he continued on his way towards a phone. 'But all I care about is the number one position.' He unhooked the receiver and put a few coins in the slot. With a last glance around him, he dialed a number and waited for the call to be answered. It finally was on the third ring.

"What can I do for ya?" a rumbling voice said, partly distorted by the static on the line.

"It's me again."

"How's it going?"

The man nodded, not caring that his gesture went unnoticed by his interlocutor. "Better than I thought. Put my bet up another five."

There was a brief silence on the line before a throat was cleared. "Thousand? Are you sure? That'll bring you up to ten grand."

"Do it," the man ordered and smiled as Kris and Nicole walked by. He waited until the women were out of hearing range before he continued. "Kristina's been driving beautifully so far. Once she's the leader, nothing will stop her. Trust me, I have a plan. The woman will earn me a nice amount of money."

"I really hope you know what you're doing," the bookie replied. "If you lose and can't pay up, the boss will have his boys on you."

"Just write the damn amount down, okay?"

The bookie grunted. "It's your neck. Anything else?"

"No. Talk to you later." The man hung up the phone and shoved both hands in his pockets. In his right hand lay the black ski mask he had worn during the attack on the Australian rally driver, Scott Buchanan. 'Damn man! I really thought he would've quit after such a beating,' he grumbled as he walked back to where the rally cars were parked. 'Doesn't matter now. They're not a threat to the number one position anymore; they're too far behind. '

A noise caught his attention and he spotted Shannon Brennan still working on her car. He momentarily slowed down his pace, wondering if he should put a hold on his plan, but decided to go ahead anyway. She was too far away to notice anything. 'But once I take care of the Finns,' he silently promised as he looked at the Australian stuntwoman, 'you're next on my list. I won't risk anybody getting in front of Kristina. I need her to win!'

Fifteen minutes was all it took for him to make his plan into reality. The tampering he had done to the Finnish drivers' car was a piece of art. Nothing showed and it wouldn't be until the vehicle was on the road that things would start falling apart. Only a sharp inspection would show the damage done but Teppo and Heikki had already done it. The dark clad man stood up and started walking away from the car. He shoved his tools back into his jacket and was about to pull his ski mask off when he heard footsteps behind him. A hand suddenly grabbed his arm and he spun around, coming face to face with Shannon.

"Hey! You heading over to the restaurant to…" the stuntwoman started and froze, surprised by the sight of the stranger wearing a mask.

Her hesitation was all he needed to stop the woman from sounding an alarm. His fist shot forward, hitting her solidly on the jaw.

******************************

Continues in chapter 6.

 

 


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