Julia did her best to hide how nervous she was when she met Chrístõ for a light lunch a few hours before the finals of the rhythmic gymnastics competition. So was Alice. The two girls ate well - they were both well drilled in the importance of nourishment - but the very best food obviously had no taste at all for them. They both smiled nervously and talked haltingly when he said anything to them.

“Tomorrow, when it is all over for both of you, do you think it would be possible to have a meal without any pre-occupations?” he asked when the meal was over and they went for a walk in the Olympic park. Chrístõ held Julia’s hand because he had leave to do so, but Alice walked by their side with her hands by her side, in accordance with the Hydran laws. Chrístõ tried to keep up the conversation, but every time they caught sight of the arena roof in the distance the girls both went quiet.

“I really wonder if being an Olympiad is good for your mental health?” he added. “It’s certainly not good for mine trying to entertain two neurotic young women who hardly care if I’m here or not.”

“I care that you’re here,” Julia assured him. “But right now you’re NOT the most important thing in my life. After today, you will be, absolutely. Tomorrow, whether I get the gold or not, I’m retired from being an Olympic gymnast. I won’t be entering any more competitions. I will do it just for pleasure, and for exercise, and as part of my sports degree.”

“After today, it is the same for me, too,” Alice added. “Except… I’m not sure if I’ll be able to carry on with my college course.”

Julia looked guilty at having reminded Alice of her precarious situation. Chrístõ wondered if he ought to say something, but he wasn’t sure what he could say that would help.

“Whatever happens to you, stay in touch,” Julia told her. “The most important part of the Olympics is friendship, and we can’t let it fade away just because we’re light years apart afterwards.”

“Absolutely not,” Chrístõ agreed. “Not when we have a TARDIS and we can visit ANYWHERE we want, any time. We’ll come and see you wherever you are.”

“That’s the point,” Alice sighed. “I’m not sure where I WILL be. If I don’t get a sponsor I can’t take anything for granted.”

“Chrístõ, why don’t you sponsor her?” Julia suggested. “You’ve got plenty of money.”

“I don’t,” he answered. “I have a father with plenty of money who studies my expenses very carefully. He obviously doesn’t mind me paying your college fees. I’m responsible for you. But he will certainly question me supporting a young lady I am not formally betrothed to.”

Julia looked disappointed. Alice was philosophical about it. She had clearly tried many options already and this was one more closed to her.

“Your father isn’t your only source of income,” Julia pointed out. “Doesn’t’ the crown prince of Adano-Ambrado have any money?”

“I tried THAT, too,” Chrístõ answered. “Alice’s problem is staying in the Earth Federation as a citizen of that Federation. Her sponsor would have to be a bone fide citizen. The Crown Prince of Adano-Ambrado wouldn’t qualify.”

“That’s all right,” Alice told him. “It is nice of you to try.”

“Don’t you give up hope,” Chrístõ told her. “Something will come along.”

What did come along was the Adano-Ambradan Embassy limousine to take them to the arena. The journey was too short for the nerves of the two girls. They barely managed any conversation at all. When the car pulled up at the competitor’s entrance they both sighed deeply and climbed out, stretching their limbs and shouldering their gym bags.

“Good luck, sweetheart,” Chrístõ said to Julia, hugging her lovingly and kissing her on the lips as he was permitted to do with the visa in his pocket. Then he turned and briefly hugged Alice, too. “Good luck, to you, as well. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for you both.”

The two girls went inside. Chrístõ sat back in the limousine as it drove around to the guest entrance to the Arena. The driver opened the door for him and he stepped out not as Julia’s fiancée, but as the Crown Prince, met by an official guest ‘greeter’ and escorted to the executive box, away from the crowds pouring into the main arena seats.

In the executive box, he was pleasantly surprised to find a group of old friends waiting for him.

“Paracell Hext, what are you doing loitering here?” he demanded. “Don’t you know this box is exclusive to the guests of Adano Ambradan royalty – which would be me, of course.”

“The King-Emperor recently invited me to discuss intergalactic security in his bath,” Hext answered. It was the sort of statement that only made sense to anyone who knew Penne Dúre, ruler of the Adano Ambradan system personally. “He offered me a pass for the rhythmic gymnastics, for which my little brother was prepared to challenge me to single combat.”

“Not to the death, of course,” Cinnamal added. Beside him, Jennica Corr smiled demurely and bowed her head politely to her former teacher. Chrístõ looked at Cinnamal approvingly. Ballet school had done a lot for his physique as well as his manners. Or perhaps being in love with a Human girl had wrought the second change in him. “Jenny really wanted to be here. We watched most of the Olympics on vid, but the rhythmic gymnastics is the big one for us. It’s the closest thing to ballet, and after all it is the one Julia’s going to win the gold medal for.”

“Well, that’s not certain. I have high hopes, of course, but….”

“She’ll win,” Jennica said. “Do you remember last summer when she performed in Earth Park with hair ribbons. Even then it was obvious she was going to be successful. So sit here with us, Chrístõ, and be proud of her.”

He was always proud of her, of course. But yesterday his confidence had been a little shaken when he realised that she was not unique. There were several dozen girls in the Olympic village who shared her ambition and had as much talent. He was no longer as certain of her chances as he ought to be.

His anxiety level grew as the competition got underway. There were twelve competitors and Julia was the eleventh in the first rotation – with the clubs as apparatus. The first eight girls who went before her all looked utterly fantastic, in leotards made of silk, flesh coloured tulle and hundred of spangles and sequins, performing their one and a half minutes of ballet mixed with gymnastic tumbles while keeping two clubs moving all the time, either in the air or twisted about in their hands.

“Actually, most of the routines are very similar,” Jennica commented. “They all seem inspired by old-fashioned American cheerleading routines. Somebody really needs to do something different to really grab the top marks.”

Alice was ninth to go, and she DID do something different. Chrístõ and Jennica both recognised the music – Stravinsky’s Firebird. Her costume was red and gold, based on the classic costume from the ballet and her clubs were gold to match. She performed a routine that was far less cheerleader and far more classical ballet. Jennica was particularly impressed by her and applauded appreciatively.

“That’s going to be a hard act to follow,” she said – accurately predicting a near perfect 9.5. 9.2. 9.6. Chrístõ nodded glumly and was relieved to see the next two girls revert to ‘cheerleader’ routine scoring much less than Alice had done.

Everyone was surprised when the lights dimmed just before Julia stepped onto the floor. They were even more surprised that her costume, gold with flecks of red and white, glowed in the dark, as did her clubs. Chrístõ sat forward and watched, wondering when his fiancée had heard the 1970s country song ‘Ring of Fire’. A jazz band instrumental of the tune played as Julia began to perform. Her clubs lit brightly and streams of golden light circled her body as she danced and tumbled and flew through the air.

“Wow,” Chrístõ murmured amidst the applause at the end. “That was fantastic.”

“Is it ALLOWED?” Cinnamal asked. “All that light show and what have you?”

“As long as the light from the clubs doesn’t distract the judges from the quality of her performance,” Jennica answered. “She got the idea from me, you know. I did something similar for my level five ballet exam and it blew them away.”

The lights returned to normal as the judges considered the performance. Chrístõ wasn’t the only one anxiously watching the scoreboard to see what the result would be.

“9.5. 9.2. 9.6!” Chrístõ read he figures aloud. “That’s….”

“Equal with Alice,” Jennica said. “Execution is down. I think some of the judges may have disagreed with us about the light show.”

“Equal first after one rotation,” Chrístõ noted when the last competitor had performed and scored only enough for fifth place. “I can live with that.”

The next rotation saw Julia and Alice performing fifth and seventh in the order and the apparatus they had to work with was a hoop. Julia, when she stepped onto the floor was wearing her second costume of the day, this one, while still being, basically, a leotard, was immediately reminiscent of a Russian Cossack costume in deep purple and silver. Her hoop was silver, and the music she chose was Lara’s Theme from Doctor Zhivago, a film that she and Chrístõ had seen at the Cannes Film Festical of 1966 when it was new. He noted that the music was played on a traditional Russian balalaika, just as it was in the film. She performed a slow, graceful routine with the hoop spinning, rolling and being hurled into the air as if it was her male partner in a pas de deux. When the ten second signal sounded through the music she rolled the hoop away from her and somersaulted, catching the returning hoop with her legs and throwing it into the air. She did the splits and caught the hoop in her arms, leaning over as if she was hugging it.

The audience were appreciative. So were the judges with 9.6 across the board – the top score so far. Chrístõ watched Alice’s performance to the music of Swan Lake and thought it was worthy of the same mark again – at least until she missed her hoop in the very last movement before the end of her one and a half minutes. She recovered quickly, but it was clearly an error. Her marks when they came were lower than Julia’s.

“Aren’t you pleased for Julia?” Cinnamal asked when Chrístõ gave a soft sigh. “Now she’s the clear leader.”

“I WANT Julia to get the gold, but I don’t think she’d be sorry if Alice got it instead, and it would do the girl good. It might help her to find a sponsor.”

Of course that meant he had to explain Alice’s tenuous situation to his friends. They all sympathised. Cinnamal, as a non-Human, non-Earth Federation citizen expressed an actual twinge of guilt at the ease with which he won his place in the Beta Deltan Youth Ballet and had no problem being able to stay there. He pointed out how unfair it was that a Human girl was so dispossessed in comparison.

“Somebody should help her,” Cinnamal insisted.

“Father will be happy to pay your allowance into a trust fund for the girl,” Paracell told his younger brother. Cinnamal looked rather less charitable at the idea of it coming from his own pocket and accepted the gentle teasing about it before the next performer took to the floor

Rotation Three involved the ribbon apparatus. This was the discipline Chrístõ knew most about. It was Julia’s favourite rhythmic apparatus and he had watched her do it just for fun anywhere there was a patch of grass or a carpet with a springy underlay to protect her if she fell. He knew she would perform well. He waited to see what she would do and what her costume would be this time.

Her costume was turquoise and white and so was the long, long ribbon that she walked onto the floor with. Her music was a section of Delius’ tone poem Sea Drift that perfectly expressed the movement of a craft on a gentle tide. Julia’s body and the ribbon that swirled around her echoed the music perfectly. It was a breathtaking performance and Chrístõ was sure it would score highly.

It did. But so did Alice’s interpretation of a piece of piano jazz called River Boogie Woogie with a similar blue and white colour scheme. Both had seen the swirling ribbons as representing the flow of water and the judges viewed their efforts almost equally.

“Julia is a half a point ahead of Alice,” Chrístõ noted when the scores were displayed. “It is between the two of them in this last discipline. The third placed girl is two full points behind them.”

“If they perform as well as they have already they’ll have gold and silver, then,” Jennica summarised. “That’s good.”

“I wonder what Julia is going to do for her last routine,” Chrístõ said. “She wouldn’t let me see it. She said it would surprise me.”

The surprise would have to wait. Julia was the last performer this time. Alice was fifth. Her routine with the small, light ball was graceful and balletic and absolutely faultless in every way. She scored 9.7 across the board.

Julia could still win the gold medal as long as she scored equal or higher points than Alice. The other girls had already accepted their lower places in the table before Julia’s last performance.

Chrístõ laughed when he saw the costume she was wearing. It WAS very definitely a leotard, and it was lacy and feminine and drenched in spangles, but the white with blue trim was designed to look like a football strip – to be exact, a Preston North End football strip from the early twenty-first century. The ball was a shimmering pearly white.

Julia stood ready. Her music began. Chrístõ laughed even louder. So did the rest of the spectators who clapped along with the jaunty tune. He was probably the only person in this century who knew that it was the theme tune from a TV programme called Match of the Day that had long ago ceased broadcasting, but everyone recognised that while performing graceful ballet and perfectly executed gymnastic movements, Julia was acting the role of a goalkeeper saving the ball from going into an imaginary net. Comic timing and imagination had been added to the skills of rhythmic gymnastics.

“She has GOT to have aced it,” Cinnamal Hext declared. “It was excellent.”

“Didn’t you once dismiss football as a game for Caretakers?” Chrístõ reminded him.

“If they played football en pointe it wouldn’t be,” Paracell commented. “That was ART.”

“I just hope the judges agree,” Jennica said. “I want Julia to win the gold.”

“So do I,” Chrístõ said absently. He was staring at the screen, waiting for the results. Julia and Alice were sitting together with the other gymnasts, both of them looking apprehensive. They knew that a matter of half a point either way would make one or the other of them the gold medallist.

The arena erupted into cheers and applause as the final results flashed onto the screens all around. Chrístõ’s hearts beat a rhythm of their own as he saw Julia’s total points from the four routines - one half mark higher than Alice’s total.

Julia had the gold medal she had dreamt of since she was a child. Alice won a perfectly respectable silver. The Chinese girl who took the bronze place joined the two girls in their joyous celebration. The others congratulated them with as much goodwill as they could muster in their disappointment.

After that things went painfully slow for Chrístõ. The medal ceremony seemed to drag on even without a time bubble. As proud as he was to see Julia on that top podium receiving the gold medal, he wanted it all to be over so that he could hold her in his arms and congratulate her for himself.

He got that chance, at last, when the competitors were all showered and changed and gathered in the foyer. It was a sweet, beautiful moment, not only because he was so proud of her, but because of the promise she had made to him. From now on she was his, one hundred per cent. Her only ambition was to be his wife in the fullness of time. As he embraced her and kissed her, with the visa permitting him to do so in public grasped in his hand behind her back in case anyone had the slightest objection, he felt as if his own destiny was coming to pass along with hers.

He released her from his embrace when Cinnamal Hext cheekily reminded him that humans needed to breathe. Julia hugged her friends fondly and let them admire her medal.

“Your very own gold,” Paracell told her. “You’re going to marry a man who will own gold mines, but this piece will always be yours. You earned it by right of conquest.”

She laughed at his choice of words, but it certainly felt like that. She had conquered all the other competitors to take that piece of gold mined on planet Earth where it was still a rare commodity and cast into a medal in Greece where the idea began millennia ago.

Cinnamal hugged her and congratulated her with slightly less dramatic language.

“You seem to be missing your girlfriend,” Julia told him. “Where’s Jennica? Surely she isn’t jealous of this? She has so many awards of her own already.”

“She’s….” Cinnamal looked around anxiously then he saw his sweetheart emerging from the communications room. She was smiling widely, but she didn’t come to Julia straight away. Instead she found Alice who had been temporarily forgotten and brought her to their company.

“I have some news,” she said. “Alice, do you know who Gregor Bassinokov is?”

“He’s one of the most famous ballet dancers of his generation,” she answered, of course.

“He owes me and Cinn a big favour,” Jennica continued. “Don’t ask why, but he does. And I called it in. It helped that he had been watching the performances on holo-vid. He knows who you are, too. And he is going to be your sponsor. You can stay at your college until you graduate. When you do, he will have a place for you with the youth ballet. He says that he would be honoured to direct you in his most innovative works – incorporating the athleticism of gymnastics and the grace of ballet.”

“He said that?” Alice asked in a rather daunted tone.

“He certainly did,” Jennica assured her.

“Jenny, that’s fantastic,” Julia told her friend. “What made you think of it?”

“Chrístõ did. He said she had to have a sponsor who was a bone fide Earth Federation citizen, and TGB is exactly that, and very rich as well as generous to anyone he thinks worthy of his notice.”

“Chrístõ, you did it,” Julia told him. “You found a way for Alice, as you promised.”

“I didn’t, Jennica did,” Chrístõ answered.

“And it’s because of you that Jenny is happy and successful and in a position to call in favours from men like Gregor Bassinikov,” Julia told him. “You made it all possible.”

“Chrístõ gets credit for enough good deeds,” Cinnamal countered. “Jenny did it, and possibly a Rusalki who reminded TGB that he owed a lot more than a favour to us.”

Chrístõ wondered what he meant and determined to hear that story later, possibly at the impromptu party that was being discussed among all of the gymnasts and their friends. But first he wanted to find a quiet place where he could be alone with his gold medal winning fiancée and try that kiss again.