DISCLAIMER: Bad Girls and its characters are the property of Shed Productions. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I would like to thank my intrepid beta readers Isobel, Kate and Mary, without whom this story would have been of far lower quality. Any remaining mistakes are the responsibility of the author. All original characters and situations are the product of this author's fevered imagination and the beta readers have no responsibility for them.
SPOILERS: This story refers to some events in seasons 1-3 of Bad Girls.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
The next few weeks passed in a blur of consultation with Claire, trial proceedings, and all of the grim formalities of extracting her from the system that had swallowed her life after Jim Fenner had died. She sat in court and listened to the evidence, watching Charlie Higgs shake and stutter as he tried to justify lying in the witness box during her first trial. She paid as much attention to his new account as the jury did, fascinated to find out what had actually happened, as she still couldn't remember. And every day, when she walked into the court, the first person she looked for and the last her gaze lingered on as she was led down was Helen, sitting still and self-controlled in the public gallery.
When her conviction was quashed she closed her eyes and bowed her head to hide the tears. She felt a hand on her arm.
"Are you all right?" Claire asked.
"Yeah. Just ... been a tough couple of years, you know."
"Look, is there a side door or something, so we can get out without doing the whole press thing?"
"I'll arrange it," Claire reassured her.
Nikki looked for Helen and almost panicked when she couldn't see her. Claire caught her expression. "She's gone to get the car."
Numbly, Nikki followed a member of court staff through the maze of corridors and passageways underneath the building, until finally they came to an old wooden door. The detention officer grinned at them and opened the wicket gate. Sunlight poured through, its golden rays making a rectangle on the scuffed lino. Nikki stood frozen, looking at it, till Claire gave her a little push and got her moving.
They stepped through the high wooden doors and Nikki took a cautious stride out of their shadow into a nondescript car park. Some part of her was still expecting to hear a shout and to find herself struggling against a group of screws. Claire put a reassuring hand on her arm and Nikki looked around, savouring the feeling of freedom, even if it was only for a moment.
Behind her someone cleared his throat. It was the copper who'd got Higgs' confession. Nikki realised suddenly that she didn't even know his name. She had been so tense during the appeal that she had blanked out large sections of the proceedings, unable to face the idea that it might not work and that she could end up back in the prison system. The man's name had been a detail, an irrelevant piece of information about one of the foot soldiers that Helen had miraculously rallied to her defence.
"Right, I gotta go. Places to be."
"Listen," Nikki said, "I should thank you. For everything you did."
"Don't thank me. Thank that bird of yours. She's a force of nature, that woman." He pulled a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket and took one out, offering it silently to Nikki. She shook her head and waited while he lit up and took a deep drag.
"I still think it's a waste. You're both good looking enough to pull a bloke if you wanted to."
"Missed the diversity course, did we?" Nikki asked.
"I don't do that bollocks. Too busy catching crooks. Well, see you around."
He strode off while Nikki watched him go, torn between amusement and exasperation. Claire brought her back to the present by tugging her arm gently. "There is someone waiting for you. Come on."
They crossed the car park together and walked into the next street. Nikki didn't realise till afterwards that her steps had grown slower and slower, even as she saw the familiar profile behind the window, and watched as Helen climbed out of the car. The colours ... when had the colours become so intense, so vivid?
She was only distantly aware of Trisha getting out of the other door, waiting quietly on the pavement as Nikki and Helen gazed at each other. Nikki was suddenly conscious of how she smelt, like a con who hadn't had a shower for more than three days; of how messy her hair was; of the fact that she was standing dressed in a going to court suit and trainers on a London pavement carrying all her possessions in a clear plastic bag labelled with the Prison Service's logo.
Then Helen moved towards her and everything was forgotten in the need to hold her close. The bag dropped, unregarded, to the ground and they were clinging to each other; hands searching, kisses mingling with tears and murmured promises and reassurances, emotion bursting out of both of them like an inexorable tide, carrying them with it. There seemed to be no way that either of them could get enough of the other; it was as though they were trying to climb into each other's skin, to erase the unforgiving years without physical contact, with words that promised they would never be parted again.
Finally coming back to herself, Nikki drew a deep breath and trapped Helen's hands with her own. "We should ... get out of here. Before they change their minds."
"I won't let that happen," Helen told her fiercely, "not to you. Not again." She brushed tears away from her face. "Come on. Let's get you home."
"Where's that?" Nikki asked.
"My place. Unless ... d'you want to go to the club, a hotel? I don't want to put any pressure on you."
"So long as your place isn't where Jim Fenner ended up dead, that sounds fine," Nikki said harshly.
"No, I've moved since then," Helen reassured her, "come on, you."
She opened the back door of the car and Nikki got in, watching as Claire put her things in the boot and Trisha said goodbye to her and then climbed into the driver's seat. Her former partner studied her in the mirror and Nikki smiled back, before turning to Helen. They sat side by side, hands linked, throughout the journey. Nikki watched the panorama of London's streets, hungry to see the changes she'd missed while she'd been inside. She was pleasantly conscious of Helen's unwavering gaze on her face. Occasionally Helen reached up and made some small adjustment, moving her hair away from her forehead, or brushing at a piece of debris on Nikki's top.
Before the end of the journey, Nikki captured the wandering hand and held it as well, running her thumb slowly over the knuckles as she remembered the familiar contours. She was aware of Trisha in the front seat, distantly aware of the scenery outside. Mostly, she was focused on Helen, on relearning all of the things she had forgotten. The small callous her pen had left at the side of the second finger on her right hand. The short, manicured nails. The texture of the skin on the back of her hands, smooth and taut over the tendons and bones. The warm, soft flesh on the inside of Helen's wrists, where the pulse raced and jumped as Nikki caressed it.
As they drove out of inner London Helen could feel Nikki starting to relax. She was still a bit jumpy; when a police car came past with its lights and sirens working her hand clenched involuntarily on Helen's and she watched it out of sight with dark, shadowed eyes. Helen didn't mention it; she suspected that Nikki would continue to have that reflex for a very long time. Still, it was pleasant to sit by her side, watching her reactions as she observed things out of the car windows. Such a wide range of emotions. Pleasure, surprise, curiosity. Helen suppressed the small ache of loss inside her that wished they hadn't been deprived of so much time together. She'd got Nikki back. That was the point.
For her part, Nikki could feel herself gradually becoming overwhelmed by the events of the day. It hadn't been real when she was standing in court; she hadn't dared to let herself hope that she would spend the night anywhere except behind bars, with the prospect of a transfer to another prison in the near future to finish her sentence.
Now, as they turned into the unremarkable suburb where Helen lived, she tried to process her new reality and found herself failing. The semi-detached houses, with their neat gardens and stultifying air of respectability, would once have caused her to sneer at the limited horizons of their owners. Now they seemed like the embodiment of middle England, confirming once more that she didn't fit in.
As they drew up outside the nondescript property that Helen apparently owned, she gave her partner a look full of apprehension and fear, feeling her courage evaporate. Helen seemed to sense her feelings, if not their cause. She leant over and kissed Nikki.
"It'll be all right, sweetheart."
When they got to the house, Helen unlocked the front door. She opened it and, noticing that the bin men had left her wheelie bin out of place, went to move it. As she turned back she saw the others coming up the path and walked to join them.
At the first inner door, to the lobby, Nikki stopped and waited, unmoving. Trisha glanced at Helen, confused, as the moment stretched out. Helen felt a cold wave of understanding pool in her chest. She stepped past Trisha and spoke quietly to Nikki.
"I'll open it, shall I?"
"What? Oh, yeah. Right." Helen stepped into the hall so she didn't have to watch the dismay on Nikki's face as she mentally replayed what she had done. She led the way up the stairs to the bedroom. Nikki pushed past her and walked in, dumping the bag with her stuff on the bed. She made no move to come back out of the room but stood, her shoulders squared and her fists clenched by her side, unspeaking. Helen stepped inside and closed the door.
"What?!" Nikki snarled.
"You'll be fine."
"Don't patronise me, for fuck's sake!"
Helen reached out to touch her arm. "There are bound to be some habits you have to break."
Nikki wrenched it away. "I get I'm institutionalised, OK. Thanks for rubbing it in!"
"Why don't you unpack your things?" Helen suggested. "I'll go down and make a pot of tea."
She left Nikki, arms crossed, staring out of the window and went down to the kitchen where Trisha had already put the kettle on and, familiar with Helen's habits, had located the carton of UHT milk in the cupboard. Helen walked in and stopped her just as she was about to cut into the pack.
"I've got the real thing in the fridge."
"Really?" Trisha said. "Special occasion?"
"As you well know," Helen said, trying to smile. Trisha saw through her immediately.
"Is she OK?"
"She will be. It's all too much for her right now, I think."
Trisha picked up the tetra pack and put it away. She turned back to Helen, arms folded. "What happened there? On the way in?"
"I don't understand."
"She's used to going up to a door, waiting for an officer to unlock it for her, going through, having it locked behind her. Then again, till she gets where she's going."
"Oh," Trisha said.
"It's hard to imagine, when you haven't been there," Helen said quietly. She opened the cupboard and pulled out three mugs, putting them on the side before filling the teapot with boiling water and getting the milk out of the fridge.
Trisha sat down at the kitchen table and looked doubtfully at Helen. "Are you two going to be all right?"
"No reason why not."
"But she's ...."
"Disorientated. Angry. Ashamed. Still Nikki."
Trisha frowned and Helen smiled at her. "When we were trapped in a cell, during the riot at Southwold, she took me out of harms' way. She faced down a woman with a knife who wanted to kill me. She kept me warm and when the riot squad arrived she risked another stab wound to keep me safe."
"Christ," Trisha said, "how dangerous was it in there?"
"Usually?" Nikki said from the door. "Not as bad as she's making out." She came into the room and sat down. "Sorry about that, babes. I just needed to ... get over feeling like an idiot."
"I suppose everything's a bit ...."
"Raw," Nikki said. She accepted a mug of tea from Helen and looked up at her. "Your garden needs work."
"It's not really my thing."
Helen sat down across from Nikki. Absently, Nikki took her hand.
Trisha turned to Helen. "You never told me you were in danger during the riot!" she accused.
Nikki watched them, absorbing the new dynamic. It seemed that Trisha and Helen's relationship had changed while she had been inside. The two women were bickering like old friends.
"Wasn't important," Helen said dismissively, "I got out of it in one piece."
"But you might not have done."
"If I'd told you, you would have worried about Nikki."
Trisha tried to find a retort, then subsided as Helen smiled at her. "True. But that's not the point! Where were you supposed to get your support from?"
"From my colleagues. They understood about what happened without getting it out of perspective."
"Perspective? You were in danger. So was she!"
"For about ten minutes," Nikki said, choosing to gloss over the nerve racking time she had spent with Helen in the cell, waiting to be rescued. If you could call the Tornado Team a rescue team.
"That's ten minutes too long," Trisha insisted.
"Yeah, but we didn't have much choice," Nikki said, "it was stay in the cell or go and play with the rioters. And they were after Helen."
Helen's face changed, her jaw tautening with suppressed grief. "So Jacobs was ...."
"An accident. Yeah," Nikki said, "it wasn't your fault."
"Who was Jacobs?" Trisha asked.
"A screw who got killed," Nikki told her. She was focused on Helen, watching her reaction. Abruptly, she stood up and put her arms around the other woman, taking her chin and moving her face round so that she could look into Helen's eyes. "It wasn't!"
"She had children, Nikki. They don't have a mother now."
"Then blame fucking Siobhan, not yourself. Or Clarissa, who was too bloody cowardly to take another beating."
"Don't you think that's a bit harsh?"
"No! Fine, if she wanted to go on rule 45 or not run up the debts in the first place. Clearing them by agreeing to stab you ... my sympathy just evaporated," Nikki said.
"I can't help feeling guilty."
"Don't. You were trying to do some good, help some of the women off drugs. It's not your fault that you upset the drug dealers in there or that someone was weak enough to agree to work for them. There's enough shit to mess with anybody's head when you're in prison. You have to own the stuff that belongs to you and ignore the rest."
"I suppose you're right."
"She is. You ought to listen to her," Trisha said. She stood up. "Anyway, you two don't need me here. I'd better go. I'm expecting a delivery."
"I'll see you out," Helen said. She talked to Trisha in the hall and then went back into the kitchen, finding it empty.
Nikki was sitting on one of the settees in the living room, arms wrapped around her knees, brooding.
"I said we'd call and make a date to see her in the next couple of days," Helen told her, "when you've had time to process everything."
"Process," Nikki said dismissively, then ducked her head as Helen favoured her with a level gaze. "Sorry."
"Don't be," Helen told her, "you're exhausted. We both are."
"I got out today," Nikki said, "it's supposed to be the best day of my life."
"We both know it isn't that simple. We're going to be working through the consequences of what happened to you for a while."
"Cheer me up, why don't you?"
"That's easy," Helen said. She walked over to Nikki and sat on the arm of the sofa. Gently, she took the other woman's face in her hands and looked into her eyes, seeing them darken with desire, running her thumb across Nikki's lower lip. "We will never have to hide again. We are free to be together. For the rest of our lives, if that is what we want. I can do this ...."
She kissed Nikki, lingering over it until Nikki wrapped her arms around Helen and kissed her back, rising half out of her seat to do it. They ended wound around each other, Helen slightly off balance until she straightened up again. "And no one can stop me."
"God," Nikki husked, "I missed you. Every day. Every night ...."
"I know. No more than I did you."
"I used to lie in bed thinking about you. Some nights, it was the only thing that got me to sleep."
"Strange. It used to keep me awake," Helen told her, smiling. Nikki ducked her head and looked up at Helen, her mouth quirking with amusement. "So you're telling me I was ... a good memory?"
"Let's just say I'm hoping to build a few more."
"Why, Miss Stewart, are you propositioning me?"
Helen chuckled. "What do you think?"
"I think I just got lucky."
"No. That's me," Helen told her seriously, "but maybe not tonight. Unless you want to."
"Why wouldn't I?"
"Because it might be a good idea to spend some time readjusting before you plunge back into life outside prison."
"Yeah, I suppose you could be right. On the other hand, no time like the present."
"Fine," Helen said equably.
"Or we could see how it goes."
"Are you going to agree with everything I say?"
"Until I get bored of it. What was bothering you. Before?"
"I was thinking about what Higgs said in the witness box."
"What about it?"
"I don't remember any of that."
"Well, you wouldn't. You got knocked out during the fight."
"Do you think it happened that way?"
"Yes," Helen told her firmly, "his witness statement agreed with his daughter's account and the forensic evidence."
"It's strange. I knew I hadn't done it. I just couldn't prove it. It was weird hearing what really happened."
"It's in the past."
Nikki looked up at her, face open and vulnerable, and pulled Helen down onto her lap. Helen went willingly enough and put her arms around Nikki's neck. With a little adjustment they made themselves comfortable. Helen waited for Nikki to finish what she was saying.
"When you first met me, in Larkhall, I was pretty bitter and angry."
"That you were."
"But being buried in that stinking place did give me time to think. Nothing else to do, in there." She sighed. "I hated Fenner's guts. He was a bastard. But I'm glad I didn't kill him in cold blood. I learnt better. Not because of Larkhall, but because of you."
"Do you regret Gossard?"
"On my good days? Yes. Even though I still don't really believe I had any choice. Strange, isn't it? The Nikki who's an ex-con would have been able to handle that situation. Probably without killing him. The Nikki Wade who was a nightclub owner didn't have the first idea."
"Come to bed," Helen said gently, "you need to rest."
Helen came out of the bathroom to find Nikki waiting her turn, sitting on the bed dressed in a shapeless T-shirt and leggings. She dropped a kiss on the nape of the other woman's neck. "I've left you some towels out. There's plenty of hot water."
"Did I ever tell you that I love you?" Nikki said.
"Once or twice."
"No," Nikki said thoughtfully, "I mean I love that you can grieve for a woman you met maybe ... twice, three times."
Helen sat down next to Nikki and took her hand. "I was in the cell while she was dying, remember. You wiped her face and comforted her. Bit more practical than grieving after she's dead."
"I suppose so." Nikki shuddered. "I've done things, Helen. While I was in there. Things I'm not proud of."
"We'll deal with it," Helen told her, "love the sexy outfit, by the way."
"You never knew when you were going to be dragged out of bed in the middle of the night," Nikki said equably.
"Oh, that could still be a risk, depending on how energetic I'm feeling."
"Well, I'd better have a bath before you decide to molest me, then."
"You say that like it's a bad thing."
Nikki smiled at her, pressed her hand briefly to Helen's chest, and went into the bathroom. Helen got into bed and reached for her book. She read quietly, occasionally distracted by the sounds coming from the next room; she'd never shared the house with anyone and certainly never slept with another person there, much less Nikki.
After a long interval, Nikki appeared, towelling her hair dry. She had discarded the mis-matched pyjamas and was wrapped in one of the towels Helen had left out. Helen couldn't help noticing how much weight she had lost; her shoulders were thinner and her legs seemed fragile, breakable. Nikki caught the reaction. She shrugged awkwardly.
"Not what you remember?"
"Different," Helen said. She watched as Nikki retrieved the leggings and put them on, turning away and covering herself with the towel. She looked startled when Helen got out of bed and handed her the T-shirt she was reaching for.
"You know you're still beautiful, don't you?" Helen told her softly. "It's just, you've changed. My granny would say that you need feeding up a bit."
"I'm damaged goods now, aren't I," Nikki said bitterly.
"No. We're both older. That's a fact. But the feelings; they're the same. And they're what matter, remember."
"Do. I'm going to remind you every time I see that expression on your face. You'll get sick of it, eventually."
They got into bed and Helen read for a while longer, before glancing across. Nikki lay with her back turned to Helen, her breathing steady. Too steady. Helen leant up on one elbow and put her hand on the other woman's shoulder. "You're not asleep are you?"
Nikki turned over in bed and looked up at her. "No."
"What are you thinking about?"
"Anthony Trollope. One of his novels. 'Phineas Redux' There's this character in it. Phineas Finn. Charming Irish lawyer who's making his way in politics. Anyway, he gets charged with murder. The man who was killed is an old enemy, they quarrelled on the night of his death. All the circumstantial evidence is against Finn. He's on the verge of being convicted and hanged, when someone finds fresh evidence and he's freed."
Helen listened silently, letting Nikki get it out of her system. "There's just this part where he's come back to his lodgings and he's on his own. He's walking round touching things. Everything seems strange, disconnected. Like he can't believe that he's free. Safe. Nothing makes sense anymore. I know how he feels."
Helen hugged her. "This is real."
"I know. I do. I just don't believe it yet. Bear with me?"
"I don't know," Helen said playfully, tracing the line of Nikki's profile with her forefinger. "Couldn't you find anything more erotic to think about?"
"Why? Because I'm in bed with a beautiful woman?"
"I'd have thought association would do the trick."
"I used to read classic works of literature, not porn. I was limited to what I could get out of the prison library."
"What, and there's no classic porn?"
Nikki tilted her head and Helen was pleased to see that her infectious grin was back. "Tell you what, why don't I recite the sex scene from 'The Well of Loneliness'."
"What's that when it's at home?"
"Classic work of lesbian fiction from the twenties, by Radclyffe Hall. Published in Paris. Caused a scandal. Got tried in court as depraved literature and everything."
"Really?" Helen said, interested. "Must have been pretty hot stuff."
"Oh, yes. It got banned in the end, I think."
"Well, go on then."
"Are you ready?"
Nikki took a deep breath. "And that night, they were not divided."
Helen waited. Nikki sat up and gave her a quick kiss, before turning away. Helen seized her shoulder and turned her back. "Well?"
"What about the rest?"
"That's it," Nikki said, "strongest description in the whole book. I know. I looked."
"That caused a scandal?!"
"I think it was more the concept," Nikki said, before dissolving into laughter, "your face!" she chuckled helplessly.
Helen picked up a convenient pillow and pummelled Nikki with it, before discovering that getting into a pillow fight with somebody with much longer arms was not a good idea. Nikki relented before too long, however, and they fell asleep curled around each other, the soft glow of the moonlight silhouetting them in the bed.
In the morning Helen woke up and found that she was alone. She glanced at the bedside clock and swiftly worked out why; it was past unlock time. Pulling on a dressing gown, she wandered downstairs. Nikki was sitting in the kitchen, fully dressed, eating porridge. Helen smiled at the sight.
"Going for luxury on your first day out, I see," she teased.
"There wasn't any smoked salmon in the fridge. Besides, I don't know if my stomach could take it."
"We'll get you used to the high life again, don't worry."
"Coffee, you mean?"
"I was thinking something a little more decadent than that," Helen told her. She bent over to kiss the other woman, feeling desire rise inside her. For a moment Nikki reciprocated and it was on the verge of developing into something more than a kiss; then Helen felt a gentle pressure on her shoulders and realised that Nikki was pushing her away. She stepped back, puzzled.
"Sure," Helen said, pulling a chair around so that she was facing the taller woman. Nikki took her hand and placed a kiss on the palm. Helen shivered. She restrained herself. Nikki looked at her and Helen could see the need in her eyes.
"I want to make love to you."
"So why are you stopping me now?"
"Because right now, I'm still numb. I need to reconnect with ... everything."
"We'd be connected."
"It would feel like using you," Nikki told her. Helen frowned, puzzled.
"You want to make love, I want to make love. We've been apart for over two years. Is it not just that easy?"
"Not for me," Nikki said fervently, "when we .. when it happens. I want to be there. All of me. With you. Like it was before."
"It will be," Helen reassured her. She sighed. "But if you don't think you're ready, I can wait."
She tried to make her tone gracious. It was hard; Nikki's proximity was filling her with longing, bringing back old, happy memories. She summoned her self control and stood up. "I'll go get a shower. Then we should decide what we're doing with the day."
"Thanks for understanding."
"I'm not sure I do. But, if it's what you need ... Try and think about what you want to do instead."
In the shower she considered taking care of the ache herself and decided against it; she had done enough of that in the many lonely nights of separation from her lover. She wanted Nikki's skin and breath against her, the other woman's body rousing and then satisfying her passion until they were both sated and content; reconfirming their relationship in the interchange of their pleasure until there were no more uncertainties left between them. Deliberately, Helen turned the shower control to cold and stood under the water until she was numb enough to disregard her need.
By the time she got downstairs Nikki had washed up and cleaned the kitchen and was waiting for her in the living room. Helen crossed over to the side, found a wallet in the drawer and handed it to her.
"Trisha left it for you. I don't know how much cash there is. You'll need to sign the cards."
Nikki looked momentarily disconcerted and then nodded slowly. "I'll have to get used to using money again, won't I?"
"Yes. Oh, I nearly forgot." Helen gave her a set of keys. "Front and back door."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. Unless you're planning on moving out?"
"That's settled then. What do you want to do today?"
"I want to go to a bookshop. A real one with lots of departments."
"OK. How about Waterstones on Gower Street? That's close to Charing Cross Road, if you decide you want to visit more than one."
"Perfect," Nikki said, giving her a beaming smile. Helen grinned back, glad to see her so happy, and thought that if this was all it took to please her, then the transition back to life outside might be easier than either of them had anticipated.
She kept a close eye on Nikki as they walked through town. One of the reasons she had suggested the bookshop was that it was slightly away from the busiest areas of the city centre. Tourists could find the crowds in London overwhelming; she wanted to be sure that her partner could manage the experience before she took her to Covent Garden for lunch, as she had planned. They were walking through Russell Square, enjoying the sunlight, when Nikki casually took her hand, glancing down at her.
"I'll be all right."
"I'm not going to fall apart because it's busy. Relax."
"OK," Helen said, slightly annoyed that she was so transparent. Nikki smiled and kissed her lightly on the cheek. "It's nice that you want to take care of me."
"I'm not trying to wrap you in cotton wool ...."
When they got to the book shop, Helen headed off to the social policy shelves to look at the new publications, leaving Nikki happily browsing amongst the literature titles. She moved gradually through the various sections she was interested in, scanning dust jackets and considering what to buy. She popped across to check on the other woman from time to time and occasionally got a response that was more than an absent acknowledgement of her existence. A couple of hours later, Helen had decided on her final, definitive list of purchases and went to see if Nikki wanted a coffee as well.
She found her in one of the bays with a pile of books next to her, absorbed in a new translation of 'Madame Bovary' Helen took the opportunity to stop and watch her lover while she herself was unobserved. Even bent over a book while sitting on a scuffed carpet, Nikki was stylish. The position showed off how tall and well proportioned she was, with legs that seemed to go on forever. Face absorbed as she read, her dark eyes intent and focused, her striking good looks seemed unimportant next to the intelligence she exuded.
Helen studied her, appreciating the qualities which were often masked by Nikki's natural passion and vivacity as she talked or moved. Seeing the quiet strength in the face and set of the shoulders, the long elegant hands, the way she had of totally concentrating on whatever she was doing. Her usual wariness had vanished; she looked at peace and content, her dark hair curling gently around her ears. Her T-shirt gaped open a little at the back and Helen could see the regular line of her vertebrae at the nape of her neck, plunging down into the shadowed depths of her spine.
Helen imagined kneeling behind her, kissing the vertebrae one by one, lifting the T-shirt to allow further exploration with her lips and tongue, gently resting her hands on Nikki's breasts as she explored the contours of her back before turning her attention to her front. Licking her way slowly down the taut belly, dipping lower and lower while Nikki moaned and quivered under her hands and mouth, body flushed with pleasure.
She gave herself a mental shake as the fantasy grew uncomfortably vivid. She must have inadvertently made a noise; Nikki looked up and saw her. The other woman got up quickly, a slight quirk of puzzlement between her brows, smiling at her.
"What are you thinking about? You've got the most interesting expression on your face ...."
"You don't want to know," Helen told her firmly.
"I think I can guess," Nikki said, amused.
"Ready for a coffee?"
"Is the coffee here any good?"
"Not bad. And then, assuming we can hire a native bearer for all those books, I wondered if you wanted to go for lunch."
"Covent Garden? Or maybe Soho?"
"I haven't been to Soho for years," Nikki said.
"Well, the pink pound's still going strong, so there are plenty of nice places to eat."
"Coffee first, though."
Nikki leant close to her. "How about iced coffee? Cool you down a bit," she murmured.
After they had had coffee and paid for the books they strolled slowly to Soho, feeling the heat of the late morning sunshine reflecting off the pavements and onto their faces. It was crowded and busy with tourists and foreign students, the centre of London in all its tacky, overpriced glory. Helen found herself drifting along, chatting inconsequentially, quite happy to let Nikki set the pace. She had been here many times over the last few years, usually rushing to a seminar or an appointment. Now she found herself seeing it again through Nikki's eyes; hearing the babble of different languages and the roar of the traffic, watching the starlings alight in the dusty leafed trees, seeing sunlight reflected from plate glass and neon signs, glancing at the illegally posted stickers and flyers that festooned every unpoliced surface. Bustling and crowded and entirely self absorbed; London as it had probably always been.
When they got to Soho, with its pavement cafes consisting of a few chairs jammed haphazardly onto the narrow pavements inches away from the passing traffic, upscale shops and occasional rainbow flags, Helen let Nikki choose where they were going to eat. They ended up at a table by the window of a small Italian deli that did light meals. Helen had doubts about its authenticity but the food that had already been served to other diners looked OK and she was hungry. Besides, she was more interested in watching Nikki's quiet pleasure at having choices. Any kind of choices, even over something as small as picking where they were going to eat.
They were discussing what they might do for the rest of the day over the remains of their meal when the other woman tensed.
"What?" Helen said, puzzled.
"I told you it was her!" a voice said. Helen looked up and realised that a group of women across the street were staring at them. They were in their late teens or early twenties, casually dressed in jeans, T-shirts and trainers. Some had slogans printed on their shirts, others simply wore badges or a discreet red ribbon. Helen put her hand on Nikki's as the taller woman made an aborted move to stand up.
"It's all right," she said quietly.
"No it isn't," her partner said between her teeth, "I'm not a bloody zoo animal!"
"Sure. I'll pay the bill and we can go."
She signalled the waitress and realised with a sinking sensation that the women, led by the oldest and presumably bravest of the group, had decided to come over. Nikki's hand on the table clenched into a fist and she looked straight ahead, refusing to glance at them, even when they were standing next to the table, blocking the pavement and straggling partially into the road.
"Excuse me, are you Nikki Wade?" the oldest girl asked nervously. She looked a bit concerned at the lack of response, visibly wondering if she had done the right thing. Finally Nikki looked at her, a short, hard, glare that actually caused her to step back.
"Yeah, what of it?"
"We just wanted to say; congratulations on getting out. You must be very pleased."
"I am," Nikki said tightly, "it was tough. Being inside. Being watched all the time."
"Oh," the woman said uncertainly. Helen took pity on her.
"Thanks for your good wishes. I'm sure you'll understand it's all a bit overwhelming at the moment. Especially for Nikki. We're really enjoying our private time together. After so long."
"Oh, you're ...."
"Right. Well, good luck."
"Thank you," Helen said quietly. The group turned and left. Nikki watched them go, head down, then put her hand to her face. Helen realised that the other woman was trembling slightly.
"Didn't know I was a celebrity, that's all."
"More a cause celebre, I think."
"How do they know about me?"
"Well, Barbara will have updated the website and we put out a press release when your leave to appeal was agreed. Some of the gay papers have run quite a lot of items about you. You're news."
"Community icon," the taller woman said cynically.
"Legend in your own lifetime," Helen agreed solemnly, "they're thinking of a statue." With that statement Nikki seemed to realise the absurdity of the situation and burst into laughter before standing up, pulling Helen to her feet, and kissing her. Helen moved away quickly. Nikki caught her round the waist.
"What's the matter? You ashamed of being seen kissing a community icon?"
"No! I just don't want to get arrested for public indecency." She glanced down the street, to where the group of women were still watching them. "Or give them a free show."
"You're my life partner. I should be able to kiss you in the street if I want to."
"Aye," Helen said affectionately, reaching up to tuck a piece of Nikki's hair behind her ear, "but let's not push it, OK?"
"OK. How do you do that?"
"Deal with my moods."
"I've had a lot of practice. Now, come on. We can walk and plan at the same time."
They paid the bill and headed out of Soho to the Charing Cross Road, where Helen read one of the books she'd bought over a coffee while Nikki darted in and out of several different second hand bookshops before finally taking pity on her and suggesting they go and see a film. They managed to find an afternoon showing of a forgettable romantic comedy and sat companionably in the dark, holding hands, at peace with each other and the world. After that they ate an early tea in a Chinese restaurant and headed home.
Nikki had grown quieter and quieter as they travelled. After the first conversation where she obviously wasn't paying attention, Helen mentally shrugged and left her to it, watching the suburbs of South London rattle past outside the train window. By the time they got back to the house she was pleasantly tired and not really thinking about anything. She still felt a small flash of pleasure as Nikki nonchalantly fished out her keys and let them both in.
She was checking her emails when she heard the music. A cello, lyrical and melancholy, the beauty of it calling to her. She walked into the living room, where Nikki had put one of the CDs she had bought in a discount shop near Chinatown into the stereo player and was listening to it. Helen didn't want to interrupt the piece, but felt compelled to ask.
"What is this?"
"Elgar. Cello concerto in E minor."
Helen sank down on to the sofa next to Nikki and nestled into the other woman's side, absorbed by the sound. Afterwards, the ex-con got up without speaking and put the CD on again. Helen studied her face as she listened to the driving, passionate cello, its single beautiful theme echoing through the orchestral response. Nikki was transported, but in a different way than she was when reading a book; she looked as though her intensity was turned outward, carried away from her by the music, not turned inwards to study a text.
"I didn't know you liked classical music," Helen said softly.
"It's something I had to give up."
"I'm sorry for that."
"Don't be. You didn't take it away. The system did that."
"I know. Helen?"
"Was my release such a big deal? This time?"
"To the wider world? Probably not. To the community; it was news. To the people who love you? I don't think words can describe it."
"That bad, huh?" Nikki asked softly.
"Yes." Helen bowed her head, hiding her emotion. Gently, her partner tilted her face up, hands careful and sure. Then she kissed her, lips lingering on the corner of the Scot's mouth, before pulling back and running the tips of her fingers tenderly across her cheek. Helen tensed, unsure of Nikki's intentions and fighting her body's response to the touch.
"If you do that, I don't know that I can restrain myself much longer."
"Good to know I can still pull the girls."
"I mean it!"
Helen turned to her, catching the undertone of emotion in her voice. Nikki reached out and smoothed a thumb along her collar bone, her hand resting lightly on the smaller woman's shoulder.
"It's strange ...."
Helen shook her head, puzzled. "What?"
"It's like .... Coming back to life. It aches, there."
She took Helen's hand and put it on her chest. She had not moved her own hand from Helen's shoulder. They sat for a moment and then Nikki moved closer. "Bring me back? Bring me all the way back to you? Can you? Please?"
"I can try," Helen said, feeling her voice catch in her throat.
Carefully, she placed her hand behind Nikki's neck, feeling the short downy hair beneath her fingers. She pulled her lover in for a kiss, moving them both along the sofa so that they could lie next to each other, their bodies close but not pressed together. They began to explore each other, Helen leading the way and setting the pace, showing Nikki without words how much her return meant; that to Helen things were no different between them. She felt the intimacy rebuild as they held and touched each other slowly, all without removing a single piece of clothing.
Nikki seemed lost in wonder at Helen's actions even as she mirrored them, her own hands moving and settling on the smaller woman's body with a leashed possessiveness that would have frightened Helen if it had been anybody else. She sensed the long empty months that Nikki was exorcising with her actions and shuddered at what they had cost. She was vaguely aware at different times that they moved to lie on top of each other, as though each of them needed the reassurance of the familiar weight on them, as well as the comfort of the other's well loved hands. She was intoxicated by the feel of Nikki's skin and breath, the intensity of her actions, her focused, attentive gaze. As they moved together it began to seem that there was nothing outside this place, this moment, nothing except the two of them. Finally, Nikki gave a gasping sigh and pulled away, swinging her legs over to sit next to Helen. Helen waited.
Nikki collected her thoughts and turned to her lover, mentally blessing her for her patience and willingness to give Nikki what she needed.
"Make love to me."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm here now. I want you. I want all of you. Forever."
"God. I need you."
"Then take me." Deliberately she took the smaller woman's hand and kissed the palm. "I'm yours. We're each other's."
Helen's response was incoherent. Nikki didn't care. It felt as though all of her doubts and insecurities had melted away, as though this woman had banished the nightmare that had had hold of her for the last two and a half years, reaching into her soul to defeat it, freeing her mentally from imprisonment as she had in cold physical fact.
Slowly, she pulled off her T-shirt, shivering as she felt the evening air on her skin. She took Helen's hand and placed it on her breast, gasping as she felt her own response to the touch.
Helen's eyes were pools of hazel, her pupils dilated with desire. Nikki felt a perverse sort of power as she reached around and unclasped her bra, even though she was the one undressing and Helen was fully clothed. Every move she made drew a response from her lover, the expressive face showing each permutation of feeling as Nikki's actions eroded her self control. To see the other woman respond to her nakedness was in itself wildly exiting and Nikki felt the muscles of her abdomen tense as her desire lanced through her. Involuntarily, she straightened.
Taking advantage of her greater height, she moved across, straddling Helen's thighs, bending down to kiss her, caressing her face even as she plunged her tongue deep into her mouth, savouring the taste of her lover, seeking to relearn her from the inside out.
Kissing her slowly and intently, she gradually became aware that Helen had taken a hand in the process, her thumb pressing against Nikki's centre, the pressure uncertain and stuttering as she battled her own need. She arched her back, feeling the pulsations move through her, and groaned. Encouraged, Helen made the pressure more rhythmic, more focused. One hand remained at Nikki's breast, caressing the nipple to a hard peak. Nikki whimpered aloud, feeling her arousal climbing as she enjoyed the sensations. Then, suddenly, Helen attacked her other nipple, sucking it, grazing it with her teeth and teasing flicks of her tongue as though she were trying to milk pleasure from Nikki's body with her mouth. Crying out, Nikki found herself driven over the edge to her orgasm, unsure whether it was the change of physical sensation or the mental image which had stimulated her more.
She lost herself within her pleasure as it overwhelmed her, vaguely aware of the soft, strong arms holding her safe as she recovered herself. Looking down at Helen in the aftermath, she caught her satisfied smile, hardly more than a curve of the mouth, and took it as a challenge.
Standing up, she stepped back, away from her partner. Brushing her damp hair from her forehead, she allowed the desire to show in her eyes, ran her tongue across her lips, loomed over the seated woman.
"That was very nice. Now it's my turn."
She caught the flash of shock and quick desire in the other woman's eyes and smiled. She sank to her knees in front of Helen, aware that the smaller woman's gaze was drawn to her flushed chest and erect nipples. She reached out and touched her at the junction of her thighs, a brief, teasing caress of her swollen centre. Helen gasped softly. Nikki smiled and slowly, playing to her audience, put one hand on each of Helen's legs, holding her still while she leant in and breathed her scent deeply.
"You smell so good," she said quietly, feeling quivering shocks go through the muscle under her hands, "so rich, so strong, so ready." She allowed her tongue to touch her upper lip again, seeing how her partner couldn't look away from her mouth. "Are you ready?"
"Yes." The tone was thick with arousal.
"That's good. But you'll have to wait."
Helen made a small, protesting sound as Nikki slid her hands slowly away from her thighs and down her legs, lingering across the bare flesh of her calves under her jeans, stilling on her trainers. She began to undo the laces. Helen moaned, her hand seeking out her core. Nikki stopped the slow uncovering of Helen's feet and trapped her lover's wrist, taking her hand and placing it on the sofa. She knelt up and spoke quietly into Helen's ear.
"No. Not below the waist."
She hinted at what she meant with a lingering kiss on the way down, sucking the hardened nipple through Helen's top, hearing her gasp as she released it, leaving the flesh sensitised to the cold air. As Helen begin to caress her own breast, Nikki gauged her arousal through the heightened pattern of her breath and the hitching of the muscles in her abdomen. Helen was so caught up in what she was doing that she barely cooperated as Nikki freed her feet and, undoing her jeans, pulled them off her, leaving her dressed in nothing but her underwear below the waist.
Nikki stilled for a moment then moved her head, breathing softly on Helen's groin, glancing up to catch the other woman's startled response before turning her face into the soft, warm heart of her partner's need, smelling her rich musk. She reached out with her tongue, tasting the last barrier between her and her lover's body.
"Raise your hips," Nikki instructed softly, feeling Helen shake as the words vibrated against her. Trembling uncontrollably, Helen did as she was asked. Nikki drew the flimsy scrap of fabric down her legs and discarded it, before returning to the aroused flesh. She felt Helen's hands grip her shoulders as she used all of her skill to bring the other woman to the brink and then to drive her over, gentling her skilfully through her orgasm and the aftershocks before finally moving to hold her as she recovered.
After a long while, Helen opened her eyes and looked at Nikki before kissing her. "I'd forgotten how good that was."
Nikki smiled, smoothing her knuckles across the other woman's cheek. "You're not bad yourself."
Helen glanced around the room, not commenting on their contrasting states of undress. "You want to take this upstairs?"
"A decent bed. You and me, together in it. All night."
Nikki shivered pleasurably, aware that her eyes were heavy lidded with her renewed desire and that the bout of love making they had shared had only roused a continuing hunger in her; not just for the physical sensations she had been denied for too long but for the intimacy she had had stolen from her. Warmly, she reached to kiss her partner, feeling the rough fabric of her T-shirt against sensitised nipples.
"Who could resist an offer like that?"
They gathered up their discarded clothes and went upstairs. As they climbed the steps Nikki couldn't helping putting a possessive hand on Helen's bare hip, feeling the flex and play of muscle under her palm as the other woman moved. Helen smiled at her, eyes mischievous and full of promise.
"Why, Ms. Wade, anybody would think you wanted to have your way with me."
"Oh, I do," Nikki told her, "over and over again."
"Till you get tired of me."
"I've got years to make up for. It'll take a while."
"I imagine we'll think of something."
Once they reached the bedroom Helen good naturedly allowed Nikki to finish undressing her, before returning the favour. As she ran her hands over Nikki's sides, scraping lightly with her nails, the taller woman shivered and captured them.
"You keep doing that, I'm not going to be able to think straight."
"Straight's over rated, isn't it?"
Nikki chuckled and pushed Helen backwards, kissing her as she laid her on the bed, before hovering over her like a starving woman hesitating in front of a banquet.
"You're so beautiful," she told her, her voice husky with need. Lying down beside Helen she started to stroke her body, her face intent as she concentrated on her chosen task. By the time she had begun following her hands with her lips her partner was almost incoherent with pleasure, her low cries dwindling to gasping breaths as she reached her climax, Nikki's fingers deep within her. It had been so intense for the smaller woman that Nikki had expected their love making to end there; instead Helen seemed to gain new energy from the experience, reaching for her insistently. Once Nikki went to her, Helen took control, causing her to drown in sensation, relentlessly and lovingly caressing her until Nikki finally tensed and cried out, feeling fierce pleasure spread through the core of her body.
She bowed her head and kissed the tousled hair at Helen's brow line, tasting her partner before rolling over to hug her, not wanting the connection to end. Helen shifted within her arms, stretching luxuriously before settling against her. Nikki enjoyed the feeling of hardened nipples against her side, smiling as soft lips began to trace a path along her jaw.
"Are you still wanting more?" she asked, mock-seriously.
"I'll never have enough of you. But it'll do for now."
"Good. I need to get my strength back."
She felt Helen put a hand on her side, fingers splayed across her ribs and glanced down at her. "What?"
"Sometimes, while you were away, I'd dream you were here. I'd wake and reach out for you and the bed would be empty."
Nikki tightened her grip, chilled by the simple sorrow in her partner's voice. "The same thing happened to me, a few times," she admitted.
"Not often. I mostly slept with one eye open in there. Does strange things to your sleep patterns."
"Well, you're safe now."
"Home and safe," Nikki agreed.
The words seemed to make it real. She could feel herself drifting into a pleasant drowsiness. With a final kiss, she closed her eyes and surrendered to it, the comforting feeling of Helen's body in her arms following her into her dreams.
"What happened to your face?" Barbara asked, concerned, as she opened the door.
"Och, that. An accident," Helen lied glibly. Internally, she shrugged. She was only dealing in half-truths, not outright lies and she didn't feel ashamed of doing so. Nikki's mental state was nobody's business unless she wanted to share it with them. She saw Barbara glance at Nikki and realised that her partner's reaction had probably given the game away. Her suspicions were confirmed when Barbara continued to press her.
"Did you walk into a door? It's a nasty bruise."
"I hit her," Nikki said. The statement hung between them like an ultimatum, its echoes in silence rather than sound.
"Nikki?" Barbara said questioningly. "What d'you mean?"
"What I say," Nikki growled and walked past her into the living room. Barbara looked at Helen for clarification, visibly confused. Helen shook her head, exasperated at her partner's apparent determination to give the worst possible impression.
"She had a nightmare. She was crying out and I tried to wake her. Unfortunately, in her dream that became somebody trying to hold her down and she fought back."
"It's not as bad as it looks. If I had a pound for every time she's apologised ..."
"I'm not surprised. She must be mortified. Has this happened often?"
"Only the once."
"Once is too many."
"It'll work itself out," Helen said, "she'll get back on an even keel and we'll be fine."
"You don't know that," Nikki said from the next room. She sounded furious but Helen could hear the undertone of humiliation and fear in her voice. The Scot walked through and touched her partner's arm, ignoring the half instinctive flinch away.
"Yes I do," she told her, "anyway, Barbara, what does a woman have to do to get a drink round here?"
"I'm sorry. I'm being a bad hostess. White or red?"
They made stilted conversation till Henry appeared from his study. Though the flow of speech gradually became easier Helen was aware that she was doing the talking for both her and Nikki, who had retreated into sullen silence. Barbara shot worried glances at the brooding woman from time to time but didn't say anything. Matters only got worse when Henry tried to bring her into the conversation.
"So, Nikki, do you and Helen attend church?"
"Hardly. I'm an abomination in the sight of God and headed for hell, remember? Doesn't tend to make you feel very religious."
"Not all churches believe that."
"No. Just most of them."
"Do you believe it?"
"Maybe. I've killed two people, haven't I?" Her eyes drifted unwillingly to Helen's face. "I've shown I'm capable of violence, more than once. That might qualify me, if hell exists."
"No sin, if repented, is unforgivable."
"Not even if the sin is being what you are?" Nikki demanded. "The way God made you?"
"That's a separate matter. You don't believe it's a sin, do you?"
"No. Despite my school's best efforts."
"Your school?" Helen asked.
"Didn't I ever tell you? It's a good story."
"Some other time, maybe," Helen said uneasily. Nikki didn't seem to hear her. Her face twisted, as though she was tasting something bitter.
"Yeah. I got expelled for 'lesbian activities' That means I got caught. Some of the others were experimenting as well. No boys around, you see. I never met any of them on the scene, afterwards, so I think I was the only real dyke. The girl I was found with certainly managed to convince the headmistress that it was me who'd led her astray. Cowardly little tart. She started it. But because I wouldn't lie about what I was and how I felt, I got made an example of."
"They locked me in the infirmary overnight with a Bible to 'think about it.' Logical, I suppose; they thought it was a sickness. Then in the morning they took me to the headmistress' office and the chaplain read me the relevant bits, in case I'd missed them." She looked straight at Henry. "I stopped listening to men with their collars turned backwards after that."
Barbara stood up abruptly. "Nikki, come and help me with the coffee."
The two women locked eyes for a moment. Then Nikki shrugged and stood up.
She followed the older woman into the kitchen, her posture reverting to the familiar inmate's slouch that she had mostly left behind. Helen watched her go, feeling her jaw tighten with pain. She heard a slight noise and realised that it was Henry clearing his throat. She turned to him, embarrassment heating her skin, and realised that he was looking deeply troubled, not angry.
"I won't say this to Nikki, because I don't think she will accept it in the spirit it is intended, but I will pray for her." He smiled at Helen's puzzled expression. "Not to change her orientation. We're not all as bigoted or as ignorant of the facts of life as she thinks. But that she may find a measure of peace."
"She's having a hard time right now, that's all."
"Considering where she's been, that's not surprising."
Abruptly he stood up and went to the side-board, pouring them both a measure of whisky without asking her if she wanted it. Helen took the glass from him silently and nursed it, smelling the peaty scent of the Islay malt as she warmed it in her hand. Henry sat down and gazed thoughtfully into his own drink. "When I was in the army I saw a number of good soldiers lose their careers and pensions because of the people their nature led them to love. One boy hung himself and I had to tell his family why, because he'd requested it in his suicide note."
"So I don't actually mind it when people tell me that this is how they are and to hell with what I think. About their orientation, anyway. For a teenage girl to stand up to every authority figure in her life like that must have taken remarkable courage. But then, from what Barbara says, Nikki Wade, despite her flaws, is a remarkable woman."
"I suppose what I'm trying to say is that I hope that either of you would feel able to come and speak to either Barbara or myself if you felt the need. I know I'm a stranger, but I have more experience than you might expect, if only by proxy."
"Thank you. I am sorry for what she said, though."
"Don't be. Bluntly put, it sounds like they were trying to scare her straight."
"I think so."
"Barbara mentioned that your father is a minister."
"Yes. Scots Presbyterian."
"How is he with the situation?"
"About as you'd expect. Not only a woman but an ex-prisoner." Helen winced, remembering the conversation. "Still, he's never approved of a single thing I've done. I'd be surprised if he was going to start now. Other people in my family have been very supportive."
In the kitchen Nikki stood mutinously, arms folded, as Barbara pottered around making coffee. Finally, she put her hand on the fridge door as the older woman was about to open it.
"Well, get it over with."
"The bollocking. I can take it."
"So can Henry. He's perfectly capable of standing up for himself."
She nudged Nikki's hand to one side and carried on setting out the tray.
"Then why did you bring me in here?"
"I thought that Helen needed the time out. You were upsetting her."
"She's used to it."
"Do you want her to be?" Barbara asked softly. One look at Nikki's stricken expression brought her up short and she put her hand on the other woman's arm, giving her silent reassurance as she fought tears.
"I'm sorry. I didn't realise."
"No. No. It's me. It's always bloody me, isn't it? If I'm not physically hurting her then I'm showing her up in front of people. I don't know why she puts up with me sometimes."
"Did it happen the way she said? With the nightmare?"
"Course it fucking did! D'you think I'd deliberately hit her?"
"I have to ask, Nikki. I can't not. You know that."
"No. You're right. If I was ... doing that. I'd want someone to step in."
"But you're not."
"I'm not. I just sleep badly."
"You never had nightmares in Larkhall."
"Well, stuff has happened since then."
"It'll work itself through."
"I don't know, Babs," Nikki said helplessly, "sometimes I feel like I'm losing my mind. And if that means I lose Helen as well; I don't think I could bear that."
"You've got a strong relationship and she knows how the prison system works," Barbara reassured her, "she understands what it does to people."
"I wish I did," Nikki said feelingly. She brushed at her face. "Come on. Time to go and make my apologies."
Barbara frowned as she watched the younger woman go into the living room. She had celebrated, with everyone else involved in the campaign, when Nikki had been released. Now she realised that her assumption that release was the same as being set free had been premature. Sighing, she took the coffee through.
"So how long are you going to be away?" Nikki asked lazily. She stretched under the duvet before sitting up.
It was a Sunday in July and Nikki had stumbled into bed sometime in the early hours of the morning after doing a shift at the club. Helen had let her sleep for as long as she could but knew that if she'd didn't rouse her early enough for them to spend a good part of the day together she'd get mock complaints about being neglected. She had taken the easy way out by going into the bedroom to prepare things for her business trip, leaving it up to the other woman as to whether she chose to wake up or not. Nikki had reacted to her not especially quiet packing by emerging slowly from sleep. They had been talking for the last few minutes.
"Four days," Helen said. Nikki pulled a face.
"I have to go, sweetheart. This project management consultancy really helps us balance the budget and it's great for networking, which helps my career."
"OK. I suppose I can live with it if it means you'll eventually be able to keep me in a style to which I'm not accustomed."
"Funny," Helen said, poking Nikki's shoulder, "I was relying on you to do that for me. You're the hot-shot business woman."
"Maybe a poverty stricken old age won't be too bad if I've got you to share it with," Nikki said.
"What makes you think I'll stay? Maybe I'm only interested in your money."
"Nah. I've got lots of other things you're interested in."
"Like my ability to get things off the top shelf," Nikki said, stepping out of bed and easily reaching the suitcase that Helen had been groping for. She hugged her.
"It's not morning."
"OK. What do you want to do for the rest of the afternoon?"
"I thought a walk."
"Great. I'll get dressed."
"Not on my account."
Nikki grinned and strolled off to the bathroom. Helen knew that she had at least another half an hour to pack. Once Nikki had adjusted to the new reality of no longer having to shower within a set time in luke-warm water she tended to emerge from the bathroom only when her fingers and toes had started to wrinkle. Like taking long walks outdoors, it was one of the ways she had of proving to herself that she was no longer a prisoner.
"We have got housework to do," Helen shouted through the door.
"I'll do it when you're away."
Claire was thinking of anything but Nikki as she made her way to the office. She'd had a foul commute in on the tube, the sweltering July weather making the journey almost intolerably hot, and she was late. She knew she had a bad day in court ahead of her and she was thinking about that as she crossed the square outside her office. She wasn't expecting a tall figure dressed in a track suit and baseball cap to stand up from a bench and accost her.
"Claire," Nikki said urgently.
"What are you doing here?"
"Waiting for you."
"I need your help."
Claire shook her head and looked around the square, aware that her morning had suddenly become more complicated.
"I've got to be in court soon," she warned.
"It's all right. I don't need much of your time," Nikki said, "can we go inside? I could do with a cup of coffee."
Claire signed the other woman in at reception and took her to her office, where she set the coffee machine going. Nikki didn't seem to be able to sit still; she moved around the office restlessly, picking things up and putting them down. When Claire poured her a cup of coffee she accepted it and drank it standing up, staring out of the window. Claire got her papers ready for court, willing to wait it out.
"Nikki. I have to go soon. What do you want?"
"I need you to get a message to Helen."
"You can do that. You don't need me."
"Yes I do."
Nikki looked at Claire, her face working. She seemed close to tears.
"I have to go."
"I can't tell you."
"Because I don't want Helen to follow me," Nikki said desperately. For the first time Claire focused on something other than the other woman's strange behaviour. She looked at her face, at the strain on it, at how her eyes moved restlessly around, refusing to settle anywhere. Nikki's face was set in the tight way Claire remembered from her trials.
Claire put it together. "And if I tell Helen that you looked halfway sane when I saw you, she can't justify chasing you," she said slowly.
"I don't want her to worry."
"Nikki, she won't not worry! You're being bloody selfish!"
"No, I'm not. I'm doing the right thing."
"Then you can talk to Helen about it! I'm not your go-between."
"Claire," Nikki said, "I am leaving London today, whatever you say, so it's up to you whether Helen gets any news or not."
"That's emotional blackmail."
"I'll stay with friends. I won't be on my own. I'll check in, daily, if that's what you want. But I have to go. I have to get my head straight."
"And you don't think Helen can help with that?"
"Not this part."
Claire shook her head. "God! You are so exasperating! Bloody Nikki Wade, going off half cocked, as usual."
"I wouldn't do this if I didn't think I had to."
"What could possibly justify hurting Helen the way this is going to?"
"Not hurting her permanently. Look, I can't explain. Will you do it?"
"How about you tell me why you're going?"
"No. If you don't know you can't be made to tell."
Claire pinned Nikki with her best court glare, the one that made witnesses wriggle in their seats. "Tell me one thing. Have you fallen out of love with Helen?"
"No," Nikki said, "anything but. She's the most important person in the world to me."
Claire hesitated, faced with her transparent sincerity, but decided to make sure. She'd been faced with good liars before. "So you're not just letting her down gently. You won't turn up with a new woman?"
"There's no one else. You have to believe that."
"You're right. I do, because I'm going to have to convince Helen."
"Tell me again," Helen said.
"We can go over it as many times as you want," Claire said, "it won't change the meaning."
"But that's it," Helen said restlessly. She stood up from the sofa and stared blindly out of the window. She was still dressed in her business suit; her luggage was in the hall. Claire had caught her at a service station after leaving several messages and had managed to convince her that she should go straight home instead of checking in at the office. "I know what she said to you, but I don't know what it means."
"It means that Nikki's got a bee in her bonnet about something and in a couple of days she'll calm down and get back in touch and then we can sort it out," Claire said.
Helen didn't move. "But what if she doesna? What if she's decided that she doesn't want this, she doesn't want me? She thought she did while she was inside but now she's tried it it's not enough or not what she thought it would be? Now she's got other options ...."
Claire went over to Helen and hugged her. "I asked her directly. She still loves you."
"Then I don't want to be her enemy. Because if she treats the people she loves like this ...."
"I know," Claire said comfortingly.
"She could love me and still have realised that it isn't what she wanted," Helen said, "we had a month together, before Fenner was killed. That's all. And we're both older. We've changed. People grow apart."
"Helen, that's not it. She'd have talked to you about that. She's got that much integrity. You know she has. Stop imagining the worst."
"The worst?" Helen said brokenly. "I wait. I wait for years to see the woman I love again. I suffer knowing that she's suffering in a place where I can't help her. And then when she finally comes back to me, against all chance, against all my fears that I'd never see her again, never touch her, never hold her, she leaves me without an explanation. And the worst of it is, I can't hate her for it. I can't even get angry. What kind of idiot am I?"
"The kind that loves someone," Claire said wearily, "though you might want to have a discussion about boundaries when she comes back."
Helen was sitting at her desk, trying to work from home, when her phone rang. She picked it up on the second ring.
"Excuse me," a woman's voice said. "Is this ... is this Nikki's Helen?"
"Yes. How is she?"
"Not good," the voice said.
"Who am I speaking to? Where are you?"
"I'm Kelly. I did time with her in Southwold."
"OK. Where are you?"
"The Welsh borders."
"When you say she's not well, what'd you mean? Is she hurt?"
"It's a bit more complicated than that," Kelly said, "Christ, this feels like selling her out."
"You're not," Helen said firmly, "we've both got her best interests at heart. You must be worried or you wouldn't have phoned me. What do I need to do to help?"
Mentally, she prayed that the answer was not that she should stay away. The last two weeks had been an agony of long sleepless nights and distracted days. More than once she had gone downstairs after hours of tossing and turning, only to find herself watching the dawn from the kitchen or falling asleep on the sofa in front of a mindless film. She was barely holding it together at work and she had taken as much of her owed time and holiday as she could; she was lucky she was on a light schedule and that the report she was writing had a long deadline. Though if this carried on she would be pulling all nighters to get it finished.
"I don't know ... ," the woman said, finally.
"Start by describing the problem."
"All right. Nikki turned up at the guest house, I run a guest house, about two weeks ago. She offered to work in return for her keep. I told her, forget it, what are mates for. We've got spare rooms anyway ..."
"What happened then?" Helen interrupted.
"She started working on the garden. It's pretty overgrown. Dave wasn't really able to keep on top of it while I was inside and campaigning and stuff."
Helen smiled sweetly down the phone and clenched her other fist on her knee. Finally she got up and started pacing, glad that it was a cordless model. Kelly droned on and it gradually dawned on Helen that she was afraid of getting to the point. Afraid, maybe, that if she named what was wrong with Nikki it would make it more real. She interrupted a long winded description of how Kelly had inherited the house from an eccentric great aunt and how they had never really managed to bring the extensive grounds back into use.
"Kelly. Can I summarise, please?"
"You're concerned about Nikki's behaviour and you believe she might be unwell, so you've decided to call me because you know that we're partners. Yes?"
"Good. But you haven't actually told me how she is behaving. Or why it's worrying you. What is she doing?"
"She can't stay inside," Kelly said, "says the walls are closing in on her."
"OK. What else?"
"She gets in these moods and then ...."
"How long were you in prison with Nikki?"
"Few months. I know what you mean, but this isn't like the moods she had then. She's all over the place. One minute she's furious, then she's laughing and joking, then she gets depressed. For no reason. And she's working silly hours, out in all weathers. She's doing twelve hour days out in the heat, digging, cutting down trees. I asked her why and she said she couldn't sleep."
"Where is she sleeping if she won't come inside?"
"Once we realised she was staying out practically all night we sorted her out a bed in the old chalet."
"It's a sort of miniature cottage, really. My great great uncle used to use it for his bolt hole. But it's got running water and a stove and a loo."
"I'm glad to hear it. Kelly, have you tried to talk to Nikki about the way she's acting?"
"Yeah. Once. She said she knew she was being weird but she'd be all right once she'd got her head straight. But she isn't doing that. She's getting worse! She can hardly talk to people now. She's avoiding everyone."
"It does sound like some sort of breakdown," Helen agreed. Her mind raced. She realised that she had no idea what was wrong with Nikki and no idea of how to fix it. Still, if she went to see her she might be able to assess the situation. And maybe, just maybe, Nikki would be able to talk to her and tell her why she had run away.
"Listen, Kelly, give me your post code for my sat nav. I'm going to talk to the office and tell them where I'll be. I can work on my report from yours as well as I can from here. Then I'll drive over. Do you have a room available?"
"Right. Does Nikki have everything she needs in terms of clothes and so on?"
"Yes. We took her shopping the second day."
"OK. I'll just bring myself and a bag, then."
"What are you going to do if you can't help her?"
"I'll worry about that if I need to," Helen said grimly. She glanced at her watch. "Look, expect to see me sometime this evening. I'll phone when I get closer."
"Thanks," Kelly said, her tone heartfelt, "I don't want anything to happen to Nikki."
"That's both of us," Helen said. She noted down the post code and hit the speed dial for the office.
When Helen drew up outside the guesthouse, Kelly was waiting for her. She came straight out onto the drive, a relieved look on her face. Helen retrieved her bags from the back seat of her car, glancing up at the large old building. It was an impressive structure in red brick with sash windows that looked as if it might once have been a Georgian hall before it had been remodelled into some Victorian tycoon's idea of an ancestral seat. Helen had driven through its extensive grounds to reach the main house and wondered how much effort Kelly was having to make to keep it viable as a going concern.
"Sorry I'm late," Helen said, "I'm not so used to driving in the country."
"It's all right," Kelly said, "I found it a bit strange when I moved out here. No street lamps and narrow lanes. But it's beautiful in the daylight."
"I'm sure. Can I leave my car there?"
"Dave 'll park it for you," Kelly said.
Dave was a thin, impassive man dressed in jeans and a thick sweater, who grunted a greeting in a thick Birmingham accent and took Helen's luggage up to her room after parking her car. Kelly showed Helen into the kitchen, which turned out to be a warm, welcoming space dominated by a large Aga and a long oak table.
By contrast to the rest of the house, which was decorated in what Helen thought of as 'seaside landlady chic'; all flowered wallpaper and prints depicting local attractions, it looked as though it had been transplanted from the cover of a seventies vegetarian cookbook, with its jars of pulses and dried pasta on display along the white painted shelving. Kelly immediately served Helen a bowl of soup and insisted on her eating it.
"Didn't know when you'd arrive or I'd have done you something proper."
"This is fine. It's good of you to feed me." Helen took a sip of tea and broached the subject she'd been aching to ask about since she got there. "How's Nikki?"
"She's at the chalet. I took her some lunch down and she brought the plate back later. She hadn't touched it, not really."
"She's not eating either?" Helen demanded sharply. "If she doesn't eat and she doesn't sleep she's heading for a total physical collapse, never mind her mental state! And you say she's doing hard physical labour during the day?"
"What is with her head?"
"I don't know."
"Where is this chalet?" Helen said decisively.
"I'll show you."
"It's down there," Kelly said, pointing into the dimness of the twilight. Helen squinted and saw the glimmer of a light across the orchard somewhere. She smiled at Kelly, masking her uncertainty, and took a deep breath before starting down the muddy track into the trees. She resisted the impulse to check the pocket with the key to the guesthouse in it. "Don't wait up."
"Remember, we're up the hill," Kelly called out after her. Helen smiled back falsely and nodded before carrying on into the gloom. Part of her, the part she thought of as rational, was questioning whether she should even be here. After all, what kind of behaviour was this? Walking out into an unlit garden to accost a woman whose last spell in prison had, according to Kelly, driven Nikki Wade into an entirely understandable madness.
Walking through the trees, tripping over unexpected roots and stumps, peering through the half darkness, Helen found herself more and more doubtful whether she was doing the right thing. The leaves blocked out much of the light; she could hear the rustling of the breeze in the branches. Occasionally an animal moved somewhere nearby. The orchard hadn't looked that extensive when she was starting to cross it but as she stumbled along it seemed to grow. Helen was very glad of the minimal path.
Then, suddenly, she was through the trees and out of the other side. Helen stopped at the fence and looked across a hummocky, unkempt meadow to the chalet. It was as Kelly had described it; a perfect, one story miniature of a Swiss farmhouse, complete with carved eaves on the sloping roof and shutters on the windows. Made of varnished wood set on a stone foundation, it had a terrace in front, with steps leading up to it, surrounded by a wooden railing. There was smoke coming out of the chimney; Helen could see piles of split logs to one side under a lean-to roof.
The front door was open, clear electric light spilling out onto the terrace. As Helen watched Nikki came out and stood, staring into the twilight. She clearly didn't know she was being observed as she leant against the door frame, face sombre. She was a little more relaxed than Helen remembered her, but there were shadows under her eyes and the familiar hitch of muscle on her forehead, between her eyebrows, hadn't smoothed out. She wasn't wearing make-up and her hair was messy and unkempt, as though she'd been running her fingers through it. Helen wondered if she'd just woken up. As she watched Nikki made a small exasperated sound; her hands clenched into fists before she deliberately tightened and unclenched them, turning back inside and coming out again with a pair of boots thick with dried on mud and an old kitchen knife. She sat down, cross legged, on the edge of the terrace and started single mindedly levering mud out of the cleats in the soles.
Helen realised suddenly that she was standing in the shadows without announcing herself, practically spying on Nikki. She cleared her throat and her partner looked up, startled.
"Who's there?" Nikki asked loudly. She stood up and reached quickly behind her, killing the light. Immediately she vanished into the shadows of the terrace's overhang.
"I said show yourself. Or I'll come and find you, and you won't like that," Nikki announced, the steady determination in her tone worse than any overt threat. Helen heard an indistinct noise and realised that the other woman had moved quickly and quietly, making it hard to place where she might be.
Helen shivered and, belatedly remembering that she had a torch, fumbled it out of her pocket and turned it on, deliberately keeping the beam low so she wouldn't dazzle Nikki. She stepped through the gate, closing it carefully behind her.
"I'm here," she said.
If Helen had been worried about Nikki's reaction to her unannounced visit or speculated about the reasons she had left, one look at her face dispelled it. Nikki studied her with eyes that were so filled with love and desire that Helen felt she might weep. She had dreamed of this moment, again and again, over the last two weeks. Now, when it was here, she found that imagination was a poor substitute for the reality of the encounter.
Nikki looked at her as though she was the sole refuge in a hostile world, the one true thing in a place full of counterfeits. As Helen stood, frozen to the spot, outside the chalet, Nikki walked forward and, in one movement, gathered Helen into her arms. She looked at her again and then kissed her greedily, tongue plunging into Helen's mouth as her hands swept down to explore the contours of her back.
Helen felt her own hunger flare in response to Nikki's actions. She dropped the torch and kissed back, reaching for the other woman's shoulders, clinging on as she tried to communicate what she was feeling, the long ache of their parting lending her actions an almost frantic intensity. She found herself moaning deep in the back of her throat, a desperate, needy noise, as one hand travelled inexorably down to Nikki's breast, feeling the pebbled nipple through the rough cloth of her sweatshirt. The other caught Nikki around the back of the neck, holding them close together, trying in one action to wipe out the loneliness of separation.
Finally, they broke apart long enough to just hold on to one another. Helen shivered as Nikki's bruising embrace gentled, becoming a solid grip. Nikki tilted her head and smiled, looking at Helen's hand, which was still resting on her breast.
"Hey, you ...."
"No," Nikki said, "I did." She smiled. "Looks like you might have as well. Unless you grope all the women you meet?"
"You don't look like you mind."
"Why would I? You're gorgeous, babe. You know that."
"Oh, so any gorgeous woman would have done?" Helen said teasingly.
"Just the one."
Helen shifted her palm a little and Nikki shivered. "Don't start anything you can't finish," she warned lightly.
"It doesn't matter," Helen said, "we're here, now. Let's just ... forget about everything else. Please. Let it just be us. For tonight."
"Yes," Nikki said fervently, "just us."
She linked her hands across the back of Helen's neck and leaned in for another deep, searching kiss. They were both breathing more heavily by the time they parted. Helen felt as if she would ignite with desire.
"I want you so much ... ," Nikki murmured, "I've been dreaming about you."
"Really?" Helen said teasingly. "You going to invite me inside, then?"
"I think so."
She took Helen's hand and, picking up the torch, led her into the chalet, closing the door behind them. Helen glanced around and raised her eyebrows. "Elaborate."
Nikki glanced around at the wood burning stove and the sink with its single tap and shrugged. "It does the job."
She drew Helen past the table under the main window. Helen saw that it had gardening books scattered across it, next to an A4 pad and a portable radio. "You been studying?"
Nikki grinned at her. "I'm researching stuff."
"Tell me about it later."
"Don't you want me to feed your Lady Chatterly fantasies? I'm the hired help."
"Come on then," Nikki said and led Helen through into the other room. Helen looked dubiously at the double mattress on the floor.
"It's all right. It's clean. New, in fact."
She drew the curtains and ignited the miner's lamps she had standing in three corners of the bedroom before turning off the main light. She moved slowly, deliberately, as though giving Helen time to adjust to the situation.
The warm golden light of the lamps filled the centre of the room, casting shadows on the walls. When Nikki turned away from the last one she looked at Helen waiting in the middle of the room and seemed, suddenly, to be overcome by shyness. Helen smiled and walked up to her. She took hold of the bottom of Nikki's sweatshirt and started to work it upwards, the backs of her fingers brushing against bare skin. Without being asked, Nikki reached back and pulled her top off, dropping it onto the floor between them. Face intent, she started work on the buttons of Helen's shirt before moving lower, running her hands down Helen's sides before unzipping her jeans and reaching inside them. Helen gasped aloud.
"So warm me up," Nikki told her, voice low with desire.
"I plan to," Helen said. She pushed Nikki gently backwards and down onto the mattress, straddling her. She bent her head to begin a slow, steady exploration of the other woman's neck, kissing her way towards the collar bone. Nikki groaned aloud and reached up from her semi-reclining position with one hand to touch the side of Helen's breast.
"I missed this."
Helen drew back and looked at her, face serious under her curtain of hair. "Glad to hear it. Because I have too." She moved her hands deliberately lower. "Want to make up for lost time?"
"I'll show you what I want," Nikki said, sitting up so that the other woman was in her lap and unclasping Helen's bra before leaning to kiss her nipple. Helen gasped, sensation spreading through her body. It intensified when Nikki slipped a skilled hand inside her jeans, touching her through the fabric of her underwear, bracing the smaller woman with an arm around her back.
"Move up, love," she commanded quietly, "let me show you a good time."
Some time later Helen lay back and savoured the warmth of the bed and the sated relaxation that filled her body. She could still see the tangle of their clothes on the floor, where she and Nikki had kicked them aside after pulling them off each other. The sight made her smile, bringing back pleasant memories of other days. This one, though; this had been special. They had reached their first climax with mutual, overpowering force before making love again more slowly, mending bridges with an intensity that promised everything without either of them speaking a word.
Next to her Nikki made a small, incoherent noise and worked her way closer into Helen's side, throwing one arm across her stomach as she shifted to get nearer. Helen wriggled a bit as soft breath ghosted across her skin, then reached out to put an arm around Nikki's back, holding her close.
"That tickles," she commented quietly.
A mumble drifted up from somewhere around the area of her ribs. "Smells ... goo ...."
"What I smell of is making love with you."
"Like said ... nice ... Helen ...."
"Don't go .. sleep."
Seemingly satisfied, Nikki relaxed bonelessly and fell asleep herself. Helen smiled into the semi-gloom of the chalet and lay back, quite content for now to be where she was.
When Nikki woke up, curled around the remnants of the warmth in the bed, she could hear Helen moving about in the other room. She lay for a moment, listening, then smiled as she heard the familiar noise of the door of the wood burning stove being opened and then Helen cursing quietly to herself as she tried to get it to work. She sat up, stretched luxuriously, and pulled on her heavy dressing gown before wandering through into the other room. Helen was kneeling in front of the stove, fully dressed, prodding at the contents with the poker as though she hoped they might spontaneously combust.
"Why don't you let me do that? There's a knack to it."
"I'm sure there is," Helen said, giving up immediately and handing Nikki the poker.
"Why don't you get some water? There's a well out the back."
"Is that safe?"
"Hasn't poisoned me yet." Nikki studied the expression on Helen's face. "I've got some water purification tablets, if you're worried."
"I'll think about it," Helen said. She peered out into the darkness. "Mind you. I could have a problem even finding it."
"Suppose so," Nikki said, "I forget that not everybody lives in the woods. You wouldn't believe how much my night vision's improved since I got here. I'll bring some more logs as well."
She slipped her feet into a pair of plastic sandals and wandered out of the chalet. Helen shivered and threw her arms around herself. When Nikki came back in the other woman was sitting on the chair, wrapped in a blanket, holding out her hands to the feeble glow of the stove.
"Are you cold?"
"No, I always act like this when I'm overheated."
Nikki shrugged and built up the fire in the stove again, before brushing off her hands and slamming the door. "Hot drink?"
As Nikki bustled around, making tea, Helen sat and clutched the blanket around her. "This is worse because I know there's a perfectly good bedroom up the hill. With central heating."
"All right, I won't," Helen said gently. She accepted the mug of tea from Nikki and clutched it, savouring the warmth. Nikki went into the next room and, after straightening the duvet, opened a hamper that was standing against the wall. Helen watched her through the door.
"What are you doing?"
"Getting some more blankets."
"Doesn't the cold bother you?"
"Not after Fellgarth." Nikki stood back and surveyed the re-made bed. "There. Your couch awaits."
Helen sighed. The bed looked very tempting, especially when she imagined sharing it with Nikki. But someone had to talk about the issues that were affecting them and she could tell that the other woman wasn't going to do it.
"Not much good to me when you don't want me to fall asleep in it."
"I could keep you awake," Nikki offered, smiling. The light hearted look on her face faded as she took in Helen's determined expression.
"I've no doubt you could. But Nikki, I don't want to lie down with you not knowing if you'll be there in the morning."
"Well what if I'm not? You'll find me."
"Yes, I will, but that's not the point."
"What is, then?"
"You left me with no reason given and no explanation. I have been going out of my mind with worry wondering how you are, whether you're all right, whether it was something I did ... I can't live like that."
"Look ...." Nikki started.
Helen held up her hand.
"Don't do that! Don't do the 'it's not you it's me' thing. You once told me that a relationship needs two people in it. Well, it does, but it also needs communication and it needs boundaries. I need to be able to trust that you're not just going to vanish on me."
"But it is about me!"
"I don't know that, do I? Because you didn't stay to talk. You just ran!"
Nikki flinched at the hurt in Helen's tone of voice.
"It's hard," she said.
"Well why is it easier when you don't share it?"
"Because ... my head's a mess right now. I don't even know myself what's going on. Some days I'm fine and other days I'm a basket case. Being with you is just too hard."
"What?!" Helen said.
"You asked me why. Now listen! If I'm on my own I can deal with it. Just about. But if I have to think about you as well, I can't."
"Are you saying that you don't want to be with me?" Helen asked slowly, her voice raw with pain.
"No! The only thing that kept me going in there was thinking about you. I used to ...." She stopped abruptly, putting her hand to her face. "I used to ration the memories. I let myself think about you for maybe five minutes every day, just before I went to sleep. After lock up, when it was safe ...." Nikki closed her eyes.
Helen went to the taller woman and wrapped the blanket around both of them, coaxing Nikki gently until they were both sitting on the bed.
"You know I'd be willing to just hold you, right?"
"At Larkhall, you promised to make love to me all night long. I don't need that."
Helen reached out and touched Nikki's face, savouring the feeling of her skin.
"Just lie next to me. Please. And then tell me what the matter is."
"I have," Nikki said wearily.
"You still haven't told me why you left the way you did."
"Because I thought that if I went away I might be able to straighten things out in my head and come back to you ...." she trailed off.
"Back to me ..." Helen prompted.
"Whole. Sane. Not a basket case."
"You're not insane," Helen told her, "and you're not inside now, where you can't afford to show weakness." She felt Nikki flinch, almost involuntarily. "That's part of it, isn't it?"
"I don't know. Maybe."
"I think it is. Old habits die hard."
Nikki mumbled something inaudible. Helen reached for her hand and held it, tracing patterns across the palm with her thumb.
"I can't hear you."
"Back off, all right!"
Helen nodded and laid Nikki's hand down carefully on the throw. "Whatever you want."
"Who are you and what have you done with Helen Stewart?" Nikki choked out.
"This is Helen. The woman who is not going to give up on you. Not even when you run away. But we are going to talk about this properly sometime. Count on it."
"Oh, I get that," Nikki said wearily, "now can we please just go to bed."
"All right," Helen said.
They lay together in tense silence for a while, then Nikki sighed and rolled over to throw an arm and a leg over Helen, laying her head on the other woman's shoulder.
"How long are you going to be able to stay?"
"I've arranged to finish a report while I'm down here. Maybe a week and a half. The work'll go better while I'm near you."
"Thanks," Nikki said, tightening her arm, "do you think we'll be able to meet up?"
"I think we can manage that from time to time."
"I might even come and visit you here."
"Beard the beast in its den?"
"In its freezing, draughty, inadequately furnished den? Yes."
"Stop complaining. It's August. It's not cold."
"That's the only reason I'm agreeing to this arrangement."
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