DISCLAIMER: The characters are not mine, and are merely borrowed from Shed so that I can keep them busy...
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Written for Ralst for the P&P Christmas Wishlist 2008. The story is set 6 months after Nikki's release, as Nikki and Helen approach their first Christmas together. I know this is inconsistent with the actual timing of Nikki's release (which the Bad Girls Timeline puts at November), but we all know the Bad Girls chronology is a little on the 'malleable' side!
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Ghosts from the Past
Nikki Wade had never been a particular fan of Christmas. She'd always seen family occasions as a bit of a farce, her mother and father struggling in vain to pretend that Nikki was the nice, 'normal' daughter they'd always wanted. The past three years in HMP Larkhall hadn't done much to improve her festive spirit either. But that was about to change, she suspected, as she lay stretched out contentedly on the sofa, watching her girlfriend, Helen Stewart, twisting fairy lights and tinsel around the enormous pine tree she'd insisted they buy. Helen's enthusiasm for the day was proving contagious and Nikki couldn't help but smile as she observed Helen step back and eye the box of decorations thoughtfully, before picking out some silver baubles and returning to the tree to hang them. In Nikki's opinion, the tree was far too big for Helen's small living room, but Nikki had found Helen's excitement in the shop so endearing that she'd given in and let her have her way. And now, as she basked in the glow of the warm fire, her love for Helen wrapped around her like a soft blanket, she didn't think it was possible to be any happier.
Helen glanced over to where Nikki lay, smiling to see her contentment so obviously reflected on her face. Life hadn't been easy for either of them since Nikki's release six months earlier. Initially they'd both been jobless and with no real ideas of what to do next. As much as Nikki loved the club she'd established with her former partner, Trisha, she'd known she could not go back to working there, the constant reminder of her life before Larkhall too much to bear. Helen had felt equally lost with the gates of the prison service closing behind her for the last time. But now, finally, they were both settled, comfortable with their lives, with each other, the old power struggles and tensions of Larkhall having finally melted away. And although they hadn't officially moved in together, Nikki was pretty much a permanent feature at Helen's flat, returning to her own small studio only when she needed a change of clothes or a little bit of time alone. Taking it slow after everything they'd already been through together had been more difficult than they'd imagined and they'd quickly found their lives intertwined to an inexorable degree.
"Oi." Helen took a playful swipe at Nikki's head as she stirred, stretched, then lay down again. "A little help wouldn't go amiss."
Nikki took advantage of her superior strength to reach up and pull Helen down onto the sofa on top of her, wrapping her arms tightly around the smaller woman's stomach and nuzzling into her neck with a series of soft, teasing kisses. "Is this helping?" she asked playfully, a cheeky grin on her face.
"Not if you ever want the tree finished," Helen murmured, her mock resentment melting away as she fitted her body into Nikki's, enjoying the comfort and security of her lover's arms.
"Well in that case..." Nikki tipped Helen off her lap as she stood up, eliciting a moan of protest from the other woman. "I'd better go and make myself useful."
Helen shot Nikki a murderous look as the brunette made a quick exit from the room but was soon placated when Nikki reappeared a few minutes later with two steaming mugs of hot chocolate. She placed them on a nearby table then turned to Helen, wrapping her arms around her from behind and snuggling into her to admire the tree. Their tree. A broad grin crept across her face as she thought about how many more Christmas trees she and Helen would share and she squeezed Helen even tighter, resulting in a small yelp of protest. "You nearly ready to go to Monica's?" she asked.
She felt Helen stiffen slightly. "Nikki..." the other woman began in a tone of voice she'd heard her use several times, both within Larkhall's walls and outside, a tone which usually meant that Nikki was demanding something that Helen felt she couldn't give. Nikki understood Helen's reluctance. She had seen Monica a few times since her release, but Helen had always been working or otherwise engaged. This would be the first time that Monica and Helen had seen each other since their time as prisoner and wing governor respectively, and Nikki wasn't surprised that the thought made Helen nervous. Like herself, Monica's imprisonment had been a miscarriage of justice, but in Monica's case there had been no happy ending. She might have won her appeal, but she'd lost her son, and Nikki knew that deep down, Helen still blamed herself for that. Nikki also knew, however, that while Monica might have fundamental issues with the judicial system in general, she did not hold anything against Helen personally and she thought that it would be good for Helen to see Monica again, to lay things to rest once and for all.
Somehow or other, Nikki managed to convince her, and an hour later they were both in Helen's red Peugeot, with both the heating and the cheesy Christmas music cranked up to the max. Nikki wasn't exactly a fan of the chosen musical accompaniment but she also knew better than to complain. Fortunately, the short drive did not take them anywhere near the gates of Larkhall, as Nikki was sure that the last thing Helen needed at that moment was any further reminder of their past difficulties. Putting their time in Larkhall behind them had been hard, and the first couple of months of their relationship after Nikki's appeal had been an incongruous combination of untempered joy and excitement at finally being free to love each other however they chose and repetitions of the old power struggles and jealousies. But time had been a great healer and as their lives were finally settling down, Nikki hoped that giving Helen the opportunity to lay ghosts to rest with Monica would be one of the final pieces of the jigsaw.
Nikki knew within a few seconds of their arrival that she had been right, and that there was nothing to worry about. No sooner had they stepped across the threshold than Monica enveloped them both in a tight and meaningful hug, then fetched them glasses of wine. Helen gingerly looked around her, simultaneously admiring how warm and welcoming Monica's house was, and noting with a stab of something like guilt the many photos of Spencer which adorned the walls. She was standing in front of one particular photo, taken not long before Monica's incarceration, staring at it thoughtfully when Monica returned to the room with the wine. Handing one of the glasses to Nikki, the older woman suggested that she might like to join the rest of the guests in the next room, then approached the Scot, laying a gentle hand on her shoulder. "That's one of my favourites," she began softly. Helen turned, startled out of her reverie, her cheeks flushing slightly as her eyes lighted on Monica. Monica smiled reassuringly and handed Helen the other glass of wine, which the other woman gratefully accepted. "Nikki tells me you're no longer working for the prison service," she continued, cutting to the chase.
Helen smiled wistfully. "No. It just didn't seem right, not after everything..." She knew her comment was frustratingly vague, but in reality, she couldn't say with any real degree of precision what it was that had killed her enthusiasm for the job once and for all. There had been several incidents during her short career at Larkhall which had affected her profoundly and had caused her to question the ethics of her profession: Rachel's death, Spencer, Nikki, Fenner... but she couldn't ascertain exactly what it was that had finally tipped her over the edge. What she had known with absolute certainty the last time she had walked out of Larkhall was that she wouldn't be going back.
"It's a shame," Monica said softly. Then, when Helen raised her eyebrows skeptically, she continued. "Helen, you have so much to give."
Helen looked confused. "How can you say that, after everything that happened?"
Monica smiled wistfully. "Not a day goes by when I don't think of Spencer, when I don't wonder whether things might have been different if I'd never ended up in that place. But if I spent my life being bitter about it, it would destroy me and I can't afford that. It's true, I should never have ended up in prison. But it wasn't you who put me there, any more than it was Nikki or the Julies. It was you, however, all of you, who got me through it."
Helen took Monica's hand, feeling a lump rising in her throat and not trusting herself to speak. She was touched, she really was, at this woman's ability to speak so openly about her feelings and her willingness to move on from the past.
"I always knew that you were doing your best to make a difference," Monica continued. "Unlike some..."
Helen grunted in agreement, knowing that Monica was referring to the likes of Jim Fenner. She looked at the other woman and whispered a quiet 'thank you', her eyes full of gratitude. She'd forgotten how perceptive Monica was, how, like Nikki, Monica had always seemed to know what she was thinking. It had made things difficult when she'd had to maintain a professional veneer in front of the two of them, but now she was suddenly glad of it, because it meant that Monica somehow knew all the things that Helen wasn't able to say.
Monica gave Helen's hand a squeeze. "Just promise me that you and Nikki will do the same. Don't let Larkhall destroy you. That place will suck the life out of you if you allow it to."
Nikki cast a quick glance back into the hallway to reassure herself that Helen and Monica were alright before walking forward into the dining room. A couple of women who Nikki recognised as Monica's friends were sitting at the table talking, while two more who Nikki didn't know were standing in the corner, in animated discussion. Nikki wondered whether they were patrons of the halfway house Monica had set up in her home since her release. One of the women had short, dark hair, and was, Nikki thought, quite attractive. They other was blonde, and had her back to her. Nikki was standing wondering which of the two groups to join when the blonde suddenly turned round, and Nikki realised, with a plummeting feeling in her stomach, that she did know her after all.
"Hello, Nikki," Caroline replied in her smooth, even voice. If she was surprised to see her old flame, she didn't let it show. Nikki, on the other hand, was struggling to keep her cool. Her mind flashed back to the last time she'd seen Caroline, being mobbed by an assortment of G-wing inmates who'd discovered the real nature of her conviction, while Nikki had stood by and watched in horror. She remembered clearly the feeling of betrayal and humiliation which had overcome her at that point. Not because she'd loved Caroline; she'd always known that the woman had never been more than a way of filling the void left by Helen's 'departure', but because she'd allowed herself to be taken in, had let Caroline lie to her, then had subsequently looked like a fool, not only in front of the whole of G-wing, but also in front of Helen, which was a hundred times worse, especially after the way she'd treated her. So now, suddenly faced with the woman again, Nikki did not know how to react.
Caroline interpreted her silence as surprise. "I was released on appeal two weeks ago," she explained. "I had nowhere to go, so Monica agreed to have me."
"You're innocent then?" Nikki questioned, the edge of sarcasm and bitterness evident in her voice.
Caroline glanced around her, then stepped through into the kitchen, motioning for Nikki to do the same. While she knew that she owed the other woman some kind of explanation, she wasn't particularly anxious for the rest of the room to hear it. She might have been free, but the stigma of her conviction still hung heavy on her shoulders.
"You're not the only person to ever have been wrongly jailed," Caroline began, her own voice betraying a twinge of irritation. "But can you honestly blame me for not having told you? You saw what happened when they all found out. And if I'd told you what they'd accused me of, you'd never have wanted to know me."
"You're right about that," Nikki almost spat. She'd deliberately listened to Caroline's words carefully and had been struck by the fact that she'd not once explicitly said that she hadn't done it, which as far as Nikki was concerned, amounted to guilt of the highest order.
Caroline looked crestfallen. "Nikki, I thought we had something. And I didn't want you to know, because I didn't want you ever to have to think about whether I was capable of... of that. I was waiting for the right time... And I'd probably have found it if I hadn't been shipped out."
Nikki looked uncomfortable. A part of her was still furious at Caroline, but she had been softened by the blonde's most recent comments. What Caroline said had made sense. Yes, she'd lied, but Nikki could see why. And she herself had done the same, after all. She rarely told people the full details of her conviction and her time in prison, and certainly not until she'd had a chance build a relationship with them. So perhaps it was hypocritical of her to condemn Caroline. Yet deep down, she still felt used, still didn't see that she could trust Caroline again. As it happened, she was spared the necessity of commenting either way by the sudden appearance of Monica and Helen in the doorway.
"Ah, Nikki, I see you've met Caroline." Monica said, smiling. Nikki noticed that next to her, Helen looked visibly lighter than she had earlier; the chat with Monica had obviously done her good. Helen looked up at Monica's words, however, and visibly stiffened on recognising the blonde former inmate. Her eyes found Nikki's and Nikki knew instantly from the expression of pain and betrayal that Helen's mind was back in the Larkhall library, on the day she'd walked in on Nikki and Caroline kissing. Nikki knew she'd behaved badly on that occasion, that her actions and words had been motivated, at least in part, by jealousy and bitterness, and that consequently, she'd hurt Helen in the process. It had always been easier, somehow, to bury it, to blame Caroline for what had happened, but now, suddenly confronted by the two of them, Nikki's culpability was becoming painfully clear to her, and the sadness in Helen's eyes was tearing her apart.
"Nikki and I have met before," Caroline explained to Monica. "I spent a couple of weeks at Larkhall at the beginning." Her eyes moved to Helen and an expression of surprise dawned on her face, turning to confusion as she registered the looks passing between Nikki and the ex-governor. "Before I was shipped out," she concluded, frowning.
Helen's brow furrowed and she moved across the room to stand protectively by Nikki's side, while Monica quickly realised the need to diffuse the rising tension in the room.
"Caroline, would you mind fetching another bottle of wine from the cellar?" she said brightly. "The others will be here soon."
Caroline smiled weakly at Monica, then left the room. "Looks like I wasn't the one playing power games," she muttered in Nikki's ear as she passed, sending a cold chill running down the darker woman's spine.
With Caroline safely out of sight, all three women breathed a sigh of relief. "I'm sorry about that," Monica murmured, ever the good hostess. "I didn't realise you all had a, um, history." She was wildly curious, of course, but that would have to wait. She was sure Nikki would tell her when the time was right.
Nikki gave her a reassuring smile, which seemed just a little too forced, and put an arm around Helen's shoulders, giving them a light squeeze. "Now why don't you introduce Helen to everyone else?"
More guests arrived soon after, and to both Nikki's and Helen's relief, they managed to navigate their way through the rest of the evening without any further encounters with Caroline, although the weight of her presence continued to hang over them. They left as soon as they were politely able, thanking Monica for the evening and promising to return the invitation soon. The car journey home was a quiet one; Nikki concentrating on negotiating the dark and icy roads, and Helen's mind reeling, both from her conversation with Monica and the unexpected confrontation with Nikki's former... well, she didn't know quite what to call Caroline, which she suspected was part of the whole problem. It was one of those issues they just swept under the carpet and had never needed to revisit until now. Besides, she'd never been face to face with someone else who'd been 'intimate' with Nikki before. She'd met Trish of course, but that was different, and she'd not been prepared for the tide of jealousy which had washed over her the second she'd realised who Caroline was. Then there were all the old Larkhall issues which her appearance had revived. The way Nikki had questioned her ethics, had accused her of shipping Caroline out because she was jealous. The old struggle for power and control. Helen had acted the way she had because she wanted to protect Nikki, she knew that, but a part of her did wonder if she would perhaps have done the same thing regardless, had Caroline been convicted of a different crime. That same part of her was ashamed to admit that she might just have done, raising difficult questions which she wasn't entirely sure she wanted to consider.
Nikki wondered as she drove whether she had been too hard on Caroline. She had a right to be angry, no-one could deny that, but essentially she was making assumptions about Caroline, just as people had jumped to conclusions about her. And who was she to decide whether Caroline was guilty or innocent? When it came down to it, the woman had helped her out of a sticky situation during the riot. If Caroline hadn't been there, if the violence had escalated... Maybe that would have damaged her and Helen beyond repair? Maybe she should be grateful? Or maybe it was all just better left in the past, where it belonged? That was the best way, she concluded, as she pulled to a halt outside Helen's flat. No point going back there again. Let bygones be bygones and all that.
Once inside the flat, Nikki made them both hot drinks and they settled themselves on the sofa. Nikki stared at the Christmas tree and sighed, her earlier elation and optimism already forgotten. She might have decided to let the past be, but the tension in the space between her and Helen was almost palpable and something had to be done about it.
"How did you get on with Monica?" Nikki asked lightly, trying to break the ice.
"Great." Helen smiled and her voice softened despite herself. "You were right Nikki, she doesn't bear any grudges. It's amazing how strong she's been... How she's made some good come of it all."
Nikki smiled back and held her arms out to her lover. Helen accepted the invitation and snuggled up to her, moulding herself into the hollows left by Nikki's body, comfortable and secure in the familiarity of its contours. "How did you get on with Caroline?" she muttered, unable to keep the hint of an accusatory tone out of her voice.
Nikki sighed. She didn't really want to talk about it, but she knew that would not go down well. Besides, she owed Helen some kind of explanation, that much was clear. "She thinks we all made assumptions about her," she eventually offered, trying to avoid coming down on either side of the fence.
"Well I hope you set her straight," Helen declared.
"Hmm." Nikki grimaced awkwardly. Helen was not going to like this. "You have to admit she's got a point, darling."
Helen looked incredulous. "What?" she spluttered. "She's malicious, conniving, morally corrupt... She's a menace, Nikki, that's why I had to ship her out, before she really got her claws into you."
Nikki raised her eyebrows as Helen realised what she had just said and cringed. She held her hands in the air. "Ok, I admit it. For the second time in my life, my decision to ship someone out was influenced by my personal feelings." She looked up at Nikki, uncertainty in her eyes. "Does that make me a terrible person?"
"No." Nikki hugged her tightly. "At the time I was furious because I thought you did it out of jealousy. And perhaps you did, a little bit." Nikki put up her hand to silence Helen as the other woman prepared to object. "But I also know you did it to protect me, and that means a lot now. I just wish we could have been more open about it with each other at the time." She stroked a few stray strands of hair away from Helen's face and tucked them behind her ear. "But the fact we're talking about it at all just shows how far we've come."
Helen raised a hand to stroke Nikki's cheek. "Yeah, it does, doesn't it," she murmured, a grin spreading across her face. She tapped Nikki's nose playfully. "We're growing up."
Nikki laughed as she put a hand below Helen's chin and gently tilted the Scot's face upwards until it was level with her own. She leaned down and her lips met Helen's in a soft, lingering kiss, causing any residual uncertainty to evaporate away. Helen's steady gaze held hers as Nikki traced the outline of her lover's lips slowly with her index finger. "I love you, Helen," she whispered softly into the smaller woman's ear, as the fingers of her free hand traced a path through Helen's hair.
Helen moaned softly at the sensation of Nikki's breath on her neck, the feel of her fingers on the sensitive skin of her face and entwined in her hair. As she kissed Nikki again and again, allowing their lips to close over each other, permitting her tongue to explore the soft contours of Nikki's mouth, she knew that whenever and whatever ghosts might surface, they remained very much a part of her past, whereas Nikki, on the contrary, was very definitively her future.
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