DISCLAIMER: the characters don't belong to me, but to Shed. I'm just borrowing them for a while. After I'm done toying with them, I'll give them back in one piece, I promise *evil laugh* Please don't sue, all I have left in my wallet is a couple of Euro' s. Not worth the hassle.
SEQUEL: the story is going to be part of a series of one off sequels to Someone to Watch Over Me.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Haunting Memories IV
By Piranha


Everybody hurts – R.E.M.

When the day is long and the night, the night is yours alone,
When you're sure you've had enough of this life, well hang on
Don't let yourself go, 'cause everybody cries and everybody hurts sometimes

Sometimes everything is wrong. Now it's time to sing along
When your day is night alone, hol don, hold on
If you feel like letting go, hold on
When you think you've had too much of this life, well hang on

'Cause everybody hurts. Take comfort in your friends
Everybody hurts. Don't throw your hand. Oh, no. Don't throw your hand
If you feel like you're alone, no, no, no, you are not alone

If you're on your own in this life, the days and nights are long,
When you think you've had too much of this life to hang on

Well, everybody hurts sometimes,
Everybody cries. And everybody hurts sometimes
And everybody hurts sometimes. So, hold on, hold on
Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on
Everybody hurts. You are not alone

After a quick goodbye to Bill, promising they'd return soon, they left hastily in the night. As Nikki was a nervous wreck ever since finding out that Alice was in hospital, Helen offered to drive them all the way back to London, something Nikki was extremely grateful for. The way she was feeling at the moment, she'd have wrapped them around the nearest tree for sure. Being in the passenger's seat for such a long journey wasn't all that it was cracked up to be either though. She had tried ringing Trisha a couple of times, but to no avail, she never had an update on Alice's condition, stating she was critical but stable. Nikki fiddled with the radio for a while, only listening to a channel for ten seconds before changing it again, but wisely gave up after Helen threw her an exasperated look. Far too preoccupied to even try sleeping like Helen had suggested, she stared outside the window, not even noticing how incredibly fast the freeway lights passed them by.

With nothing else to do, Nikki simply sat back and started thinking. Knowing her ex well enough to realise that Trisha wouldn't have needlessly disturbed them for something as trivial as a nosebleed or a broken finger, Nikki had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. All kinds of scenarios played in her head, the outcome getting progressively worse the more she thought about it. What if Alice were to die? How was she supposed to live without Alice by her side? Her fear and worry growing by the minute, she bit her fingernails until she bled, realising she wasn't ready to say goodbye to Alice just yet. She simply couldn't contemplate a life without Alice in it, there was so much they still had to talk about, so much they still had to experience …. She knew she hadn't seen Alice at all while she was in prison, but it wasn't really the same. At least then she always knew Alice was just a phone call away, that she would always be there for her if she needed her advice or help. She knew she was being selfish, but she still needed Alice. Alice just couldn't die, dammit.

When she told Helen about her fears, in between strangled sobs and shaky breaths, Helen tried to keep her spirits up, though she too was thinking the worst. She knew she couldn't admit that to Nikki though, she was barely keeping it together as it was. She admonished Nikki for being such a pessimist, telling her she shouldn't immediately assume the worst, that she didn't have all the information yet, but Nikki just couldn't help it. She was absolutely convinced Alice was dying, that they had seen her for the very last time on that barbeque, now nearly two weeks ago. The rest of the journey was passed in total silence, Nikki becoming more and more withdrawn as the night progressed. As she watched the sun slowly rise, she lit her last cigarette, for the very first time in her life not awed by the impressive beauty of the aquarelle colouring of the sky. As they neared London, she began dictating to an incredibly patient Helen the shortest route to hospital, just to keep her mind busy.

As they finally parked near the hospital entrance, Trisha's Mercedes one of the only other cars in the car park, Nikki jumped out and though she had the good grace to wait for Helen as she locked the car, her longer strides meant that Helen was practically running beside her to keep up as they headed for the reception. "Alice Adams' room, please" Nikki asked politely, tapping her fingers on the desk, her face becoming a thundercloud as the spotty, teenaged receptionist didn't answer her fast enough to her liking.

"Visiting hours are from two in the afternoon until eight in the evening," came the bored reply, the girl not even looking up, but turning a page of the gossip magazine she was engrossed in. Nikki was about to give her a good talking to, anger bubbling dangerously below the surface, worry and fear egging her even more on, when Helen intervened. Knowing she'd better step in before she had a bloodbath on her hands – steam was coming out of Nikki's ears – Helen looked at the girl's nametag and said, using her sternest governor voice: "look here Melissa, we were told to get here as fast as we could. We drove all the way down from Scotland, we're tired, hungry and crabby, so if you know what's good for you, you'll give us the information."

"Or else?" the girl tauntingly said, sadistically enjoying the little power she had. Then she looked up from her Brad Pitt article with a gloating smile. Looking straight into Nikki's eyes, her smile soon disappeared and realising she had probably prodded a dangerous beast one too many times, she gulped audibly, involuntarily swallowing the bubble gum she was chewing. The threatening glare Nikki threw her, sending shivers down her spine, the girl quickly tapped a few keys and croaked "room 301". Pointing a trembling finger to the elevators, she let out a shaky breath of relief as Helen and Nikki walked away.

Tapping the button several times in the vain hope the elevator would get there faster, Nikki paced the tiny hallway, nervously chewing her lip. When finally the liberating ping of the lift was heard and the doors whooshed open, she quickly stepped inside, pressing the button for the third floor before Helen had even gotten in. The ride up excruciatingly slow, stopping on the first floor to let a cart of dirty linen in and then again on the second floor to unload the cart, Nikki nervously tapped her foot on the floor until Helen joined their hands and gave it a reassuring squeeze. Giving Helen a small smile, she exited as soon as the doors opened, almost making Helen tumble in her haste.

Finally locating room 301 after wandering the meandering hallways, she knocked on the door. Taking a deep breath, she pushed the door open, immediately spotting Trisha dozing in an uncomfortable chair, her hand linked with Alice's. Slowly turning her attention to the bed, Nikki had to gulp, tears springing in her eyes. Hooked to several hissing and bleeping machines, Alice looked so much older, smaller and frailer. Her face was slightly grey in colour, her cheeks had fallen in, her mouth had lost that cheeky grin. She was only a shadow of her formidable self. Slowly Nikki approached the bed and took Alice's hand into her own, the cold touch letting her know her worst suspicions had come true, Alice was dying.

As Nikki let out a strangled sob, Helen immediately by her side to comfort her, Trisha woke up. Blinking a couple of times, her hand never relinquishing their link with Alice, she finally looked up to Nikki's pain stricken face and her heart bled. Her own eyes puffy and swollen from all the crying, she whispered: "you're here, you're sooner than I thought."

"What happened?" Helen asked as she watched Nikki tenderly wipe away a bit of blood on Alice's lips with a handkerchief, her hands trembling. Pushing the emergency button, Trisha indicated they should both follow her outside. Tapping Nikki on the arm to get her attention, she was far too preoccupied with staring at Alice with tears in her eyes, Helen followed Trisha out, almost dragging an unwilling Nikki behind her. Nikki really didn't want to leave Alice's side, she didn't want to hear the bad news Trisha was no doubt going to tell her, but in the end she realised that she had no choice.

Knowing looking into Nikki's tear filled eyes would be her undoing, Trisha stared at a point above Nikki's shoulder. Taking a shaky breath, she said: "I was supposed to have dinner with Alice last night. I was to drop in around seven as she wanted to go to the cemetery first and then take a nap. I went over a little early, thinking that maybe by watching Alice prepare dinner I could pick up a few tricks of the trade. When she didn't answer the door, I didn't thing anything of it. I simply assumed that she was still asleep and let myself in with my spare key. Then I found her unconscious on the kitchen floor. At first I thought she had tripped or something, several eggs lay scattered and broken on the floor, but then when I couldn't wake her, I realised that it was far more serious. I immediately called for an ambulance and tried ringing you a couple of times.

Though in reality it only took them a couple of minutes, I thought the paramedics were taking ages. I was at a total loss what to do. I tried to make her as comfortable as possible: I put a cushion behind her head and laid a blanket over her. Then I packed her an overnight bag, you know how Alice feels about those hospital issued night gowns. When the ambulance finally got there, they immediately put her on oxygen and told me there was no time to lose. I followed them out as they rushed her to A&E.

They told me to wait in a tiny cubicle as they sent her off for various tests. I couldn't wait in there, I felt the walls were coming down on me, I felt like I was suffocating, so I asked the nurse to come and get me as soon as there was news and went outside for a smoke, my first cigarette in three years. I tried calling you again, finally getting an answer after my seventh attempt. Anyway, I stood outside for what seemed like hours.

Then finally a doctor came to see me. He said that they had moved Alice into a private room and that she was in a coma. She'd had a major brain bleed or something. There was nothing they could do for her at the moment except making her as comfortable as possible and doping her up with morphine. A neurologist and a neurosurgeon were on their way to assess her case, to decide if they should operate or not. They got there pretty fast and tried explaining everything to me, but their techno babble went right over my head. All I got was that they had to operate if Alice was even to stand a chance, but that the odds were against her even then. I signed the consent form and they whisked her away. I didn't dare tell you that on the phone, knowing it would only worry you even more.

The operation took about three hours and when it was finished they told me that they had done everything they could, it was now up to Alice. The next few hours were crucial, they'd determine whether Alice would live or die. They've been monitoring her every twenty minutes, but it doesn't look good. She's losing one base reflex after another, at the moment only the respirator is keeping her alive. I was to call the doc as soon as you'd arrived, there are some decisions to be made. Ah there he is, I'll let him explain."

Giving Helen and Nikki a firm handshake, the man said: "good morning, I'm doctor Green. I gather miss Harris has brought you more or less up to speed? Just to recapulate and I know this will sounds pretty clinical, but ….. Alice suffered a major aneurysm in her brain. A large blood vessel burst open and started bleeding. We knew it was pretty serious from the CAT scans, but we couldn't immediately operate, we had to wait for the bleeding to stop. During the operation we put in a drain to get rid of the excess blood and tried to repair the vessel as best as we could. The major problem was that the bleeding occurred very deep in the brain, close to some very important areas like speech, motion and breathing. It was touch and go: there was no way of knowing if she'd come out and if she did, how she'd come out. There was a high risk of her being deaf, blind, mute, physically impaired or even intellectually challenged.

She survived surgery, but the next few hours were crucial. The brain was very swollen from the bleeding and surgery, it was crucial that they'd return to their original size to prevent a rise in inter cranial pressure. Her blood pressure remained high though. The right hemisphere remained so swollen that it began dying under the inter cranial pressure. It also kept pushing against the left part of the brain, not only inducing epileptic seizures, but also elevating pressure on the left lobes. I'm sad to announce Alice suffered a brain stroke about an hour ago, all her reflexes shutting down. I'm afraid it has left her brain dead. I'm so sorry"

As Nikki let out a strangled sob, Helen hugged her tight and asked: "are you sure there's nothing more you can do? Perhaps another operation?"

The doctor shook his head and said compassionately: "no, I'm sorry, there's nothing more we can do for Alice medically, I wish there was. Once brain death occurs, it's irrevocable." He paused for a while to let it all sink in and then continued: "I'm sorry to bring this up right now, I know this must all come as a great shock and I realise how painful it must be, but there are still some decisions to be made. I called around and found out that Alice was the private patient of a Harley Street neuro specialist. He told me that Alice was fully aware of her condition, she was diagnosed about four months ago. When he explained her options to her, she decided against a risky operation, stating she'd rather let nature take its course. She said she didn't want to end up as a plant as her daughter was coming home. She wanted to enjoy her last months in the company of her family.

As I understand one of you, miss Wade I believe it is, was given power of attorney a couple of years ago?" When Nikki just nodded, crying even harder as she realised what he was about to ask her, the doctor continued: "we need to decide what to do next. Erm …. I know this may sound callous and it's not my intention to offend anyone but there really is no easy way of saying this…. Either we turn the machines off or we don't."

Taking a deep breath of air, trying to keep her emotions under control, Nikki asked: "you're absolutely sure that there's nothing more you can do for her? I don't know…. Some kind of experimental procedure? Money is not an objection…." When the doctor shook his head, she continued: "there isn't a small chance of a miracle if we keep the machines on?"

"No, I'm afraid not," the doctor replied, "you have to understand, the machines are the only thing keeping her alive at the moment. They're breathing for her, they're making sure blood is pumped to the heart. I know it's a very crude thing to say, but for all intents and purposes Alice is a plant right now: she can't think, she can't feel, she can't breathe independently. She'll never wake from the deep coma she's in. Medically speaking she has already passed away. What you have to decide right now is whether or not you want to make her death official."

"If I decide to turn the machines off, will she suffer?" Nikki asked.

"No, not at all, she doesn't feel anything at the moment," the doctor replied.

"Could you give me a moment to think about it?" she asked, "it's all a bit much to take in." When the doctor replied "of course" she continued: "I need to go outside for a minute, get some fresh air." When Helen wanted to follow her, help her reach her decision, just be there for her in this dark hour, Nikki said: "please, I just want to be alone for a while. I need to think this through on my own. Don't worry, I'll be alright." Reassuring Helen with a small smile, she turned around and walked away. Settling down on a bench in front of the hospital, she lit the cigarette she had pinched off a passing nurse. Letting out a shaky breath, her lungs burning with nicotine, she thought about the dilemma she now faced. It was true she had signed the official document at Alice's request, well nagging more like, but she had never once though it would come to this.

What the hell was she supposed to do now? She was torn, should she listen to her heart or to her mind? Emotionally she wasn't ready to say goodbye to Alice yet, she doubted she'd ever be ready, but was that really fair on Alice? Did she have the right to prolong her life, if you could still call it that, for purely selfish reasons? Then again, did she have the right to play God and end Alice's life? Theologically speaking, wouldn't she be taking another life? Could she bear that mental burden? She knew that, from a legal point of view, she wouldn't be committing euthanasia as Alice was already brain dead, but wasn't that all just semantics? She'd be the one who had to live with her decision every single day. What was she really doing here? Deciding whether or not to pull the plug on someone who was ,medically speaking, already dead? In the end, the solution was really simple, she knew she had to respect Alice's wishes. Alice would never have wanted to spend the rest of her life as a plant.

Her mind made up, she felt a huge burden fall of her shoulder, only to be replaced with sadness at the imminent loss of her friend. Throwing the butt away between the bushes, she walked back in. "Okay, let's do this," she told the doctor. "I want to say goodbye to her first though. I know she probably can't hear me, but there still are some things I need to say to her."

"Yes, of course, I understand. Take your time," the doctor replied.

Grabbing Helen's hand and holding it tight, she asked in a tiny voice: "come in with me, please? I don't think I can face this on my own."

"Of course," Helen whispered, tenderly wiping away a tear of Nikki's cheek with her other hand. When Nikki looked at Trisha expectantly, Trisha replied: "you two go ahead, I'll just wait here. I already said my goodbyes to Alice, I don't think I could go through it again."

Nodding, Nikki gave Trisha's arm a comforting squeeze. Looking Helen in the eye, finding all the courage she needed in there, she took a deep breath of air and pushed the door open. Slowly advancing towards the bed, not wanting to disturb Alice in her sleep though she realised how absurd that thought was, she let go of Helen's hand to take Alice's. Sitting down on the chair, Helen's arm around her shoulder to give her comfort, Nikki desperately tried to hold back the tears. In a very shaky voice she said: "Hi Alice, guess this is a first for us, huh? The both of us together and neither of us really knowing what to say.

Where do I start? How do I begin a farewell when I still can't believe you're gone? How do I say goodbye to a part of my soul? What can you say to someone who has always been one of the most essential parts of your world? I guess what I want to say is …. Thank you. Thank you for always being there for me, thank you for enriching my life, thank you for being the mother I never had."

Her voice croaking as she said it, Nikki took a few deep breaths before continuing: "saying goodbye to you now is one of the hardest things I ever had to do. Going to prison is a cake walk in comparison. I'll never see you again and we still had so much to say, so much to do. …… You've been my dearest friend and it breaks my heart that our friendship has to end now. So few words could capture the exceptional moments spent with you. You came into my life and changed me forever, you touched my heart in so many ways. There's already an emptiness inside me like a part of me is missing. I know that I didn't tell you often enough when you were still here, but ….. I love you. You mean the world to me.

You taught me so much, I'll never forget your joy for life, your mischievous smile or your important life lessons.

To laugh is to risk appearing the fool. To cry is to risk appearing sentimental and vulnerable. To expose your feelings is to risk exposing your true self. To share your ideas and dreams with others is to risk ridicule. To love is to risk loss, to love is to risk not being loved in return. To try is to risk failure. But the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing. One who doesn't take risks, does nothing, has nothing and is nothing. He might avoid heartache and pain, but he feels nothing. Only those who take the risk of love are truly happy and free.

I'm so glad we both took that risk. The pain and sorrow I'm feeling now doesn't weigh up to the pleasure of having you in my life. I miss you so much already and I don't know if I'll be able to take this pain. But then I think, how can I be sad when I know you're in a better place? How can I be sad when you brought me so much happiness? My mind and heart have not yet lost a friend, even though my senses are bereft, for you remain the witness of my soul. I love you Alice and I will miss you forever." Bending down, tears running down her cheeks, she gave Alice a small kiss on the forehead, whispering emotionally: "goodbye my friend."

Giving the nurse a small nod, she held on to Alice's hand, very grateful for Helen's arm around her. Shaking over her whole body, she looked at Alice and turned white as a sheet. It finally dawned on her that this was really the end, the truth only now sinking in. It had all just felt like a dream before, some ghastly nightmare she'd wake up from. She had just been going through the motions, the concept of Alice's death too intangible and heartbreaking to acknowledge rationally. She sort of knew Alice was dying, but the reality of it all hadn't really sunk in. As the heart monitor flat lined, a great rage filled her at the unfairness of it all. Why Alice? Why her? Why now? Why was she the one being left behind again? Turning out of Helen's embrace, she punched the wall hard in frustration, shouting "why does everyone keep leaving me" before storming off, slamming the door on her way out.

Helen just stood there for a moment, totally bewildered at Nikki's sudden change of mood. Then she ran after her, only to be held back by Trisha in the hallway. "Let me go," she said struggling against Trisha's strong grip. "I need to go after her, she needs me."

"Nikki needs to be alone right now," Trisha calmly explained. "She's in a world of hurt right now…."

"All the more reason for me to go after her," Helen stated forcefully, still struggling against Trisha tight hold.

Trisha continued undeterred: "she needs to blow off steam. She's mad at the world, filled with anger, frustration and despair. If you'd go to her now, she'd turn you away, she'd only end up saying things she doesn't mean. Nothing you could say would get through to her, trust me. She needs to calm down first, work things through on her own. When she'd calmed down, she'll come to you. She'll need you then. You know how Nikki is, she'll put up a brave front for a while, but then she'll fall to pieces."

"Erm… I'm sorry to interrupt," the nurse hesitantly said," but there are still some decisions to be made. With miss Wade's rather hasty departure, I didn't really have a chance to ask. There are papers to be signed, maybe the two of you could…"

"Yes, of course," both Helen and Trisha said.

All the necessary papers signed, Alice's body released to the undertaker of Trisha's choice, they both went back to Trisha's place, hoping Nikki would be there, but knowing deep down she wouldn't be. The ghost of Alice was too strong there, happy memories made Nikki flee her own home. Resigning herself to the fact that Nikki would only come to her when she was good and ready, Helen accepted Trisha's offer of lunch with a grateful smile. While Trisha busied herself in the kitchen making them both something to eat, even she couldn't bugger up soup and sandwiches, Helen sank down on the comfy couch with a tired sigh.

Closing her eyes for a moment, she thought about everything that happened in the past 24 hours. She had gone through a whirlwind of emotions and was beginning to feel the strain. Admittedly, she hadn't known Alice all that long, but she had savoured her friendship and was deeply saddened by her death. And then her dad…. Though she could mourn the time they had lost by their stubbornness, well mostly hers if she was truthful, she felt like she was given a second chance with her dad. She had Nikki to thank for that, somehow she had cut through all the heartache and pain and got to the truth, something Helen had never managed to do, even though she was supposed to be the trained psychologist.

Maybe it was just so much harder analysing your own life, seeing through all those emotions and pain, pushing it all aside to come to the truth. Nikki had done all that and more, not only had she forced a reconciliation between two very stubborn Stewarts, her dad had also accepted Nikki, something he had never done with her previous lovers. Granted, he still had doubts, he wasn't exactly jumping for joy or planning to stand on the barricades for equal gay rights just yet, but at least it was a start. Nikki had made all that possible and it pained Helen's heart to know she couldn't do the same thing for her right now. Even in Nikki were to come to her right now, she didn't really know how to help her. Sure she had gone through the same ordeal, she had lost her mother to, but that only meant she could empathise, beyond that she didn't really know what to do.

Maybe her dad would know though? Maybe he hadn't done such a great job guiding Helen through her pain, but she was partly to blame for that too. Surely as a minister he must have helped dozens of families cope with loss over the years? Maybe she should just call him and ask for his help? It could never hurt after all. Her mind made up, she asked Trisha if she could make a long distance phone call and given the go ahead she dialled the number she knew by heart. "Hi dad, it's me," she said when Bill Stewart picked up after only a couple of rings.

"Hi lass, I didn't expect to hear from you so soon," he answered, lighting his pipe as he settled down in his leather chair. "How's your friend doing? Is she still in critical condition?"

"No," Helen answered, almost inaudibly, tears springing into her eyes as she remembered Nikki's pain and anguish., "she died earlier this morning."

"I'm so sorry to hear that lass. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh, how unfair it all might seem to you right now. Do you want to talk about it? How's Nikki taking it? Your friend must have meant a lot to her, I've never seen anyone turn quite so pale. She must be devastated."

"For all intents and purposes Nikki saw Alice as her mother. That's actually why I'm calling dad. Nikki is taking it very badly. She stormed out of the hospital earlier and we have no idea where she is right now. I know she'll come back eventually, but … I don't know what to do or say when she does. Do I let her brood or do I force her to talk about it? Do I wait for her to come to me or do I take the first step? What do I say to her? How do I help her through this? I know you've helped a lot of families cope with grief over the years …. What did you do?"

Lurking on his pipe, Bill Stewart sighed deeply and thought about it for a minute before saying: "that's a very difficult question to answer lass. I'm afraid there is no text book solution, everybody reacts to loss and mourns in his or her own way. Some want to talk about the deceased all the time, while others refuse to even mention his name again, too afraid it'll open them up for even more pain. Some want to escape into a world of oblivion, seeking refuge in drink and drugs while others want to be alone, spending hours and hours pondering the meaning of life. That's what you did, remember? Sitting on top of that hill for hours…. That's what Nikki is doing right now. Don't worry about her, she just needs some time alone right now. She's not really pushing away, she just needs to get things straight in her head. She'll come to you when she's ready.

How do you help her? Well …. I guess it depends on how she reacts. You'll have to play it by ear, you just have to be there for her, let her know that she can come to you. Bereavement causes a lot of pain and confusion and Nikki might not want to acknowledge her pain, afraid you'll think of her as weak. That's because a lot of people tend to avoid a mourner because they're too embarrassed and never know what to say to him. They'll say that grief is a private affair, that they don't want to intrude, but that's just a convenient excuse for their own feelings of helplessness.

More than anything else, this hinders the mourning process as the bereaved feel she can't talk to anyone about it. He feels deserted just when he needs others the most and starts thinking it's his tears that causes others to turn away from him. It reinforces his belief that he has to be strong and he'll start suppressing his feelings, which isn't really healthy. You need to let her talk when she wants to talk or just be with her when she needs silence. Now matter how tired you are, no matter how many times you've heard it before, let her rant and rave when she needs to.

Storming out of the hospital is a normal reaction to loss. Many people get angry. They're angry at God for letting it happen, they're angry at themselves for not coping, they're angry at the deceased for leaving them behind…. You need to be very patient with Nikki, she might get mad suddenly for no apparent reason. Don't react to her anger, just let her rant and rave until she cools down. Always remember that her anger isn't directed at you. When she says something painful, she doesn't really mean it, it's just the pain and desperation talking.

She'll probably feel incredibly guilty, thinking she could or should have done more for Alice, that she would still be alive then. She might also feel numb, like the world is carrying on while she's being left behind. She might be reluctant to make major decisions or on the contrary make a lot of rash decisions, but that'll all pass. However she reacts, just be there for her, that's all you can do. Just listen to your heart, it'll show you the way. And don't forget about yourself either, you might not have known Alice all that well, that doesn't mean you're not grieving as well. Remember, I'm always here for you. I'm only a phone call away, even if it's just to hear about the weather up here in Scotland."

Hearing the sincerity of the offer, knowing they had set another big step forward, tears sprang into Helen's eyes and emotionally she whispered: "thanks dad, for everything. I really mean that. I guess I'd better go, my lunch is ready …. I'll talk to you soon. Bye … I love you."

"I love you too lass. Bye"

Yawning widely, she'd been up for almost thirty hours straight, Helen got out of her car and walked the short distance to her flat. Struggling a bit with the lock, she threw her keys and handbag on the hallway table before hanging up her leather coat. She kicked off her shoes and walked straight to the bathroom, thinking a warm, hot bath might relieve her aching limbs and muscles. She took off her T-shirt and was just about to drop it into the hamper when she noticed Nikki's shirt and jeans on top of the pile. Putting her T-shirt back on, she went in search of her illusive lover, a great feeling of relief rushing through her now she knew that Nikki was safe and sound.

The living room and kitchen empty and deserted, Helen was just about to check the bedroom when she heard a flower pot falling to the ground and some mumbled cursing outside. Spotting Nikki in the shed, she went outside, having put some slippers on. Standing in the shed's entrance, her eyes needing a few seconds to adjust to the darkness inside, she just watched Nikki silently for a while, not daring to step any closer in case she scared her off. But she knew she couldn't put it off forever, so after a while she said: "hi Nikki."

Looking up from her crouched position on the floor, Nikki gave her small smile. Potting the last seeds before covering them with some earth, she slowly got up, wiping her dirty hands on her T-shirt. Suddenly embarrassed about her earlier behaviour, too ashamed to look Helen into the eye, she stammered nervously:" I'm sorry for running off like that before…. I didn't mean to scare you … I … I just needed to be alone for a while. I didn't mean to abandon you like that, I …"

Seeing Nikki was getting herself all worked up, Helen stepped closer. Touching Nikki's cheek to wipe away some mud, she held Nikki's chin up, forcing her to look her in the eye and whispered: "don't worry about it, I understand." Still caressing Nikki's cheek with infinite tenderness, she asked: "how are you feeling?"

Lowering her eyes again, wanting to avoid seeing the contempt in Helen's eyes for being so weak, Nikki whispered: "I don't really know … I don't feel anything at the moment …. It's like I'm numb. I walked around in the park for a while, not really knowing where I was going or what I was doing. I was so mad at myself for not really feeling anything. Then I came here and let myself in with the spare key. I needed to do something, I thought working in the garden, potting some flowers would make me feel normal again. ….. I need to feel something…. I… Could you? …. Would you? …."

Looking into Nikki's pleading eyes, Helen understood what she wanted to ask. Nikki needed to feel alive again, she needed to feel loved, she needed a little of that human touch. Stepping even closer, she tenderly ran her finger over Nikki lip and whispered "I love you Nikki" before kissing her. Surprised by Nikki's passionate reaction she felt overwhelmed for a moment but then she looked into Nikki's eyes, darkened by desire and realised that this was what she needed right now, raw and burning love to ignite her feelings, to make her feel alive again. Instantly reacting to Nikki's passion, she wrapped her arms around Nikki's neck, drawing her even closer. Her fingers toying with the hair on Nikki's neck, Helen kissed her wildly, ferociously.

Pushing her backwards, garden equipment falling on the ground as Nikki's back thumped against the wall, Helen's hands began to wander. Hearing Nikki's groan of desire, she slowly trailed her fingers downwards, snaking a hand beneath Nikki's shirt. Her nails teasingly scraping the sensitive skin, her fingers slowly inched their way upwards. Nikki would have none of it though; grabbing Helen's hand she put it on her breast and hoarsely pleaded "please… don't tease." The déjà vu moment putting a ghost of a smile on Helen's face, she kissed her even harder, the smile turning downright lecherous as she realised that Nikki hadn't even bothered putting a bra on. Giving the breast a tentative squeeze, thrilled at Nikki's moan of delight, she rubbed the nipple between her fingers, feeling it grow hard beneath her touch. Pulling her head back a bit, she sensually licked her lips as she looked Nikki in the eye. Seeing nothing but black pools of desire, Nikki's breathing becoming heavier, she pushed Nikki's t-shirt up. Replacing her hand with her mouth, her tongue trailed all around the nipple, licking it teasingly slow. Feeling Nikki push her even closer, she took the nipple into her mouth and sucked it lightly.

Softly blowing on the nipple, delighted at the little goose bumps that appeared, she rolled it between her fingers again as she turned her attention to the other breast, her hand playing with the waist band of Nikki's shorts. Feeling her shiver beneath her touch, her fingers trailed ever lower, slipping beneath the waist band only to come out again moments later to resume their wandering course. Letting out a moan of desire, Nikki's knees buckled as Helen bit down softly on her nipple. Knowing she couldn't hold on much longer, she grabbed the table beside her and leaned on it heavily, especially when Helen's wandering hand slipped south again, her nails slightly scraping her curly hair.

Her fingers trailing through copious amounts of wetness, Helen began to rub her thumb over Nikki's clit, thrilled to feel Nikki shiver. As Nikki let out a strangled moan and grabbed the table even harder, she slipped two fingers inside. Looking Nikki in the eye, she softly whispered "I love you Nikki" again before she kissed her. Their tongues duelling for control over the kiss, she felt Nikki slowly give in as her orgasm approached. Nikki's vaginal walls clenching her fingers tightly, Helen swallowed Nikki's groan of ecstasy and tenderly guided her through the aftershocks, holding her tight and whispering sweet words into her ear. As Nikki's laboured breathing slowly evened out, she slipped her fingers out and licked them clean, making Nikki shudder again. Still seeing raw passion burning in Nikki's eyes, she knew that, no matter how much she needed to feel her touch on her now, this was all about Nikki. Her voice thickened by her own lust, she whispered: "I need to taste you."

Silently ordering Nikki to hop on the table, the wooden workbench creaking under the additional weight, Helen sank to her knees, licking her lips in lecherous anticipation as she pulled Nikki's shorts down. Savouring the heady, musky aroma of Nikki's desire, she placed soft kisses on her thighs, ever going up as she grabbed Nikki's hips to pull her even closer. Trailing the tip of her tongue all along Nikki's slit, she softly licked Nikki's clit, feeling her shudder beneath her. Placing a calming hand on Nikki's stomach as her hips started to gyrate, she sucked the little nub into her mouth, letting the flat of her tongue roll over it, making Nikki grip the edge of the bench hard, her knuckles turning white. Knowing it wouldn't take much to let Nikki come again, she replaced her mouth with a finger and licked her way down again, eagerly scooping up the sweet ambrosia.

Her finger rubbing Nikki's clit hard, Helen felt Nikki come as she pushed her tongue inside. Gently coaxing her through it, her finger gradually slowing down, she licked Nikki clean. As Nikki let out one last laboured moan, Helen finally looked up and frowned as she noticed the state of Nikki's hand for the very first time. Pulling Nikki's shorts up as she got up from her crouched position, she carefully helped a still shaky Nikki off the bench and took her hand into her own. Underneath the dirt, she could clearly see bloodied cuts and abrasions from when she had hit the wall in anger and desperation. Hearing Nikki wince slightly as she carefully ran a finger over them, she very decidedly said: "come on, we need to look at your hand."

Guiding a slightly trembling Nikki to the bathroom, she rinsed the hand under the tap, making sure she got rid of all the dirt before pointing to the toilet, saying: "sit down, I'll grab the first aid kit." Obediently sinking down on the toilet, Nikki had to admit that her hand was throbbing. Why did she have to punch a wall? What kind of fool did stupid things like that? She was lucky only to have some minor cuts. She was still cursing herself when Helen sat down on the rim of the bathtub, putting a first aid kit beside her. Putting some isobetadine on a swab, she carefully dabbed Nikki's knuckles.

The tenderness more than the slight sting bringing tears to her eyes, Nikki realised how wrong she had been. Not everyone left her, despite her irrational behaviour earlier, Helen continued to stand beside her. She didn't condemn her earlier behaviour, she didn't force her to talk about Alice… without words Helen understood what she truly needed and selflessly gave it to her. She was there for her, it was as simple as that. The infinite tenderness with which Helen applied the band aids touching her heart more than the sweetest declaration of love ever could, she whispered: " I love you Helen. Thank you …. For everything."

Smiling as she looked at Nikki, Helen answered: "I'll always be there for you." Putting the first aid kit back in the medicine cabinet, she came back and held out her hand. Softly she said: "come on, we're both tired, let's go to bed. We'll face the world together tomorrow."

The End

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