DISCLAIMER: Bad Girls and all its characters are property of Shed Productions. I am using them for fun, not for profit.You may also notice a couple nods to BTVS; for those I offer props to Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. This story depicts a loving/sexual relationship between women. It is not suitable for anyone under age 18.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I have also taken great liberties with the British Justice System.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To nandh4ever[at]gmail.com

Love, Loyalty and Friendship
By Christie


Part One

Neither woman could ever possibly have foreseen how much their lives would change in such a short period of time. Despite the fact that Nikki had awoken that morning looking to be released from her imposed criminal sentence, she had been despondent, unable to generate much optimism for the new life which lay ahead of her. Helen, for her part, arose finding herself unemployed and alone, having long before cast aside the only intimate relationship which had ever mattered to her. And yet, here they were: standing outside Chix nightclub, wrapped in each others' arms, almost too overwhelmed to believe that they had found their way back to each other.

Helen was the first to – reluctantly – pull away from their protracted embrace. "D'you think we've put on enough of a show?" she smiled, her tongue tucked provocatively behind her teeth.

"Not nearly, but if you want to go somewhere more private..." Nikki allowed the suggestion to hang in the air.

It was with no small measure of regret that the equally worked up Scot reminded her, "Nikki, there's a wee bash goin' on inside; I think people'll notice if the guest of honour isn't there." Convicted on a charge of manslaughter, Nikki had been handed down a three-year, non-custodial sentence which had ended that day. As if that were not enough cause for celebration, the conviction itself had been overturned that very afternoon by the Appellate Court.

"Now I'm free of that damned curfew, I have loads of time to catch up with everyone. Dun' have to be tonight," she submitted hopefully even while recognising the inherent truth in Helen's words.

Worried that Nikki thought she was getting cold feet – it had been their pattern for so long, after all – Helen did her level best to assuage those fears; she bodily pushed the statuesque brunette back against the wall, capturing her still slightly swollen lips in a bruising kiss. When Nikki's mouth opened instinctively Helen drove her own tongue deep inside, eliciting a hungry moan from the taller woman. Helen reached her hand up, fingers threading through short dark hair and brought the two women even more closely together, deepening the kiss. "I'll make it worth the wait," she said thickly, finally drawing away.

"I'll hold you to it." Nikki had barely found her speaking voice which, overcome as she was with want, was even deeper that its usual rich tone.

Hating to throw a bucket of ice water over the proceedings, the diminutive Scot added, "And I think we should sit down with Trisha, don't you?" When Helen had most recently and definitively split with Nikki, Trisha was more than happy to jump into the fray, hoping to reignite the passion she and Nikki had shared during their eight years together. It became clear to Trisha, however, when she heard Nikki's stirring speech from the steps of the Old Bailey courthouse, that the woman Nikki had been reaching out to, reaching out for, was Helen. When Helen had arrived at Chix, Trisha had graciously got out of the other women's way.

Knowing that her former partner had been envisioning a future with her, Nikki was overcome with guilt to think that she had not given Trisha a moment's thought. Grateful to Helen for her inclination to think of others, Nikki agreed, "'Course. You're right. Are you ready?" With a nod and a quick kiss Helen pronounced that she was and the two women ventured back into the kinetic lights and the thumpa-thumpa of the club's sound system.

Unbeknownst to them a very interested third party had been keenly watching their reunion.

The two women made their way to the bar to look for Trisha. Discovering she had vacated her seat, they ordered a couple tall vodka tonics, idly commenting that their drinks glowed under the black lights, and walked the perimeter of the dance floor seeking Trisha out, Nikki being stopped many times along the way by well-wishers. Unsuccessful in their endeavour, they arrived back at the bar forty-five minutes later, finally opting to ask Jenna, the willowy red-haired manager whom Nikki herself had hired four years previously, if she knew her employer's whereabouts. Knowing from experience that she would be unable to make herself heard over the din, Jenna simply gestured towards the back of the club to where the office was. Nikki looked quickly down at Helen who indicated her assent and the two headed into the relative quiet of the back rooms.

Nikki rapped gently on the office door, though loudly enough to be heard over the still raucous music. Not having been out to the clubs for three years, Nikki was no longer used to the clamour. She had no idea how Trisha could stand the cacophony. When their knock went unanswered, Nikki tried the door handle, not surprised to find it unlocked; the most frequent source of conflict between herself and Trisha had always been the blonde's slipshod attitude towards security. Helen followed Nikki into the office which was obviously empty. "Maybe she meant she'd gone home, out the back door." Nikki pondered Jenna's ambiguous attempt at sign language. A little worried about her erstwhile partner, she decided, "I should give her a ring," and lifted the telephone receiver dialling nine for an outside line. "Trish, hi. We've... I've just scoured the club looking for you. Are you out of breath?"

Taking a couple deep breaths, Trisha responded, "Just in the door. I ran to get to the phone." She was speaking quickly.

"It's just, I was hoping we could talk. Maybe I could come over?" Nikki offered though not relishing the notion. Helen also looked less than delighted.

"No, Nik, just go, be with Helen. You have my blessing," Trisha assured her, knowing that it was not in Nikki's nature to be unfaithful to someone she was seeing, no matter how ill-defined their relationship. "G'night, Nik." She rang off definitively.

Helen, having heard some of Trisha's side of the conversation, was pleased. Nikki, for her part, had heard something odd – and unquestionably familiar - in Trisha's voice. "Hmm," she began contemplatively, "it was almost as though... No, no way."

"You don't think she was alone," Helen asserted perceptively.

"Wha'? Well, yeah, but it can't be, can it?"

"Are ya jealous?" Helen was stunned though amused.

Quickly Nikki assured her, "'Course not! Don't be daft!" Upon reflection, however, she admitted, "I'm a little, dunno, hurt maybe."

Understanding Nikki's irrational emotion, and feeling suddenly secure in the other woman's love for her, Helen acknowledged, "She'd planned on going home with you tonight and now you feel like she's chucked you in for some tart." Helen smiled puckishly. "It's perfectly reasonable, Sweetheart." She had moved to the far corner of the office to light a stand-up lamp before returning to the office's entry. "But she's just looking for a bit of comfort." Helen extinguished the overhead light. "Now, if there were only some way I could take your mind off Trisha..." She very deliberately reached behind Nikki and locked the office door.

"Trisha? What's a Trisha?" Nikki allowed herself to be propelled backwards into the door, thoroughly enjoying the way Helen was taking the lead. The small Scot reached up and pulled the woman she loved down to her for a crushing kiss before seeking to remove her Armani jacket which, despite the urgency of the moment, Helen took great pains to drape deferentially over a chair back. Though pleased to have one layer removed, Helen was not content to stop there and began undoing the buttons of Nikki's black on black silk shirt. She batted away Nikki's hands as they attempted to roam.

"No, Nikki. I need to touch you," Helen explained breathlessly, drawing the shirt open to expose a pair of perfect breasts cloaked in black lace. "Oh, God," Helen sighed lifting a hand out to caress one as she trailed a series of gentle kisses down from Nikki's jaw line. Her free hand had snaked itself behind Nikki's back.

"Shit!" she exclaimed softly a short while later, eliciting a small laugh from the other woman.

"Just takes practice, Darling, especially one-handed," Nikki assured her as she reached behind her own back and undid the bra clasp which had been giving Helen such grief. Undaunted Helen took that opportunity to slide Nikki's shirt and bra off, taking in a sight which had pervaded her dreams with great regularity since that one incredible night almost eight months before. A low, visceral sound emitted from her as she leant forward to take a distended nipple into her mouth. Nikki ran her fingers through the back of Helen's silken chestnut hair scarcely believing the turn her day had taken.

Overcome by an all-encompassing wave of desire, Helen managed a throaty, "I need to be inside you. Now." Nikki, no less inflamed, unfastened the trousers of her Armani suit and took Helen's hand, guiding it inside her pants. Emitting a soft moan presented with evidence of just how ready Nikki was, Helen quickly drove two fingers inside her, thrusting deeply, curling her fingers slightly, while her industrious thumb stroked a tumid clitoris. Nikki arched her back and drove her hips forward to meet Helen's plunging fingers as the two women found a perfect rhythm. It was not long before Nikki's insides clamped down powerfully on Helen's fingers and her cries pierced the air in the small office; she found herself grateful for the concealing cover of the house music. Surprised that her legs had succeeded in keeping her upright, Nikki discovered that she had been leaning quite heavily on Helen. She pulled away slightly to relieve the smaller woman of her burden, a burden Helen would say she had not even noticed. The two came back together in a satisfied kiss.

The feel of leather up against her bare breasts caused Nikki to proclaim, "One of us is overdressed." She proceeded to amend that situation, guiding Helen over to a plush, grey couch which backed up against one wall. Absently Helen wondered if Nikki and Trisha had ever had sex on it. Almost in response to Helen's unvoiced query, Nikki idly said, "Hmm, new couch," before gently manoeuvring Helen down upon it.


Part Two

Nikki and Helen did finally make an appearance back among the throng in the club which caused more tongue wagging within the small, tight-knit lesbian community as many of the women had been led to understand that Nikki was back with Trisha. The reunited pair had another drink, shared a couple dances and eventually offered their rather insincere regrets at having to leave. "It was a long, exhausting day. I'm just not used to these late nights anymore," Nikki explained. Offhandedly she remarked that she did not remember seeing Alex all evening; having given her young shop manager a lift into the city, she felt some guilt about abandoning her. Some but not enough to put her own lascivious plans on hold. She and Helen took their leave, travelling in separate cars to Helen's small Maida Vale flat where they no longer had to harbour any fear of parking Nikki's Mitsubishi Shogun right out front. Collecting her hold-all from the back of the vehicle, guiltily knowing that she had packed it to spend the night at Trisha's, Nikki escorted Helen up the steps. The diminutive Scot unlocked and opened the front door with great ceremony, emitting a small squeal as Nikki bent to pick her up to carry her over the threshold. "Seemed appropriate," shrugged the newly-emancipated woman with a wry smile. She put Helen down almost immediately. "But I think I've thrown my back out," she joked.

"Enough of your cheek," Helen admonished. "Shall we have some wine?" Opting to forego any libation, however, the two women instead made their way to Helen's bedroom in the back of the flat where they continued to make up for lost time.

Early next morning Nikki had to make the twenty minute commute to the Potting Shed in Finchley. Despite a decidedly sleep-deprived night, she chose to go in to the shop before going off to her EMBA class, Managing and Marketing Innovation. Not having been in the previous day except to collect Alex, there were things at the shop which required her attention. It was decided that Helen would pick up some groceries and meet Nikki at her Crouch End terraced house at half past four. She had also volunteered to drop the rolls of film, which had been shot the previous evening, off at the photo centre to be developed; there was a shop right next to the Tesco on The Broadway.

As the Potting Shed owner was pulling into the car park, she noticed a very familiar black Toyota Celica out of which Alex was alighting. "No sodding way!" Nikki groused, incredulous. Reaching the front door at the same time as her young shop manager, Nikki could only extend a gruff, "I'll be in the office."

Feeling the need to say something Alex offered a not very well thought out, "Brill party last night." Nikki scoffed and rolled her eyes before making her way directly to the office in the back.

"Alex, really? Alex?! That's who Trish turned to for her bit of comfort? Couldn't pull some random tart?" Pacing impatiently around her office, Nikki knew she was being unreasonable but could not control the way she felt. These were two parts of her life which were not supposed to mix. This was Alex and Trisha, Nikki's employee and her ex. She picked up the phone hoping Helen could talk her down.

Sitting home in her comfortable living room sipping coffee, Helen could not help smiling at Nikki's reaction. It was reminiscent of how Helen herself had felt when she learnt that her ex Sean Parr had become engaged to Luce, the woman who would have been Helen's maid of honour. "Look, Sweetheart, you and Trish're gonna try to be friends, right?" Nikki agreed. "So, would you prefer if a friend of yours were to take home some diseased slag or someone you knew and trusted? Hmm?" At her, her what? Girlfriend... Partner... Not paramour... Helen still had no notion of how to refer to her, but at Nikki's glaring lack of response, the terminologically-challenged Scot said, "I thought as much."

While recognising the fundamental good sense in what Helen was saying, Nikki knew she would not easily get past this new knowledge but promised Helen she would try her best. "They're both adults, I suppose. Not any of my business. Hate to run but I've got to be off to school. I'll try to phone you at lunch."

"Should be here. Have a good class, Sweetheart… I love you." It had taken Helen so long to say those three little words that it astonished Nikki to now hear her give voice to them so easily. The garden centre owner rang off and, collecting the previous day's deposit which she planned on taking to the bank over her lunch hour, started toward the front of the shop.

Alex caught up to her before she reached the door. "Oi, Nik, man, I was wonderin' if I could maybe get off early today."

Never one to let a good double entendre slip by, Nikki responded dryly, "Did that yesterday, din'tcha?" Remembering her promise to Helen, Nikki relented, "Sure, if it's not busy. Kate and Maureen can handle it, but I'll be takin' a good look at the numbers, yeah? If you leave when we have a packed house..." She let the threat hang there.

"I'll find meself on the dole, I get it." Alex added a very sincere, "Cheers, mate," and watched Nikki out to her car, feeling knackered and considerably older than her twenty-three years.

Following the day's classes Nikki drove back to her Crouch End house. Helen arrived directly on her heels with a bag of groceries hoping Nikki would be in the mood for a simple chicken divan with a side spinach salad. Helen had thought it would suit the grey, rainy day. Nikki answered the door and, taking the bag from Helen, leaned in for a deep kiss. Setting the groceries on the counter, she picked up a small navy box and handed it shyly to Helen. "What's this? You can't even have ordered my ring yet..." The two women had decided that Nikki would not wear hers until her goldsmith friend had fashioned Helen's.

"Well, open it and you'll find out, won't you?" Nikki pressed. Inside the box Helen found the keys to Nikki's house. "I hope it's a proper fit."

Smiling her patented Helen Stewart sexy smile, she assured the other woman, "I think you know i' is. So I can come and go as I please, can I? We'll still have our signal, though: a scarf tied to the door handle..."

An amused Nikki interrupted, reeling Helen into a tight embrace, "The only woman I'll be entertaining from now on is you. Reminds me: what would you like for breakfast tomorrow?" She waggled her eyebrows.

With feigned affront Helen baited in her clipped, stern tones, "Never said I was spendin' the night. Besides which, you never even asked. I mean, presume much?"

"I never asked because it was unnecessary. I'm not letting you leave." Nikki grew more serious, "Ever." Recognising that their lighthearted banter had played itself out – for the moment - the two women came together as one in an ardent kiss. Tongues battled determinedly with Helen eventually conceding the round to Nikki. They drew apart slightly, arms still wrapped possessively around each other. "Bit early for a cocktail. Fancy a cuppa before we make supper?" Nikki suggested playfully when they had finally disentangled themselves.

"Who knew you were a poet?" Helen asked wryly. "No' a very good one..." Dodging a tea towel Helen popped the kettle on. Nikki pulled tea and mugs from the cupboard and heated the pot with water from the tap. When their tea was ready they carried their mugs into the sitting room where Nikki set a match to the tower of wood in the fireplace.

"Fingers crossed, yeah?" she invoked, relying on her fire-building skills and making her way to the couch where she lay down with Helen nestled companionably in the crook of her arm. Speaking little and revelling in their rekindled relationship - a relationship which had seemed impossible just the day before - they gazed into the fire, both contentedly certain they would never be ripped away from each other again. Darkness had fully descended over the room when they eventually decided they should probably get dinner started. Helen set about cooking the chicken while Nikki prepared the sauce. As Nikki was opening the Sancerre, Helen said simply, "You've a message." When Nikki failed to grasp what she meant, she added, nodding towards the countertop, "On your answerphone." Glancing over at the machine Nikki finally saw the tell-tale blinking red light. Handing Helen a glass of wine, she depressed the play button.

After having been miraculously reunited with Helen the previous day, Nikki wholeheartedly believed there would not soon be any more surprises of consequence. She was mistaken.

"I hope this is you, Nikki," the disembodied voice began. "It's Martin. It's been a long time, I know, but I saw you on the news tonight and felt compelled to phone. Just wanted to let you know how pleased Connie and I are for you. You can ring me back at home at 020 7946 0535 or on my mobile at 07700 900128. I look forward to hearing from you."

Nikki dropped her wine glass which splintered on the kitchen's hardwood floor. As Nikki stood in stunned silence, Helen cautiously touched her arm. "Sweetheart, are you all right?" she asked gently.

Forced from her stupor Nikki absently looked at her girlfriend. "Martin?" she said plainly. "After all this time?" Despite her attempts to contact him seeking legal representation when she was arrested for killing Gossard, Nikki had not spoken to Martin since she had been expelled from her boarding school - and from their parents' lives - for 'lesbian behaviour' almost twenty years before. Eight years his junior, Nikki had always looked up to her brother when she was growing up; it had hurt her worst of all when he disavowed her. And now here he was, on her answerphone. She could not come to grips with it and so reacted in the most constructive way possible – by cleaning up spilled wine and broken glass.

Recognising that Nikki's mind was not on her task, Helen relieved her of it. "Here, give me the broom," she demanded, "You can fetch me some kitchen paper." Having cleaned up the mess, Helen guided Nikki to a kitchen stool. "'S a bit of a shock," she stated plainly.

The dark woman snorted derisively, "A shock? I haven't heard his voice in twenty years, except once on his answerphone. I'd say it's a shock." Hollow eyes looked up at Helen. "Wha'm I gonna do?"

"What d'you want to do," Helen turned the question back on her girlfriend.

Nikki sniped, "Yeah, thanks for your help."

Unwilling to be sucked in by Nikki's petulance, Helen continued, "Honestly, Nikki, when you heard who it was, what was your first reaction?"

Examining her own emotions the taller woman was forced to concede, "I wished I'd been here when he rang."

"There you go," the wise Scot said matter-of-factly. "Then you need to call him back." Helen was disquieted by the look of terror which clouded Nikki's face, but this was her big brother, her idol, and she could not bear the thought of him rejecting her for a second time. "Doesnae have to be tonight. You can work up to it." Helen had assembled their casserole and placed it in the preheated gas cooker.

"What d'you reckon he's after?"

A quick shake of her head and roll of her eyes marked Helen's discontentment. "Nikki," she began in admonishing terms, "d'ya have to be so cynical?"

"S'pose I don't hafta... but I like to stay with what I know," the other woman spat bitterly.

Knowing that Nikki was lashing out at her out of a sense of fear, Helen chose to disregard it. She pulled the woman she loved into an embrace, hoping to imbue her with the strength to face her family. One member of it, anyway. "I know you can do this, Sweetheart. You're the strongest person I know, but it's your choice." Nikki did not feel strong; she felt as lost as a teenager who had been shunned by those who were supposed to love her without question. It was as though part of her had never aged past that painful moment in her history. Deep down she knew that a meeting with Martin was her chance to grow up, to get past it. "God, I'm so sorry, Nikki."

To the raven haired woman this seemed like a bolt out of the blue. "Why? Wha' for?"

"I was such a shit. For ever leaving you, abandoning you like they did." Helen looked deeply into Nikki's soulful amber eyes, running her hand lovingly down her cheek. "But I never stopped loving you. Not ever. And I'm sure they haven't either. No way." Despite the hurdles they had been forced to overcome these previous months, as she looked back into Helen's hazel eyes Nikki saw something she had not seen in almost twenty years reflected back to her: unconditional love. It gave her the strength to make her decision.

"I'll ring him tomorrow," she decided.

"Something wrong with tonight?" Helen queried, having changed her mind, unwilling to let Nikki procrastinate further.

Flustered, Nikki argued, "But dinner'll be ready in-"

"Twenty minutes," the determined Scot interrupted dryly. "Now, I know you've a lot to catch up on, but..." She handed Nikki the phone. "I've jotted the numbers down.

"Well, aren't you... helpful?" Nikki took the telephone handset and dialled her brother's home number. A young androgynous voice answered the phone. "May I speak to, erm, to Martin, please," Nikki stammered.

"Dad!! Phone!!" the voice yelled.

Even after twenty years Nikki recognised her brother's deep, Etonian intonation. "Martin Wade," he announced formally. Unable to formulate a coherent thought let alone an opening gambit, Nikki was rendered momentarily speechless. "Hello, who's this?" A sound very much like astonishment escaped the older Wade. "Nikki? Is that you?"

Finally finding her tongue Nikki said simply, "Hello, Martin."

Brother and sister spoke stiffly for a few minutes before Nikki, at Helen's silent urging, invited Martin to lunch next day. He quickly agreed despite the protests of his child whom Nikki could hear in the background. It was decided that he would come for half past twelve. He took down his sister's address and home phone number in case he got lost on his drive in from Pinner. Nikki was shaking when she cradled the receiver and slid easily into Helen's comforting embrace.


Part Three

After much enthusiastic debate the previous night it had been decided that Helen would not be joining the Wade siblings for lunch. Rather, Helen had decided and Nikki had been forced to concede. "I'll be back by three," she reminded the anxious woman.

"To pick up the pieces?" Nikki snorted bitterly.

"Sweetheart, you'll do fine. You're a thirty-five year old grownup, owner of a very successful small business. You've come a hell of a long way – on your own – since he saw you last," Helen encouraged. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, she added, "And you've got a gorgeous, intelligent, essentially flawless partner," she grew serious, "who loves you more than anything."

"Well, you don't have a job," Nikki teased deadpan, "and that casserole last night was a little dry..." It had remained in the cooker longer than necessary as Helen helped Nikki come to terms with the prospect of seeing her brother. "You're right; I'll do great. You should stay just to see how great. Oh, you'll be so proud." She smiled hopefully.

In Helen's experience Nikki's insecurities tended to manifest as angry belligerence, so this reaction to them was unfamiliar. She saw Nikki as she must have been as a teenager discovering who she was while at the same time discovering that she was not worthy of the love of her family. Aching with the need to protect her, Helen's heart melted but her resolve did not. As it was already going on twenty past twelve she grabbed her jacket and went to Nikki who seemed somehow smaller than her five foot ten. Drawing back from Nikki's almost desperate embrace, Helen looked deeply into those dark amber eyes, silently trying to transfer some of her own strength to Nikki. "I'm gonna go. If you need me any earlier – which you won't – I'll have my mobile. Just remember: he wants to see you." Another quick hug and a kiss and she was out the door.

At precisely half past twelve Nikki's doorbell rang. In fact, having given himself too much time for the commute, Martin had been sitting in his late model, black Lexus RX estate car down the road for near fifteen minutes. He watched a petite, attractive woman with straight brown, highlighted hair descend Nikki's front steps and idly wondered if it was his sister's partner. He finally approached the front door with much trepidation.

Neither Wade quite knew how to greet the other. As Martin leaned in for a kiss, Nikki backed away cautiously, trying, without success, to make the move appear unintentional. She invited him in deciding there was safety in playing hostess. "Will you have a drink? Tea, wine, vodka?" she asked hoping he would choose something with a high ABV.

"Have you got any tomato juice? I could make us some bloody Marys?" he suggested remembering a time Nikki had got into their parents' liquor cabinet.

Nikki remembered that incident as well, though somewhat less fondly, but she agreed nonetheless and began assembling the ingredients. Nervously she watched this man, this stranger with her brother's face, fix up their cocktails. Time had been kind to Martin, she decided; he still had a full head of thick dark hair, though now shot through with some silver, "Whose isn't?" she thought, a firm physique and relatively unlined face except for a few laugh lines around his eyes. Remembering his wife Connie, a doe-eyed Greek even shorter than Helen, Nikki thought that her nieces or nephews must be gorgeous. She pulled a plate of tuna salad sandwiches and some veggies out of the fridge. They sat at Nikki's kitchen table.

Helping himself to some food, Martin remarked, "Diced dills," and gave her a warm look. Growing up tuna salad with dill pickle had always been his favourite. He was touched by the gesture. The two ate almost in silence, their small talk comparable to the sort reserved for complete strangers: the weather, Premier League, the seasoning of their bloodys. Once they had decided they had had enough to eat, Martin fixed them another drink and followed Nikki into the sitting room.

Taking her seat on the couch Nikki finally asked, "Why've you come, Martin, after all these years?"

Abashed, he admitted, "I've thought about reaching out to you more times than I can tell you: birthdays, when the kids were born," he paused, "when you were arrested..."

"You wha'? When I was arrested?! Then maybe you might've thought about returning my call," Nikki submitted angrily.

Befuddled, Martin questioned, "Your call? When did you phone?"

"No, don't play stupid. I rang you the night I was arrested. I needed representation. Had to leave a message on your answerphone." Nikki could not believe that he did not know.

"No, we were abroad, Spain, our first holiday without the kids. There was no message. When we got home was the first I'd heard about it. I asked Mum and Dad if you needed my help and they told me you had it sorted." Martin avowed. His sincerity was not lost on Nikki. "I just thought that too much time had passed, that you'd written me off."

"That I wrote you off? You were the one who turned away from me, remember? I was sixteen? I asked you if I could stay with you and Connie 'til I found my footing?" All of the old hurts returned, as fresh as they had been almost twenty years before. "Wait, who looked after the kids? When you were abroad?" The penny had dropped for Nikki.

Looking confused, he informed her, "Mum and Dad, 'course. They always mind the kids."

"Kinnell, don't you see? They erased my message, never told you that I'd phoned. Shit, I never knew they hated me that much." Nikki's hurt was palpable.

"No, Nik, no way. Something must've happened. There's no way they got your message."

"Jesus, Marty, you still believe every line they've ever fed you, yeah? I've been arrested, convicted of killing a cop. You think I'd bother to make up a story about ringing you if I hadn't? You think I'm really worried about looking bad in your eyes after all that?" Nikki was making good sense. "No, they've got you under their thumb just like they always have."

"I never was as strong as you, Nik," he confessed, ashamed. "When they kicked you out I was just a trainee solicitor-"

"Sure, with Dewey, Screw 'em and Howe, wannit?" she interjected bitterly.

Without missing a beat he continued, "Connie was a shop assistant. Mum and Dad were helping us out. They said if we let you stay with us, they'd cut us off. I'd've lost my training contract, never become a lawyer."

She scoffed, "'Cause if there's one thing the world needs, it's more lawyers..."

"If I'd've had my way there would've been one more. As soon as I'd decided I wanted to be a solicitor, I dreamt about you becoming a barrister, us working together. Even when you were a kid you had a mouth on you. You could stand up to anyone and for anyone." He looked shyly at the floor. "I've always admired you, Nik." Martin rolled his eyes self-deprecatingly. "God, eight years younger yet you've always been more of a grownup than me."

"Marty," Nikki was the only one who had ever been allowed to call him that, "you're a grownup: wife, kids, career... but, yeah, your baby sister's always had bigger bollocks." Nikki smiled struggling to know how to react to Martin's words.

"I reckon I'm lucky Dad approved of me becoming a solicitor. I could've ended up in the Royal Navy like him." Martin shuddered at the thought. "I really have missed you, Nancy, and I'm sorry for not standing behind you," he offered earnestly.

Nikki knew the choice was hers alone to make. She still loved this man, her brother, and hoped that they would somehow be able to mend fences and rebuild a relationship. She also knew that it could be a tremendous first step in resolving her abandonment issues. It already helped her to know that he had not rejected her as had their parents; he had been working from a place of self-preservation. And she would never have asked him to sacrifice his future for her. "I forgive you," she said plainly, "but don't call me Nancy!" she added sternly. He had begun calling her Nancy when she was no more than five years old, simply because of her initials, N.C., but had continued to use the moniker because it annoyed her so much. What are big brothers for? "So, I suppose we've a lot to catch up on. How's Connie? Tell me about the kids... am I an auntie or an uncle?" Nikki asked mischievously.

"Connie's great. Back to work part-time now the kids are getting older. Christine – Chris – is almost fifteen and Nico's twelve." He looked at her for her reaction to their names. "Yeah, we named Chris for you. Connie insisted on it," Nikki's middle name was Christine, "and, dunno if you remember, but Connie's dad's name is Nick, so we thought we could honour both of you." Tears pricked Nikki's eyes. "We never forgot about you, Nik."

"Well, c'mon then, let's have the photos. They're absolutely gorgeous, not doubt." Nikki held out her hand.

Reaching for his wallet, Martin laughed, "Genetics will out." He handed Nikki a school photo of a boy of about ten with a shock of unruly ebony hair, dark, wide set eyes and olive skin. "Nico, last year."

"He looks just like Connie except for the hair. That's ours," Nikki smiled and reached out for Chris's picture. When she looked back at her brother there was venom in her eyes. "She's why you rang me. Never mind all this bollocks about reaching out, wanting to make it up to me. This was never about me; it's about her," she hissed again, taking in the photo of her niece anew. It showed a tall teenager with an athletic build, her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, in uniform on the hockey pitch. "You're afraid I gave her more than my middle name."


Part Four

Martin had trouble denying the truth of what she was saying. "Connie and I have discussed the possibility..."

"And what, you've come to me as the only dyke you know to see if there's some sort of test? Is she listening to a lot of Melissa Etheridge? Bedroom wallpapered with posters of Xena and Gabrielle, is it?" Nikki's walls went slamming back up. She could not believe that she had fallen for the lines he had fed her. "Jesus, does she even know why she's never met Auntie Nik? That'd be a sure way to screw her over, make her terrified to be who she is," Nikki asked, thinking about Helen's mum's comments all those years ago, that if she ever learnt Helen was gay, she would 'go aff her heid'. Nikki knew how one off the cuff remark could stay with a child forever, how she and Helen had almost fallen victim to one such assertion.

Prepared to do battle with her over this, Martin was unwavering as he admitted, "Yes, when I realised that she might be a-"

"What? A dyke? An abomination?" That was the word Nikki had heard from her own father.

"- a lesbian, of course I thought of you, but not what you could do for her. I thought about what Mum and Dad had done to you. What I did," he acknowledged painfully. "The thought of turning Chris away, of never seeing her again caused me a physical ache. That's when I fully realised what you must've gone through. I'd not given it near enough thought before then."

"I was sixteen!" Tears swam in Nikki's dark eyes, the hurt unrelenting. She had been carrying this burden for the better part of two decades.

Wishing he could erase her anguish, knowing it was impossible, Martin cried for her as well. "God, I can't tell you how sorry I am, Nik, but I'll do anything I can to protect her from the pain you've had to endure."

"Then I hope she's not too attached to her granddad," Nikki submitted bitterly.

"I know I don't have the right to ask, but maybe the two of you could help each other," he submitted hopefully, the love he felt for his child etched on his face.

Always one to try to smooth the pathway for 'baby dykes', knowing how difficult her own coming out had been, Nikki relented. "You don't even know that she's gay," she pointed out.

"But I want her to know that, if she is, I'll still love her. And if she's not, she needs to grow up knowing that gays and lesbians are normal people, leading normal lives. I'd like you to be part of my kids' lives, if it's not too late."

"Well, I said you'd grown up; I just didn't know how much." The last time she had seen her brother he was a bastion of right-wing social conservatism.

"You can thank Connie for that. She always thought we should have told Dad to sod off and let you stay with us."

"Y'know, I always liked her better than you," Nikki teased. "Does Dad know you're talking like this?" she asked still jesting, not truly expecting a reply. The guilt on his face told her she was going to get one anyway.

Averting his eyes, he conceded, "No, and he can't, not unless I want to see my kids out of boarding school. Chris is in year nine at The King's School and Nico'll be going to Eton next year. Connie and I can't manage that on our own out of pocket."

"So you stay in his pocket. And nothing ever changes." Her disappointment shone through.

"I won't apologise for loving my kids, Nik, for wanting them to have every advantage," he argued earnestly.

Understanding that imperative, Nikki still did not know if she could be party to the hypocrisy. Did she want to put the kids in the position of having to lie to their grandparents? "You're going to meet your Auntie Nik, just don't tell Granddad." It would feel like going into the closet and, as such, a betrayal of her niece or her nephew, if one of them turned out to be gay, and of Nikki's own integrity. "I know you're torn but I don't think you're doing them any favours. It's sending a mixed message: it's all right to be who you are, just not in front of some people," she explained her concerns.

"Look, they already know he's an ignorant bugger, full of prejudice, and they take what he says with a grain of salt. Anyway, isn't it better to, well, not hide exactly, but maybe to not be so forthcoming sometimes?" Martin wondered aloud.

Nikki burst out, "No, Marty, damn it! There're so many reasons why that's not better: firstly, I'm not going to devalue my partner or our relationship by denying either." It was obvious Nikki had given this some thought. "Secondly, I think we've an obligation to society, especially the kids growing up, to get into the mainstream, to be seen as just a normal part of the world, a world which should embrace people's differences."

Martin surrendered, "Gay pride, yeah?"

"Sod gay pride!" Nikki scoffed. "I can't stand that bollocks. There's a difference between being proud and not being ashamed. I might as well be proud of my height or my eye colour for all the say I had in them. So I won't be ashamed of being gay and I won't be relegated into a closet for anyone, not even Chris and Nico. Especially not. I want them to be smarter than that."

"You should talk to Dad. You might just be able to convince him," Martin offered thoughtfully.

"No way. In order to be convinced, he'd have to be listening. Not his forte unless he's had a personality transplant," she said dryly.

"You might be surprised. He's a bit less rigid, doesn't think that the Premier League's going to hell anymore, you know, what with all the foreigners." The siblings shared a laugh at their father's expense. "So, Nik, I'm sorry I've been monopolising the conversation. I've not asked you about your life. Tell me about your partner. Trisha, isn't it?" he ventured, having looked up Nikki's case before coming to lunch.

With a smile and a shake of her head, she countered, "No, Trish and I didn't make it through the aftermath of...Gossard. For the best, really, 'cause now I've got Helen. We met two years ago, had a bit of a rocky go but we're back together for good now." The wistful look in Nikki's eyes told Martin all he needed to know.

"So, you've been together two years?" he enquired.

"Not exactly, no. More like two days," she smiled, enjoying the look of surprise on his face, "but I've loved her for two years, I know that. It was complicated. There were ethical reasons we couldn't be together; she was working for the Home Office. But now I'm exonerated, we can be."

Martin was surprised; the sister he remembered would never have let anything like ethical boundaries keep her from something she wanted. Little did he know the separation was Helen's doing. "Well, tell me about her," he probed impatiently.

Realising she did not have a photo of Helen to show him, Nikki decided that that would have to be remedied. She proceeded to paint a verbal picture. "She's a tiny little Scot, about four foot eight," she exaggerated with a fond smile, "with a stubborn streak and a highly evolved sense of ethics." Martin came to understand that his sister may not have changed as much as he had previously thought. Nikki went on, continuing to support Martin's hypothesis, "She believes in the letter of the law while I tend to think that what's correct isn't necessarily always right. She's gorgeous, smart, generous..." Nikki was growing embarrassed by her own effusive outpouring. She was rescued from it by the sound of Helen's key in the front door. "And she's here!" she exclaimed, standing to greet her partner at the door.

"Hiya," Helen began, accepting a kiss from Nikki. "How'd it go?" she asked cautiously, not having seen Martin approaching.

"It still is going," he answered for Nikki, "and I think rather well, eh, Nik?" He smiled genuinely at Helen who was struck by how much he and Nikki resembled each other. He was six foot four, lean with dark hair showing a bit of silver, but what hit Helen hardest were his eyes; they were exactly the same dark amber as Nikki's and held the same warmth and expressive character. He held out his hand, "Martin Wade." When Helen reached out for the proffered appendage, Martin took the opportunity to pull her in for a brief hug. He was genuinely grateful to the small woman for the light he saw in Nikki's eyes. The whole time the Wade siblings had been talking there had been a reserved quality about his sister, a guardedness which all but disappeared when she spoke of Helen.

"Helen Stewart," she introduced herself. "Look, if you two need more time..."

Martin shook his head, "No, I must be off; my son has a football match at four. Nik, Chris is going to be home next weekend. Would you think about coming and maybe having dinner Saturday night? Both of you, of course. I know Connie would love to see you." Nikki pulled his jacket from the cupboard.

She shrugged, "I need to talk it all over with Helen. Can't make any promises, but I'll ring you this week, yeah?"

"Sure. Helen, it was lovely to meet you. I do hope we can get to know each other better," Martin enthused almost formally, as was his manner. "Goodbye, ladies. It really was wonderful to see you, Nancy." With a nod and a quick kiss for his sister, he was set off for Pinner.

After the women had watched him go, Helen turned to Nikki and with raised eyebrows asked simply, "Nancy?"


Part Five

Nikki told Helen all about her lunch with Martin, the emotional ups and downs, finally finishing with the speculation that Chris was gay. Nikki seemed to have got over her hurt, her accusation that her brother's visit had been all about his daughter. She had felt in her brother a genuine desire to reconnect and asked Helen if she thought that was even possible. "Now, I hate to keep turning the tables back on you, but is that what you want? 'Cause if it is, then, yeah, I think it's possible"

"Even through all the hurt?" Nikki wondered aloud.

Offering her support Helen reached out for Nikki's hand. "Not seeing him has done nothing to ease your hurt, Sweetheart, so maybe getting to know him again will. And there's the kids to consider, Auntie Nikki." Helen offered her distinctive smile, tongue tucked behind her front teeth and eyes shining. "They're the only niece and nephew we'll ever have."

"But what about this palaver about them not telling their grandparents they've met us? I'm not letting you go back in the closet now you've just come out," Nikki stood firm.

"Do you want to risk them being rejected by the same family that turned its back on you? You can't use Chris and Nico to get back at your parents," Helen cautioned.

Offended, Nikki countered vehemently, "I'm not! But I've been out since I was a teenager and I don't want to take a step backwards. I've been discriminated against, threatened..."

"It's not their fight unless they decide it is," Helen interrupted softly.

"And is it yours? Or do you want me in the closet as well?" Nikki snapped.

"Is that why you're being so nippy? You think I'm agreeing with your brother because I want to hide our relationship?" Helen was hurt that Nikki did not know any better. She vowed, "Now that we can finally be together, I want to shout it from the rooftops. I'll build a float for the bloody parade."

Tilting her head to look at Helen quizzically, Nikki knew the small Scot meant every word and was chagrined. "I'm sorry; 'course you do. And you know how lucky I am to have you."

"Damned right you are," Helen said, half teasing. "I just want to make sure the kids aren't hurt in all this, but I'll stand behind whatever you decide. We're a team." Both women were amazed by how quickly they had fallen in to a partnership; there was no discussion just a simple understanding that they were together, sharing their lives. Both took immense comfort in that knowledge, that long-range tableau, though Nikki wondered idly if that rooftop shouting would be audible from Morningside, where Helen's father lived. That was a discussion to be left for another day, however, she concluded; the day had already been fraught with enough family angst. That being established the women decided that they would take Martin up on his invitation to dinner the following Saturday.

After a busy week for both of them – the Christmas rush was in full swing at the Potting Shed and Helen had been given the go ahead by the Home Office to develop an Officer Training Initiative for professionals working with young and juvenile offenders – the two women drove to Pinner in Nikki's metallic blue and silver Shogun. They had insisted on bringing the pudding which was nestled between Helen's feet for the drive. In an effort to woo her in-laws and get on with the kids, Helen, not the most ambitious of cooks, had nonetheless gone to great lengths to make a lemon syrup cake with berries and lemon-curd, one of her own childhood favourites. Nervously, they climbed the steps to Martin's front door and rang the bell. The door was opened apace by an enthusiastic Nico who appeared smaller and younger than his twelve years.

"I had a football match today and I scored two goals," he announced proudly by way of introduction.

"Two! That's fantastic," Nikki enthused. "What club are you going to play for when you get older?"

"Man U," he answered, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. "I'm Nico."

"And I'm Auntie Nik and this is Auntie Helen," she responded as Connie arrived at the door.

"For goodness sake, Nico, it might be an idea to invite them in before giving them the play-by-play of your match. Come in, come in." Helen and Nikki entered the fair-sized foyer where Nikki was immediately set upon by her sister-in-law who drew her in for a hug, holding her fast. "God, it's good to see you, Nik." Finally releasing the surprised and somewhat overwhelmed woman, Connie turned to Helen and pulled her in for an only slightly more reserved embrace. "Helen, I'm so glad to meet you."

Offering their hostess the bouquet of flowers they had brought – an exotic mix of Nikki's favourites – they followed Connie into the kitchen. In good time Martin arrived downstairs, making excuses about having to take a long, hot shower after having been stood about coaching Nico's team to victory in the middle of a deluge. "They ought not to have even been playing with that forecast: thirty millimetres! And I think it all fell during the match!" He gave Nikki and Helen kisses on the cheek saying quietly to Helen, "Thanks for getting her here."

Martin took drink orders and they all headed into the living room where Chris finally joined them about twenty minutes later. Helen could not help but notice how much the fourteen year old resembled her aunt. Long and lean - she already stood five foot nine – with her dark features, she could have passed for Nikki's own daughter, though for the most part she sat quietly by while her aunt talked animatedly.

Near half past six Connie announced that the joint was done and called the troops to the table where Martin carved rather formally from one end of the table whilst Connie served vegetables from the other. The conversation flowed as freely as the wine for the most part though Chris continued in her reticence. Helen, however, felt the teen's eyes on her several times as Chris looked upon these new aunties of hers with transfixed curiosity. Dinner was lovely, Helen's pudding very well-received, and afterwards Nikki shooed the other adults back to the living room, insisting that she and the kids could manage the washing up. Having 'forgotten' to do some homework, Nico was excused, sent instead to his room, leaving Nikki to do the rinsing and washing and Chris the loading of the dishwasher and the drying.

"Your Nan and Granddad never had a dishwasher. We had to do all the washing up by hand," Nikki began in her effort to break the ice. "Truth be told, your dad was miserable about washing dishes. He'd often break something – a teacup, wine glass – just to try to get out of doing them again. Never worked but he'd still give it a go, maybe once a week... I was only nine or ten and I had it figured." Chris laughed shyly. "So, what position do you play? On your hockey team." Nikki tried to engage the girl.

"Centre mid," Chris replied, volunteering no additional information.

"So, you've gotta be in pretty good shape, eh? I was a midfielder for a year then I moved to right wing. Our school team was never very competitive, though." Nikki did her best to draw the taciturn teen into conversation, no matter how inane. Finally when they had almost finished the washing up, the elder Wade broached, "I know it must seem odd, Helen and I landing in your life at this stage. I'm sorry I didn't have the opportunity to know you growing up, but I'd like to get to know you and your brother now, we both would, if you'd give us the chance. We're here now and we're not going anywhere," she assured her niece.

Chris pulled a face and lashed out unexpectedly, "Sure. Until you have another falling out with the family." It became obvious to Nikki that Chris had only heard bits and pieces of the story.

"Is that why you're being so grizzly? You don't expect us to be around long enough to bother to get to know us?" At Chris's conspicuous lack of response, Nikki suggested, "All right, let's have a sit down and I'll tell you whatever you want to know." They sat at the kitchen table. "I suppose your first question is why I've not been part of your life 'til now, what caused the 'falling out'?" Chris offered the non-committal shrug for which teenagers across the world are famous. Wishing she had discussed with Chris's parents how best to approach the subject, Nikki chose to plunge in directly as was typically her way. She had warned Martin, after all, that she was not willing to lie to the kids. "When I was a little older than you I was expelled from my boarding school," she began. This got the teen's attention.

"What for?"Chris asked the most obvious question.

Nikki took a deep breath and jumped in with both feet, "I was caught snogging a classmate, another girl."

"And?" Chris had trouble understanding what all the fuss was about. "What's the big deal?"

Impressed with how much things had changed in twenty years, Nikki snorted, "That's what I thought... Anyway they cited 'lesbian activities' as the reason and chucked me out. Then, on my sixteenth birthday your Nan and Granddad did the same."

"No way!" Chris stared at Nikki in disbelief.

"It's true," Nikki averred quietly. "Now your Dad's changed a lot since, but he sided with your grandparents at the time. He had his reasons, yeah? And I've accepted them, but things've changed for him; he wants to be able to set a better example for you and Nico, doesn't want you to be ignorant toss... erm, he doesn't want you to be ignorant." Chris sniggered. Nikki did not have a lot of practice toning down her more colourful language for the sake of kids. "He wants you to grow up accepting people's differences and he knew that he'd be being hypocritical if he expected that from you without reaching out to me, I suppose. So'm I talking rot or does that make some sense?"

Chris gave what she had heard due consideration before replying. "Makes sense. But what 'bout you? Did you never think to contact him?" the girl asked astutely.

"I did. I got into a spot of trouble with the police and rang your father for help and legal advice. But he never got the message I'd left on the answerphone." Nikki knew she had just invited more questions.

"The police? What happened?" Chris had grown animated.

"It's not a good story, Chris, but it's over: I killed a policeman."


"It was about three and a half years ago. I owned a nightclub and, late one night, I was forced into killing the man who was trying to rape my partner." Nikki knew she was making it sound much more cut and dried than it truly was.

"Auntie Helen?"

"No, I hadn't met Helen then. Her name was - well is - Trisha. I tried everything I could to get him off her, but in the end..." Concerned that her niece would romanticise the Gossard incident, Nikki assured her, "It was the worst night of my life, Chris. I can't even tell you. I still have nightmares."

A child of the nineties, Chris had seen a lot of death on television and in film. For better or for worse, she remained detached from the horror of it. "But you'd do it again? To protect someone else?" she asked.

Nikki shook her head, "I honestly don't know. I've taken some self-defence classes since and I hope I'd be better able to protect someone I love taking a less aggressive course of action. I just pray I never have to put it to the test."

"So, what happened? Did you go to gaol?" the suddenly very inquisitive teen asked.

"No, I was dead lucky, sentenced to three years on an electronic tag." Seeing the look of confusion that crossed her niece's face, she elaborated, "To put it simply it's an ankle bracelet that monitors your location. I had to be home from half seven at night 'til half seven in the morning and the tag made sure of it." Chris nodded her understanding. "Anyway, just over a week ago, I appealed my conviction and the courts overturned it, said I was not guilty by reason of defence of others." Nikki was not surprised that her niece had not heard about the appeal; the news of the world does not get much notice in the lives of teenage girls, especially when the Spice Girls are splitting up. "Any other questions?"

"I suppose not." Chris's tone made it clear that she could have more another time.

Relieved, Nikki promised, "Look, if there's ever anything you need, I want you to know that you can come to Helen and me. In confidence. Your parents needn't know." She slipped Chris fifty pounds explaining, "Here. Take this. I reckon I missed a few birthdays. And you've got Christmas coming up to shop for. Don't tell your brother," she added conspiratorially while all the while planning on giving him the same.

"Eh?" Chris started. "That's barely three and a half quid per birthday. I thought Auntie Helen was the Scot," she teased.

"Oi, that's enough of the cheek or we'll put the puppy we got you for Christmas back in the post," Nikki laughed.

"Thank you, Auntie Nik," Chris submitted sincerely.

"I'm glad we talked, Chris. Cleared the air. And now just imagine how cool you'll be at school with your new gay aunties; lesbian is the new black." The two seemed well on their way to becoming friends. "Here's my mobile number," Nikki said handing Chris a piece of paper. "Day or night, yeah?" she assured the teen. They finally ventured back into the living room.


Part Six

Nikki awoke Monday morning feeling more of a familial bond than she had in twenty years. She and Helen had had a very nice weekend, staying overnight at Martin's at Nico's insistence so they could see some of his football match late Sunday morning. They had even volunteered to drive Chris to the St Pancras train station so she could get back to Canterbury. Come Monday morning Nikki was feeling Helen's absence rather acutely, having dropped her off at her Maida Vale flat after chauffeuring Chris to the train station the previous afternoon. The women had decided that that made the most sense since Nikki had an early morning at the shop and Helen had plans to spend the day at HMP Holloway getting settled in, beginning work on her YO officers' training initiative. The Home Office had found her a small office in the prison where she hoped she would be able to be more productive, face fewer distractions than she would working either out of her flat or Nikki's house.

Nikki made a quick stop at the photo centre before winding her way to Finchley. Oddly, the photos from her celebration, which ought to have been ready Saturday morning, seemed to have done a walk. Nikki received word late Saturday that they had turned up, but unfortunately it did not arrive in time for her to be able to get down to the shop before close. A small bell hung on the door announced her arrival. "Just picking up," she volunteered to the bored-looking girl wearing too much eye makeup who was behind the counter. Nikki handed over her claim stubs all the while wishing that her friend Dianne, the manager of the photo centre, were there to serve her.

The shop assistant opened a drawer and easily found the photos, some of which had been taken at Trisha's and some at Chix. Taking a cursory glance at the name on the packets, the girl knitted her brows in confusion; she would have sworn that those photos had already been picked up. In fact she herself had handed them over to a man who, she remembered, had forgotten his stubs. He had offered a sob story, worried he was going to be in the dog house with his wife were he to arrive home without them. The shop clerk had insisted he present some identification which she then ensured matched the name and address on the packets. He was called Nicky Wade. She assumed that one of her incompetent co-workers had simply misspelled it on the packet as Nikki. "Or maybe they're Nicky and Nikki – how cute - NOT – and these are a different lot completely. Oh well," she thought, "she has the stubs, these packets are here. No need to make a fuss." Unaware of the thoughts swimming in the shop assistant's head, Nikki took the photos, surprised they had already been paid for, and wandered out to her four-by-four, heading off for the Potting Shed. She decided during her drive that Dianne must have taken care of the payment, a gesture of congratulations for Nikki's emancipation.

Helen and Nikki spent Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights at Nikki's Crouch End house. Truth be told Helen looked forward to staying in her Maida Vale flat Thursday nights, Nikki's night to volunteer with the support group for victims of sexual violence. Much as she loved Nikki and their newfound freedom to be together, Helen occasionally felt like a guest in her partner's home and, if she were honest, in her world. Helen knew that much of this also stemmed from the newness of her position as consultant for the Home Office, the fact that she was not yet settled into her work routines. A conspicuous instability seemed to be manifest in all facets of her life and Helen, a woman who thrived on order and structure, was struck with a psychological vertigo. Despite the fond memories the two women had created for themselves in Helen's flat – it was the first place they had made love and where they had spent the night after Nikki's emancipation, after all – Helen knew that Nikki still felt the ghost of Sean's presence. Unwilling to take advantage of her partner's predisposition to grant any favour she asked, Helen would never have suggested they spend equal time in the home Helen had shared with Sean for over a year, the home in which she had accepted his marriage proposal. The terraced house in Crouch End held fewer, or at least weaker, associations for Helen, though she was confident that Teatra Kennedy, one of Helen's own prison officers at the time, had shared Nikki's bed, at least for a short while. Having only recently come out, Helen was as yet unaware of the lesbian nesting imperative and so wondered if it was too early to talk to Nikki about merging their two homes. Nikki, much as she had grown to love her independence of the previous three years, had nevertheless entertained that idea almost the minute she and Helen had reconciled.

Between her morning and afternoon classes on Friday, Nikki went for lunch near the London Business School campus with Trisha. The erstwhile partners, endeavouring to forge some semblance of a friendship, opted for the familiar comfort of the Windsor Castle pub despite the recent critical acclaim bestowed upon Mumtaz, a curry house only another minute's walk from the school. The women both arrived just before noon, Trisha appearing somewhat nervous at seeing her ex. Designed and built during the redevelopment of Regent's Park, the pub had been owned by the Royal family since 1840. On that cold November day, the wood fires were lit, offering a cosy, inviting ambience. The women made their way to the comfortable second floor where, because it was not yet twelve, they managed to secure a table at the leather couches. Both ordered a Black Sheep Ale, a beer Nikki had not had since her first night out with Teatra.

Settled in and misinterpreting why Nikki had asked her to lunch, Trisha decided to go on the attack. "You made your choice, Nik, and went off with Helen; it's none of your concern who I'm seeing."

A look of confusion followed by understanding crossed Nikki's face. "You wha'?" she began eloquently. "You and Alex? Seeing each other? Kinnell, I just assumed that night was a one off."

Hindsight caused Trisha to realise that she had got their lunch off on the wrong foot and she tried to regroup. "I'm sorry. I... I reckoned you knew, that that was why you wanted to have lunch."

"No," Nikki drew the word out for emphasis, "I thought it'd be nice to meet for lunch so we could have a catch up. I wanted to make sure that you were all right. I... I know I spoiled your plans." Trisha said nothing. "But it looks like you've made new plans. And with a twenty-three year old no less," Nikki added derisively.

Transitioning from attack to defence quicker than the Chelsea Football Club, Trisha countered, "Sure, Alex may not be my soul mate. I had hoped you were," she injected softly, with only the smallest trace of bitterness, "but she's sweet and thoughtful and she makes me laugh. Don't I deserve that?"

Nikki did not even have to consider the question. "And more, Babes. It's just, it's the 'more' that I don't want you to miss out on; you deserve to find your soul mate."

"Like you have?"

Nikki looked up at her ex not wanting to cause her pain but nevertheless agreeing softly, "Yeah. I have." Lightening the atmosphere she continued, "'Course we can't all pull a twenty-three year old, eh?" She smiled mischievously.

Feigning arrogance Trisha submitted, "When you've got it, you've got it."

"But we are not double dating! That'd be over the top," Nikki cringed. "D'you suppose we'll be able to stay in touch?" Nikki had not realised how much she missed chumming with Trisha until they got back in touch the previous month but had no desire to cause the blonde any undue heartache which the idea of seeing her with Helen might bring about.

Trisha had given her relationship with Nikki a lot of thought over the preceding fortnight and conceded, "You and I were never gonna work, Nik. I know that. We were trying to go backwards, to recapture something that was long gone. But we're not the same people we were then."

"Is that a 'yes'?" Trisha nodded with a smile at Nikki's enquiry. "It's been quite the week for me, getting back in contact with people, realising who I want in my life." At Trisha's quizzical look, Nikki elaborated, "I've seen Martin. We spent last weekend with his family."

The look of astonishment on Trisha's face said it all. "My God, Nik. Martin? How'd that happen?"Nikki proceeded to fill Trisha in on the events surrounding the reunion of brother and sister, catching her up on Martin and his family, though she chose not to reveal the speculations about Chris's sexuality. Knowing how hurt Nikki had been at being cast out by her family, Trisha asked sagaciously, "And are you able to trust him now?"

As the dark-haired woman thought this over, the cynic in her was quelled and she answered, "Yeah, surprisingly I do, except he's asked the kids not to tell their grandparents that they've seen me. Dunno how I feel about that." There was an honest straightforwardness about Nikki which made her loath to encourage Chris and Nico to lie, even by omission; she was usually able to say exactly what was on her mind, sometimes to her own detriment, but was nonetheless keen to pass that trait on to her niece and nephew.

"Well, I think it's brill, Nik. Family's important. How'd they get on with Helen?" Nikki could not fail to notice Trisha's use of the word 'brill', one of Alex's catchwords, and wondered just how much time the seemingly mismatched couple was spending together.

"Like a house on fire. She can be pretty charming." Nikki smiled like a woman in love. Recognising that she had to get back soon for her afternoon class, she changed the subject. "I've brought the photos from the party, thought maybe you'd like to have a look-see." She pulled the two packets from her bag and handed them to Trisha. She then succeeded in making eye contact with their waitress and gestured for the bill.

After taking a good look through the photos, Trisha asked, "Have you left some out? Only, there was one of you taken at the flat, in the kitchen, I think, and I've not seen it."

"I remember. Maybe it didn't turn out. Let's have the negatives." Nikki looked through the negatives from the roll taken at Trisha's and found the one in question. It looked fine. There ought to have been fifty-four photos - "Why d'you always get twenty-seven photos out of a roll of twenty-four," she wondered idly –but there were forty-nine. Examining the negatives, two looked poor quality and were likely not printed but the other three were simply missing. Two were of Nikki on her own and one was a photo of Nikki and Helen taken at Chix. "Strange," was all Nikki could think to say. "I'll pop into the shop on my way home and get them to print those three. Dunno what might have happened to them." Nikki dropped enough money on the table to cover lunch and the two women descended the steps to the front door.

"Next one's on me, Nik," Trisha insisted pulling her in for a hug. "It was great to see you. I'd really like to get to know your Helen better so maybe next time it can be the three of us, yeah?"

"That'd be great, Trish," Nikki enthused pulling out of the embrace and delighting in the knowledge that there seemed to be no residual awkwardness between the two exes. Though the day was cool, the morning's rains had tapered off and Nikki found herself enjoying her five minute walk back to the Business School's campus for her Brand Management course.


Part Seven

Nikki and Helen fell into some semblance of a routine with the fair Scot staying at Nikki's most nights through the week with the exception of Thursdays and the two women staying at Helen's weekends. Whatever their plans for Sunday were dictated where they would spend those nights. Much as both women liked their homes, it was decided that in the early spring they would begin looking to buy something together. Both Nikki's house and Helen's flat were paid for, so they knew they would be able to afford something which blended the stature of the Crouch End house with the more central location of the Maida Vale flat. They hoped that only small compromises would need to be made on each end.

Because Helen would not be spending Christmas with her father in Morningside, she chose to pay him a visit in early December. Nikki begged off citing a hectic Christmas season at the shop as the reason, but Helen felt some subterfuge coming from her typically forthright partner. Choosing not to dwell on it, that Friday morning the small Scot packed up her little red Peugeot and hit the road for an extended weekend, such was the beauty of working as a consultant: her working hours were more flexible than most. She pointed her car up the M6 completely unaware that her partner was driving down the same highway, doubling back upon Helen's same route.

Nikki was acutely aware that Helen had lost her love of Christmas at the age of twelve, the year her mother had succumbed to breast cancer. Effie Stewart loved Christmas and always made it special for her only child. They would make ornaments with which to trim the tree, bake shortbread and festoon the house with all manner of decorations. With the death of Effie, Helen's father, the Reverend James Stewart, had relegated all of those mementoes to boxes in the basement. Nikki had made it her mission to return them – as well as a renewed love of the Christmas season - to Helen. It was with that in mind that she had snuck north to Morningside, unbeknownst to her partner.

Nikki had, of course, spoken to Reverend Stewart on several occasions prior to her visit and, to her surprise, had found him to be rather good telephone company. She had never had much contact with members of the clergy in general and did not rightly know what to expect of a minister from a particularly fundamentalist sect of the Church of Scotland. From what she experienced over the phone, she discovered him to be charming, intelligent and well-spoken, as she supposed one in his line of work ought to be. It was also patently obvious that Helen was the apple of his eye, despite all indications to the contrary; forced to raise her as a single parent from the time she was twelve, he was often more strict and disapproving of her choices than he might have been had her mother still been alive, but he only behaved as he had out of love, to spare her pain. Emotionally estranged from each other for over twenty years, they had found some common ground the previous autumn when Helen had come to understand his motivations. "The road to hell is paved with good intentions," Nikki remembered Helen lamenting a year before.

Rev Stewart seemed genuinely pleased at the notion of Nikki coming to Morningside to collect the decorations. Indeed, he was looking forward to meeting this woman "with the lad's name" who had befriended his daughter. He was painfully aware that there had been a part of his daughter which had never allowed her to be happy, not since the death of her mother. He also knew that her newfound capacity for happiness coincided directly with the forging of this new friendship. Nikki understood as well as anyone, however, that the warmth she had been receiving from her partner's father would likely freeze over once he discovered the nature of the women's relationship. Nonetheless, she had gratefully accepted his gracious invitation to forgo a hotel and spend the night at his home. And she would, of course, take tea with him. There was no room for debate.

Having made good time - though not as good as "Helen of the lead foot" would likely make the following day - Nikki got to the Stewart homestead just before six o'clock. Helen had told her that her father lived an opulent lifestyle, but Nikki was not prepared for the extent of it; she stood in awe in front of the magnificent Victorian villa with its enviable gardens and did her best to picture Helen running about as a young girl. She failed. Taking a breath to steel herself for the evening ahead, Nikki did not even have time to ring the bell before the door was opened by a short, plump woman with white hair and the most warm, inviting smile Nikki had ever come across. "You must be Margaret!" Nikki enthused, taken by surprise by the hearty embrace into which she suddenly found herself drawn.

"Nikki," Margaret began, "it's so good to finally meet you!" Nikki found herself wondering just how much Helen had shared with the ageing housekeeper, her former nanny. She handed the other woman a bouquet of flowers she had brought from the shop, an exotic bunch similar to the one she had brought for Connie the month before. "Ooh, they're lovely. Thank you, dear."

"Now, those are for you not the house, if you want to put them in your rooms," Nikki insisted.

Touched Margaret cooed, "I shall do that. But for now let's take you to yours. I've put you in Helen's bedroom. I don't imagine that'll be a problem." She looked at Nikki knowingly. "Get settled and I'll take you to meet Reverend Stewart for cocktails at half past six." The two women wended their way upstairs to Helen's childhood bedroom, a surprisingly Spartan space within the extravagance of the house. Nikki saw no indications of her partner's personality, her passions, her spirit inside its four walls and was saddened to think that those were quashed under her father's stern rule. Nikki took a quick shower and dressed for tea, donning a pair of charcoal Versace trousers and a steel blue silk button-front shirt. She wore black Red or Dead boots with a six centimetre heel which completed her look and pushed her height to over six feet. She regretted her choice of footwear as her host stood up from a club chair in his study to greet her; the man who cut such an imposing figure in Helen's memories stood no more than five foot eight, much to Nikki's surprise.

"Miss Wade," he said formally, extending his right hand to her.

"Please, call me Nikki. It's a pleasure to meet you, sir." He was pleased with the firmness of her handshake and the directness of her gaze. "I've a small token for you, Reverend Stewart." She handed him a gift bag. "With my thanks for your generosity." Inside the parcel he found a polished wood gift box of Cohiba Robusto cigars and a bottle of Barros twenty year tawny port. Helen had described her father as a man who enjoyed the finer things in life and the esteem he believed those things conferred upon him.

"Wha' a lovely gesture. Thank you, Nikki. Shall we have a wee dram?" he offered, moving to the sideboard and pouring generous portions of whiskey out of a crystal decanter. He added a small splash of water to each drink and handed one to Nikki. "Here's tae us wha's like us," he began, lifting his cut crystal glass.

Nikki touched her glass to his. "Gey few and they're a' deid," she finished to the reverend's delight. Helen had taught her well. Despite their social, political and religious differences, Helen's partner and father got on well enough with Nikki only forced to hold her tongue over one or two issues. At half past seven they repaired into the dining room, a somewhat oppressive space full of heavy mahogany furniture. They sat at opposite ends of a table with a capacity for twelve. "Might I join you at your end, Reverend?" Nikki asked, deciding they had developed enough of an affinity over cocktails to warrant this. "Only, I thought we could continue our conversation without hollering down the table at each other."

Considering it thoughtfully – no one had had the nerve to suggest that to him before – he acquiesced, "Aye, sure. Margaret!" he called out, prepared to have her move Nikki's place setting.

"I can manage, sir, but thank you." Suiting action to word Nikki picked up her dish and wine glass and moved to sit at Rev Stewart's right hand. They supped on a delicious Aberdeen Angus stew with dumplings, a perfect complement to the cool late autumn temperatures. In spite of being quite glutted from the stew, Nikki was compelled to have a piece of blaeberry pie, "Just a small one, Margaret, promise me." Growing wild on the property were several berry plants which Margaret had picked clean of fruit in September, freezing the berries. The result, served with a dollop of heavy cream, was delicious and well worth the extra five kilometres Nikki would force herself to run the next day to burn it off. After tea Nikki gave Helen a quick ring from her mobile before retiring back to the study to meet with Rev Stewart. Nikki accepted his offer of a glass of port. He lit one of the cigars Nikki had brought and assured her she was welcome to have a cigarette. Taking some time to browse through his vast library, Nikki found herself envious of the extent of it. Helen's father had many collectibles including first editions of the five books of the Dickensian Christmas oeuvre, but it was disappointingly obvious to Nikki, gazing reverently upon even the newer titles, that his collection was intended for show, that the pretentious Rev Stewart had no understanding of the intrinsic value of the books only their monetary value. She doubted that he had even read one tenth of the works.

At the far end of one of the built-in bookcases, Nikki discovered the most valuable omnibus of all: photo albums, full of hundreds of images of Helen in her youth, though the frequency with which photos were taken seemed to have waned following the death of her mother. Rev Stewart refused to take Nikki on a journey through its pages, so she made a date for the following morning to go through the books with Margaret. Nevertheless, Rev Stewart had, upon hearing of her plans for it, given Nikki leave to borrow the books until the new year. He found himself disarmed, however, by the superabundance of thoughtful things this new friend of Helen's seemed to be doing for her. Much as he had enjoyed Nikki's intelligent and charming company, he could not help but feel that there was something unnatural about her relationship with his daughter.

It was with this thought in mind that he asked, "Wha' is the nature of your relationship with ma lass?"

"No... No... Shit..." Nikki thought. She had not planned for this. "Sir?" she finally said, opting to play it coy.

"Dinnae 'sir' me. 'Tis a simple question. Wha're yer intentions wi' ma Helen?" He took her non-responsiveness as obfuscation and vowed to get to the bottom of things.

Hoping that she was misunderstanding his meaning, Nikki offered an honest, "I care about her. We have a close, supportive relationship." She lit another cigarette, a prop to buy her time to think. "We've been through a lot together."

"You'll no' have designs on her money, then?" he accused. Rev Stewart had assumed that Nikki had latched on to Helen for her wealth. She had a modest trust fund but the real money would come in the form of her inheritance from him.

Rev Stewart was surprised when Nikki laughed, which she did unwittingly out of sheer relief. "No, sir, I've no need of her money; my garden centre does very well, my house is paid for and I've other investments which pay me a decent sum every month."

He remained somewhat sceptical. "I cannae ken why ye're doin' so much for her, drivin' all the way up here to collect some Christmas gimcracks? And the photo wotsit ye're plannin'?"

Nikki planned what she was going to say carefully. "Reverend Stewart, I'm not particularly close with my parents," she understated, "but I know how close Helen and her mother were, how much she's always suffered from her loss, and I just want to help her, this time of year especially. I understand that Christmas was very important to Mrs. Stewart."

"Aye, 'twas," he agreed.

"So it's a difficult holiday for Helen and I just want to make it easier, help her get back some of her own enjoyment of it," Nikki explained.

The sincerity with which Nikki delivered her justifications was apparent to the wary minister. He nodded. "Then she's blessed tae have a friend such as yersel'. Now, if ye'll excuse me, I'm away ta bed. I'll not see ye the morn. I've an early day, but 'twas a pleasure, Nikki. I'm hopin' we'll meet again."

"You can be sure of it, Reverend Stewart, and the pleasure was mine." Knowing she had dodged a bullet, the relieved woman watched him leave; it was not her place to tell him the details of her relationship with Helen. Nikki remained in the study, continuing to look through the bookshelves, and smoked her last cigarette of the day before retiring to Helen's childhood bedroom where she slept soundly through until early morning.

Wishing she could leave Helen a note or small trinket to let her know she had slept in her bed the previous night, Nikki nonetheless restrained herself, not wanting to give the surprise away so soon. She ventured downstairs to meet with Margaret. The two women pored over the photo albums for almost an hour, each coming to recognise how just much Helen meant to the other. Nikki learnt a lot about her partner: her love of horses, her successes as a youth on the football pitch and with the chess club. Nikki saw a naked infant Helen bum up on a sheepskin rug, young Helen learning how to ride a bicycle, preteen Helen studiously working on a jigsaw puzzle as well as every class photo from South Morningside Primary School, but, Nikki noted, the photos in which her partner appeared happiest were the ones with her mother. The tall woman could hardly wait to get started on her new project. After packing the photo albums into one of the boxes of Christmas decorations, she sat with Margaret and had a simple breakfast of oatmeal which the old housekeeper had been up very early preparing for Rev Stewart. The two women said their farewells fondly as Nikki pulled on her short, black Aquascutum trench coat. Margaret drew Nikki in for a hug and offered sincerely, "She's lucky tae have ye."

Nikki disagreed, looking directly into the genial woman's clear, blue eyes, "No, I'm the lucky one. Take care of her this weekend." Receiving assurances from Margaret that she would, Nikki hoisted the last Christmas box and brought it out to her vehicle. Stowing it and her hold all in the back, she looked back at Helen's surrogate mother and waved. "Goodbye. I'll see you soon, yeah?" she called out knowing that that would only happen if Helen could bring herself to come out to her father and if he, in turn, could find it in himself to accept them as a couple. Because Helen and Rev Stewart had only begun to reconcile following years of discord, Nikki hoped that Helen's bombshell would not serve to sever the tenuous bonds of their newfound relationship. It was with these concerns in mind that Nikki threw the Shogun into gear and pulled away from the Stewart manse.


Part Eight

Helen had a remarkably good weekend in Morningside; her father was in great spirits and Margaret was even more doting than usual. She quickly dismissed the possibility that one of them was dying – they both appeared hearty and hale – but nonetheless wondered at the cause of their unusually good moods. Back in London Sunday evening she stopped at the Crouch End house bearing Chinese takeaway but had decided to spend the night in her own flat. "Darling, I think we should rethink moving in together," Nikki opined over cocktails, a playful gleam in her eye. No easy mark for her partner's antics, Helen waited her out, eyebrows raised. Exhaling harshly in mock petulance at being found out, Nikki went on, "I think we should start looking right away. I mean tonight makes four nights in a row apart and I can hardly bear it. Wha'd'you say?"

"I say a big, bloody yes!" A delighted Helen drew Nikki in for a deep kiss. "We'll find an estate agent in January, decide when to put ours on the market." The women discussed it over dinner deciding that, because of its location, Helen's flat would likely sell first. They weighed the possibility of Helen moving temporarily to Crouch End until they found their dream home. Helen was equally dissatisfied with things as they stood and resolute about moving in with Nikki, about not facing another night forced to leave the comfort of her arms, of her bed. It was made even more arduous that evening as she had eagerly allowed herself to succumb to Nikki's shameless seduction. Difficult as it was to pull herself away, Helen knew she had an early morning at work and nothing appropriate to wear to the prison in her overnight case; she would have to get to Maida Vale eventually. And so she traded the warmth of Nikki's embrace for the bone-chilling cold inside the little red Peugeot and set off for her flat, an abode which she absently realised she no longer thought of as home.

Except for those rare occasions when Helen would have to travel to visit Her Majesty's Prisons located outside the London area, the women vowed not to spend another night apart. Because of the long hours Nikki had to keep during those last weeks leading up to Christmas, Helen volunteered to spend weeknights in Crouch End, but the overworked Potting Shed owner insisted that they migrate to Helen's at the weekend. When the Home Office employee arrived home at half past four on the Friday, she walked into her living room and found a Christmas tree hung with lights and a sheepish Nikki standing vigil. "I know how you feel about Christmas, Darling, but I thought we should decorate the house," Nikki began. "I'll fetch you a drink while you change. Vodka all right?" Nikki spoke rapidly, not offering Helen any choice but to participate. Disappointed in a Nikki who had promised Helen she would never again have to feign an enjoyment of the Christmas season, the crestfallen Scot trudged into her bedroom for a change of clothes. She opted for an outfit to reflect her mood, a pair of yoga pants and her sloppiest long sleeved tee shirt, a formerly black-turned-grey one which had once been Sean's. Nikki recognised her partner's passive aggressive costume for what it was and chose to ignore it, it suddenly occurring to her that her surprise might go over like a lead balloon. She pressed forward nonetheless. "Give us a hand with this box," she entreated, pointing to one of three good-sized cardboard cartons in the room.

Sullenly Helen made her way to the coffee table, stopping for a draught of her vodka tonic along the way. She raised it to Nikki in mock salute, a plastic smile touching her lips, before taking a long swallow. Deciding to work on a change of attitude for Nikki's sake, she asked, "So, wha've we got?" She opened the box and peered inside. Helen could not wrap her head around what she was seeing. The first item to catch her eye was a crocheted snowflake, pure white, which looked like the ones she and her mother had made once upon a time. A second look revealed a gingerbread ornament in the shape of a star with white piping and a red ribbon. A look of confusion crossed Helen's face as she recognised yet more of the homemade tree ornaments as well as some shop-bought ones. She looked up at Nikki. "Where did you get these?" she asked somewhat inanely. "I mean how? When?" She did not know what she meant so overwhelmed was she at the sight of her childhood decorations.

Seeing Helen's emotions at fever pitch, Nikki went to her, drawing the smaller woman into a tight embrace. "Shhh," she comforted, "it's all right." Nikki drew back only slightly and looked down at Helen. "I drove to your father's last Thursday, the day before your visit, picked these up," she waved her arms to take in all three boxes. "Thought your mother should be here for Christmas." Tears swelled in Helen's eyes. "But if you're not ready, we can pack them away and I'll tear down the tree," she offered earnestly, misreading Helen's reaction.

As moved as Helen was that Nikki had retrieved the ornaments, she was even more touched by her offer not to decorate. Helen re-established their physical closeness, pulling Nikki in tighter. She finally spoke, her voice thick with emotion. "No, Sweetheart, I want you to meet her," she said drawing back slightly to stroke her hand down Nikki's face. The two shared a tender, if brief, kiss and let their attentions fall back upon the first box, the one which housed all the tree ornaments. Together they went on an emotional journey through Helen's childhood, through the twelve happy Christmases she had shared with her mother. Amazed that she could still remember most of the ornaments, Helen smiled wistfully as she told Nikki about them, especially the ones she and her mother had made: the quilted hearts, the simple reindeer made of ice lolly sticks and pipe cleaners which she had made at age four or five. Through it all Helen's love for her late mother shone through and Nikki considered herself fortunate to have got a glimpse into that mother-daughter dynamic.

Once the tree was trimmed to their satisfaction, they poured themselves another cocktail and lay together on the couch admiring their handiwork. Occasionally one or the other would get up to move an ornament or two in the name of aesthetics and balance. After an hour or so of quiet reflection, they stood almost as one to move to the kitchen to prepare dinner, a quick meal of Greek marinated chicken, courgettes baked with chopped tomatoes, and brown rice. After dinner they opened a second box and discovered Helen's mother's collection of tin wind-up toys which they spread beneath and around the tree. Of the eighteen or so toys, Helen quickly sought out her childhood favourite, a colourful clown car which dated back to the twenties. The largest of the toys was a mint condition, lithographed drum major which stood almost 34 centimetres tall. It was given a place of honour on the living room's small sideboard. Time having got away from them, meandering as they were down Memory Lane and through the wistful remembrances of Helen's youth, Nikki determined that they should hold off on opening the third box until next morning. She led an emotionally spent Helen through to the back of the flat and got her ready and settled into bed, climbing in beside and holding her until the small Scot's deep, even breathing revealed that sleep had finally overtaken her.


Part Nine

The weekend held yet more surprises for Helen; over breakfast on the Saturday she learnt that Nikki had invited Chris, who was home for the weekend, ostensibly to prepare for her Christmas exams though she had not touched a book, and Nico over that afternoon to engage in more Christmas activities. Having been invited to a birthday paintball party, much to his mother's dismay, Nico was unavailable, but Chris seemed well pleased by the prospect, even agreeing readily to having a sleepover at her new aunties'. They vowed to see her safely onto the train back to Canterbury Sunday afternoon.

In the middle of exams herself, Nikki was out of the house early and sitting down in a large auditorium of the London Business School at half past eight writing her Managing and Marketing Innovation exam, the final exam she would have to face in her quest for her EMBA. A good student with an excellent grasp of both management and marketing, Nikki was the first to hand in her exam - having reread it twice – at twenty past ten. She drove quickly back to Maida Vale to collect Helen and the two were on the road to Pinner. Connie had insisted they join the family for lunch when they came to gather Chris. During their commute Nikki could not shake the eerie sensation that they were being followed but, having spent thirty-six months with her every move being tracked, simply chocked it up to her acquired paranoia.

They arrived at the Wade family home just before noon and, as was proving typical, were greeted by Nico. "Hiya, Little Man," Nikki began, "I thought you were meant to be out shooting your mates."

"Not 'til two. Won't you please come in?" the twelve year-old offered.

Helen could scarcely contain a laugh at the formality of his invitation, half expecting it to be punctuated by a deep bow. "Thank you, kind sir," she finally managed accompanying Nikki across the threshold. Connie had made her way out from the kitchen wearing a colourful floral apron and wiping her hands on a tea towel. Helen was pulled into an embrace, insisting, "You're not goin' to too much trouble for us, are you?"

"A simple soup, but the bread's not cooperating," Connie admitted giving Nikki a quick hug. "Too early for a Bloody?" she asked.

"Never too early," Helen answered for them both, following the woman she had come to view as her sister-in-law into the kitchen.

Martin had just arrived downstairs looking freshly showered. "Bit of a late start, Marty?" Nikki teased, unaware how she'd hit the mark.

He dropped his eyes. "Staff Christmas party last night. Didn't get home until almost two. Thank God the kids are old enough to entertain themselves," he confided.

"Connie's looking none the worse..." Helen pointed out.

Nikki laughed, "It's these small women. You gotta watch out for 'em. Dunno where they put it, but Helen's exactly the same."

"Maybe it's just that you Wades're lightweights," Helen speculated. "Did someone say Bloody?" Looking green at the prospect of facing vodka, Martin nonetheless played barman and prepared the Bloody Marys for the other adults in the room. "Och, c'mon, Martin. A little hair of the dog," Helen proposed.

"Dunno if I can. I've got to drive Nico to his party in Harrow. Even one drink could send my BAC back over the limit."

Nikki broke in, "Don't worry; we can take him. Two o'clock, yeah?"

Though seemingly unwilling to put Nikki and Helen out, Martin relented, "That'd be a help, sure. Thanks."

"That's what family's for. Now, where're those drinks?" Helen demanded playfully.

The group had a lovely lunch of cock-a-leekie soup and homemade bread, which had turned out much better than Connie feared. She had even prepared a winter fruit salad for afters, full of oranges, pears, berries and warm spices. At half past one Chris and Nico had all their gear together and climbed into the car with Nikki and Helen who were thankful they had opted to bring the Shogun; Helen's Peugeot would have been a bit cramped. Following their words of thanks and a goodbye to Martin and Connie, a course was plotted for Maida Vale via Harrow and the small group was away.

Before leaving for her morning exam Nikki had set a soft cider of unpasteurised apple juice with a couple sticks of cinnamon and some allspice berries to heat in the Slo-Cooker. It made for a very inviting smell welcoming them into Helen's flat. Having deposited Chris's overnight case in the small spare bedroom, Nikki offered to pour the teen and Helen a cup. Enticed by the aroma, both accepted. Drinks in hand the three made their way into Helen's living room and discussed their plans for what was left of the weekend. It was quickly decided that they would first go through the final of Helen's mother's boxes, putting those decorations out for display. Nikki had picked up the materials with which to make some decorations, a pleasant tribute, she hoped, to Helen's childhood. They would each have a stained glass ornament to assemble: Father Christmas for Helen, a reindeer for Nikki and a red, green and gold wrapped present for Chris. Once those were baking in the oven, the three were going to string popcorn for the tree and make shortbread. Not having been home when her own house was decorated, Chris was thrilled by the prospect though tried to play it cool in front of her aunts, in the way teens must.

Nikki went to the HiFi and inserted a couple Christmas CDs she had brought from her house earlier in the week knowing Helen would have none. The shrill ringing of the telephone interrupted their pleasant foray into craft making. Helen, up to her elbows in her project asked Chris if she would mind answering it. "Hello? Stewart residence," the girl spoke into the phone. "Hello?" she tried again. "No one there." She replaced the receiver.

"That's the third one this week," Nikki pointed out. "Should we dial one-four-seven-one?" she offered.

"No," Helen refused, "I did after the last. Came up Private Caller. Probably just crossed wires or some drunken dialling; it is Christmas, after all. Nothing to be concerned about." They all went back to their tasks.

Having scoured Helen's kitchen unsurprised at not finding them, Nikki had purchased a shortbread pan and cutter earlier in the week. Wanting Helen's Christmas season to be perfect, Nikki desperately hoped that the recipe she had found would be able to satisfy her Scottish partner. "Time'll tell," she thought as the pan went into the oven at half past six. "Who's up for pizza?" she asked of the other two. "We thought we'd order from The Red Pepper."

Looking less than enthused – her family usually ordered from Tops so she was more familiar with chain restaurant pizza – Chris nonetheless took a look at the takeaway menu and found some interesting choices. Nikki, who thought they might have lost her again when they explained that fior di latte was mozzarella made from buffalo's milk, was shocked when the teen seemed unfazed. "Can we have the Contadina?" she asked, referencing a wood-fired pizza with grilled courgettes, roasted red onions, artichokes, roast tomatoes and basil.

"'Course," Helen responded. "And how about a stagioni? Or is that too much artichoke?"

"Never too much. I love artichokes," Chris insisted.

Reaching for the phone, Nikki affirmed, "It's decided, then." She placed their order. "And we'll throw together a salad. Spinach or Caesar, Chris?"

"Spinach's good. Can I help?"

Impressed, Nikki accepted, gesturing with her head, "Spinach is in the fridge." She reached for a salad bowl while Helen went to the pantry for some toasted pine nuts and dried cherries. They threw together the salad, including also some red onion and mushrooms, and dressed it with a raspberry vinaigrette, allowing it to wilt some in the fridge while they awaited the pizza. "Glass of wine, Helen?" Nikki offered.

"Thought you'd never ask," the thirsty Scot smiled.

"Can I have a glass?" Chris asked.

"Well, I suppose so..." Nikki began.

This was not a scenario the women had discussed with Chris's parents and Helen was uncomfortable. "Nikki," she started, "just a minute." Helen was tempted to move just outside the kitchen but did not want to treat the almost fifteen year old like a child by talking about her behind her back. "I think we should talk to Martin and Connie, make sure it's all right with them."

Nikki recognised the good sense in what Helen was saying - her brother was still quite conservative – and, while she did not want to think that Chris was taking advantage of her aunts, she agreed to phone the girl's parents. "They've said you can have a small one, white." Nikki informed her niece after speaking to Connie. They went into the living room with their wine to enjoy the fruits of their hard work. The tree was lit up and the room verging on garish for all its decorations. Helen loved it. Not twenty minutes later the pizza arrived and they sat in Helen's eat-in kitchen and devoured it, Chris possibly even preferring it even over her favourite Tops pie, the Special, likely down to the artichokes.

After dinner they settled back into the living room to watch some movies. Being a good aunt Nikki had rented 10 Things I Hate about You, a relatively short film –and one the women found they enjoyed more than they had expected to – which allowed for a second. Chris was given some choices in the Christmas genre – Nikki had brought her own copies from home – and, not having seen it before, chose It's a Wonderful Life, much to Nikki's delight, though she would also have enjoyed A Christmas Carol or Miracle on 34th Street. She opted to leave her copy of The Nightmare before Christmas in Crouch End, to not have it on offer, while promising herself she would share it with Helen before season's end. Shortly after half past eleven they were all tucked in bed for the night having had a very enjoyable day all around.


Part Ten

An early morning ringing of the telephone roused them all. Helen answered it only to discover that, while it was not another hang up, it was a wrong number, much to everyone's dismay. "I'm sorry, there's no Walter here," she explained to the caller. They had a leisurely morning with Nikki making them all a big Sunday breakfast of bacon and eggs with toast and grilled tomatoes and mushrooms. She had even picked up some Spanish persimmons, a sweet fruit which is at its best over the Christmas season but which was unfamiliar to Chris, to have along side. Chris and her aunts left Helen's flat at half past ten to go on a shopping mission to Islington. They could have got a much earlier start but the shops did not unlock their doors until eleven. As it was they arrived at ten minutes before eleven allowing them plenty of time to park and to get Chris to the Nat West cashpoint to ensure she had enough money to finish her Christmas shopping.

After parking in the N1 Centre car park, they went into Marks and Spencer looking for something for Connie. Chris was considering some bath salts. Nikki grabbed hold of Helen's hand briefly, aware of the memories that was evoking in the small Scot; when she was twelve Helen had bought her mother bath salts for Christmas, but the older Stewart had succumbed to her cancer before receiving them. "'You all right, Babes?" Nikki asked, concerned, giving Helen's hand a squeeze.

A hint of sadness touched Helen's eyes, but she assured Nikki, "I'm fine. This is about Chris and helping her find the right gifts." She allowed Nikki's hand to fall, though grateful for her support.

Chris considered the royal jelly and pure honey bath and body gift set but decided against it having got a whispered promise from Nikki that she would teach her how to make bath salts. She did pick up a pashmina which she thought suited her mother but, finding nothing at Marks and Spencer that she wanted for either her brother or father, Chris led the trio out to Liverpool Road in search of more shops. They wandered seemingly without direction for the next hour or so, Chris showing more interest in the shops specialising in teen fashion - with Jigsaw, Joy and Accessorize especially capturing her attention – than in finding anything for the males in her life. Nikki and Helen, for their part, were taking more notice of the estate agents' and travel offices' windows. They had agreed that they would not be exchanging large gifts at Christmas, that they could make better use of their money putting it towards their new home and their trip to San Francisco which was planned for June.

Having eaten breakfast at half past seven they decided they were peckish and ready for some lunch at one o'clock. They found themselves outside Miso Noodle House on Upper Street and ventured inside. Nikki and Helen shared the Phad Thai while Chris opted for the vegetarian noodle dish with oyster sauce. They ordered a pot of green tea to accompany their meals.

They left the restaurant on a mission to get Chris's Christmas shopping finished. In fair time she had picked up Shania Twain's newly-released and very well received Come on Over for Nico as well as a Man U muffler. Martin proved to be much more difficult to shop for and in the end she opted for the classic necktie, but not just any necktie, a Hugo Boss charcoal and black power tie, perfect for a day in court. Chris was disappointed that the Armani was out of her price range but liked the Hugo Boss well enough. Nikki was, naturally, delighted with her young niece's fashion sense while Helen wondered drolly if it were an inherited trait. Having some time before Chris's train, the three shoppers popped into Costa Coffee at the station for a cappuccino.

"You didn't get much studying done while with us," Nikki pointed out guiltily knowing Chris was writing exams all week. "Wasn't that the point of coming home this weekend?"

"You worry too much, Auntie Nik," Chris scoffed, having already sussed that out about her aunt; Nikki's greatest fear was of letting other people down. "My classes this term've been absolute skoosh. A quick once over and I'll do great," the teen assured her.

"Just try to open a book on the train, yeah?" This prompted a hearty laugh from Chris who knew that was unlikely.

"So, how long's the trip?" Helen asked.

"Oh, this high speed train's brill, not even an hour. I'll be in in plenty of time for tea." Chris was looking around the station as though seeking someone out. Nikki could not fail to notice.

"Our company not engaging enough?" she ribbed her niece.

"What? Oh, I'm just looking for a girl from the team. We usually travel together." Chris's eyes kept darting around. Moments later a cute teenager a little older than Chris with mocha skin and cornrows came around the corner. Chris's eyes lit up while Helen's sought out Nikki's. "There she is. Oi, Ken! Over here!" she called out effectively gaining the other girl's attention. Cautiously the new arrival approached, eyes wary. "Ken, these are my aunts I told you about: Nikki Wade and Helen Stewart. And this is Kendra Todeila. She's our sweeper."

"Nice to meet you, Miss Wade, Miss Stewart," Kendra offered politely, shaking their hands.

"Call me Helen." She got enough of the 'Miss Stewart' at work.

Nikki, as wary as Kendra had been when she had approached, regarded Chris's friend through narrowed eyes. She finally said, "And I'm Nikki." She checked her watch. "All right, it's going on half four. We haven't much time to get you two onto the platform, so we should go." The foursome stood and strolled down to the trains, the two older ones watching the younger as they boarded giggling, already off in their own little world.

"Oh, yeah, they'll be gettin' a load of studying done on the train," Helen pronounced, laughing. She was rewarded with a glare from her partner, which only served to elicit more laughter.

A quick stop at Tesco's and the women arrived back in Maida Vale shortly before six o'clock. Though the day had not been especially cold for mid-December, it held that dampness that could penetrate bones. Nikki suggested they take a bath, as much for its ability to soothe the emotions as anything else; she knew what a trying weekend this had been for Helen, facing her mother's ghost and her own feelings about Christmas. Nikki poured them each a glass of wine and joined Helen in the bathroom where the diminutive Scot was filling the large footed tub. Placing the wine beside the bathtub, Nikki reached under the sink, pulling out a small gift bag. "One last surprise..." she admitted, handing over the bag.

Helen, unsure if she could take anything more, opened it nonetheless, reaching inside and finding a clear, decorative, wide-mouthed jar tied with red and green ribbon, its contents opaque crystals with a small wooden scoop. She looked quizzically at Nikki, who was standing by anxiously, before snapping open the jar's lid. Helen was struck immediately by the subtle scents of lavender and vanilla, the exact fragrance of the bath salts she had never got to give her mother.

Tears welled up in Helen's eyes and Nikki despaired that she had pushed her too hard. All she was endeavouring to do was to help Helen reclaim Christmas, but thought that this last gift may have been too much on top of everything else. The love she saw in her partner's eyes assured her that it was not. Almost dreamily Helen asked, "You know how a smell can take you back to another time, another place?" Nikki nodded her head. "I'd've thought this one would be more painful, back to my mother's death, but it's not, well, not entirely. It reminds me of her but of the good times too, of her life." Helen scooped out some of the aromatic salts and added them to the bath water. She looked gratefully up at Nikki. "Did you make these yourself?"

"That obvious, is it?" Nikki tried successfully to lighten the atmosphere. She smiled sheepishly.

Helen smiled, "No, I just...I mean, that's a lot o' work."

Nikki trailed her thumb down Helen's cheek. "Worth it, though." The women shared a gentle kiss. "Come on, let's climb in." Taking a moment to light some candles and turn off the overhead light, they cast off their clothes and got in slowly, acclimating themselves to the hot water.

As Helen reclined against Nikki, she reflected back on every thoughtful thing her gorgeous, attentive partner had done in her efforts to restore Helen's enjoyment of Christmas. "God, you're amazing. How'd I ever get so lucky?" She turned to look at Nikki.

Waggling her dark eyebrows, Nikki asked, "You wanna get lucky?" all the while understanding that Helen's fragile emotional state would likely preclude that.

Soaking in the hot bath brought Helen's exhaustion to the fore and she gently declined Nikki's offer. "Not that you don't deserve a huge reward," she smiled, "but tomorrow night... Hmm, the French maid and the stable hand, maybe?"

"So worth it," Nikki reiterated, leaning down to capture Helen's mouth with her own, delivering a preview of what would be on offer the following night.

Part 11

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