DISCLAIMER: Much to my chagrin, I don't own any of these characters. Property of SHED Productions.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Just a little feel-good Christmas story.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
When the familiar figure of the guard walked by, Nikki quickly tossed her book on the bed and stood up from the bunk. Poking her head out the door, she called out, "Mr. McAllister." The young man turned at his name. "Can I have a word?"
They entered the cell and he asked, "What's up?"
The con paced about for a minute then said, "Before I get to that, I want you to promise me, even if the answer is 'no,' that this stays between us."
McAllister frowned. "I'm not sure I'm keen on making any promises about something you think I might have to say 'no' to."
"Please?" she asked plaintively. "Please, Dom."
The use of his Christian name made him narrow his eyes, but he shrugged. "Yeah, all right. Whatever it is stays between us, I promise. Now, what is it?"
"You're working Christmas Eve, yeah?"
"Yeah. Wait- how did you know?"
Nikki smiled. "The two Julies said there would be one bright spot to the holiday."
Dominic couldn't help but smile in return. "I'm glad it made someone happy."
"Anyway," the woman carefully continued, "I've a favour to ask."
"I thought as much. Go on, ask."
"You're mad!" the guard exclaimed after listening to Nikki outline her idea. "Absolutely stark raving mad!" He lowered his voice. "I could lose my job over this if I'm found out, you know."
"You won't get found out. It's not like I'm going to dob you in, is it? It's a skeleton crew on guard for the night, innit?" McAllister grudgingly nodded. "Right," she went on, "so it's you and the other guard. No one will find out." She looked at the young man square in the face. "I promise, Dominic."
He looked anywhere but in her eyes, and shuffled his feet as if it jumpstarted his thinking. "You're mad," he repeated, but this time with less surprise and more with something that resembled admiration.
Nikki knew she had him. "So you'll do it?"
He knew just as she did that she had him, but he wasn't about to give her the immediate satisfaction. "I'll have to think about it." Her face fell and he held up a hand. "I've got to think this through. For you and me both, yeah?"
"All right. I'll let you know in a few days."
As he left the room, Nikki dropped down into the nearby chair and sighed. Then a slow smile crept across her face. The hardest bit was over.
She climbed the metal stairs to Enhanced and immediately saw the imposing image of mob wife, Yvonne Atkins.
"Oi, Nikki! Coming up to pay your respect?"
Nikki rolled her eyes. "The day I kiss your ring is the same day I kiss Dockley's arse, Yvonne."
The two friends laughed, and Nikki took up residence beside the older woman who was leaning against the railing and watching the mundane events of prison life unfold beneath her feet. A small group started an impromptu version of "Jingle Bells".
"So," Yvonne said, "any plans for the holidays?"
"Oh, you know how it is. The Alps. Again," Nikki replied with a dramatic sigh.
"Life's tough all over, innit?"
"If Santa could bring you one thing, what would it be?"
Yvonne shrugged. "You mean besides the golden key out of this shithole?" She gave it some thought before admitting, "I suppose it'll sound daft, but I could kill -figuratively speaking, of course- for a proper Sunday dinner."
"You mean like roast beef with all the trimmings?"
"Yeah. Don't get me wrong. I wouldn't mind a damn good shag, but it's funny how it's the little things you miss the most." The women were quiet for a moment, then Yvonne asked, "How about you, Nik? You could have your pick of shags in here, good or not, so that can't be what you miss. A good coffee? Bad telly?"
"I miss music," she replied honestly.
"Ah, one of the perks you miss from being on Enhanced."
Nikki shook her head. "No, I don't think so. I never had a radio when I was on Enhanced. I suppose I didn't want a reminder that life was going on while I was banged up in here."
"And now," she looked below them, "now I want to hear a Christmas carol not mangled by the Larkhall bloody Tabernacle Choir."
Yvonne laughed and facetiously suggested, "I'm sure we could get Crystal to learn something other than 'Kumbaya'."
"That would be a Christmas miracle." She turned to look at the mob wife. "If I wanted a radio, how much would it cost?"
"To get one in here. How much?"
The woman scowled. "Piss off, would you? If you want one, I'll get you one, but don't insult me by trying to pay for it." When she saw Nikki's look of confusion, she went on, "You're a good mate of mine, right? The best one I got in here- hell, probably the best one I got out of here, too. You've never once asked me for anything. Now you have. So it must mean something to you. So if I can do one thing for a mate..."
The words deeply touched Nikki, and the tall brunette enveloped the older woman in a heartfelt embrace. "Thanks, Yvonne."
Atkins returned the gesture with warmth then stepped back. "Yeah, well, don't get any ideas. I'd do just about anything for you." She emphasized the word 'just'.
Narrowing her eyes suggestively, Nikki whispered, "Come on. Not even a quick snog under the mistletoe?" Yvonne's face said it all, and Nikki burst out laughing. "Another Christmas wish shot down."
Yvonne shook her head. "Go on. Get lost. I've got to phone my daughter... and work on getting that image out of my head."
There was nothing to do but wait, and two days before Christmas, it all came together. McAllister had been putting off telling Nikki he was in on her plan, not because it was a difficult favour to grant, but because he didn't want to let her know how easy it was to talk him into something. Especially when it came to Helen Stewart. But he had dragged it out long enough and decided to let the prisoner off the hook. He pulled her aside at breakfast.
"There's a room two down from the infirmary that's being renovated. During clean up after tea tomorrow, I'll come by your cell. If anyone asks, you're feeling poorly." That was all he said before walking away.
For Nikki, that was all he needed to say.
Though studying for an upcoming exam was the last thing on her mind, Nikki put her nose to her book in an effort to not think about the next day. This was how Yvonne found her when she sauntered into the cell.
"Library girl," Atkins said by way of greeting. "I've got a little something for you." Reaching into her coat pocket, she pulled out a small black box. "The Christmas gift I promised you. Bet you thought I forgot."
Nikki stood up from the table and took the radio from Yvonne's outstretched hand. "No, I just thought you were losing your touch. I mean, really, almost two weeks?"
The woman looked like she had just been slapped. "It is Christmas. You should expect delays in shipping." She softened her retort with a smile. "And stop winding me up, or you won't get these." From her other pocket, she pulled out two batteries. "I've got something else you can use those for, you know."
Nikki groaned and rolled her eyes. "You're incorrigible. But thanks."
"Happy Christmas, love," she winked. "And don't let that bastard Fenner find it." As she was leaving, she bumped into the two Julies. "Hello, girls."
"Hey, Yvonne," they replied in unison.
"Where the bloody hell did you get those?"
Julie J playfully batted the furry ball on her Santa hat. "Made 'em in the sewing room."
"You want one?" the shorter Julie S asked.
"Only if it's on top of a nice young stud," Atkins replied. "See you, girls."
"Don't you two look adorable," Nikki admired.
"Gotta bring some Christmas cheer to this place, don't we? And speakin' of cheer "
" yeah, speakin' of cheer."
"We brought a little cheer for you."
Cautiously taking the small box from Julie S, Nikki inquired, "Should I ask what it is, first?"
"No, silly," Julie S replied. "You're supposed to open it!"
Nikki sat on the edge of her bed to shield her activities. There were too many prying eyes in a prison to not be careful. Pulling back the wrap and opening the box, she saw three little bottles hidden in the tissue paper. They looked suspiciously like the tiny bottles one would get on an airplane. Trying not to look a gift horse in the mouth, she carefully asked, "Is this the stuff you two made last year?"
The two Julies frowned in confusion, then as one made a face. "You mean the wine? Bloody hell, no! That was absolute shite," the tall Julie groaned.
"No, this stuff, we got from Yvonne," Julie S explained.
"She's a right Santa Claus, int she?" Nikki remarked. Tilting her head, she asked, "Don't get me wrong; I appreciate the gesture, but why?"
"Aw, go on, Nik," Julie J said. "Who's the first one there when someone needs help?"
Her cellmate piped up and nudged Nikki. "You."
"No matter how barmy our schemes are, who's there to give us a hand?"
"When we don't know where else to turn, who saves the day?"
"All right, all right," Nikki interrupted, clearly embarrassed. "You're going to give me a big head."
"Hopefully, those'll give you a bit of a light head, right Jules?" her friend quipped.
"You got it in one, Jules."
Nikki picked up on of the small bottles and handed it to the women. "You know I'd normally give you one each, but I think I'll be needing the other two myself."
"Ah, you're a sweetheart, Nikki," Julie J declared as she put the bottle in her pocket.
"We'll raise it in your honour tomorrow night."
Nikki stood up and embraced the two women. "I'll do the same for you."
Time was the one commodity every prisoner had in abundance, and it was usually spent counting it down- how long to the appeal, to the end of the sentence, to the next visit from a loved one, to the next phone call, to the next day pizza was being served. For Nikki, on this day, time stretched out like an infinite horizon between breakfast and tea.
Ironically, it was Helen Stewart who pointed out the edginess of the lifer. Nikki had hoped to lose herself in a book and in the solitude of the prison library, but wasn't having much luck.
"You're a bit jumpy," Stewart noted when she walked in.
"Jesus!" Nikki exclaimed. "I am when you sneak up on me like that!"
Helen conceded the point and sat down beside Nikki. "Be that as it may, I saw you at breakfast this morning and you seemed a bit edgy. Something up, or is this some carry over from your childhood?"
"Christmas Eve. I bet you were one of those children who drove their parents mad because you wouldn't go to bed."
Nikki smiled at the memory. "In those early days, yeah. How about you? Did you leave milk and cookies out?"
"In those early days, yeah," Helen echoed. "Then my mum died, and, well..."
Nikki reached over and covered Helen's hand with her own. Then a thought occurred to her. "You're not going home for Christmas?" It was the one thing in her grand plan she hadn't taken into consideration. Most of the prison officers and officials had booked holidays. She hadn't given thought that Helen might do the same. It was only because the woman was sitting right in front of her, the day before Christmas, that Nikki realized how lucky she was.
"I was going to go," the Scot replied, "but my dad's feeling poorly. And in typical Scottish fashion, he wants to tough it out himself. 'No sense givin' ya the illness, lass'," she mimicked in a thick brogue.
Despite the benefits to her, Nikki was genuine in her apology. "I'm sorry to hear that. I hope he gets better soon. Families should be together on the holidays."
Helen looked away. "Yes, well. I'm going to go up next weekend and see him."
There was something in her voice that hinted at a larger story, but Nikki decided not to push. Instead, she asked, "So what will you do for Christmas?"
The woman brightened up noticeably. "Claire is from an enormous brood, and I've known them for years. I've been invited to share it with them, so that's what I'll be doing."
"That sounds nice."
Helen placed her free hand on top of Nikki's, holding the brunette's between her own. "I was just about to ask you what you'll be doing."
"Then you realized where I am."
Shaking her head in slight amazement, she admitted, "Sometimes, when I'm with you... I forget everything else."
"So do I." Though she knew Helen frowned on displays of affection-the fear of getting caught always present- Nikki leaned forward and placed a soft kiss on Helen's cheek.
Helen smiled and stroked Nikki's cheek with the back of her hand. "Do you find it difficult? Holidays in prison, I mean?"
"No more difficult than any other day in here, I suppose," she shrugged. "For the women who have children and families, I think it's quite difficult."
The sound of the door knob turning made them hastily pull away. A prisoner came in and silently greeted them both with a smile, then walked over to the bookshelf. With her back to the two women, they were able to share a final look between them before Helen said, "I've got to go."
Slightly alarmed, Nikki asked, "Are you leaving for the day?"
"No," Helen answered as she stood up. "I just mean I've got some things I need to take care of before I go home." Looking down at Nikki, she tilted her head. "You sure you're okay?"
"Yeah," she nodded. "I mean, yes, miss."
The sly grin and wink was enough to get an eye roll and chuckle from Helen. "I'll stop by your cell later on to finish that matter we were discussing." With her hand on the door knob, she gave Nikki a wink of her own before exiting, leaving behind a prisoner who was confused, curious and pleased in equal measure.
It was in the controlled chaos of supper clean up that Dominic knocked on Nikki's cell door.
"Quick," he ordered.
Startled, Barbara asked her cellmate, "What's going on, Nikki?"
"Nothing to worry about, Barbara," she replied. "I'll explain it all when I get back. If anyone asks, I'm not feeling well and I've gone to the infirmary."
Though confused, the older woman nodded her head, "All right."
As they marched double-time through the first set of locked doors, McAllister flatly remarked, "You'll tell her?"
"I'll tell her something," Nikki said. "Don't worry, Dom. I promised you wouldn't get found out and I meant it."
"I still can't believe I'm doing this."
"Must be the Christmas spirit."
He caught her sidelong look and chuckled despite himself. "Must be something."
They made their way through the maze of hallways and locks until they were in the bowels of the old prison. A small sign at the end of one hall in particular indicated a left turn to the infirmary. Dominic took a right and, quickly looking over both shoulders, unlocked a bleak grey door.
"I should have left bread crumbs," the prisoner quipped as they entered the dark room.
"I'll be back for you shortly before lockup."
"What time is it now?"
The guard pushed aside the cuff of his left wrist. "Just before six. You've got almost two hours, depending on when she shows up." Even in the dimness of the room, he could see the sheepish look on Nikki's face. "I see. You need me to send her down. Should I get a band to play some music as well?"
Nikki pulled out the small radio from her pocket. "No, I've got that covered."
He saw the contraband and sighed. "Christ, in for a penny, eh, Nikki?" Shaking his head, he reached into his own pocket and held out a small pack of matches. "You might need these for the candles I was kind enough to scratch up for you. They're the prison emergency candles, but the lights here don't work and when I close the door it's going to get dark fairly quickly."
"Thanks, Dominic," was all she could say.
"Yeah, well, thank me tomorrow when I'm not running the risk of bricking it."
"Can I ask you a question?"
"I can't see one more doing much harm."
"Why? I mean, why did you help me?"
He looked down at his boots and smiled. "Because while you may be the biggest pain in the arse, you're all right, Nikki." He was sure he could see the red tinge on her cheeks despite the darkness. "The women respect and admire you. And while I don't necessarily understand what's going on between you and Helen let alone agree with it, she feels the same as they do."
"And you respect and admire Helen."
"I won't deny it," he admitted. "If it's going to make her happy, I'm willing to help. But don't sell yourself short, Nikki. You deserve a bit of happiness, too." She wanted to hug him and he seemed to sense it because he held up a hand and said, "Don't even think about it. Knowing my luck, that's exactly when we'd get caught out."
The two shared a laugh then he pulled the door open. "Enjoy the moment, Nikki."
"Oh, hello Barbara," Helen greeted as she stood in the doorway. She looked around as if someone could actually hide in the small room. "Have you seen Nikki?"
Looking up from her diary and turning in her chair, the older woman pulled down her glasses and replied, "Hello, Miss Stewart. I believe she's gone to the infirmary." When she saw the slight expression of alarm on Helen's face, she quickly added, "She told me she was feeling poorly. Perhaps it was something she ate?"
"I see. I wanted to speak with her about something, but it can keep." As Barbara returned her attention to her book, Helen discreetly slipped a small package underneath Nikki's pillow. "Tell her I stopped by. And happy Christmas, Barbara."
Barbara looked up again, this time with a genuine smile on her face. "Thank you, Miss Stewart. And you as well."
Outside the cell, Helen gave pause. Changing her direction, she headed towards the infirmary.
A sharp meeting between shin and table leg, and several expletives later, Nikki patted around the table top and found one of the candles Dominic had left behind. The sharp smell of sulphur followed the bright spark of the match and she carefully lit the wick, allowing a small drop of wax onto the table before pressing the candle on top in an effort to prevent it from falling over. She lit the remaining two candles and did the same, bringing a warm glow to the abandoned room. Looking around, she noticed the infirmary must have originally used the room for storage, but now it was a drop-off receptacle for just about any little unused item. Chairs, two tables, several book cases and, of all things, a gurney. Even with the candle light, it was difficult to see anything of detail, but after a few moments of tinkering with the underneath of the portable bed, she was able to lower it to a more reasonable seating height. Two small plastic cups were pulled out of her other pocket as well as the tiny bottles of wine. She couldn't help but smile and silently thank the two Julies. The radio was set up on one of the bookshelves, and she stepped back to admire her handiwork.
And her expression fell.
"What am I doing?" she whispered, suddenly unsure of herself and the moment. "This is pitiful. A fucking storage room with cheap wine and emergency candles. What have I done?"
The self-berating would have continued had she not heard the clanging of the metal door down the hall echo along the corridor. She ventured a quick look, and as the recognizable presence of Helen turned the corner, Nikki quietly called out her name.
Hearing her own name nearly made her trip over her feet, and whipping around at the call, she stood frozen at the sight of Nikki Wade peering out from the dark room.
"Jesus Christ!" She quickly covered her mouth and looked to see if there was anyone else around. Walking slowly towards the door, she fiercely whispered, "What you doing?" Nikki gently pulled her inside and closed the door behind them. As her eyes adjusted to the change in light, she saw the table with the candles and the small wine bottles, and heard the soft strains of a Christmas carol. With a deep breath and more clarity, she asked again, "What are you doing?"
Whether unaware of Helen's tone or choosing to ignore it, Nikki remarked, "For a while there, I wondered if McAllister had changed his mind about sending you down."
"McAllister?" she echoed. "Dominic McAllister? Sending me down? I spoke with Barbara who told me you were feeling poorly and left for the infirmary." She closed her eyes and presses her fingertips to her forehead. When she opened them again, the scene was just the same, despite her wishing otherwise. "I can't be here." In a louder tone of sheer disbelief, she added, "You can't be here! Nikki, what have you done? Dominic could lose his job if he's found out."
"He won't because he won't."
"How can you be sure?"
Nikki snorted. "Because only you and me know. And I don't see you running to Betts to grass on Dom. But whatever, yeah? Go. He said he'd be back for me before lock-up."
"I don't understand."
"What don't you understand?"
Helen uttered a mirthless laugh, as if she didn't know where to begin. "Well, for starters, I don't understand why Dominic would do it. And I don't understand why you would, either."
Nikki crossed her arms defensively in front of her. "He did it because underneath all those stringent rules and regulations is a half decent bloke. And I did it because because it's bloody Christmas Eve, Helen! A time when family and loved ones should be together. And this is all I have to give you."
Helen saw the brunette wipe away a tear with the back of her hand and her heart melted. "Sweetheart "
"Next time I'll make you a card in the art room and write a nice little sentiment in it- 'Please accept these phone cards as a token of my love'."
The Scot couldn't help but smile. Reaching out to touch Nikki's arm, she said, "Oh, sweetheart they wouldn't do me any good without you having a phone where I could reach you."
With a look of utter bewilderment on her face, Nikki looked at Helen, whose expression was so unreadable that it took the prisoner a moment to realize the woman was joking. She let out a short cough that was part relief, part humour.
"I know it's not much," she acknowledged as she gestured towards the table. "In fact, just before you showed up, I was thinking of how incredibly pitiful it was, quite frankly."
"I suppose there's a reason people say 'it's the thought that counts'."
Nikki smiled. "Yeah, I suppose so." She made the few steps to the table and broke the seal of one of the wine bottles, pouring half in one cup and the rest in another. Handing one to Helen, she said, "To us. To better times."
Helen took the cup and raised it. "To us. To now." They each took a sip of their drink and Helen pressed her lips together appreciatively. "Not bad, actually. Should I ask you where you got this?"
"Yvonne brought it in for the two Julies who wanted to give me something nice for Christmas."
"Aw, that's sweet. They adore you, you know."
She shrugged away the compliment. "I'm sorry I don't have anything to give you."
"A heart attack is plenty, thank you," she teased. "If I could give you something, what would you like?" Nikki's eyebrows automatically mischievously went up. "Besides that," Helen laughed.
"That's all right," Nikki replied. "I was only joking anyway. Because when I first make love to you, I want it in a nice warm bed so I can take my time; not a quick shag in a dingy little room." Her eyes dropped to Helen's lips when she saw her mouth open slightly. Her own mouth mirrored the subconscious gesture and after a moment, she realized she hadn't answered Helen's question. "What would I ask of you? A dance. A kiss. An embrace. A promise. I don't know. Any of those. All of those."
Helen put down her cup and gently took Nikki's from her. "I see you brought the music. Let's see if we can't start with the first one on your list." She stood in front of Nikki and confessed, "I'm at a bit of a loss. I've never danced with a woman."
Nikki lifted the shorter woman's arms around her neck. "I'm taller. I get to lead."
"Oh, and that has nothing to do with your bossy nature at all?"
"Shh," Helen admonished. "I can't hear the music."
They sat side-by-side on the lowered gurney, arms around each other, pressed together. Helen nuzzled Nikki's throat before brushing her mouth across Nikki's lips. The lifer's mouth opened to invite the kiss, and as it deepened, their arms pulled each other ever closer.
"Who needs mistletoe, eh?" Nikki whispered.
"That's three off your list."
"A dance. An embrace. A kiss." She punctuated the items with an additional kiss.
"Mmmm. I should have made a longer list." As Helen continued to let her mouth and hands roam, Nikki noted, "I just realized- I didn't ask for your list."
"What list?" Helen murmured into Nikki's ear.
"The 'If I could give you something, what would you like?' list."
"Ah, that one." She pulled back slightly. "I don't know. You're so concise and mine seems a bit frivolous." Nikki's expression urged her to continue. "Let's see. A cabin. A snowstorm. A fire. A rug. A naked you."
Chuckling, Nikki rewarded her with another kiss. "Well done. And should I get out of here while I still have a body you want to see naked, I promise to fulfill your list."
Helen raised an eyebrow. "Including the snowstorm?"
"Including the snowstorm. I figure the Big Guy upstairs owes me one or two favours."
"Oh, Nikki," she whispered sadly.
The con tilted Helen's chin up. "What is it, sweetheart?"
"This is the best Christmas Eve I can remember."
"Yeah, right," Nikki snorted. "You've been dreaming about this for ages, have you?"
"Dreaming about spending time alone with you? Yes." She saw Nikki make a face and held the woman's chin in her hand. "I don't care about the rest. The wine, the music, the candles- Christ, I've almost forgotten about the room we're in and what it means. It's just you and me. Our first Christmas Eve together."
Nikki kissed her fiercely. Amid the tears, she vowed, "The first of many. You have my word."
"And you have mine, Nikki," Helen promised, fulfilling the last item on Nikki's list.
With a guard at her side, Nikki had little trouble returning to her cell. Dominic hadn't asked how things went, and his only indication that they were doing something that would have disastrous results if they were caught was to make sure the candles and wax were cleaned up and disposed well away from the room. It wasn't until they got to the cell that the guard spoke. Stopping her at the door, he quietly said, "Happy Christmas, Nikki."
"And you as well, Dominic." She wasn't sure how or if she could ever repay him for what he had done. He must have sensed this, because he simply smiled and nodded before walking away.
Barbara was at the sink getting ready for bed, and as she dabbed a towel on her face, she greeted her cellmate. "Hello, Nikki. Feeling better?"
"Much, thank you, Barbara."
"By the way, Miss Stewart was in earlier." As it turned out, Helen hadn't been as discreet as she thought, because Barbara added, "She left something for you on the bed." The older woman walked up to Nikki and warmly kissed her on the cheek. "Happy Christmas, Nikki."
Reaching out to hug her, Nikki returned the sentiment. "You, too, Barbara."
She helped Barbara to the top bunk, then washed up at the sink and stripped down to change into her bed clothes. It was a test of willpower to not immediately grab for the small package tucked under her pillow. Finally, with nothing left to do, she slipped under her thin blanket and uncovered the gift. A shout of "Lights out!" echoed throughout the metal and concrete prison, but by the light shining through the barred window, she was able to carefully pull away the decorative paper and reveal the contents inside. Two thick books. Smiling, Nikki opened the cover of the first one and saw an inscription in Helen's familiar handwriting.
Not much of a gift, I know, but it's all I can give you for now. Our first Christmas- the first of many, I promise.
She didn't know whether to laugh or cry at the synchronicity of the words. When a voice above her asked if it was going to be a good Christmas, Nikki decided to laugh.
"It's going to be a bloody fantastic Christmas, Barbara."
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