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 lumar12[at]telus.net

The Potting Shed
By Christie


Part Sixty-One

Following the exquisite meal Nikki prepared for them Friday evening, she and Trisha had a couple hours which they used to get reacquainted. Despite the restrictions imposed upon Nikki, it almost seemed that her experiences had left her more changed than Trisha to whom the entire world had been available. Nikki had gained an education – her EMBA was to be completed within six weeks, she had nurtured a small business into a success, and she had grown in innumerable ways through her volunteer work and anger management programme. Moreover, through her associations with Helen and Teatra, as well as her own personal experience offering her 'Sod U' seminars at Larkhall, she had garnered a vast expanse of knowledge of the inner workings of the British Prison Service. Nikki was equally aware that emotionally she had grown in enormous, if indefinable, ways. Trisha had opened a new nightclub leaving her very little time for much personal growth. Nikki expected that this would make falling back in with her former partner a relatively effortless transition, that she would get past this feeling that she was trying to stuff a square peg into a round hole. In time, she predicted, the pieces would fit again.

Owing to completely dissimilar working schedules, the two women did not see each other on Saturday but spent a very pleasant Sunday afternoon together. Torrential rains pounded Nikki's Shogun as she drove to Trisha's, the flat in Soho they used to share. They had chosen the Admiral Duncan for lunch. The pub had just been fully rebuilt following the nail bombing which had killed three people eighteen months before. Despite the weather after lunch they walked the fifteen minutes to the Lyceum Theatre at Wellington Street for a half past two performance of The Lion King. Though not an enthusiast of live theatre, and a children's show at that, Trisha thought, she had submitted to Nikki's desire to see the performance. Because of the continuing popularity of the show, decent tickets had been unavailable through the booking office; the best they had on offer were in the last row of the dress circle. Nikki managed to find tickets, for almost double their value, through a ticket tout. She was in no way disappointed with what he had on offer, however, as the two women found themselves in row G on the aisle where Nikki was able to stretch out her long legs.

To their dismay the rain had grown heavier while they were inside, so it was with great haste and no conversation that they made their way back to the flat. Their umbrella had not been sufficient to keep them dry and they found their trousers and shirt sleeves soaked through. Trisha announced that she was going to change her clothes and demanded Nikki's so she could put them in the dryer. "You're not sitting on my couch in soaking wet clothes! I'll find you something to wear," Trisha insisted. Unselfconsciously, or in a deliberate attempt to provoke a reaction - Nikki was unsure which - the blonde began to remove her clothes. Taking the clothes Trisha had found for her, Nikki made her way into the bathroom to change. Once she had emerged from the bathroom, she was met with a goading, "Nothing I haven't seen before, Nik." While this was technically true, it had been three years and, as fit and hale as Nikki was, she worried that things may have shifted over time. Beyond that, and the reason Nikki had chosen to come to Soho instead of spending their day near Crouch End, she was not ready to be naked with Trisha, she euphemised. Yet, she posited. Sensing Nikki's discomfiture, Trisha nonetheless caught hold of her and boldly drew her in for a deep, sensuous kiss. For Trisha it was like coming home as their tongues battled familiarly, teasingly. She breathed in the unique scents which were Nikki and found her hands instinctively working their way under the utilitarian top she had chosen to lend her ex. Trisha was leading them towards the bed. Having anticipated this move as inevitable, Nikki did her best to give in to her own primal needs, almost devouring Trisha's mouth with her own as she crushed the brazen blonde to her. While this was not necessarily where Nikki wanted to be, it was, still and all, where she found herself. Her weak-willed body was quick to respond to Trisha's ministrations. It was with some difficulty, then, that she pulled herself away from the licentious embrace.

Still breathing hard, Nikki proclaimed with no small measure of regret, "No, Trish, it's too soon." She had promised herself that she would wait at least until her sentence no longer hung over her. "I'm sorry."

Recognising the veiled promise in Nikki's words, Trisha was undeterred. "It's okay, Nik. I understand. It's only, well... I've been wanting to do that since Friday," she confessed, her voice heavy with lust. "It's just... you look so bleedin' sexy in that tracksuit," she leered melodramatically, lightening the atmosphere. "Let's see what we can scare up for tea."

Monday dawned cool and wet with a forecast high of only eleven degrees. A perfect day to work on Christmas promotions, Nikki thought. She had too much going on in her head, however, and had found herself distracted much of the day. Her thoughts bounced from her previous evening with Trisha and the direction it might easily have taken, to concern for Helen on this, her first day without employment, but unavoidably they kept coming back to her own fears regarding her appeal. After three years Nikki had finally begun to accept her designation as con, soon to be ex-con. She was having difficulty reconciling that view of herself with the possibility that she could be exculpated as early as Thursday. It was surreal to think that these past three years - during which she evolved more as a person than she ever had previously - could soon be as good as erased. She was almost unsure if she even wanted to repudiate them given how significantly they had shaped her. She knew that it was only a bit of legal footwork which would serve to simplify her life by removing an enormous blemish, the stigma of convicted killer, from her record. She chose to view the fundamental, positive changes within her as her compensation for the original miscarriage of justice. Those metamorphoses she would carry with her for a lifetime. While she had not met Helen through the Prison Service, Nikki believed that the sultry Scot had come into her life as her means to getting an in depth look at the inner workings of Her Majesty's Prisons, a view of how differently things could have gone for her. Nikki had developed a real kinship with inmates she had hardly met except peripherally in the sterile environment of her 'Sod U' seminars.

Nikki's day seemed to fly by in a daze of philosophical and psychological introspection. By the time she left for her meeting with Claire, she was almost grateful for the experiences she had gained as a tagged prisoner. That being said, she was desperate for justice to be done, for her conviction to be overturned so she could use her newfound knowledge in the real world. She even laughed as she wondered how Her Majesty's Prisons might react if she were to apply for Officer's Training. But, no, that would never be her place, she decided. Her activism would always come from the outside. Her letter about Femi Bada was only the beginning. She optimistically arrived home for her meeting with her solicitor.

Truth be told Nikki's entire week went by very quickly and before she knew it, she was entering the Royal Courts of Justice and finally meeting her barrister, Marion McLaughlin, a deceptively small woman with a warrior's determination. In her cultured Scot's accent she assured Nikki of her hopefulness. And small Scottish women never let you down, Nikki thought uncharitably despite the confidence Marion exuded.

Marion first called forth the witness most crucial to their appeal, the drink-driving jury foreman who had no difficulty acknowledging his part in Nikki's conviction. An alcoholic, he had been stopped for being drunk in charge of a vehicle during the original trial but let off without so much as a warning under the proviso that he would slant the jury against the accused. He complied to keep himself from being thrown in prison, but stood before the court that day thanks in no small part to the twelve-step programme in which he was enrolled. This was his opportunity to make amends to the one person he had wronged above all others. He looked Nikki directly in the eye and apologised for having taken three years of her life from her. Closing her eyes, she nodded her head almost imperceptibly in acceptance of his plea.

Almost transported back in time, Trisha sat in the witness room while several other of Nikki's friends offered the appellant their support from the gallery overlooking the court proceedings. Marion recalled some of the witnesses who had given testimony at Nikki's first trial. The most salient evidence for Nikki's defence was put forth by Sally Ann Howe, DC Gossard's one-time colleague and rape victim. Her testimony had been cut short by the judge who had presided over Nikki's first trial and Marion had fought for her to be given this second opportunity to speak. Despite the Crown Prosecutor's best efforts, Sally Ann's testimony could not be shaken.

Because Marion was arguing that Nikki acted in Defence of Another when she took the life of DC Gossard, Trisha, as the 'Other' in question, was able to be recalled as a witness. It was late in the day when she was finally called upon to give testimony, forced to relive the night Gossard had attempted to rape her. A silent tear escaped Nikki's eye as she again listened to Trisha's account of the terror and helplessness that her then partner had suffered at the hands of one sworn to serve and protect. Over the previous three years, even though she had prevented the rape, Nikki had castigated herself for not being able to safeguard Trisha against that nightmare. Trisha was well pleased to have been called as a witness before Nikki so she would be able to offer her support from the gallery when Nikki's time came.

Further proof of how much Nikki had changed over the previous three years was offered during this appeal when her barrister chose to call upon her to give evidence on her own behalf. In her first trial she was deemed too volatile and unpredictable; there was never any way of knowing what her reactions and responses would be to any attacks brought forth by the Crown Prosecutor. This time around Nikki was more mature and moderate. Marion led her gently to begin with, allowing Nikki to cut her teeth on some fairly superficial issues before getting into the heart of her testimony. Nikki took the court on a vivid journey through her mental state and her actions on the night she discovered Trisha being assaulted by Gossard. Though obviously emotional, she spoke clearly and succinctly, never losing her temper even under vicious cross examination by the Crown Prosecutor. She explained how she had arrived at the nightclub to collect Trisha, how she discovered Gossard all over her, pressing her up against the bar, threatening her. Nikki explained how initially she had called out to the police detective, warning him verbally. When he refused to stop she tried to physically pull him off Trisha but he was much stronger than Nikki and easily pushed her off him and into the bar. Nikki grabbed whatever was to hand – a beer bottle – and hit him over the head with it, breaking the bottle, expecting him to come to his senses. He laughed at her as he worked at forcing Trisha's trousers down. Nikki explained that, in a last ditch effort to protect her partner, she resorted to plunging the bottle into Gossard's neck. "We rang 999 and desperately worked to stanch the bleeding, but the gash was too deep. I could tell he was losing too much blood." Quietly she added, "If he'd've just let her go..."

Marion's closing was strong. "Nikki Wade's nonviolent attempts to protect her partner were met with derision and increasing depredation. She reacted in the only manner left available to her and consequently a man died, but DC Gossard's own conduct in this matter must be adequately emphasised; had Miss Wade not acted against him, DC Gossard would have continued his assault and succeeded in raping Miss Wade's partner. If I might remind Your Lordships that the judge who presided over Miss Wade's original trial must have accorded merit to her defence to have refrained from bestowing upon her a custodial sentence. Instead, despite a conviction of manslaughter – a conviction which has now been discovered to have been the result of jury tampering – His Lordship sentenced Miss Wade to a precedent-setting three years' electronic tagging. We therefore submit her conviction to be unsafe. In light of all this new evidence, counsel for the Appellant implores Your Lordships to uphold this appeal and abrogate Nikki Wade's conviction." Counsel for the Crown offered their closing and court was adjourned to allow the three appellate judges to discuss the case and deliberate Nikki's fate. Court was set to resume Friday afternoon.


Part Sixty-Two

For the first time in her working life Helen woke up Monday morning with no job to which to go. She had spent a lot of time contemplating her two years at Larkhall and had come to realise that, much as she wanted to improve living conditions for inmates, the emotional toll that the day-to-day banging her head against the old system was taking on her was overwhelming. Though the thought of Fenner being the reason for her leaving made her furious, she knew that she would not have lasted much more than another year in that place without burning out. That Fenner remained in the service made her more determined than ever to pursue her path as prisoners' advocate but with a more hands-off approach. Thinking about Denny Blood, Rachel Hicks and even Shell Dockley, as well as all the other young inmates who might have stood a chance if they had had better services available to them as young or juvenile offenders, she realised that possibly the path of their lives could potentially have been smoothed out before it was too late. It was most certainly too late for Rachel, and Denny - once recaptured - would likely be in and out of prison for the rest of her life.

Helen had an interview with the Youth Justice Board, a much more progressive branch of Her Majesty's Prisons, on the Wednesday. She wanted to work with them to create child focused training for officers working in Young People's Estate establishments. Suggested learning modules she considered included: Child Protection, Understanding and Working with Children and Young People in Custody, Mental Health, Substance Misuse, Vulnerability Assessment, Training Planning and Resettlement, Managing Difficult Behaviour, and Safeguarding. She was putting the finishing touches on an outline of it when Claire rang with the good news of Nikki's appeal date. Helen smiled wistfully and silently wished Nikki well.

Thomas spent his week getting used to taking his lunch alone and missing the incidental contact he had with Helen in the Larkhall corridors. He did not have a lot of time to reflect on that, however, for it was quite a busy week at the prison with several physical altercations between inmates, one drug overdose, Buki Lester's increased frequency of self-harming and Crystal's 'miraculous' pregnancy. The most disconcerting part of his week, however, came on Thursday afternoon in the form of Jim Fenner who asked Thomas how he was getting on without his governor.

"Oh, Helen's going to come out the other side of this, Jim, and I, for one, think she's too good for the Prison Service if you're the kind of officer wants to work here." Thomas paused to gauge the effect of his words. There was none. Fenner looked at him as smugly as ever. The Larkhall MO continued, "And I'm not without her. In fact I'm thinking of asking her to move in with me."

"I guess that means it's finally over then, between her and Nikki Wade," Fenner countered. At Thomas's blank look the prison officer went on almost gleefully, "She has told you? About her and Wade? They've been screwing each other for months apparently. An employee of the Home Office shagging a con? Naughty. She resigned from the Prison Service 'cause it was all about to come out, so to speak."

Having it all spelt out for him like that, the penny finally dropped for Thomas. Never previously a supporter of killing the messenger, he nonetheless drew his arm back and punched Fenner in his meddlesome nose, knocking the prison officer to the ground. Still smirking, Fenner pushed, "Oh, dear, oh dear..." He lifted his hand to wipe blood from his nose. "Strike a chord, Doctor?"

With Fenner's pronouncement everything fell into place for Thomas. He had often wondered if he would ever be able to break through Helen's barriers, if she would ever be fully open to him. He had often suspected that there was someone else in the way, but he had supposed that it was a former lover who had either hurt Helen so badly that she was loath to trust another or for whom she still had strong feelings; he had never expected that it was Helen herself. He knew he would have to steel himself for what was to come.

Surprised to find she had arrived at the restaurant before Thomas – he was habitually as punctual as she was tardy – Helen allowed herself to be escorted to their table and ordered them some wine. Because it was a seafood restaurant, she ordered a nice, light Beaujolais. She preferred red wine over white, especially during the autumn and winter months. Helen opened her menu but found herself watching the parade of enticing dishes leaving the kitchen. Winner of the Best Fish Restaurant 2000 in the Good Food Guide, Fishworks Seafood Cafe was also a traditional fishmonger - a guarantee of very fresh fish in the modest restaurant in the back. It was a full ten minutes before Thomas appeared, then, once he had, he joined her at the table without so much as a perfunctory kiss. Helen noticed his sullen mood but opted to turn a blind eye to it in order to not spoil their evening out. He seemed to be having trouble meeting her eyes as he took a long swallow from his wine.

"Not out of my job a week and I've already lined up two interviews," Helen began animatedly. On top of her interview with the Prison Service regarding her program to revamp the training of officers working with YO's, she also had an interview lined up at Capio Nightingale Hospital, a private mental hospital in central London which was looking to hire a new administrator. Both prospects excited her equally but for differing reasons.

Deciding to take the bull by the horns, Thomas informed Helen, "Had an interesting talk with Fenner this morning." He took a long swallow of wine.

Shaking her head Helen beseeched, "Let's don't ruin our evening talking about him. I'm out of Larkhall now. Moving forward."

Taking another pull from his wine, Thomas questioned her tersely, "But you left because of Fenner, right?"

Helen thought about the question and, much as she would have liked to blame Fenner, he was merely the catalyst; she herself was to blame for there having been anything for him to discover. Not wanting to lie to Thomas she answered evasively, "And because I realised I don't have to settle for a job in a service that doesn't respect me. I can choose where I want to work." Not wanting to continue being evasive, she tried to cover his hand with her own, "And who I want to be with..." Thomas withdrew his hand to reach for his wine glass. Unwilling to delve into a difficult conversation, Helen chose instead to make small talk. "The nights are fair drawin' in," she remarked, looking out the window at the slate November sky.

Thomas would not be distracted. Biting the bullet he continued, "Helen, you know that I love you and... and I feel we've got really close these past few months, but sometimes it seems like you're keeping me at a distance, almost like there's something standing between us, something you're hiding from me."

A look of confusion crossing her hazel eyes, Helen enquired, "What's brought this on then? Your conversation with Jim Fenner? 'Cause you know what a shit stirrer he can be."

Gauging her reaction he informed her, "He told me... about you and Nikki Wade."

Helen dropped her eyes. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you, Tom, but Nikki and I, that was a long time ago. It's over." She paused, looking up at him once again, unsure how to make him understand.

He used that break to offer his opinion, "I'm not sure that it'll ever be over between you two. The stupid thing is that everything makes sense now. I don't know how I didn't pick up on it earlier." He poured more wine.

Quietly she reminded him, "But I'm with you now." When he said nothing, just took another large draught from his wine glass, she felt compelled to keep speaking. "I was going to tell you," she offered weakly garnering a disbelieving look from across the table. "I was just waiting for it to blow over."

Looking at her squarely Thomas ventured regretfully, "Don't you see: it was never going to blow over. Perhaps you'll try to deny it, hide it from everyone around you, but eventually you won't be able to hide it from yourself." He paused. "You can't run from yourself forever, Helen. Not if you want to be happy. And that's the one thing I want for you more than anything." He stood and turned on his heel, making his way to the door and leaving a stunned Helen at the table alone with her thoughts the scant remnants of a nice bottle of Beaujolais.

Forced to invent an excuse for having been deserted at Fishworks, "He's a doctor; there was an urgent matter," she explained, as though no one had seen that they had been having an intense discussion. Helen eventually made it home to her Maida Vale flat. Thomas's words did not leave her unmoved and she spent the rest of the evening contemplating both them and the desires of her own heart. She cursed herself for her myopia. She was compelled to finally come to understand why she had never been able to make her relationships with men work, why she had always held back within them. It took Thomas's insightful candour to make Helen see what was blindingly obvious: she was never meant to be with a man. Of course she was still in love with Nikki. It had always been Nikki. And Helen had driven her away one too many times, this time back into the arms of her one-time partner, Trisha. Helen's despondency knew no bounds as she had no one to blame but herself. She had thrown away her one chance at happiness. She fantasised about fighting Trisha for Nikki's affections in some archaic, drawn out duel, muskets at dawn, perhaps, she thought bitterly, but concluded that, if Nikki were truly happy, Helen could not even consider throwing a spanner in the works. She and the striking, soon-to-be-released – Helen's calendar reminded her that tomorrow was the day - tagged prisoner had hurt each other far too much. At the end of the day, all Helen wanted was for Nikki to be happy, even if that meant sacrificing her own future. Nikki had chosen to return to Trisha, a woman whom she had loved for eight years, and, in her heart – much as it was breaking - Helen wished them every happiness. She slept restlessly that night, her mind overrun by thoughts of what might have been.


Part Sixty-Three

North of the city another woman was equally restless thinking about the importance of the following day's legal rigmarole; a landmark occasion, Friday, November 3, 2000 would mark Nikki's emancipation from the designation 'prisoner'. The only question that remained was whether or not it would be replaced by an almost equally stigma-riddled 'ex-convict'. Though Nikki was an intelligent woman, it had nonetheless taken Helen's prodding to get her to decide to formulate an appeal of her conviction. It had suddenly become the most important thing in Nikki's life, however. An overturned conviction was considerably more significant than a royal pardon, though that would have to be Nikki's next avenue of pursuit should her appeal not be upheld.

Though her court case was not scheduled to resume until two o'clock, Nikki nevertheless was at the Old Bailey at twenty-five to twelve. She was to present herself in front of the magistrate at noon, a formality after which Tony, from Central Monitoring Services, would remove her electronic tag. Trisha met her on the steps outside and the two had a calming cigarette before entering. Taking in her black Armani trouser suit with its long jacket over a black-on-black silk fitted shirt, Trisha knew Nikki had never looked more striking.

Though it had been three years, Nikki would have recognised Tony anywhere. Around twenty-eight, he was short and slight with a weak chin and large, dark-framed glasses: Buddy Holly's frail brother, Nikki had thought when she first met him. "So, end o' the line, eh, Nikki?" he said familiarly when he saw her. "C'mon, we're usin' one of the consultation chambers." Nikki followed him inside the imposing building while Trisha waited patiently outside on the steps for Nikki to emerge.

Following a very brief appearance in front of the Magistrate, Nikki followed Tony to a small, utilitarian room in the windowless basement of the Royal Courts building. Once they were seated catercorner at the conference table, Tony began solemnly, "Miss Nicola Wade, we have been assured and are satisfied that you have fulfilled the obligations of your non-custodial sentence. The removal of your electronic tag will serve as the conclusion of your sentence." All that remained was for Tony to remove the device - which he did with little fanfare – and for Nikki to sign a couple documents.

Because of the enormity of the occasion in her own life, Nikki was surprised by the brevity of Tony's declamation. Not that she had expected great ceremony, but she believed that the termination of the curfew which had obfuscated three years of her life should have been worthy of more than thirty seconds' attention. They made their way back out into the bright November day.

Trisha insisted on taking Nikki out for lunch to celebrate her release. "Whatever else happens today, Nik, you're free!" Trisha thought she was being supportive. She had no idea just how important Nikki's appeal had become for the newly-freed prisoner. The previous night Nikki had finally reflected upon why her appeal held so much importance in her mind: aside from the obvious, it was also her one final tie to Helen. If the appeal were to fail, it would feel to Nikki that she had let Helen down, something she knew she had done far too frequently over the previous two years.

Nikki and Trisha went to the Seven Stars pub on Carey Street where each ordered a seasonal Autumn Equinox to sip on as they looked through their menus. They ordered a ploughman's lunch and a plate of chips to share; with an afternoon of uncertainty in front of her, Nikki was desperately craving some comfort food. Used to serving barristers on a short lunch break, the service at the Seven Stars was prompt and efficient. The two women were finished eating and on their way back to the Law Courts by half past one. Nikki found Marion outside and joined her for a cigarette and pre-court pep talk while Trisha made her way over to the group of friends who had turned up to offer Nikki their moral support. The blonde could not help but notice the small wiry man who had removed Nikki's electronic tag still milling about. "What was his name?" she asked herself, wondering if he was waiting around to hear the judges' ruling as well.

They all made their way into the courthouse shortly before two, Trisha and her crowd filing into the gallery while Marion led a very nervous Nikki into the appellant's box. The judges took their seats with flourish and court was in session. The most senior of the three judges, a small grandfatherly man with a shock of white hair and kind blue eyes, asked Nikki to stand. "My fellow judges and I have found this to be a difficult and complex case. There is no doubt that the appellant, Nicola Wade, was indeed responsible for the taking of DC Gossard's life in a most vicious manner," he began. Nikki was looking nervously around the expansive courtroom, seeing nothing. "Nothing we have heard during this appeal has disputed that fact." He paused dramatically. "However, we have been convinced that Miss Wade's actions were the direct result of DC Gossard's own violent actions and that Miss Wade, having exhausted all reasonable means to prevent the rape of her partner, was driven to extreme means. We find that the justification of defence of others has been proved to our full satisfaction. Consequently, this court rules the original verdict of manslaughter levied against Miss Wade to be unsafe and uphold this appeal. Nicola Wade, the manslaughter conviction is expunged from your record." The judge offered her a small smile, "You are free to go." The courtroom erupted in cheers while Nikki stood in disbelieving shock, scarcely able to move.

Within a minute Trisha was downstairs and wrapping Nikki in an enormous hug. "You did it!" she exclaimed loudly to be heard over the din. The women drew apart, inviting others to share in the joy of the moment.

Nikki saw Claire and embraced her heartily. "Thank you," the acquitted woman offered, knowing the words were not nearly strong enough to convey the level of her gratitude.

Deflecting the credit, Claire said, "Thank Marion." The barrister had just arrived to join the throng. Nikki shook her hand warmly, communicating her appreciation for all her hard work and determination before Claire went on, "I can't wait to call Helen." This drew Nikki's face into an almost pinched expression as she wished more than anything that she could share this moment with Helen; it was, after all, down to her stubbornness that Nikki had even considered appealing. Claire added, "She'll be so pleased."

"Not half as pleased as I am," Trisha countered taking Nikki's arm possessively. It was another fifteen minutes of back slapping and hugs before the group made its way outside to face a gauntlet of reporters.

"Nikki, how's it feel to be exonerated?" one young newswriter called.

Nikki recognised several of the reporters from three years previously, including one pressman from a tabloid whose headline following her original sentence had declared, Error in Judgement? Lesbian Cop Killer Nikki Wade Released on Electronic Tag. Taking a deep breath, Nikki nonetheless chose to address the crowd, "It goes without saying that I'm delighted to finally be acquitted of the charges against me. I know how fortunate I was to have been able to serve my sentence out on an electronic tag, but, because I could as easily have been handed down a custodial sentence, I have spent the past three years looking into what it's like, especially for women, in prison. People don't know half of what goes on in there: drugs, mums separated from their kids... but the worst of it is there are male officers employed on female residential wings abusing vulnerable women." Nikki spoke as though Fenner himself could be listening. "Anyway, I know I was one of the lucky ones able to garner this information from the outside, through my volunteer work at HMP Larkhall and through friends I've made within the Prison Service, some of the good ones who understand the need for prison reform. I'm not sure how I would have been able to make it through my sentence if it hadn't been for one of those people. " Nikki looked directly into one of the news cameras. "You always believed in me. I owe you a debt, not just for my acquittal here today but also for my sanity. You gave me back my life. Thank you."

Nikki and her group of supporters made their way down the steps away from the reporters who, looking for more sound bites, had turned their attentions to towards Nikki's opposing counsel. Upon reaching the pavement Trisha extended an invitation to all present to join Nikki at Trisha's Soho flat for a cocktail before venturing on to Chix to continue the celebration. It had been decided that three o'clock was still somewhat early to open the club, no matter how momentous the occasion. Because Nikki had a couple things to do that afternoon – it was not in her nature to skive off an entire day from the shop – Trisha suggested people would be welcome from five o'clock. From there the plan was to head to the club which was set to open early, at seven, to accommodate as many well-wishers as possible. Needing some time on her own to contemplate the events of the day, Nikki opted against Trisha's offer to join her for the drive north to the Potting Shed. Climbing into her vehicle and lighting a cigarette, she made her way to the A1 and used that half hour commute to try to interpret all the emotions churning inside her.


Part Sixty-Four

On pins and needles all day, Helen found herself wishing that she had had a job with which she could have distracted herself. She had spoken to Claire earlier that morning only to learn that the judgement in Nikki's appeal would not be handed down until after two. When the solicitor offered to join her for a drink at the Seven Stars, the watering hole by the Royal Courts of Justice, at three, Helen agreed readily. Feeling anxious, the customarily tardy Scot arrived twenty minutes early. Standing at the bar, her attention was drawn to a large LCD television screen which might have been well suited to displaying a football match but which, that afternoon, was broadcasting a live feed from in front of the courthouse. Helen asked the barman to turn up the sound as Nikki's comely face appeared on screen above a caption reading, "Nikki Wade's 1997 Manslaughter Conviction Overturned by Court of Appeal." Breathing a sigh of relief mixed with overwhelming pride, Helen stood listening to the well-delivered speech, her tears flowing freely as Nikki reached out directly to her through the camera's lens, affirming her gratitude for all Helen had given her.

Eyes still puffy, Helen raised her arm to get the attention of Claire who had just made her way into the pub. Grabbing her old friend in a tight embrace, Helen managed to squeeze out a strangled, "She got it," through another threat of tears.

"She got it," the lawyer repeated, releasing Helen. "I'm just sorry we didn't discover grounds for her to appeal three years ago, could've spared her a lot of anguish."

The smaller woman shook her head. "You mustn't think like that. Nikki's learnt so much about herself in these past three years, I'm not sure she'd've done anything differently." Still standing, preparing to make her way to the bar, Helen asked her friend, "Wha're you havin'?" She bought them each an Autumn Equinox and joined Claire at the corner table she had appropriated. "So, how was Nikki?" Helen asked open-endedly.

After taking a sip of her drink, Claire lit a cigarette and settled in for what she knew would be an absorbing conversation. "I must admit she was superb up on the stand, put the Crown Prosecutor in his place without coming across as hostile," Claire related. She paused for a moment before adding, "I've gotta say she spent a lot of time scouring the gallery, almost like she was looking for someone..."

"Claire..." Helen hesitated, not knowing how to respond.

Not to be dissuaded, Claire probed quietly, "Why didn't you come, Hel? You were instrumental in this whole process."

Helen looked everywhere but at her friend. She took in the burgundy walls and wood panelled bar, the bar staff and the handful of other patrons before offering a weak, "It's complicated."

Claire gave Helen a coy smile before reminding her, "You've already told me about the relationship you had with her. Now that she's a free woman, do you want to confess? Did you continue your relationship despite my warnings?"

A mirthless laugh escaped Helen's lips. "No," she swore almost bitterly, taking a good draught from her pint, "I maintained my ethical, professional distance." Reflecting further, she admitted, "But, God, I wish I hadn't." Helen took another moment before candidly admitting, "I'm still in love with her, Claire. And I drove her back into Trisha's arms, Trisha's bed." Helen could not have failed to notice Trisha captured by the camera's lens as she stood next to Nikki on the courthouse steps, the source of strength and support that Helen wished she could have been for her.

Feeling a sincere sympathy for her friend Claire tried to make clear, "I'm sure she still loves you too, Hel. I've never had a client looked so pained after winning a case. You have to talk to her." Noticing that they needed another round, Claire went up to the bar, leaving her words to marinate in Helen's head.

After Claire had returned to their table, but before she had even had a chance to sit back down, Helen countered, "The last thing I said to Nikki was that she had to forget about me and she has. She's moved on, she's got Trisha back..." Helen knew she was too late.

Claire realised it was time to take off the kid gloves; she had never seen Helen so defeated. "Stop talking rot, you dozy mare! I'm telling you that Nikki is still in love with you. She's only with Trisha because she thinks you're unavailable. I'd wager my pay packet on it. In any case, you can't give up. Not 'til you know for certain."

Despite understanding what Claire was saying, Helen was cautious. "You don't know what it was like between me and Nikki. We hurt each other. A lot. If Trisha makes her happy..."

"And if she doesn't? What if Nikki's just settling? You won't know unless you talk to her," Claire pointed out, forcing Helen to concede the obvious.

The two women were quiet for several moments before Helen asked, "Did she happen to mention what she's doing tonight?" A knowing, satisfied smile crept onto Claire's face as she parted with that bit of information.


Part Sixty-Five

"This should be the happiest I've been in three years," Nikki thought. "So, why's it feel so bittersweet?" she asked herself all the while knowing the answer. "I've gone through hell and come out the other side, but something's still missing." Nikki knew that even in the midst of her hell, her curfew, when things had seemed at their most dark, she had always had hope. She had seen her future and it had been bright and full of sunshine, and yet, now that it had arrived, it felt more bleak than ever, like she would never be happy again. "But I've got Trisha," she thought. "We're together again, starting a new life. I should be on top of the world." The problem was that Nikki knew that they had both changed too much over the previous three years, that they were starting over again as strangers, much as they wanted to be able to return to their past. She pulled her car into the Potting Shed's car park and strolled into the shop.

"Oi, Nik!" Alex called out, running over to her boss. "How'd she go?"

Smiling fondly at Alex, Nikki asked, "So, you didn't see me making a prat of myself on the Beeb?" She laughed. "Yeah, the appeal was upheld. You're not working for an ex-con."

"Result! Never did look too good on my CV, yeah?" Alex joked. "Really, that's bleedin' fantastic! I knew they'd get it sorted. So what now?"

"Life goes on, but I thought I'd come by and see if you wanted a lift into the city. There's a do at Chix tonight," Nikki mentioned simply. "I know you've not been there in a while... Kate can close up shop," she added.

"Yeah, I'll get the nod from her, Nik. Thanks for thinkin' of me, though, 'cause I know it was all down to me that so much went tits up..." Alex struggled to get past her guilt.

Nikki shook her head. "No way, mate. I should never have put you in that position. I'm really sorry. Now, c'mon, you go let Kate know you're slaggin' off and I'll pull the car 'round just as soon as I've checked on a few things in the office." Nikki did a quick once over of the shop before making her way back out to the Shogun, driving it around to the front of the shop to collect Alex. The two women talked animatedly on their way in to Soho with Alex demanding details about the appeal. They arrived at Trisha's just before five, running into Nikki's Home Detention Supervisor as they alighted from the car. "Tony!" Nikki exclaimed. "I saw that you'd stayed through the verdict, though I didn't see you after. Thank you. I can't tell you how much your support meant." To Alex she suggested, "Go on inside and see Trisha about getting a drink, yeah?"

Shrugging, Tony explained, "I had another appointment in the city. I never thought you shoulda been tagged to begin with. I'm chuffed you won your appeal."

"Thanks for that. You coming in for one?" Nikki enquired.

"Nah, I gotta get back straight away; there's still some prisoners what need to be watched over. Just wanted to offer up my support though, eh?" Tony added, "And to let you know I never wanna see you again."

Nikki laughed, "Me neither! And thanks for coming 'round, Tony. It really means a lot." And with that the Central Monitoring Services employee was gone, heading towards the Leicester Square tube station. Nikki made her way into the flat she used to share with Trisha, where so many of their friends had already begun to gather, and never felt so alone in her life.

She accepted the back slapping and cries of "Welcome back to the fold" with aplomb, all the while thinking bitterly to herself that she had never actually gone anywhere, that the 'fold' had left her, as it were. "Left up to you lot, I'd've been Nikki No Mates for three years," she thought self-pityingly before amending softly, "if it hadn't been for Helen." If her friends had truly wanted to remain in touch, Nikki had never been more than a phone call away and would have been thrilled to have got invitations to get together for lunch or an after work drink. But, no, these alleged friends of hers had turned their backs on her, written her off as a convicted murderer. Knowing how important it was to Trisha, Nikki did her best to enjoy the party which was, after all, being held in her honour. She stubbed out her cigarette and got up to get herself a drink. At a quarter to seven the horde moved on towards Chix where the celebrations were expected to go late into the night.


Part Sixty-Six

Within the first twenty minutes of the doors being opened, a considerably-sized group had already amassed. Nikki and Trisha were sat at the bar where the club's owner could best keep an eye on things. Nikki was sipping a Sol from a bottle. Knowing she was in for a long night, she had chosen a lower ABV beer. She also found she could nurse the contents of a bottle longer than a sleeve of draught. Out of habit Nikki found herself frequently checking the time. Unwittingly she was also frequently checking the door, a move which was not going unnoticed by Trisha. "I'm sure she heard it," the blonde woman said vaguely.

"Who?" Nikki's brows were knit as she tried to decipher where that statement had come from. "What?"

With a doleful laugh Trisha chided, "C'mon, Nik. You don't make speeches like that for all the girls. She must've really got to you."

Seeing the hurt on Trisha's face, Nikki tried to explain, "Look, Trish, Helen was there for me when most people would have run a mile."

"Like I did, you mean." The blonde knew how much she had hurt Nikki by leaving her.

Nikki took a deep pull off her cigarette before responding, "I pushed you away, remember?" She had no interest in getting involved in a heavy conversation with Trisha. Nikki reached for a bottle of champagne someone had sent over to her and poured out two flutes. "To new beginnings," she toasted almost unenthusiastically. The two women touched glasses.

Just as Trisha was sipping her champagne, her eyes drifted towards the door. "I think there's someone here to see you," she told Nikki reluctantly, having espied Helen.

Nikki turned her head to follow Trisha's gaze. Her heart rate doubled and her insides lurched when she saw who had arrived. She offered a tentative wave and, putting down her drink, made her way over to the Scot who was looking gorgeous in a low-cut black tee shirt and red leather jacket over her short black skirt. "Hey," Nikki offered as a weak opening gambit.

"Hey," Helen volleyed back equally smoothly.

Never one to be at a loss for words for too long, Nikki asked the obvious question, "How'd you know where to find me?"

Helen smiled flirtatiously, tongue nestled behind her teeth, and tapped the side of her nose with a forefinger. "Bit o' detective work," she answered coyly. "Seven thirty," she added, grinning and tapping her watch, recognising the importance of that hour. More solemnly she admitted, "I had to see ya, tell you how happy I am for ya."

Nikki's dark eyes locked on Helen's hazel ones. "I'd never've done it if it weren't for you, Helen; you know that. You stood by me when no one else gave a damn. If you knew how much that meant..." She was on the verge of breaking down in tears.

Equally moved Helen assured her, "I wouldn'ta missed it for the world." The women's gaze held almost interminably. Now or never, Helen thought. "Nikki..." Unfortunately, Helen had broken eye contact and, looking behind Nikki, noticed Trisha sat at the bar watching them intently and possessively. Helen's face dropped as she lost her nerve. She could not bring herself to risk splitting up a happy couple, getting in the way of Nikki's happiness. "Look, I'd better go," knowing she could not bear to stay and see Nikki with Trisha.

"Someone waiting for you?" Nikki tossed out casually through her own pain.

Not answering the question, not wanting Nikki to realise that she had had an ulterior motive for venturing into Chix, Helen simply insisted, "Have a great night!" She gave Nikki a large smile - which did not come close to touching her eyes - and headed for the exit. Nikki watched with longing as Helen threaded her way through the crowd and out the door. She sighed resignedly, making her way back to the bar where Trisha was waiting for her.

Helen pushed her way back through the throng of celebrants and retreated out the front door, berating herself for the things she had failed to say. Upon seeing the desperate look on Trisha's face, a look which, she knew, had often enough touched her own face at the thought of losing Nikki, Helen's resolve had faltered. Standing outside on the pavement, Helen worried that she'd let Nikki down, that the now free woman would have garnered no sense of support from Helen's very brief visit. At least, that was what Helen was telling herself. Painful as it might have been to see Nikki with Trisha, Helen felt she should have at least stayed for a quick drink to show the emancipated woman how pleased she was for her to have got her life back. Helen also had a gift in her pocket which she desperately wanted to give Nikki. Endeavouring to pluck up the courage to re-enter Chix, Helen nevertheless stood rooted in place by her own nerves. She stared at the door of the club.

Back inside the nightclub Trisha extricated herself from under the arm Nikki had casually flung across her shoulders. "If you run, you can still catch her," she pointed out.

Unable to deny that that was exactly what she would like to do, Nikki countered, "She's not interested in me."

Generously Trisha insisted, "Of course she's bloody interested! Just go." Much as she loved Nikki, Trisha knew that her ability to make the other woman happy was past; she owed it to the winsome brunette to get out of the way. Knowing how difficult it was for Trisha to let her go, Nikki reached out and squeezed the other woman's shoulder in gratitude before rushing for the door. She did not see Trisha lift the champagne bottle from its ice bath and take a long drink directly from it.

Nikki pushed her way through the crowd as quickly as she could and burst through the front doors. Her heart sank as she watched a cab off to her left pull away from the pavement, certain that it was whisking Helen away. From her right she heard a familiar Scottish lilt. "You lookin' for someone?" it enquired.

Quick on her feet Nikki strode purposefully towards Helen, responding, "Thought it was a bit rude not to ask you to stay for a drink."

Helen smiled crookedly, "Well, I thought if I waited out here long enough..."

Feeling as though suave Nikki had deserted her again, the dark woman suggested tentatively, "So, do you want to come back in?"

Though still loath to see the Nikki and Trisha couple up close, Helen was even less ready to say goodbye to Nikki. Still her concern for the blonde woman compelled her to say, "And Trisha?"

"She ordered me to come out and see if I couldn't find you. 'Course if I'd known you were just milling about, I might not have knocked as many people down in my rush to get out here," Nikki laughed nervously. Nodding her head towards the club she suggested, "A quick one, yeah? Unless you need to be somewhere else?" she fished.

"I could certainly use a stiffener," Helen answered honestly. Before she could lose her courage she added, "I've something I wanted you to have."

"I wouldn't have got my appeal today if it weren't for you, Helen. I think you've given me enou-" Nikki's words caught in her throat when she saw what Helen was holding out to her: it was the ring box, her ring box. "And she's handing it back to me," Nikki thought, agonised.

Helen began, "I'm not with Thomas anymore." She took a deep breath before continuing, "I've been so stupid, Nikki. Thomas is intelligent, thoughtful, gorgeous; he's everything that you'd want in a man." The two women were standing very close, Helen searching Nikki's eyes, looking for the love she had always seen reflected there. "But I want a woman." She paused again. "I love you, Nikki."

Nikki's confusion was written across her face. "But... the ring?"

Offering a shy smile Helen explained, "When you gave it to me you said it fit your left ring finger." She looked deeply into Nikki's rich, amber eyes. "I want you to wear it, if that's what you want. Your friend can make me another to match." For the first time in her life Nikki was at a loss for words. Not knowing how to interpret the silence, Helen backpedalled, "I've not come to bollocks up your relationship with Trisha; if you're happy, if you don't think it's worth giving us another go... But I couldnae just walk away if I thought there was the slightest chance..."

Nikki let out a breath she did not even know she had been holding. Emotions flooded her face: confusion, relief, understanding but the most prevalent was love. She smiled back at Helen, blinking to keep her tears at bay. "You don't think we should take things slowly?" she finally asked once she had regained her voice.

Love and desire smouldered mischievously in Helen's eyes. She countered, "Actually, I think we've frittered away enough time, don't you?" The sultry Scot allowed herself to be pulled into a kiss that almost stopped her heart. All of her insecurities, all of the pain and doubt of the previous year melted away and Helen was back where she belonged. In Nikki's arms. For both women the kiss was like they had never been apart. Probing tongues sought each other out. Helen ran her fingers though the back of Nikki's hair, pulling the taller woman even closer, deepening the kiss before eventually remembering that they were standing outside on the pavement. Even in Soho, such a display was a bit over the top. Breaking contact, Helen looked around sheepishly before taking hold of Nikki's lapels. Running her hands over Helen's hair, Nikki allowed herself to be guided towards the club's doorway where Helen assertively pushed her back up against the wall. "Oh, God, Nicola," Helen breathed into Nikki's open mouth as she leant up to recapture it in a crushing kiss. Helen's hands slipped back into Nikki's short hair as the taller woman wrapped her long arms around the woman she loved, her right hand sliding down to rest on Helen's perfect, shapely backside.

And in that moment Nikki and Helen both knew this was where they had always belonged; they had come home at last. Far from being the end of their story, the women knew, this was just the beginning.

The End

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