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The Long Way Home

Chapter Text

2013

"And then, there were two," Nicky noted, slowly, continuing to toss candy peanuts into her mouth, as Piper closed the door to the electrical shed behind her and entered the room.

"Where is everybody?"

Piper could be really dense sometimes.

"They're sick. Pussies. I don't believe in getting sick," the New Yorker said in defiance of the horrendous flu that was spreading like wildfire around Litchfield.

Skeptical, Piper posed a silly mantra. "Mind over mucus, huh?"

"Yeah. That, and I stockpile from Commissary. I'm on a cough syrup cocktail that would make Lil' Wayne vomit in his dreads."

"So much for that," Nicky scoffed the next day, huddled in the fetal position on her cot, shaking with the worst chills she could ever remember having, including opiate withdrawal. Despite two blankets, and Red's donated afghan throw, she could not get warm.

Body aching to her bones, a fit of deep, heavy coughs pitched her forward with every shallow breath.

Nicky opened her eyes when an offensively cold hand touched her pale, sweaty brow. "Don't, it's like ice," she moaned, recoiling slightly from the contact.

"And you're on fire," Red stated as fact, frowning at the weary, brown eyes looking up at her. "I could hear you from a ways down the hall."

"Little Girl-Big Mouth, at your service," Nicky cracked, continuing to shiver.

"Chapman and Vause are down, too." Both, however, were asleep at that moment.

"Jesus, no one is safe from this shit."

"I've never seen Litchfield like this. The cafeteria is a ghost town."

"You deserve a break," Nicky said without hesitation.

"How can I relax with you so sick, huh? Plokhoy kotitsya," the head cook tutted, making sure that she was comfortable and tucked in, rubbing her upper arm.

Medical was severely overwhelmed with demand; medication was limited, down to one dose per inmate per day. Commissary was tapped out of Vick's VapoRub and Cup Noodles, the Hispanics and Asians reselling them at inflated costs. Red and the kitchen crew used the freezer to store wet washcloths, cold compresses for the ill. More than a few inmates took a cool shower to combat a high fever at odd hours of the day.

"Not much you can do. Might as well quarantine yourself in your bunk...don't want you gettin' this."

The copper blonde was sincere. She had youth on her side; Red was older, and there could be serious consequences if her health were to take such a hit.

Meanwhile, the steely Russian worried for Nicky's heart. Infections built strongholds in weak places, and her repaired valve was vulnerable.

"If I do, my blood will kill it, I assure you."

Nicky would have rolled her eyes if she had the energy.

"Right." She wanted to believe her, but, this virus was pulling no punches. "I forgot about the magical blood that only Russians possess."

"That, and the bitter cold makes us tough," Red added, making her case.

Nicky dissolved into coughs again, doing what she could to cover them with limited movement.

"A shower would break up the congestion in your chest."

"As good as that sounds, I don't think I can move," the sick inmate admitted, hoarse. "You can go, really...think I'm hittin' the wall, finally." Nicky's eyes were heavy, surrendering to fatigue.

"I'm staying right here, malyshka. You should know by now that you can't get rid of me."

Nicky passed out a few minutes later; Red was never so relieved to hear her snore, the girl badly needed rest.

The girl who preferred to be a lone ranger, resisting help at every turn. After three years, Red hoped she had proved by now that she was someone Nicky could count on, here, and maybe one day, outside of these walls.

She'd just have to keep showing up.

[][][][][][]

Norma brought Red a copy of We Are Completely Beside Ourselves from the library to read while she sat vigil at Nicky's bedside, the girl troubled, even in sleep.

The older woman observed her furrowed brow as she moaned softly, mumbling in between coughs, though, they didn't wake her.

"Your demons never let you rest, do they?" the red-haired matriarch asked sadly, not expecting an answer. Red's eyes returned to her book.

Suddenly, the alarm sounded loudly, causing Red to startle a bit. "Not now," she groaned, looking to the ceiling, before removing her glasses.

Nicky's eyes shot open. She'd only slept for about an hour. "Wha's goin' on?" She cleared her throat. "Wha's happening?"

"C'mon, everyone. Out of your bunks and down on the ground," CO Dixon ordered, sympathy in his voice, as most of the inmates in the cellblock were ill.

"I can't even stand up. Where exactly are we gonna go?" Nicky shot back, incredulous, over the blaring alert.

"C'mon, Nichols," he enforced, almost gentle.

The copper blonde immediately trembled upon removing her blankets; Red's hands were cold as she was assisted in leaving the cot. Lying prone on the floor was agonizing. Her back arched on the cold linoleum.

"Ah...ah..." Nicky cried out, feeling like death, shaking and coughing.

"Nicky, try to relax. Slow breaths," Red coached, who lie facing her, calm as she could be at the moment.

"Easy for you...your body heat hasn't been sucked out of you. Fuck...fuck..."

Red was helpless to watch her suffer so severely. "It'll be over soon. It's going to be alright. Jesus, at least let her have a blanket!" she shouted, angry tears in her eyes threatening to spill over. "Fucking pizdy, all of you! Kuski der'ma!" she cursed in her mother tongue, spraying venom. "This is inhumane!"

"Shut it, Reznikov."

"Ma...Ma, it's okay," rasped Nicky, glazed eyes looking into Red's. Convulsive chills triggered a coughing fit that strangled her temporarily.

"Just fucking take me now..." she pleaded to no one in particular. If she was lucky, she would pass out before the alarm ended.

The next fifteen minutes might as well have been an hour. It was complete and utter hell.

Nicky's usually strong resolve quickly crumbled while under such a level of duress. She was so cold, so hot, and ached severely; now on her side, hard shakes rippled through her. Silent tears snaked down her cheeks, as she attempted to remove herself from her affliction and circumstance, to retain a modicum of pride.

Sick as hell, forced to lie on the dirty floor of her prison cube until further instructed...a new low, and she'd been through some shit in her day.

"I'm here, okay? I'm here," Red reminded her, willing herself not to break. She only wanted to help the woman she loved like a daughter, to comfort her. The sight of Nicky so upset set her afire with rage; it would be burned into her memory.

Red's voice grounded the New Yorker; she wasn't alone, unlike when she was getting loaded in roach-infested bathrooms, her blood spraying the wall, in a hurry to numb herself.

Now, she felt every bead of sweat on her hairline, her heart as it thumped in her ears, blood running cold in her veins, congestion in her chest threatening to make its exit with every breath.

"It's alright, malyshka."

Red's presence was a lifeline, something Nicky could hold on to. The Russian's warmth and light held her away from the darkness.

She could never repay all she had been given by the older woman. Loyalty felt inadequate and hollow. It was the only thing Red completely respected.

The alarm ceased as quickly as it commenced. The room was silent.

"Alright, all-clear, ladies. As you were," a guard announced.

The block buzzed with activity once again as Red scrambled to her feet to get Nicky back in bed. However, the younger woman made no move to get up.

"Come on, Nicky," Red prodded.

Slowly, she somehow moved her heavy limbs into a seated position.

Red grasped her forearms. "I've got you, sweetheart. On three, okay?"

Nicky did what she could to shift her weight and stand, to reduce stress on the head cook's lower back.

Red pulled back the blankets for her, and Nicky shuddered audibly with cold as she lie on the cot. Though her teeth chattered, she was otherwise quiet. "Love you."

The Russian's heart swelled, knowing the sarcastic, stubborn, blotchy-faced young woman struggled with accepting and expressing love because of her upbringing. She knew Nicky loved her, but, it was always nice to hear it once in awhile.

"And I, you, my lyubov'," Red reciprocated, tender. "You need to go back to sleep."

The New Yorker nodded, then, coughed, strong, spitting mucus into a tissue that Red held out for her. "God, this sucks," she scoffed.

"You have to get that out of you. The last thing you need is pneumonia."

"Mm," was all Nicky said, on the edge of consciousness. She shuddered, still cold.

"Chow time, Reznikov. Dinner won't make itself," CO Maxwell said after walking over, ever the professional, never using aliases.

"Right," Red replied, looking to the guard. She'd lost track of time, meaning dinner might be a smidge late. "On my way. Sleep, hm?" the prison mother directed to Nicky, soft, yet, firm.

"Gonna do my best," the drowsy copper blonde vowed, eyes closing.

Red set off for the kitchen to work on dinner for the inmates.

[][][][][][]

Miss Claudette was already stirring the beginnings of a stew when Red walked in. "How's Nichols?"

"Not good. This flu is a koshmar. High fever, terrible cough, the works. I hope she can get some rest. I worry," she conceded, deep lines creasing her forehead. She went to the office to get her chef's jacket and apron, quickly tying it around her waist.

"Nichols is a strong girl. She'll be alright."

Red nodded, casting a grateful gaze to her Haitian comrade, then, busied herself with boiling water for the noodles.

[][][][][][]

The flu outbreak caused Red to be shorthanded; with three kitchen crew members sick, prep and clean-up were more time-consuming tasks, along with extra sanitizing to prevent more germs from spreading.

When Red returned from work duty to check on Nicky, she found Lorna there with her, holding out a bottle of lemon lime Gatorade.

"A little drink. C'mon, Nichols," the dark-haired Italian woman sighed.

The ailing New Yorker turned her head away. "No, thanks."

Red stepped in the cube, touching Lorna's shoulder. "I've got this, Morello. Give me that."

"Nicky, we're not playing games. We can't let you get dehydrated. You need to drink some of this, now," the Russian ordered, stern, meaning business.

"'m not thirsty," the New Yorker mumbled, pulling her blankets tighter to herself.

"Tough shit. You need to sit up a bit, and drink. Come on. Up you get," Red strained, forcing Nicky to sit up halfway.

"Small sips, now. Good girl," the Russian praised her charge, who managed to swallow about half a cup of the rehydration fluid, along with Tylenol, to lower her fever overnight. "That should help. Maybe we'll try again before lights out."

"Sure," Nicky slurred, the slightest exertion exhausting her. She fell back to sleep within minutes.

[][][][][][]

Nicky opened her heavy eyelids to darkness, save for the faint glow that the guard booth cast through the room, swirling above her.

Her tongue felt thick in her mouth, dry. Heat overwhelmed her entire body; she had no energy to remove her blankets.

The copper blonde moaned, feeling weighed down, and unable to move.

Suddenly, a hand was on her face. She wanted to pull away. She heard a sharp intake of breath and retreating footsteps.

"This better be good, Romano," said CO Kowalski, one of the regular overnight guards. He shined his flashlight over Nicky, who barely moved, moaning in displeasure. She coughed.

Red awoke as dissenting voices chorused through the block, their sleep having been disturbed.

Norma gestured to him to feel her bunkmate's skin.

"Jesus Christ," he hissed, pulling his hand away from the inmate's bare arm. "She's boiling. Donaldson, we have a situation in A with Inmate Nichols. I need you, now," he requested hurriedly into his radio.

"Ten-four. On my way."

At this, Red shot up from her pillow, worry and adrenaline coursing through her.

CO Donaldson, filling in for Davis, got to Cellblock A in a flash. "What's up?"

"Nichols is burning up. Should we get her to Medical?"

Donaldson sighed, looking at her, eyes glazed over, rolling from side to side, mistaking the guard for her childhood nanny.

"S'not time yet, Paloma. No school..."

"That'll take too long. Shower's quicker. Where's Reznikov? Reznikov, front and center!" Donaldson ordered, louder.

Red hurried to the guards, anxiously awaiting direction. "What do you need me to do?"

"Red, you and me are gonna get Nichols in the shower. Kowalski, you stay here. Everyone, go back to sleep. We have this under control."

"Doesn't sound like it," someone said.

"You'll let us die in here!" shouted another.

"Can it! C'mon, Red. Up you come, Nichols."

Donaldson sat Nicky up, one arm around her torso, and the other under her legs. The feverish woman was dead weight.

"S'Friday, do'need t'go..."

With a grunt, he lifted, cradling her, as Red left the block with him, heading for the bathroom.

"Oh, Nicky. You can't scare me like this," Red told the girl, stroking her hair, damp with sweat. In all her years, she'd never seen the flu do this to her boys.

Delirium came through again. "Why can't you be my mommy?"

"I am, in every way that counts," the Russian said, voice thick with emotion.

Once they reached the showers, Red pulled back the nearest curtain, and Donaldson set her down on the tile.

"I'll get her clothes off. They need to stay dry. I need towels," Red said as she crouched next to Nicky, looking up at the guard.

"Right. I'll be back."

While Donaldson went to Laundry, Red began to undress Nicky, starting with her khaki shirt, socks, and pants.

"Bad touch...bad touch..."

It made the prison mother sick to know that the younger woman mistook her for her predatory uncle, a source of immense pain and trauma. "No, honey. I'm helping you. You're safe. Ya lyublyu tebya."

Removing Nicky's undershirt was a challenge; her mane of hair made it difficult to pull it over her head. Red unclasped her bra and removed her underwear after, leaving the St. Joseph pendant around her neck.

Red turned on the shower, an equal mix of hot and cold. It cascaded down on them both.

Nicky yelped, breathing fast, in shock. She moved like sludge, protesting the water, as though it were ice. She coughed violently, gagging on phlegm that caught in her throat.

Red held her close. "Shhh, shhh. It's okay, Nicky. It's okay. It's just cold because you're so hot, lyubov'. It's alright."

"No...no..." the New Yorker moaned, putting up a weak fight against her prison mother's hold.

"I'm helping you. I promise, I'm helping you."

Both of them were now thoroughly drenched, with Red shushing a limp Nicky, who eventually stopped fighting, the water still falling on them.

"I've got you, malyshka...it's gonna be okay, sweetheart."

Red gauged any progress to see if Nicky's temperature was coming down, touching the skin of her neck and cheeks. She couldn't quite tell just yet.

"I'm here, remember? I'm not leaving."

Under the lukewarm spray, the Russian smoothed Nicky's hair; supportive touch to keep the copper blonde grounded in reality, and drive away feverish, false visions.

Donaldson found them with the shower still running some ten minutes later, holding towels, and a dry uniform for Red.

"How is she?"

"Still warm, but, less so."

"The wheelchair will be here any minute."

Red nodded, shivering, forgetting that Nicky wasn't the only one wet and cold. "Help me dry her off."

Once on dry tile, Nicky began to cough heavily, shoulders heaving with effort. Red kept her upright, rubbing her upper back, having her spit into a towel. "That's a good girl."

"...Red?" the New Yorker rasped, seemingly lucid.

The older woman's eyes brightened with the recognition. "Yes, honey."

"Glad it's you," she mumbled, woozy.

"You're gonna be okay. We've gotta get you dressed."

Nicky was a bit more aware, though, Red did the work of pulling the uniform on her.

"That's better," Red nodded, a slight smile on her lips.

A nurse entered with the wheelchair, locking it in place. "Time to go, Nichols."

Donaldson helped Red up from the floor before assisting the nurse with Nicky, now quiet, too weak to hold her head up.

"See you soon," Red said softly, smoothing Nicky's damp hair once more, before the nurse wheeled her away, off to Medical.

Donaldson sighed heavily. "Damn, that girl gave me a scare."

"Spoken like a parent," the red-haired inmate agreed.

She had a few minutes to dry off and change clothes before the guard escorted her back to her block.

But, Red couldn't go back to sleep, even though the ache in her back told her that the adrenaline she had been running on was wearing off.

She was worried for her girl.

[][][][][][]

As always, news was slow coming out of Medical. Two days went by, and little was known about Nicky's condition. For all Red knew, she might have been taken to a hospital. The Russian tried to stay busy with running the kitchen, reading, and card games, but, her mind always returned to the loud-mouthed inmate with the crazy hair, and smudged eyeliner...the one who had stolen her heart. Her Nicky.

"Nichols, you're back."

From her bunk, Red's ears perked up at hearing that surname. She quickly set her book aside and got up, observing CO Maxwell pushing Nicky in a wheelchair, stopping at her cube.

"Alright, alright," the copper blonde groaned, her voice hoarse, with a signature eye roll. "I can walk. I'm sick, not dead."

"It's policy, and you know that, Nichols."

"Right."

Nicky stood, looking to her left, Red meeting her at the threshold. "Apparently, your brain almost frying gets you two days."

Red took the younger woman's chin in her hand, blue eyes piercing brown. "You scared me to death."

Releasing her, Red softened as she looked Nicky over, noting the exhaustion and dark circles, but, some color in her cheeks. Then, she pulled her in for a hug.

"How are you feeling?"

"What happened?" the New Yorker asked instead, her words muffled by the head cook's shoulder. "My fever spiked, or somethin'?"

"That's enough, ladies," CO O'Neill warned them.

They broke apart.

"Delirious. You thought we were all Paloma," Red explained, unable to prevent a chuckle from escaping.

"Christ," Nicky exhaled. "Guess I'll never live that down." She pivoted away from her, coughing into her right elbow, still slightly wet.

"You should lie down."

"Probably," the copper blonde said agreeably, for once, knowing she wasn't completely steady on her feet.

Red followed her, joining her on the cot. "Are you feeling better?"

"Hard to sleep in Medical," she shrugged.

A coma was the only way to get any rest in that ward. "Too many screamers, not enough Valium," the Russian quipped knowingly.

Nicky laughed, coughing again, groaning a little, her throat and chest aching. She closed her eyes, dropping her head back against the wall.

Red took the opportunity to feel Nicky's forehead, finding it still a touch warm, grateful that the searing heat from two nights ago was now a memory.

"I'm alright, Red," she sighed, wrecked voice breaking, illness wiping out any malicious intent. Being fussed over made her feel uncomfortable, even though she loved and trusted the older woman completely. She still found it difficult to shake off being ignored and neglected throughout her childhood and adolescence, and she hated it, and herself.

Red pressed her lips to her favorite golden locks of hair. "I'll be right back."

Nicky sat there, attempting to block out her buzzing surroundings, the people and chatter wearing her down, the pesky flu still plaguing her.

"Nicky. I heard you were back," Alex said, spying her friend in passing.

She opened her eyes. "Stretch, hey. How's it going?" she wondered, concerned when she saw the blanket the tall woman had draped around her shoulders.

"You sound like shit," she jested, through a rasp of her own.

"Meanwhile, your phone sex operator impression is turning me on, yes, sir," the New Yorker flung back, wiggling her eyebrows.

Alex rolled her eyes, which then traveled down her own body. "Yeah, I'm real sexy right now," she said, sarcastic.

"Always, Vause. Always."

The two laughed, then, coughed, consequently, killing the mood.

"Ah, fuck."

"Ugh."

"Well, aren't you two a sight for sore eyes?" Lorna said, walking up.

"Hey, Lorna," Alex greeted her, friendly.

"How are you feeling?" the Italian asked Nicky. "The other night was crazy."

"Hey, go big, or go home. I'm better, really."

"I'll be the judge of that," Red cut in, steam rising from the styrofoam cup in her hands, having used the microwave in the common room. "Vause, good to see you up and around. How's Chapman doing?" she addressed Alex, inquiring about her flu-stricken girlfriend.

"Napping. I'm gonna go check on her," she said, leaving.

"We'll catch up later, Lorn," the copper blonde told her, noting the look her prison mother was giving her, to save the chit-chat for another time.

"Yeah, later."

"Here." Red gave her the container of Cup Noodles, along with a fork.

"I'm not really hungry."

"You need nourishment. I traded Chang two good lipsticks for that, so, drink up."

It wasn't a request.

She again sat next to Nicky, ushering her to eat.

Nicky ate a few noodles and swallowed some broth as a sea of calm swept over her, the hot liquid taming the soreness in her throat.

"Just what you needed, huh?" Red gloated a little, ribbing her.

"You're trying to burn my taste buds off, so, I never complain about the food here again," Nicky said, squinting, wise to the older woman's tricks.

"Right, like that'll ever happen. You're like that pink bunny with the drum. Your mouth doesn't stop once it gets going."

The New Yorker wore a cocky grin. "Eh, you love me anyway."

"I have no idea why," Red sighed, feigning annoyance.

A coughing fit prevented Nicky from coming back with a smart remark. She handed off the cup so it wouldn't spill.

"Can't wait for that to be gone," Nicky scoffed, revealing a bit of frustration.

"Oh? I thought you were better?" Red challenged her earlier statement, eyebrows raised.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," the copper blonde mumbled, waving her hand in dismissal.

Lungs still irritated, Nicky coughed yet again, her face buried into her left elbow, hair sweeping in, concealing the red hue such effort imparted on her cheeks. She was glad to be hidden, feeling exposed by her illness under the head cook's watchful eyes.

"Maybe I should sleep," Nicky decided, once she regained her breath. She hated to admit it, but, staying awake and holding up her end of a conversation sapped her energy.

Red stood, and set the cup aside.

"Gotta admit, I missed this shitty mattress."

Nicky lay down and pulled Red's colorful blanket over herself.

"I'll check on you later." As was her way, the Russian smoothed the crocheted threads unnecessarily, then, grazed the younger inmate's cheek, taking her leave.