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Wilted pink roses, a bag of pills and a card from the funeral service are all that remains of Rita Bennett come Monday morning. Vera had spent the weekend cleansing the house of any and every thing that once belonged to her mother and by Sunday evening her footsteps had practically echoed down the halls, so barren was the space after the cleanse. The empty walls, shelves and closets gave her a sense of peace as she had wandered through the rooms with a celebratory glass of white in hand. She hadn’t yet decided whether she would stay or start afresh in a space all her own, but the purgation of her mother had gone a long way in relieving some of the negative energy lingering in her childhood home.

Scooping the last reminders of Rita into the trash with a sense of satisfaction, she moves to the foyer to check her appearance one last time before leaving for work. She’d woken up feeling capable and strong and had decided to manifest those feelings physically in the only way she knew how. Turning her head in the mirror, she inspects the tight braided knot of her hair, sweeping a flat palm against her temple to smooth any wayward strands into place. Satisfied with her new look, she gives her jacket a final tug and walks out the door.

The walk to the governor’s office fills her with a flutter of anxious energy as she gets closer to the older woman’s sanctum. The white envelope tucked beneath her palms makes them itch with nervous anticipation. She had been surprised to see Joan at her mother’s funeral on Friday, and even more surprised at the unspoken gestures her boss had extended over the last week, hinting at a gentle kindness beneath the automaton image the stern woman presented. No one had ever expressed such a keen understanding of her thoughts or feelings before, nor had anyone shown her as much sensitivity, that was completely devoid of the usual pitying tone or glances. She was truly blown away by the woman’s actions and wanted to express her gratitude for the seismic impact that understanding had made. 

Hearing the gentle knock at her door, Joan looks up from her work and flashes a genuine smile as she watches her small deputy enter the room. The confidence in her posture, as well as the new hairstyle do not go unnoticed and the right corner of her mouth lifts into a slight smirk at the discovery. She’s pleased beyond measure that the wicked seed she’d planted only a week ago had taken root and already produced a bountiful harvest and that her instincts had been right about her deceptively intuitive and competent right hand. With her subtle guidance, Vera had successfully emancipated herself from the iron grip of her mother, which pleased Joan immensely. 

“Welcome back, Vera.” She purrs with a hint of amusement. A sense of pride fills her chest at the woman’s satisfying transformation. “Thank you, Governor. Before I start my rounds, I just...I wanted to give you this.” Stepping to the desk her nerves overcome her and she extends the white envelope toward her boss with a timorous smile. Joan quirks a brow with curiosity as she takes the proffered item, observing her name written in neat cursive across the front. “This was not necessary, Vera.” She states as she eyes the younger woman. “I know, but I wanted to,” comes Vera’s surprisingly confident reply.

“Well, I do appreciate the gesture.” Her dark eyes hold Vera’s gaze and she’s pleasantly surprised when Vera doesn’t break it. “Well, it’s almost time for the morning count, so I’ll be on my way. Have a good day, Governor.” She offers a smile and nod then takes her leave, releasing an anxious sigh of relief the moment she closes the office door, grateful that Joan didn’t make her stay while she read the card. Despite her newborn confidence, there’s still something about the governor that always makes her nervous. 

Joan stares at the door for a moment after Vera’s exit before returning her gaze to the envelope in her hand. Opening it, she pulls the card free and turns it over. The front depicts a watercolor drawing of a beautiful bouquet of pink and purple hydrangeas. Inside, in Vera’s neat script it reads: Thank you for the stunning floral arrangement and for your presence at the funeral. Words cannot express my gratitude for your kindness and intuitive understanding. XX, Vera  

Her smile widens as she reads the note, seeing also that hydrangeas grace the cover. Just as she had hoped, her fastidious little deputy had dutifully done her research and understood the coded message of her flowers and had responded with her own sub rosa exchange.

_____________

“Sierra two to Sierra three,” The two way crackles to life on the deputy’s slender hip as she rounds the corner headed to the laundry to make her last round before end of shift. Pulling the radio from her holster, she responds to the governor’s call. “Sierra three responding; yes, governor?” 

“Deputy Bennett, please report to my office at end of shift, I’d like to review the week’s roster.” 

“Yes, governor. I should be there in about fifteen minutes.” A crooked smile curves Joan’s lips at the immediate response.

Upon her first day at Wentworth, Joan had instantly been intrigued by Vera Bennett. She had recognized immediately the benefit to her wide-eyed eagerness, blind loyalty and arrant naivete. It was pitiful really, how quickly the tiny woman had submitted to her leadership, but it still sent a minor thrill to her darker urges, which had manifested by cunningly plying information from the junior officer. The meek woman was pathetically malleable and Joan had no qualms about using that to her advantage. Vera had provided so much juicy information then.

However, despite her mousy demeanor, her officer file had indicated a steadfast work ethic and a determination to advance within the ranks. After a few short weeks of working with the rather diffident woman, she found that she indeed possessed a surprising amount of dedication to the job, which she had rarely encountered in her twenty years working in corrections, certainly not amongst fellow women. Though timid, Vera also proved to be quite intuitive and held many qualities that showed much potential as an effective leader, so Joan had willingly offered her mentorship in the hopes of further molding the fledgling officer into her perfect right hand. 

In just a few short months, she had accomplished just that and, by default, had developed an uncharacteristic fondness for her little deputy. Vera’s confidence had grown exponentially in the months since Joan first arrived and she realized she actually found great satisfaction in working alongside her. More unsettling though, was the increasing desire to spend more time with Vera, and how she found herself wanting to know more about the reserved woman. The compulsion had lead to an unannounced visit to the Bennet house just a few weeks ago, where she gained a deeper, almost sympathetic understanding of Vera’s unassertive nature. 

Rita Bennett. She was disgusted instantly by the gray-haired, sickly woman lying on her death-bed, spouting caustic words to her wounded daughter. The image had catapult her back into unsavory memories of her father and she’d been unable to resist the spiteful words she’d whispered into the putrid woman’s ear. It gave her an odd sense of relief though, finally knowing someone else who could understand the pain of the scars left by a hateful parent and she found a surprising comfort in the newfound kinship with her deputy. She never spoke of it, of course, it was just expressed in subtle kindnesses she extended to the younger woman, which she’d not had a compulsion to do for anyone for nearly twenty years.

Confident in her mastery of detachment, however, she’d made the decision to send the flowers and attend the funeral to show solidarity and pride for her faithful spaniel. She knew Vera was an even greater asset now, that with her new persona she could achieve even greater things for her personal benefit. Even as she felt the flutterings of attraction when she eyed Vera looking so confident in that form-fitting black dress, she was convinced it was nothing more than a visceral reaction.

With beefeater’s precision, Vera’s knock comes exactly fifteen minutes later, disrupting Joan’s train of thought as she sets the cocktail tray atop her desk. With a final tug to the waist of her jacket, she makes for the door, drawing it open with a surprisingly benevolent smile when she sees her small deputy standing on the other side. 

“Vera, do come in,” extending an arm, she steps aside to allow the slightly confused woman to enter the room. Caught off guard by the warmth in Joan’s gesture, Vera pauses awkwardly as Joan closes the door, her heartbeat mildly racing when she sees the drinks upon the desk. “Please, have a seat,” Joan urges as she passes the smaller woman and approaches the seat next to the one Vera usually sits at.

“Y-you wanted to see me about the roster?” Vera questions as she approaches the chair next to Joan. “Oh, it’s been sorted,” dark eyes meet her gaze with a mischievous twinkle. “I thought instead we’d have a bit of a debrief after your first day back.” Shifting forward in her chair, she unfastens the buttons of her jacket before reaching for a glass and the cocktail pitcher. Vera smiles shyly and sets her bag on the floor, undoing her jacket as she takes a seat. When she’d last left work, she had been confident Joan’s mentorship would end, based on the amount of disappoint in those dark, piercing eyes, so this unexpected turn of events makes her almost giddy.

“Mojito?” Joan offers the glass with a playful smile, hoping Vera will recall the memory. An amused laugh passes Vera’s full lips and she nods as she accepts the proffered drink. They raise a silent toast and Vera feels the nervous flutter start in her stomach as Joan’s penetrating gaze watches her over the rim of her glass. After another sip the older woman places her drink on the tray and shifts in her seat, crossing her long legs so her foot accidentally grazes the back of Vera’s calf beneath her chair. Vera shifts slightly, but Joan doesn’t move.

“So, how are you feeling?” Joan asks, her tone serious, but her gaze softening slightly. Vera peers into her glass, swirling it gently between both hands before she hesitantly replies, “I’m ok, fine. I-I feel...good, actually.” An instant wave of guilt tugs her insides and she scrunches up her face before meeting Joan’s steady gaze, “Is that bad?” She queries before she bites her bottom lip. “No, Vera, it isn’t.” Joan replies simply and the gentleness in her voice nearly takes Vera’s breath away. There’s a long, silent stare between them that conveys an unspoken understanding and Vera finally looks away as she feels tears begin to collect in the corners of her eyes.

Joan senses the shift and moves to change the subject. “I like the new hairstyle, makes you look...stronger,” a ghost of a smile graces her lips and there’s an odd twinkle in her umber gaze. Vera blushes and reaches to the knot at the base of her scalp. “It gives me a bit of a headache,” she confesses sheepishly. “That’s why mine always comes down as soon as I get home.” Joan replies with a modest laugh and reaches for the pins to release her ink black mane.

“Well, mine will never look as elegant and sleek as your’s, my curls are too unruly.” She watches Joan’s cascade of jet black hair as it falls from the authoritarian chignon, suddenly struck by how attractively it softens her usually stern features. “Hmm,” Joan purrs with a hint of amusement and decides to share a rare sliver of her past, “as a child I always wished for curls; the other kids would tease me for my ‘witch hair’ ”. She runs a hand through her thick tresses, smoothing the kink left from her bun before aligning the hairpins perfectly on her desk. “I think you have beautiful hair.” Vera muses before she catches herself. Her cheeks grow rosy as Joan fixes her with a steady gaze, a slight smirk lifting the corner of her mouth. After a beat, she leans forward and picks up her glass and takes another sip.

“So, what’s next, now that you’re a free woman?” Joan quirks a mischievous brow and Vera laughs nervously, taking another sip of her mojito. She’s not sure why she’s suddenly become so flustered in Joan’s presence, but it fills her with excitement as much as anxiety. “Well, for starters, redecorate!” Joan smiles with amusement. “Not a fan of your mother’s taste, I take?” She eyes Vera playfully as the younger woman scoffs with a vigorous shake of her head. “Hell no. I emptied the house this weekend and I’ve never been so happy to hear an echo in my life.” Joan smirks with satisfaction at the revelation and observes Vera with a scrutinizing gaze. “You’re not as innocent as some think, are you?” The thought sends a thrill down her spine.

Drawing her glass to her mouth, Vera smiles shyly before downing the last sip of her drink. She sets the empty glass on the cocktail tray and meets Joan’s gaze, “I’m beginning to think that innocence is overrated.” Joan flashes a wide smile as she feels the warmth spread within her belly at the burgeoning look of defiance in Vera’s ocean eyes. “My, Miss Bennett,” she purrs suggestively, “I see I am going to have to watch out for you.” Vera’s cheeks flush coral but she offers a coy smile.

A long pause passes between them, thick with anticipation, but Vera eventually breaks it with a nervous inhale. “Well, thank you for the drink, but I guess I should be going. The hospice company is sending someone over at 6:30 to pick up the bed they supplied for mum.” She reaches for her bag and rises from the chair as she slips it onto her shoulder. There’s an unexpected tingle that’s ignited low in her belly and she’s eager to escape the unsettling feeling. 

Placing her glass on the tray, Joan rises from her seat, gesturing a long arm for Vera to precede her to the door. Stopping at the threshold, Vera turns to offer a final farewell smile. “Good work with Conway, by the way.” Joan abruptly praises, her wide lips drawing into a genuine smile of her own. “Thank you, governor.” Vera responds with a bashful bow of her head before awkwardly waving as she turns to head down the hall. Joan steps across the threshold and watches for a moment as the petite woman begins to walk away.

“You took the right course of action,” she calls to the younger woman, and when Vera turns to meet her gaze, she swears she sees a flash of recognition in Joan’s approving eyes.