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The Flower Duet

Chapter Text

It arrives via courier in the afternoon, the day after Rita’s death.

The simple white box has no identifiable markings, only the words “Fragile. Do not invert.” are stamped in bold black on the top edge near the shipping label, which has no return address listed. Vera signs for the package with a nod, though confusion knits her brow as she accepts the slightly weighted box from the young man before he offers a small smile and heads back to his van, leaving her momentarily dumbfounded on the step. The loud squeal of his brakes as he backs out of her drive finally rouses her from her daze and she turns back into the house, closing the front door with a bare foot as she trudges back toward the kitchen.

Depositing the box on the counter, she retrieves a knife from the block, running it along the box’s edge to release the tape on the seam. Curiously, she lifts the lid and her eyes take on a look of wonder as the brilliant floral bouquet comes into view. Pulling it from the box, she sets it on the counter and momentarily admires the beauty of the colors.

A full spray of orange and yellow hues pours from a sleek flattened, rectangular glass urn. Bicolor daffodils, sherbet colored protea and vibrant yellow mimosa. It is gorgeous. And expensive. Finding the small pearly white envelope tucked within the foliage, she pulls it free and instantly recognizes the looping script that spells her name, having seen it many times over the course of the last six months. A small smile graces her lips and she draws her bottom lip between her teeth as she slips a finger through the seal and pulls the card from the envelope. A delicate gold filigree adorns the edges, and in the same looping script a short message is written: May you find peace. With sympathy, Joan.

She stares for a moment at the name and her heart begins to race. She had not expected this, given Joan’s curt dismissal of her yesterday afternoon; her fine nostrils flaring in disgust. She had known it was at more than just the acrid stench of vinegar and her heart had sank as she numbly left the building. Even after catching Conway, Joan had not appeared to thank her or offer praise for a job well done. She’d left disappointed in herself, indescribably heartbroken and hardened in a way she had never felt before. Joan’s last words echoed in her ears for the remainder of the evening, until she finally mustered the courage to act for her own greater good. Poor Rita never knew what hit her.

Tapping the card to full lips, Joan’s written message rolls around in her mind. May you find peace. Though technically a statement of sympathy, it falls just short of the typical message, the words in this time of loss , are curiously missing. She also can’t help but notice how the arrangement, though glorious, is not typical for a sympathy bouquet. Rather, the bright colors evoke happiness or celebration even. She’s worked with Joan long enough and observed the older woman with enough scrutiny (and girl-crush obsession) that she knew there was a distinct purpose to her every action. There had to be a reason why she chose these particular blooms.

Deep in thought, she recalls a moment from Joan’s first day at Wentworth, when she had taken her to the yard and introduced Anderson and Birdsworth. The women had been working in the garden box, pruning the white rose bush they had planted for Bea in Debbie’s memory. Joan had admired the full snow-white blooms and commented on the appropriateness of the selection given that white roses symbolize innocence and purity. She’d also mumbled something about the lost art of the language of flowers. It was a side remark, probably meant more to herself than the others, but Vera had heard it, as she did everything the older woman said. She hung on every word that parted the lips of the imposing, but curiously enthralling woman’s mouth.

Struck by the memory, she takes a seat at the kitchen table and opens her laptop. In the Google search bar, she types “flower meanings” and scrolls through a list of articles until she finds one that sounds like it could be of some repute. Fortunately the page contains a list of flowers in alphabetical order, along with a picture and a brief description of their meaning. Although she’s seen all the flowers in the arrangement before, the only two she knew by name were the daffodils and mimosa. Coming to the daffodil entry first, she reads the brief description. 

Daffodil: symbolizes regard and chivalry. It is indicative of rebirth, new beginnings and eternal life. A single Daffodil foretells misfortune, while a bunch of daffodils indicate joy and happiness. It also symbolizes unrequited love.

Upon reading the last line, her heart begins to hammer wildly and her stomach bursts into a kaleidoscope of butterflies. Surely that’s not the intended meaning, she thinks, and chides herself with a sardonic laugh for even pondering the foolish idea. Casting the thought aside, she scrolls down the page in search of mimosa. It’s not on the list, so she continues scrolling until she comes across a picture of protea. Recognizing it as the third flower in the arrangement, she stops to read its meaning.

Protea: stands for change and transformation. It signifies daring and resourcefulness. It is symbolic of diversity and courage.

She stares for a moment at the screen as her mind works to put the pieces together. Opening up another window, she searches for “mimosa flower meaning” and finds the third piece of the cryptid puzzle.

Mimosa: tied to “sensibility” and is often connected to philosophers or problem solvers. It also means to literally “expand” your life whether referring to family or career. It is the image of the triumphant life, because of the hardness of the wood and the victory over the forces of evil. In some cultures, mimosa is tied to “sensitivity” and is given in small bouquets as a gesture of mourning or sympathy.  

Suddenly the penny drops and her jaw falls open at the revelation. Joan knows . After the sparse details she had disclosed at work and only one brief meeting with her mother, Joan had somehow managed to decipher a lifetime of details to develop an understanding of the toxic relationship Vera had with her mother. Never in her life has anyone ever seemed to understand her so completely and with a single floral bouquet Joan has just expressed everything Rita’s passing means: a rebirth, a transformation, an expansion of her life through freedom! Hot tears sting her eyes and quickly cascade down her cheeks as immense gratitude washes through her at finally being seen and truly understood.

The enormity of the gesture takes her breath away.

_____________

She’d debated wearing a royal blue dress, but had eventually talked herself out of it due to its blatant disregard of custom, settling instead for a little black number that had been an impulse buy a few years ago. Her mother had hated it, declaring the body-hugging fit and above the knee hem to be “something only a hussy would wear”, despite the high halter neckline. Vera had felt good in it, almost sexy even, but to avoid any further arguments, she’d worn it only once before stuffing it in the back of her closet to be near forgotten. But Rita can’t say anything now , she thinks to herself with a smug smile as she checks her reflection in the mirror.

Although her first instinct had been to skip a funeral all together, after a day of thinking she’d decided on a small, non-religious service. A symbolic closing of this chapter of her life, leaving a clean page to start the next. Cremation had always been the only option though, but she had no desire to retain the ashes so she’d opted to have them interred in a small mausoleum in a cemetery across the city. She had no intentions of ever visiting her mother again.

Seated in the front row of the small funeral parlour, she stares at her mother’s urn displayed on the podium. There’s only four people in attendance, including herself; serves you right , she thinks with rancor as the funeral director drones on about loss and grief. Although those emotions are completely absent, a nervous knot has twisted in the pit of her stomach. The realization of the finality of this moment, that she is actually free from the caustic words, bitter resentment and constant nagging hits her and she suddenly finds herself overwhelmed by the thought. What next?

A gentle hand upon her shoulder pulls her from introspection and she looks up to see her two neighbors standing before her. Both women roughly her mother’s age, she greets them with a smile of gratitude, knowing they showed up only for her and not really to pay respects to the elder Bennett. She accepts their sympathetic words and hugs with a small smile and tries to put a look of respectful mourning on her face.

She’s greeted last by the hospice nurse, a young woman with kind, green eyes and a kinder smile. She offers a gentle squeeze to Vera’s hand. “You did your best for her,” she says encouragingly and Vera smiles tightly as the small thread of guilt gives a discomforting tug at her churning stomach. 

After a brief discussion with the funeral director regarding the next steps, she collects her purse from the pew and turns to leave. To her surprise, a final guest remains seated in the last row and her heart rate gallops when she sees the governor rising from her seat with the ghost of a smile painting her full mouth. Vera approaches with a dazed expression on her face, nerves rendering her almost speechless as she stops before the tall woman.

“You...you came.” She whispers in near wonder as she meets the stern woman’s gaze. Joan simply responds with a shockingly kind smile and locks eyes with her deputy. There’s a long pause between them as they share a loaded look, until Joan finally breaks the trance-like state with a sharp inhale and briefly shifts her gaze away from the younger woman. 

“Condolences,” she hums suddenly as she lifts an ivory hand, offering a single deep violet iris to Vera. Vera’s heart flutters wildly against her slender ribs as she accepts the single flower with a shy smile, drawing it to her nose to inhale the faintly sweet scent. Joan’s gaze falls briefly as she takes in the appearance of her deputy, appreciating the new glow that seems to radiate from the usually mousy woman.

Suddenly knocked off kilter by the warm buzz igniting in her belly, she quickly works to disengage. “Well, I must get back to the prison, but take all the time you need. I’ve already made arrangements to cover in your absence.” She returns her gaze to the modest safety of Vera’s face, but the reverent look in those wide ocean eyes and the way her russet waves gently frame her face does little to calm the attraction that’s begun to burn.

“I’ll be back on Monday,” Vera replies without hesitation. Joan offers a pleased smile, “Good,” and an unexpected compulsion draws her to place a warm palm on Vera’s bicep, offering a gentle squeeze before slowly releasing and allowing her fingers to cascade down smooth skin and toned muscle before leisurely falling away. 

“Thank you for coming.” Vera whispers as she watches Joan walk away.

____________

Velvety soft petals caress her lips as she stares at the search results on her computer screen, a bashful smile playing across her full mouth.

Purple Iris: have rich meanings, and when given as gifts, they can convey deep sentiments. It can represent wisdom, respect and compliments.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

“Sierra three to Sierra Two.” Joan looks up from the budget spreadsheet on her computer, reaching across her desk to retrieve her two-way that’s suddenly sprung to life with the voice of her deputy. It’s interrupted her focus, but for once she finds that she doesn’t mind the intrusion. “Governor receiving. What is it, Vera?” Her rich cadance hums through the radio waves, bearing just a touch of gratification. “Your presence is required in strip search three.” Joan quirks a lip briefly at the statement, recognizing how it echoes her own succinct way of speech, but it’s quickly replaced with a sigh of resignation because she knows instantly that this call means there’s an issue. “On my way,” she replies before rising from her desk, doing up her jacket buttons as she quickly leaves her office.

Three minutes later she’s approaching the door to the designated room just as Vera opens it and slips out the slender gap. She looks down on her slight deputy with an expression that says she means business. “What seems to be the issue?” She queries as she crosses her arms and waits for Vera’s assessment. Vera sighs, hands coming to rest on her narrow hips, “It’s Pierson. She’s just had a visit with her sister and she’s refusing the search. Dixon called me in, but I’ve not been able to sway her. She’s been quite irritable since we intercepted that supply last week and I’m pretty sure she’s going through withdrawals, so I suspect she’s holding.” Joan inhales sharply, her lips drawing into a thin line as she shakes her head in disapproval. “They never learn, do they?” She scoffs as she reaches up to adjust her bun in irritation, meeting Vera’s equally agitated expression. Turning to the processing room across the hall, Joan addresses the officer seated at the desk. “Officer Bradley, stay close. We may need your assistance with a transport shortly.” He nods and rises from the desk to move out into the hall to be in earshot of the door. Joan turns back to Vera then and with a tug at the hem of her jacket gestures for them to enter the room.

Sky is standing against the wall, tugging at the cuff of her sleeve, shoulders slumped as her upper body caves in on itself in her normal posture. Officer Dixon stands at her side in the corner. Joan can see instantly that Vera’s assessment was correct and the young woman is indeed in the midst of withdrawal. Her jaw clenches as she approaches the twitchy girl that refuses to look her in the face. “Pierson, look at me.” After a long pause, piercing blue eyes rimmed in crimson rise to timidly meet her gaze. “Deputy Bennett tells me you’re refusing a search. Would you like to tell me why that is?” Her chin juts forward and she tilts her head slightly as she raises her sharp eyebrows in expectation. Sky bites her bottom lip and fidgets with her hands. “I was just seeing my sister; she’s here all the time.”

Joan crosses her arms as her stern gaze stays trained on the slip of a woman. “Be that as it may, that still does not exclude you from standard procedures. So, I’ll ask you again; why are you refusing the search?” Sky squirms, restlessly drawing her teal hoodie off her shoulders before pulling it back up and overlapping the front seams around her body. “I’m on my period,” she suddenly says, eyes wide as if she’s impressed with her own excuse. Joan releases an audible exhale, turning her head to the far wall and lifting it as her eyes close in irritation. Returning her stare to the young woman, her dark eyes take on an even more severe edge and she shifts to try a different tactic. “Inmate, you’re trying my patience. You’ve wasted my time, as well as Deputy Bennett’s, with your insubordination. Now, I will give you one final opportunity to follow orders and, this time, I strongly advise you to take it.”

Taking a step back, she crosses her hands at the vee of her waist and stares ominously at Pierson. “Remove your clothing,” she commands crisply and waits for the anticipated submission. Sky remains still, feet shuffling against the floor as her gaze stays trained on them. Her hands are buried deep in her pockets and after a long pause it’s apparent she’s not going to budge. Joan shakes her head, jaw clenched in vexation at the girl’s foolishness. She raises her chin to look down at the stupid woman with antipathy. “Slot her,” she finally commands and smiles smugly as the young woman’s gaze instantly shoots up from the floor. “But keep her under constant observation. I want whatever it is she’s holding.” 

Dixon and Vera step forward, seizing Sky’s arms just as her thrashing begins. “Officer Bradley,” Vera yells over the young woman’s violent protests. “No, get the fuck off me,” Sky screams as she twists and bucks to break free from their grasp. Officer Bradley enters then, stepping behind Sky to draw her arms behind her in an attempt to restrain the flailing woman. “Fucking let me go, man, fuck off.” She screeches, kicking her legs forward as she leans into his body for leverage. Her wild eyes meet Joan’s condescending stare, “Fuck you, fucking freak,” she screams before suddenly rearing back and launching a large ball of spit in Joan’s direction. It lands on a pale cheek that instantly turns scarlet as the disgusting blob slides down toward her jaw, which is clenched so tightly she can feel the pressure building in her skull. Sky freezes as she sees the rage that consumes the governor’s dark gaze and she’s shocked into submission within an instant.

Vera looks up then, just in time to see the unguarded look of nauseous disgust that briefly washes over Joan’s sharp features and the way she awkwardly stands, hand half-raised to her cheek as if she doesn’t know what to do. Her heart hammers in her chest as she recognizes how vulnerable Joan looks in this moment. Instantly she turns to the others, “Get her to the slot now. I’ll be there shortly to get the paperwork sorted.” She ushers them hurriedly from the room, quickly closing the door behind them before she returns to Joan. She knows, from all the hours of secret observation, that the older woman has an obvious aversion to germs and sympathy tugs at her insides as she sees the slightly bewildered look on the usually controlled face.

Reaching into her pocket, she retrieves a small handkerchief and extends it to the statuesque woman. “Here, use this,” she urges, smiling gently as the older woman takes it with a slight nod. “Thank you,” Joan whispers as she accepts the slip of white material, drawing it slowly down her cheek with a grimace as she wipes the offensive substance away. When she looks back up again, Vera is watching her. “I’m sorry, I know how much germs bother you,” she says, completely devoid of the patronizing tone her father always used when he spoke of it.

Her bottom lip falls open, shocked at how Vera obviously picked up on the unspoken through observation and by the honest concern that deepens the furrow between her brows. She hasn’t received a look so kind in almost twenty years and it nearly makes her speechless, but instead of being put off by the scrutiny she’s unexpectedly moved, though she makes no effort to show it. “I...I’m fine,” she replies modestly before continuing, “Thank you for this, I’ll have it cleaned and returned to you tomorrow.” Vera offers her a soft smile, “I’m not concerned about the hankie.” Not knowing what to say and knocked off kilter by this vulnerable moment, Joan simply nods before clearing her throat and making a move to straighten her appearance. 

Recognizing the moment has passed as she watches the automaton mask slip back into place, Vera retreats toward the door. “I’ll just head down to isolation and make sure they’ve got Pierson sorted.” Joan simply nods, saying nothing as Vera makes her silent exit.

The playback of the event tortures Vera for the remainder of the day, accompanied by the growing feeling of guilt that gnaws at her insides. If she’d only been tougher with Pierson, perhaps she could have convinced the stupid girl to comply and Joan would never have had to intervene. She takes small solace though in the discovery that she was obviously the only one to see the flash of vulnerability dance across Joan’s face; Dixon had rattled on for a solid ten minutes when she reported to isolation, about how she and Bradley thought the governor was going to throttle Pierson with her bare hands. Vera had nodded idly, not bothering to state that there’s now way Joan would have sullied her own skin.

_________________________________________

The smell of strong coffee fills Vera’s nose as she stands at the counter in the staff break room stirring sugar and a touch of milk into her mug. 

“Good morning, Vera.” The small woman jumps in response to the unexpected greeting, turning swiftly, hand clutched to her chest as she looks up to meet Joan’s gaze. “Shit, you scared me,” she confesses with a shaky exhale. Joan dips her gaze briefly before returning it with a small smile. “Sorry,” there’s an air of awkwardness that fills the brief silence that hangs between them.

Vera looks nervously around the room, ensuring they are alone before she finally speaks. “Joan, I’m so sorry about what happened yesterday. I should have been able to handle Pierson on my own and not exposed you to the situation.” Joan lifts a hand in protest with a small shake of her head. “You’ve no reason to apologize; she didn’t respond to my orders either, so now she has a few days to ruminate over that decision.” Surprised by the uncharacteristic dismissal of her failure, Vera blushes and dips her head to stare at the floor.

Joan suddenly clears her throat and takes a step forward. “I uhh, I wanted to return this,” she says with an apprehensiveness that again catches Vera by surprise. Joan extends the handkerchief between them, smiling shyly as Vera collects it from her hand. Noticing the hint of color beneath the folds, she looks up to meet Joan’s gaze with a confused expression. “Oh, this one isn’t mine. The one I gave you yesterday was solid white.” She extends it toward Joan again but the woman doesn’t take it, only offers a small smile as she replies, “I took the liberty of upgrading it.” 

Vera looks on with a confused smile as she looks back at the handkerchief and slowly draws it open. Instead of solid white, the square patch contains a beautiful spray of peach and lavender watercolor flowers that adorn opposite corners. The cotton material is of a fine weave that slips almost like silk between her fingers. She looks up to Joan then, her eyes twinkling with delight, “It’s...beautiful. Thank you,” she says with a shy smile. Joan offers a reserved smile of pleasure before adding, “They’re ranunculus. I thought it suited you.” Vera looks back down to admire the material again before looking back to Joan with earnesty. “I love it,” she whispers, biting her bottom lip as she holds Joan’s intense gaze.

The sound of approaching footsteps suddenly shatters the loaded moment and Joan takes a step back and begins to straighten her jacket. “Thank you, Ms. Bennett. Keep me informed of any developments with Pierson.” She nods, offering the slightest of smiles before she turns and leaves the room just as Will enters. Vera quickly folds the handkerchief and heads to deposit it in her locker, too afraid to carry it on shift for fear of getting it sullied. Placing it on the shelf, she sees her phone and grabs it to do a quick search.

Ranunculus symbolizes radiant charm. It conveys a message that you are radiant with charm or you are attractive